The Price of Freedom
Excruciating in its intensity.
It permeated his mind and nearly collapsed his body. It was a gripping, relentless agony that brought with it the urge to vomit and he welcomed the sensations...
Because pain meant he was alive.
Pain meant he was aware.
Pain was his link to reality and the tether he'd used to pull himself up from his drug-like stupor.
Liquid all around me…but not drowning…Phosphorus green…swirling…
Unfocused blue eyes blinked slowly. His fuzzy brain was still unable to process too much at once. He pressed his palm to his forehead with a grimace and tried to focus.
Crawling over his skin. Seeping through his pores. Invading his body.
It was strong…he was stronger.
He had to be.
He took a shaky inhale.
Air…no air in here, but still breathing…
He grit his teeth as a fresh wave of nausea rolled over him. He tensed, waited for it to pass, swallowed the bile back.
Fingertips scrambled against his forearm and his hazy gaze fell down. "Hang in there, buddy." His voice was gentle; coaxing. The other man quieted his weak struggles upon hearing it.
Zack pulled himself further upright, hefting the subdued blond at his side up as he did. "Just hold tight. I want to let you rest, but we just don't have time for that. But don't worry, I'll take care of you." He sounded awfully confident, he thought with a rueful chuckle, considering their circumstances. Two experiments, recently escaped from a hellish laboratory complete with mad scientist, on the run from the most powerful and influential company the world has ever known. Yeah. Okay.
He turned to his left, a bit too quickly and was assailed by yet another bought of faintness.
Trapped inside. Like floating in a coffin. But I'm not dead…not yet…
His right knee hit the soft, rain dampened ground, but he held fast, refusing to fall completely. He grunted and shifted his weight to get a better position, as well as more fully support the man leaning heavily against his side. Two heaving breaths later and the weakness passed.
A sound through the trees perked his ears, causing him to freeze his motions and concentrate on the noise. He picked up the distinct thump of boots across uneven terrain. Leaves were muted due to the recent rain, but Zack heard the footfalls none the less. Five men, coming up fast on the right, two directly behind and three flanking their left.
One gloved hand reached over his head, fingers curling with ease and familiarity around the hilt of his Buster Sword. He flexed his grip causing leather to squeak against the handle.
A shadow passed across the face of the moon momentarily removing any vestige of light the forest had.
Zack whirled, one booted foot planted firmly in the muddy soil, while the other pivoted, allowing him to curve his arm and swing his weapon in a smooth arc, effectively stopping his would-be assassin dead in his tracks. Zack spun again, blade singing in the wind, a low whistle of warning, before it tore through the two men on his left, dropping them where they stood. Their lifeless bodies flopped to the ground with dull thuds, weapons laying useless mere centimeters from their hands.
Satisfied that the threat was momentarily neutralized, Zack slung Cloud's arm more securely over his shoulder and started his march again, only to be stopped short a moment later as a bullet ricocheted off the tree directly in front of him.
"Persistent bastards, aren't they?" Zack angled forward slightly, slowly lowering his human cargo gently to the damp grass. "Stay put, Cloud," he murmured, ruffling spiky hair. "Got some unwanted company to take care of, and then we'll be on our way." He hadn't expected a response from his dazed partner, and received none, save the slow blink of foggy blue eyes.
Zack rose; waiting…calculating. From the shadows of the trees more soldiers appeared. Some lined the trees, others littered along the beams of the forgotten, decayed buildings that had been left to rot when Shin-Ra had bought them out. There were at least twenty armed men, ready to plug his body with bullets.
Violet-blue eyes hardened with determination. He hadn't made it this far to be taken now. He refused. He'd die before going back to that Hell.
With a scowl, he hefted the Buster Sword high, then brought it down fast, lodging the blade deep into the ground. The intentional angle shielded Cloud from any stray or directed bullets. "Won't be long, pal. Imagine, them sending regular Shin-Ra grunts after me," he smirked, his tone bordering on smug. "Zack Fair, SOLDIER, first class."
A rifle cocked directly behind him. "Don't move!"
A single dark eyebrow rose disbelievingly. Did they actually think that would keep him from moving? Zack wondered with amusement. He inclined his head. Four other uniformed men burst through the trees to surround him, each with their guns drawn, laser lines flickering over his chest like swarming insects.
Another smirk accompanied by an open palm gesture of welcome. "Take your best shot," he offered, scant seconds before rushing the troopers.
The report of semi-automatic gunfire reverberated through the woods, causing large, black winged birds to screech and take to the night sky--their squawks holding evident irritation at being disturbed.
Zack reacted reflexively to the open fire, utilizing his enhanced skills like second nature. No thought required. Pure instinct. He bent, twisted, continued his forward momentum, narrowly avoiding bullets by hair's breadth. He swung his fist, connecting with the mask of the soldier directly to his right. The face-plate shattered upon impact, the force of the blow caving the other man's nose in like a crater as reinforced plastic littered the ground.
Before the pain-filled, gurgled scream had a chance to escape the falling soldier's lips, Zack back flipped over his shoulders, his booted foot snapping with deadly accuracy taking out another trooper, then another. A spin, an elbow, and another down.
He swiveled and maneuvered, placing the men in each others line of sight as he did. Let them kill each themselves, he thought grimly. In less than a minute Zack stood alone in the center of a body made circle, hands clenched, eyes flashing.
The revving of a motorcycle engine turned his head. Reinforcements were coming in fast. He glanced towards the Buster Sword and Cloud's slumped form. "Hang tight," he whispered, turned away from his companion and littered bodies, and began to a run.
Underbrush snapped beneath his boots and mud sprayed along his pants, roots reached up from pockets in the ground to snag at fabric, but he didn't break stride. Focused now, and definitely alert, Zack ran. He ran hard and fast, purposefully staying in the less dense portion of the woods; purposefully making himself an easy target to follow.
Once they managed to elude the Shin-Ra grunts following them, they could start new lives. Shin-Ra free lives. Free of the madness that shrouded that corporation and the people in it. Free of puppeteers using them to suit their own ends. Finally, free. That thought drove Zack onward, despite the ache in his body and burn of his lungs.
Within minutes the woods gave way to pavement, underbrush to asphalt and Zack grinned. He was on a bridge. One leading away from Shin-Ra and towards freedom. Water slapped beneath his boot heels in steady splatters. Two motorcycles passed him, flanking him before sliding to a skidding halt directly ahead of him. Headlights cast craggy illumination over cracked pavement.
The steady whump-whump of a helicopter rotor carried on the wind. Zack lifted his eyes, annoyed as a Shin-Ra copter rose above the bridge, its spotlight fixed on him. He shielded his eyes with his hand and peered at the approaching helicopter.
Shit. The Turks.
Shin-Ra assassins. A group of select individuals that were employed to do the "dirty" work for Shin-Ra. Be it a quiet assassination or the kidnapping of a corporate rival, the Turks got the job done. No matter what the cost. He supposed he should be flattered they were sent after him.
"Surrender quietly and we will assure you your life!" A female voice--thankfully not Cissinei's-- echoed over the helicopter's loudspeaker.
Zack snorted. "I don't need an assurance on my life. What I want is freedom!" He leapt, contorting his body as he did, enabling him to land ready to pounce-- which he did. One foot to the rider on the left. He went flying off the motorcycle, landing hard against the other bike, knocking both men to the ground.
Zack swung himself onto the bike, lifted one hand in mock salute, revved the engine and veered back towards the direction from which he had run. He had a friend to pick up.
Two Shin-Ra grunts stood over Cloud's slumped form when he pulled into the clearing. Zack parked the bike, dismounted and without preamble shoved the face of one guard into a tree, knocking him unconscious. The other man went still, fear in his voice. "You-you're Zack, right?"
"Sorry for making you wait." Zack ignored the stammering man. "We've got to hurry now." He helped Cloud onto the back of the bike. "The damn Turks are on our trail now, too."
Tires spun, kicked up damp mud, caking the Shin-Ra trooper's faceplate. Zack waved; his grin cocky. "Better luck next time!"
It took less than four minutes for Zack to hear the helicopter whirring overhead. Not bad, he thought, grudgingly. He tilted the bike, swerved onto an abandoned side street just before the bridge.
Shin-Ra like to move SOLDIERs and supplies covertly and Zack knew that there were a series of underground tunnels in the area. If he could get underground, then he could navigate their way to Midgar. He glanced over his shoulder once. The helicopter was close, but not so close that he couldn't shake them.
He swerved, skimmed along deserted buildings edges, making it impossible for the helicopter to swoop in close enough to follow. "Later!" he called. He flexed his hand, gunned the engine. Darkness enclosed around them. He'd made it to the tunnels. They were safe.
He could almost taste it.
After driving through the maze of underground Shin-Ra tunnels Zack and Cloud came up near one of Shin-Ra's abandoned desert outposts. Zack decided to ditch the bike in favor of another mode of transport into Midgar. The Turks were looking for two men on a motorcycle. Out on the sand they would have stood out like sore thumbs.
With no immediate vehicle available Zack did what any trekker does on a long journey. He hitched.
Now, with eyes closed, sunlight on his face and the wind rustling his long black hair, Zack grinned. He couldn't help it. He was finally free. After four years trapped in a tube of Mako, experimented on and tortured, he and Cloud were finally free.
Thinking of the man beside him prompted Zack to open his eyes. He turned his head, regarding Cloud with a mixture of fondness and concern. It would take hours, perhaps days, for the aftereffects of their experimentation to completely leave Cloud's system.
Unlike Zack, Cloud had never been exposed to Mako before, and the treatments were usually gradual so that the SOLDIERs could build up a tolerance and not become ill-- or worse, die-- from the harmful effects. Unfortunately, Cloud had been submerged and saturated without any prior exposure and with no tolerance.
Zack could only imagine-- with a fair amount of horror-- the wretched way his friend was feeling. "Hey, Cloud, we're almost there." Zack nudged Cloud's shoulder gently, affectionately. The other man lolled to the side, unresponsive. Ever the optimist, Zack pressed on regardless. "So, Cloud, what are you gonna do when we get to Midgar?"
Cloud's head dropped listlessly up and down with the truck's motions.
"Well, I plan on becoming a mercenary," Zack continued as though Cloud was an active participant in the conversation, "y'know, taking jobs for money. No sense in letting these SOLDIER skills go to waste, right? Maybe I'll even look up a girl I know there…" A fleeting image of emerald green eyes and yellow flowers flashed in his mind's eye. He wondered if she even remembered him. So much time had passed… He was a different man now than he had been then.
Cloud's mouth moved, snapping Zack out of his reverie. He leaned forward, expectantly. Was Cloud finally trying to speak? After a moment, a rough breath and soft syllable escaped cracked lips. "Tiiiff…"
Zack angled his head so that Cloud could see his smile, encouraged by the minimal response. "Teef?" he questioned. Something tickled the back of his mind at that syllable. Then it occurred to him. "Oh, right. Your girl in Nibleheim."
Cloud's lips parted once more and he exhaled the same name. Bright blue eyes blinked and Zack was certain they were less hazy than before.
Relieved that Cloud was showing signs of life Zack grinned. "We're friends, right? So we're going to have to stay in touch. Maybe you can stay in Midgar for awhile, help me with my business. We could be partners. Yeah, Cloud, things are starting to look up--"
The abrupt splash of warm arterial spray across his face cut off the remainder of Zack's words. Splotches of crimson dotted his forehead and cheeks, ran down his nose. His eyes widened in shock as Cloud slumped forward completely; his body tipped to the side, unable to hold itself upright anymore and blood poured from an open wound in his chest.
"Cloud!" Zack clasped his hands over the wound. Blood pumped through his fingers.
Shit, shit, motherfuckingshit!
Sniper. A damn sniper!
He had been so enamored with images of the life they were going to have that he had let his guard down. Zack swore, scrambling to cover Cloud's motionless body with his own as another bullet nicked the bed liner. He slapped the top of the cab hard, demanding the driver stop.
"Cloud? Cloud, can you hear me?" Zack jostled his friend, worry making his voice hoarse. "Cloud! We've got to move, buddy!" He hooked Cloud's limp arm over his shoulders and rolled them from the bed of the truck and onto the gravel with a thud. "Get out of here!" he ordered the driver.
The truck was off in a flash, spitting up pieces of rock as it fishtailed away from the scene. Not that Zack could blame the old man. There was no need for a civilian, one generous enough to offer two unknown men--one with a huge ass sword strapped to his back-- a lift, to get caught up in the crossfire of their private war.
Zack swung Cloud upright alongside of him, hustling towards an outcropping of rocks. If he could just get them to cover, then they'd have a chance. Zack spared a brief glance over his shoulder and felt his blood run cold. Hundreds. They had sent hundreds of men after them. Blue and white uniforms lined the outcroppings, weapons drawn and ready. An ambush. "Shit."
Zack swiveled his body, dropping Cloud down against a large boulder, his form shielded from the men lining the cliff and road by the overhang of rock. He gave Cloud a lingering look, wishing that his friend was cognitive enough to hear the words Zack wanted to say.
They had a shared background of being country boys, a shared pain of being used by those without feeling and a shared pain of being disappointed by those they had come to admire and respect. He and Cloud were kindred spirits and Cloud's friendship was the most valuable thing in Zack's life. He was grateful for it. He hoped the younger man was aware of it.
Zack knew, that in this moment, in their most dire circumstances, he wouldn't let Cloud down. He refused to be another failure on Cloud's list of those that had failed him. And when all was said and done, no matter his fate, Zack prayed that Cloud could manage to get himself safely to Midgar and have the freedom he deserved.
Setting those depressing thoughts aside and with his familiar arrogant grin, Zack ruffled Cloud's hair and rose to his feet. Be well, he wished silently. He straightened his shoulders and strode out from behind the rocks into the open. If he was going down, he was going down fighting.
He stopped less than fifty feet from the Shin-Ra front line. A fly whisked past his ear, but otherwise the desert air hung still and silent…waiting.
"The price of freedom sure is steep," he broke the silence with a false laugh and a shake of his head.
Weapons lifted, cocked, readied.
Zack sighed and lifted his hand, slowly and very deliberately, removing his sword from its holstered position against his back. He swung it out in front of him, upright so that the flat of the blade rested near his forehead. He closed his eyes, repeating the words his mentor, Angeal, had once spoke to him. "Never lose your dreams. No matter the situation, never lose your honor!" When his lapis blues opened again they were hard and glittering with menace. Zack hadn't made it into SOLDIER for nothing.
He was a warrior.
He would die a warrior's death.
Bullets pelted the ground sending up plumes of dust and debris. Zack moved with trained precision, taking out the most immediate threats, turning their own weapons against them. He lifted a fallen rifle, using it in conjunction with his sword, taking out soldier after soldier with terrifying efficiency.
Forty minutes later the battle ground was literally littered with bodies. Beige sand was now tainted by crimson rivers. The afternoon sunshine had given way to heavy, rolling clouds. Darkness pressed at Zack, both from out and within. He was killing and killing…so many lives. So many young lives. Dead by his hands.
Maybe Angeal had been right…maybe SOLDIERs were all monsters…
Zack winced as a bullet tore through his upper arm. Shit. He'd allowed emotions to distract him and it was a costly mistake. Another bullet took him in the calf. Another in his back, just above his shoulder blade. "Damn it," he hissed, blinking sweat from his eyes.
He straightened, hefted the Buster sword up. "Not today," he ground out. "I will not die today."
Another bullet jerked his body back. Then another. And another. And another. So many tore into his flesh that he lost count.
"Not…today." He struggled to stay upright. His vision swam. Fat droplets of rain coated his head as the skies above let loose their tears. Six men…no three… Three were all that remained. Did he have the strength to fight on? To finish the battle and kill these three?
A soft rustle from his left alerted him to motion. A shock of gold in his peripheral made him tense. Cloud! The cold rain must have roused him from his stupor, Zack thought worriedly. He needed to get to Cloud. He needed to protect him. He had to!
One heavy boot slid in the sand and his knees buckled. "No." Zack shook and tried to force himself back up. He leaned against the Buster Sword, panting and wheezing, with blood trickling between his lips.
"Hey! There's the other one!"
Zack's head snapped up. "Cloud! Run!"
Gunfire reported over the desert, the sounds echoing with the rain. Zack was horrified to see Cloud, who had begun crawling from behind the shelter of rocks, riddled with bullets on sight.
"NO!" Zack roared. Rage and Fury lifted him from the ground, his own tattered body screaming in protest but he refused to let anything stop him from reaching his friend. He swung his arm, the heavy blade singing it's death song, removing two heads clean off their shoulders.
The third soldier ignored the commotion, raised his weapon and fired-- dead center to Cloud's chest.
"Damn you!" Zack plowed the broad blade of his weapon into the other man's back, nearly severing the man in half. Bloody entrails fell to wet sand, but Zack paid the mess no mind. He slid through the muck, leaning over his friend.
"Cloud! Cloud, can you hear me?"
A grimace. "…Zack…?"
"Cloud!" Zack gripped his hand. "Hang in there, okay? I'll get us out of here." He coughed, swallowing back bile and blood.
Cloud blinked up into the rain. "Zack."
"I'm right here. I won't leave you." Zack watched with a sinking feeling of helplessness as the flickering glow in Cloud's youthful blue eyes waned to a dull sheen. The hand gripping his so tightly but a moment ago went limp and a trickle of crimson escaped between pale lips. A shudder and the glow dimmed farther. Life was being erased from those fathomless depths and there was nothing Zack could do to stop it. He wanted to scream in frustration over his own helplessness.
Cloud struggled to speak, his throat working convulsively. "Zack..."
"I'm here, Cloud."
"T-Tell...Tifa..." A spasm and another grimace. Once the pain receded, Cloud tried again. "Tell Tifa I'm sorry...couldn't keep our..p-promise...wanted..." His breath was coming in short bursts, quick and painful. "Tifa..." Fingers clutched at sodden ground. "I never forgot..."
Zack's jaw clenched, teeth grinding together as he fought down tears. He pressed his gloved hand to Cloud's head, ruffling the blood soaked blond spikes in a familiar way. "Easy, man. Take it easy."
But Cloud was determined, as relentless on the brink of death as he had been in full life. Zack still recalled with vivid detail how strong and brave his friend had been in the depths of Nibleheim mountain, facing down the greatest warrior Shin-Ra had ever unleashed onto the planet. He had done the near impossible and killed Sephiroth--after being fully impaled upon Masamune.
Cloud was too young, too strong, too vital to die!
With dwindling strength Cloud his head, forced Zack to meet his gaze. "Swear it, Zack...swear you'll tell her...protect her…" Cloud clutched the back of Zack's head. "Protect her."
Zack could in no way refuse Cloud's dying request. Nor would he. He blinked back tears. "I swear it, Cloud."
Satisfied, Cloud nodded once and went limp, lying back into the cold mud. "Hnh... Not...cold anymore..." His lips quirked somewhere between grimace and smile. "Too bad...never made...SOLDIER..."
At this, Zack's carefully composed expression began to crack. He inhaled sharply, a choked sound catching in his throat. "SOLDIER's are monsters, Cloud. You... You're a hero. You're the best friend I've ever had." Zack couldn't finish. Didn't want to talk like this was the last time.
Cloud's smile was faint, but genuine. "Thank you..." His free hand settled across his wounded chest, fingertips searching for something. He lifted a picture out of his pocket.
Without seeing it Zack knew what it was. Tifa. Young and smiling impishly between Zack and Sephiroth mere hours before all their lives went straight to hell. Zack took the bloodstained photograph reluctantly. "I'll find her." Zack had no way of knowing if the girl had even survived the Nibleheim disaster, but if she had, he would find her.
Satisfied, Cloud nodded and closed his eyes. "I think…I'll sleep now…"
Zack's own eyes closed with regret and sadness; a solitary tear slipped past his long lashes, blending with the rain. "Goodnight, my friend."