Time had no meaning. The incident in the Nibelheim Reactor could have happened yesterday, or it could have happened a month ago. Zack had no idea, and no one was telling him. He slept so much he could be losing days at a time. He couldn’t tell; the light in the decrepit room never changed and he didn’t have a clock either. All he knew was every time he awoke, he found himself strapped down to a bed in the old Shinra Mansion. He could see bandages wrapped around his limbs and torso, monitors strapped to him, IVs pumping drugs into his body. The staff taking care of him were doing exactly that – taking care of him. They checked his wounds, regulated the medication, provided good food and plenty to drink. They helped him in the bathroom when his legs threatened to give way.
It was worse than torture. Okay, not worse. Weirder than torture.
These people weren’t caring the way doctors should care. It felt more like he was being prepped for something, and they had all the time in the world to do it. Because Shinra had secrets. Deep, dark, nasty secrets. And now Zack was one of them. Why else hadn’t they let him contact HQ and confirm he was alive? Probably because of Hojo. Whenever he came by to take another blood sample, he looked over Zack like he was a prime cut of meat.
But worse than that, worse than the drugs and the drowsy, floaty feeling consuming him, was the fact that Zack had no idea what they’d done with Cloud. He just knew his friend was alive; Hojo said so.
“Behave, and maybe I’ll let you see him. We’re taking very good care of him. Very, very good care.”
“Tell me where he is!”
Hojo refused. Hojo always refused.
Staring up at the stained and peeling ceiling, Zack frowned to himself. Had Hojo told him that today? Yesterday? A week ago? Zack couldn’t keep track. His thoughts kept slipping and sliding. How many drugs were they giving him? His injuries from his battle with Sephiroth must’ve been worse than he thought.
Or they were doing whatever it took to keep him docile. Weak. Incapable of fighting back.
His thoughts turned back to Sephiroth. That was enough to give Zack a pause. Because Sephiroth was gone. Dead. That was the other thing Hojo kept saying. And if that was the truth, it meant…
…It meant Cloud had managed to kill him.
“Just let me see him,” Zack whispered.
No one was there to answer him.
Zack drifted, in and out of consciousness. The sound of a door opening jolted him awake. He saw scientists and guards walk in. The guards kept their weapons pointed at him while the scientists removed monitors and carried his IV bags.
Hojo moved through the crowd. He stopped in front of Zack’s bed, looking him over with that same, hungry stare. “We need you to come with us. Our young friend is having a rather bad day. A friendly face may convince him to not die before we can enhance him. Perhaps you can explain the benefits of mako.”
Mako enhancement? Were they going to force that on Cloud?
“Not that we can risk the infusion yet,” Hojo said, more to himself than to Zack. “It’d tip him right over the edge in his condition. Weak. Too weak. Not really SOLDIER material at all, but one must make do. Although it’s surprising, really, given what he somehow managed to achieve. Yes, a fascinating subject for sure. I intend to learn a lot from him.”
“What are you doing to Cloud?” Zack demanded, hating how weak his voice sounded.
“I am always in need of new specimens.” Hojo stared at Zack, his eyes roving over him. Zack resisted the urge to squirm. Hojo sneered. “I wouldn’t get any ideas. Try something, try anything, and the boy dies. He’s worthy of experiment, certainly, but not irreplaceable. And I won’t just have him slaughtered. That friend of yours, Kunsel? He dies. Your family dies. Gongaga is hardly capable of defending your parents from us if we choose to execute them.”
Nausea rocked Zack. “Leave them out of this.”
Hojo shrugged. “Behave yourself and I will.”
Trapped, Zack swore under his breath.
“I didn’t catch that,” Hojo said, manic glee in his voice.
“Fine,” Zack said. “You have my word.”
“That’s what I expected.” Hojo backed off. “Get him down to the basement,” he called over his shoulder. “If he puts up any kind of fight, teach him not to.”
It took an embarrassing amount of time for the scientists and guards to help Zack down to the Shinra Mansion’s basement lab. Every step was a battle, his whole body drenched in sweat. There was no way he could escape in this state. He wouldn’t make it out the door, let alone take Cloud with him.
Whatever. He’d find a way. He always found a way.
They took Zack into the large lab. There, strapped to a table, was Cloud. He looked awful, pale and trembling with fever. He fought for breath, chest rising and falling too rapidly. His hair gathered in sweaty clumps. The sickly-sweet odour of infection oozed off his body. Even the antiseptic stench of the lab couldn’t hold that back. Zack noticed a surgical bandage across Cloud’s stomach, the surface stained with old blood and pus. Horror choked him. What the hell had happened to him? The wound, the stitched edges poking out from the bandage, could only come from one weapon.
“Is he dying?” Zack asked, voice shaking.
“We’re doing everything we can,” one of the scientists said. “Sit before you fall,” she added, placing a stool next to Cloud’s bedside.
Zack fell into it, pathetically grateful to sit down. Some SOLDIER he was. He reached out, his hand closing around Cloud’s. “Hey, Cloud? Can you hear me?”
Cloud’s fingers twitched in Zack’s grip. His eyes didn’t open. His breathing didn’t change. He didn’t speak. It looked like all his energy was going towards the effort of not dying.
If Cloud could fight that hard, so could Zack. He gave Cloud’s hand a squeeze. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. You’re not alone.” He looked over at one of the scientists, a woman with her hair cut short. “What happened to him?”
The woman looked up from her clipboard. She tapped her glasses up her nose. “I suppose we could show you the footage from the reactor.”
Zack’s attention was drawn to a monitor on the other side of the lab. Moments later, he saw security camera footage of Sephiroth standing in front of Jenova. He was utterly oblivious as Cloud ran up behind him and ran him through with Zack’s sword.
Zack’s mouth dropped open. “You did it. Holy shit, Cloud, you killed Sephiroth.”
The shot changed from Jenova’s chamber to the walkways of the main reactor area. Sephiroth, bleeding heavily, staggered into view, clutching his sword and Jenova’s… her…
“He lost his mind,” Zack said, feeling sick.
“Evidently,” the scientist muttered.
Moments later, Cloud came back into view. A sudden jolt of memory shot through Zack’s mind. He had told Cloud to finish it. To finish Sephiroth.
“No, no, no,” Zack breathed, like he could somehow undo the past.
Instead, he had to watch in sick horror as Sephiroth drove his blade through Cloud, raising his body high into the air. Zack had sent his friend into that. No way was Cloud ready or capable to take on Sephiroth, no matter how brave or determined he was. Sephiroth was a legend for a reason. Zack survived not so much because he had the talent, but because Sephiroth had toyed with him. And even then, Zack hadn’t walked away from their battle unscathed. Cloud wouldn’t be in this state if Zack had done his duty.
“Cloud,” Zack said, clutching his friend’s clammy hand. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
“Watch,” the scientist said, sounding excited. “You’re about to miss the best part.”
“There’s something seriously wrong with you,” Zack told her. “Look at what Sephiroth did!”
She jabbed a finger at the screen. “Shut up and watch!”
Turning back to the screen, Zack watched in disbelief as Cloud fought back. Before his eyes, Zack watched Cloud force the sword deeper into his body just so he could gain enough purchase to throw Sephiroth into the depths of the mako reactor.
Zack couldn’t find the words. Cloud had done that. A normal, unenhanced human being had fought Sephiroth and won. Zack turned to the scientist, but the questions screaming through his head wouldn’t come out his mouth.
“Quite remarkable, wouldn’t you say?” The scientist smiled. It wasn’t a warm expression, but one of thin-lipped obsession. “Now do you see why Professor Hojo is so interested in him?” She turned the monitor off and returned to Cloud’s bedside. “I don’t care what it takes. You need to convince him to fight. If he dies, we’ll lose too much data.”
“You’ll lose a human being!” Zack said, disgusted. How had he ever allowed himself to be swayed by Shinra? Beneath their shiny exterior lay a rotten heart. He’d ignored it for too long, and now look where it had taken him. His heart pounded in his chest, his head spinning. He braced himself against Cloud’s bed, too weak to stand, too angry to do nothing.
“I suggest you do something to help him then,” the scientist said. She turned away, busying herself with various dials on the machines keeping Cloud alive.
Zack could do that. He could keep Cloud fighting. And together, they would escape. Besides, he had to get back to Aerith in Midgar.
“Cloud, I’m here.” Zack held tight to Cloud’s hand, mindful of all the tubes and wires puncturing it. “You’re not alone. And you gotta fight, okay? No way can you die after what I just saw.” Zack played it out again in his mind, watching Cloud use Sephiroth’s weapon against him. “That was incredible. I’ve never seen anyone do that. You’ve saved so many lives. There’s no way I’m gonna let you die after all that. It was… Man, I barely have the words!” Zack laughed. “You’re stronger than any SOLDIER I know. And that means you can’t quit now, and you definitely can’t die. Besides, you’ve got someone you wanna impress, right? What will she think if she finds out you quit after everything you’ve been through? Oh, and you’re gonna have an amazing scar to show off. Ladies love war wounds, trust me.”
Zack watched as Cloud’s eyes opened. Glassy blue eyes slid over to him, still untainted by mako. “Zack.” His voice was slurred with drugs and thin with pain. “’m sorry. I –”
“Whoa, you have nothing to be sorry for. Just rest. You can’t give in, alright? You and me, we’re gonna go back to Midgar and hang out. You’ve gotta meet my girl.” He didn’t dare speak Aerith’s name aloud in this place. Hojo hadn’t mentioned her, and given her Turk protection, she was probably safe, but he wasn’t taking that chance. “And maybe we can check out Wall Market. I hear there’s some great bars down there.” Except Cloud was sixteen and nowhere near old enough to drink. Old enough to die for some piece of shit corporation though. Zack clenched his teeth, frustration burning in his chest. “You’re gonna get through this. We both are. I don’t care if I have to drag you through it kicking and screaming. Don’t think I won’t do it just because you’re some SOLDIER slaying badass now.”
A tiny smile graced Cloud’s lips. His eyelids drooped, but he seemed to be breathing easier. “Zack?”
“Thanks. Couldn’t do this without you,” Cloud said. “You’re my best… my best…” He slipped under again.
No matter what happened, Zack knew he had to get Cloud out of here. One way or another, they had to escape.
“Ah, this is good,” the scientist said. “His vitals are stabilising.” She looked down her nose at Zack. “Perhaps you’re a good influence on him.”
Zack clung to Cloud’s hand, willing him to survive. “Let me stay with him.”
“Another time perhaps,” the scientist said. “Professor Hojo was quite clear; he only wanted you to calm the boy. Now he’s resting more comfortably, your work is complete.” She stepped back and made room for the guards and other lab-coated doctors. “Take him back to his room. Make sure he’s given a good meal before his next round of medication. We need him healthy.”
It took every ounce of self-control Zack possessed not to fight back. Instead, he could do nothing as he was gathered up and taken away, forced to leave Cloud behind. Zack hated abandoning him. Looking around the lab, at the chemicals and the tools and those awful glass chambers against the back wall, Zack knew Shinra had nothing good planned for them.
They would have to fight. Him and Cloud both. And if Cloud could push through everything to take out Sephiroth, Zack could do the same to get them out of here. Shinra wouldn’t make them their latest victims. An image of the once-human creatures locked up in Nibelheim’s reactor blotted out his vision. Zack’s heart stuttered in his chest. No. No, that would be a fate worse than death.
By the time he made it back to his room in mansion’s upper floors, Zack’s head was spinning. His guards had to keep pushing him back into walking in a straight line. His body throbbed with the lingering aches of slowly healing wounds. So much for SOLDIERs healing faster. He glanced at the IVs still attached to him. It had to be laced with sedatives or something. No way should he feel so rough.
He made it back to his room. The guards lowered him back into his bed. Zack sank into sleep, exhausted by the simple walk. The scientists rearranged his IVs and monitors.
Escape. They had to escape. Cloud needed him to fight, and that’s what Zack did best. No matter what the odds, he fought and he won.
They would get out of here.
Monsters lurked in his dreams, once-human creatures clawing out of their cages to rip him apart. Zack jolted awake, panting for breath. The ceiling blurred into view. A single, stark bulb flickered above Zack’s head. A shiver worked its way through his whole body. This wasn’t his usual view. The ceiling had changed. And a cold draft worked its way into his room. He thought he could smell ice and snow in the air.
How long had he been here? Had the season changed already? Heavy with sleep, Zack had no idea how much time had passed. Looking around, he realised this was a different bed in a different room in Shinra Mansion. He was still hooked up to monitors and IVs, but someone had dressed him in a fresh uniform. They’d managed all of that without him waking once. Zack ran his hands over his face. He’d never been so helpless.
Sitting up, Zack looked around. It was a room on the mansion’s upper floor. He remembered poking around in here back before Sephiroth lost it. There were book shelves, closets, other beds and…
Cloud was on one of the other beds, still sleeping, still hooked up. He looked better than the last time Zack had seen him. He had colour in his cheeks and he didn’t look so feverish. Someone had put him back in his uniform too, just without his boots and gloves.
“Cloud?” Zack called.
Cloud stirred, blue eyes opening. He blinked a few times.
Hope hit hard. Zack bounced to the edge of his bed. “Over here,” he called.
Cloud’s head rolled to the side. Zack gave him a little wave. “Hey! You’re awake!”
“Zack?” Cloud looked confused. “What’s happening? Where are we?”
“Shinra Mansion,” Zack said.
“We’re still in Nibelheim?” Cloud asked.
“Yeah. Somehow this Shinra hellhole didn’t burn to the ground,” Zack said.
Zack could’ve kicked himself. “Sorry, Cloud. I didn’t think.”
“Forget it,” Cloud said, subdued.
“What do you remember?” Zack asked, pushing on before it could get uncomfortable.
Cloud went distant, his eyes staring at nothing. His face twisted. “Everything,” he said. “I remember everything.” His hand pressed against his gut where, last time Zack saw him, he’d had that awful, stained bandage. “How long have I been here?”
“I don’t know,” Zack said. “I can’t keep track of time.”
Cloud sighed. “Why am I so tired?”
“They’re drugging us,” Zack said. He got it. They wanted him quiet. They wanted it so he couldn’t fight back. It took a lot of medication to bring a SOLDIER down like this. But Cloud, he was still normal. They hadn’t enhanced him yet. Plus he’d been stabbed. No wonder he was so exhausted. “You can’t give up, okay? We’ll get through this.”
“I can’t keep my eyes open,” Cloud mumbled. “Keep falling. Dreaming. Everything… burning. Sephiroth. He destroyed the whole village.”
“Yeah, and you got him back,” Zack said. “Don’t forget that.”
“He killed Mom,” Cloud whispered, tears flowing down his cheeks.
“I know, and I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. And it’s why you can’t give in. We’ve gotta keep fighting. Together.” Zack forced himself to his feet, grabbing the IV pole beside his bed. Using it as a crutch, he staggered to Cloud’s bedside. He sat on the ground, grabbing Cloud’s closest hand. “You gotta focus, okay? You wanted to be a SOLDIER, right? Now you gotta work for it.”
“You said… stay out… Den of… of monsters.”
“Don’t get clever with me, Cloud. Stay awake. Besides, I’m not a monster, am I?”
“No.” Cloud’s face screwed up in a desperate attempt to do what Zack told him. He even tried sitting up, only for his face to lose what little colour it had.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Zack pushed him back down. “Too much. Way too much. I didn’t mean get up and take on, like, the entire Shinra army.”
Cloud smirked faintly.
Zack grinned back. “Just talk to me.”
“Not good at that,” Cloud mumbled.
He wasn’t wrong. Zack thought back to the missions he’d gone on with Cloud before Nibelheim, and to the times they’d spent their downtime together. How had he never noticed until now? Zack did the talking and Cloud would listen, absorbing everything Zack had to tell him. Sometimes, Zack realised, he could be really dense about stuff.
Chuckling, Zack punched his fist into his open palm. “Guess that’s gonna be what we work on while we’re stuck here. Making you chattier.”
Cloud didn’t answer. He’d already drifted off again.
Too exhausted to try and wake him, Zack staggered back to his own bed. He sat there, swaying with tiredness. They were never going to get out of here like this. He looked at the IVs attached to him. He wanted to tear them out. But if he did that, would it put his family and friends at risk?
“Shit.” He hated this. He hated being trapped. Try as he might, Zack couldn’t fight it. He slumped onto his side. “I promise, Cloud,” he said, even as his eyes fell shut. “I promise I’m gonna get us out of here.”
They stopped drugging them when Hojo’s testing regime really got started. At first they were simply measured, weighed and given basic strength tests. There were vitamin shots and muscle-bulking drinks to make up for everything they’d lost during their captivity. Zack could feel his strength returning. He could see the massive improvements in Cloud too.
They’d find a way out soon. Cloud was almost ready. Zack drilled him in a few basic combat techniques. He was pretty good and obviously knew his way around a sword. Not that the curtain rails they were using really compared, but they had to make do. They couldn’t do anything too strenuous either; their guards got jumpy. But Hojo insisted that his samples be allowed to exercise frequently.
They talked, sitting at the small table the guards had brought in one day so they had somewhere to eat that wasn’t their beds or the floor. Cloud always wanted to hear stories, and Zack was happy to share. He managed to drag a few things out of Cloud too. Turns out growing up in Nibelheim wasn’t so different from Gongaga. Just had more mountains. And it sounded like Cloud had even less parental oversight than Zack had back in his childhood.
“They seriously let you play in those mountains?” Zack asked.
Cloud shrugged. “Guess so. Wasn’t exactly much else to do. Plus no one saw us when we got into fights.”
“You got into fights?” Zack couldn’t imagine it. Quiet, bashful Cloud smacking some other kid in the face? Not a chance.
“Sometimes,” Cloud said. “Like I said, there wasn’t much to do.”
“You never went to Cosmo Canyon?” Zack and his parents had taken a few trips there. “And isn’t Rocket Town on the other side of the mountains?”
“Mom and I never left the village. Couldn’t afford it. She helped me pay for the trip to Midgar. I couldn’t make enough money on my own doing odd jobs around the village.”
“Odd jobs, huh?”
“Yeah. Gardening. Fixing roofs. Walking dogs. Little bit of everything.”
Zack stored that little nugget away. When they got out of here, they were gonna need cash fast. Maybe Cloud would be able to provide for them. “Sounds like you’re a real jack of all trades.”
Cloud smiled. “I tried.”
Time remained impossible to keep track of, but Zack knew it had been weeks. Maybe even a month. He couldn’t explain how he knew, he just felt it.
This period of clear-headedness had to end at some point. So one day, when Hojo stepped into their room with two guards, Zack had a sinking feeling that the tests were about to change.
“Hmmm, bring the SOLDIER first. I’d like to see how he reacts to the serum.” His eyes flicked over to Cloud. “We’ll save that one for later.”
It was the first of many tests. Bad tests. Day after day, after having huge amounts of blood drawn and needles jammed into his spinal cord, Zack would be dragged back to his and Cloud’s room and dumped on the ground, left to recover for a few hours before the next round started. Whenever Cloud tried to step up and take his place, the guards took him out with a well-placed punch. He still put up a fight every time, and Zack appreciated that. If Cloud gave up, it’d be game over. They needed their strength to see this through.
Except the tests were rough. Rougher than anything Zack recalled from entering SOLDIER. Whatever Hojo wanted, he seemed to be getting the results he wanted, cackling to himself. And today, once they’d strapped him down to that awful slab of a bed in the lab, Hojo had something new; massive needles full of something black and glistening.
“What the hell is that?” Zack tried to get away, but between the straps and the armed guards pointing weapons at him, he had nowhere to go. Didn’t mean he had to give in. Didn’t mean he had to submit. He’d fight until his dying breath.
“Test subjects need to know very little,” Hojo said. He laughed, the sound like nails over a chalkboard to Zack’s ears. “Just be a good boy and relax. Rest assured that you are going to be part of my greatest scientific achievement!”
Not comforting. Zack had seen the outcome of countless Shinra experiments. He had no faith that what Hojo planned to do would end any better.
The injections went in. Zack’s whole body came alive, burning from the inside out. He screamed, tossing and turning against the straps. He couldn’t get free. The fire was inside, eating away at him. Pain drove him unconscious, his own screams following him into darkness.
A voice called him back out. “Don’t worry, Zack. I’m here. You’re okay.”
Zack awoke in the bedroom, sweating and shaking, burning with fever. Cloud sat at his bedside. He helped Zack drink from a glass of water, its bitter chill pushing back against the heat.
“Rest,” Cloud said. He pressed a cold compress against Zack’s forehead.
“I will,” Zack ground out, his throat burning from the screaming, “so long as you talk to me.”
Cloud looked thoughtful for a moment. “You were right. The scar is pretty cool.”
Somehow, despite the sickness, fever and dizziness, Zack found himself laughing. “Yeah? That’s amazing. You’ll have to show you-know-who someday.”
They’d agreed to never mention Tifa’s name aloud. It could put her in too much danger. She didn’t need Shinra coming after her. Zack had no idea how she’d made it out of the reactor. Cloud needed to believe she had, so Zack chose to think that too.
Cloud smiled, bashful as ever. Head ducking down, his hair fell over his eyes. “Maybe.”
Zack reached out, patting Cloud’s head. “Definitely.” Just the effort of lifting his arm exhausted him. “Sorry. I’m so tired today. The tests changed.”
“Don’t give up!” Cloud reached up and grabbed Zack’s hand. “Hojo… Hojo’s a bastard. You’re stronger than him. You’ll snap him like a twig!”
Zack grinned. “I like that idea.”
Cloud’s laugh was soft and bright. “You would,” he said. “You’d break all of them to pieces.” He squeezed Zack’s hand. “We’re gonna get out of here.”
Zack heard the unspoken aren’t we? “Together. We’ll make it out together.”
“Right, I wouldn’t leave you behind.”
Zack laughed. Cloud had a good sense of humour buried in there somewhere.
After a while they stopped coming for Zack.
Because they took Cloud instead.
He didn’t fight. He didn’t beg. He just stood up and followed the scientists and guards out of the bedroom they’d been holed up in for… for…
Zack had no idea. He’d been in and out of consciousness so much since the tests began, he had no idea how long they’d been stuck there. But today, he finally felt stronger. Probably because they hadn’t dragged him down to the lab in a while.
Zack paced back and forth until he was so dizzy he had to sit. When he felt better, he got back up and did it all over again. Hours went by. The guards delivered two meals, both of which Zack ate because he knew he needed to build his strength back up as fast as possible.
Eventually, they brought Cloud back. Hojo came too. The guards dumped Cloud on the floor, leaving him there.
“He’s almost ready for the real tests,” Hojo said.
Whatever the hell those were.
“Perhaps he will be less of a disappointment,” Hojo muttered, glaring at Zack.
Wait. Did that mean Zack was a disappointment to Hojo? Should he be relieved or worried?
Zack didn’t have a chance to ask. Hojo and his guards left. Cloud stayed where he was on the floor, panting for breath. Zack went to his side. “Come on, let’s get you into bed.”
“No,” Cloud groaned. “You need to stay back. I can’t –” He jerked, bones crunching, muscles morphing under the skin. He writhed as his body transformed into SOLDIER perfection by mako. His eyes burned with their green mako light. “I can’t make it stop!”
“Just try and breathe through it,” Zack said, hating being useless. He remembered his own mako infusion, and how the Shinra doctors at HQ had gone to great lengths to take care of him. They hadn’t left him to suffer like this. “It’s a rush to begin with, then it calms down.”
“A rush?” Cloud cried out in disbelief. “My whole body is on fire!”
His arm lashed out, his fist slamming through the wooden floor. Another spasm rocked Cloud’s body, his back arching under the strain. His screams filled the room. Helpless, Zack could only watch.
“Don’t give up on me, Cloud,” he said. “Don’t you dare. You gotta ride it out. After that, you’re gonna be fine, I swear.” And he’d be stronger too. Strong enough to really fight his way out of Shinra Mansion. “You’re gonna survive this.”
Cloud didn’t answer.
Zack had seen people react badly during his early SOLDIER days. The scientists kept them in a medical ward for a week, just to be sure their newest recruits reacted well to the mako enhancements. Except there were losses. Zack’s cohort lost three guys, guys who’d trained for years to be in SOLDIER. They’d received their mako treatments and lost their shit, taking out entire platoons of infantryman until the reaction going on inside their bodies overwhelmed them and they passed out. Those guys never made it into SOLDIER. Or, rather, they never saw active duty. Instead, there were a lot of rumours about what happened to them.
Given what he’d seen in the Nibelheim reactor, Zack figured they weren’t really rumours at all. And now he could see Cloud sinking into that same state. Zack watched Cloud get to his feet and stagger across the room, going to the door.
With a growl, Cloud put his fists through it.
Zack leapt to his feet. Looked like Cloud intended to ride it out by fighting his way to freedom. Would it work? Zack knew they had to try.
Guards came running. Zack stepped up.
Cloud got there first. He broke at least two sets of legs and three people’s arms before several cannisters rolled through the door. Gas spewed out of them, filling the room with choking smog. Zack staggered back, head spinning. Shit, stun gas. He had nothing to protect himself from it. Coughing, eyes streaming, Zack couldn’t see anything, but he heard footsteps, shouting, punches, bones snapping, screams and then –
…ground. He was on the ground…
Fuck. Not just stun gas. Knockout gas too. Strong enough to take him out.
He heard thud.
Too much gas.
Zack tried to call out, but his mouth wouldn’t work.
“Well, seems he took to his enhancements a little too enthusiastically.”
Fuck. Fuck, that was Hojo.
“The work will continue with the boy. Bring him to the lab for the next treatment immediately. Leave the other one for now. I don’t want to waste a single moment!”
Zack passed out to the sound of his friend’s unconscious body being dragged away.
Squats focused the mind and strengthened the body. Good. Because Zack felt focused and for the first time in a long, long time, he felt strong. No fever. No aches. No pounding headache. He felt like himself again.
Even if he had no idea how long he’d been in this room without Cloud. When he’d come around from the gas, Cloud wasn’t there. Three meals had come and gone and Cloud still wasn’t there.
Zack forced himself into another set of squats. Forget the pain. Forget the nerves. Forget the fear. Today, the fight back started.
They were getting out. Soon. Today, if Cloud came back from the tests okay. Which he would. Totally fine. And if he came back still high on mako, well, fuck it, they’d ride that wave straight out of the Shinra Mansion and all the way to freedom. Zack had it planned out. If they stopped anyone in the lab from talking, Shinra wouldn’t know about the escape. That would give Zack time to keep people safe.
The door opened. Zack paused his squats and waited for the guards to shove Cloud back into their room.
The guards stepped in.
Because they weren’t dropping him off.
They were picking Zack up. At gunpoint.
…this hadn’t been part of his plan.
“Where’s Cloud?” he demanded.
“Professor Hojo is waiting,” one of the guards said.
Zack had no choice. He could not, would not, leave without Cloud.
And they were going to escape. Today, tomorrow… whenever it happened, they were definitely gonna make it out.
Head held high, Zack left the bedroom. The guards followed behind him. Other people lined the halls; scientific staff and guards. All of them stopped and stared. They said nothing. Their faces revealed nothing. But they didn’t normally linger in the mansion’s hallways like this. Nerves danced in Zack’s chest. His eyes flickered to the main doors, and he let himself fantasise about escaping. Just for a moment. He pictured himself breaking loose, breathing the wrecked village’s fresh mountain air.
A hand on his shoulder turned him to the stairs. “Don’t get any ideas,” the guard said.
That’s all it was. An idea. Like he’d ever leave Cloud behind.
Instead, like a condemned man, he went to the basement.
Hojo was there. He didn’t look happy. In fact he looked distinctly pissed off. He also had a swollen nose, telltale marks of dried blood just barely visible around his nostrils. Zack felt a flare of pride. Whatever had happened, Cloud hadn’t gone down without a fight.
Where was he? Zack looked. His heart lurched. Cloud had been dumped in one of the awful glass tubes at the back of the lab. He was slumped over. He had his hands to his head, his eyes squeezed shut. It looked like he was mumbling under his breath, but whatever he had to say, Zack couldn’t hear it through the glass. He wanted to get closer, bang on the glass and tell Cloud he wasn’t alone, but scientists blocked the way, adjusting dials and switches. The tank filled with mako, bathing Cloud in its sickly green light. The mako closed over his head. His body floated, suspended in the tank.
“You’ll poison him!” Zack shouted. “Get him out of there!”
He tried to push the scientists aside, but the guards grabbed him. A vicious blow to the back of his head sent him crashing to the ground.
“You’re SOLDIER, not a scientist,” Hojo said dismissively. “Perhaps we should leave the details to me. Besides, he’s a failure. You both are.”
“What are you turning us into?” Zack demanded. He wouldn’t become a monster. He couldn’t let Cloud become one either.
“You were supposed to be the next generation of SOLDIER, modelled on the greatest that ever lived. The Jenova Project must live on. But your body appears to have burned it off like an infection and he was too weak to endure it.” Hojo nodded at the guards. They shoved Zack onto the bed, strapping him down before he could fight back. “Failures. Disgusting failures! All this work for absolutely nothing.” Hojo raised a tray full of needles. “So here you’ll stay. Maybe I’ll find use for you someday. I need to get back to Midgar. I’ve wasted too much time in this nasty place.”
Needles pierced veins. Cold liquid poured into Zack’s veins. A bitter, metallic taste coated the back of his throat. Zack lost his grip on time, on reality, until he came to, slumped in the bottom of a tank. He watched the mako pour in, and looked up to see Hojo and his team watching with their hungry, hungry eyes.
You wait, he wanted to tell them. Just wait. We’re gonna escape. Me and Cloud. We’re getting out of here. And together, we’re gonna make Shinra regret everything.
Today, tomorrow, whenever. Whatever it took, Zack would escape. Shinra wasn’t going to make a monster out of him or Cloud.
Mako reached his chin. Zack slumped, Hojo’s concoction running through his veins, dragging him down into an abyss. It slipped past his lips, pouring into his lungs.
Fight. He needed to fight.
It was all… all…
… slipping away.
Time had no meaning.