This place held so many memories. He could hear his own heart beating almost as loudly in his own ears as the repetitious thunking of his boots. He was descending a staircase. But this was not just any old staircase in any old place. It was a specific staircase; one he had traveled up or down only a handful of times before. At first, it had been a few times when he had been dragged here to Nibelheim by Sephiroth and orders from ShinRa. The next time, in desperate escape. After that, at his leisure, condemning himself to fight back memories of what lay below as he did so.

That had been so many years ago now. That was back when he was playing hero. Those were the years. He had learned a lot of things on that mad quest to save the world. About himself, about his companions, about the world. He had learned of love and hate. He'd learned about guilt and memories. He had even had a run-in with insanity. But one of the strongest and worst lessons was learning about pain.

There was, of course, the skin-deep pain of wounds. These could be battle scars in the making, desperate fights with enemies, or something more calculated. Scalpels and experiments were as bad, if not worse, than monster bites or scratches. There was also the terror of being held, forced to submit to experimentation. There was also the knowledge that he was losing control of himself in a world he should have been able to deal with. The psychological pain was the worse of the two. Even that, however, he had overcome with time.

Then there came guilt - the agony of regret. Doing some and knowing more could have been done. He had found a few occasions for guilt, but the majority of it was a product of his mad dash to escape. It wasn't that he hadn't thought of those left behind, it was just that he had had to run, to take his own freedom while he still had the chance. Those cuts ached for years, constant remembrance, but time had scabbed them at least a little.

But no matter how terrible that was to be hurt in any other way, no type of pain could even hope to compare to the excruciation caused by loss. The knowledge that he had sat idle and let the dearest thing go was something he could barely live with himself for. He remembered, as if in a dream - a nightmare - the feeling of making a mad grab for a sword to strike back. But, in his heart, it had all been far too late. He'd only been there to catch a fall. He could only watch.

He had loved Aeris. As he had watched Sephiroth kill her, it was the destruction of the one dream he had. Her.

The man wandered off the stairs. He came back to reality with the knowledge that he was going back into the labs. He'd lost five years of his young life in those. All he did was submit, wait, and hope. He'd come out stronger than ever before - a new man, and since achieved great things, at least partially because of that horrible experience.


The fact still remained that he'd started a coward, running away and hiding behind his old mentor's sword. He was still a coward.

He lay his hand on the heavy, steel door of the lab. The ex-Soldier pushed, almost gently, getting the door to begin to slide open. It was grimy, but some of the polished metal remained. It reflected the glow of his eyes back at him - that faint, Mako-green he'd been gifted with when he was a more permanent subject at this same laboratory.

However, it was then that he hesitated. There was more illumination in the darkness. It was blue. Why blue? This place was abandoned, left empty to rot. No lights should have been on. Was there a scientist still here? Was this a trap? Were there monsters? There were no sounds of movement beyond the door - Mako-enhanced hearing promised. There was nothing alive in the next room.

But then why was it glowing?

He pushed the door open. The sight that met his eyes was worse than scientists, monsters, or the worst ambush. It took his breath away and almost stole his lunch.

The lab looked like a lot of people left in a big hurry and never returned. As if a fire alarm had gone off and everyone had panicked, but the real danger was waiting for them outside. There were overturned chairs, upturned reports, rusting knives and needles, and a broken tray of test tubes across the floor. Everything was covered in a layer of death-dust, thick and choking grime that seemed better fit for the crypt nearby than a previously-active laboratory. However, the whole room was relatively well-illuminated by a weak, almost pulsing blue light. One of the tanks was giving off this light - a tank he knew well, one of the ones he had been stored in.

It was occupied.

As the man remembered then, those tanks had had an acidic green glow before, not a dimming, twisting blue. Then he realized what it was. Lifestream, the heart and soul of the planet, could be purified to create Mako. However, if Lifestream is caught in one place too long and allowed to stagnate, it turned into something totally different. G-substance was what it was called. It was the polar and total opposite of Mako, created from the same product, even from each other, but totally different. However, neither one nor the other was any less potent.

On top of that, he knew that G-substance was blue.

The young man slowly walked closer to the tank. He almost fearfully lay a hand on the cold glass. Could Mako really decay that quickly? It had only been a few years of abandonment. He had thought that G-substance was rare - found only in certain places, like Nibelheim - and that it had taken decades or centuries to really cure. Perhaps it was Nibelheim. Perhaps it was because Mako was already strained and changed, so it fermented easier. He had no idea. That wasn't important. The fact was, inside the G-substance┘.

"I'm sorry," he breathed, the words misting on freezing air and glass. "I didn't mean to leave you behind┘ I am so sorry."

He was looking up at the figure in the tank. All results of the pure Mako - increased musculature and Angael-style feathered, ivory wings - had changed and been altered by the flow of time, turning into something different, just as pure Mako had stagnated into G-substance. The boy's body was curled, wasted arms feebly reaching for bent knees. His hair had grown, from short to long, a mane that covered his face and back, utterly out of control. His bone structure had warped as the Mako solidified and crystallized. The harder solute in Mako that usually formed materia had instead collected on the once-human body in its midst. The once-fair boy had growths on his body. His bones had twisted and re-formed, extending beyond, ripping out of his skin. They turned dark and hornlike. His knobby fingers ended in claws. His skin hung off his body, leaving nothing but an emaciated frame draped on both sides by the wings.

Where once there was nothing, there had grown pure white wings. But what was once angelic and perfect had rotted. The large feathers had loosened and were molting in spreading patches. He was reminded of a tree that lost its leaves as it died in the autumn. The only problem with that analogy was that there would be no approaching spring for the boy. Beneath the feathers was something far less beautiful. The wings were leathery and bat-like. They were a dirty, mottled black and grey. The remaining feathers weren't in good shape either. Every single one looked neglected. They were parted, ruffled, unkempt, and stained.

His eyes followed one feather, already broken halfway down its shaft as it gave up on the bid for survival. It seemed to forego hope and totally let go. The feather fell in slow motion, making its way through the swirling G-substance, a slow descent into nothingness. There was a whole collection of forgotten feathers at the bottom of the tank. Some were new-fallen. Others were half-rotten already, creating a cloud of grime in the liquid in the tank.

Perhaps it was the descent of the occasional falling feather, or perhaps it was something else that was causing movement in the tank. Maybe the G-substance itself was restless; it could be shifting, eager to return to the Lifestream and the natural flow of the planet. Or maybe┘ the kid was still alive.

He looked hard, pressing his nose against the cold glass. Some movement, anything, a sign of life.

The man could have sworn then, on pain of death, that the kid's hand had just twitched.

The ex-soldier didn't know how long he worked. The tanks had been built to resist breakage from the monsters created within. Without, it took at least an hour's feverish swinging of his heavy weapon, crashing into the glass. Finally, it cracked and broke, losing all inner pressure. The G-substance roared out in a river of glass shards and broken feathers. Everything spread over the floor of the lab.

The man fell to his knees, catching the boy in his arms. He didn't care that glass was being embedded into his legs┘ the kid was alive!

He had to be.

Even after the crash, the rush of escaping liquid, his voice was unnaturally loud in the dead laboratory: "Wake up! It'll be okay, I promise. Wake up, please." He gently shook the wasted form. He felt as if he was holding a skeleton, heatless and fragile. "I didn't mean to leave you behind, I swear. But I only got one chance to escape, and I took it." His frantic voice was mirrored by how desperately his hands shook as he reached up to brush away the overlong golden hair. So much had changed in these years. "Cloud," Zack begged. "Please wake up."

The revealed face held no emotion. His pale lips were parted and his cheeks were sunken. His skin was cold and slick. The boy's eyes were at half mast. A weak golden glow lit up Zack's face. The innocent blue eyes he remembered, always attentive, quiet and shy, adoring and eager, characteristic and purely Cloud, were gone. In their place were empty, amber orbs.


Author's Note: I had this idea in that between sleeping and waking on a very long car trip, and it's stuck with me. A reader requested another Clack after 'Plum Picking', so that explains the two main characters, even though this really is not really slash. Thank you for reading.

I like this ending, but if I come up with a very, very good idea, I might continue with a second chapter. Feel free to check back to see if I got around to it. Thanks again.

Tinni: Haha! Once again, this is not mine! I take no credit, I'm just the one posting it up. Hope you liked.