I gotta figure out a new line break, cause the one I used to use gets deleted when I upload -_-; And I don't much feel like going through uploaded documents every time, editing line breaks in that will be deleted after 60 days _;

Anyways! Wow. A lot of people apparently won't mind at all if I made this yaoi. Huh. No worries, though, you het-lovers out there! It will not happen in this story. The little romance I have planned (oooh, and some will actually happen in this chapter o.o) will be het and I wouldn't know where to put any more.

Zack kicked dejectedly at a piece of loose concrete lying on the broken asphalt. He had been wandering for a good hour now, at least. He wouldn't even be wandering under the plate if it hadn't been because Angeal seemed so... uptight these days. Uptight, brooding and as moody as any girl PMSing that he had ever met and he had met a fair few.

And Cloud was on a mission in Wutai.

It wasn't that the Second Class resented the teeny SOLDIER, not really, it was just that Sephiroth had never paid any kind of attention to him and while Angeal was more than most of any other new SOLDIER got, it would still have been nice if the general had noticed his existence too. To top it all off, Cloud had been avoiding him the last few days before he had been sent on that mission with the general. Avoiding him, when he wasn't straight out snarling like a cat that had just been dumped in a barrel of icy water.

It would really suck if Cloud decided he didn't want to be his friend any more, just because he was now a SOLDIER and the most talented since Sephiroth to boot.

With a low growl, the SOLDIER gave a proper kick to the small piece of stony waste, and very nearly jumped when it lodged itself into a thin wall of sheet metal fifty feet away. He winced, glad that he was in a practically deserted part of the slums and that no one had gotten hurt because of his sudden fit of rage.

He was also glad that he had lost interest in wandering above plate after the second day of being left to himself. On the plate, there were no deserted areas. Then again, there was also no rubble lying around to be kicked by idle feet. He retreated quickly lest someone living in the hovel of which the metal sheet made up a wall came out to complain. There was no reason to look for trouble, especially not amongst people who would probably only back down with badly concealed ire once they realized what he was. No reason to destroy their home and make them feel helpless.

A few blocks over, or at least what passed for blocks in the quagmire of alleys that made up the slums, Zack slumped down onto an empty crate with a heavy sigh, much more audible than what he would have allowed had he been in his mentor's company. The crate groaned ominously in commiseration (or perhaps from his weight) but held out.

"That sounds serious," an amused voice sounded from behind him. With a start the SOLDIER turned around, surprised that someone had managed to sneak up on him but the sudden movement proved to be too much for his seat and he ended up half twisted around himself on top of a pile of broken boards. Consciously, he made an effort not to think about what else he could be lying on.

The voice giggled, but not maliciously, before a pale, slender hand was presented to him. The hand was attached to an equally slender arm with wrists so thin he had to wonder if he wouldn't break it simply from accepting the obvious offer. Above the arm...

He swallowed, all thoughts of frail wrists blown clean out of his mind. That had got to be the most beautiful set of eyes he had ever seen.

"Are you okay?" The girl asked after a while of him simply staring into her eyes.

"Uhm," he began intelligently before pulling himself together. "Maybe I died and went to Heaven?" he quipped, waggling an eyebrow. She giggled prettily and moved her presented hand directly into his line of vision.

As it turned out, the girl was a lot sturdier than she looked because when he put his hand in hers (her hands were so small) she pulled him to his feet if not effortlessly, at least a lot easier than he would have thought.

"Planet, you weigh a ton!" She exclaimed, a smile gracing her face.

There was, of course, a number of ways to respond to such a statement, and it took only a minimum of deliberation to decide on the one that would make her laugh. "Are you saying I'm fat?" he asked, shooting out his hip in a pose of deliberate, female offence. As predicted, she giggled, putting a hand over her mouth. He sighed theatrically and put his hands on his hips, looking down his body, knowing he was nowhere close to fat. "I knew I should have taken that extra hour in the gym." A waggling eyebrow accompanied the statement, taking out any bite if she didn't register his playful tone.

The girl finally gave up, laughing loudly at him. He grinned in response, proud at the accomplishment, silently patting himself on the back for choosing the right answer.

"I'm Zack, by the way, nice to meet you."

"I'm Aeris," she responded, laughter remaining in her eyes, a wide smile revealing perfectly white, perfectly even teeth.

Trying not to stare at her too much, he accompanied her through the slums while she went grocery shopping lest something happened to her. Of course. It had nothing to do with her pleasant company or beautiful eyes or tinkling laugh or her extremely soft-looking hair that almost shimmered like water in every light they passed.

And clearly she was in danger, this being the slums and her being so pretty and all. Even if she had grown up here. She couldn't keep being lucky, surely.

Leaning against the foot of a small tree since the roots of the bigger trees made leaning annoyingly uncomfortable, Sephiroth surveyed the camp. Or rather, he was studying the third Class he had brought with him under the guise of surveying the camp. The after-effects of the poison was still lingering in his extremities, he thought he might not be able to grip Masamune well enough to be effective, but he was alive and even now the mako in his veins were doing away with the last remnant of weakness.

Strife had done that too. Healed him. The Third had simply gone through his general's supply of materia, found a revive and a heal materia and used both continuously until he was clean. Both had been mastered.

The general spend a few seconds wondering if that made a difference, then discarded the notion. Considering how few novices handled mastered materia, it was impossible to determine with any security.

Regardless, the Third was now using his own restore materia, the only magic he had been provided by the company, on any SOLDIER he got to first. One other SOLDIER, aside from himself, had a restore and since everyone (except Strife, evidently) considered his materia half a step short of holy, that meant only two were healing. The rest were resting. Or waiting to be healed.

In spite of how effective the Third Class was, he was clearly getting frustrated with how many times he had to cast the low-level spell available to him before it actually showed. He had, not exactly in accordance with regulations, started with the regular soldiers most in need of help, healing everyone just enough that they wouldn't bleed to death before he could return before continuing with the SOLDIERs.

Not that Sephiroth had seen that, since he had still been feeling groggy, and he would cut out the tongue of every last man to ever use such a word to describe him, from the intense healing. Igor, however, who had been the other SOLDIER with a restore had. And had told him with a note of admiration of all things in his voice. It was also Igor who had told him how Cloud had saved him from death's door. That was obviously a gross exaggeration, but at least no one had made a huge deal over it.

The reclining First Class had a sinking feeling Strife had something to do with that too, though he couldn't for the life of him imagine how.

The Third patted the back of the now fully healed SOLDIER (and who in the name of all living creatures bothered to fully heal a SOLDIER with such a low-level spell? The kid must had ridiculous amounts of MPs, and how that could happen, there was just no knowing) before moving on, to a guy with a scrape down his bicep. A scrape! Well, it was bleeding still, but the man was a SOLDIER.

It was ridiculous.

Especially when his general, the doubtlessly most important person was still feeling his blood move through his extremities like it was jelly.

Tilting his head, Sephiroth examined that thought. Could it be that he was feeling jealous? Jealous? Of all things! Over the attention of a Third Class? Ridiculous. Genesis was right, he was acting like a lovesick teenager. Well, not acting it, certainly, just thinking like one.

The reclining SOLDIER sighed inconspicuously and decided that he was going to get control over these illogical emotions, find their source and eliminate it.

"Are you feeling better, general?" The object of his obsessions asked suddenly.

The general looked up, calm and collected as ever, as though a SOLDIER being able to near him without him noticing wasn't a shock. It wasn't something he had noticed of the teen before, but even staring right into those tellingly luminous eyes, it was as though no more than regular soldier stood before him. No, it was less! This must be how it feels to see a ghost, the shocked man thought, even as he opened his mouth to reply to the question. "I am feeling quite alright, thank you, Strife." He eyed the Third critically. "Any injuries?"

"A few scrapes, sir. Nothing serious." Perfect reply, perfect composure. Still that sense that Strife wasn't really there.

"Do you know the toll?" He would have rather asked one of the senior SOLDIERs, but none seemed to be approaching him. They all seemed to have left the never-occupied spot of Second-In-Command to Strife, an untried SOLDIER and fourteen years old at that. Sephiroth almost shook his head despairingly.

"Twelve regular soldiers dead and two Second Class SOLDIERs, sir. Both fell to the same poison darts that hit you." There wasn't a thread of disdain to be tracked in the teenager's voice for getting hit by a simple blow-dart.

"Thank you," he said graciously, getting up. He stamped down the rage that always hit him when one of his SOLDIERs were taken. It was no use here. "Everyone," he called then, just loud enough to be heard over the entire camp without having to unnecessarily strain his voice. "Bury the dead. We're breaking camp as soon as possible." Wandering over to his stuff, he began re-equipping himself. His hands were still tingling strangely. It would seem that the last traces of poison were not so easy to get rid of, he would have to let Cloud take point. "Strife," he demanded, confident that even if he couldn't really feel the little SOLDIER, he would be by his side. "I need you to take point. Can you make sure the trackers won't be lead into an ambush?"


There wasn't a thread of insecurity to detect in that reply. The teenager really was eerily perfect. Sephiroth spared about two seconds to wonder if his own superiors had had the same impression from him when he appeared in the field.

Zack was floating up somewhere under the dark roof of the Midgar plate. No, he wasn't. He was definitely not being constrained by something as gloomy as that! He was free-floating under a clear noon sky, blue like it was back in Gongaga where the air was clean.

Or so it felt.

He admired, once again, the pink ribbon he had bought for Aeris and tied in her hair. It really was as soft as it looked. The hair, that is, though he had made sure the ribbon was one worthy of such a beautiful girl. It matched the pink edging of her blue dress. It matched her. It was wonderful. Life was wonderful.

Helplessly, his eyes trailed over the line of colourful, sewed-on blossoms going over one shoulder and trailing towards where he dress hid her cleavage. The teen hastily withdrew his eyes before she caught him staring at that. Not that he didn't like admiring cleavage, but any guy who had talked with two women in his life would know that blatantly staring was not only rude, but a quick method to a stinging slap that would announce to anyone that you had just been busted. Instead, his eyes found hers again, and he realized all over again that he had just found the most beautiful girl in all of Midgar. Not only was she pretty, but she was also smart and compassionate beyond belief.

The best thing of it all was that she seemed to like him. It almost seemed too good to be true.

"So," she asked, her eyes finding his again just as they entered an old play ground that seemed to have been abandoned with the coming of evening. "Ever meet any SOLDIER members?"

Zack's mental gears screeched to a halt. He was in SOLDIER, couldn't she see that? The sword was a pretty good give-away, normally, even if you didn't notice the eyes. Or so he thought. "Maybe," he replied, suddenly wary. Maybe it was just a top-plate, bottom-plate difference? There was probably mercenaries and stuff down here and SOLDIERs couldn't be all that common.

"Do you think that they're happy?"

The SOLDIER stopped, seriously worried now. "What do you mean?" Oh no, he had just almost stammered there. Hopefully, she hadn't caught it. Alarm bells were ringing in his head, calling for immediate, strategic retreat, but he felt rooted to the spot as Aerith, oblivious to his alarm continued.

"Heroes to children, protectors of the peace. But," she continued after a minimal pause. Zack didn't dare interrupt. "They're not normal." She shook her head slightly, as though she was trying to deny what she herself was saying. "They get some kind of special surgery, don't they?" she asked, finally turning to face Zack.

Completely stumped for what was best to say, acutely aware that the process of making SOLDIERs was one of ShinRa's top secrets, that as a SOLDIER it was a Very Bad Idea to divulge any information on the matter and at the same time feeling like his heart was curling in on itself, shrivelling in his chest like a dried fruit, he settled on something suitably neutral and anodyne. "So they say," he commented, throwing one arm out in a half-hearted shrug.

"Normal is best." Zack almost winced. "I think so, at least," Aeris continued. The elegant gesture with which she lifted her hand and had it placed gently against her chest only made it that much more evident to Zack that he really wanted to be with this girl. "Those SOLDIER people are kind of... weird."

"They're," Zack began, for the first time in the conversation actually feeling a little offended. He turned aside, unable to bear looking at her any more and crossed his arms over his chest before continuing, "Weird, huh?"

"And they're... scary." Not facing her anymore, Zack could only guess that she still had that imploring expression in her eyes. "They fight. And they love it." There was a bit more heat in her voice, now, probably because she was really trying to get a positive reaction out of him.

He probably would have given her whatever she was asking for, if her words hadn't stung quite so bad. It's not like he was in SOLDIER just to fight! He wanted to be a hero, that was a worthy goal, right? He wanted to save babies and maidens in distress and all that! So yeah, he liked fighting, the fighting was almost a perk to being a hero, but it wasn't like he just indiscriminately went out and killed people.

It hurt a little more when he realized that Aeris saw the two as one and the same.

The pause after her last statement had stretched a little. It was a bit uncomfortable, but the ball was in his curt and he was just hurt and offended enough to throw caution to the wind. "Actually," he began firmly, "I'm with SOLDIER." He turned back, briefly meeting her eyes as she gasped in shocked and looked away, ashamed.

"I'm sorry," she exclaimed a little breathlessly.

He shrugged, and turned away again. She had probably seen his shrug as much as the hand he had briefly used to wave it away with. What now? He didn't know what to say, should he just forgive her, just like that? He liked her, he really did, but she hadn't just offended him, she had insinuated the same thing about Angeal. And Cloud. The two most decent guys Zack had ever known.

Unable to stand still, especially with the tension humming strongly between them, Zack let his eyes fall, shot a look towards a still-silent Aeris, then reached up to run his gloved hand through his spikes in the vain hope that it would get his thought-process up and running again.

"So pretty." Her voice caught him unawares and he looked up, a bit surprised and pleased when he realized she was looking at him. He recognized a peace-offering when he heard one.

"The face?" he asked, pointing at himself jokingly, not truly believing it.

She shook her her with a negative hum, a smile once again putting an inner light in her eyes. "The eyes!"

"You like them?" The distance between them was closed in just a few steps. "Then take a closer look." He stopped right in front of her, then turned halfway to the side, crossing his arms and looking down at her sideways. "Eyes infused with mako energy, a SOLDIER trademark." He leaned down, staring into her beautiful, beautiful eyes from just a few inches away.

Trying to get a good look into those pools of vivid violet-blue, she didn't realize that she was leaning closer until Zack's lips twitched in the corner of her vision.

"Oh you!" she exclaimed, suddenly realizing exactly how close they were and pushed him away, eliciting an amused laugh.

"Color of the sky, right?"

"Uh-huh," she replied smiling, glad that she had managed to talk him back around. She imagined that was how the sky looked when the sun was setting. "But not scary at all!" The amused twinkle in his eyes was definitely better than the annoyed wrinkle there had been between his eye-brows not too long ago.

"It's true, there's nothing normal about me at all," he admitted at last, reluctantly. "You don't have a problem with that, right, Aeris?" He silently congratulated himself for not sounding strained at all, though the extra cheerfulness may have seemed a bit forced. Hopefully, she didn't notice.

She giggled, turning around. "I was thinking it would be a normal day but then... This guy I met turned out to be a SOLDIER."

"Hey, that's not all that bad!" He protested, suddenly thinking that she really had decided that she didn't like him.

"Mmh," she agreed, turned to give him one of her pretty, dimpled smiles.

Opening his mouth to reply with something witty in response to her teasing, the SOLDIER was interrupted by the ringing of his PHS. There was nothing to it, so he held up his hand to signal for her to wait while he answered.

"Zack," the imperious tone of his mentor sounded through the small hand-held. He was clearly preparing to override any arguments before they started. "Return to the ShinRa building now, we've got a mission."

"Roger," he replied automatically. When the tone from his phone sounded to signal that Angeal had disconnected (without even a goodbye or a see-you!) Zack spared a moment or two just staring at the device. What the hell had crept up Angeal's ass lately? He shuddered at the thought, deciding that he was definitely not going there, because that was just too disturbing for words. Like imagine your parents having s-not going there!

He turned back to Aeris, who was patiently waiting for him with the smallest of smiles gracing her features. "I'm sorry but duty calls."

Aeris nodded, accepting. "Well, I guess I should get going then." She waved, already on her way back towards sector five when she suddenly stopped and twisted to look back at a SOLDIER Second Class who still hadn't moved. "Will I... see you again?"

Zack's tongue felt like it almost tripped over itself in his eagerness to reply. "Of course!" How could she think otherwise? He really hoped to see her as soon as possible. He really hoped this mission wouldn't be taking too long. Not that he didn't like completing missions, but he thought he had just found something he liked even better.

"I hope... you feel better."


"Well, you looked really troubled when I found you."

"Yeah... it'll be fine. It was nothing, really."

Cloud worried.

It wasn't that something wasn't going according to plan. It wasn't that they were being ambushed left and right or that they had lost the trail or that the people supposed to follow it were bad trackers or taking stupid risks making his job more difficult. It wasn't even that they were rude about being given such a young SOLDIER to take care of them (well, okay, there were two other Firsts with him and when they obeyed his orders everyone automatically followed even if they did give him strange looks in the beginning). It was more that everything was going perfectly. It was eerie! It was not natural! Nothing ever went right for him. Some catastrophe was bound to happen eventually, but until it did, he didn't feel like he could do anything at all to prevent it.

It was nerve-racking.

To make matters worse, the two Firsts kept giving him Looks and he had no idea what they meant, or if it was even Looks at all or if they were just picking up on his agitation.

Trying to ignore, well, everything, Cloud kept his eyes on the surroundings, trying to follow the trail the trackers were picking up. He really was impressed; he considered himself a fair tracker, but he was used to tracking animals and while animals moved more natural in forests than most humans, they hardly bothered to cover their tracks.

Ninjas, however, not only moved naturally in the dense forest, they consciously avoided leaving visible tracks and however much a SOLDIERs nose was enhanced, tracking by smell was out of the question.

Even when he asked the trackers to show him what they were picking up, he had had his doubts if they weren't just seeing what they wanted to see until he smelled a small pool of only slightly coagulated blood. With sharper eyes than the master trackers and now knowing what they were looking for, he could follow the trail too, so he kept himself slightly ahead of the small group, moving fast around the track to uncover all possible hiding spots while the Firsts stayed with the men to protect them in case Cloud missed something.

He stopped dead at the entrance to a tight gorge.

Staying under the canopy, keeping as well-hidden as he knew how, he eyed the almost sheer sides to the fissure before him. If the Wutaians really had a secret base in the vicinity, having it somewhere inside this cleft would be a perfect placement; there was no way you could get near from the air, it was much too narrow, and if you came close from the ground...

Cloud shuddered. The cleft sides might look sheer, but they were probably not impossible to climb. The Wutaian's would see anyone approaching long before their enemy even knew they were there and with a minimum of men, the cleft could be defended from a huge force, with the force never seeing who was taking them down.

Hearing the rest of the track team approaching, Cloud left his hiding spot and fell back.

"We've got a problem," he started, stopping them before they got any nearer. He points above the canopy. "You see the cliffs? There's a gorge in them up ahead. What we're searching for it probably in there, but... there's no way we're getting closer than this."

"Why not?" one of the Firsts, Anton, asked curiously.

"Because the Wutaians definitely has sentries on the sides. They'll see us coming miles off and they'll be ready to annihilate us as soon as we're out of sight from the entrance. They might even wait until the others has entered. They probably have plenty of places where they can start a rock fall and we'll all be buried before we even engage them. We need to go back and think about a strategy that'll get us inside the Wutaians' hiding place." Cloud took a deep breath. "If I leave one of you here to keep an eye on things, can I count on you to keep hidden until the rest of us return?"

They both nodded and Cloud asked Anton to sneak forward and find a place to hide where he could keep an eye on the gorge. In the meantime, the rest turned around to intercept the general and the rest, who would be following once the dead was in the ground, before they came close enough to alert the sentries on the cliff walls.

Well, the sentries he thought was on the cliff walls, but with certain disaster looming, he would rather be safe than sorry.

Sephiroth's party seemed to have managed to cover about half the distance, following the guide marks Cloud's party had left to indicate the direction the track was taking them.

The small Third stopped them and quickly explained the problem they were facing to the general.

"As I see it, the biggest problem is that we simply cannot see what they've got on the cliff sides; They'll know exactly what we can do to them, but we'll be going in there blind. I could probably scale the walls, but it's not like I could guarantee to get everything and I know that almost all other SOLDIERs are more used to cities than muntains."

Sephiroth nodded contemplatively. "Are the mountain sides more difficult to climb then the outside of a building?"

Thinking, Cloud shook his head. "I don't think they're more difficult, no, but it is different. A building is completely vertical, but at the same time, the holds tend to be stable, whereas it's difficult to tell whether a stone on a mountain is loose or not."

His assessment was, once again, answered with a contemplative nod.

"You mentioned possible traps, did you see any signs of any?"


The general refrained from commenting on the lack of honorific. He'd rather concentrate on the interesting parts of the youngster, namely how his thought-process worked. "If you saw no sign of traps, why do you think they're there? And what kind of traps are you imagining?"

"They're there, because anything else would be stupid. If I had to defend such a favourable position, the first thing I would do, would make sure it was even more favourable. And with the gorge so narrow, anything that can be thrown down is almost certain to hit someone. Aside from rocks, boiling oil might be old fashioned, but it might be even more effective on SOLDIERs than rocks, and with us having to go single or double file... we wouldn't stand a chance." A brief pause, and then belatedly, the Third attached the expected honorific.

Sephiroth smirked. "Then I guess I'll be joining you on the cliff side." He didn't show any reaction when the Third's eyes widened in shock, but he did feel smug that he had managed to provoke such a response. For a brief second, the chillingly lack of presence Cloud carried around him like a shroud even lifted a bit. "Between the two of us, we should be able to take both sides of the canyon, right? We'll crawl up on the outside, then when the others move in, we'll use the distraction to find the sentries and move close."

"You'll use the rest of the SOLDIERs as a distraction?"

"The Wutaians won't attack at once. They'll wait until everyone is well into range, so that even if someone escapes the initial attack, they'll have plenty of time to take them down."

Cloud nodded, annoyed for some reason. He had made the exact same conclusion when he had tried predicting what they'd be up against, but why he so desperately wanted Sephiroth to show his lack of compassion, he couldn't imagine.

It took very little time to outline the plan to the other SOLDIERs, so while the regular troops made camp, the seven enhanced men quickly enclosed ooun the canyon, where their quarry was probably hiding. They stepped out of sight while Sephiroth and Cloud sneaked ahead to ask Anton whether he had seen anything.

"Well," Cloud started quietly, staring mournfully at the corpse peaking out from beneath a dense shrubbery. "That answers that. They're definitely here."

The general eyed the Third quizzically. "You can handle this?" he asked, hoping that the raw quality of his subordinate's voice wasn't accompanied with irrational bursts of emotion. Grief could be transformed to rage and channelled on the battlefield, but until they got there it was nothing but a liability. A liability they couldn't afford with Strife playing one of the key-roles in this attack.

"I'm not gonna break down and cry, general. I know I can grieve when we're done." He looked back at the corpse, still five feet away from where they were hiding and so he missed the general's frown. "We can't take him back. They'll be able to see him from up there the way he's lying right now."

"Mh, lets go back, review and then commence attack."

Neither of them noticed the air of equality with which they were addressing each other.

You may recognize the second scene of Zack and Aeris. I just love it too much XD So brilliant. I mixed it a little between the English and Japanese dub and then just a little bit of what would make it fit the fic better considering they meet "earlier" in this story.