By a Fraction of a Degree

A FFVII Fanfiction work by findthetiger129

What would have happened if the Turks had managed to find Zack and Cloud before the Army did? After seeing some of the gameplay from Before Crisis, I got curious as to what might have happened if things had gone differently. So I started a spreadsheet to see where things went. This is the result.

Rated T for Violence and Language.

I do not own Final Fantasy VII, or any of the characters, trademarks or likenesses from Final Fantasy VII or its spinoffs. That honor goes to Square-Enix. If I did own them, would I be posting this here? I don't think so.

Part I: Crossfire

Chapter 1, Captured?

September 21st [ ν ] – εуλ 0007

"So we're couriers now? Delivering packages to fugitives, huh?" The incredulity in Reno's voice hung in Rude's ears over the whir of the helicopter blades. He had to admit, it sounded silly even to him, but what with the way things had been going in Shinra nowadays, he wasn't surprised. Being the taciturn individual that he was, he decided he'd let Reno's comment be the last word on the matter.

All thought of debating the meaning of their mission was swept away when Cissnei's voice came in over his headphones. "Reno. Rude, status?"

"We got nothin'," Reno answered back.

"You?" Rude interjected the question without preamble.

"Likewise," Cissnei said disappointedly, and then added "I'm headed to point 235. You two take point 120."


"All right." Reno pulled the helicopter about to head in the direction Cissnei had indicated. "Let's get going," He finished.

The remainder of their flight would have continued uninterrupted. It should have under any normal circumstances. However, no one could possibly have predicted the repercussions of the seemingly innocent event that was about to occur.

Reno sneezed.

While unimportant in and of itself, it was a sneeze of a decent strength, significant enough to slightly jar the flight stick in his hand. This in turn altered the helicopter's course by a fraction of a degree to the left.

Rude had been looking out the window when Reno's sneeze had knocked the chopper temporarily into the different flight pattern, and as Reno was about to correct it, he spotted something almost at the edge of his vision.

"Bogey at nine o'clock," he said.

"Real classy Rude," Reno quipped as he reached for the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Wasn't a joke," Rude gestured that they turn around.

"Yeah I know," Reno brought the helicopter around with his handkerchief-free hand to fly in the direction Rude indicated and then clicked on the radio. "Cissnei, we've spotted something on the highway. Probably a truck or something. We're going to do a flyby before getting back on course."

"Understood," Cissnei acknowledged. "Let me know what you find."

Rude shot Reno a questioning glance, and at the approving nod, he took the copilot's flight-stick in hand so Reno could do what he needed to do with the handkerchief.

Reno replaced the used cloth in his pocket and looked out the window at what they could both now see was a flatbed truck in the distance. At least one person had definitely hitched a ride in the back… They were getting closer and Reno squinted against the glare from the sun. No… wait… there were two …

"Fly higher Rude, they may not have spotted us yet, and we can't have'em panicking," he said, turning to the controls for the camera that was built into the chopper's nose. He'd be sending pictures back to headquarters.

Suddenly the radio crackled again. "You found something?" Cissnei asked, and Reno caught the hope in her voice. It seemed she had stayed on their line after all.

"I'm getting some surveillance photos and then I'll send them in. I'm hoping we're far enough away that we haven't been spotted," Reno answered. He pressed the appropriate buttons on the console and though he couldn't hear anything from the camera, the screen revealed the zoomed in images the camera had managed to take.

Hot damn… the two men were exactly as Cissnei had described them after coming back from the failed retrieval mission near Nibelheim. One of them was definitely Zack. The other… Reno didn't know, but it was probably the infantryman, in spite of the fact that he was wearing a SOLDIER uniform. Regardless, that head of spiky blonde hair stood out as much as people said his own did.

From the overhead shots, it was now quite apparent that Zack was sitting next to his friend in the truck bed. It was good they'd moved when they had. He had looked up warily after a moment, but in none of the photos did Reno see any evidence that the man had looked in the direction of the helicopter. After a moment, Reno keyed a command into the dash computer and the pictures were sent. The helicopter flew a ways away and took a matching flight pattern just out of sight of the highway.

Not even two minutes later, Tseng was on the line.

"Reno. Rude. I'm sending the rest of the search party to assist you in retrieval of the targets. You are to rendezvous with the others ten miles from your current location. I'm sending you the coordinates and I want that road blocked in five minutes, understood?"

"What's the hurry boss?" Reno asked as Rude waited for the coordinates.

There was silence for a moment and then a ping as the computer displayed the received information, and Rude spoke. "Coordinates received. Adjusting our flight pattern." He immediately began increasing their speed.

"There's a sniper team forty miles down that road, and a trooper detachment waiting to move in. They're headed into an ambush," Tseng finally answered.

"We're playing keep away with the army too?" It was the second time today that Reno had received orders that surprised him. He glanced at his partner and his voice was drenched in sarcasm when he spoke. "This is gonna be a fun afternoon."

Rude seemed like he was going to stay silent, but as they drew closer to the coordinates Tseng had assigned them he neatly summed up his agreement with Reno on the matter in two succinct words.

"No shit."

Zack was leaning against the side of the truck bed, feeling a little more relaxed now but still alert for any change in the ambient noise around him. He really hoped he'd been wrong when he thought he'd heard the sound of a helicopter over the noise of the truck. He hadn't found its origins, but it made him nervous just the same. "We may need to hitch a different ride soon," he said, standing up to look out over the cab of the truck again.

Cloud remained silent.

Zack looked back at his friend and gave him an understanding smile. "Yeah, I know you'd feel better if you didn't have to move, but don't worry. I'll give us a few minutes before we get off, and then it shouldn't be too much more of a walk, even if we do circle around a bit." Zack moved back over to where his friend sat and adjusted his position so he was more upright. "We'll probably still make it to Midgar in at least another day, and then we'll find somewhere to lay low for a while before getting to work. I've got some gil left, maybe we'll stay at an inn. How about that, Cloud? Hot food, warm beds. It'll be great."

Still no response.

Zack put an arm around Cloud, and contemplated the right moment to tell the old geezer in the front that they were going to get out. He didn't want to get the guy in trouble for helping them of course, and the longer he dallied, the more likely that might happen. He was about to knock on the back window of the truck cab when he noticed that the man was starting to slow down. Upon noticing this, he looked up to see why the change in acceleration had occurred and that was when his blood ran cold.

Right in front of them, one on either side and one parked in the middle of the highway, sat three Shinra helicopters. Fanned out in front of them, their coat tails blowing in the hot breeze, stood not three, not four, but six Turks, each of them brandishing a weapon, with the exception of one martial artist in sunglasses. The dust blown across the ground nipped playfully at the legs of their dark suits. Zack had to give them credit, they clearly weren't taking chances. And they shouldn't. He wasn't planning on handling any such encounters quietly.

He then realized that a number of them looked rather familiar. Out of the six of them, he was able to pick out four. Cissnei he recognized, as wells as Reno and Rude. He also recognized the slender game huntress with copper-colored hair in a long ponytail. He'd met Freya in Icicle Inn when Essai and Sebastian had died, and he vaguely recalled seeing her at Nibelheim too, though her primary weapon was slung over her shoulder like she wasn't planning on using it. He couldn't put names to the bespectacled man with a scar on his face who was carrying a katana, or the man with two handguns and closely cropped dark hair, but it didn't matter. He grimaced as he realized he'd already waited too long and it was too late to tell their ride to floor it, or even turn around. Even if they did, the helicopters would catch them before they'd passed the horizon, and he didn't want to think what would happen to the poor guy driving this truck at that point.

He swallowed hard. "Hey pops, pull over to the side by that ledge over there and let us off. I don't want you involved in this."

The man didn't answer Zack but did as he asked.

There was still a little time before the Turks would be able to get over here, he only hoped he could deal with them. He didn't think Cissnei would let him off this time, but if he could at least get out of this without having to kill any of them... Whatever the outcome, he had a feeling he wouldn't like it.

The truck ground to a halt and Zack leapt out the back, pulling Cloud along with him. After finding a rocky overhang to sit him behind, he positioned himself a little ways away from the other man, in a location where the Turks would have to get through him no matter what they did.

Reno approached first, flanked by Rude and the guy with the katana. The other three were fanned out behind them, forming a perimeter around the choke point. Even though they had their weapons drawn, he saw Reno raise his right hand to signal that he wanted to talk.

"Zack, long time no see! You look terrible man!" he called out as he and the rest of the Turks covered the gap between the helicopters and the spot where the truck had pulled away.

Zack did not return the greeting. "What do you want, Reno?"

Reno gave a shrug. "Hey, I think you oughta know what our orders are by now."

"Just what makes you think I'm gonna let you take us back?" Zack growled, bristling at Reno's words. "There's no way in hell we're giving up our freedom again."

Cissnei looked troubled. "Zack, please. Even if you managed to escape us, the army's waiting for you down the road, and they don't have orders to take you alive!"

"And what do you think will happen to Corporal Strife?" Freya added softly. "It can't be good for him to travel in his condition and if they…"

"Shut up," Zack snarled, edging into a defensive stance with his hand on the grip of the Buster. "What I went through was nothing compared to what Hojo did to him, and I am not going to stand here and let you insult him by saying that our surrender is in his best interests."

Cissnei opened her mouth and began to say something more but Reno put up his hand in a peaceful gesture that silenced her. "Hey, easy, we're not insulting anyone." He tapped his EMR rod over his left shoulder. "Here's the deal. We're giving you two choices. One," He held up the first two fingers on his right hand as he counted them off. "You surrender quietly and we go back to Tseng to have a little talk. Or two, you don't surrender quietly and we'll have to kick your ass and bring you with us anyway. I don't particularly care for the second option myself, but there's six of us and only one of you. It's up to you Zack, decide quick."

"I think you already know how this'll go down." In a motion too fast for most people to see, Zack brought the Buster Sword around in a two-handed swing from the left. Even as the man with the katana blocked it, the force of the blow sent him sliding over the dusty ground and Reno and Rude hopped back to avoid being caught in the sword's arc.

Just as quickly, Zack brought the sword up with his left hand to block oncoming projectiles almost before hearing the gun go off, while using his right hand to send forth a Firaga at the retreating Turks on the front line. The man with the katana dropped and rolled out of the way as Reno and Rude swerved to the side in opposite directions to avoid getting burned by the blast.

Zack ducked as one of Cissnei's shuriken flew by his head, mindful of where the man with the gun was as he did so. He could tell from the sound of the projectiles hitting the Buster Sword that he was shooting darts. He didn't know what they contained, but he could guess and he didn't want that guy coming around from behind while the other Turks had him distracted. It was then that he noticed Reno and Rude attempting a pincer attack while he'd been distracted. Hoping to hit Zack's left arm with his EMR rod, Reno was edging around his sword, but as he struck, Zack lifted the Buster to block just in time, glad that the red leather grip was sufficient to serve as a buffer from the shock as he heard the rod clank against the other side.

Rude was not so lucky. Trying to make use of Reno's attack to knock the sword away, he instead rammed into the flat of the now-electrified blade and seemed to have been stunned.

Taking advantage of this, Zack punched him back towards the other Turks and out of his space with his right hand before bringing Buster Sword back to a standard two-handed position and using the flat of the blade to push Reno between him and the guy with the dart gun. Hopefully, he wouldn't be so quick to fire now. He spared a sideways glance to notice Rude was still up, though possibly still a little rattled, and the man with the katana had also stood a few steps behind the martial artist, slightly singed, but otherwise unscathed from the previous blast.

That was when he looked directly in front of him and realized that Freya was casting a spell, and judging from the sudden drop in temperature, he was guessing Blizzard or one of its cousins. Without bothering to look over head he stepped to the side to avoid the falling ice shards and started to fire off a Wall spell, but the man with the katana raced forward, forcing him to abort gaining the extra protection in order to block and press the other man backwards again, regaining his position in front of the chokepoint.

He shot a Thundara in Reno's direction with his left hand as the red-headed Turk raced forward to try and stun him again, but it wasn't long before he had to duck once more as Cissnei tossed another shuriken at him, this one much closer. This was getting dangerous. He really didn't want to kill any of these guys, but he knew he might be forced to if things were allowed to continue further. With that in mind he looked over at Reno to see that he'd managed to evade the Thundara by hitting the ground and as he moved to evade Rude one last time, he raised his hand to cast Stop on the guy with the handgun, using his sword as a shield once more…

That was when he felt three jolts of pain right below his collarbone on the left side and cursed. The man with the handgun had been faster, and now he saw three darts sticking out the front of his shoulder. He'd slipped up. He couldn't hold back, if he did, it would mean the end. No more time for sentiment.

With a snarl, he raced at the man with the handgun, sword raised to strike. Had he backed up any later, he would have been cleaved in half but even as it was, the edge of the sword left a line of red across his shirt and blazer. Having forced the gunman to back off, he whirled around and saw that Rude was edging towards the choke point, followed by the man with the katana and he lunged in their direction with another wild swing forcing Rude to duck away.

The swordsman knew by now that he could not wield enough force to hold his ground against the Buster Sword and instead slid under the huge blade, slicing the katana viciously at Zack's right leg. He felt it burn but he refused to yield. Instead reaching down to grab the Turk, he threw him left-handed with all the strength a cornered SOLDIER could muster. Cissnei dropped her weapons as the man landed virtually on top of her, only just adjusting his sword so he wouldn't skewer her on impact. He heard her grunt in pain but forced himself to ignore it as Rude attempted to come around between him and Reno to stun him from behind. He brought the sword around, forcing the man to retreat yet again.

His vision was starting to swim and then he realized that the darts must have contained tranquilizers. If it had been a spell effect he might have been able to cast Esuna, but drugs were a completely different matter. He tried vainly to shake it off as Freya cast another spell at him and this time, he wasn't able to dodge. He didn't realize what the result was until he attempted to cast Wall again. Damn it, she'd cast Silence on him.

It probably wasn't necessary. His knees felt like they might be about to buckle as the world spun. He saw Rude and Reno attempting another rush and tried to swing the Buster Sword again but it felt heavy in his hands. He swung fast enough to make them back away, but only just. He wasn't going to make it. The Turks were hanging back now, waiting for him to go down like Guard Hounds waiting for a kill, even as he fought tooth and nail against himself to stay up. He backed towards Cloud, sword still in his trembling hands, and he could feel the blood running down his leg where the katana had nicked him. He was barely ten feet away when he collapsed, turning to look at his friend. "C…Cloud… move…" He wheezed, praying that the impossible would happen and his catatonic friend would somehow understand.

To his utter shock, he saw that the man he was reaching for had raised his head. His expression was dazed, but terrified. That was the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness.

After Zack collapsed, Cissnei ran over to him and checked his pulse. The others approached and watched her for a second before hearing a sound from where Cloud was seated. Though he seemed almost incapable of forming words, the piteous cry was filled with worry and fear. "Zz…za…" Freya looked up and saw he had weakly raised a hand towards the prone form of his dark haired companion. She left her fellow Turks and hurried over to his side, kneeling in front of him to assess his condition and balance him if necessary. It looked like he might fall over if she left him too much longer.

"Corporal Strife?" She asked calmly before using his first name. "Cloud, calm down."

"Zz…Zack." His eyes had not left the man's body, even as she took his hand in hers. He wasn't able to fight her off, but she could see that in his terror, he'd started trembling.

"He's okay," she tried again. "Cloud, look at me." She directed his face up with her other hand so that his sky blue, mako-bright eyes were level with her light brown ones, which still carried the faint glowing traces of her own near-fatal brush with mako poisoning. "Calm down. It's me, Freya, do you remember? He's going to be okay, and so are you. Nothing's going to happen to either of you, all right?"

Cloud's face was not capable of showing the most expression right then but he'd gone silent. Through the fog of confusion she caught traces of an incredulous look on his face as he opened his mouth again. "T-tu Turksss…" He finally forced out.

"That changes nothing. Stay with me Cloud. Everything's going to be fine." She gave him a small smile, smoothing his bangs with the hand that had held his face. If he was talking, it was a good sign… even if he didn't trust her. She couldn't blame him for that. Sadly it didn't last in spite of any of her entreaties for him to stay conscious. Attempting to contemplate the shock of everything that had just happened, and the idea that they would very likely be sent back to Hojo seemed to take too much of a toll on Cloud's mental stamina. As Freya looked away to see Rude and Tanjuu, the man with two handguns, approaching with a stretcher from one of the helicopters, he slumped over, descending once again into the hazy delirium that was far safer than the waking nightmares the man anticipated returning to…

September 22nd [ ν ] – εуλ 0007

When Zack came to, the first thing he noticed was that he was in the all too familiar confines of a Shinra holding cell, and after sitting up, he noticed that his hands were cuffed. He'd been in one of these cells with Cloud for a while, early on in their imprisonment in Nibelheim, after their wounds from Sephiroth had been treated. It'd had sterile white walls too, just like these, and a fluorescent light that shone down unforgivingly on the cell's occupants.

It made his heart ache just thinking about those early days, trying to keep Cloud in the present as Hojo had been doing more and more unspeakable things to the poor kid. Seemed like every other time he saw Cloud back in their old cell after being dragged out, he'd have one more suture site where the man had cut into him, be near convulsions from physical shock, or edging closer to delirium from mako exposure. It had been a slow and painful thing to watch, right up to the point where they'd both been stuck in the tanks, and things started to blur after that…

His mind snapped back to his current situation as the next obvious attribute of the cell came into focus. There was only one bunk in here. He was sitting on it, and Cloud was distinctly absent.

Terror played at the back of his mind as unanswered questions flew to the front. Had he already been sent back to the labs? Was Hojo hard at work on him even now, or sticking him back into that poison? Where was his friend? Even if Cloud wasn't much company, conversation-wise, his safety had been such an integral part of Zack's concerns for the last few years that to simply not have him nearby was… well, not quite unthinkable, but damn near close.

He fought down panic, trying to breath, and get his mind back to considering his situation rationally. This wasn't a mako-tank, this was a cell with a reinforced door. He couldn't break out on his own. He would have to wait for someone to come to him. With that thought, he pulled himself fully upright and looked down at the cuffs. They had to have been designed for a SOLDIER, because they certainly weren't flimsy. The bands around his wrists were thick and hung heavy on his arms. He could still use his hands, and they would probably only slow him down if he decided to try something, but for a Turk, that was all they would need to subdue him, especially that guy with the tranqs.

Zack groaned in disgust at himself. He should have seen that one coming. No, he shouldn't have even bothered trying to make a stand there. He should have taken Cloud right off the truck and run without looking back. Maybe they would have lost him in the canyons… The guy with the handguns should have at least had a hard time aiming once he had entered the long range targeting margin... Yeah right. He was a Turk. Besides, fighting off the Turks would have been much harder one handed and encumbered by an unconscious man. They could have overtaken him before he got to the first ravine.

He shook his head. Thinking like that was getting him nowhere. Best to focus on what was going to happen now, and how he was going to get Cloud and himself out of this.

As if in answer to his thoughts, he heard a faint thud off in the distance, followed by a single set of light footsteps. Someone was coming towards his cell.

He waited patiently as he heard muffled voices outside. The door slid easily into the wall and revealed the person who had approached to be Tseng. To Zack's eyes, the Wutaian looked a little older than he remembered. Understandable. It had been five years after all, and yet he still had his hair tied back and that small black dot on his forehead. Aside from the wear of time, he seemed almost identical to the man Zack had asked to look after his girlfriend before leaving for the mission to Nibelheim. He noticed the man was carrying a box in his hand with a yellow piece of tape across it, but his attention was not drawn to it right at the moment. He had much more important things on his mind. Behind Tseng, he noticed Cissnei and the man with the katana were standing in the door, and he also noticed that they were both holding dart guns in the event he became hostile. Better to play this cool, it seemed.

"Where's Cloud?" he asked coldly. "What have you done with him?"

"We have not done anything with him. Right now, there are things to discuss."

"What's there to talk about? You're going to send us back to the labs, aren't you?" Zack accused.

"We have received no orders to do so. Fortunately for you, the only orders issued to us were to subdue you. Hojo hasn't made any demands over those of Shinra's higher executives. Therefore, we have no obligation to do anything."

"Meaning?..." Zack wasn't sure he believed what he was hearing.

"It means that barring anything unforeseen, we could be holding you indefinitely. You aren't a free man by any stretch of the imagination Zack," Tseng allowed an extremely rare glimmer of relief into the tone of his voice. "But at the very least, you are alive, and out of Hojo's clutches."

He reached out to Zack with the sealed box in his hand. "I've been saving these for you."

Zack examined it as Tseng placed it in his hand, and he suddenly realized that the contents were a stack of letters, addressed to him, in Aerith's hand writing. They had been written by Aerith as she'd wondered what had happened to him, and why he'd never written back, when he'd been imprisoned in the depths of hell. "Is she all right?" he asked.

"She's well. She sells her flowers above the plate every now and then."

"How many of them are there?" he asked, trying not to choke on his emotions as he remembered what Aerith had written in her final letter.

"Eighty-eight," Tseng answered quietly. "But before you read them, we are moving you somewhere else. While you are there, you will be under guard at all times. Never forget that. Don't even consider trying to run again. It will just complicate matters." With that, he walked out the door, leaving Cissnei and the man with the sword standing in the doorway.

"Come on Zack, let's go," Cissnei said kindly.

"Where are we going?" Zack asked.

She answered his question with one of her own. "You wanted to see your friend, didn't you?"

"You're taking me to him?"

Cissnei nodded.

Zack stood up and compliantly waited for them to take formation in front and behind him. As he watched, two more Turks approached to be part of the escort, a blonde girl with a handgun and a red head that wasn't Reno but carried an EMR rod. As they walked slowly down the corridor towards an elevator, Zack noted that this must be the Turk headquarters, because there were no other employees around. He'd never been up here before, even when he had made 1st Class. He wasn't in the mood to enjoy the scenery though. After a moment, he spoke up softly. "Cissnei."

They walked a few more steps before the young Turk answered him. "Yes?"

"…How is he?"

"Freya could tell you better. She's been assigned to guard him since we got back, but from what I understand, he hasn't woken up since we caught you."

Zack continued walking to keep pace with his escorts, thinking back to his last moments of consciousness, and that was when he remembered looking up and seeing the first actual expression of emotion Cloud had shown in… he couldn't remember how long. "It wasn't my imagination… that he looked up at me… was it?"

As they reached the elevator, Cissnei punched the call button and smiled at him gently. "No. It wasn't."

At those words, Zack couldn't help but feel encouraged, just a little bit. Things were far from being okay. He had no sword, no materia, was a prisoner of the Turks, probably wouldn't be able to escape right now if he tried, and he didn't know where Cloud was. But his friend had moved, raised his head, showed some sign that he was aware of the world around him, for the first time in at least four years. Sure the expression in his eyes had been fearful, and no surprise there, but to get a response… any response from him… It gave Zack hope. For now, that would have to be enough.

The rest of the trip in the elevator passed in silence. At first, Zack had thought they would be going somewhere else inside the Shinra building, but when it opened to the garage where the Turks kept their land vehicles, he realized that was not the case.

"Just how far are we going?" he asked.

"Not far," Cissnei answered. At that point, the blonde girl pulled out a set of keys and wordlessly headed towards one of the black vans. They waited patiently as she backed it out and pulled it around so the red head could pull the back doors open. Once this was finished, he gestured that they get inside. The Turks ushered him into the van and then each of the three took a guard position, one on either side of him, with Cissnei on the seat opposite his. Once they were seated, the red-headed Turk who had taken the position closest to the doors, pulled them to, and they were away.

It didn't take much more than ten minutes before the van pulled to a halt again. Zack didn't think it sounded like they'd even pulled onto a highway at any point. As the red-headed Turk stood to pull open the rear door, Cissnei reached out and placed a white handkerchief over his cuffed hands.

"Where are we?" Zack asked as she too, stood and gestured that he follow her.

"We're at a hospital in Sector 2." Cissnei explained, hopping lightly out of the van and waiting for him.

"Oh. Why here?" Zack stepped down onto the asphalt and looked around, noting that they appeared to be in a very well-to-do business district, though it seemed they'd pulled into a back alley behind a very large building.

"Well, Shinra has its own infirmary," the red head spoke up. "But we tend to prefer somewhere more private. We have our own little annex here."

"You guys get hurt often?" Zack asked, curious now.

"It happens more than you think. Some of the crazier ones practically live here on occasion."

"Like you, Rod?" The blond haired woman appeared behind the red head, having cut the engine on the van.

"That's not fair Lou, I haven't crashed a bike in months," Rod retorted.

Lou gave Rod a wry smile before walking up to the back door of the building and gestured that they go inside as Zack stifled a chuckle at their discussion.

As they filed through and found themselves in a stairwell, Rod spoke again, leading the way up the first flight of stairs. "Incidentally, the two of you should be honored. This has got to be the first time anyone other than a Turk has been treated here."

"It's the first time I can remember." It was also the first time Zack had heard the man with the katana speak.

"Well you've been here forever Mao," Rod quipped.

Zack looked back briefly at the man who had just been identified as Mao before realizing that if he didn't look where he was going on the stairs, he might lose his balance.

"Not forever," Mao corrected. "But long enough to get better pay than you."

Rod looked like he was trying to think of a good comeback to that, but by now, Zack had stopped listening. He just hoped they'd get to where they were going soon. They traveled up three more flights of stairs before Cissnei opened another door and they filed out into a sterile white hallway. Down the right side of the hallway, Zack could see a line of doors with orderlies passing back and forth between them and the offices, but to the left, he noticed that the hall was distinctly empty and short until it hit a corner that seemed to turn right. It was along this hall that Cissnei directed them.

Once they were around the corner, they found themselves face to face with a pair of double doors to another silent corridor. Rod pulled ahead and pushed one of them open, and as they passed through, Zack found that to his right there was a line of three or four empty hospital beds. However, to his left, he saw a set of three doors, the closest of which clearly had a nameplate on it, and the room it was attached to could easily be seen through a set of observation windows. Obviously someone's office. The next door down was where they were going.

Standing guard outside, was the man who had shot him up with tranquilizers out in the wastes. He'd obviously gotten himself a new suit and a Cure, since Zack saw no sign of the injuries to his clothes or himself. Even so, he shot Zack a wary look. To the Turks, working for Shinra and doing the company's dirty work was supposed to be an impersonal job, but they knew better than to think their targets always felt the same way.

As they approached, Cissnei pulled ahead and asked "How are things here?"

"Nothing to report," the man answered.

Cissnei nodded and then said "As you can see, we've brought Zack. Tseng has ordered Mao and I to stay with you and we are to guard the prisoners in shifts." The man nodded again and Cissnei beckoned Zack towards the door. After a moment, he passed her into the room.

He immediately felt the nervous weight in his chest ease somewhat when he saw Cloud. While he wasn't awake, he did look better off, relatively speaking. Sure, he was lying in a bed off to the side of the room, with an IV snaking under his blankets from a stand nearby, but Zack could tell that in his absence, someone had given Cloud a bath and he looked like he was wearing a clean hospital gown. The worn SOLDIER uniform he had been wearing lay neatly folded on the counter nearby, completely free of dirt and dust marks. Upon coming closer, he saw that his friend didn't seem to be uncomfortable in any way, so he began to take stock of the place they were currently in.

Cissnei had entered after him and was watching him. Freya was sitting in a corner with a book in her hand, but she had placed a bookmark in it and closed it. There was a door to a bathroom at the end of Cloud's bed and a small window, about the height and width of a couple of stacked bricks, letting in some light from the back wall. He also noticed a bed had been set up in the opposite corner, but still close by, probably where he was supposed to sleep. He placed the box with Aerith's letters on it and waited to see what the Turks would do.

Mao shut the door so it was only the four of them in the room and Cissnei spoke again. "Zack, you probably already know this, but while you're here, you won't be permitted to leave this room without our permission. That will go for Cloud too, when he wakes up."

She pulled out a key that looked like it might fit his handcuffs and Zack gave her a confused look as she lifted the handkerchief from his hands. "What's there to keep me from hurting you and breaking out of that window right now if you take those off? You know what a SOLDIER can do, right?"

"I know you won't," Cissnei said bravely and looked over at Cloud. "You wouldn't leave him, and if you tried to take him with you, it would hurt him more than it would help him. Also, that window is much too small for you," she finished, allowing the shadow of a grin to play at the corners of her mouth.

"I guess you do have a point," Zack admitted.

"Besides, with four of us here, I don't think you'll have a chance."

"I would if I had my sword."

Cissnei reached out with the key and fitted it into the slot. Soon Zack felt the bindings release and as she caught the handcuffs in her hands, he rubbed his wrists, glad that the weight was gone. Then she looked up at him giving him a look of unguarded understanding that didn't befit a Turk.

"I know you're afraid. You have every right to be. But nothing's going to happen to either of you here. You're safe."

"What happens when he gets better?" Zack asked bitterly.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Cissnei answered.

Zack walked over to his cot and sat down, thinking. There wasn't much else to do, and his gaze fell on the letters. He really, really, wanted to read them, but not while he had an audience. After a few more moments of uncomfortable silence he spoke again. "Uh… do you think you could leave us alone for a little while?"

Cissnei nodded and headed towards the door, with Freya behind her. Before she left, the taller woman turned around and said "We'll bring you some lunch later, all right?"

With a small wave, Freya vanished behind the door and he heard the sound of a lock clicking into place.

After a moment, he stretched his arms, stood up again and walked back over to Cloud's bed, noticing a pair of bleary, unfocused glowing eyes. "It's been a long morning Cloud," he said.

No response.

Zack heaved a sigh. "I sure made a big mistake letting them get close to us before we could run, didn't I," he observed, but then tried to turn his attention to more positive things. "At the very least it looks like they took good care of you while I was out. The hospital's never fun but it probably feels good to be clean."

Still silence.

"I'm sorry if I scared you back there, when they caught us." He reached out and ran a hand through Cloud's hair, ruffling it. "But things are gonna be okay." He had to admit he was partly saying that to himself. That was when he thought of what Cissnei had confirmed to him and pressed on, feeling a little stronger at the new thought. "They will, I promise. I saw you move on your own, man! You keep that up and we'll beat this mako poisoning thing yet! Once we get past that, getting out of here ought to be easy. I just know it."

Cloud remained silent and after a moment his eyes closed again, but Zack figured he probably needed the sleep more than anything right now, so he decided to let him be. In the meantime he walked back over to his cot, kicked off his boots and stretched out on it, taking his time about opening Aerith's box of letters. He was determined that he was going to read each and every single one before the day was out.

Hope you've enjoyed this first chapter!