Everything hurt. His head throbbed, his neck and back ached, his chest felt heavy, and his legs burned as he trudged along the highway towards Midgar. He'd been walking for a few hours now, and it was almost pitch black outside. The only thing that lit up his path were the stars, and the moon above him. Sometimes there was a helicopter, but he didn't ever look forward to one of those. Each time one passed, he had to jump off to the side and hope there was a bush to hide him. He couldn't let them find them, not now. Not after he'd pulled them this far.

He knew he could trust Cissnei, what with her literally giving him the keys to freedom. The problem was, that poor bike didn't have much gas in it, and it didn't quite take them the whole way. Oh well... he thought. At least it was something... He could make it the rest of the way on foot. He was a First Class SOLDIER, for Shiva's sake! He shouldn't be having any trouble carrying around one scrawny guy...

But it was hard. He never knew how taxing it would be to walk across a desert, but he was finding out right now. Cloud wasn't even that heavy, but man... Zack was panting hard, and stumbling every so often, and it was getting really annoying. "Come on..." he said to himself, and maybe Cloud, if the poisoned kid was even listening. "Just... a little... longer..." It took every ounce of his willpower to not fall down right there, and stay down until the pain went away. His lungs were practically on fire, but he had to keep moving. He had to get to Midgar...

Then what? What were they gonna do in Midgar? Freaking Shinra Headquarters was in Midgar, wouldn't they find him there? He shook his head to keep himself awake. Well, there wasn't really anywhere else to go. They could hide out in Kalm, but they'd be found out eventually. The western continent was a no-no, since they had just come from there. And Junon was just like another Midgar, so... Zack smirked. Maybe it was best to hide right under Shinra's nose. Would they think to look there? But they'd followed him on the bike; they knew where he was headed... Oh well, maybe the sheer size of Midgar would make it hard to find two ex-Shinra employees/test subjects. All this extra thinking was making his head hurt more than it already did.

He lifted his eyes from the ground and looked ahead of him, down the highway. The sky was beginning to light up. The deep black color of night was being washed away by a soft blue, far off in the distance. He'd been going all night, again. This was the second night in a row. Zack groaned, and shifted Cloud's weight on his back. Not only was he so tired he wanted to lie down and never wake up again, but now it would be easier for Shinra to spot them. Not cool, at all.

It had taken him a year to get this far. Granted, he had to cross half a continent, then an ocean, then a desert, while evading Shinra's army and the Turks, but it was taking way too damn long. When was the last time they had even eaten? Days ago, at least. "Good thing I'm amazing, or we'd have been caught a long time ago, Cloud," he smiled. His stomach was rumbling loudly, and it hurt like hell, but he wasn't about to stop. Not only was he so close to his destination he didn't want to stop, but where the hell would they find food in the middle of the desert? There was no point to it all.

And Cloud wasn't helping. Why the hell wouldn't he just wake up already? Zack had practically been his personal nurse, since the kid couldn't do anything on his own. Man, that was embarrassing. Zack had made a promise to himself to never, ever let Cloud know about the crap he'd gone through for a year, literally. Zack was used to it by now, but if Cloud ever found out about it, he'd never, ever let it go. He'd be embarrassed and ashamed any time he was around Zack, and well, Zack wasn't about to let that happen. And so, his little explanation of the whole ordeal would be, "We went through some serious shit, Cloud. But I pulled us through, don't worry." Then he'd smile, and it would be all right. That's how things usually were. If Zack was smiling, things were okay.

But of course, Zack was utterly insane, and smiled in even the most dire situations. Even as he huffed, and panted, and strained every last muscle in his body, he could still smile, having hope that he would reach his destination very soon. However, no matter how optimistic he was, he was exhausted, and his senses were distorted. He didn't notice the small drop in his path until it was already upon him. He lifted his leg and brought it down to step forward, but the ground was not where he thought it was.

"Oh crap-"

He crashed to the ground, hard. The hard dirt was merciless in catching him, and he felt his cheek ache as he lifted his head. Gravel dug into his arms as he tried to lift himself back up again. He looked up, wondering where Cloud went. Then he realized the limp blonde was on top of him. He looked over his shoulder at his friend.

"Oh man... Cloud, you wouldn't mind getting off of me now, would you...?" Zack said, weakly. There was no response, and with a pained groan, Zack fell limp, hitting his face on the ground again. Maybe he could rest, for just a little bit...

"But, we're almost there... almost..." He cringed as he forced himself onto his hands and knees. He reached back and grabbed Cloud's arm again, to keep the blonde from falling off and hitting his head. Oh, and that's right, he had dropped his sword off to the side, so that when he fell, he wouldn't impale himself, or Cloud on top of it. It wasn't on his back because, well, Cloud was there at the moment. He looked left and right, trying to remember.. it had fallen in a ditch. Great.

He groaned as he gently set Cloud down on the ground, and pulled himself onto one knee. He looked over to his left and found his beloved Buster Sword, now covered in dust. Not that it mattered-it probably had dirt caked into the tiny chips and cuts it had all over. Zack pulled himself to his feet, his legs burning once again. He gasped as he felt a muscle cramp, but he continued, and jumped down into the ditch. He grabbed the handle of his huge sword and threw it behind him, sticking it to the strong magnet on his harness. It would be a lot easier to crawl out onto the road again with two hands free. He took a deep breath, turned towards the road, then sprinted as fast as his tired legs would carry him up the side of the ditch, and onto the road.

He stopped abruptly as he almost stepped on Cloud's head, and he fell to his knees, breathing heavily. "Man, if only you knew how much trouble you're causing me, buddy..." He ruffled Cloud's hair as he brought himself up onto one knee again, and took his sword off, setting is beside him. He pulled Cloud's arm back around, and grabbed his sword with his other hand. His legs were going to hate him after he got to Midgar.

"Hokay... let's go... hup!" He pushed upward gain, and struggled to balance his load. Once he was sure we wasn't going to fall over again, he started forward, even more weary than before.

Why were there never any cars on the road? He had been walking for hours, and he hadn't seen one car. That was probably a good thing, but it was strange. Zack didn't know how many people owned cars, but surely the roads to Midgar would be used at least a little bit, right? Apparently not. It was lighter now; it had been about an hour since the beginning of sunrise. And Zack was tired. His eyelids drooped over his pupils as he stumbled down the road, still carrying his weight.

He was surprised that Cloud had never drooled on him while he was being carried. Didn't people do that when they were vegetables? They just sat and drooled on themselves, right? Well, Zack was thankful that it was one less thing he had to worry about. He didn't want to think about what was already on his filthy uniform. He almost felt sorry for Cloud, who had to hang against the dirty material.

Why was he thinking these stupid things? Why couldn't he just think about Midgar, and what he was going to do when he got there? He had no plan, nothing whatsoever. He had nowhere to go. Cloud was sick, and he needed a doctor... but if they saw one, someone might wonder. People knew what SOLDIER looked like, and Zack was the spitting image of one. People might get suspicious of two nasty-looking SOLDIER dropping into the Shinra hospital.

He didn't know what to do. Maybe that's why he kept thinking stupid things like "Why haven't I seen any cars? " and "Why hasn't Cloud drooled all over me yet?" He wanted to keep his mind off of the future, because he had no idea what was going to happen. The unknown was terrifying.

He did know what he wanted to do though. First, he'd get Cloud help. He'd sit there and make sure Cloud was okay before he did anything else. Second, he'd go find Aerith... he tried pushing that thought from his mind. It hurt too much right now. Did the girl even remember him...? He hadn't written to her in... five years now. What reason did she have to wait for him? She might have thought he forgot about her, and moved on. What if he just angered her with his return? He had hurt her, he was sure of it. In that letter he got, she had sounded sad. He didn't want to hurt her anymore...

He snapped out of his thoughts and thrust open his eyes when he heard crunching gravel behind him. He heard air rushing across glass and metal, and spun around, if doing such a thing was possible while holding onto a human being. It was a truck. And old man was driving a yellow truck right towards them. Towards Midgar.

He should have dove out of the way, but at this point, he would rather run the risk of encountering a Shinra vehicle than walk all the way to Midgar. He wouldn't make it. He couldn't even see the giant city yet; cliffs were in the way for miles. And so, he jumped, right into the way of the truck, and braced for impact.

Luckily, the driver saw him. Brakes screeched as the truck came to a stop, about a foot from Zack's body. The young SOLDIER smiled, weakly. At least he'd gotten the man's attention. Now to see if the guy was friendly or not...

First impressions are not always correct judgments of people. "What the hell are you doin' boy? Get outta the road, or you're gonna get squashed!" Yelled the older man. He had stuck his head and arm out of the window for better communication.

Zack tried his best to raise his voice, even though he was exhausted. "Sorry about that, but I just wanted to get you to stop!" he yelled. "You're the first driver to come through here in forever!"

The man frowned, more annoyed than angry. "You lookin' for a ride, son? I ain't got time for no detours."

Zack gathered all of his remaining energy to think of the best way to do this. He put on his best puppy face, and that combined with his exhausted voice. Hopefully it would be enough to get them a ride. "I'm so sorry old man, but my friend here, he's hurt, and we're trying to get to Midgar..."

The man's face softened. Yes, it was working! Nobody could resist the power of Zack's puppy-dog pout! The man still looked annoyed, but more exasperated than annoyed. Zack's charm never failed to pull through in times of need. "Midgar, eh? I'm headed to Kalm, myself." The man looked over at Zack's burden, the sick blonde, and screwed up his face in thought. "I guess there's room for you in the back, son."

Zack's face lit up. It was like he wasn't even tired anymore. "Really, old man? You mean it?"

The man just jerked a thumb towards the bed of his truck. "Better hurry up, before I change my mind! Kids these days, no respect..." His voice lowered to a mutter at that last part.

"Thanks so much old man, you're the best! Come on Cloud, we got us a ride!" He bounded over to the back of the truck and hopped into the bed, causing the truck to wobble two and fro.

The man yelled through the window behind him at the two younger men, "Now don't you be doin' that, it makes it hard ta drive!" Zack just smiled pleadingly at the older man, and shrugged before sitting down next to his friend. He heard the truck's engine rumble and churn before starting up. A few moments later, they were moving.

Zack leaned his head over against the main part of the truck, taking in a big breath, then letting it out slowly. He smiled, his eyes closed. "We're gonna make it, buddy. We're finally gonna... make it..." He was already drifting off to sleep. He could feel his tense and aching muscles easing up, and the pain that had been building up for hours begin to melt away. It was as if he had been living in a nightmare for the last year, and it was just now coming to an end.

"We're gonna be all right, Cloud. You just wait..."

He awoke to the sun shining brightly in his eyes. He squinted, cracking open one eye and shielding his face from the bright rays. Once his eyes were adjusted, he looked at the sky. It was unbelievably blue. There were white, fluffy clouds crawling across the sky, accenting its beauty. There were dark gray clouds off in the distance, but Zack figured now was the time to enjoy nature, and not dread what was coming next. He smiled. He hadn't been able to stop and enjoy the simple things in life for a long time. He looked up at the sun. Judging from its position, he had been sleeping for most of the day. It was probably early afternoon, around two or so. He felt amazing. He never knew that he could miss sleep so badly. He closed his eyes and basked in the sun's warm rays, letting the soft wind comb through his dark tresses. When he opened them again, all he could see was blue. It was the beautiful blue he saw every time he... he stopped there. Then he smiled again. The sky was as beautiful as Cloud's eyes. There was no shame in thinking that, right?

He looked over at his inanimate friend. The blonde hadn't moved a muscle since their trip began. Zack shook his head and ruffled Cloud's hair. "Man, you shouldn't have soaked up all that mako. Didn't you learn that from your first time?" He was referring to Cloud's failure to get into SOLDIER. The kid had practically zero tolerance for the stuff-there was no way he could have been a SOLDIER, no matter how badly he wanted it. Not that Zack was ever going to say something like that... Well, it didn't matter anymore. They were both fugitives now. No way were they going back to Shinra, not after what they did...

Zack tried not to think about that either. He was gonna have a lot of fun repressing the memories of the last five years. Good thing he was so optimistic, or he might have ended up insane, or psychotic. Like that bastard Hojo... He shook his head. Something else to think about would be good. Okay, now that he wasn't in a state of absolute pain and exhaustion, what were they gonna do when they got to Midgar? He thought for a moment. What if Cloud didn't get better by the time they reached Midgar? He'd need some sort of care... It was so complicated! Why did everything have to be so-

"Hey, it looks like you're awake, sonny! You have a good nap?"

Zack broke from his troubling thoughts, and decided some simple small-talk was in order. "Yeah, I feel great, boss! Thanks again for picking us up! I don't know where we'd be if you hadn't."

"The older man laughed. "No problem, son. And sorry about snappin' at you earlier, I've just been drivin' for a while, and I got cranky. Haven't had a conversation with anyone in a while, that's all."

Zack smiled. "Well, I'll talk all you want, now. It's the least I can do, since I don't have money or anything..."

The older man nodded. "That seems fair. I was actually thinking of stoppin' by Midgar on the way, to pick up a few things from my nephew. So I can take you all the way there."

Zack didn't think he could get any happier. "Thanks, boss! I owe, you, big time! When I get all settled down an' everything, you gotta come find me again. I'll repay you somehow."

"Oh don't you worry 'bout that none." The older man coughed. "So... any reason you two were alone in the middle of the desert?"

Zack's heart beat faster at the man's query. Did he know about them? Had Shinra put out pictures of him and Cloud for civilians to watch out for? That was the worst possible situation they could be put into. Zack fought to keep his voice under control as he replied. "Well, I did have a bike, but it ran out of gas a long time ago. And Cloud needs help, so I figured I'd just walk to Midgar."

"Well, that was pretty dumb! Why didn't you just turn back to Junon or something?"

Zack already knew the answer to that question. "I promised someone I'd meet them in Midgar. I can't let her down..." his voice trailed off.

The man nodded. "I see... you got a girl in the city or something?"

Zack suddenly felt very uncomfortable. "W-Well, I guess so... I mean, we were going out for a couple years, and..." He didn't know what to say after that.

"I get it, it's complicated. You just go ahead and sort yourself out, young man." He coughed again. The dust must have been irritating.

"Yeah..." Zack pushed Aerith from his mind. He didn't want to think about her. He really, really wanted to see her again, more than anything... didn't he? He knew he loved her. He missed her, and he wanted to hold her in his arms. He wanted to hear her sweet voice and gaze into her deep green eyes. But he'd abandoned her. For five years. It was gonna be really hard to face her again. He sighed. "I'm really gonna get it, when I see her..."

The older man laughed. "Boy, I don't wanna be there when it happens. I wish you luck, boy." He coughed again, then continued. "So... what's wrong with your friend, there?"

Zack didn't really know what to say to that. What was he gonna say, Cloud was a little dehydrated or something? The kid could barely hold himself up! He was seriously ill, that was for sure... He decided to avoid any fabricated stories, and hope the man would just stop asking questions. "He's got mako poisoning."

The driver raised an eyebrow into the rear-view mirror. "What, the kid eat some, or what?"

Zack thought for a moment, then burst out laughing.

The driver kept his eyes trained between the road and the strange guy in the bed of his truck. "What's so funny, son?"

Zack calmed down and wiped his eyes. "Yeah... he's full o' mako right now, all right..." Poor Cloud, it wasn't his fault. He didn't want to think about whose fault it was... "You think anyone will be able to help him in the city?"

The man snorted. "Well, there's a hospital, but since you've got no money..."

Zack's face fell. "Oh yeah, that... heh..." He'd have to find help elsewhere then. He smiled. They'd be okay. Who knew, maybe Cloud would wake up before then. That would be nice.

"Hey, what are you doing once we reach Midgar?"

Zack was talking to Cloud now. It was a habit he'd developed over the course of their struggle. It made him feel less lonely, and gave him hope that maybe he blonde was listening to him.

But so far, there had been no kind of reply. And so Zack just went on, filling the lack of conversation with his melodious, carefree voice. "Well, first of all we'll need to get some money, huh..." He turned to the old man in the driver's seat. "Hey pops, you know any work I'll be able to do?"

"Pops" gave no hesitation before responding. "What are you saying? You need to try out everything while you're still young. Go through many hardships while you're still young, and find that path of yours."

Zack scoffed. "Everything, so he says. Not much of a help is he?" Zack paused for a little bit, thinking. He was looking for money, not all the crazy thrills of life... But wait a minute. "Oh yeah, that's right!" he exclaimed. "I have a lot of knowledge and skills that other people don't have, right?" He reveled in the thought of being so powerful and smart.

"All right, I've made up my mind. I'll open up a business that does everything."

"Hey, weren't you listening to anything I just said?" The driver seemed a little irked.

Zack wasn't listening anymore, if he was before. "Troublesome things, and dangerous things... I'm going to do everything depending on the reward. I'm going to make a fortune!" He looked like a giddy little boy who just received a new toy. "Hey Cloud... what are you going to do?"

Cloud didn't move a muscle. There was no reply whatsoever. Zack just kept the conversation going, even if it was a bit one-sided. "I'm just kidding. I wouldn't abandon you like that. We're friends, right?" He leaned over on one leg, towards his friend. "We're going to open a business that does everything. Understand, Cloud?"

Right now, there was no way of knowing of the blonde understood. Zack would have to wait until he woke up for that. He leaned back and stretched his aching muscles, then relaxed against the side of the truck. "Man, I can't wait 'till we get there... Hey, Pops, you know how long we've been going?"

"About ten hours or so, from where you guys were."

Zack whistled. "That's a long time. That must mean we're pretty close, right?" He smiled, then jumped up on his knees to look ahead, resting his elbows on the top of the truck. "Hey Pops, can't this thing go any faster?" He closed his eyes, and breathed in deeply. He wanted to hurry and get to Midgar, but he was going to miss the clean air, the sun, the breeze... None of those existed in the city. He opened his eyes, still smiling.

And he looked right into the barrel of a sniper rifle. They'd been found.

His eyes widened as a shot whizzed past his ear. He jumped backward and grabbed Cloud, pulling him down to safety. He called over to the driver, who was probably freaking out. Poor guy... Zack felt bad for pulling him into this mess.

"Pops, park us over by the rocks! Cloud, ride's over." He grabbed his friend as the truck lurched to the right, pulling over by said rocks. They were tall enough for cover, thankfully. When the truck came to a stop, Zack jumped off, pulling Cloud and his sword with him. The truck sped off, spinning its tires and throwing gravel into Zack's face on the way out. Zack ran to a space in the rocks and set Cloud down, where he'd be safe. Man, now I'll never get to repay Pops, he thought.

He looked down at his friend and smiled. At least he'd be safe here. Those soldiers wouldn't even look for him here. And if they just happened to find Cloud, what were they gonna do? Cloud couldn't do anything on his own-he looked half-dead anyway. Shinra wouldn't want to waste bullets on him. He'd be fine here... He brought his arm up and ruffled Cloud's hair again; Cloud's head bobbed uselessly under Zack's force. It fell back down against his chest when Zack stopped his affectionate gesture. Zack took a deep breath and stood, turning away from his friend. He didn't notice that Cloud was beginning to raise his head, slowly.

As Zack walked away, Cloud raised his arm, reaching for his best friend. He didn't want to be left alone. He was scared. Where was Zack going? What was going on? Zack was all he could think of as his vision turned white, and he passed out again.

He was exhausted again. How long had he gotten to enjoy his peace and quiet, ten minutes? It just wasn't fair. And now, there was a bullet in his shoulder, and it was really starting to get on his nerves. Every time he lifted his sword to swing or to block, he felt it burning his flesh. It sucked. And his legs were on fire again, from so much running, and jumping, and dodging and rolling, and jumping back up to his feet. His feet... those hurt, too. They were blistered, and probably bleeding inside his boots. It felt like he was stepping on hot coals mixed with glass shards. His back hurt from carrying Cloud for so long, and his head was throbbing from dehydration. He was in no state to be fighting. But, well, he didn't have a choice. These guys with guns found it amusing to shoot at him. Why were they shooting at him? He never did anything to deserve this! He just wanted people to stop shooting at him, or experimenting on him for a little while!

He was angry. Was it right though, to take out his anger on these poor infantrymen, who were only following their orders to kill him? It didn't seem right... but he didn't really care anymore. They were trying to kill him, to take away his life, and everything he had left that he cared about. They deserved to die if they were going to fight for a company that only ruined peoples' lives.

It was getting dark. Not because it was late, but because the dark gray clouds were blocking out the sun. It was going to start raining soon. Zack ran forward and struck down another weak infantryman. Why did they even try? He was a SOLDIER, a First Class, no less. The last First Class... that meant he was the best, right? Such a thought should have made him smile, but he just wasn't in the mood right now. Another soldier tried aiming at him from behind, on a high rock. Zack spun around, spotted him, ran up the side of the rock, and decapitated the soldier. Zack did a back-flip of of the rock just in time to dodge a barrage of gunfire. He landed and spun around to face his next opponent, a rather small-looking soldier holding a standard-issue Shinra military sword. Zack could have laughed at him and told him to go home, if he weren't under so much pressure to keep moving, and dodge bullets. The kid brought his feeble sword up to defend himself, but to no avail. Zack struck the sword with so much force that it cracked and went flying out of the kid's grasp. The kid stumbled, and shrieked as Zack swung his sword. At the last moment, Zack flipped the blade around so that when it hit the kid, it didn't slice him two-it only sent him flying about ten feet.

Zack's act of good will only earned him another bullet, in his leg this time. Zack hissed as he rushed towards his next victims-those between him and a mounted turret gun. He easily sliced through every soldier in his way as he descended upon the turret. He dodged the turret's fire all the way to the operator, and thrust the Buster Sword through the man's chest. He quickly yanked the sword back out and jumped back to the battlefield.

These guys just kept coming. How many had he cut down already? Hundreds? He didn't think he'd ever killed so many people before. The thought saddened him, if only a little bit. He felt water hit his face as he ran forward and cut down another soldier. Here comes the rain... he thought. It just made everything even more depressing. He didn't want to kill these people. Why did they keep coming? Were they stupid? Yes, that was it. They were are retarded. They were mindless puppets being used my Shinra. And now hundreds were dying because Shinra didn't want people to know about a little experiment they did with two living human beings. It made him so, so angry.

He ran forward to slice at another soldier who thought it would be fun to spray him with shotgun fire from behind a rock. He got rid of all other soldiers in the way, by force of habit, and he swung his blade as he turned the corner. Upon closer examination, he found that the soldier was a woman.

Zack hesitated. That was all the woman needed to shoot his chest full of shotgun pellets from a point-blank range. Zack yelled in pain and stumbled back about five feet. A normal human would have been blown off their feet by the sheer force of the shot, but not a SOLDIER. Zack snapped out of his stupor and dashed forward. The woman looked shocked than Zack was still on his feet-she didn't even move when he swung his blade at her. She was cut in half. She was still alive when she hit the ground, however. Zack could hear her gasps and whimpers as he ran to meet another opponent.

He was getting really tired. And for every person he cut down, there was always one to replace them. What was the point of this fight? Was it just to kill him? Would he have to single-handedly take down the entire Shinra army in order for them to stop hunting him? And what if... what if he couldn't quite last that long? Then what?

He'd die, that's what. He'd never see Aerith again. He wouldn't get to tell her how sorry he was that he was gone for so long. Hell, if he was dead, he wouldn't get to do anything ever again. Not only that, but Cloud would probably die without him. Cloud... It wasn't fair. He shouldn't have been involved in all this, but he was. Sephiroth destroyed his home, and caught him up in all this SOLDIER, Jenova, experimentation crap. It wasn't fair. It wasn't FAIR!

With a new burst of energy, he cut down an entire wall of soldiers, and headed for the next line. The soldiers looked terrified as they snapped their rifles up to aim at him. Why didn't they just run? Why were they throwing their lives away just to take him down? There must have been another reason. Did they think they were being brave or something? There was a difference between bravado and stupidity, as Zack could attest to. Did they think they were doing the world some good by giving their lives to kill Zack? The thought filled him with rage; he ignored the immense pain his body was feeling as he cut down more and more soldiers, with renewed vitality. These people were ignorant and stupid. Shinra made them that way. Was that what Shinra was, a factory for making stupid people, and turning them into puppets?

Puppets. That's all SOLDIER was, a huge collection of puppets. Shinra took the program and used it to destroy homes and lives, while slapping a nice face on it to keep young boys dreaming of honor and glory. Then when they got into SOLDIER, they'd go on believing they were doing good, because Shinra was always right. They'd be used for whatever was needed to keep Shinra in power, and supported by the people. Now Zack understood why Wutai hated them so much. Zack had helped Shinra destoy them. He was just a stupid puppet. He'd believed in SOLDIER honor for so long, when really all he was doing was fighting for cowards.

But he'd kept his honor. He'd die by it, if he had to. There was no way he was gonna give up now, not when there was so much to lose. Even though he was exhausted, and every fiber of every muscle and tendon in his body was on fire, and even though he couldn't see straight anymore... he had to fight. He had to keep going...

He really wished he could see straight. It would be so much easier to dodge the grenade someone had just thrown at him. He didn't even notice it until it hit the ground at his feet, and he heard it rolling against the dirt and gravel. If he hadn't launched himself behind a rock, he might have lost a leg, or more. Well that's just great, he thought. Not only are they trying to cut me in half and shoot me full of holes, but now they want to blow me to pieces? What more do they want? Why don't you just add insult to injury and bring Kunsel out here to do the rest? He really hoped that didn't happen. So far there hadn't been anyone from SOLDIER, which was good for him. In this state, he didn't think he could beat a Second Class like Kunsel. Not that he wanted to...

His mind was wandering. He couldn't focus anymore. He was getting grazed a lot more than before, now. At least they weren't stupid enough to send peons with swords anymore. They'd taken to launching grenades, instead. There, they just threw another one-he jumped out of the way just in time to see it explode, and send shards of rock to sting his arms. He hissed and reeled back, glancing around for anyone else trying to kill him at that moment. And that's when he saw it. A rocket was flying on a trajectory headed straight for his face. His eyes widened and he ducked, rolling out of the way.

There was a deafening explosion behind him, and the force of the impact knocked him forward onto his hands and knees. Rocks fell all around him as he struggled to his feet, blinking dust from his eyes. He coughed, and thought of the driver of the yellow truck. He may never get to repay that man, now. He looked up to see the soldiers retreating, just a little bit. Did they finally decide that his life wasn't worth the trouble? Probably not. They were probably just regrouping, and making another strategy. Why didn't they just drop a huge bomb on him and get it over with? He could barely move, so how was he gonna get out of the way in time? He shook his head; he didn't want that to happen. Cloud might get caught in the blast.

How many soldiers were left? He couldn't tell. They were all hiding behind the bluffs. Hell, they'd probably called in reinforcements ten times with all the helicopters that had flown over. Zack tried his best to walk straight, but he ended up stumbling over rocks in his way. He felt pathetic. Here he was, a First Class SOLDIER, and he didn't even notice when he was tripping over rocks. How incredibly humiliating. He staggered out of the cloud of dust made my the earlier explosion, and fell to his knees. His chest hurt, a lot. What would one expect from being shot, by a shotgun? He didn't even know how he was still standing after that. But now his chest was full of holes. It hurt to breathe. He drew his sword up in front of him, flipped it upside down, and shoved it into the dirt in front of him. He was done for now. He'd rest until the next onslaught came, which would probably be in a few minutes. Oh well, he thought. Any time at all was good right now.

He knelt there, panting, and looked up—He figured it would be good to actually watch and see if anything was coming to kill him. He noticed a bunch of soldiers running out and grabbing their fallen comrades, dragging their bodies from the battlefield. There were a lot of those. He squinted to keep the dust put of his eyes, and listened as one of the captains shouted orders. What were they doing now? Zack tried to listen to what the orders were. He screwed up his face in concentration-he heard the wind around him, the dust clouds whipping and cutting into his face. He heard his heart pounding and his own labored breathing, and his head throbbing in his ears. He couldn't hear what the soldiers were saying. Normally he would be able to, but at the moment, his senses were being distorted by pain and exhaustion.

He noticed someone walking toward him. It was a soldier, holding a rifle. He had a red scarf on, indicating that he was a captain. Why was he walking over here alone? Did he have a death wish? Or, could he possibly be looking to...

"You done yet?" Yelled the captain. Was he looking to compromise? Zack wanted to laugh, but it would hurt too much to do so. What were they gonna do, kill him after they got him back to Shinra, after they experimented on him some more? No way was that going to happen.

"You gonna stop shooting at me?" He replied, his voice sounding strained and breathless.

The captain just shifted his footing uncomfortably. "If you come quietly, we'll guarantee your life."

So he'd be kept alive, to be experimented on, forever? Not a pretty outcome, Zack thought. Or maybe he'd just be imprisoned for the rest of his miserable life. Zack coughed; he tasted blood on his tongue. It was morbid, tasting his own blood. If he didn't get help fast, he really was going to die. And he'd be leaving Cloud here all by himself. He had to live, just a little longer. How many of them were left? The odds looked grim as he looked past the captain in front of him. The rocks were still covered with soldiers. He didn't think he could beat that many more.

The captain looked to his men behind him, then back at Zack. The man was catching on, it seemed. There was no way he was gonna go away from here alive. Zack just hoped he could take everyone else down with him, so Cloud would be okay. The captain spoke up again "Well? What's it gonna be?"

Zack stared at him from behind his giant sword and said nothing. It wasn't worth the effort. Not only that, but he felt just a little contemptuous towards the captain. He didn't feel like talking to the man who would try to kill him in a few seconds. If that was indeed what was going to happen.

The captain was getting impatient, or anxious. Zack couldn't really tell, and he didn't care. The captain raised his rifle, aiming straight at Zack's exposed head. "Put down the sword and step away from it. This is your last chance."

Zack chuckled. The situation was hopeless. Why was he even going to try? He'd probably be shot full of holes before he could get his sword up to block. Even more full of holes, that is. But he was Zack, SOLDIER First Class, and he wasn't one to give up on anything. It was sad, but he couldn't give up. Cloud needed him... Zack used his sword to pull himself back to his feet, steadying himself. He watched as the captain tensed up, and yanked his sword out of the ground. Apparently the captain didn't have a death wish, because he ran back to his men, shouting, "Ready and aim!"

His arms burned as he struggled to keep the massive sword up in front of him. He took deep breaths, even though the pain was excruciating. If these were his last breaths, he wanted them to be good ones. He braced for impact as the captain yelled for them to fire.

Everything was blurry. He blinked over and over, trying to focus his eyes on something. It was also dark, and cold. When his eyes focused, he noticed he was on the ground, leaning against a rock. His head throbbed in his ears, making it hard to think straight. Where was he? What was going on? And why couldn't he move?

He could hear his own soft breathing mixed in with the pounding. He blinked again, and gently shook his head. He leaned to one side and tried to push himself up onto his knees, but gasped when his hand slipped and he fell to the ground. He breathed harder. Why was he so weak, and tired? What was going on?

Where was Zack?

He remembered Zack was with him before. And now he wasn't. Where did he go? Cloud's heart beat faster in his chest as he pondered the possibilities. He was scared already, without missing his friend. He rolled over on his stomach, deciding it would be easier to stand if he used both arms to steady himself. He pushed himself onto his knees and tried to stand, but ended up falling back to one knee when he stood up too fast. His head spun and he tried to stay upright. That's when he noticed the gunfire.

Was it gunfire? That's what it sounded like, anyway. He'd thought it was his head pounding, but apparently not. That didn't mean he didn't have headache, though. But wait, if there was gunfire... Where was he? Was he on a battlefield or something? He had never been in a real battle before-just security duty was all. What had he gotten himself into? He didn't remember anything... did he hit his head? Nothing was coming to him. All he knew was that he was in the middle of a bunch of people with guns, he had no weapon, and he could barely stand. And Zack was gone. His heart pounded in his chest.

He decided not to stay in one place, because that always got you killed on the battlefield. He crawled around the rocks, hugging the large bluff he'd been leaning against. What if Zack was right on the other side? That would be nice. He got to the corner and peeked around. He had to keep himself from gasping when he saw the Shinra troops shooting. They were all shooting in the same direction, away from him. Did that mean he was on the right side? That sounded good. Now, where was Zack...? He scanned the troops, but only saw regular infantrymen. Was SOLDIER not dispatched for this battle? Cloud frowned as disappointment filled him to the brim. For some reason, he wanted to cry. He didn't know what the hell was going on, and he just wanted to go home. If only Zack were here, he would understand.

He was off to the side a bit, so he was off the battlefield. The soldiers were shooting at something to his left, so he crawled around a rock to see. It would be good to assess the situation, then figure out what he had to do to stay alive. His eyes rested on the enemy, and his breath caught in his throat. His eyes grew wide and he gasped-he'd found his best friend.

Zack looked hurt. He was gasping, and wincing in pain. He seemed to be able to move, however, because he was blocking a barrage of bullets coming from the Shinra side. Shinra side... Why the hell was Shinra shooting at Zack? He could only stare as his friend stumbled around clumsily trying to defend himself. This was not a fair fight. How many guys were there, fifty? How long had Zack been fighting? Cloud saw all of the wounds his friend sported, and couldn't believe his eyes. His turtleneck looked like a black piece of Swiss cheese. Did he... Did he get shot that many times? How was he still standing? And more importantly, how much longer could he last alone? Probably not long. Cloud wanted to help, but what could he do? He'd just get in the way, or get shot himself. That thought scared him even more, if that was possible.

He made his decision when Zack stumbled and fell to one knee. Since he wasn't moving anymore, he was a much easier target. He didn't stand a chance. The soldiers aimed straight at him and fired. Cloud gasped as Zack jerked backward, and yelled in pain.


He didn't even hear his own voice as he jumped up to his feet and ran to the nearest soldier, grabbing the man from behind. He grabbed the man's rifle and pulled it away from where it was pointed, aiming at the other soldiers. One man fell while others were only wounded. His captive yelled and struggled against Cloud's grip, but he couldn't get out. Adrenaline was giving Cloud more strength than he would have had if he were healthy. Cloud wasn't gonna let go, no matter what. This soldier was trying to hurt Zack, and he wasn't going to let that happen. He couldn't lose his best friend, not like this. Like this? This referring to Shinra firing on one of their own! Why were they shooting him? What had he done-

He felt the wind get knocked out of him as the soldier elbowed him in the gut. Cloud gasped in pain and released his grip a little, enough for the soldier to break free. He'd failed. He was a failure. He failed at getting into SOLDIER, he failed to save Tifa and now-his eyes widened as the memories came back to him. Nibelheim, burned to the ground... His mother, dead... And Sephiroth, he was dead too. Everything was screwed up. Maybe it wasn't surprising that Shinra would be after them now. Zack had helped him through everything, and now he'd never get to repay him. Zack was going to die because he was too weak. Tears welled up in his eyes as he watched the soldier turn on him, gun raised.

He thought he was done. When all those bullets hit him at the same time, he wanted to just lie there and not get up. He could barely breathe. Machine gun rounds did a lot more damage than a single shotgun round, that was for sure. It hurt to move any part of his body, but when he heard that scream, he knew he had to get up. He'd know Cloud's voice anywhere, even after not hearing it for over a year. He pulled himself up and thrust his sword out in front of him, searching frantically for his little blonde friend. His eyes rested on a strange sight-Cloud was wrestling with another soldier, causing a disturbance. The soldiers weren't entirely focused on Zack right now, so he had less chance of getting hit. Zack wanted to smile, but he was also terrified for Cloud's well-being. He couldn't let him die, not now-

And yet he watched as the soldier broke free and turned on his friend, firing into the blonde from a mere foot away. He watched as Cloud stumbled backward and fell, hitting a rock and rolling onto his side, unmoving. He watched as the soldier raised his gun and aimed again, this time to kill.

Then he heard another scream, and didn't realize until later that it had come from his own mouth.

He didn't really remember what happened after that. There was screaming and yelling, and gunfire, like usual. And there was blood, more of it than before. And there was fear, unbelievable fear that he was about to lose something precious to him. But most of all there was rage. It was an incredible, blinding rage that almost blocked out everything else. It got rid of the pain, and the exhaustion, and gave him more strength tan he thought he could ever have. He didn't question whether he could beat these soldiers anymore. There was no other option; he had to beat them. Cloud depended on him coming out on top. And so he fought, numbed with rage, and driven by urgency.

It took him a little while to realize that the fight was over, that the few soldiers left had retreated and taken their vans and choppers with them. He was still scanning the area for anything else that moved thirty seconds after he cut down his last soldier. When he finally realized he was done, he whipped around, searching for his friend. He didn't have to look far, since Cloud's hair was so bright and conspicuous. The pain was coming back; his legs burned as he sprinted over to his blonde companion, and gently pulled him up of the ground, cradling him in his arms. His rage was gone now, and replaced by agony at the sight of his friend riddled with holes.

"H-Hey, Cloud... Buddy, you okay? Can you hear me?"

At first there was no answer; Cloud was immobile. Zack was afraid he'd gone back into a coma, until there was a small whimper. "Za... Zack...?"

Zack smiled as he heard his friend's voice again, albeit pained and weak. At least he was finally awake. "Hey, buddy. How you doin'? You okay?"

Cloud gasped in pain, and tried to answer. "It... hurts..."

Zack tried his best to stay calm, and keep himself from shaking. "Don't worry, we're gonna get you help really soon, okay? So I need you to stay awake, stay with me okay? It'll all be over soon, you just watch." He brought his had over and cupped Cloud's face, pulling it towards him. He wanted to look not those beautifully blue eyes and tell him he'd be okay.

Cloud's eyes were full of tears. It made Zack want to cry all the more. "H-Hey, what's wrong, buddy? We're almost free! Midgar's right over there, didn't you see?" For some reason, he was having a hard time convincing himself that was the truth. A part of him, the pessimistic side, was telling him that another wave of hurt was coming soon, and he wasn't going to live through it this time. He pushed it from his thoughts. "Hey, you listenin' to me?"

Cloud was gasping, his lip trembling. The poor kid was gonna start bawling his head off any second. And so would Zack if he kept this up. "L-Look, I'm just gonna try to carry you, okay? You can cry all you want, but we've gotta go. Now-" He pulled upward and tried to lift the younger man into the air, but he stopped when Cloud cried out in pain.

"W-What's wrong? What hurts?" he asked.

Cloud whimpered in reply. "E-Everything..."

Zack tried not to sob. He bit his lip as his eyes started watering. "Look Cloud, if we don't get you help soon, you're gonna..."

Cloud sobbed. He was trembling. "I-I'm scared..."

Zack stared him right in the eyes. "Don't be. I'm here now, okay? Everything's gonna be okay, you hear?" He thought of something, and half-smiled. "We're gonna me mercenaries, remember? We gotta get to Midgar for that. Then we'll be rich, you and me. But you gotta be strong, you hear?"

Cloud's breathing was weaker. He needed help, right then. But there was no help to be had. Zack winced in sympathy, and blinked back tears. "Come on, Cloud, you can do this. You just gotta... stay alive for me, okay...?"

"I don't want to die."

Zack's mouth hung open halfway at that statement. He could only stare as his best friend spoke. "I-I don't... want to leave you... behind..." Cloud choked back a sob.

Zack didn't know what to say to that. It would have been different if he'd said something like "Don't leave me," or "Don't go." Then, he could have told him that he wasn't going anywhere, that he'd always be there for him. But this was different. Death wasn't something Zack could just fight off with his sword and pure determination. Cloud had to fight it himself. And he was losing.

"I... wanted to spend... my life with you..."

Zack's eyes opened wide. Did he just say... what he thought he said? Did he just say something that meant-

"I love you...Zack..."

Cloud winced, and a whimper escaped his lips. Zack stared down at his friend, his beloved companion-his brother. A tear rolled down his cheek as he answered.

"I love you too, Cloud."

Cloud opened his eyes, shocked, but at the same time, happy. Zack went on. "And if this is gonna go anywhere, you gotta stay alive for me, okay? You have... to..." he sobbed. He couldn't keep it from voicing itself. He knew Cloud wasn't going to make it. He didn't want to know it, though. He just wanted to hold his friend, his lover, and make all the pain go away. But he couldn't. That was one thing Zack Fair could not do in this case. All he could do was watch as his friend drifted away, slowly and painfully. Just like with Angeal, and Sebastian and Essai, and to some degree Sephiroth... He couldn't do anything. SOLDIER had trained him do defy the odds and come out on top. It had made him stronger than he could have possibly imagined. But it hadn't taught him how to keep someone from dying, when the process had already started. No amount of strength could help Cloud now.

He took the hand that was holding Cloud's head and combed his fingers through the soft spikes. He didn't want to let go. He wished that just by holding Cloud here, that he could stay with him forever. Then he could gaze into those soft, blue eyes, and feel the blonde's warm, pale skin...

"I'm scared." Cloud was whispering now. He'd be gone soon. Zack tried not to think about it.

"Don't worry buddy, I'm not going anywhere." He smiled, tears spilling down his face. "I'll always be here for you, you got it? So don't be scared. Don't be..." He trembled. How could he be there for someone who wasn't there? Cloud was leaving him, and there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was be there for him right then, in that moment. So that's what he was going to do. He bent over and gently kissed Cloud's forehead, then pulled him close, resting his chin on the blonde's head. This couldn't be happening. It was all so unreal...

He sat there, rocking back and forth, holding his lover close. He soon felt the little water droplets from before begin to fall. Once it started, it rained hard. Good. If he was crying, he wanted to world to cry with him. It wasn't fair that Cloud had to die. None of this was his fault. He didn't do anything to deserve this... Shinra was after them because of Zack, not Cloud. Zack sort of regretted escaping from the Shinra Manor, now. If he hadn't, they'd both be alive and well, and they might have even gotten to leave after a while. And who knew, maybe they were really nice to Cloud, and maybe he liked it there. Zack would never get a chance to ask him, because Shinra had seen fit to kill him. He ran his fingers through Cloud's damp hair, and huddled against his cold body. He wasn't breathing anymore.

His eyes were closed. He looked peaceful. He didn't look afraid anymore. That was the only good thing about the situation. Zack's lip trembled as he stared at his friend one last time before closing his eyes, and bringing him back in, close. He'd never hear Cloud's cheerful laugh, or see his innocent smile ever again. He'd never hear his light, melodious voice, and he'd never look into those beautiful blue eyes that were as glorious and limitless as the sky. He'd never get the chance to love Cloud the way he wanted to, because Shinra had taken him away.

Everything hurt. And it was all Shinra's fault. He wanted to scream, but he knew it would do no good. The only good he could do now was to get to Midgar, and do what he set out to do. He'd be a mercenary, just like he said. He'd go find Aerith, and he'd tell her what happened-why he couldn't be with her anymore. He'd start a new life there, get settled down, and that's when he'd strike. He'd be right there, with headquarters just within grasp. He'd take it down bit by bit, single-handedly if he had to. There was nothing else left to live for, but revenge.

It rained for a long time, it seemed. Not long enough, in Zack's opinion. The afternoon sun came out and warmed his back as he knelt there, clinging to his friend's body. It didn't seem right to just leave him there, but he didn't really have a choice. He was exhausted, and he didn't think he could carry Cloud all the way to Midgar. In his grief, he'd forgotten he was on the verge of death himself. Wonderful. The pain was beginning to return to his body, and it was agonizing. One thing was for sure though, the pain his body felt was nothing compared to the pain in his heart. There, in that moment, it felt like he didn't even have a heart.

But the point was, there was no way he could carry his friend's body all the way to Midgar. He would have to leave him, after he promised that he would never leave, that he was always be there. He felt horrible at the thought. But the decision was made for him, eventually. He didn't know when, but he felt Cloud's body getting lighter. He sat up to see why, and his eyes shot open. Cloud was dissolving, right there in front of him! Zack made a pained gasp, but he knew what was going on; he'd seen it happen with Angeal. Cloud was dissolving into the Lifestream, going back to the Planet. That's where everyone went when they died, right? He knew this was his last chance, and he bent over, kissing Cloud on the lips. It was light, and quick, and was over as soon as it began. Zack watched as the rest of Cloud dissolved, and floated upward into greenish particles. He was really gone. And there was no evidence that he had ever existed-except for Zack.

He would tell the world what had happened. He would be proof of Cloud's existence, of his love, and his sacrifice. He would bust into Shinra and show them exactly who they had messed with. He stood, and looked up into the sky, where he hoped Cloud was watching. He spoke, tears forming in his eyes once more.

"See you later, Cloud."

He turned to leave, and saw his beloved sword. He winced-now he had two people's legacies to carry on. He knelt and picked up Angeal's sword, holding it in front of him with both hands. This weapon would help him take down Shinra, and avenge his love. He prayed that Angeal would look after Cloud, wherever they were now. He stood, lowering the large blade. He threw it up behind him and attached it to his back harness, where it stuck. He turned and went to the edge of the bluff, looking out over the desert. The sun was out, but dark smog clouds hung over Midgar, and blotted out the sun as far as a mile outside the city. It was a dark and dismal place to be. He'd have to change that, for Cloud. Not only for him, but for everyone on the Planet. There could not be peace in a world where Shinra reigned. So he'd get rid of it. He turned and left, making his way down the bluff, alone. Midgar wasn't too far away. He could make it, easy.

There was gonna be hell to pay when he did.

Yo~ I hope you liked it! So sad, yes... I was thinking of expanding this, but it would take so long if I did... I mean, going through the entire game with Zack being alive, with an entirely different personality and freaking everyone out, and stuff. But if people want me to do it, I will. It sounds fun.

I got the whole it-took-them-a-whole-year thing from various sources. The FFVII timeline is so screwed up, I don't know which one to follow. Some say it took a few days to get to Midgar from Nibelheim, and other say it took a year. I was looking at one that gets its dates from Before Crisis, a game that actually shows what day the mission takes place on. It shows that Zack and Cloud escape from Nibelheim on December 19 2006. FFVII starts on December 9, 2007. So either it took a year for them to reach Midgar, or Cloud was hanging around with Tifa for like a year, which is offensive to me. So yeah... also, evading Shinra's troops and the Turks for a year is way more brutal than three days :D

But obviously that brought up the question of "How the hell did they eat?" and "How the hell did Zack get Cloud to do regular daily activities, like, well, pooping?" Yeah. I tried to be as discreet about that as possible, because that shit's embarrassing. I can only feel sorry for both Zack and Cloud for being put in that situation. God, that's gotta suck. Yay for Vegetable!Cloud.