Here it is! The last part of CAN! I'm so glad I got this done in time! I resolved to get it done by my birthday, and here it is! *dances*
WARNING: some screwed-up head stuff and a baaaad wooord. Ooh. Cloud spends most of this part uncertain of his identity, so much of this is more or less third person limited with Zack as the focus character. Right up to the last scene, actually.
Anyway, read, read, read! Enjoy it, and please review! You know you want to…. *grin*
Zack panted roughly for breath, struggling weakly against the restraints he curled so helplessly in. C was deposited on his chest and bound there, but the blond didn't fight, rather sprawled bonelessly against him.
Zack hated these 'sessions.' Hojo had finally revealed his reason for keeping Zack around, and he definitely didn't like it. Hojo had apparently hoped Cloud would go all super-SOLDIERy on his own with just a little prodding from himself, the lab goons, and the additional information Jenova could give him. However, once there seemed to be no sign of that happening, Hojo had decided to use Zack for that purpose.
Zack remembered the day, it seemed so long ago, that Cloud had broken. He couldn't hear through his cell, but he had seen Cloud peel the flesh from his hand and laugh hysterically for long moments, before turning perfectly calm with a suddenness only the truly insane could manage. He remembered how, when he'd slept that night, Sephiroth had appeared in his dreams, panicking over Cloud suddenly shutting him out, cursing Hojo and Jenova and anything else he could think of for planting the seeds of doubt in Cloud's mind.
Zack was beginning to think that maybe some part of Sephiroth really was still out there—not just entertaining the thought out of loneliness and depression, but to truly believe it. Maybe, as Hojo had thought, it was just a mask Jenova wore when she appeared to them, but how was she able to appear so easily to him, when her cells in him were dead, and none of Sephiroth's DNA had been put in him? Unless maybe there was a little of one or both of them in him from all the times the two—or three, counting Cloud—of them had had sex…? He'd heard of SOLDIERs accidentally giving their lovers minor cases of Mako poisoning by having too much sex, but genetic transfer?
Funny thought, that. DNA as an STD. /Beautiful, Zack. You really need more stimulation if something like that is enough to amuse you./
After that day, though, Hojo had been doing even weirder things to poor Cloud. He kept Cloud unconscious for most of the experiments that involved his body only, and heavily sedated whenever he could get by with it. And when Cloud was awake, he fixed Hojo with a level look, utterly emotionless, except for a bit of disdain, like he was looking through a microscope at some vaguely nasty specimen, but not bothered enough by it to bother getting upset.
After a while, though, Cloud's lack of response—to anything, including Zack—began to seem more ominous. It wasn't until the first of these 'sessions' that Zack understood at last what was happening. Before, Zack had been glad they had taken Cloud elsewhere when they were going to really screw with his head; maybe it was selfish, but he had nightmares enough that he didn't want to add whatever horrors lurked in Cloud's mind to them. Now, he wished he had been there so he would know everything he could possibly know about Cloud.
Cloud, who would probably never be again.
They'd almost completely erased his personality, leaving Cloud empty and cold. They had obviously boosted his body to a level similar to Sephiroth's, but now they needed to get him a more Sephiroth-like personality and memories. Through extensive reconditioning, they had managed to get C acting a little like Sephiroth, though Hojo was evidently still most displeased with their progress. But it was during the 'sessions' that C got the memories he needed.
The first time, Zack had been shocked and delighted to be able to touch Cloud, to talk to him for the first time in…a looong time. Better still, they were both out of the cells at the same time, and Zack was already turning over possible escape plans in his head. But they'd both been securely restrained, and Cloud hadn't spoken to him at all. After a few minutes or so of lying there, skin-to-skin and cold, Zack became aware of a burning sensation where Cloud touched him. Not the warmth of another being, but the burn of hot-cold Mako. It had spread insidiously through his body and up his spine and into his brain. His sight had been overtaken by blinding white, and for just a moment, Zack remembered standing in a little park in Junon with Sephiroth, back when they'd been lovers, staring at the smile on Sephiroth's face. He'd distantly heard Cloud cry out, then he passed out.
When he awoke, they were back in their cells. Seeing his movement, Cloud had turned to look at him—a rare occurrence of late—and smiled.
Zack had read the words from Cloud's lips—a talent he was thankfully mastering at last. "Don't worry, Zack. We'll get you out if here." Zack's mind had helpfully played Sephiroth's voice over Cloud's mouth-movements, and Zack had been unsettled enough to turn away and refuse to look at the blond until their next meal. By that time, Cloud had returned to his apathetic unresponsiveness.
Holy, had the day really come when Zack was grateful his friend was a walking vegetable?
This time was as bad as the previous times. The burning came more quickly, these days, and spread much faster, and the snatches of memory he took now ran into whole days of events. Zack was just happy C seemed to be copying them, not taking them; if he had to forget as C learned his new identity, he'd have gone insane by now.
This time, though, was remarkable, simply because Zack consciously recalled a certain handful of memories for Cloud to have. First he remembered one time when the three of them had been hanging out together at home, and Zack had watched from the other side of the room as Sephiroth and Cloud got all over each other. He was hoping to jog Cloud's memory of the incident from his own perspective. Then he recalled their first meeting—an event Sephiroth hadn't even been present for.
Against his chest, C jerked when the memories slammed into him. The confusion that had tingled in his brain for a long time now, that had been receding as he remembered who he was, slammed back into him full force.
He didn't know who he was.
He'd thought he was Sephiroth. But then…how could he remember something when he wasn't present to experience it? And who was the blond he'd obviously at least wanted to bed? Zack had been there, but hadn't he and Zack…?
C was still trying to sort out the implications when they were tossed back into their cells, Zack only partially conscious. He stared at his friend—lover?—for long moments while his mind turned things over. The memories were sharper, clearer when he was with Zack, but this time instead of a few precious minutes of supreme clarity, he was left with a mess in his head like none he had ever encountered before.
How was it possible for him to be unable to remember with certainty something as fundamental as his name?
Gazing into the other cell, C suddenly got a faint reflection off the transparent wall he was staring through. C discovered he couldn't remember his own face. He shifted, and focused his eyes on the clear surface instead of through it. The ghostly image of dark-gold hair cut very close, a beard the same shade, and blue-violet eyes stared back at him. It was all wrong—he knew he had white hair and green eyes, or was that black with light-blue?—but it was also very familiar.
The blond in the flashback. The boy-man he had…loved? But how…?
Frustrated, C pounded his fists against the side of his clear cell. "Dammit, who am I?" His voice rose to a shout. "Who am I?!?!?!"
Hojo, elsewhere in the lab, looked up. His cells were only one-way soundproof; he liked to be able to hear everything his sometimes unstable subjects said. Now he rose and shambled over to the specimen tanks. After only a few minutes, he sighed and shook his head, taking out a note-pad.
"'Specimen C: failure,'" he wrote. Then smirked and shrugged. "Oh, well. We can try again. He was rather close to success. Let's give it another go, shall we, C? Have to wipe you clean again, I suppose."
Then he bobbed off into a different part of the lab, happy enough to let C suffer his little identity crisis. His psychic pain would only make him easier to break. Besides, it had been a long time since C had been responsive enough to scream. Maybe the next few months of reconditioning wouldn't be so bad after all.
Zack watched as Cloud laboriously scratch, scratch, scratched at the beaker he held. He was so weak, he could barely hold it, barely scratch, barely keep his eyes open and head up to see what he was doing. It was a moment between 'treatments,' so they were no longer bobbing up and down in the Mako their little cells were filled with so much of the time. But it pained him to see Cloud so weak. He had what seemed to be the mother of all Mako-poisoning cases, couldn't seem to utter any sound beyond a groan, though Zack could only tell because no lip-reading could be done.
Zack was glad for the respite, though. In these precious moments between rounds of torture, Mako, Jenova cells, and psychological reconditioning, he could see a glimmer of his old friend. The determination in him, even if it was a bit unfocused and mindless, was reassuring, though it probably should not have been. Zack had to wonder how much of the behavior Cloud displayed was really Cloud, and how much was him in disguise.
The beaker would eventually make it to his cell so its message could be read, then he could make his reply. It was a very slow way of communicating, but Zack didn't care. It worked, and no one thought to check for faint little scratches in the glass of beakers and test-tubes. They could only make the faintest of marks, anyway, usually not a scratch in the glass so much as the powdered remains of a fingernail. Zack was always so glad to get a message from Cloud, though. His new ability to lip-read had little use with Cloud, and Cloud so often forgot the signs of the basic sign language they had developed while in captivity, that Zack found he really missed his friend.
How odd it seemed to have his best friend buck naked within reaching distance and still be missing him. After however many years it had been, Zack thought he should be used to it by now, but every day he was smacked in the face by the sheer wrongness of the situation. Sometimes, when he was mostly certain the lab was empty, Zack turned his back to Cloud and cried. He knew there was no shame in tears, but Cloud needed him to be strong, so he dared show no weakness when he could not readily explain it away.
Zack stretched his legs out on the bottom of his cell, allowing the kinks to work themselves out even as he let his mind grow unfocused. He really wanted out of here. A big part of it was for Cloud's sake, and that worried him. He knew he was placing far too much importance on Cloud's continued survival, more than was wise or healthy in the best of times, never mind when either of them could die any time now. But his desire to escape was by no means entirely unselfish.
Zack was sick of being cooped up in here. He hadn't lost as much muscle tone as he'd expected, but it was still enough to be worrisome. Zack knew that with his lack of exercise, it was only the Mako that was keeping him even remotely fit, and that he had probably lost a great deal of his flexibility. He'd started out trying to keep moving when possible, but it was rather difficult to do when floating in a searing sea of liquid Mako, breathing it in, coughing it up, feeling his skin blister and heal simultaneously at its touch. He was mostly over his first bout of the sickness Mako brought with it, but those first days had been horrible, filled with convulsions and seizures and begging the Planet to just let him die cleanly.
He was lucky the SOLDIER scientists had expected such reactions for at least some of their inductees, because he'd done the same thing when he'd had his initial exposure. He was a bit sensitive to the stuff, at least in body. He'd never experienced the paranoid schizophrenic attacks so many other SOLDIERs went through.
Like Cloud seemed to be. Zack was beginning to doubt it was all in the heads of those who had them, though. After all, he had Sephiroth visiting him occasionally, though the visits seemed to get further and further apart, and in the next cell, Cloud had jabbered on and on at no visible target almost nonstop before he had lost the ability to form words and coherent sentences.
Zack sighed and leaned back against the cell wall, dreaming of the day they'd eventually escape. He knew it had to happen eventually. He wouldn't be held down, and Cloud being programmed with his personality and what parts of Sephiroth's Hojo could scrape together meant the blond wasn't likely to stay around for long either. It amazed Zack how far Cloud had come personality-wise in the last couple rounds of treatment. He still had a gaping void where his memories ought to have been, but he had personality, now. Before all this, Zack thought it was impossible to have a complex personality without memory, but somehow Cloud was managing. Maybe because his memory was still there, just repressed?
Zack hoped so. He took it as proof the other man was still there, somewhere.
Zack remained relaxed, years and years of training in SOLDIER enabling him to do so even under circumstances in which most people would be taut as a bow string. He watched through half-lidded eyes as one of Hojo's lackeys came in, bearing a tray laden with 'food.' He was working very hard to keep himself from betraying his intent. If he could not manage to pull off this escape attempt, he was not coming back here. A part of him cursed him for a coward and a traitor for not staying with Cloud, but he really didn't care, anymore. He was never coming back here, and he had a feeling that, if he offered Cloud a similar out, the blond would take the opportunity gratefully.
Zack let himself collapse limply as the Mako buoying him was drained away. He feigned just enough weakness to appear harmless, and not so much that the jumpy underling would suspect he was up to something. The man opened the cell door and grabbed the bit of food that was Zack's…then gasped as he was struck hard in the face by one of Zack's hard fists. He went out like a light.
Stepping out of his cell, Zack quickly let Cloud out of his. The Mako in Cloud's cell was kept much warmer than in his own and steamed in the cold air of the lab. Cloud collapsed limply into the space just beyond the cell door. He struggled to lift his head, and when he did there was a faint smile on his face. He was aware of his freedom, at least, although he was very obviously zoning out more by the minute. Zack rolled him into a more comfortable position, then cut quickly to the other side of the room. When their clothes had been taken from them, Zack had taken careful notice of where they went. When they had been moved to this second lab, he had noted where he thought they had put their belongings.
Zack was not disappointed. He pulled open a drawer and found his clothes folded neatly within; inside another, Cloud's clothes. Everything was folded neatly, placed in plastic bags, and labeled like something in a police lab.
Great, now he'd be thinking of things in terms of labs for the rest of his life.
Zack dressed quickly, then padded over to Cloud. He managed to get the blond dressed, despite the fact that he was doing practically nothing to help, although his eyes said he really wanted to. He had to dress Cloud in one of his old uniforms, since none of his own clothes fit anymore. Zack felt infinitely better once he had Buster Sword on his back, his armor on his shoulders, and his bangles on his arms. He also decked Cloud out in what he had. Cloud surprised him by rousing from his near catatonia to snatch a thin chain from his grasp, looping it around his neck in the blink of an eye.
Zack's lip trembled when he saw that the chain held the engagement ring Sephiroth had given Cloud so long ago. Then tears really escaped when he saw the confusion on Cloud's face—he didn't even know why he felt compelled to grab it.
Zack hefted Cloud up, allowing him to lean heavily on him. It was unfortunate but true that Cloud would never be able to escape as he was without a great deal of assistance. Zack had noticed that the first thing to give out when Cloud was Mako-poisoned was his legs. Or rather, his spine down to his legs. Apparently, the Jenova cells that had repaired Cloud's spinal cord had fits when exposed to such high concentrations of Mako, which didn't make sense to Zack, since the things usually seemed to thrive on Mako, but he figured Cloud would have an explanation or at least a theory when he woke up.
Assuming that was still Cloud in there.
Zack snorted to himself and shoved those thoughts aside. He felt like a traitor for not believing in Cloud, but this whole Mako/Jenova/Hojo/Sephiroth/lab-rat thing had left him badly shaken. He wanted to hope that the personality inside that blond head was still mostly Cloud, but a whole lot of time being tortured and watching evidence to the contrary accumulate had left Zack with a surprisingly pessimistic outlook on life. Sephiroth and Aeris would never recognize him, now. Although, Sephiroth was dead—probably, despite his vivid dreams—and a pretty girl like Aeris just didn't wait around forever for a loser like him.
Zack wondered, not for the first time, whether a bit of that memory/personality transference stuff worked in reverse. He was starting to sound a little like Cloud, at least in the privacy of his own mind. Come to think of it, Sephiroth had spent a long time convinced he was nothing special, too.
Zack pushed his dark thoughts aside. Right now, he had to focus on getting them out of here. Hojo seemed to be away—he spent less and less time with them, apparently having better specimens to work with, now (thank Holy)—but there were still guards, monsters let loose solely for the purpose of keeping any projects from escaping, more lackeys, and who knew what else lurking around this place.
"C'mon, Spike. Time to un-ass the A.O." he murmured to Cloud. Cloud made no response, only wheezing slow breaths into the stillness of the lab.
Zack pulled Cloud out of the room and into—surprise—a cave. He could hear faint moans and the scrabble of claws on stone, so he tried to get through there as fast as he could. He didn't want to have to put Cloud down to fight, especially since he had no idea what was down here, now. Before, it had been the roaches and a tiny colony of bug-eating bats that had been trapped down here when the Mansion was built atop their cave. Now, there could be dragons here, for all he knew, and Cloud was depending on him to escape.
After laboriously dragging Cloud up that huuuuuuge spiral staircase, Zack emerged into the Nibelheim Shinra Mansion. Zack was growing confused; hadn't all of this burned? Admittedly, Hojo was twisted enough to make a replica of a place in which they were imprisoned, but wasn't this overkill?
Zack crept quietly across the wooden floors, wincing when floorboards creaked under his feet—in the exact places they had before the Mansion burned. He got glimpses of strange monsters throughout the building, and spent much of the time ducking behind walls and furniture to keep from being seen. Incredibly, he made it out of the house…
And into the town of Nibelheim.
Zack almost dropped Cloud. The whole place was perfect, not a thing to indicate that the last time they'd seen it, it had been ash, charcoal, and burning timbers. The fences were the same, the shingles were the same, the bricks were the same… It was almost as if all the horrific events that had taken place here had been nothing but a nightmare. Any moment now, he'd wake up, find himself dozing off someplace and Sephiroth giving him the half-amused, half-disapproving look, before going back to trying to coax Cloud into a PDA.
Zack smiled wistfully. It was a nice thought, but the pain of the past few years had been far too immediate for any kind of dream.
Dragging Cloud across the whole town was definitely not easy, and he got the feeling he was being watched the whole time. Ghostly sightings from the corner of his eye of faces in the windows, hearing doors and shutters quickly shut, muffled voices echoing emptily in the streets—all of these assaulted his senses and professional paranoia kicked in. Zack would not let it be paranoia of any other sort. 'Nibelheim' was obviously populated, evidently with people who had been told not to interact with experiments. If they knew that much, though, it was likely they were also told to notify Shinra should any experiments escape.
Zack poured on the steam. He didn't want to be caught by Shinra or Hojo's goons. Ordinarily, he could have taken the lot of them easily, but after months of under-nourishment, lack of exercise, and recent Mako poisoning, he doubted he could take a small dog, never mind a soldier. Zack could feel his uniform hanging on his frame, just a bit looser than it should have been. Hell, Cloud fit better in his borrowed clothes than he did.
It took days to get far enough from 'Nibelheim' for him to relax. They camped on the bare earth, hiding in little depressions or caves, or under rocks or roots. He spent much of those days awake, since Cloud could hardly keep any sort of watch. Cloud was still extremely ill and Zack had to take care of him. He forced water down his throat, made him drink the thin broth he managed to make of a small rabbit-like animal he'd caught the second day. He himself ate some of the meat, and was amazed by how good plain, half-cooked flesh could taste after years on the runny gruel, nutrient bars, and intravenous supplements Hojo had supplied them.
About the fourth day, they ran across a road running toward Cosmo Canyon. Zack had bent his steps that way to begin with, and now he had proof they were going the right way. A day later, they encountered an oldish man in his beat-up pickup. Zack managed to secure them a ride.
As the glorious red buttes of the Cosmo Canyon area ran past, Zack sat with Cloud in the back of the pickup, soaking up the sunlight and talking about anything and everything. He sang to him and told him about Gongaga—again—and made plans for the future. It was just the two of them left, now; no Sephiroth, probably no Aeris. Zack still wanted to go to Midgar, maybe see Aeris, but also because the Midgar hospitals were good with Mako poisoning. He would have liked to make Mideel—they were rumored to have the best doctors anywhere—but he didn't exactly carry an airship with him everywhere. He was kind of worried at the idea of walking into Shinra central, but they would be fine.
The old man driving was entertaining, telling them to get out and try everything. He didn't know anything about SOLDIER or Mako experiments or anything else, or he would have realized that Zack had experienced more of the world than he'd ever wanted to. Zack tried to think up an occupation that was close enough to soldiering for he and Cloud to understand and be good at, but different enough that they wouldn't be constantly reminded of all that happened and all they lost.
The old man was shocked that he would settle on something like being a pair of mercenaries, and tried to talk 'sense' into Zack, but he would hear none of it. Zack sat down by Cloud, gathered him in his arms, and promised he wouldn't leave him.
"I wouldn't leave you hanging like that. We're friends, right?"
Cloud shivered miserably, still too weak to make any coherent reply, but he managed to shift his weak body deeper into Zack's embrace. Zack sighed and buried his nose in Cloud's hair. He still reeked of Mako, but his own scent was starting to overpower it's fading odor, and Zack took comfort in the scent. It brought to mind comforting memories of nights spent with the three of them curled comfortably together, innocently, sometimes, or other times not.
The warmth of the sun and the body in his arms lulled Zack into much-needed sleep.
Cloud felt the ache of muscles subjected to micro-seizures for far too long, and the pounding of a head full of voices and liquid energy. The effects of his Mako poisoning were only now becoming almost manageable, and he could turn his awareness outside himself at last. He remembered chunks of their escape. From the feel of his head bobbing limply in time with Zack's stride and his arms supporting him, they seemed to still be free.
Something was wrong, though. Zack seemed to be moving pretty fast, burdened as he was with Cloud's weight. Unintentionally, Cloud reached out with his Jenova-enhanced senses and skimmed recent memories from the surface of Zack's mind. He was suddenly filled with the knowledge that they were being pursued. Zack had been spotted by a squad of Shinra troops, who had immediately given chase. Apparently, they knew to be looking out for them—they must still be interesting enough that Hojo wanted them back.
Cloud felt Zack stop suddenly, then he was face down on the ground. He could smell Mako and pollution and he knew immediately that they were near Midgar. He tried to make his limbs respond to directives to push himself up, to help Zack, but the most he could manage was to lift his head, shudder, and moan.
He heard Zack's heavy boots clunking on the ground as he ran back to face their enemy. Cloud knew Zack would not let himself be taken again. He heard the distinctive sound of Buster Sword cutting through armor, flesh, weaponry. There was the sound of gunfire—probably one of Scarlet's newer model Mako rifles, since he didn't recognize the sound of it. Then Zack's running steps again, as he fell back to Cloud's position to defend him.
Gunfire close by sounded in his ears, and he heard Zack's pain-filled grunt. His only half-focused vision showed Zack catapulted across the dirt and rock by the impact of those deadly bullets. Brilliant, faintly glowing blood blossomed like flowers across his chest and belly, and he didn't get up once he hit the ground. Standard issue Shinra boots marched across his field of vision, resolving into an officer and two troopers of the Shinra Regular Army. One trooper leveled his gun—indeed a new model—at Zack, and fired two bursts into his chest and face.
Obviously, they were not good enough for recapture, only good enough for disposal. Cloud mentally cursed Hojo as colorfully and creatively as his scrambled mind would allow.
Then the murderers were coming toward him and he did his best to seem a target, hoping they would send him after Zack, but they disregarded him. They thought he was on the verge of death anyway, so they were going to just let him die out here, all alone.
Cloud vowed he would someday make them regret that.
He lay there for a while, he was not sure how long, but when the rain started to fall, it was like a signal. Suddenly, Cloud could raise his head, lift an arm, and belly crawl toward Zack. His legs seemed to be utterly useless, still, but that would not stop him. He managed to balance himself on his knees, his legs folded awkwardly beneath him, as he stared into the ruin of Zack's beloved face. His eyes were undamaged and stared up at the sky, unblinking when the rain poured into them. There was a faint Mako glow that would remain for several hours before dissipating, but the soul in them was gone.
Zack was gone.
Cloud's hand moved to the hilt of Zack's fallen sword. He hefted it in hands made strong by rage and despair and stared out across the Midgar Valley. Had they really been that close? Had they been so close to the freedom of being able to lose themselves in the press of humanity that Midgar was so full of? And now it was snatched so brutally away from Zack, leaving him alone in the world, barely able to function on his own.
Sanity was slipping, and Cloud could feel it. He clung desperately to it, feeling memory slip instead as Jenova used his weakness to purge him of those memories she didn't want him to have. Surprisingly, Cloud had no problem with that. Not knowing Zack, or Sephiroth, or what had happened in the past years would only help him to maintain his stability. Perhaps it was doing all three of them a disservice, but, in that moment Cloud really wanted to forget.
Be careful what you wish for, Cloud…
All right!!!!!! That's it for CAN! After almost two years of work, at last, this fic is done! Aah, but that's not all there is to the story! Be on the look out for All You Can Know, my tentatively-titled sequel to CAN!
Yeah, I took a number of liberties with flashback events. This really isn't news if you've been reading. I just think everything Cloud's remembered is suspect, may not have happened, or maybe happened differently.
Yes, all you Zack fans, I did kill him. I'm sorry. But look for AYCK, coming soon! You may be surprised…. Zack, Sephiroth, Aeris, the Turks—especially Reno, many of my own characters, and a chunk of the rest of the FFVII cast will be featured. The rebuilding of the Planet and poor Cloud's confused head! I'm so excited, I just can't wait! Please, please, please look for it!