Disclaimer : I claim no rights to the game Final Fantasy VII.
Chapter Twenty : Minerva's Children.
Pain. It drummed through his veins. It caressed his skin like fire, and Cloud wanted nothing more than to escape the horrible feeling. But, he couldn't, for he had no idea where he was nor did have any clue as to who was causing his pain. He felt something prick his skin and the action caused him to open his eyes and immediately shut them again as a blinding light pierced his sight. He tried lifting his arms and legs only to realize that he couldn't and his movement cost him as pain shot up and down his body. He released a soft whimper and opened his eyes again, his vision more clearer and less painful than his first attempt. He slowly turned his head and almost wanted to let a bitter laugh escape his dry throat as he took in his location. Of course he would be in a laboratory, but which one he had yet to figure out. Thinking back, he remembered Hojo giving him some kind of shot as he struggled in the elevator. The last thing he really remembered was reaching for Aerith who was already unconscious at that point.
He didn't want to think about what was being done to her. Poor Aerith. She had done nothing wrong. Her people had nothing wrong and yet they were killed for their precious connection to Gaia. Their queen was killed and their princess was being experimented on like some dog. Despite his anger towards Ifalna and Aerith's actions, he didn't want to harm them, he didn't want them to suffer as they were now.
"Professor." a nasally voice murmured from his left. "He's awake."
"Oh?" Hojo questioned and Cloud shuddered as Hojo greasy face came into his sight. "Cloud? Cloud Strife?"
Cloud didn't respond, merely staring into the scientist dark eyes. He had no plans of responding to anything Hojo had to say or anything he planned to do. He had a burning urge to ask where Aerith was, but pressed it down. He would find out soon enough.
"How much mako did you give him?" Hojo demanded, pulling away from the messenger. "It was not above the dosage I requested was it?"
"N-No, sir, it was the exact amount, but it could be that he's weak against the mako injections-"
"Impossible." Hojo interrupted swiftly. "He is a messenger, one with Gaia, even less so than the Ancients so he should have a very good reaction to the mako. His biology allows him to transgress the Lifestream. He should have not have a weak reaction against the mako."
Mako? Cloud frowned, glancing at Hojo at the corner of his eye. What reason could they have for injecting mako inside of him? If it had the right reaction then it would only heighten his senses as it did with SOLDIER.
"In case you are wondering, the mako injections will give you enough strength to descend into the lifestream as long we please." Hojo hovered over him again. "Lady Faremis is quite useless at the moment so I'm turning my attentions to you."
"Where...?" Cloud croaked out. "Where is she?"
"Oh?" Hojo chortled, sending a shiver down Cloud's spine. "Now you deem us worthy of your voice?"
"Where. Is. She?" Cloud demanded, struggling against his restraints. "What did you do to her!"
"Even if I were to tell you there is nothing you could do about it." Hojo stated silkily, running his weathered hands through Cloud's sweaty blond locks. "Now, be a good messenger and lay still before something happens to dear Freya."
"W-What?" Cloud struggling instantly ceased as his mother's name escaped the insane man's lips. "What did you do to my mother? You'd better have not laid a single finger on her!"
"Be quiet boy." Hojo snapped viciously, harshly pulling on Cloud's hair and causing the boy to flinch harshly at the action. "As I said, if you cooperate then no harm shall come to either women."
"No more harm than you have already done." Cloud snapped back weakly. "What do you plan doing with me anyway?"
"I don't want you, I want what you can do for me." Hojo released him from his restraints. "Come with me, and don't try anything funny. For all you know, a Turk may be sitting in your mother's home right now pointing a gun at her head and goodness knows what's going on with Aerith..."
Stifling a growl, Cloud rose from the metal table, clinging the edge when his legs suddenly gave out. He grasped both hands to the edge, sending a deadly glare to the two guards who had stepped towards him to assist him. With a gentle heave, he righted himself on his feet, cursing when he stumbled a final time.
"Are you done?" Hojo drawled sarcastically. "I don't like wasting valuable research time."
"I am aware of what you like, Professor." Cloud drawled, a nasty smirk painting his dry, chapped lips. Now wasn't the time to be smartass, but then again, when was the right time for anything?
Ignoring the scientist glare, he followed Hojo out of the room and down the empty hallway. As they walked in silence, he turned his gaze to the clear windows that were displayed, shivering as the monster experiments clawed or licked at the window, moaning and groaning for the freedom they would never have.
"Precious aren't they?" Hojo questioned softly. "Some of my earlier creations which are going to released into the wild soon, but the Midgar Zolum will take care of them soon enough."
"I don't think I need to mention what a sick bastard I think you are, right?" Cloud stopped at a plain metal door with a metal plate stating it was the third laboratory. What kind of freaky experiments did Hojo did in this one? The hallways seemed pretty empty and smelled clean, like a hospital really. So, what did this mad man do here?
The hiss of the door opening drew Cloud out of his thoughts. He stepped inside after Hojo and instantly narrowed his eyes at the sight of the room. It was like all other labs. It had its tables and computers, but what really drew Cloud's attention was the large white glyph in the very center of the floor. It looked like-
"A descending glyph." Hojo stated, his nasally voice echoed through the quiet murmurs of the lab workers stationed there. "According to my findings this is what you messengers used to travel to the lifestream, correct?"
"This is what children used to travel the lifestream." Cloud elaborated further. Of course he hadn't seen one in so long, but he remembered the beginners glyph which his mother used for him to practice once he was twelve years old. That was when messenger children started training.
"I see," Hojo looked thoughtful, placing a greasy hand to his chin and rubbing it absently. "So, there is no need for this? You have no need for it?"
"No," Cloud admitted grudgingly. "I can descend well enough on my own." It made him sick to his stomach admitting such a thing to Hojo, but what choice did he have? Aerith's life and the life of his mother was at stake.
"Very well then," Hojo acknowledged. "Show us what you can do, hmmm? Descend into the boundless energies of the lifestream."
Cloud stood beside Hojo for another lingering moment, clenching his fists before moving his feet and stepping into the glyph. He stilled his hands and sent Hojo a heated glare. The man looked like a damn cat who just finished off a canary.
"Any requests?" Cloud spread his arms out, his own bright blue glyph appearing underneath him and overtaking the white one. "Texts? People? Objects?"
"None." Hojo waved his hand impatiently. "Just descend and come back."
Closing his eyes, he slid into the Lifestream, for once, thankful that the energies surrounding him like a blanket. He was thankful for its comfort, however silent.
It was a stupid. It was insane. It was suicide. It was something that only people who had nothing left to lose did. Zack Fair had something to lose. He had plenty to lose. His parents and his home, but what good did being SOLIDER was if he couldn't protect everything? His family, friends and home? What good was being SOLDIER if he couldn't keep safe the one reason he got up and put on this blood-stained uniform every morning?
"Are you ready?" Sephiroth questioned quietly standing beside him. "We only get one chance at this and we cannot afford to fail."
"Who are you telling?" Zack snorted, rising from his squat and stretching his arms. "We bust Cloud and Aerith out of here, but where would we go? Shinra is everywhere."
"I do not have all the answers." Sephiroth admitted, his face closing off. "But, I know that we will be fine in the end."
"That your instinct talking?" Zack asked softly whilst leaning against the wall. They had made it to the sixtieth floor where most of the science labs resided, but the problem was finding the right lab where Aerith and Cloud were. If they managed that then their real problem would be getting out of the building intact and not full of bullet holes.
"Yes," Sephiroth spoke up after a short pause. "That is my instinct talking as you put it." he turned, his silver hair sliding off his shoulders at his movement. "Come, we can't linger any longer than we already have."
"Right," Zack chuckled. "Can you believe that Lazard?" keeping an eye on the empty hallway for any guards, they checked several of the empty labs to find nothing. "His mission to us?"
"Preserve the Planet." Sephiroth stated softly. "A last request, a last mission to us as our director. It seems fitting, yet, ironic."
"True-shit," Zack hissed, stopping in the middle of the third hall they were checking. There, just a few feet away stood two second class SOLIDER's. It was nothing they couldn't take care of, but fighting second classes was going to cause a ruckus.
"Calm down." Sephiroth chided gently. "No one but Lazard knows of our plan so most of Shinra thinks that we are on their side and what does that mean...?"
"It means we can use our ranks to get Cloud and Aerith out before they can sound the alarm. But, I gotta a feeling Aerith is going to be easier to get than Cloud. I wouldn't put it past Hojo to already forcing him to descend into the Lifestream."
"Then we have no more time to waste. I'll ask again, are you ready?"
"I'm ready." Zack grinned bitterly, answering all of Sephiroth's questions with his reply. He was ready to betray Shinra. He was ready to leave this life behind and go on the run for what was most likely the rest of his life. But, it was worth it. Cloud Strife was worth giving everything up for because he knew his chocobo would do the same in a heartbeat.
Sephiroth grinned, his green cat eyes shining with amusement, loss, pride and so many other emotions that Zack couldn't even begin to describe. It made him wonder just what the General was giving up by doing this. His reputation? He was pretty sure that Shinra was all Sephiroth knew and it must be hard for him to be giving up the only thing he knew, but he had a feeling that Sephiroth wouldn't be too sorry at the loss.
Approaching the two second class SOLIDER's, Zack nodded his head at their sharp salutes. "I need to get in there."
The two SOLIDER's tensed at his request and some part of Zack should have known better, but hey, a man could hope, right? As he began to repeat his request, the two men in front of him collapsed suddenly causing him to step back. He turned to face Sephiroth who had a light green materia in his hand.
"Sleep?" Zack blurted out, caught between hysterical laughter and amazement. Why didn't he think of that? "You put them to sleep?"
"I know a lot of these men." Sephiroth picked up one SOLIDER, mentioning for his smaller comrade to grab the other. "I want to avoid as much bloodshed as possible."
"Right," Zack murmured solemnly, dragging the man inside the room and gently placing him inside. Rising to his feet, he glanced around the small room and grinned sadly as he spotted Aerith on the small bed, she looked like a true princess with her light green and white dress flowing around her. She may look peaceful now, but he knew it was going to be a different story once she rose. He stepped closer and startled when Aerith's emerald eyes locked with his own.
"Yes," Aerith murmured, rising from the bed and letting her hair fall around her. "I have been since you came in. Are you two here to rescue me?"
"Yes, it is the least we can do after what Shinra did to your home." Zack winced when Aerith's eyes flashed in anger. Right. Sore subject.
"It is a small compensation for what has happened to my people, but it is enough for now." Aerith strolled past Zack and up to Sephiroth, who stared down at her impassively. "Where is he?"
"In danger." Sephiroth stepped aside to let her out. "We find him and leave. No theatrics and no breakdowns, understood?"
"Perfectly." Aerith stepped out of the door and yelped as the alarm blared and covered the room and hallway in red. She covered her ears and turned back to Zack and Sephiroth, her eyes furious. "What is going on? You tricked me!"
"No one tricked anybody!" Zack snapped, cursing when he heard a multitude of footsteps coming towards them. "Damn it! We should have known that it wasn't going to be this easy. It's fucking Shinra."
"Enough talk." Sephiroth gently pushed Aerith in Zack's direction, unsheathing his sword with his free hand. "Knock out as many as you can and head to Hojo's labs."
"What about you?" Zack demanded, keeping a firm grasp on Aerith. He wouldn't put it past her to run into the fray and get herself killed. She seemed like the reckless type if you looked hard enough.
"I'll will be right behind you."
Zack nodded his head, he would have to use magic to get through since his hands had to be free to keep hand on Aerith. It should be too much of a problem, right?
Shooting out of the room, Zack sent a wave of fire towards the infantry and wondering just how many of them were Cloud's comrades. He quickly suppressed that thought and sent few ice spells their way, blasting them back and creating a path for them to run through. He quickly grabbed Aerith's hand and ran back towards the elevators, he tossed a quick glance behind him to see Sephiroth behind them, quickly catching up. Stepping inside, he pressed the button for the sixty-third floor, stumbling when it moved.
"Why are we going up?" Aerith demanded. "Shouldn't we be going down?"
"We're going to get Cloud and if we're lucky then we can get out of here without running into the Turks or having to jump out of the windows to escape." Zack couldn't help but smirk when he saw the frightened look the princess gave him for his blunt words. Though he released it as a joke, he knew that they were going to have to do something drastic to escape. For you see, nobody betrayed Shinra and got out completely unscathed.
The elevator screeched to a stop and Zack held out his hand and unleashed a low level bolt spell as soon as his eyes locked onto a Turk. He didn't wait to see if the man would get back up, instead dragging Aerith down the hallway and taking a sharp right turn towards Hojo's labs.
"It's up ahead." Sephiroth stated from beside him, throwing out his own bolt spells and knocking some third class SOLIDER's out. His heart twisted uncomfortably at the thought of hurting his men whom he went on a mission with more than once. They would understand what they were doing in time.
Zack burst through the doors of the lab just in time to see Cloud rising from the Lifestream and collapsing, his face pale and sweaty and his blond hair slick with sweat. The cadets uniform was ripped to shreds and he didn't want to know which haven he had been sent to.
"I see that you have come to get your friend." Hojo stepped out of the shadows, grinning maniacally. "You are free to take him, but it would do you little good."
"What in the hell is that supposed to mean?" Zack snarled, rushing over to check on his friend. He turned him over and checked his pulse, blowing out a sigh of relief when he found one, as weak as it was. "What did you do to him?"
"The boy just dived into the Lifestream. He just merely filled his given birthright, nothing more, nothing less." Hojo waved a hand towards the door. "I have all the data I need. You can take him. I no longer need him."
"Zack." Sephiroth called out sharply. "Let him be, we have more things to worry about at the moment."
Snarling quietly, Zack lifted Cloud effortlessly into his arms and turned to Aerith and Sephiroth who looked relieved to see the younger man breathing let alone whole, but looks were deceiving.
"Come on, let's get out of here."
Without a second glance, Zack, Sephiroth and Aerith departed from Hojo's labs and back down the maze-like hallways. Surprisingly enough, they didn't have much trouble getting to the elevator, but it seemed that their luck quickly ran out.
"What the hell." Zack murmured, shifting Cloud in his arms and staring up at the blaring number. It had stopped at fifty-two. "Is the damn thing broken?"
"No." Sephiroth pressed the button, scowling when it didn't move. "It was probably stopped manually." he stepped back when the elevator doors open and Reno's lanky form appeared with Tseng and Rude flanking him.
"I should have known it would be you, Zack, but Sephiroth? I don't know how you managed to drag him into this." Reno stepped into the elevator, leering at Aerith. "I'm kind of curious about how you're going to get out of here, yo."
"Fight our way out, what else?" Zack stated, giving the red-head a deadpanned look. "And we'll go through you if necessary."
"Now, now, no need to be so damn rash." Reno muttered, leaning against the elevator wall. "We ain't got no intention of fighting you."
"Oh really?" Aerith questioned softly. "Then why did you stop the elevator? It couldn't possibly be to talk?"
"That is exactly why we stopped it." Tseng said lightly. "We are aware of the mission Lazard assigned to both of you." the lead Turk eyes landed Cloud. "For the preservation of the planet and the survival of the cetra and messengers. We have to get the both of them out and away from Shinra."
"Why are you doing this?" Zack asked curiously. "You're Turks! You're supposed to be pro-Shinra not anti."
"What can we say?" Reno shrugged carelessly. "It is the least we can do after what happened and Tseng here is pretty damn stubborn about letting you guys get away."
"We will escort you to the helipad and Reno will fly you to Mideel and that is as far as we can take you." Tseng reached over and punched three numbers on the elevator panel before it jerked and began ascending.
"This is great and all, but what's going to happen to all of you if you get found out?" Zack grimaced. "Shinra isn't lax about making people for betraying them."
"We'll take care of it." Rude stated vaguely, grunting when the elevator stopped and pinged announcing their arrival at the top of the building where the helicopter was waiting. "Now, let's get going."
Zack stepped out of the elevator, adjusting Cloud's weight as he moved towards the helicopter. He did not bother to look back at the building he called home for more than four years; no longer having any kind of attachment to it. He gently laid Cloud on the passenger seat and placed the blond's head on his lap, finally looking up as Aerith and Sephiroth strapped in. The both of them looked wary and Zack didn't blame them for it. He, too, was wary about letting the Turks take them anywhere, but what choice did they have?
"Good luck to you, Zack, Sephiroth and Aerith." Tseng spoke, standing in the open door of the helicopter. "I hope to see you again one day."
"You'll have to excuse me when I don't return the sentiment." Aerith bit out, crossing her arms. "I want nothing to do with Shinra."
"Understood, but I wish you the best all the same." Tseng stepped back and closed the door leaving three of them in silence. Zack risked another glance at Aerith to see the woman on the verge of tears and for the first time he wanted to join her.
"What are you going to do?" Zack asked her. "Will you go back home?"
"One day I will go back, but with Shinra on the loose, I do not want to taint my home more than it already is." Aerith murmured, lowering her head so that no one could see her tears. "W-What will you do, Zack?"
"Stay low in Mideel for a bit and make a living for Cloud and I." Zack ran his fingers through the younger man's hair. "I don't have any plans beyond that. Sephiroth? Staying with Cloud and I?"
"No, I believe I will travel the world for a while." Sephiroth closed his eyes, missing the surprised stare Zack sent him. "I am too well-known to stay in one spot." he tugged at his silver hair. "I will have to do something about this as well."
"Whole new wardrobe change, eh?" Zack chuckled bitterly. "It looks like we're all going to have to do that."
"You're going to take care of him, right?" Aerith asked firmly. "You're going to take care of Cloud, right?"
Zack grinned at the Cetra princess, showing a row of perfect teeth. "I'm going to take care of him with everything I have."
The sounds of footsteps against the sand was what caused Zack to look up from his book. He grinned at the sight of slim feet in flip-flops and turned his head to see Cloud staring down at him with his hands on his hips and a glare in on his lightly tanned features.
"Is there where you've been all day?" Cloud asked, taking a seat beside him on the sand next to him and grabbing the book from out of his hand. "And reading Loveless no less? I figured you would have had enough after Genesis."
Zack shrugged, glancing at Cloud from the corner of his eye as the blond flipped through the pages. "I wanted to see what was so good about it and most of the poems remind me of you."
"Of me?" Cloud closed the book quietly and let it stay in his lap. "How does it remind you of me?"
"You know, the words about the Goddess and infinite mystery and all that crap." Zack chuckled when Cloud slapped him on his arm gently. Three blissful months had passed by since their departure from Shinra and it was on pure luck that the company hadn't come after them, but he was sure that they were turning their attentions to Sephiroth who was currently dodging them as if they were nothing.
"You're thinking again." Cloud teased, breaking him out of his thoughts. "What's on your mind?"
"Sephiroth." Zack rose to his feet, stretching his arms and staring out into the boundless sea. "I hope he's doing alright. Mideel is hot with rumors about him right now."
"The last I heard he was in Cosmo Canyon, but that was weeks ago." Cloud murmured. "I know Sephiroth can take care of himself which is why I am more worried about Aerith."
Aerith, Zack huffed at the thought of the Cetra royal. Three weeks after their arrival in Mideel, she had disappeared into the night and after a week of fruitless searching no one had seen hide nor hair of her. He would have said good riddance, but that would have earned him a disapproving glare from his charge and lover.
"I'm sure she's alright. She moves like Sephiroth when she wants and she's more than capable of taking care of herself, but we can search for her if you want?"
"No, not right now," Cloud shook his head, his blue eyes filled with worry and wariness at the thought of going out into the world once again. It was too soon for him despite being three months since he woke up in Mideel. It took him weeks to even considering going back into the Lifestream after Hojo's experiments. The thought of it still ran shivers down his spine.
"You sure? We're going to have go back out sooner or later." Zack grinned at the thought. He was not one to stay in one place for too long, but understood the necessity of staying low for the time being.
"Yes, I'm sure, but if we hear anymore rumors about Sephiroth then we will have to go after him sooner or later." Cloud laid back against the sand, sighing as it cooled his skin. "I can't stand the thought of him out there alone."
"My friend, do you fly away now? To a world that abhors you and I? All that awaits you is a somber morrow. No matter where the winds may blow; My friend, your desire is the bringer of life, the gift of the goddess. Even if the morrow is barren of promises, nothing shall forestall my return."
"Cute." Cloud deadpanned. "Make me worry more why don't you? That poem is horrid."
"It describes our situation perfectly." Zack chuckled bitterly, before quieting down and saying his next words. "One week from now, do you want to go look? For Sephiroth?"
"He could be anywhere, we would not even know where to look!"
"That's the fun of it, we explore this entire continent and the next to find him and we might even run into Aerith? Well? What do you say?"
Cloud remained silent for a moment before nodding his head. "Yes, let's go find him. After all, he can't be left to his own devices for too much longer."
"Alright!" Zack pulled Cloud up from the ground and pulled him into his arms. "We're going on an adventure! Just you and me."
"Just you and me." Cloud whispered, laying his head on Zack's shoulder. "We're going to be okay, right?"
"We're going to be fine. Even if the morrow is barren of promises. Nothing shall forestall my return; to become the dew that quenches the land To spare the sands, the seas, the skies. I offer thee this silent sacrifice."
"Thank you." Cloud looked into Zack's bright eyes and grinned. "For everything."
A/N : And so the story ends with Zack and Cloud taking off to find Sephiroth, which gives me plenty room for a sequel!
Thanks for reading guys!