Thin Air

by Tenshi

author's note: fic written prior to Advent Children's release uses the name Zax Darklighter in lieu of Zack Fair.

"Hell of a view from up here," Zax said, coming to a stop on a harsh, wind-twisted bit of promontory, with the serrated peak of Nibel rising up above the little valley. Nibelheim, with its picturesque rooftops and villagers, was a tiny, brightly-colored postage stamp below.

"Farther to fall," Sephiroth said, and kept moving along the trail, with the grace of a creature born to such heights. Zax still lingered a moment, letting the icy wind buffet his hair, grinning fearlessly into the chill.

Their guide was a sprightly thing, Zax thought, with one hell of a rack, but she didn't come close to a certain redhead in Zax's thoughts. All the same, it wasn't any hardship to watch her pull herself up onto the ledge.

"Are you doing all right?" she asked, tugging her hat down, but not her skirt. "The altitude, it can give some people problems."

"I'm not some people," Zax said, taking a deep breath. The mako in his bloodstream sampled the mixture of oxygen, which was quite thin, and processed a thousand tiny molecular changes to compensate for the resources it was given. Zax was not even winded. "But maybe you should check on our escort, Miss..." He searched a moment for her name; mako was no help for memory. "Tifa."

"So this is a SOLDIER first class, huh?" Tifa's smile had grudging admiration; she was not overly fond of the ShinRa, and Sephiroth was off-putting to say the least. Sephiroth joked once that he always brought Zax on missions because his friendly good-looks and attitude softened up the locals, the ones who always clammed up around ShinRa brass. "Climb like a green chocobo, fight like a hellsummon--"

"And a face like an angel," Zax finished for her, with a lopsided grin. Her dubious smile back said that she found this last credential to be a little suspect. It must have been the scar on his chin, Zax thought. It always ruined his metaphorical halo.

"Sephiroth, maybe," Tifa said, uneasily. "But I guess it's why all the little boys want to be SOLDIERS. I had a friend once..." She trailed off, hugging herself. The uncomfortable silence was broken by a wheezing noise and the sound of scrabbling rock, their last remaining escort guard struggling to pull himself up on the ledge.

"But I guess not everyone makes that cut!" Tifa finished, and reached down a hand to the guard. Behind the protective face plate, his eyes studied her hand a moment before taking it, and letting her surprising strength haul him upwards.

"You okay?" she asked, as he picked himself up off the rock. "Can you breathe okay? Maybe you should take that helmet off--"

Cloud shoved her away, shaking his head. Zax wondered why he had been so silent, this whole trip, why he hadn't even given her his name. It was hard, Zax guessed, going home and being a nobody. Zax wouldn't know. He'd never gone back home.

"Fine. But if you pass out, I'm not carrying you." She got to her feet, and did not notice the helpless way Cloud's eyes followed her. Zax stifled a grin, wondering if his baby-faced friend had been struck dumb by Tifa's obvious assets. "Come on," Tifa continued. "I don't want your general to get too far ahead."

"Altitude too much for you?" Zax asked, as Cloud dusted off the knees of his pants and Tifa crunched up the path ahead of her charges.

"Don't tell her my name," Cloud muttered, and tugged his face guard down tighter. "And don't worry about me. I'm... used to the air up here."

"She knows you, huh?" Zax made a soft noise in his teeth. "Well, okay, if that's how you want it. Come on, get moving." He set off on his own, scaling over the knife-edged rocks with ease while Cloud kept one eye on the precipice. He knew more than any of them just how far it was to fall.


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