Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII, nor am I making any profit from this fanwork.
The Turk had hidden themselves away near the winding stone steps that led up to Cosmo Canyon. They were almost perfectly invisible - but not quite perfectly enough. As Zack had been moving, he'd seen the reflection of the very last dying rays of sunlight off of the metal of their weapon. It looked like the barrel of a gun, but whether it shot bullets or tranquillisers he couldn't tell from this distance.
"Shit," Zack muttered, ducking out of sight. His breath came hard in his chest. "Shit, shit, shit."
At least he'd spotted the Turk before they'd spotted him.
(A Turk. A goddamn Turk.)
He carefully let Cloud down off of his back and sat the blond up against the dry, red-brown rocks surrounding them. He took a moment to calm himself, cupping Cloud's jaw in his palms and raising his drooping head up. Cloud stared fixedly at some point near Zack's chin. He looked very pale and fragile and his skin felt a little too warm against Zack's.
"What the hell are we gonna do now, eh?" he murmured to that vacant face. They'd been gone a day and Shinra had already shipped the Turks out after them.
Heading for a town at all had been risky but they needed supplies. He knew how to survive off of the land if need be but there were things he'd hoped to get that would make this whole journey a whole lot easier - potions, rations, even some materia if at all possible. They'd got their weapons back but their materia was long gone.
He stroked the pads of his thumbs over Cloud's hot, paper-white skin. "Sorry, Spike," he whispered. "Guess we'll just have to keep moving for now."
They'd have to backtrack to give Cosmo Canyon a wide-enough berth, too. Zack glanced around, searching for possible route away - somewhere they'd be well-concealed, because he could see well-enough in the dark for that not to be a problem - and once more his eye was caught by the dim glint of light off of metal nearby.
"Fuck," Zack hissed.
This time it was the Masamune that had caught his eye - leading up to Sephiroth's black figure, crouched on a high rise of rock nearby. His gaze was fixed unerringly on the Turk's position and even as Zack watched, Sephiroth seemed to hunker down lower, the muscles bunching in his thighs like a tiger on its haunches preparing to strike.
Even in the near-darkness he could see the way the man's expression was twisted, teeth bared.
"Fuck." With one last glance back at Cloud, he ran for Sephiroth. The rise wasn't that high for a SOLDIER like Zack, so with a grunt of effort he launched himself up. He caught the man just in time, and just right - Sephiroth was just making to leap off, but because he was concentrating on that he only saw Zack a second before the other man collided into his side, barrelling them both off of the rock.
They tumbled down to the ground below, Zack clamping his arms tightly about the other man's middle. They hit the ground with a thump. Sephiroth took the brunt of the impact with a hiss through his teeth, but instantly he was rolling Zack beneath him, Masamune swinging. Zack met it with the flat of the Buster Sword. He could only pray that the Turk wouldn't hear the noise.
Sephiroth snarled over him, eyes unnaturally bright - an unholy demon in the dark. "I'll kill you if you get in my way!" he growled.
"If you kill a Turk then we'll all be dead anyway, with the firepower Shinra would send after us," Zack hissed back. Sephiroth hadn't backed off with the Masamune and his arm was beginning to shake with the effort it took to hold the other man off.
"And if she follows us?" Sephiroth demanded. His voice was gravelly with anger. "I won't let her have what's mine!"
"'Yours'?" Zack echoed incredulously. His arm felt like one shuddering ache from wrist to shoulder. "You mean us? Cloud? You greedy son of a bitch - you want the Planet, you want us, and none of it's yours! We're human beings, we don't fucking belong to you!"
With a grunt, Zack shoved at the Masamune and Sephiroth allowed himself to be pushed back. "You're not even making sense anymore," he went on, holding the older man's heated gaze. "Do you even listen to yourself, Sephiroth? You want to kill the Turk to protect us, but you're willing to kill me if I interfere? What do you think that'll achieve?"
Sephiroth stood up, saying nothing. Zack staggered to his feet, staring at Sephiroth's back. He wondered if anything he'd said had made an impact.
When they'd first been captured, Sephiroth's madness had been a different kind of beast altogether. He'd been calm and detached from the world, a man convinced he understood things no human ever could - mankind had become nothing more than a huge joke to him. His response to most attempts at interaction, whether from Zack and Cloud or the scientists, had been mirth, like he was listening to monkeys mimicking human sounds. He'd trusted utterly that he would escape and he and his 'mother' would continue with their plans unhindered.
But he hadn't escaped. For a year he'd endured Hojo's constant experiments, and of the three of them Sephiroth's treatment had been the most tortuous, fuelled by Hojo's fury and vindictiveness. Zack had watched as Sephiroth's aloofness had been battered and dragged down by hatred and anger and pain, as the coolly amused smiles gave way to bared teeth and barely-restrained violence.
Was there any way back for a man who had been driven mad twice?
"I had to leave Cloud to come stop you," Zack said, when Sephiroth continued to just stand there. "You'd better pray to whatever God you believe in that he's still there, Sephiroth, or I will kill you."
The other man didn't respond. The tip of the Masamune had dropped until it was resting on the ground.
"Sephiroth," Zack hissed, and the older man turned his head. He had a strange, blank look on his face. An improvement but still not necessarily good. "We need to go make sure Cloud's okay," he went on, because he didn't know what else to say. "Are you coming?"
Cloud was right where they'd left him. The Turk, on the other hand, was not.
There wasn't a swearword strong enough for that. "We have to move," Zack said. "Now."
Zack had never gone on the run from the Turks before. It wasn't an experience he was going to recommend to anyone anytime soon.
They moved through the dark as quickly and silently as possible, trying to put as much distance between themselves and Cosmo Canyon as they could. Zack carried Cloud across his shoulder and was painfully aware that anyone shooting at him from behind would more likely hit Cloud in the back - or the head - than him. His heart seemed to shudder in his chest, fear gnawing at him and making his breath come short and sharp in his lungs.
Sephiroth, mercifully calmer than before, chose to stick close to them this time. Zack wondered if that was enough to scare off a trained assassin. The Turk must have known that Sephiroth might try to kill them, even if they didn't know that Zack was doing his best to discourage it.
What the Turk - and Sephiroth - also didn't know was that if they hurt Cloud, they wouldn't have to worry about SOLDIER's former General, because Zack would be the one tearing them apart. Let ShinRa gun them down. He wouldn't care anymore.
Eventually the red rocks faded back into lush grass plains beneath their feet. Somewhere towards the east lay the sporadic jungle of Zack's childhood. He thought briefly about heading to Gongaga, but if he did then he might very well lead ShinRa straight to his parents - if they hadn't been there already.
So many people's lives in his hands. They continued south instead.
Sometime later, after they'd been travelling for hours, Sephiroth said, "We should rest for a while."
Zack gave him a sharp look. "Is it safe?"
Sephiroth shrugged. "I do not believe we are being followed. We can afford a little time."
Zack would have liked to continue, but in the dark he saw for the first time that Sephiroth - unfailing, invincible Sephiroth - was flagging. Where he had looked merely tired before, now he looked exhausted. Had he slept at all since they'd broken out of the lab? Between that and his wildly swinging emotional state, it was no wonder he looked so drawn.
Zack bit his lip. So very many lives in his hands, and his hands alone. "Okay, but only for a few hours."
They settled in a copse not too far away, the only cover for miles around. They found a large, old tree whose trunk had been hollowed out at the base by some long-departed animal, big enough for the three of them if they didn't mind squeezing together a bit. Zack balked a bit at first, but as he watched Sephiroth crawl into the hollow and immediately curl up to sleep, he realised that this night, at least, the older man didn't have the energy to turn on them.
He lay Cloud down and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. The blond was shivering faintly, but when Zack brushed the back of his hand against the man's forehead, he felt hot.
He had no idea if this was normal for someone with Mako addiction, or if it was something else entirely. He doubted Sephiroth would know either.
"Don't give up on me," he murmured. He tangled the fingers of one hand with Cloud's and squeezed gently. "You're not allowed. What would I do without you?" Go as crazy as Sephiroth, probably.
Zack ran a hand through his hair and looked over at where Sephiroth lay, curled up on his side facing them, handsome face pensive even in sleep. Being on the run was doing none of them any good. They needed to find somewhere to settle for a while, where Cloud could rest and recover and they could try to piece back together Sephiroth's shattered mind. The only question was 'where?'
He squeezed Cloud's hand again, and very, very faintly, Cloud squeezed back.
There was no sign during the night that anyone had followed them to their hideout, so Zack let his companions sleep until dawn broke.
It was testament to Sephiroth's exhaustion that he didn't wake by himself as soon as the sun rose. He remembered from various missions together that the older man had always been up before Zack. It was strange now for their positions to be reversed.
Cloud he woke gently, stroking the man's face until his eyes fluttered open. The blond seemed to focus on Zack but there was no recognition in his blank, tired expression. His skin was even warmer than before.
"Morning, gorgeous," Zack told him, hoping that whatever awareness gazed out of him from Cloud's eyes didn't register how strained his smile was. "Let me just get Mr Grumpy up and we'll be on our way."
Sephiroth woke fairly easily when his name was called. Zack hadn't moved from Cloud's side to do it, muscles tense. He watched as Sephiroth's gaze flickered around the hollow for a moment before he sat up abruptly, almost hitting his head on the curve of the tree above him. There was a faint, telling frown-line between his eyebrows.
"We're in a tree," Zack told him. "Just in case you were wondering."
Sephiroth just looked at him.
"Do you remember?" Zack asked. "Do you remember the Turk?"
"What Tu-" Sephiroth began, but cut off suddenly. His eyes unfocused. Zack watched him warily, fingers curling into the material of Cloud's uniform at his shoulder.
"You remember now?"
The older man looked uneasy. "I remember, yes." The focus came back to his eyes and he looked Zack over critically. "Are you hurt?"
Zack fought not to look surprised at the question. It sounded deceptively normal, but what were the chances of Sephiroth being cured by a bit of rest, seriously? "From when you took a bit of an exception to me yesterday?" he asked. "Not really, no." His shoulder ached a little when he moved it the wrong way, but it would fade soon. His throat, so tender at first after Sephiroth's attack in Nibelheim, was already almost entirely healed.
Sephiroth's eyes flicked to Cloud's body where it was curled against Zack's side. "Did I hurt…?"
"No." Like I'd let you, Zack thought. "No, you didn't."
Sephiroth closed his eyes briefly, in what looked something like relief. It was the most…human gesture that Zack had seen the man make since their escape.
Part of him wanted to just go with it, wanted to trust in that one small gesture, so very, very badly. But the twinge of his still-healing bruises when he turned his head or moved his shoulder told reminded him how stupid that would be.
He'd have to worry about Sephiroth later. They needed to decide where to go, and what to do about Cloud. Cloud, and the unnatural heat of his skin that felt almost burned into Zack's fingertips.
There was, as Zack had suspected, perhaps only one option left open to them. "If we can find passage," Sephiroth said, "then the southern islands might be remote enough to disappear into. I understand that there are a lot of abandoned houses where people moved away onto the mainland to work. Perhaps we can find something still liveable there."
The islands were indeed remote - so much so that ShinRa had never bothered to build reactors there. They were also covered in jungle, if Zack remembered right, which was an environment he knew how to live in and would give them a small advantage over anyone sent after them.
But it was also the perfect place for ShinRa to get rid of them with minimal fuss, and the isolation would mean little access to doctors or hospitals if Cloud needed treatment.
However, with a destination in mind they travelled with more certainty than before. The promise of the distant sea pulled Zack onwards, just as the rising heat of Cloud's cheek against the bare skin of his neck spurred him from behind.
Zack led them on a somewhat meandering route, taking advantage of cover wherever they found it. ShinRa would not give up on them easily. If they had sent Turks, then they very much intended on capturing them, and Zack wasn't going to give them an easy ride if he could help it.
They stopped briefly after midday when they came across a stream and bushes laden with berries Zack knew well from his youth. "We can eat these," he told Sephiroth, who was already crouched down and cupping his hands in the clear water.
Zack stuffed his mouth quickly, savouring the sharp flavour greedily even if the berries weren't quite ripe enough to be sweet. It still tasted heavenly compared to the slop they'd been served in the mansion. Leaning forward slightly to make sure Cloud didn't slide off his back, he freed his hands to fill his pockets with more, then slid his palms back beneath Cloud's knees to make their way over to the stream.
Sephiroth was splashing his face as Zack settled close by, skin flushed from the sudden cold. His hair was scraped back, pale silver streaked with a darker steel-grey from the temples where he'd run wet hands through the thick mass, and somehow the sight choked all the breath in Zack's body.
He saw Sephiroth look at him out of the corner of his eye - probably noting the way Zack had paused - and it shook him from his short reverie. Sephiroth wasn't the kind of person to confront a man verbally, but the wary "What are you looking at?" was clear enough in his eyes.
"You look different with your hair back," Zack said, hoping to dispel the awkwardness. He squatted down not too far away and began to manoeuvre Cloud off of his back. It was a surprisingly delicate operation with the handfuls of berries in his pockets.
Sephiroth snorted. "You've seen Hojo near rip my limbs off, and now you say I look different?"
"It's the little things," Zack replied automatically. Sephiroth quirked his mouth briefly, apparently amused.
The exchange reminded him a lot of the Sephiroth he used to know. His clear-headedness from the morning seemed to be holding. It was something he hadn't seen once in the long years below the mansion in Nibelheim.
You are still in there. The thought made Zack smile as he sat Cloud at his side, buoying him as he wet his hands and then ran them gently over the blond's heated cheeks and forehead.
Cloud stirred at the shock of cold. His head turned into Zack's hands and his lips parted, breathing a soft, "Aaah…"
Zack and Sephiroth shared a startled glance over Cloud's head. Then Zack burst into a wild grin, something very like elation bursting through him.
And Sephiroth's not the only one!
Zack began the afternoon leg of their journey with something of a bounce in his step. Cloud had drunk well from the stream and even accepted a few of the berries, and continued to move restlessly against Zack's back every so often as they soldiered on. He even seemed to press with a vague deliberateness against Zack's bare neck, seeking cooler skin against his feverish face.
"Some people would get ideas if they saw you nuzzling me like that," Zack commented. They were creeping through the outskirts of a wood, and Zack was amusing himself by only stepping on patches of ground splashed a warm gold by the afternoon sunlight falling between the trees. "And who could blame them? Good-looking guy like you, handsome rogue like me? We wouldn't exactly be the ugliest couple, would we!" He stopped briefly, gaze darting for the next likely patch of ground he could move to, but each was more than a comfortable step away. He gripped harder beneath Cloud's knees and made an awkward jump to the nearest patch. "There we go - now what was I saying? Oh yes. About the only we we could be a prettier couple is if one of us was Sephiroth." He turned his head to look over his shoulder. "Right, General?"
There was no-one there.
Zack straightened immediately, so fast he almost sent Cloud falling backwards. "Sephiroth?" he called. The wood was silent and still around them.
He refused to panic, though the first echoes of it were beginning to spread like ice through his veins anyway. Any number of things could have happened, he told himself. The man could have just been distracted. He could have gone off scouting again - could even have announced his departure but Zack, determinedly keeping up a constant one-sided conversation with his unconscious passenger, might not have heard him.
He could have been picked off by a Turk.
Impossible, Zack thought. The ice was crawling up his throat. This is Sephiroth.
He thought of the incident at Cosmo Canyon, how easily he'd caught Sephiroth off-guard. Would he have ever been able to get that close to the man before this whole mess?
Carefully, quietly, Zack began to pick his way back the way they'd come. He strained his senses, but there was little that was enlightening. Even the near complete silence in the woods was probably nothing more than the animals' natural-born fear of three predators that stank of mako. Few animals besides trained chocobos could stand to be near SOLDIERs.
He didn't have to go far. Rounding a large tree trunk a hundred metres back, he spotted his quarry ducked down in the undergrowth, head cocked like he was listening for something. Sephiroth didn't acknowledge their presence at all, even as Zack drew near him.
He didn't say anything at first, only studied the older man's face from what he hoped was a safe distance. Sephiroth's eyes were focused, but on what Zack couldn't tell. His shoulders were tense beneath the metal guards. The only good sign was that Masamune was still safely sheathed.
Zack waited for several moments, listening along with Sephiroth, but neither heard nor saw anything suspicious. "Seph…" he began.
Sephiroth abruptly stood. Zack skittered back a couple of steps in surprise, but the other man continued to stare off into the distance, beyond the trees and out towards the open, empty plains.
"Is there something there?" Zack asked. He couldn't see anything.
"They're getting closer," Sephiroth said, and with no other warning began to stride off the way Zack had come.
Zack glanced once more out to the fields, then jogged after Sephiroth's retreating back.
Sephiroth grew increasingly restless and tense as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to dip towards the horizon, the calm slipping from his eyes as rapidly as it had come. He bared his teeth at every sound, started at every movement, and by the time the light began to truly fail, he held Masamune unsheathed at his side.
Between that and the threat of a pursuing Turk, Zack's nerves were shot. Whether they were actually being followed or not, he had no idea, but he couldn't afford to take the chance that Sephiroth was wrong. So they pushed on well into the night, relying on adrenaline and the shared-out remnants of the bitter berries still remaining in Zack's pockets.
At some point - he didn't know exactly when - some blacker darkness began to loom up out of the night ahead of them. Sephiroth lifted his head like he'd caught a telling scent on the air, and they hadn't gone much further before Zack's lesser senses caught up; there were buildings, and the familiar smell of stables.
"Jackpot," he whispered, heart lifting.
It was only a small holding. The stable was big enough to maybe house three or four animals, with a fenced paddock off to the side along with a small vegetable patch. As they drew nearer the rustling sound of movement came from the stable, the chocobos inside apparently aware of their presence. The house itself was tiny, and showed no signs of anyone being home at all.
It was like a dream. For a brief moment of doubt, Zack wondered if that wasn't really what it was.
He didn't have the time to think like that. He turned to where Sephiroth stood behind him - his green eyes were so bright in the dark they almost looked like a cat's reflecting the light - and said, "I need you to keep watch while we check out the house, okay?"
Sephiroth didn't seem to be paying attention; he was staring back at the fields the way they'd come. However, after a moment he gave a distracted nod, which Zack could only assume was directed at himself. He gave the older man one last dubious look before turning back to the house.
The front door gave under a short, sharp kick. The inside was just as cramped as it looked from the outside, consisting of a combined kitchen and living area, and a separate bedroom. He sat Cloud down gently in the comfy-looking armchair tucked away in the corner.
Sat up like that, the blond almost looked normal, like he'd merely fallen asleep that way. Zack couldn't help leaning forward to brush the backs of his fingers along Cloud's cheek, following the hollow almost down to his lips. Cloud's breath was warm against his knuckles.
Zack bit his lip and drew back. Forward, he told himself. Keep going forward. Don't stop, or you'll lose it.
He had to take a deep breath before he could turn away and get to work.
He had never been the type to steal, even in the brief period during his teenage years that he'd gone a bit wild and caused his parents no end of grief, and it didn't sit well with him now. The fact that he had no other choice if he wanted them all to survive was cold comfort. "Sorry," he apologised to the absent residents, as he piled up his finds on the middle of a table cloth: some bread, hard cheese, dried meat, a few gil he'd found tucked away in a rolled-up sock, two blankets and, best of all, a Cure materia.
"Sorry," he said, feeling his eyes begin to prickle as he held the warm, green sphere in his palm, thinking of Cloud. Thinking of Sephiroth. "But thank you."
Sephiroth hadn't moved from where Zack had left him. He eyed the wrapped bundle in Zack's hand but said nothing.
"Supplies," Zack told him. "And now for some chocobos."
There were three full-grown birds in the stable, and they only made the slightest of fuss as the three strange men entered the building. One, a male whose curiosity apparently overwhelmed any fear, stuck his head over his stall door to greet them, trilling inquisitively at them.
Zack reached up and scratched beneath the bird's chin. It warbled happily at him, leaning into his hand.
"Thank you," he whispered again, not even sure who he was speaking to.
They tacked up two birds and within ten minutes stole out into the night. The only sign of their passing the plaintive wailing of the one chocobo they'd left behind, distressed at being left alone.
The chocobo was still wailing the next morning, when a ShinRa helicopter landed not half a mile away.
End Chapter 3.
A/N: Thanks for reading! All comments are appreciated :)