Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII. I wish I did, but as they say, if wishes were fishes we could end world hunger. Probably. With all the greed in this world, it's possible (probable?) that various big important people would keep it all for themselves...

A/N: If you haven't seen the hidden cutscene after you rescue Cloud from Mideel and fix all his memories, than this will make no sense to you, though you may still find it interesting. If you haven't seen the hidden cutscene, than what the hell are you waiting for? Go to the basement of Shinra mansion and see it now! And, if you haven't played the game past the Lifestream Sequence, this will not only make no sense to you, but it will spoil an incredibly important part of the game. You've been warned.


Pain.

That was all Zack was aware of. That, and the lightheadedness that always came with Mako infusions.

How long had they been there, floating in a green liquid that zapped their strength like a parasite? Hojo's crazy experiments…

Zack shook his head, trying to recall. It had been… five years. Five years since the Nibelheim mission, since Sephiroth had gone mad and the village had been burned to the ground. Five years since they had been caught by Hojo and his men. Since their nightmare had started.

It was all coming back now. He had been… inside the old Shinra mansion. That's right. Sephiroth had ordered him to go away and leave him to his studies. Zack had agreed and had retreated to a room not far from the secret staircase that led to the old library where Sephiroth was researching his past.

Days had passed, and Zack had started to get worried. Sephiroth hadn't sent word to him or anyone else about what was going on or if he'd found anything important; he hadn't come up to eat or get water, and the light in the hidden basement never went out. He had decided to go and check on him.

Zack wondered now why he had been so worried. The Great Sephiroth had never needed anyone. He had never met a foe he couldn't defeat, had never asked for help, and never showed his feelings to anyone. Perhaps it had been the strange light in Sephiroth's usually emotionless eyes as he had ordered Zack to leave the library. The light of madness…

Zack had descended the spiral staircase silently, hand on his sword, filled with apprehension. He had told himself that he was just worried about the few monsters that lay scattered about the old mansion, hiding in the shadows, but in his heart, he had known the truth. The Sephiroth he had been about to encounter would not be the same Sephiroth that he had worshiped for so long, the hero that he had followed loyally and unquestionably during the first part of the mission. Zack had known, even then, that he had not imagined the madness he had seen in his former war-buddy, and he was not sure what to expect.

He had paused at the end of the tunnel, collecting himself, and then had opened the door.

The first room of the basement library had been deserted. Zack had glanced around at the piles of books stacked on the floor, evidence of Sephiroth's desperate search, then had headed past the rows of bookcases to the back, the only other place where Sephiroth could be.

Shinra's top general had been hunched over in a chair, eyes scanning a thick book lying on the desk in front of him. He had looked up slowly as Zack entered. Zack remembered being surprised – and a little frightened – by the look on his face. It was a combination of hatred and utter insanity.

Sephiroth had spoken then, about many things Zack still did not fully understand. He mentioned an ancient civilization, which he had called the Cetra. About how there had been a wound in the Planet, and the Cetra had been sacrificed to heal it. How Zack's ancestors had hidden themselves instead of helping... many other things. Finally, after calling Zack a traitor, he had announced that he was going to see his mother, and had stormed out of the library.

Zack had followed in a confused daze. What had he found that had upset him so? To drive him completely and utterly insane, to fill him with such a burning desire to see his mother?

Zack remembered pausing at the top of the secret staircase. His nose had twitched at the acrid sent that had reached his nostrils. What the...? he had thought to himself. Is that… smoke?

It had been smoke, he recalled now with a painful heart. In Sephiroth's madness, in his hatred at the people who had run instead of fighting for the wounded Planet, who had let the Cetra die, he had set fire to the peaceful town of Nibelheim, which lay spread out between him and Mount Nibel, the mountain where he had been sure he would find his mother.

Zack had stared in horror, even more confused now. He hadn't understood, at first. Hadn't wanted to understand. He hadn't wanted to believe that the Great Sephiroth, whom he had been in awe of since he was a small boy, had done something like this.

Then he had seen movement in the flames. Someone's still alive! His hopes had soared. Perhaps others had lived, as well. Perhaps they could explain what was going on. He had trotted forward a few steps, then froze, his heart sinking. Sephiroth had stood there. Several townspeople had stood in front of him, screaming in rage and pain at the destruction of their home.

Oh no…

Zack had watched as Sephiroth's enormous sword flashed, once, twice, thrice, flickering in the firelight. The villagers hadn't stood a chance. Sephiroth had turned, not even watching his victims fall, and had stalked off into the flames in the direction of Mount Nibel.

Zack had started to follow him, determined to stop him from hurting anyone else, when he had seen another figure moving in the flames. He had tensed his muscles, wary after what he had just witnessed, then had relaxed. He needn't worry about Zangan.

Zack had been relieved to see that the old martial arts instructor was still in the land of the living. He didn't know him very well, but he had taken an instant liking to the man when they had met in the Nibelheim inn.

He had wanted to question the man as to what had happened, but he never had the chance. Zangan had glanced up from the injured man he had been checking and, upon seeing Zack, called out, "Hey, it's you! You're still sane, right?"

Zack had nodded, his brain still numbed by all that had happened.

"Then come over here and help me! I'll check this house. You check that one over there!"

Without another word, the old martial artist had leaped into the roaring inferno that had once been a family's home.

Zack had taken one look inside the house he had been instructed to search and had known it would be futile. No one could survive the deathtrap in there.

"Terrible… Sephiroth… This is too terrible…"

Sephiroth. The only one who could stand a chance against a SOLDIER was another SOLDIER. After taking one last, sorrowful look at the burning remains of Nibelheim, Zack had turned and sprinted after him.


Zack had doubled over, dropping to one knee as he reached the Mako Reactor. Even a First Class SOLDIER such as himself felt taxed after running through miles of mountain trails without a break. He had wondered, briefly, if it had been wise to tire himself so. He was going to need all of his strength to fight Sephiroth, after all. Then again, if he had been too late… No, hurrying had been best.

Feeling rejuvenated by his short rest, he had jogged inside of the dark building in front of him.

The stench of Mako energy had slammed into him as he had entered. Geez, I hate these places... he had thought with a grimace. Looking to his right, he had seen the heavy chain that led down to the lower levels. Bracing himself, he had trotted over and climbed down.

A sound had startled him as he had reached the bottom. It had sounded like someone crying. Peering through the hazy, Mako-clouded air, Zack had seen a girl about his own age, if not a little younger, bent over a still figure.

"Papa…" the girl sobbed. Looking closer, Zack had realized that she was the same girl who had guided Sephiroth and himself to the Mako Reactor just a few days ago, before Sephiroth had gone mad. Tifa… Her name was Tifa.

He had also seen that the figure she was crying over was her father, Sephiroth's sword lying bloody next to him.

Tifa had also seen the sword, and had come to the same conclusion that Zack had. "Sephiroth? Sephiroth did this to you, didn't he? Sephiroth... SOLDIER... Mako Reactors... Shinra... Everything! I hate them all!" With a scream of rage, she had grabbed the sword and ran into the next room. Zack had raced after her.

He had watched her confront Sephiroth, powerless to stop as the insane man wrenched the sword away from her and cut her down. He had drawn his own sword, running after Sephiroth has he disappeared into the room at the top of the stairs. He hadraced after his former hero, anger consuming his better judgement, and had subsequently been knocked back down the stairs, landing on one of the Mako pods, a long gash down his chest. Too weak to sit up, he had lain there panting, feeling his lifeblood seep through his torn uniform. He had almost lost hope when another figure had entered the room.

It was one of the men who had been sent to assist Sephiroth and Zack on the mission. Though it was impossible to tell with his mask still on his face, Zack had had a pretty good idea of which guard it was.

His suspicions had been confirmed when the newcomer had run over to Tifa's body, pulling off his helmet as he knelt down next to her. Zack had instantly recognized the spiky blond hair. The guard was a young man about Zack's age. He had been chosen for this mission because Nibelheim was his hometown. Zack had only been able to only imagine how he must have feeling just then. His name, as Zack recalled, was Cloud Strife.

Suddenly Sephiroth's voice had echoed down from the top room, and Cloud had stood up, a fire in his eyes. With the last of his strength, Zack had called out to his last hope.

"Cloud… Kill Sephiroth…" With that, blackness had claimed him.

He still did not know exactly what had happened. He had been told that Sephiroth had died, so Cloud had been successful, but how a common soldier had defeated him, Zack couldn't fathom.

Cloud

Zack turned his head slightly, peering through the green Mako to the glass tube next to his own. Cloud floated within, barely alive. The two of them had been discovered by Professor Hojo, the insane head of Shinra's science department, and had been taken away from the reactor. Zack did not know what had happened to Tifa; either she was dead, or she had somehow escaped, for she had not been with them when he had regained consciousness. Hojo had been performing experiments involving Mako energy and Zack-didn't-know-what-else on the two young men ever since.

Zack himself was holding out okay. As a member of SOLDIER's finest troops, he had been exposed to Mako before. Cloud, on the other hand, would die if they didn't find a way to escape soon. But Zack didn't intend to let his friend die.

Zack had a plan.