*As far as I've been able to tell, there isn't anything in the actual canon of FFVII that says that SOLDIERs have enhanced senses, such as sight and hearing, or accelerated healing. It does seem to be the general assumption of fanon, however, and it does make a certain amount of sense. Fast healing would certainly help with all the fighting they do. As for vision, an over-clocked visual system would be a very handy addition to the demonstrated enhanced speed SOLDIERs get. I generally don't like to take hints from fanon, but in this case I may make an understated exception. But heaven help me if I start to use terms like mako-vision...*

The Difference One Life Makes

Chapter One

"Hmm... No matter what I do, I need some money first."

Zack stopped his fidgetting for a moment to contemplate his options. Only a moment.

He grinned at Cloud whose head lolled back and forth next to Zack. "Hey, wanna start a business? Now what could we do? Hey, Cloud. Think there's anything I'd be good at?"

No answer, of course. Zack really didn't expect one at this point. Cloud seemed to shift slightly, but that might have been just the movement of the truck.

"Hey, old guy!" he called to the middle-aged farmer who'd been kind enough to give them a lift. "What do you think I'd be good at?"

"What're you yappin' about? You're still young, ain't ya?" came the terse yet somewhat jovial reply. "Young folks should try everything! You gotta pay your dues while you're young. Go out and look for what you really want."

They've been paid a few times over, old man, Zack thought. Especially by Cloud. The younger man unconscious at his side couldn't possibly owe anyone anything by now.

Despite those somber thoughts, Zack chuckled. "Try everything... That's easy for him to say." He stared at the sky for a while. If the road wasn't so bumpy he'd probably get up and do squats. Then an idea. Zack slapped his right fist down into his left palm. "Hey! I got more brains and skill than most other guys! That settles it!"

Before he could say what was settled, a loud retort like a gunshot sent him leaping over Cloud like a barrier spell.

ShinRa? When we're out in the open like this? Stupid, Zack! Stupid!

A second retort and a lurch from the truck told Zack what was really the matter. The driver's voice confirmed it.

"Engine's broke down." The hood slammed down over a couple hundred pounds of useless metal. "Sorry, kid, but this old rust bucket's just that right now. I'll radio in a mechanic but it'll take a few hours."

Zack shrugged. "Hey, you got us this far, I think we can manage from here."

The man looked down at the unconscious young man at Zack's side. "You sure about that? These parts can get pretty dangerous."

Zack shifted his grip on Cloud as he headed for the cliffs. "I know." Ignoring the calls of warning, Zack trudged on into the wastelands. That engine backfire had been a real wake up call. This close to Midgar and he was hitching a ride? Stupid, really stupid.

"No sweat," he reasured the comatose body he dragged alongside him. Whether Cloud could actually hear him or not was moot at this point. Talking was the only thing keeping Zack sane. "We've done lots of walking already, what's a couple more days? Besides, we'll need the exercise. I came up with this great plan. I'm going to be a mercenary. I'll do any job if it pays. Big jobs, little jobs, boring jobs, I'll be rich!" Zack laughed. "So what are you going to do?"

The expected silence.

"Hey, you know I wouldn't do that to you. We're friends, right, Cloud?"

Still nothing. Zack sighed and kept walking. The sun beat down on his black hair and black clothes, the extra activity only made it worse. Sweat ran down his face, arms, and everything else.

"Forget what I said about 'no sweat.' Maybe we should find some shelter before our brains bake."

Easier said than done. Nothing grew in the wasteland. At least nothing healthy. Zack remembered wondering about the odd desert when he first came to Midgar, but hadn't given it much thought since. Now...

ShinRa is sucking the life out of the planet. Zack had dismissed the self-proclaimed student of planet life at the time, but the words came to haunt him now. And I helped.

Zack shook his head. That line of thought wouldn't get him anywhere except maybe a mad house. I did what I thought was right at the time. So it all turned out to be a pack of lies. That's on ShinRa's head, not mine.

Day slowly turned to night and Zack began to regret leaving the truck behind.

A couple hours later he stopped regretting.

"Looks like following the road is out," Zack said as he returned to where he left Cloud. Rain soaked their clothes and made Cloud's spiky hair droop. "The area just ahead is crawling with infantry. You want to see if there are any old friends there?"

Even if he were conscious, Cloud probably wouldn't have answered. Zack got the impression that the young grunt didn't get along very well with his team mates. Or maybe it was the other way around, though he didn't understand why. What wasn't there to like about Cloud?

"Anyway, it's probably not a good idea to stick around. I know you want to rest but we'll just have to keep moving." And I don't want to find out if SOLDIERs can catch pnemonia.

Zack knelt to hoist Cloud to his feet. Was he imagining things, or did Cloud actually say something?


He wasn't imagining things.

"Cloud? Cloud, you in there?" Zack completely forgot about moving, standing, anything other than holding Cloud by the shoulders and trying to catch some hint of life in his face.

Eyes that had been a natural blue but were now laced with glowing mako widened.


Zack only had a second to process the muffled fear in that word. That second ended with the distictive sound of a cocked firearm.

"Shi-" He scooped up Cloud and ran, bullets knicking the soles of his boots and bounced off his sword.


A bullet wizzed passed his ear and he adjusted his grip on Cloud so as little of the smaller man was visible as possible.

Much smaller man. Had Cloud always been this small?

Wiz. Wiz.

No time to think, just run.

Or not.

Zack skidded to the edge of a cliff. How far down it went he couldn't be sure in the dim light. On the other hand there were still guns aimed at them and some of those shots had gotten close enough to sting.

It wasn't like this was the first time he'd jumped off a cliff to escape persuit.

"Hang on!" To Zack's relief and astonishment Cloud actually did grab a small handful of shirt.

"Hang on," Cloud repeated.

What little of the landscape he could actually see flew by in a blur. Then he hit a slope. A steep slope. Half sliding, half rolling, he tried to maintain his grip on Cloud while not losing too much speed. He could still hear, and occasionally feel, the bullets flying.

Once on more stable, and horizontal, ground he started running again. He willed his legs to move faster. A dark crack in the earth snaked toward him from the horizon.

A long dead river. Perfect. He jumped in and flattened under an overhang, out of sight and out of the rain. Deep breaths. Calm. Focus. Try not to make a lot of noise.

All he could hear was his own breathing and the wind.

"It hurts."

Tears started to well up in Zack's eyes. Was Cloud remembering the torture they'd been through? He looked down and realized he was squeezing rather tight.

"Oh, sorry." Zack set Cloud down.


Zack thought it was another echo, but Cloud's next words hinted at something else.

"Sorry ... Tifa."

What was he supposed to say? He wanted to appologize to Tifa, too.

"Sorry... I couldn't ... the promise..."

Zack fidgeted somewhat. This was probably something he wasn't supposed to hear.

"Promise ... come help if in a pinch."

So that was it. Zack couldn't help but remember how Cloud refused to show his face in his home town, or how Tifa kept asking about "a blond SOLDIER." This just added the last piece. He'd promised to join SOLDIER and come rescue her whenever she needed him. Just the kind of promise a kid would make to his crush. And just the kind of promise Cloud would take too seriously.

"Hey, you did come for her. You did your best. A whole lot better than I did."


This was getting depressing.

"I think we're probably a day outside of Midgar. Maybe less after that run. Bet I set a new record. Hey, once we get to the slums we'll find a place to stay, some good food, er, goodish food, and some clean clothes. Can't really wander around Midgar in SOLDIER uniforms."

Cloud's head tipped to one side, the rest of him followed, thudding against Zack's chest. Either Cloud had fallen back into a mako-induced stupor or he was asleep. Really asleep for the first time in years. Zack hoped it was the latter.

"Good idea. We should rest up before tomorrow." Aerith. I'm coming.

In game Cloud recovers fairly quickly once he's able to actually move. Well, then he has a relapse and ends up with a different personality and scrambled memories, but yeah. Here I'm taking Cloud's recovery a bit more slowly, because I figured it was the shock of Zack's death that triggered the first recovery and subsequent relapse. Wonder if I should rename this fanfic "The Difference a Broken Engine Makes." :P