Final Fantasy VII
If Everyone Cared
Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! It was directly inspired by the prompt Torture at 10 Hurt Comfort on Livejournal. Thanks to Kaze for plot help!
The old door creaked open on its hinges, allowing a strip of light to pass into the otherwise darkened room. Tables bearing vials and other equipment took up the majority of the floorspace, while one or two others were empty. A bit of dried blood was visible on the slab nearest to the door, contrasting with its metallic hue. The once-crimson substance had dripped over the edge, and a small puddle was visible on the tiled floor underneath the table.
Mako-enhanced eyes narrowed, studying the laboratory. He had been searching for this location for much too long. It had been a race against time to rescue the one whom he knew had been taken prisoner. Every day that had passed without success had been cause for further frustration and alarm. Even now, it might already be too late. Or it may have not been the correct location in the first place. This was the last room, and it looked vacated. But in spite of appearances, it must be thoroughly examined.
His heavy boots echoed as they stepped onto the chiseled floor. Other sounds were ricocheting through his mind, where they had been for the last few days until he believed that he would go mad. There was never any relief from the gunshots, the explosions, the screams. . . . He had been helpless, listening over a two-way radio to the ambiguous sounds, never knowing who had come out the victor until the sickening announcement had been made. And that was always replaying in his mind, too.
The radio crackled as it was picked up by someone on the other end. "General? We hope you are listening, for it is your attention we desire!"
Fear gripped his heart when instead of Zack he heard the cruel voice speak. "What have you done?" he demanded. "Where is Commander Fair?"
There was a definite sneer in the tones. "He is with us, of course, after killing some of my men. Do say Hello to your precious friend, won't you, Commander?"
"Seph . . . !"
The gloved hand clutched at the hilt of the Masamune as he came to stand in the center of the room. Anything could come at him if he was not careful. They had already found and destroyed other monstrous experiments that had tried to attack. The zealots had been busy.
He had been furious yet rational when the madmen had spoken to him. Losing control would not help Zack. Still, it had torn at his very soul when he had heard Zack cry out to him. There had been anger, frustration, and panic in the younger man's voice. He had been angry and frustrated at himself for being defeated and held hostage, angry with his captors for starting the insanity, and panicked for fear that Sephiroth would be harmed too.
"And you cannot do anything about our insurrection as long as we have him, correct?" The heartless voice was filled with glee. "You know we will kill him if you attempt anything foolish."
And then there was the sound of Zack struggling against his captors. "I'll be okay, Seph," he called. "I promise! Don't do something dangerous just for my sake."
Something struck him, a cry of pain escaping his lips. "Silence, cur," snapped one of the rebels.
Sephiroth's eyes flashed. But before he could respond, the communication was broken.
The conflict had been raging in his soul since then.
He had to think of the greater good. He and Zack had spoken of it only the day before he had been taken. The situation in this land was critical, and the terrorists would not be above taking a hostage to force the SOLDIERs' hands. If it came down to choosing between one life or many, what was the logical option? Some people had to be sacrificed, as horrible as it was. That was the way in war, whether Zack liked it or not--and of course he did not. Now, ironically, his life was the one on the bartering table.
Zack was not "some people." Zack was the cheerful optimist, always ready with a glomp and a happy word. Zack was the boy who was becoming a man, learning of the cruelties of the world yet clutching to hope as though it was a lifeline. Zack was the one who had sneaked past all of Sephiroth's barriers, never taking No for an answer in his quest to open the aching man's heart.
He had given himself an ultimatum. If Zack could not be found and rescued in five days' time, then they could no longer stand by and allow the zealots to continue their reign of destruction. They would have to attack, whether or not that would seal Zack's fate. The decision further shredded his soul, but it was all that could be done.
And the ghosts of the past had been haunting him again.
Something like this had happened once before, shortly after he had become the General. During the Wutai war, one of his men had been taken prisoner while the terrorists had continued to run free through the land and wreak havoc. Sephiroth and his troops had done everything possible to locate the captive, but to no avail. And time had been running out.
A worried Second Class SOLDIER entered Sephiroth's makeshift office. After formalities, he launched into the explanation of their problem.
"General, sir, another SOLDIER outpost was attacked. And a village friendly to us was burned to the ground! The rebels are threatening to attack another one this evening, since we won't agree to their terms." He still stood at attention, but the worry and concern were very prevalent in his eyes. "And Third Class Martin will die if we try to stop them. . . ."
Sephiroth, seated at his desk, frowned. "We still have the zealot we captured this morning, don't we?" he asked, removing his glasses.
"Yes, sir . . . but they'll also kill Third Class Martin if we try to use the terrorist as a bargaining chip." The Second Class SOLDIER averted his gaze, looking to the floor. "And he won't tell us anything about the bases. . . ."
"Then we'll have to keep searching on our own," Sephiroth determined. "The man we captured is expendable to them. Even if we try to use him to force their hand, they won't care. But we will find the terrorists before they can launch their next assault. We will also rescue Third Class Martin, no matter what it takes. Is that clear?"
The Second Class SOLDIER saluted. "Yes, sir!"
Perhaps the fact that Sephiroth said it made him believe it would happen.
Somehow they had managed to find the terrorists' nearby base in time--but they had been expected. In the end, they had won the unavoidable battle that had ensued, preventing the attack on the village. But the leader, bitter and hateful, had had a final trick to play--one that he had already threatened to enact.
The same Second Class SOLDIER approached after the battle, his countenance haunted. "Sir . . ."
Sephiroth turned to look, frowning at his expression. "What is it, SOLDIER?" He was cleaning his sword. Around him were the bodies of some of the rebels.
The Second Class SOLDIER could not meet his eyes. "I found Third Class Martin, sir. . . ." he said, his voice cracking. "It . . . it looks like he was killed only an hour or more ago, when we started our attack."
It had taken him weeks to get over it. He had wanted to save all of his troops as well as the villagers, not having to sacrifice any. But it had been foolish idealism. He had been taught that there were situations other than in actual combat where some of the men would have to lay down their lives. And though he had rejected it, he had seen just how true it was. How much worse would he have felt if all the men had perished, and everyone in the village? If he had done nothing, countless lives would have been lost. They had had to fight back. Even if they had refrained from attacking, Martin probably would have been killed anyway. But that thought did not altogether ease the guilt, the feeling that he could have done more and planned it better. He could have saved Martin as well as the village.
He could not bear for something like that to happen again. This time he wanted--no, he had to save everyone. Zack could not die. Zack would not die.
If he found the battered and lifeless body laying here, or anywhere else . . . he did not know what he would do.
And suddenly horror eclipsed his being. What if the monsters they had defeated had once been human?
What if one of them had been Zack?
He passed a shaking hand over his face. Surely nothing as abominable as that could happen in five days. But he did not know what level of technology they had. Their laboratories had all been very advanced.
The last beast had given him such a shocked and disbelieving look when he had been forced to slay it. Then it had crumpled to the floor, its eyes dimming in death. . . . Eyes that had looked lavender. . . .
He removed his hand from over his own eyes. He did not know what that had been. It may have never been human. He would pray it had not. And he would not accept that it had been Zack. He would not believe that he had killed Zack with his own hands. He would not believe that Zack had been turned into such a pitiable and pathetic creature. That could not happen to Zack.
Zack looked up at him, his visage troubled. He did not like their topic of discussion, and the thought that had just sprung into his mind only made it worse. "Seph . . . what if it was one of us on the line?" he wondered. "What would we do then?"
Sephiroth was silent for a moment. ". . . We would still have to think of the greater good, even if it meant sacrificing you or me," he said. "That's what our duty to Shinra entails."
Zack shifted. "Yeah, but . . . without you, I dunno if there could really be a greater good."
Zack's sickened and saddened eyes flashed before his mind. Sephiroth had heard what had not been said. After everything they had been through, Zack could not bear the thought of sacrificing his best friend. Of course, he would not be able to stand the thought of sacrificing someone he had just met moments before, either. That was Zack, pure and good. And he had held the same ideals that Sephiroth had once held long ago.
He straightened up, suddenly determined. "I'd find a way to save everyone, including you!"
Sephiroth frowned, shaking his head. "It wouldn't work that way."
Zack was undaunted. "I'd make it work!"
Why was it that Zack could make Sephiroth believe something he already knew was false?
Something moved in the darkened corner. He came to attention, focusing on that area. All that could be seen was a sheet. Something was under it. He approached, never letting his hand stray from the hilt of his sword. But then he froze.
A human arm was hanging out from underneath the material, well-muscled and bearing welts. The fingers weakly moved, gripping at the floor as if in pain, but then went limp.
Sephiroth went down on his knees. He reached out, gripping the sheet as he began to pull it aside. The poor soul wrapped in it cried out in protest, but could do nothing to stop it from coming away and exposing the bare upper half of his body. Tangled raven spikes splayed in every direction, the removal of the sheet causing them to bounce from the force of the static cling.
Sephiroth was now staring at the tortured back. More ugly welts covered the flesh, some having bled and then dried, and others having not broken the skin. One stretched around to his side and possibly to his waist. The General could scarcely stand it. Especially knowing who this was.
"Zack . . ."
Only a weak moan answered him. He clutched at Zack's shoulder, trying to turn him enough so that his face could be seen without laying him on his back. That would undoubtedly be unnecessarily painful.
But Zack did not want to move at all. He flung his arms out, struggling to swat Sephiroth away as he yelled something unintelligible.
Sephiroth rocked back out of reach. Zack was too badly hurt to even realize that he was safe. He probably thought that it was one of the demons coming to harm him again. And the sheet had slipped far enough down on his side to make it clear that he was naked. What had they done to him, leaving him with only a smidgen of dignity by keeping him in the sheet? It was a cruel and heartless act in and of itself. It was as though they had deposited him in this corner because they had no further use for him and they did not care what happened to him.
"Zack!" Sephiroth spoke louder, struggling to be heard over the panicked screams. "It's me. I'm not going to hurt you."
Zack snatched Sephiroth's wrist, digging in his fingers as tight as possible as he fought to pull the hand away from him. With his other hand he grabbed the sheet, trying to throw it over himself as a vain means of protection. It was heart-breaking to watch.
"Zack!" Sephiroth forced a commanding tone into his voice. Zack could not be allowed to thrash around like that. In his current condition, he might hurt himself worse. And if Sephiroth tried to physically restrain him, that would only make him more determined to fight to get away. Somehow Sephiroth had to get through to him.
The tormented young man froze. Sephiroth could practically hear his heart racing in his fear.
"You have to calm down," he said. "No one will harm you."
The sheet slipped back again. Zack struggled to turn and look, the effort obviously paining him. "Seph . . . ?" His voice was so faint, so raw and rasping. . . . One of his eyes was almost closed, swollen from where he had been kicked against a wall. A bit of blood had trickled from a cut over that eye, having dried there. But those were the least of his afflictions.
Sephiroth had to fight to hold back his fury at what had been done to one so undeserving. "Yes," he said, lowering his voice to a normal volume.
Zack gave a weak grin of triumph. "I held out," he proclaimed. "And I didn't tell them anything. Did you catch the creeps?"
Sephiroth nodded. "They're either captive or dead." He observed Zack's pitiful state, the anger building again. "What did they do to you?" Zack's breathing was pained. There were whip marks on his chest as well, and from the way he was holding a hand to his side, some ribs may have been damaged. He was moving his legs as he shifted, so at least they were not broken, but one of them was definitely bothering him.
Yet Zack was still cheerful even in this situation, having been beaten for days and now clothed in only a sheet. "It's nothing I can't heal from," he said. "They just roughed me up a bit."
Sephiroth doubted the truth of Zack's statements. He debated asking whether Zack could stand, but that would seem ludicrous. Zack could not even sit up, but if asked he would likely try to get to his feet when he should not. Whether Zack would find it embarrassing or not, Sephiroth would probably need to carry him out of here.
"Let me just get up," Zack said, "and then we can go. . . ." Gritting his teeth, he moved further onto his back. Keeping his hands on the floor for balance, he began to push himself upright. It was obvious that he was in agony. When he was teetering in a half-sitting position, a hand flew to his head. The other arm, struggling to prop him up, trembled and began to buckle under the weight.
Sephiroth brought an arm around Zack's shoulders to support him. He did not speak, instead gathering the sheet around Zack's legs and placing one hand under Zack's knees. Keeping his other hand on Zack's upper arm, he began to lift the wounded body.
Zack yelped in surprise at the abrupt movement. But then he sank into his friend's arms. He could not get up. Both of them knew it. And Seph was not going to rub it in by saying anything aloud. Instead he would just assist, doing what he must to get Zack away from here.
Sephiroth straightened up, holding Zack firmly in his grasp. "Am I hurting you?" he queried, hoping that he was not jarring Zack's injuries.
"Nah . . . it's fine." Zack slumped further against the bigger man, his eyes beginning to close. He was more worn out than he had realized. For the past days he had fought to stay awake as much as possible, not wanting his captors to come in and hurt him when he was not even aware of it. He had only slept when unconsciousness had claimed him during the torture sessions . . . and once or twice when his body had simply not been able to stand the lack of real sleep. Now he was safe. For the first time since this Hell had begun, he could rest without fear.
Sephiroth turned, picking the quickest path to the door. Zack was alive. Even if it took a while, he surely would recover. Once he was outside and to the medical van, Sephiroth would tend to his wounds, applying salve to each welt and cut. With this faction of the zealots eliminated, Sephiroth could return with Zack to Midgar, at least for a while. Sephiroth would be there to help him with the healing process. Undoubtedly there were mental and emotional wounds as well as the physical.
". . . I knew you'd come, Seph."
Sephiroth paused, frowning in disbelief before resuming his pace. "How could you know?" he asked. "I didn't know myself. There was a high probability that I would not find you in time."
". . . Even if it wasn't in time, I knew you'd find me," Zack amended. "But I wasn't gonna let it be like that. I was gonna keep hanging on so that I'd still be alive when you came."
Sephiroth stepped out into the lighted corridor. At the end of the hall was the door leading outside. He walked towards it. The other SOLDIERs should be on the grounds by now. He had directed them to search specific locations in the building and then reconvene outside for further instructions. If any of them found something that bore investigation, they were to contact him on their radios. So far he had not heard from any of them.
"You might have not been able to help it," he said. Third Class Martin had certainly possessed Zack's same determination to fight and live. But he had been killed anyway.
"Yeah . . ." Zack did not want to leave the conversation on a pessimistic note, but the pain was increasing. He could not seem to think of a good reply.
". . . But I was," he said at last.
Sephiroth allowed a slight smile. "Yes," he said. "You were."
". . . I tried to get away a couple times," Zack said. "It didn't work out."
"You did everything you could."
He had told that to himself after what had happened in the past. For a while he had even wondered if he had been fit to lead the armies. Before that tragedy, he had been young, naive, certain that everything was at last going his way after his wretched childhood. But he had quickly begun to learn about the cruelties of life and war. He had become more hardened and stern, and none of the men had ever dared disobey him. The few times anyone had tried, they had learned the folly of such a mistake. Sephiroth would not tolerate disobedience or disrespect. He was as hard on everyone else as he was on himself.
But his men were devoted to him in spite of that, and they and Zack could see what he refused to consider--that he was a diamond in the rough. He truly cared about his men and was kind to them when they needed it. Sometimes they needed him to be stern in order to guide them onto the right path. If they did not appreciate it at the time, they were grateful later on.
". . . So did you, Seph."
Sephiroth blinked. "What?"
"You did everything you could."
Sephiroth looked ahead, not answering.
I did, he realized.
And Zack was safe now. Angeal would have said that they had been blessed. Not that Sephiroth would disagree.
Now they were coming to the door. Sephiroth stepped through it into the night air. Stars twinkled overhead, lighting upon the worried SOLDIERs who had gathered at the designated meeting place. Another shined upon Sephiroth and the wounded SOLDIER he was carrying. The men, who had been conversing amongst themselves and wondering if they should go back inside, froze at the sight.
A sound broke the silence. One of the men was clapping. Then another joined him, and a third, until none of them were silent. Zack, though still embarrassed, was also touched. He grinned, raising a hand in a half-wave.
Sephiroth did not try to stop their expression of joy that Zack had been found alive. Instead he walked forward in their midst, heading for the medical van. He felt the same joy. And soon they would be away from here so that Zack could begin to recover.
They were leaving the nightmare behind.