Summary: Nibelheim lies in ashes. Deep below the Shinra manor, Cloud and Zack awake in a sea of green. Cut off from family and friends, the boys have only each other to get through the nightmare ahead. Shinra's deepest, darkest secrets are about to be discovered, and the two friends will never be the same again.

Relationships: Peripherally Zack/Aerith and Cloti, but the girls won't be there, so only in memories.

Warnings: Graphic violence and adult themes. I will post any trigger warnings on individual chapters.

A/N: This is a dark subject, so this won't be pretty, but hopefully it will be worth the ride. Your thoughts and feedback will likely influence the direction of the story, so please let me know what you think along the way. Con-crit is always welcome!


He keeps them in cages like rats. Why wouldn't he? That's what they are to him, I suppose.

We're supposed to call them cells, but a prison cell would be a first class upgrade compared to these. Trust me. I've spent enough time in them to know.

Their cages have a 'bed' bolted to the cement wall at the back. The base is nothing more than a large cement slab, and a thin, stiff mattress that sits on top. It's the plastic kind used for children who wet the bed, and it looks only marginally softer than the cement base. Maybe at one time there had been sheets to go with them, but I imagine they were too much effort to wash. The specimens tend to spill a lot of bodily fluids on them.

In the corner is a hole dug into the ground for a toilet. There is a roll of toilet paper on the floor – an amenity I would not have expected from Professor Hojo. There is also a small pump for water, but it's not the kind of water anyone but a dying man would drink. It can be used for washing, but it's ice cold and the cell block is already kept around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so they rarely touch it anyway. The professor likes to have absolute power over his specimens.

The only thing that might show a touch of compassion is the fact that he put the specimens in cells right next to each other. They are leaning against the bars of their cells, shoulder-to-shoulder except for the cold steel sandwiched between them. That cement floor can't be comfortable, but they sit in that position for hours whenever they're both left to their own devices in their adjacent cages.

The cages don't have classic vertical bars. They're crisscrossed, like a chain link fence, only made from thick steel. The spaces between the bars are just large enough to stick a finger through, and the blond one has all 10 of his stuck in them. The dark one has his fingers linked with the pale fingers sticking into his cells. They draw comfort from each other, and I thought it strange that the professor would allow this. It's probably just an oversight on his part. He never has understood the human connection.

I listen in on their conversations often. It is my job to observe them, after all. I am only reminded of their names through their dialogue with each other, because Hojo refuses to acknowledge anything except their numbers anymore.

The blond one is called Cloud. He is not quite as young as I thought; he's 16 now, but he has a baby face and he's scared out of his mind. The dark-haired one is called Zack. When he talks to Cloud, he doesn't show the least bit of fear.

But I am the watcher. I see everything.

When Cloud falls into a restless sleep on the cement floor, when Zack thinks he is alone, he is different. His eyes, blue so dark that it looks purple, tell stories. I look closer into his beautiful eyes, and I see.

He is terrified.

Maybe more frightened than Cloud, or maybe it only seems so it because Cloud doesn't fight against his fear. He doesn't hide it. He doesn't pretend. But Zack only has these few hours of the night to stop pretending, and the terror only has this time to be set free. His pupils dilate. His breathing speeds up. His body temperature rises. He rocks back and forth, although he never loses his contact with Cloud's fingers.

I don't think he can.

He might go crazy.

I remember the day they were brought in.

I watched as the orderlies entered the operating room pushing gurneys with two very bloody men. One had brilliant red hair, the other raven black. The orderlies hefted the bodies onto the cold metal tables. They engaged the leather straps around their ankles and wrists - serious overkill since neither of those boys were going to be putting up a fight anytime soon.

Once the specimens were prepared, Hojo dismissed the orderlies and proceeded to completely ignore the bodies on the tables. He sat down at the desk against the far wall, flipped through papers and forms and scribbled on them with a pen, muttering to himself. Dr. Hyde entered several minutes later with his assistant, a young lab tech named Kyle.

"About time, Hyde," Hojo snapped.

Hyde simply raised an eyebrow at the professor. He seemed to be the only one immune to Hojo's temper. He didn't bother to make an excuse or apologize. He just snapped on a pair of thin rubber gloves and pulled down the spray nozzle above the redheaded man's table. Whoever he was, he ought to be glad he wasn't awake for this. That spray was powerful and freezing cold. It was like being hosed down by a fireman.

Kyle began unlacing and removing the man's boots, and then started cutting off his clothes. It was a trooper's uniform. I wondered what the poor sap had done to make himself the professor's next victim.

Dr. Hyde turned on the high powered spray and began rinsing the blood from the body. He started at the feet and worked his way up the legs. Much of it had soaked through his uniform from the outside, as if he'd been lying in a puddle of it. As the blood washed down the gutters on both sides of the table, a young man with a slight build and pale skin was revealed.

"This is a pretty average looking specimen, Hojo," Dr. Hyde said with a frown. "Why is he separated from the others?"

Professor Hojo stopped writing on his clipboard and looked down at the body. "Yes. I may discard him later, but there's something I need to learn from him first."

Hyde turned down the pressure when he reached the specimen's chest. Thick bandages had been sloppily applied, and I cringed when he peeled them back. He had a long gash across his chest, stretching from collarbone to ribs. It had been stitched up, but it was poorly done. Dr. Hyde would probably want to redo those. He couldn't stand that kind of sloppiness.

The doctor rolled him onto his side to take a look at his back. There was an identical line of sloppy stitches back there. It looked like the poor guy had been stabbed all the way through. How was he even still alive?

Hyde finished rinsing the wound and moved up to the man's head. As the water surged over his face, I realized that he wasn't a redhead after all. He had very pale blond hair, and it had just been saturated with that much blood. The specimen was barely more than a boy, I thought maybe in his early- to mid- teens.

Hyde finished examining the body and then turned to Hojo. "If you want this one to survive, you'll want to give him a liter of blood before you throw him in the tank."

Hojo grunted. "Fine. I want him kept alive for now. Go take care of it, Kirk."

Kyle nodded and left the room to carry out his orders. Even though his name was clearly visible on his ID badge, he wasn't stupid enough to correct Hojo.

Professor Hojo and Dr. Hyde moved over to the other table. Hyde started unlacing and pulling off the specimen's boots himself. Hojo looked disgusted, but that's one of the things I like about Hyde. He does what needs to be done. Even when Kyle returned, Hyde had him hook up the IV line for the blond kid and continued working on the other guy.

That was the first time I noticed that this one was wearing a SOLDIER uniform. A First Class SOLDIER uniform even. Man, this guy must have really messed up for Shinra to allow Hojo to take him. Those guys were the elites. Shinra put a ton of time and money into them, and he was as good as dead now. I guessed that meant that Shinra wanted him dead. Hojo was just a convenient means of disposal.

This guy had a slash across his chest too, but he didn't look nearly as rough as the blond kid. He was definitely built like a SOLDIER, all hard planes and defined muscle.

"Ah, now this is a fine specimen," Hyde said in admiration.

"Yes, he'll do nicely," Hojo said. "If there's anyone left on this planet who could get close to Sephiroth's perfection, it will be him."

Perfection indeed. He was beautiful.