So here I have a nearly 10000 word behemoth that is one of two pieces that I have been working busily on for months. I'm not entirely sure what the inspiration for this was was, but I couldn't stop working on it and I am extremely glad I couldn't, because this piece came out really well. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Please note: the /+ sign is the only thing I could get to stay as an indicator of time passing, since I usually use a string of dashes and those are being removed from my document by the site.
Rainy season in Wutai was a setback that ShinRa hadn't foreseen in the Wutai War. The Wutain forces were perfectly capable of operating in the torrential rains, thick mud, and host of slimy creatures that seemed to multiply every time a soldier so much as blinked. The SOLDIERs and Regular Army did not.
They very nearly lost the war in the first year because of the weather.
The second year, two SOLDIERs huddled together under an old bus shelter, listening to the rain on the metal roof. Both were injured, one badly, and they were cold and damp. A summon cast by the Wutain side had scattered their squad to the four winds- quite literally- and they had no idea where they were.
"Fucking rain," Zack muttered. "I like rain as much as the next guy, but damn. We didn't even get this much during monsoon season at home."
"Where are you from, again?" Luke asked.
"Gongaga. Otherwise known as the sweaty armpit of the world."
Luke chuckled, then winced. "Fuck. Don't make me laugh, dammit, it hurts."
"Sorry, man. Won't happen again."
"It had better not. I'll gag you with my bangle if it does."
Zack chuckled, but his heart wasn't in it. Luke was stretched out on the damp wooden floor of the little shelter, booted feet up on the bench. Zack had cut away the remains of his shirt and armor to get a better look at his injuries, so the gradual bruising on one side of his abdomen was painfully obvious. Internal bleeding, which was bad enough in its own right, and worse when he'd had to tie a tourniquet around Luke's lower bicep to halt the bleeding from a gash that cut into the thick muscle clear down to the bone and then sort of reshape a couple of his ribs. Luke was perfectly aware of how much trouble he was in, with no Heal Materia and no way to get to a medic. He didn't seem to care much, but Zack certainly did.
The rain on the roof drummed a steady drone that filled the shelter, almost enough to lull Zack to sleep.
Out in the forest, something large roared, and a few birds scattered from the trees about a mile off.
"Dragon," Luke said.
"Big sucker, too."
"This whole damn island is out to get us."
"Do me a favor?"
"Sure thing. Whatcha want?"
"There's a couple of tranqs in my pack."
Zack recoiled from Luke.
"No need to shout," Luke scowled. "I don't want you to kill me, I just want you to knock me out."
"Not bleeding like you are, you could start having problems and I'd never know."
"C'mon, man, think about it. We're out in the sticks without any idea where the nearest camp is. I'm gonna lose the arm anyway, and I probably won't make it that far. If I'm going to die, I'm sure as hell not gonna have the last thing I see be your boots and the spiders hanging from the roof of a bus shelter in the middle of a godforsaken war zone. I want to see my girl again, and if the only way I can do that is to be tranqued out of my fucking skull, then so be it!"
"No buts. I'd do it myself if I could reach my pack."
"We could argue about this all afternoon, Zack."
"I….okay." He dug in the battered pack, finally locating two emergency tranquilizers. They were obscenely clean looking in his grimy hands, gleaming dull silver in the dim light coming in from outside. "Bicep or thigh?"
"Better make it my bicep, this whole elevating the feet thing kind of makes doing it anywhere else pointless."
Zack nodded and uncapped both tubes, revealing the sharp tips of the needles. Taking a deep breath, he raised the shots, then brought them down sharply on Luke's uninjured arm. The needles pushed up into the bodies of the tubes, then released, snapping out into Luke's skin and releasing a double load of SOLDIER-grade tranquilizer into his body.
"Ooooh," Luke mumbled. "Thass nice." His eyes fluttered closed and his breathing began to even out.
"Dammit," Zack whispered, and dropped the empty shots. He retreated to the far side of the shelter and sat with his feet up on the bench, trying not to look at Luke.
Eventually, the steady drone of the rain on the roof put him to sleep.
The sound of heavy boots on the wood startled Zack awake. He blinked groggily, thinking that Luke had gotten up in a medicated haze and was trying to leave. Only Luke wasn't that tall, and he had dark red hair, not silver, and-
"General!" Zack leaped to his feet, which resulted in the top of his head meeting the roof of the shelter and him promptly falling off the bench with a yelp, clutching his head.
"At ease," Sephiroth murmured, stepping around Zack to sit on the bench. He looked over at Luke's prone body. "Is he alive?"
"Uh, yeah. Tranqued up for now. Internal bleeding."
"What are you doing out here, sir? Last I heard, you were at Wuxi."
"I was on my way from there to Xi-gon when my caravan was ambushed. One of the attackers used some kind of storm summon that threw most of us into the forest. As far as I have been able to determine, I am the only survivor who landed near here."
"Funny. Luke and I got dumped out here by something like that, only stronger. I don't suppose you know where we are?"
"Somewhere southeast of Xi-gon."
"Half the island is southeast of Xi-gon," Zack muttered. "I don't suppose you've got a Heal on you, huh?"
"I thought not."
"You are injured as well."
"Do I even want to know how you know that?"
"I can smell the blood from two different people. As it is fresh, it stands to reason that it is from you and your companion here."
"Yeah, I've got a few holes in my hide. Nothing serious. I got 'em taken care of already. You okay?"
Sephiroth shrugged and cleared his throat.
"I sustained a handful of minor injuries in the fall through the canopy."
"Want me to have a look at them?"
"It won't be necessary."
"Do you honestly have anything better to do, sir?"
"True." Sephiroth removed Masamune, sheath and all, from its harness and leaned it against the wall, then shrugged his coat off. Sure enough, cuts and scrapes patterned his pale skin, dipping all the way down to edge under his belt.
"The belt's gonna have to go too, sir. Hang on, I'll get us some more light."
While Sephiroth wrestled his belt off- Zack was kind of amused to see that even the great General had to work to get the heavy thing off- Zack pulled several chemical glow sticks and a spool of twine out of his pack. In moments he'd rigged the sticks together into a brightly glowing bundle and hung them from the ceiling. The light they cast was a little oddly colored, but it was still light, a precious thing when it was rapidly getting darker outside.
"There we go. Now let's have a look."
There was nothing serious to deal with. The worst was a cut as long as Zack's hand, an inch and a half deep in the middle, along the curve of Sephiroth's hip. Curious, Zack checked the heavy leather coat and found the neat slit where a blade had cut through it.
"Wow. Close one."
Sephiroth turned to have a look.
"Lucky throw," he corrected.
"That was a throwing dagger. This one." He tugged a long knife out of his boot and offered it to Zack.
"This is no throwing dagger. This was made for close combat."
"It was thrown at me. As far as I am concerned, that makes it a throwing dagger. Are you finished?"
"Almost. I've got a question, though. Did you touch or maybe eat something funny?"
"You're really, really hot. Like, running a fever hot. It can't be just from wandering around in that coat."
"I contracted a minor virus shortly before leaving Wuxi."
"I dunno…you're awfully hot for just a bug," Zack said uncertainly. Never mind that it seemed a little mundane for the pride of the ShinRa army to be sick at all, and even Angeal didn't get sick easily.
"Regardless of the cause, there is nothing to be done at the current time."
Zack shrugged and finished bandaging Sephiroth. While he packed his first aid kit back up, he looked over at his new companion.
"So…what's the plan?"
"We can't spend the rest of the war sitting in a bus shelter."
"We wait until the rain dies down somewhat, fashion a stretcher for your partner, and start walking."
"Sounds like fun," Zack muttered. He put his pack down on the floor and settled at his end of the bench. "Well, I'm gonna get a little more sleep, thanks. Wake me up in a couple of hours."
Sephiroth raised one eyebrow at the casual way Zack spoke to him but didn't comment. In a few minutes, Zack's soft snores mixed with the drumming of the rain.
Zack woke up after night had fallen. The world had shrunk to the light cast by his glow stick bundle, a little globe of light that just barely filled the shelter.
Sephiroth was asleep at the other end of the bench, and Zack noted that he had his coat fastened clear up to his throat. He'd never seen the General wear it that way, and it certainly wasn't cold enough to warrant neck to ankle leather.
"General Sephiroth?" he ventured. No response. "Sir?" Sephiroth didn't move. Zack got up and tiptoed over to him, pausing only to take a flashlight out of his pack for better light. When he turned the light on and aimed it at Sephiroth, the only response he got was a faint mumble.
He was shivering, Zack realized. That motion wasn't from his hand with the light, it was Sephiroth himself, shaking steadily. His jaw was set, like he was being forced to endure something he hated, and Zack suspected his teeth would be chattering otherwise.
"Sir?" He grabbed Sephiroth's shoulder and gave him a firm shake. "Sir!" The leather was warm under his palm. Too warm. "Shit. Minor virus, my ass." Another shake didn't help. Finally, he drew one hand back and slapped him hard across the face. "Sephiroth!"
The next thing he knew, he was on his back on the shelter floor, nearly hanging out into the rain, and he couldn't breathe. He knew that kind of breathless hurt; it was from a solid shot to the solar plexus. It should have been powerful enough to send him flying out of the shelter, coming from someone as strong as Sephiroth, but it wasn't. On the bright side, Sephiroth was standing up- he had to put one hand against the wall and he looked unsteady, but it was something, at least- and his eyes were open.
"Welcome back," Zack wheezed.
"Lieutenant Fair?" Sephiroth asked.
"You slapped me."
"You weren't waking up."
"Is that really any of your concern?"
Zack rolled onto his side and just lay there for a minute, taking big, gulping breaths until his head stopped spinning.
"With all due respect, sir, I think I'm allowed to worry when my commanding officer is running such a high fever that I can feel it through his fucking coat." He got up slowly, wincing. "You were shaking. And you look like shit."
"There was no need to hit me at all."
"I was yelling in your ear and you didn't even flinch. I had to do something."
Sephiroth gave Zack a scathing look.
"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Lieutenant."
Zack got to his feet and planted his fists on his hips, glaring at Sephiroth.
"I could smell that bullshit a mile off. If I'm gonna be the only SOLDIER here who's operating even close to 100%, then I want to know it from the outset, not find out after we get jumped by a squad of ninjas."
"I am fine."
"Then prove it. Or I'll just assume you're lying and exercise Article 7 right now." Article 7 was a part of the laws both SOLDIER and the Regular Army adhered to. It was a combat law that stated that if an officer could prove a superior officer unfit for duty, then he could temporarily relieve said officer of his duty and take over. It usually required witnesses, but if there were none available, then the take over lasted only until reaching an established base or camp.
"You wouldn't dare."
"You know my mentor, sir. I'm sure he's told you that I'm a hardheaded pain in the ass."
"He has mentioned it," Sephiroth muttered.
"So you know I'm not kidding. Prove that you're fit for duty and I'll stop pestering unless something else comes up."
"What would do for appropriate proof?" Sephiroth asked.
Zack thought about it for a minute.
"Take off the coat, get your sword, and do a five minute session of strike-block patterns. If you can get through it without stopping, then I'll shut up and leave you alone."
Sephiroth's skin was damp under the heavy leather coat, and it pebbled with goosebumps when he peeled the coat off. He tossed it onto the bench and stepped over Luke to fetch Masamune, then hopped out into the rain, taking up a position just far enough away from the shelter to avoid hitting it with the blade.
"Okay. Five minutes starts…now."
He made it through the first three minutes without any trouble. As he entered the fourth minute, however, Zack could hear him panting, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps. His steps became a little less mechanical as the panting increased, until he staggered to the side and fell to one knee in the mud. He was just fifteen seconds short of the time limit.
"Shit!" Zack rushed out into the rain after Sephiroth, leaning over him and trying to determine the source of the problem. Sephiroth was clutching at his chest, taking great, heaving breaths between coughs.
Zack managed to get Sephiroth back into the bus shelter and seated on the bench, then hurried back out into the rain to fetch Masamune. Sephiroth's coughing had lessened when he returned, and it died away within a few minutes.
"If you're fit for duty, then I'm a chick, sir," Zack said flatly, offering his water bottle. Sephiroth took it and sipped cautiously at the water.
"You've made your point," he managed. His voice was hoarse- no surprise there- and breathy.
"Yeah, I know. So. Am I taking over, or are you gonna at least listen to me?"
"I suppose it depends on what I'm supposed to be listening to."
"My idea for what we do with ourselves."
Zack settled on the bench beside Sephiroth. "We wait until morning, and then we pick a direction and walk. We stay on the roads, because our options are in the woods with every poisonous plant, venomous creepy crawly, and territorial animal between us and the nearest base or the possibility of patrolling troops and the occasional ninja. At least on the road we have a decent chance of defending ourselves. I'll make a litter I can pull Luke on, so we don't wind up stressing you into another fit like the last one. Eventually, we'll hit a base or a major city, and either one will have medics to treat you and Luke. How's that sound?"
"It is a sound plan," Sephiroth admitted.
"So we're good?"
"I suppose we are."
"Then we leave then it's light enough out to see."
"I can see perfectly well now."
"When it's light enough for me to see. We can't all have Mako-enhanced peepers."
"As you like."
Zack pushed himself into the far corner of the bench and put his boots up on it. He stayed awake long enough to make sure that Sephiroth had fallen asleep again, then did the same.
Morning came grey, wet, and drizzling. Typical monsoon season in Wutai, really.
Zack was woken by Sephiroth's coughing. It had gotten worse overnight, or at least it had to Zack's ears.
"You sound like shit," he grunted, sitting up and pawing at his hair.
"Thank you for that astute medical assessment."
Zack paused mid-stretch, turning to stare at Sephiroth. The General seemed bothered by the stare and looked down at himself, apparently to determine the reason for Zack's staring.
"Since when do you have a sense of humor?"
"I have always had a sense of humor. There is simply no place for it in combat."
"So what do you call this, then?"
Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow.
"To use one of your own phrases, Mr. Fair…this is the asscrack of nowhere."
Snickering, Zack waded out into the rain and sloshed around behind the bus stop.
"Where are you going?"
"Us lesser mortals have these neat little organs called bladders," Zack said dryly. "And we have to empty them now and then. It's really quite fascinating."
"You could have just said so," Sephiroth muttered.
"Honestly, why else would I have come out here?"
"Would I have asked if I knew?"
"We're out in the middle of an infested forest, on the edge of what used to be a dirt road but is now a mudslide, sleeping in a bus shelter, and watching the rain fall. The only reason I have to come out here and get wet again is to piss. Now will you stop talking to me?"
"You can't speak to me and empty your bladder at the same time?"
"From my perspective, I'm talking to a General while I try to pee. It makes it really kind of difficult. Will you please shut up for a minute?"
Sephiroth said nothing more, to Zack's great relief.
"Your companion expired," Sephiroth said just as Zack was rounding the wall of the shelter. The announcement made Zack trip on the step up into the shelter and he fell against Sephiroth with a startled curse.
"Him." Sephiroth nodded at Luke. "He's dead."
"Shit!" Zack scrambled over to Luke, checking for a pulse and, when he couldn't find one, checking to see if maybe he was still breathing faintly. He wasn't. "Dammit, Luke, you were supposed to get back to base with me an'….an'…now I've gotta find your girlfriend and tell her what happened."
"You were friends?" Sephiroth asked curiously.
"Nah. Just in the same squad."
"Then why do you care so much that he died?"
"He was a person, that's why. Most people don't deserve to die."
"It is better this way. He was gravely injured and likely in a lot of pain."
Zack sniffled and rubbed at his eyes.
"Not helping, man," he mumbled.
"Ain't your fault he kicked it."
"Kicked it. You know, kicked the bucket?"
"I've never heard it put that way."
"Eh, it's a farmboy thing." He sniffed again, then straightened up with a sigh. "C'mon. We should get moving."
"You don't want to…find a way to dispose of the body?"
"We can't burn him in this rain, and digging a grave is out of the question with all the mud. At least here he stays dry until someone finds him. The Wutain customs for the dead include foreigners- if they find him first, he'll be cremated at the nearest temple with the rights of the dead under Leviathan. 's better than I can do right now, so it's best."
Sephiroth nodded and got to his feet, retrieving his belt, sword harness, sword, and coat, then wriggling into all of it. He had no pack, a fact that Zack felt was pretty stupid. Even a general needed supplies. He went and dug a pair of breakfast bars out of his pack before he shouldered it, offering one to Sephiroth. The other went into his pocket to be eaten after he had finished digging through Luke's pack for anything they could scavenge.
"Ready to go?"
"Forward, march," Zack said dryly, and they headed out into the rain.
They couldn't have picked a better day to be out slogging through the mud for home. While it was already wet and muddy out, the rain was a steady drizzle, just enough to collect in Zack's hair and trickle down the back of his neck for hours, until it eventually soaked enough of his clothes to get to his boxers, at which point he began to grumble.
"If there are any enemies waiting for us in these woods, I'm sure they are perfectly aware of our position now," Sephiroth pointed out. "Perhaps you could quiet down."
"I'll quiet down when my boxers aren't soaking wet and riding up," Zack shot back.
"Damn right it is."
"I wouldn't know."
"Briefs do the same thing, y'know."
"I wear neither."
Zack came to a complete halt in the mud and gave Sephiroth a look of utter disbelief.
"You go commando. In leather pants. During monsoon season in Wutai."
"I don't care what Angeal says. You're insane."
"What does Angeal say?"
"That every rumor about you doesn't even have a basis in truth and that you're just like everyone else. But that can't be true, because you wouldn't be as good as you obviously are if all the rumors were false. I mean, I'm pretty sure you don't have the stump of a tail, or fangs, and I doubt you drink the blood of your enemies, but you're still pretty damn scary when you want to be."
"And how would you know that?"
Zack shrugged, beginning to walk again.
"I was at Da-Nang. I saw what you can do with that sword, a few Materia, and nothing else."
"Da-Nang was…a mistake," Sephiroth said quietly.
"Really? What makes you say that?"
"It was because of that battle that I am now known as the Demon of Wutai. It is not a particularly flattering title, and I received it for an act of temper and pride, not for anything I am proud to remember."
"You won Da-Nang singlehandedly because you were pissed?"
"I supposed you could put it that way, yes."
"Remind me to never make you angry."
"Never make me angry, Zack."
"I meant later. Rhetorically speaking, really."
"Oh. Then you should have said."
"Most people wouldn't need me to say so in the first place."
"I am not most people."
"Yeah, no shit."
They stopped briefly for lunch- ration bars, eaten in the shelter of a stand of drooping cherry trees- and continued on, moving at a steady pace down the edges of the road, where the grass made it easier to walk.
By the time the wet gloom of the woods had started to darken into twilight, Sephiroth was wheezing with every breath. Zack gave him every opportunity to stop and rest, but that wasn't helping much.
They found a colossal willow tree to spend the night under. Zack did some exploratory climbing and discovered that there was more than enough space for two men to sleep up in the branches, where it was much drier. Sephiroth found himself a comfortable spot and settled there, head fallen back against the rough bark, trying to catch his breath.
"Lemme see if I have anything that'll help make you feel any better," Zack murmured, rummaging in his pack.
"That's not necessary."
"Maybe not, but I want to do something for you, and this is pretty much the extent of it right now." More digging resulted in a few things that Zack felt might help. "I've got some ibuprofen here. Might help bring your fever down. Wanna try it?"
"I suppose. It can't hurt."
"Here." Zack tossed his canteen and the pill bottle to Sephiroth, who caught both and spent several minutes reading everything on the label before popping the bottle open and downing four of the little pills.
"Anytime. Okay, I've got dinner in here. D'you want roast beef and veggies or chicken paprika?" He waved two identical brownish plastic packets at Sephiroth. "They're pretty good, actually. We play poker and bet the best ones, and I play a mean game of poker."
"I'm not hungry."
"We've been walking all day," Zack pointed out. "We had ration bars for lunch. You have got to be hungry."
Sephiroth shook his head. "I'm not."
"D'you feel sick?"
"I have felt sick all day. But what I mean is that I have no appetite."
"You've gotta eat something. Even a fighting machine like you has got to get energy from somewhere."
Sephiroth scowled, but there was little fire behind it. "If you insist."
"I do. So…beef or chicken?"
Zack nodded and tossed one packet to Sephiroth. He was already into his, pouring in water from his canteen and snapping the little doohickey that would heat everything, when he realized Sephiroth was just looking at the packet with a confused expression.
"Instructions are on the back," Zack said. "You're gonna need water, too. Catch." He tossed a second canteen, which Sephiroth almost missed catching. "There's a spork in there- take it out first, or you'll be fishing it out of hot chow."
There was some fairly industrious rustling from Sephiroth's branch, so Zack leaned back against the tree trunk, waiting for his meal to finish hydrating and heating. He was rather proud of himself for finding this tree- it had to be the only semi-dry spot within a days march of the bus stop, and he had only just seen it from the road. That stroke of luck was the difference between sleeping in a puddle and waking up almost dry tomorrow morning.
Sputtering from the other branch made Zack look up. Sephiroth was holding the MRE at arm's length and making faces Zack had once seen a cat make after it had licked barbecue sauce from his fingers.
"You call this food?"
"Not everyone gets fed fresh food in a warzone," Zack pointed out testily. "Be happy I've got these ones. Some of the others don't even taste like bad food, they just taste like cardboard."
"No wonder we lose nearly a third of our regular forces as soon as their time is up," Sephiroth muttered. "We're feeding them slop. I can't even begin to fathom eating nothing but this every day."
"'s all they give us 'cept when we're at a base or major camp. Can't really carry anything else around."
Sephiroth sighed and ate another sporkful of noodles. He made a face, but swallowed it.
"I'm having a word with R&D when we get back," he grumbled, stabbing at the chicken. "There has to be some way to make this taste better."
"You'd do that?"
"I can't expect my troops to be functioning at full capacity when they have to eat this. If nothing else, it's demoralizing, and that affects performance." He tried a bite of the chicken, and it was clear from the faces he was making that it took a lot of effort not to just spit it out.
"Thanks," Zack said softly.
"You are welcome."
In the morning, Sephiroth fell out of the tree. Zack watched, too surprised to be of much use, as the great General attempted to cough up a lung, slumping further and further against the tree trunk until he overbalanced and tumbled down to make an decidedly graceless landing in the mud.
"Shit!" Zack scrambled down to the wet forest floor and knelt beside Sephiroth, who was now making very undignified sounds between hacking coughs. "You okay?"
Sephiroth managed to grunt no and grabbed Zack's arm to pull himself into a sitting position. He couldn't get any further, coughing as hard as he was, so he stayed put, one hand still clutching Zack's arm for support and the other clenched over his chest, as if that would help any.
"You really need to see a doctor," Zack said softly. He hesitated, the reached out to stroke the mud-stained hair in an attempt at being comforting.
"Yet all I have is you," Sephiroth rasped. His velvety baritone had been reduced to a cracked, wheezing parody of the original. It made Zack wince.
"Yeah, and I know I suck at medical stuff. Come on, can you get up?"
They got back up into the tree, ate ration bars for breakfast- Zack had to threaten to force-feed Sephiroth before he would eat anything- and finally slipped back down to continue their trek.
By early afternoon, Sephiroth wasn't the only one dragging. Zack was starting to get a little sluggish. He didn't realize it until he stepped in a rut, completely lost his balance, and went sprawling in the mud. Sitting up, he frowned, looking at the rut that had tripped him, then at his feet.
"It would seem that I'm not the only one of us not functioning at full capacity," Sephiroth observed.
"Yeah, I've been feeling kind of….drained. Like I'm starting a cold or something." Zack gave Sephiroth a lopsided smile. "You'd better not be contagious."
"I can make no promises. "
"True, but at least you can check and see if I'm running a fever."
Sephiroth hesitated. "I have little experience judging such things."
"Look, you touch my forehead with the inside of your wrist or your lips, and you make a guess. Hot means fever. Easy."
"Couldn't you just-"
"It's impossible to do for yourself. Kinda like trying to tickle yourself. Which I'm guessing you've never tried either. "
"Why would I want to?"
"No idea. Check me?"
Sephiroth pressed the inside of his wrist to Zack's forehead as instructed and frowned.
"Either my sense of temperature is even less accurate than I thought, or you are very hot."
"I'm putting my money on me being hot." Zack picked himself up and sighed. "Come on. We need to cover as much ground as we can before one of us gets to the point where we can't travel much."
"You sound certain that that will happen."
"High fevers and a lot of physical exertion are a really bad combination, Seph. And you can hardly breathe, which doesn't help much either." He started walking again, hearing Sephiroth fall into step just behind and to the right of him. "You've never been really sick before, have you?"
"Not like this, no, and never in the field."
"Whaddaya mean, not like this?"
"I have been sickened by natural causes before, but it was never…" he trailed off, trying to find a word that would suit. "It was never anything like this. Never anything so persistent, nor anything in my chest."
"So what do you get?"
"I am frustratingly susceptible to stomach upset."
"You have a jumpy stomach? Seriously?"
"I suppose you could call it that, yes. Why?"
"Just can't picture it, is all."
Sephiroth shrugged. "You could always ask Angeal, you know."
"Will I regret asking?"
Zack snorted. "Yeah, maybe I will, when we get back."
There was no conveniently placed willow tree for them to spend the night in, so Zack turned his tarp and some rope into a shelter of sorts, the floor of which he hid under armfuls of ferns to provide a little insulation between them and the ground. They prepared and ate MREs, and Sephiroth blearily checked Masamune's blade for rust.
"C'mere," Zack said sleepily, unfolding the thin but extremely warm blanket that came with all standard packs.
"I'm cold. You're shivering. We'll be warmer if we sleep together. And anyway, I only have the one blanket."
"I don't think that's really appropriate."
"Who cares? There's nobody around to see us, you're sick, I'm getting sick, and it makes plenty of sense. Come here and snuggle, dammit."
Sephiroth blinked at him.
"It sounded almost logical until you said that," he muttered, putting Masamune down and scooting over to Zack's side. "I'm afraid I've never snuggled before."
Zack laughed, lying down on his side and drawing the blanket over himself, then holding one side up. "Just get close to me. It's really easy."
Sephiroth lay down and wriggled under the blanket, winding up with Zack tucked under his arm and the blanket spread over the both of them. He stared up at the canvas roof overhead for a long minute, then sighed softly.
"Nobody sighs likes that for no reason."
"Really, it's nothing."
"Is not. Tell me?"
"I was just thinking that this is rather nice. You were right- it is warmer."
"I do know what I'm doing sometimes. G'night."
Morning came extremely early, with a rolling peal of thunder that had both men scrambling for weapons before they were even close to awake. Tangled as they were in the blanket, they wound up on the ground in a hurry, Sephiroth coughing too hard to get back up and Zack clutching his head where he'd cracked it against Sephiroth's.
"Owfuckinghellthathurt," Zack hissed. "You've got a hard head."
Sephiroth was unable to respond, which prompted Zack to look up, sigh, and roll Sephiroth onto his side in the hope that it would help him breathe a little easier. It did, but not immediately, and Sephiroth was red in the face and wheezing for a long time after.
Several hours later, Zack noted that they weren't making much progress.
"We're getting nowhere," he announced, kicking at a rock.
"I'd noticed," Sephiroth rasped.
"'m almost tempted to just make camp and rest up. What do you think?"
"Either way, we are going to be alone in the rain, rapidly nearing a point at which we will both be incapable of defending ourselves. It hardly makes a difference where we stop."
Zack nodded tiredly. "Let's look for somewhere to stop."
Some searching yielded a thick stand of old oak trees growing so close together that there was some ground beneath them that was only damp instead of wet. They prowled the area, gathering up dry or nearly dry wood, and Zack built a small campfire.
"Since we've got light, lemme take a look at that cut on your side," Zack said.
"I hardly think that's necessary."
"Wounds go bad fast with weather like this. Lemme see."
Sephiroth shrugged his coat off and removed the sword harness and belt. Zack peeled the bandage back and made a small sound of surprise.
"Healing fast," he said softly. In truth, the wound was nothing more than a thick line of scab, dark against Sephiroth's pale skin.
"I usually do. Should I check your wounds as well?"
"Yeah, probably. Hang on." He stuck the bandage back on, making sure it was secure, then wriggled out of his uniform. "You're not too weird about nudity, are you?"
"Good." One of the more serious injuries was on the back of his thigh, decidedly below his buttock but still in a place many people would be too embarrassed to get anywhere near. Luke had managed to help him pick the worst of the gravel out of it, and he had cleaned it, leaving a shredded tear several inches long in the thick muscle. One of the others was a bullet wound that had torn a bloody furrow into his back, which had been a pain to bandage.
"You tended these yourself?" Sephiroth asked, picking at the edge of a bandage.
"Uh-huh. Luke couldn't really do much. Why?"
"It is in a very awkward location to be doing yourself."
"Didn't really have a choice- ow! Don't pull so hard."
Zack felt cool fingers probing the skin around the wound in his thigh and winced. "What are you doing back there? That hurts."
"I am doing very little. This wound is infected."
"It is. The general area is swollen and hot to the touch, and you responded to very light touches as though I was hurting you, indicating tenderness. And there is pus. Hand me one of the canteens."
He was forced to step into something like a lunge to Sephiroth could clean the injury, first with water and then with an antiseptic spray from the first aid kit. It hurt, a hell of a lot more than it should have, and he knew he should have been paying more attention to it.
The bullet wound was also infected, albeit less so, and Sephiroth repeated the careful cleaning procedure on it, silently ignoring Zack's soft whimpers of pain. When it was rebandaged, he checked the other injuries, found nothing wrong with them, and allowed Zack to redress. They ate in silence, banked the fire, and curled up together without another word.
Zack woke to Sephiroth's coughing. He sat up, groggily blinking at his companion for a moment before groping around for a canteen, which he offered. Sephiroth pushed it away, hacking into his hand for far longer than Zack was comfortable with before he finally relaxed and took his hand away from his mouth.
"We….we may have a problem," he whispered.
"What?" Zack asked.
Sephiroth extended his hand. Zack took it, looked down, and nearly dropped it; it was wet with saliva and mucus, as was to be expected, but there were bright spatters of blood there as well.
"Shit," Zack hissed. "That's…that's not good."
"I don't suppose you have an answer to this, as you have had for every other setback we have encountered so far."
"Uh…no. Coughing up blood isn't something I really have any experience with."
"It was worth asking, I suppose."
Zack nodded, letting Sephiroth take his hand back and wipe it on his pants. "We're gonna have to stay here."
"Just because of the blood?"
"Not that hacking up blood isn't a bad thing or anything, but my leg feels…weird. I don't think I'll be able to walk far, even at the pace you've been moving at. Might as well stay put and avoid exhausting ourselves. We'll last longer that way."
Sephiroth nodded. "I suppose you're right."
They didn't stray too far from their hideout, though Sephiroth limped into the woods for a time and came back with several small animals. Zack didn't ask how he had caught them, but the only damage done to each was a broken neck, which would indicate that he had snuck up on the things. Zack hadn't known that was possible.
They fell asleep almost as soon as the sun began to set, lying snuggled together under the blanket, carefully arranged so Sephiroth could breathe and Zack's injuries weren't too squished.
Sephiroth woke repeatedly during the night, rolling over to cough himself breathless, gasp, cough some more, and finally spit a mixture of mucus and blood before curling up with Zack again. Zack usually woke when Sephiroth jerked away from him, but each time saw him groggier and groggier until he didn't wake at all. When Sephiroth lay down with him again just before dawn, he noted that all of Zack's skin was sweaty and hot to the touch.
Zack didn't have the energy to force Sephiroth to eat breakfast. He dropped a ration bar beside the General and nibbled unenthusiastically at his own, finishing only half of it before he folded the wrapper up and shoved the rest into his pocket.
"C'n you take the first watch? I can hardly keep my eyes open."
Sephiroth nodded. "Sleep," he rasped. "I'll wake you in a few hours."
Several hours turned into nearly six, and Sephiroth was only just considering giving Zack a shake so he could rest for a while when Zack woke up with a gasp. He was on his feet and off through the trees in the time it took for Sephiroth to register that he was awake.
When he staggered back, heavily favoring his hurt leg, he had his arms crossed over his stomach and looked worryingly green.
"Are you alright?" Sephiroth ventured.
"No. Not even close." Zack made an uncomfortable sound and dropped to the ground at Sephiroth's side. "How long was I asleep?"
"Approximately six hours."
"You said you'd wake me in a few hours! A few is less than six!"
"You needed the rest."
Zack sputtered indignantly. "And you don't? You're burning up and coughing blood. I'd say you need sleep more than I do!"
"I…didn't want to wake you."
Sephiroth shrugged awkwardly. "You have been doing far more than your share of the work since we left the shelter. I felt it would be best if I let you at least get some proper rest without me waking you every half hour because I can't breathe without coughing."
"That's…" Zack hesitated, then clapped Sephiroth's shoulder. "Thanks. But next time, don't go hurting yourself for my sake, okay? We're doing this together."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Sephiroth remembered the advice, though as the day- and the next day- progressed, it became harder and harder to stick to. They fell into a pattern of staying awake as long as they could, then waking the other and collapsing into exhausted sleep. Sephiroth managed to bring in a little more meat, and Zack knew a few plants with roots that were edible, but neither was eating much, so the availability of food was something of a moot point.
Zack's infected wounds continued to fester, oozing pus and blood. Angry lines of discoloration spread from them, accompanied by a bone-deep ache that began to make moving a trial. The steady fever kept Zack shivering and drained at the best of times, nauseous to the point of violent fits of vomiting and nearly crying from the pain at the worst.
Sephiroth's cough continued to worsen. Every breath he took made a terrible rattling sound in his chest, and the blood he coughed up went from little spatters to rich red splotches, pinking his teeth and dribbling from the corners of his mouth. Once, he exhaled too sharply and stained Zack's shoulder with a fine spray of crimson. He sweated and shivered, even when pressed as close to Zack's burning body as he could be.
On the morning of the fourth day after they had stopped walking, the campfire went out. Zack dimly noticed that they needed to rekindle it, but he couldn't get his leg under himself. He lay still and watched the embers die into ash, then turned back to Sephiroth, pressing his nose against the sticky back of the General's neck, and fell asleep again.
On the sixth day, something rustled in the brush. Sephiroth stirred but didn't wake. Dark shapes slipped between the trees, surrounding the little clearing the two men lay in. Nimble hands sorted through Zack's pack and the heap of wet leather and metal that was two swords and their accompanying harnesses. Other hands pulled the thin grey blanket back, revealing two bodies curled together.
The shapes moved aside to allow a single shape to kneel beside the soldiers and examined them. With a few quick signals, the men were carried away and all signs of the camp were obliterated.
Three weeks after General Sephiroth had been reported missing and Squad Orion had been attacked, all soldiers assumed dead, a patrolling squad squelching their way around the soggy perimeter of the ShinRa base at Shang'xai found two men bundled up in an abandoned bus shelter on a road that had once lead to a small village in the forest. The squad first assumed that the two men were dead, but the raspy breathing sounds coming from the taller man assured them that at least one was still alive. The bundles were torn open, and the squad found General Sephiroth and one of the missing Orion members inside. A transport was called in immediately and both men were rushed to the base hospital.
Zack came to in stages, and the first thing he was properly aware of was that Sephiroth's long, hard body wasn't either pressed against his back or curled in against his stomach. He jerked upright at once, certain that the man had crawled off to die somewhere, and collapsed backwards with a pained yelp that brought people running through the door. In his panic he wound up being sedated before it could occur to him to ask where he was.
The next time he woke, there was a large body snoring softly in the chair beside his bed and he was resting on a special pillow that kept him from smothering himself when facing down into it. Everything hurt, but he supposed that might be a good thing. He looked to the side, and something in his chest tightened painfully when he saw that it was Angeal snoring beside him.
"A-angeal?" he ventured.
Angeal twitched. Encouraged by this, Zack pushed himself up on one arm and reached over to poke at Angeal's shoulder. The big man snorted, jerking away from him, then saw that Zack was awake and poking him. He made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a sob, sagging in his chair.
"You're awake," he breathed.
"Looks like it. Where are we?"
"The hospital at Shang'xai."
"How'd I get here?"
"You were found in a bus shelter just outside the base."
Angeal shook his head. "You and Sephiroth."
"Is he okay?"
"He will be. When the two of you were brought in, you were both nearly dead. Dealing with the mess you made of yourself is having better results than his treatment, but it's still working."
"He had pneumonia, didn't he?"
"Thought so, but I didn't have anything with me that I could have given him to help." His arm was starting to shake with the effort of supporting himself, but he forced it straight. "You said we were in a bus shelter?"
Angeal nodded, then got to his feet and slipped his arms under Zack. "If you hold still for a minute, I can sit you up before your arm gives out."
Zack chuckled guiltily. "You saw that?"
"I se everything." He gently turned Zack over and propped him up. "There. Yes, we found you in a bus shelter, wrapped up like a pair of mummies. Why?"
"Last thing I remember, Seph and me were asleep on the ground in the middle of a bunch of oak trees, and I was watching the fire die. He…he'd stopped really waking up when I bothered him by then."
"I recovered these from the bundles," Angeal murmured. He dropped several heavy metal disks into Zack's hand. Each one had a flower stamped on it- three different flowers for a total of six disks.
Zack examined them, turning them over to find smooth backs and tiny characters written around the edge. "What are they?"
"Message coins. Traditionally they're used to communicate in situations where face to face conversation is frowned upon, such as on a battlefield, between courting lovers, or in a formal gathering. Each flower has a separate meaning."
"Do you know what these ones mean?"
"I do." Angeal plucked three disks from Zack's hands and lined them up on the edge of the bed. "The daffodil is for respect. The peony is for bravery. And the zinnia is for loyalty."
"And the stuff written around the edge?"
"I know it's a prayer, but I can't translate it."
Zack traced the edge of one of the flowers. "So why did they leave these on us?"
"They were sending you a message."
"Zack, a group of Wutain people found two SOLDIERs- one of whom is going down in their history as a demon- wounded and barely alive in the middle of nowhere. They ought to have killed you and taken care of the bodies. Instead they chose to start treating you and then leave you where a patrol of ShinRa soldiers could find you, thereby saving your lives. Why do you think they would do something that stupid?"
"They apparently decided that the pair of you were worth rescuing, likely because you were taking care of each other and being self-sufficient. Usually, when we lose men in the forests, they panic and wind up dead before they're recovered, or they run into a Wutain cell and do something stupid. I imagine you two appeared to be at peace with what had happened, which is something they respect." He scooped the disks up and gave them back to Zack. "Whatever it was, they saved your life."
Zack nodded faintly, closing his hand around the disks. "Can I see Seph?"
"I'll ask one of the nurses, but I doubt it. They're probably not going to want you on your feet yet, what with your leg and all."
Zack had noticed that he still had both legs when he woke up, and that was all that had mattered at the time, but now he looked down again, wondering just what had happened. "I'll be able to walk though, right?"
"Of course. You just came very close to losing that leg, and as it is there's a chunk missing because of what they had to remove. They want to make sure it's healed before you start using it. Same goes for your back. You're going to have some very odd scars when this is over."
Zack wasn't allowed out of his bed for another two days, though he wasn't left completely alone- a number of people came to see him, to debrief him and interrogate him and ask too many questions that he couldn't answer.
When they finally did let him up, he padded down a quiet hallway in bare feet, dragging his IV along with him, and slipped into the room at the end of the hall.
Sephiroth lay in the midst of a nest of machines, wires, and tubes. Most of them were attached to various piece of monitoring equipment, but there were two tubes going into his arm and an oxygen line ticking away as well. He was thin and tired looking, but his eyes opened when Zack entered. They were hard and irritated for a moment, then softened.
"I see they're letting you wander," he murmured.
"I had to whine and beg for two days," Zack admitted. "And I'm not allowed out of this ward. But I think they would've done almost anything to get me to shut up." He settled carefully into the chair beside Sephiroth's bed, maneuvering his IV around all of Sephiroth's machines. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I have a chocobo sitting on my chest."
"And…is that better or worse?"
"I'm not coughing up blood any more and they've gotten the fever down, so it's better."
Zack smiled faintly. "We survived."
"We did. In a rather unusual fashion, as I understand it."
"Yep." Zack rummaged in his pocket for a minute, then dropped three of the message disks into Sephiroth's lap. "Here. We were wrapped up with these. Angeal said he gave 'em all to me because they wouldn't let him in to see you, and he figured I'd get in before he did."
Sephiroth fingered the disks, saying nothing for a long minute. Finally, he looked up at Zack. "We were afforded a great honor," he murmured. "They didn't have to save us."
"But even so, I can't…" Sephiroth pushed the disks around and sighed. "I find it difficult to accept that."
He looked over at Zack. "Because I was both useless and afraid."
Zack made a few incoherent sounds, trying to process the very idea of Sephiroth's being afraid of anything.
"Afraid of what?" he managed.
"Death, I suppose. Dying in the mud in a forest far from anyone who might have killed me properly. Dying of causes I could do nothing to prevent or combat. Dying by inches, so that all I knew was days of pain before the end." He took a small, shuddering breath that sounded, to Zack, as if he were trying to stave off tears.
"Hang on a sec," Zack said abruptly, getting to his feet. He gave his IV a critical look, then removed it and pushed the stand out of the way. With this hindrance gone, it was fairly simple for him to climb onto the bed and fit himself in on Sephiroth's left, ducking under a few trailing wires to get comfortable. He slid one arm behind Sephiroth and the other across the older man's chest and just lay there.
Sephiroth stiffened for a moment, then relaxed into the warm, familiar presence that had been the only constant in the final, terrifying days before he had truly lost consciousness. He turned over as much as he could and buried his face in Zack's hair.
"Thank you," he whispered.