"I told you so," Professor Hojo gloats as Hyde enters the office. It's the evening after Zack's disastrous escape attempt. Hojo is seated in his usual throne, looking smugly over his crystal glass at his colleague. "You treat the specimens too well and they think they have rights."

Dr. Hyde removes his lab coat as the office door closes silently behind him. Far from being humbled by Hojo's announcement, Hyde looks like he has just won the lottery. "You're missing the point, Horace!" he says excitedly, hanging the bleached white coat on the hook. "S-15 went crazy when his little pet got sick."

Hojo simply raises his eyebrows behind his wiry glasses. "I noticed. And?"

"And that has all kinds of psychological implications! Their little tryst around the facility gave us a goldmine of information."

"Little tryst?" Hojo snorts. "It wasn't a field trip, Klaus. Wendy might not even come back to work again. We've lost two enhanced guards completely. It isn't easy to find men with the capacity for mako enhancements who understand the greatness of my work, you know."

"You mean who have no moral objections," Hyde says flatly. The professor just shrugs and takes a drink.

"So what is this goldmine of information, Hyde? That Zack is capable of destroying my facility? That he can take out a couple of lazy, distracted guards?"

"I said psychological," Dr. Hyde enunciates, standing behind his chair and grasping the headrest. "Don't you see? S-15 could have easily escaped on his own. He could have plowed through those bullets and fought his way out. But he didn't, because he wouldn't sacrifice S-16."

Hojo snorts dismissively. He doesn't consider such traits to be a positive in his SOLDIERs.

"And on top of that, S-16 made it through the first fortified solution and he's lucid!"

Dr. Hojo sits up immediately. "How did the cells bond?" The few other specimens who had made it through the first infusion with their minds intact were poor candidates for the experiment.

"Exceptionally well!" Dr. Hyde says, his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store. "Better than any we've done thus far."

Professor Hojo snatches up the papers he hadn't bothered to look over when Hyde came in. His eyes grow wider as they scan over rows and rows of genomes, unwilling to trust Dr. Hyde's interpretation. "This is…how is this possible?"

"Perhaps…it has something to do with the cold shower," Hyde says hesitantly. "S-15 was concerned about the fever and put him in cold water." When Hojo doesn't explode over that tidbit, the doctor continues more confidently. "We haven't interfered with the excessive body temperatures previously because the Jenova cells seem to grow better, at the expense of the host's coherent mind." The professor's brow lowers, but the doctor rushes on. "By lowering his temperature, S-16's brain cells were spared and the cells still bonded! They've already begun mutating!"

Dr. Hyde finally sits down, clasping his hands together and leaning forward conspiratorially. "Horace…just think what we could do with clones who weren't mindless. They could live on as ordinary citizens, absorbing data for the host until the reunion!"

Professor Hojo's eyes flicker back and forth rapidly, making connections in his brilliant, twisted mind. "Alright. I doubt his temperature is the reason for his success, but let's try to control it during future infusions, just in case." Hyde looks slightly perturbed at the dismissal of his theory, but I'm not surprised. If Hojo were to agree, he would have to admit that he had made a mistake, and no mistake that occurred in this lab has ever been his fault. A smug smile spreads across the professor's face. "I knew there was something special about that boy!"

Dr. Hyde looks irritated, but he gets up and walks to the bar, hiding his expression from his colleague. For a moment, the only sound is the clinking of crystal and the pouring of liquid. "There's still the open question about his psychological profile."

"What about it?" Hojo asks distractedly.

Hyde returns to his chair with his drink, then opens the leather briefcase by his side. He pulls out a thin manila folder and hands it over to Hojo. I can't read the tab at the top of the folder, but when he opens it, I can see that it's a profile sheet. There are two pictures – head shots, front and side. He's younger and looks considerably healthier, but it's clearly the blond boy.

"I decided to look into his history," the doctor says. "There's nothing about his childhood anywhere; he grew up in one of those backwater towns with no technology," he says distastefully. "But I looked up his Shinra profile and found an interesting tidbit. S-16 actually applied to the SOLDIER program last year."

Hojo's mouth drops open as he reaches the relevant part of the document. "He failed the psychological portion." He looks up and locks eyes with the doctor. "They didn't think he could withstand the mako showers."

Dr. Hyde looks disappointed at having his thunder stolen. "Er…yes. But we've obviously seen that he can handle the mako tubes. So whatever it is that drove him to overpower Sephiroth–"

"And break the leather bindings," Hojo inserted.

"…must also be the ability that allows him to survive the mako," Hyde concluded triumphantly. "And I think I might know what it is."

"Oh?" The professor raises his brow.

Dr. Hyde knocks back the rest of his drink and sets down his glass loudly. "How would you feel about a little wager?"

"A wager?" Hojo says skeptically.

"Yes." Dr. Hyde leans forward and taps his fingertips together. "You try to push him past his limits. You get three tries to try to make him break through the bindings. If all three fail, then I get to try."

Dr. Hojo swirls his drink around in his glass, warming up to the idea. Hojo hates to lose at anything, and the idea of Hyde figuring out the answer before him clearly chafes. "All in the name of science, I assume?"

"Of course," Hyde says lightly.

The edges of Hojo's lips curl up in what can only be described as an evil grin.

Chapter 6: The Rules Have Changed

Cloud felt empty. It had nothing to do with the recently completed infusion, and everything to do with his best friend's words, which the pain had finally eased enough for him to think about. 'We're not patients…we're prisoners.' To be honest, this didn't come as much of a shock to Cloud. He had been suspect of the doctor's motives from the beginning. No, it was the other part that disturbed him.

'I tried to escape.'

He couldn't believe Zack would actually leave him behind in this place. Maybe he planned to go for help. Maybe he thought it was the best way to save them both. Or maybe he hadn't thought about Cloud at all. Cloud had a pretty good idea of what would happen to him if Zack managed to get out while he was unconscious. Didn't Zack think about that? Didn't he care?

No, that wasn't fair. Of course Zack cared about him. If anything, he hadn't thought through the consequences. He had only been thinking about getting away, getting help. In some ways, Zack was really brilliant. In his hands, anything could be a weapon or a key. He could rig up an escape with a ribbon and a bottle of booze. The problem was that he wouldn't think beyond the room. He was very much an in-the-moment type of guy.

But then why had he suddenly decided to escape? The entire experience had been a nightmare for Cloud – the beatings, the starvation, the sickness, the all-encompassing pain of the infusion, the betrayal from his best friend. But Zack's suffering seemed to be the equivalent of training camp. The workouts were hard and the tests were annoying, but he hadn't really been subjected to anything yet, had he? Still, for some reason he had tried to escape, and now here he was, chained to the wall. He had lost the illusion of choice over his circumstances, and he was taking it hard.

It was strange to see Zack in that state. Goofy, determined, look-on-the-bright-side Zack, was brooding. Cloud wanted to talk to him, but every time he tried to think of something to say, he remembered the desperate lunging for his IV line, the source of his agony, and the way Zack held it just out of his reach. The memory was bright but distorted. Was Zack laughing at him? Yes, he must be. He was taunting him. He had laughed while Cloud had screamed, and then he had tried to leave him behind.

But it didn't make sense. This wasn't some stranger – it was Zack! Zack was loyal and fierce and caring and compassionate. And then, even as he tried to convince himself, another memory butted in. It was the octo-room, with the blinding rage and the stranger with green-ringed irises.

Cloud looked up at his roommate again. Which version of Zack Fair was in there now?


Both boys looked over at the door expectantly. Dr. Hyde entered, looking down at them through his tiny glasses, clasping his hands behind his back. For a moment, no one spoke. The three men sized each other up, measuring the new balance of power.

Finally, Dr. Hyde shook his head and tut-tutted at his patients. "I didn't want it to come to this. But I did warn you."

Cloud looked back and forth between Zack and the doctor, who were locked in some kind of silent eye battle. "What are you talking about?" he asked quietly. "Warned us about what?"

"Zack didn't tell you?" A crooked smile came over Hyde's face and he turned his head to look at his other patient. "He knew exactly what would happen to you if he kept acting so rashly, yet he persisted in fighting me."

"Fuck you, Hyde," Zack said savagely. "You left me no choice."

The doctor bounced on his toes, looking back to Zack. "There's always a choice, S-15. And you chose to have yourself and your friend treated like prisoners instead of guests."

"What did you call me?" Zack looked caught between surprise and lingering anger.

"Anyway, it's time to start the new wave of tests. Since Wendy is—" Hyde leveled Zack with an accusatory look – "injured, Gage will be here to escort you shortly. You're first, 16." Without another word, he turned and swept from the room.

"What the hell is with the numbers?" Zack demanded, but the doctor was gone. He punched the mattress angrily. "Why does he keep doing that?"

Cloud laid back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He knew what it meant. "He's dehumanizing us," he said softly. "It means he doesn't see us as people anymore. Or at least he's trying not to."

"What—what?" Zack sputtered. "How can you just suddenly pretend people aren't people?"

Cloud shrugged. "It's not like you can just turn it off. But little things like that, psychologically, make it easier to do horrible things to other people."

Zack took a minute to absorb that. Maybe he was just beginning to understand that these people had horrible things in store for them.


A large, bearded man entered the room. His hair was fire-red, melding seamlessly from his scalp to his chin. He looked like a pair of eyes in the middle of a fireball. His arms were like slabs of beef. He wore one of the strange blue gloves on his left hand, which held a clipboard from which he was currently reading. "S-16? You're coming with me." He pulled a small ring of keys from his belt, selecting a tiny silver one. Or maybe they all just looked tiny in his massive sausage fingers.

Leaning over Cloud, the unfamiliar orderly grabbed his forearm and lifted it roughly. He fitted the little key into the hole in the handcuffs and released Cloud's wrist, then repeated it with the other arm.

Cloud rubbed his sore wrists as soon as he was free. They were still bruised from his struggles during the infusion, but they were much farther along in healing than he'd expected them to be. He must have been put in the mako tank at some point while he was unconscious.

Then Gage grabbed him under the arm and hauled him to his feet. Cloud stumbled, but Gage held him upright with his bruising grip. "Hey, you don't have to be so rough," Zack said sharply.

"I'm fine, Zack," Cloud said wearily, standing up straight. How ironic that Zack was acting worried about him now. After forcing him through the infusion and then trying to leave without him, he was going to snap at the orderly for not being gentle enough?

Gage ignored him completely, pulling Cloud forward. He grabbed the door handle and pulled, but it didn't budge. With an irritated sigh, he took a few steps to the side before the telltale blip-blip sounded, and then dragged his patient out the door.

Cloud didn't say anything as he was pulled quickly down the hall. He had actually gotten pretty comfortable with Wendy, even if she was a little rough around the edges. She had a weird sense of humor, making him laugh at the most unexpected times. He needed those unexpected laughs in this place. Why would Zack have hurt her? It must have happened during his escape attempt – when he had left Cloud behind. The thought made Cloud angry all over again.

Suddenly, a sharp jerk on his free wrist pulled him from the loose grasp of Gage. He stumbled through a doorway and tripped, hitting the floor hard on his hands and knees. The door closed behind him, and Cloud scrambled back to his feet and spun around. Gage was inside of the room with him, leaning against the door. Then he felt another arm across his chest, pulling him back against the far wall. Another man, a smaller brunet with a crew cut, held his shoulders against the plaster.

Cloud struggled against him, pushing off of the wall. He kicked out, grazing the man's shin. The man grimaced, but didn't let up. Cloud must have still been weak from starvation and the days he was stuck in bed.

"Settle down, cutie pie," he said, grinning at Cloud. His teeth were uneven, and he had the scarring of nasty teenage acne, but what caught Cloud's attention most was the subtle glow of mako in his eyes. The man didn't release his shoulders, but he stood back a bit to admire his captive. "So delicate," he said appreciatively. "So pretty."

"I've only got three minutes to get him through the next door, Eugene," Gage warned.

"Get the fuck away from me," Cloud growled through gritted teeth, pushing against him again.

Eugene pressed closer, putting his knee between Cloud's legs, pushing him against the wall. "Oh don't worry, sweetheart," he said, breathing hot air in his ear. "We'll do this later. Now that Wendy's not here to get in the way, we have all the time in the world." A hot, wet tongue licked up the side of his face, and Cloud squirmed harder. "I just wanted to build up the anticipation a little bit." Then Eugene pulled back suddenly, shoving Cloud, stumbling, back to Gage. Opening the door behind him, Gage led Cloud back out into the hallway. "See you soon!" Eugene called after them.

Cloud clenched his jaw, but said nothing, letting Gage pull him forward again. He hated – hated – feeling so weak. It was the reason he had gone off to join Shinra in the first place. And really, he'd come a long way in two years. He was a good soldier. He was a fast learner. He put in the work instead of goofing off like some of the others. On top of that, he had Zack's private training sessions, and he'd gotten pretty good with the sword. If he'd gotten the SOLDIER enhancements, he would have been damn good. But after weeks without food, after whatever garbage they'd been pumping into his blood, he was back to that stupid, helpless kid who couldn't keep a girl from falling off a bridge.

He tried not to cry. He was so damn emotional lately, but he couldn't allow himself to crumble. Not when he was surrounded by people out to get him. Not when he didn't even know if he could count on Zack.

Zack Fair. The best friend he'd ever had. Cloud had been so captivated by him when they first met. A second class SOLDIER, paying attention to him? It wasn't just his rank and skill that impressed Cloud. Zack was funny. He was kind. He cared about other people, especially the cadets under him. He was endlessly encouraging and positive. Honestly, everybody liked Zack, especially the girls. And for some reason, he'd taken a liking to Cloud.

Eventually, Cloud had stopped questioning it. He also finally realized that Zack wasn't perfect. He was so overzealous about everything, to the point that it was almost ridiculous. Every new girl he hooked up with was an angel. She was the one. He was going to marry her someday. He fell hard and fast, and he burned out just as quickly. She was annoying. She wanted to watch stupid TV shows, and her perfume was cloying. She wore too much makeup. She was too clingy, or too independent. Things that he found endearing in the beginning started to bother him, and then began the inevitable spiral to the dramatic breakup.

Cloud was used to it by now, the endless drama of Zack's love life. He was there to keep him grounded at the beginning of each new relationship, and there to pick him up at the end. Honestly, he'd been surprised at how long he'd stuck with his most recent girlfriend, Aerith. Maybe it was because, from the very beginning, she kept his ego in check. She didn't drool over him like most girls. Cloud had stopped bothering to meet Zack's girlfriends long before that. There was no point in making friends with a girl whose name Zack couldn't stand to hear a month later. But he kind of wished he'd been able to meet Aerith. There was something different about her.

Cloud was so wrapped up in his memories that he didn't realize where he was being taken until the looming walls of the octo-room stood over him. A sense of dread spread through his limbs, and he pulled back against his escort. "Now, now," Gage said in a patronizing tone, tightening his grip on Cloud's arm, "don't make me drag you in by your hair."

Cloud planted his feet, pulling back harder. Gage's eyes crinkled at the corners suddenly, and the mop of fiery hair on his face tilted upward. He reached over with his free hand to press something on his wrist. There was a muted click and a sharp poke from the blue glove, and Cloud turned into a puddle. Every muscle in his body suddenly went slack, and he collapsed to the ground. Gage let him fall and looked at his blue-gloved hand. There was nothing to see, though. The needle had flicked out and immediately retracted.

"Well that was kind of a letdown," the fireball said to the puddle. Cloud wanted to retort, but he couldn't. The same chemical that immobilized them in the tank was flowing through his blood, except now there was no fluid to bring in the oxygen his body needed. There were no strange bubbles holding him upright.

It was a terrifying feeling, even worse than the tank, because he felt so much more vulnerable with his face pressed against the cold, dirty floor. He couldn't blink. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move. But he could feel.

He felt every inch of the ground sliding under his limp body, and the slight bump of the doorframe. He felt the straining of every strand of hair wrapped in the big man's fist. He couldn't turn his head to see, but he did hear the obnoxious, reedy voice of Professor Hojo.

"Ah, I see you tried out the Wippy glove."

"Yeah," Gage said as he continued dragging Cloud across the sleek metallic floor. "What a disappointment. He just fell down."

"Yes, well, hurry up and secure him before it wears off. You only have 30 to 60 seconds," Hojo snapped.

Cloud felt himself being lifted under his armpits. His head flopped forward against his chest, but he was too concerned with what was happening with his body to notice what they were doing with him. His eyes were dry. He was starting to get dizzy, and darkness closed around the edges of his vision. When he felt the first, labored movement of his lungs, every ounce of his focus went toward dragging in that painful breath. His eyes finally closed, and he wheezed loudly, each breath forced in and out while his brain struggled to overcome the effects of the drug.

When he was finally able to open his eyes and lift his head, Hojo's ugly face was the first thing he saw. He turned his head away, and his eyes landed on his bound wrist. There was some kind of leather strap holding him against rough wood. The wood was one corner of a giant X; the other three corners held his ankles and his other wrist.


Cloud pulled his arms forward, straining against the straps. They didn't budge. "What…what is this? Let me down from here right now, you freak!"

Hojo gave a rare, amused smile, displaying his coffee-stained teeth. "A freak, you say? That's funny, coming from you."

Cloud scowled and pulled harder, struggling with both his arms and legs, ignoring the slivers of wood stabbing into his skin. Calm down, calm down, calm down. He repeated the mantra in his head, trying to fight off the panic that that threatened to overwhelm him.

Gage was gone, but the excitable little freckled girl from his first octo-room sessions was there. She gave him a shy smile, and Cloud stared back incredulously. She was smiling at him! Like they were meeting at some kind of school dance!

He rocked his body backwards and forwards, trying to tip the X one way or the other, but it was too stable. The girl reached out to his shoulder – to calm him maybe, or even to help.

"Lissa! I told you not to touch him!" Hojo snapped.

The girl quickly pulled her hand back, looking chastened. "Sorry, professor," she said obediently. She clasped her hands behind her back, like she needed to physically keep them in check. She stood there watching him struggle, her face frozen in awe, like he was some kind of butterfly fighting his way out of a chrysalis.

He knew he should stop struggling. It was pointless to fight against such strong bindings, but he hated being tied down.

"Tifa's in a coma, sweetheart. They're not sure, but…well, we'll just have to pray for a miracle."

Cloud felt numb. He was nine years old – old enough to know what his mother wasn't saying. They thought she would die. He couldn't hold her, she slipped through his weak, weak fingers, and she was going to die. He stared up at his mother's pretty face, marred by worry wrinkles. "Cloud? Honey, are you ok?"

"I…I'm fine, mom. I'm going to finish my chores now."

Cloud turned and walked out the back door, ignoring his mother calling after him. He picked up the big metal bucket and walked to the town well in a daze. He set the bucket under the faucet and opened it up, watching the water splash noisily into his pail.

Die…. The word echoed in his head. Die. Tifa might die. He couldn't save her, and she was going to die. She would get to see the mother she'd tried to chase over the mountains. Cloud pictured her, the girl next door, cold and unmoving in her best dress, tucked into a little pine box. Her hands would be folded over her stomach, those beautiful, long, piano fingers forever stilled.

He had no idea that he wasn't alone before an arm wrapped around his neck and dragged him backwards, throwing him down to the ground.

"Hey!" Cloud yelled, trying to sit up. One of the boys, one of Tifa's stupid little clique, kicked him in the side. Another boy, a much bigger one, sat on his chest and pinned his arms against the ground. Cloud kicked and squirmed underneath him. The boy was crushing his rib cage and it was hard to breathe. Two more sets of unseen hands clamped down on his ankles, pressing them into the dirt. Random sneakers started kicking his exposed sides, his head, anyplace they could reach around the three kids holding him down. A hard foot stomped down on his face, and pain shot through his head. The hot gush of blood from his nose dripped into his open mouth.

Cloud yelled and coughed, struggling vainly against the gang of boys. "Everyone knows what you did, you little freak!" one of the kids yelled down at him. "Georgie saw you push Tifa off that bridge."

Cloud's eyes opened wide. "What? No! She—she fell! I tried—"

A clump of grass, roots clogged with dirt, was shoved roughly into his mouth. "Shut your lying mouth!" Georgie screamed. A fist too small to be part of something so violent smashed against his mouth, knocking a tooth loose while Cloud gagged on dirt and blood.

Dirty, angry faces floated over him, vying for position for an open shot at his body. The forgotten bucket filled up and began running over the side. The cold water snaked across the dirt and pooled under his head. Cloud jerked his head back, the only part of his body he could still move, and that's when he saw them. Two men, standing in the shadows, watching. 'Help!' His eyes begged for what his mouth couldn't. But they just stood there, arms crossed and lips pressed tight. He recognized one of them – Charlie's father, another of Tifa's friends, one of the many feet striking him.

The beating seemed to go on forever, but eventually, the weight lifted from his chest. Cloud rolled to his side and spit out the wad of grass and dirt, curling himself into a ball. Every part of his body ached. His throat was raw from trying to breathe, from trying to scream. He coughed and coughed, until finally he vomited. The half-digested meal fell from the side of his mouth and swirled in the gathering puddle, mixing with his blood.

He had no idea how long he laid there, crying, before brown working man's shoes came into his vision. Cloud curled his face under his arm, sobbing and ashamed. The shoes sloshed through the mud, splattering cold water over him. A moment later, the faucet was closed, and the sound of running water ceased. There was a pause (are you going to help me?), and then the footsteps faded.

The water tower was in the center of town. The spigot was in a shadowed area, but still, people had to have seen what was happening. People like the two men who stood in the shadow, or the one who came to turn off the water. Adults. But no one came to help him. He and his mother were unpopular, only tolerated by the rest of the town. He was old enough to understand that, but still he had thought that someone would come save him. Someone had to think that what was happening was wrong.

The sun sank and the shadows lengthened. Cloud shivered, watching the nasty mixture settle onto the earth as the water soaked into the ground.

Finally, a hand pulled at his shoulder. "Come on, boy. You're going to catch your death lying there all wet."

Death…die…he might die…she might die…

"Get up now," the same no-nonsense voice said, louder.

Cloud blinked and turned his head. It was Agnes, the old lady who lived two houses down from the Strife's humble hut. She put an arm behind his back and around his elbow, lifting him gently to his feet. Then she picked up his overfull bucket. The handle was broken, so she settled the pail in the crook of one arm, supporting Cloud with the other. She ignored the water sloshing over the sides and wetting her working dress. She was the epitome of a mountain woman, strong and sturdy despite her years, with the stubbornness and who-gives-a-damn-what-other-people-think attitude of the old and wise. Cloud limped along beside her, barely aware of her presence.

"Cloud!" His mother was nearly frantic as she pulled him into the house. She fretted over his wounds, cleaning them and splashing the stinging alcohol over them, sewing up the gash in his forehead, ceaselessly questioning: "What happened? Who did this to you?"

He didn't answer. He was cataloguing them in his brain, memorizing their faces. He didn't want to tell her, because he was going to get them back. He was going to get strong. He was going to learn to fight. And one day, he would show them all.

Cloud pushed away the memory and forced himself to stop struggling. There was no gang of kids beating him. Tifa wasn't going to die because she was dead, because despite everything he did to make himself stronger, it wasn't enough. In the end, he still couldn't save her.

"Done fighting already?" Hojo asked, sounding disappointed. "I see. Well, onto the next phase, then. Lissa?"

The pretty young woman smiled brightly, pulling forward a rolling cart. It was the same shiny, metallic material as the rest of the octo-room, and as Cloud watched, she unrolled a cloth-wrapped set of materia, spreading them across the top of the cart. The green glow reflected from the walls and the ceiling, tinting the entire room with the otherworldly color. Cloud couldn't tell what they were without touching them, but he was pretty sure that none of them would be pleasant.

Lissa fingered them lovingly, caressing each green orb. "Three chances, Lissa," Hojo warned. "Choose correctly."

Lissa nodded seriously, like she was about to start an important exam. "Let's see…everyone has a weakness. Everyone has a fear. What's yours?" She looked up at him and studied his pale face. "Lightning? Do you imagine what it feels like to be electrocuted?" Apparently not getting the reaction she wanted, the girl looked back down at the orbs. "How about poison? Do you know how it feels to have your insides turned out?"

Cloud tensed. He had actually been poisoned once. It was fairly mild, but it had taken a long time to realize what was wrong, and he had gotten pretty sick by then. Lissa smiled like they shared a secret, and then it hit him. Hard.

Everything ached at once. His gut clenched, but there was nothing in his bowels to empty. There was nothing in his stomach, either, but that didn't stop it from trying. A splitting headache tore through his head. He let it fall forward while he dry heaved. He strained against the leather straps with the force of his body retching. The pressure against his eyeballs made him certain they were about to explode. And then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

"Holy shit," he whispered, trying to catch his breath. Lissa was one powerful magic user. He lifted his head, his eyes still watering. She looked unhappy, and he felt strangely bad for disappointing her.

"What about fire? Do you know how it feels to be burned alive?" she asked in her sweet, innocent voice.

Instantly, he was sucked into the echoes of screams.

Flames danced merrily across the thatched rooftops as he dodged the burning debris falling from the sky. He put his hand against the front door of his house. It was hot, even through the material of his gloves. He took a step back and kicked the door. It slammed down against the floor of the house, and a burst of heat pushed him back as the flames reached greedily for the fresh air.

He put an arm across his mouth and pushed through it. "Mom? Mom! Where are you?"

"Cl—" *cough, cough* "Honey, get out! It's not—" *cough, cough, cough*

Cloud looked around frantically in the tiny hut. Flames covered every surface. The two beds were already lost in a lake of fire, and for a moment, his heart stopped. But there she was, in the corner of the kitchen, pinned down by a fallen beam. "Mom! Just hang on, I'll get you out of there."

"Baby don—"

The back wall of the hut collapsed. The orange light flared up between them and he stumbled back, losing sight of her. That was when her screams started.

"MOM!" The heat pressed in from every side. There was no way around the wall. He was going to have to jump through. If he could avoid the base of the flames, maybe he wouldn't catch. He took a few steps back to get a running start, and when the first of the fire licked at his boots, he jumped.

He landed heavily on the floor, and his boot broke though, slipping down into the root cellar. The rest of the floor held, though, trapping him in place. He pulled frantically at his leg and tried to smother the flames licking up his sleeves. "Mom, I—"

He looked up, and the image imprinted itself into his brain, mixing in with all the memories of her beautiful face, her sweet smile, her girlish giggle. They were forever tainted with blackened skin and agonized screaming while the flames consumed her.

Over the crackling of the fire and the mingling screams, hers and his, he heard a loud crack above his head. He looked up just in time to see the sky cave in, and then everything was black.

Cloud bucked wildly against the restraints of his wooden X, but they were as stubborn as ever. The flames, blue in their intensity, had started at his feet and climbed all the way to his chest. He screamed, stretching his neck, trying to keep his head away from the licking flames. The plasticky material of his scrubs melted onto his skin.

The next second, he was hit with a cold burst of water, and that was even worse. His burned flesh tightened instantly, huge fissures cracking open over his body, oozing translucent yellowish goo. The remains of his scrubs fell to the ground with chunks of his skin, landing on the shiny metallic floor with a series of sizzling plops.

And then suddenly, the pain from the burns was gone, but the pain of the memory tore through him again. Tears streaked down his face as he whimpered and shook.

"Oops! That wasn't actually…I mean, that wasn't my third one. I just used water because the wood was on fire. That doesn't count…right?" Lissa looked at the professor with wide eyes. He looked angry.

"No, it doesn't count," he snapped. "Get it right this time."

Lissa looked much less confident as she fingered the materia, glancing up at Cloud with each one, as if she expected him to react by what she felt. He was still trembling, naked and wet, missing a significant portion of his body hair, anticipating how horrible the last one would be. He didn't know how much more he could take. "Umm, professor?" she said meekly. "Should I try this?" She held out the green orb in her hand. It was large, definitely mastered.

Hojo looked at the materia angrily. "What? I don't use that garbage! Tell me what it is!"

Lissa looked offended. "It's ultima," she whispered, but not quiet enough.

Cloud jerked against his restraints. Mastered ultima, in the hands of such a powerful mage, would most definitely kill him. It would kill him several times over, in fact.

Hojo looked at him speculatively. "Ultima?" He said, loud enough for Cloud's benefit. "Can you keep it from hitting us?"

Lissa nodded eagerly. "I can contain it to a smaller area."

Cloud struggled harder. "P-professor. That can't…I won't…"

Hojo turned back to Lissa. "Fine. But I'm going up to the observation deck, just in case."

"Lissa…" Cloud appealed to her as the professor left the room. "Lissa, come on, you're not a murderer."

Lissa smiled serenely. "Of course I'm not." Cloud's heart slowed down, just a bit, but it was short-lived. "I'm just doing what the professor says to do, so really, he's the murderer," she said cheerfully.

"What? N-no! Lissa don't—"

That was all he got to say. The world exploded.

When Cloud opened his eyes, he didn't know what he expected. Maybe it was his mom, glowing and healthy, with the smell of his favorite foods wafting from the kitchen. Maybe Tifa, ready to pick up where they left off in his dreams.

For a moment, he was confused by the pretty girl smiling at him. Then everything came rushing back, and Cloud flinched against the harsh wood at his back. Lissa stood behind the cart of materia, her hands resting on either side of the array of materia. "What—Lissa? Did you—"

"Damn it, Lissa, get up here now." The cold voice of Professor Hojo came over the speakers, and the girl visibly wilted. Cloud watched her walk back out through the sleek metallic doors, leaving him on his rough wooden X.

What happened? Am I dead? His mind raced. She didn't respond to me. Did she see me? Or hear me? But I'm not in the lifestream…I must be in between. Is this how it works? I just have to sit here and wait—

The door slid open again, and Dr. Hyde walked in, looking smug. He looked right at the wooden X holding Cloud's body, smiling broadly. "Well, S-16, what did you think? Was that absolutely horrible? Did you try everything you could to escape your bindings?"

Cloud blinked. Hyde was talking to him? "I…yes…" he said hesitantly.

"Good," Hyde said, looking satisfied. "We're going to try something a bit different now."

The door opened again, this time admitting the big red-haired man with Zack thrown carelessly over his shoulder. He looked like he'd gotten to try out the Wippy glove, too.

"What…what's going on?" Cloud fumbled. "Why is he here?" He watched as Gage plopped his burden down on the opposite side of the room, pausing just long enough to remove Zack's scrub top before enclosing his limp patient's wrists in the steel cuffs chained to the wall. He leaned Zack's back against the wall and began attaching little electrodes to his chest. A few moments later, Zack began his struggle for air, wheezing loudly to pull in those first, painful breaths.

It was hard for Cloud to watch. "Why is he here?" he repeated, louder. "Why are you doing this?"

No one answered. Gage clipped leads onto the electrodes. Instantly, a panel above Zack's head slid to the side, revealing an inset monitor. A jagged line started running across the screen. It was the familiar pattern of a heart beat in electronic view. Several other numbers ran across the top, some of which Cloud recognized – heart rate and blood pressure, but also some more he didn't know.

Zack finally got his feet under him and took in the surrounding room. His restraints were at a height that allowed him to sit or stand, but Zack never sat down if he could help it. "Cloud? What's going on? Are you ok?"

"I'm ok," Cloud said. He was getting a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. From Hojo, he expected pain and torment. His previous octo-room sessions made that clear. But what would Dr. Hyde do?

The doctor cleared his throat importantly. "When a candidate is first accepted into the SOLDIER program, he undergoes a special surgery. Much of this surgery is to strengthen certain weaknesses in the human body, and the initial introduction of mako is carefully monitored. This also helps to strengthen the body."

"We already know all this, Hyde," Zack says irritably. "Just tell us what we're doing here."

Dr. Hyde shot a sour glance in his direction, then continued as if there had been no interruption. "But there is another part of this surgery that is done as a safeguard. You see, when creating super-human soldiers, we need to make sure that we have a way to control them, in case they get out of hand. It's a kill switch, in the most literal sense of the word."

"Really?" Zack asked, incredulous. "Then why the hell didn't you geniuses use it on Sephiroth?"

"Zack," Cloud said quietly, shaking his head at him. The bad feeling was getting worse.

Hyde pulled a small device from his pocket and began tapping on a touch screen. Across the room, the monotone beeping sped up.

"Hyde, stop," Cloud said loudly. "Just tell me what you want from me. This isn't the way to convince me…"

"What's going on? What are you doing to me?" Zack demanded. The beeping got faster. Zack was breathing harder. "What the fuck are you doing to me?" His face was turning red. Sweat trickled down the side of his face.

"Doctor Hyde!" Cloud said desperately, watching the number on the monitor rising. 200. 210. 220. "Stop! I'll do whatever you want, just stop!"

Zack was beyond yelling. He dropped to his knees, his breathing fast and shallow.

230. 240. 250. Cloud bucked against the wood. The leather creaked. "I will fucking kill you, Hyde!" he screamed. "Turn it off, now!" The beeping rose to a shrill beat. "ZACK!" The wood splintered at his back. Cloud threw his upper body forward with all his strength, pulling his arms forward. The wood snapped at the weak point in the center. He braced his hand against the splintered wood from the bottom of the X and pulled his leg forward. The leather snapped and tore. He pulled his leg free, then quickly ripped off the other pieces.

He looked up to see Dr. Hyde, his mouth in a comically wide O. Cloud didn't think. He just reacted. He charged toward the doctor like a bull, head tucked down. The cart full of materia was between the two of them. He snatched one as he ran by, then dove at Hyde, ramming into the doctor's gut with his shoulder. They went flying together, hitting the sleek metalic floor and sliding almost all the way to where Zack hung by his wrists, his eyes barely open.

Cloud had never wished so hard for someone to die. He leapt back onto the doctor, wrapping his hands around his neck, slamming his head against the ground. The shrill beeping of Zack's heart rate reverberated in Cloud's bones. "Make it stop, Hyde. Now!"

"The…the remote. I can't reach it." He waved his hand weakly in the general direction of his pocket, which Cloud was blocking with his knees. Cloud moved his knee and reached into the pocket of Hyde's lab coat, grabbing the remote himself. He scanned frantically over the display. It was a complicated interface; he would never be able to figure it out fast enough.

He shoved it into Hyde's hand and stood up. "Fix it, Hyde." Dr. Hyde sat up unsteadily. Cloud hoped he hadn't slammed his head against the ground too hard, but he didn't have time to coddle the man. He squeezed the stone in his hand and channeled his focus. A bolt of lightning snapped, inches from the hand supporting Hyde on the ground.

Dr. Hyde yelped, pulling up his hand, and stared up at Cloud. "Hurry up, Hyde. I will kill you," Cloud said savagely.

"Ok, ok! I'm stopping it! Just need to…" he pressed several buttons on the screen while Cloud's eyes flickered between Hyde and the numbers on the monitor. Finally, they started going down.

Zack's eyelids fluttered. "C…c…"

Cloud's heart was in his throat. "Zack?" He ran to his friend's side and knelt down. "How do you feel? Are you—" Then there was a prick on his neck, and his muscles turned to putty. He slumped down to the ground next to Zack. His hand opened, and the materia, his only weapon, rolled from his fist.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Cloud berated himself. How could you turn your back on him after that?

But he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and heard Dr. Hyde's voice. "Well done, Cloud."

I did it? Whatever he wanted me to do…what was it? Save Zack? Threaten to kill Hyde? Break my bonds? And then, an absurd thought under the circumstances: Wait a minute. He knows my name?

Cloud sat up in bed, his legs crossed in front of him. With his wrists awkwardly restrained by the chains, it was the closest thing to comfortably sitting up that he could manage. Zack leaned against the wall between his shackles.

For once, they had nothing to say to each other. They were both reliving the afternoon that they almost didn't live through.

"Cloud." Zack finally spoke, uncharacteristically quiet. "We have to get out."

Cloud looked up, but said nothing.

"We mean nothing to them. They'd just as soon kill us as do…whatever they're trying to do." Still, Cloud just stared. "Come on, say something, man. I need you to help me plan this. I can't do it alone."

Cloud's stomach lurched. "Yeah, I guess you figured that out last time," he said bitterly.

"Yeah," Zack said, sighing.

Cloud tried to rub his eyes and was abruptly reminded, once again, of his shackles. Zack was still showing no remorse for trying to leave him behind, which only proved that he didn't think he did anything wrong. In his mind, there was no betrayal. More importantly, things had changed. Cloud had always known that he was little more than a number to Hyde and Hojo. Hell, today was the first time they'd even bothered to use his name, and they toyed with him for months. But Zack…he was supposed to be the one they were banking everything on. He was the golden child.

Cloud didn't know what had changed, but the rules were different. They had to stick together if they were going to make it out of this place alive, and staying mad at Zack would only divide them. He sighed. It seemed impossible, but they had to try. "All right. The first thing we have to deal with is that kill switch. Even if we manage to escape, they'll just kill you as soon as they realize we're gone."

Zack stared at him, wide-eyed. "Not just me, Cloud. Us."

"Zack, you know I never made SOLDIER. They didn't do that surgery on me."

"Yeah? Well you were unconscious for weeks before you were brought here. Are you willing to bet your life they didn't implant a kill switch during that time?"

"Oh." Cloud frowned. "Maybe. If they thought I was worth the expense."

"Their secrets are worth the expense," Zack said bitterly.

Cloud shrugged, conceding the point. It was quite possible that he could be killed the same way. "So what are we supposed to do about it? Any idea where it is? Can we dig it out?"

"It…made my heart race. Do you think it's right on my heart?"

Cloud shook his head. "Maybe, but I doubt it. A stimulant released anywhere in your blood would be enough to do it. They wouldn't have to mess with that kind of surgery. Do you remember anything from when you woke up after your surgery? Any places you were sore or stitched up?"

Zack leaned his head against the wall. "Not that I remember. I really just thought they knocked us out so they could monitor the first mako injection."

Cloud swore. "Ok. We'll have to try to figure something out. Maybe one of the orderlies can get us some more information. I mean, Jax seems to like you, and Wendy…" he trailed off.

Zack looked guilty. "I feel bad about that, man. I didn't know it was her."

"Well, anyway. Maybe we can get something out of them without making it obvious that we're trying to find out how to get around it. Think you can do that?"

"Of course," Zack said, his familiar cocky grin surfacing. "I can charm the pants off a nun."

Cloud burst out laughing. It felt good to laugh after so long. "We don't need Jax's pants off, just…get him to talk."

"Yeah, ok. But you know, it's been a really long dry spell for me…"


Zack shrugged, tossing his head. "Hey, you know, shit happens…"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Only to you, Zack. Anyway…"

"He does have a pretty nice ass, you know."

"Uh, no, actually I don't know," Cloud said pointedly.

"Come on, I've seen you eyeing that ass!" Zack prodded.

"Can we please stop talking about Jax's ass now?"

Zack cackled madly. "Hell no, not now! I haven't seen your face so red since…well, since we talked about Lola!"

As easily as Zack talked about sex, Cloud was still too shy to say the words himself. He grew up in a culture where people barely mentioned sex, let alone educated children about it. Cloud was clueless when he first arrived in Midgar. It was an endless source of amusement for Zack. "Gods, you are so immature!" Cloud said, willing his face to stop burning.

Zack just laughed harder. "I'm immature? You can't even think about sex without getting embarrassed. How do you even get through it? Do you stutter and apologize the whole time?!"

Cloud reached behind him for his pillow and hurled it at Zack. At least, he tried. His movement was aborted with a loud clank of metal, and the pillow plopped to the ground between their beds.

Just like that, the mood was dead. But that was the power of Zack Fair. Even if only for a few minutes, he could make you forget that you were being held hostage by an unstable scientist. He could make you forget that life as you knew it was over.

It was over.

Zack laid on his side, watching his roommate toss and turn without a pillow. Neither of them were able to reach it from their beds, so it laid there between them like a lump of roadkill. He wished it hadn't ended like that. It had been so long since he'd seen the kid smile, and he'd tried to draw it out as long as possible.

It wasn't nearly long enough.

He needed this quiet time, though. Unlike Cloud, whose mind was always going, processing and understanding everything instantly, Zack needed time to think and draw conclusions. And the conclusions he was drawing were not good.

Conclusion number one: They were messing with Cloud's head.

Before they'd tried to escape, Dr. Hyde had made it clear that Cloud was expendable. He was nothing more than a playmate for Zack, and if he and his friend couldn't play nicely, he would be sent away. Permanently.

But as long as he stayed around, they were getting their rocks off on seeing how many different ways they could fuck with him. Zack was pretty sure by now that Cloud had been telling the truth about everything. They had been withholding food and running him ragged. They had been taunting him with the prospect of food and then making him violently ill. They had been pumping him full of mako, more concentrated then they would ever allow to touch their SOLDIERS, and it hurt like hell.

Conclusion number two: They were being played against each other.

It wasn't enough to make Cloud suffer. They had to make him believe he was going crazy. They had to make Zack lose faith in him. They had to make them fight over petty things, so that they couldn't rely on the only person they should have been able to count on: each other.

And today, there was something new. They'd wanted Cloud to see what they were doing to Zack. They'd wanted Zack to see the condition Cloud was in. They wanted to know how else they could bend their prisoners to their will.

Conclusion number three: They were fucked.

Well and truly fucked. They could be killed at any moment, for any reason, and there wasn't a damn thing they could do to stop it. Even if they knew where this mysterious "kill switch" was buried, did they really want to mess with it? What if they just touched the wrong wire and killed themselves? Or each other?

Even better, the people in charge of the switch seemed to be just itching to throw it. He had no idea what the hell they were doing to Cloud when he went into the octo-room, and he was pretty sure that he himself had fallen into the expendable category. Oh, and those blue gloves. They could turn Cloud and Zack into lifeless puddles on the floor with a single touch. They could make them do anything they wanted.

Yep. Fucked.

"Hey, how come your pillow is on the floor?" Jax asked.

"Oh," Cloud said. "I tried to throw it, but you know—" he pulled his arm up, rattling the cuffs against the bars of the railings.

Jax blinked rapidly, like he didn't know quite what to say. "Right. Well, let me get that for you." He picked up the pillow and tucked it back behind Cloud's back.

"Thanks," Cloud said quietly.

"No problem," Jax said lightly. "Well, I brought you some breakfast. Seems like you're both on the same schedule now, at least."

"Which one is mine?" Cloud asked.

"Uh, whichever one you want," Jax responded. "There's no allergy tags with this one."

"Allergy tags?" Zack asked, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah. You know, because of Cloud's allergies. I had to keep them separate, because they prepared Cloud's without the stuff he was allergic to." He looked at Cloud seriously. "Man, it must suck to have so many allergies."

Zack scoffed loudly. They both knew Cloud didn't have any. "Just give him whichever one has more food. He hasn't eaten in a while."

Jax scratched his head. "Uh, I think they're pretty even…"

Cloud smiled faintly at Zack. He got the message. "Just give me that one," he said, pointing to the closer tray. He actually thought that there might have been some nutrition in those infusions after all, because he had felt stronger after they were finished. He'd been half delirious with pain through the whole cycle, so eating normally was out of the question anyway.

Jax rolled the trays over each of their beds. It was the only place they were able to eat anymore, since they could no longer move around the room freely. It was maybe slightly less appetizing with the stench from the waste pails under their beds, but neither of them were complaining.

"Hey Jax, did you ever have any trouble with those kill switch things?" Zack asked casually.

Jax finished setting up their plates and stepped back, scratching his head. "Kill switch things?"

"Yeah. You know, those surgical things they put in all their employees, just in case someone Sephiroths?"

Cloud paled visibly, but Jax just looked confused. "Sephiroths?"

"Yeah." Zack glanced guiltily over at Cloud. Too soon to joke about that. "You know, just in case we go crazy and they need to cut the power on us? I've been hearing rumors about people having uh…allergic reactions to them and stuff. Any of the people you work with having those problems?"

Jax took a step back. "I don't know what you're talking about. They don't put anything like that into us."

"Sure they do," Zack said casually, cutting into his sausage. "You probably just don't remember it. The anesthesia they use for the surgery kind of messes with your memory. But you have to agree to it before they'll hire you. It's mandatory." He popped a slice of the sausage into his mouth.

Jax just stared at him. "Oh. Well…I don't know. I haven't heard of anyone having…problems like that…"

"Ah," Zack said with a shrug. "Probably just one of those stupid rumors some bored cadet came up with."

"Sure. Heh." Jax laughed uncomfortably. "Well, you guys need anything else?"

"Nah, we're good. Thanks, man," Zack said.

Jax smiled and left the room quickly. They listened to his footsteps fading down the hall.

"You think he bought it?" Cloud asked.

Zack grinned. "I guarantee you he's going to spend the afternoon trying to dig up information on those kill switches." His smile faded as he looked over at Cloud. "How's the food going down?"

Cloud shrugged. "Seems ok so far. It's just…I don't really even have an appetite anymore. It's weird." He set down his fork, grimacing. "I don't think I can eat anymore."

"You have to try," Zack urged. "I mean, assuming it's not gonna make you sick, you really need it."

Cloud picked up his fork and pushed some eggs around his plate. "Do you really think it matters?"

"Stop that," Zack ordered sternly. "That kind of attitude is unacceptable here."

"Really?" Cloud asked dully, slouching on the bed. "Are you going to demote me? Because I'm not sure what's lower than this."

"Once we get out of here, hell yes, I will! I'm still your CO."

Cloud sat up, his eyes burning with a green light. "Get out of here? We're not getting out of here, Zack. Ever." He ticked off the obstacles on his fingers. "We have no idea about the layout of the building. We have no idea what other security measures they have in place. We don't know the number or skill level of the guards. Even if we somehow figure all of that out, they'd just throw the instant death switch to keep their secrets!"

"Cloud, you can't—"

"No, you know what we have to look forward to, Commander?" Cloud's face contorted cruelly. "We get to see which crumbles first – our health or our sanity. Hey, maybe if we're lucky, we'll live long enough to experience years of torture before we die a painful death! Fuck this, Zack. I'd rather die now and get it over with." Shoving away his rolling tray, Cloud flopped down on the bed and turned away from his roommate.

Zack swallowed hard, looking at his friend's back. Somehow, the idea of his own death didn't bother him. Maybe it didn't seem real. SOLDIERs were practically invincible, weren't they? But the idea of Cloud dying was all too real.

Zack clung to consciousness with all his might, trying to raise his head from the cold metal stairs, slick with his blood. The sound of Sephiroth's slow, staggering footsteps had pulled him from darkness. He was holding something with long, gray hair, disturbingly similar to his own.

Zack focused on his own bracer. He had to heal himself. He had to finish this.

But the materia barely flickered. He had used the last of his mana healing the townspeople that he pulled from the burning houses. Truthfully, he never bothered to develop his magic skills as much as he should have. He relied on his strength far too much. Zack let his head drop back down onto his arm. Without that, there was no way he was in any condition to continue the fight.

"How dare you." Sephiroth's voice was cold with anger.

How dare I what? Attack him? Didn't we already have this conversation? He torched a fucking town! He killed all those people!

But Sephiroth wasn't looking at him. His cat-like eyes were focused behind Zack, at the bottom of the stairs. Zack turned his head, painfully. It was…it was Cloud! He was cradling Tifa's limp head in his arms. The buster sword laid next to him on the ground, the top half coated with blood. He looked back up at Sephiroth, at the dark red trickling through the fingers clutching his side.

His mind felt like mush, moving absurdly slow, but he managed to connect the dots. Cloud must have stabbed Sephiroth. The general was injured and limping. He was weakened! This could be their only chance.

"Cloud. Finish…Sephiroth…off," he managed to grunt.

Determination spreading across his features, Cloud nodded and gently laid Tifa's still head back on the ground. If she was still alive, she wouldn't be for long. He would want vengeance for her death. Maybe it would be enough to drive him to finish what he started.

Cloud picked up the buster sword at his side and walked to the bottom of the stairs while Sephiroth waited patiently for his challenger. "SEPHIROTH!" Cloud screamed and leapt into the air, his sword in perfect position. But Sephiroth wasn't as injured as he appeared. He flicked his wrist up, blocking Cloud with the Masamune. The force of the defensive strike threw Cloud into the Jenova room. Zack heard him hit the floor and roll. Slowly, Sephiroth turned and followed him.

Shit. Shit! No! Pushing himself up with shaking arms, Zack made it about halfway up before he wobbled and collapsed. Too much of his mako-infused blood had been spilled, making his accererated healing almost nil. "Come on, Cloud, get up!" he begged softly.

He blacked out again. When he woke, it was to the sound of staggering footsteps. Zack struggled to lift his head. Relief flooded over him when he saw Cloud stumbling out of the Jenova room, but it was almost immediately squashed. Cloud managed to stay on his feet long enough to reach the top of the stairs, then he hit his knees and slid down, face-first, almost reaching the place where Zack laid.

The blood was horrendous. It gushed out of him with every heartbeat like a high-powered squirt gun. It puddled beneath him and ran down the stairs in a bloody river. Cloud's eyes were closed, but he was still breathing.

Zack swallowed back the horror. If Cloud was going to die, he should die knowing that he was a hero. "Cloud…you did it…" He stretched his arm toward his friend, trying to make contact one last time, but fell short.

Even now, knowing that Cloud had been saved in time – if one could call this being saved – the memory made his gut lurch. Even after the octo-room, after the too-fast hammering of his heart and the knowledge of the kill switch, the impression remained: I am invincible. Cloud is fragile.

Zack looked at his roommate one last time as he pushed away his empty tray. In his heart, he made a solemn vow: I will get Cloud out of this place alive. No matter what else happens, he will live on.