A/N: Hello! You may have seen this uploaded onto my lj, but I thought I would also upload it here for anyone else who wants to read this :)
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII, and make no profit from this fanwork.
Zack woke up to screaming.
He didn't realise that that was what had roused him at first. Regaining consciousness was like trying to swim up through cotton, all his senses dulled and useless. He was aware that he didn't feel good. He ached, and nausea was crawling up from his stomach to lie thick in the back of his throat. His skin burned all over, a low-level pain so familiar by then that it barely registered.
His eyes slit open to a field of green. Mako solution, his brain knew it immediately, but it was another minute or so before it really sank in - he was back in his Mako tank.
Relief rushed over him in a wave. If he was back in his tank, it meant his session was done. Probably had been for a while, since he was waking up. Shiva, what had the professor pumped into him this time? He felt like he'd been chewed over by an angry Zolom. But no matter, the only important thing was that it was over -
A scream suddenly rent the air, high and shrieking like some kind of animal.
Zack started, head snapping towards the sound. His heart constricted in his chest. Zack's session in the laboratory might have finished, but Cloud's was another matter entirely.
There was movement in the Mako tank opposite Zack's. With trepidation he turned his head towards it and watched as Cloud's distress began to stir Sephiroth from his drugged slumber.
"He grows more disappointing by the day," Hojo sneered, lip curling. In front of him, Cloud sat slumped in an examination chair with his head lolling forward against his chest. His wrists were strapped to the arms of his seat.
Zack felt his own lip begin to curl. The straps were a pointless cruelty. Like Cloud was in any state to run off on his own.
"And to think he had so much potential." Hojo sighed and reached up with one hand to push his glasses up his nose. "Whoever thought a failure like him would bring down the Great Sephiroth..." He turned to the Mako tank to his left and peered up at its occupant. "...right, my boy?"
Sephiroth, long hair fanned out behind him in the Mako in a curtain of green-tinged silver, responded by baring his teeth at the scientist.
Hojo snorted. "And yet none could be more disappointing than you." He and Sephiroth eyed each other for a moment more, disgust clear on both of their faces. To be fair, Sephiroth's expression was more than that - to Zack it looked like the older man wanted nothing more than to be wrapping his hands around the professor's throat and squeezing.
Hojo turned away and motioned with one hand. One of his assistants appeared out of nowhere and rushed to him, clipboard in hand, nodding like an eager dog as Hojo said, "Put Specimen B back in his tank once he's finished purging his system. I want to increase the concentration in his solution by 2% tomorrow, so make sure everything is prepared by then."
"And the others, sir?" the woman asked, glancing between Zack and Sephiroth.
"Leave them for now," Hojo said dismissively. "Sephiroth's on his detox cycle, anyway."
After Hojo left, the assistant looked at Cloud with distaste. The blond was beginning to shake, barely noticeable now but Zack knew it would only get worse. Even as he watched, Cloud's body was racked by a particularly strong shudder and he lurched forward, making a heaving sound. His arms strained against their straps.
Zack raised a fist and pounded it on the glass, startling the woman. Sephiroth's head also turned in his direction. "Hey!" he cried. "Aren't you going to help him?"
The assistant glanced at him but didn't move from her post near the door. "My instructions were merely to put him back in his tank once he was done," she said coolly. Zack swore and slammed his other fist into the glass.
In the middle of the room, Cloud's tremors grew stronger. He shook and groaned and coughed like he was trying to vomit out his own lungs. Nothing came up except for bright green bile, dribbling down across his own lap because he was too addled by Mako to think to lean over the side.
"You're a fucking animal," Zack spat. "How can you look at him and do nothing?"
She refused to acknowledge him, but he saw her glance warily at Sephiroth. The other man was watching her from his tank with an expression no less contemptuous than the one he'd directed at Hojo earlier.
His watchful silence was worrying, but as long as Sephiroth's ire was reserved for Hojo and his minions then Zack would take whatever he could get.
Sephiroth was...unpredictable. He was kept sedated much of the time and was very rarely let out of his Mako tube. In the first year of their captivity Hojo had experimented on him almost exclusively, but he was strong and volatile and after he'd proved himself capable of breaking free of his restraints and killed one of Hojo's scientists, he'd been mostly left alone. Hojo didn't seem to know what to do with him anymore.
So he'd turned his attentions to Zack and Cloud instead.
"Cloud?" Zack called. He was pressed up against the glass, peering through into the tank next to his. Cloud hung limp in the Mako, unresponsive. Strangely, he looked better in his tank than out of it - through the green of the solution you couldn't see the bruises Zack knew to litter the younger man's skin, leaving only the worst signs of his torture visible. "Cloud," he tried again, but there wasn't even a twitch in response.
Zack closed his eyes in despair, letting his forehead thunk forward against the glass.
"It's Mako addiction," Sephiroth's deep voice came from across the room.
He looked up at the other man. Sephiroth gazed back at him calmly. He seemed well enough, but he'd fooled them all before.
"You seen this before?" Zack asked, jerking his head in Cloud's direction.
Sephiroth's feline eyes followed the movement to the other tank. His features appeared to soften somewhat, sympathy bleeding into his expression. It was that that reassured Zack that his former General had woken up on the saner end of the scale that day - Sephiroth seemed to regard him and Cloud differently to everyone else even on his bad days, but sympathy never entered into it. "I've seen it a few times," the man admitted, "in SOLDIER candidates who couldn't handle the Mako treatments."
"Did they survive?"
The look Sephiroth gave him was cool. "Such candidates fell under Hojo's jurisdiction," he answered.
Zack scrubbed at his face tiredly, trying not to think about it. He turned back to Cloud's tank. His eyes focused on the words the blond had scratched faintly onto the inside of his tank, before he'd begun to succumb to the Mako. 'Let's get out of here.'
They were losing Cloud. Every day he slipped further and further away from them. Zack couldn't even remember the last time he'd heard the kid string a coherent sentence together.
They had to do something. He just didn't know what.
Whatever results Hojo had expected from increasing the concentration of Mako in Cloud's tank did not materialise.
"Useless, useless!" the professor ranted angrily, bent over a machine that was spewing out a long roll of paper. Zack couldn't see what was on it, but Hojo's displeasure was telling enough.
"You really think putting him in more Mako is going to do him any good?" Sephiroth said scathingly.
"I didn't ask for your opinion," Hojo spat.
Zack tried to catch Sephiroth's eye across the room to get him to shut up. It would do none of them good if Hojo was pissed off.
The other man was too busy frowning at Hojo's back to pay attention to him, but luckily he held his tongue after that.
With a frustrated sound Hojo ripped the paper from the machine, scowling at it. "Four years! Four /years/ and nothing to show for it! Even the survivors from the fire have been nothing but failures..." He began to wander out of the room, muttering angrily to himself. He slammed the door behind him at he left.
Sephiroth continued to gaze in the direction of Hojo's retreat, face unreadable. Zack sighed and turned his head to the neighbouring tank. Cloud's eyes were open but unseeing.
He had to be starving. The poor kid had been unable to chew or swallow the food he'd been given yesterday and the assistant had lost patience with him quickly, storming out of the room with his tray still full.
He wasn't going to make it like this. He might finally succumb to the Mako, or Hojo might go a little too far one day, or it might just be neglect if the assistants couldn't be bothered to even feed him - but whichever it was, Cloud wasn't going to last much longer.
"We have to get out of here," Zack said.
"Yes, we do." Sephiroth sounded strangely calm, even as he continued, "Hojo is going to kill us soon."
Zack's eyes widened. "What - how can you know that?" Where had that come from? Sephiroth /had/ been surprisingly lucid ever since he'd woken a few days ago and it never normally lasted so long. Zack had been waiting for the tide to turn. Maybe this was it.
But there was none of the blank darkness in his face that usually accompanied those episodes. He hadn't mentioned the word 'mother' once.
"He is losing patience with us," Sephiroth explained. He finally moved his sharp gaze from the door to Cloud's tank, and even through Mako and glass Zack could see the odd way his expression softened again. "You and I have already proved ourselves worthless in his eyes, but Cloud at least showed promise. Now his body is failing and is no longer yielding the results Hojo wants. We three no longer do anything but waste Hojo's time and Shinra's money. What do you think he does with experiments that are no longer valid?"
"But to kill us - " Zack protested.
"You think he will let us free?" Sephiroth scoffed. "Me? Or you two, who not only witnessed what I did to this town but have been held against your will and near-tortured for the last /four/ years?"
No, of course not.
"He will terminate us," Sephiroth went on. "I've seen him do it before. He may need permission from the President, but that is all that stands in his way."
Everything suddenly felt very heavy and close around him. Zack tried to think but something very close to panic was pressing on his brain. "Then we have to get out," he said. But how? Cloud couldn't walk, he'd have to be carried, and he couldn't leave Sephiroth here - he was dangerous, but he was Zack's friend and he couldn't leave the man behind if he knew that death was what he was leaving him to.
...Even if there was nothing to guarantee that Sephiroth wouldn't suddenly wake up one morning and decide to kill them both.
And where would they go? Shinra owned most of the known world. The only place it hadn't managed to completely sink its claws into was Wutai, but that was equally dangerous. One sighting of Sephiroth and the natives would stop at nothing to tear them all apart.
But it wasn't like he had a choice, really. As that realisation sank in he began to calm. They risked death whether they tried to escape or not, and Zack had never been the kind of person to sit back and do nothing.
They had two major advantages when it came to escaping, as far as Zack could see.
One - Zack was physically much stronger than Hojo and his lackeys. He was out of practice but had spent much of the last years being pumped full of Mako, which accorded its own advantages. He could easily fight his way out of the labs, even on his own. Having to carry Cloud would slow them down but Zack was confident he could still manage long distances without tiring, even with the extra weight.
Two - they had Sephiroth. The man was in an entire league of his own when it came to fighting. There was no-one in the known world who could take Sephiroth down when he was in his right mind, and even when he wasn't it was a near impossible task. Recently, even in his agitated states the older man had appeared to show some kind of attachment to he and Cloud. If they had Sephiroth on their side then nothing would stand between them and the outside world.
They just had to get out of the tanks first.
'Feeding time,' Zack scratched laboriously onto the side of his tank, the letters jagged and back-to-front just in case Cloud somehow woke to read them.
Sephiroth was watching him as he wrote. The man had a particularly singular gaze and it rested like a brand across Zack's back. He tried to ignore it, focusing on the words in front of him, or every so often lifting his eyes to where Cloud continued to hang like a ragdoll, unseeing and unaware.
'I'll get you out,' Zack thought, determination wedging in his chest and throat and pricking behind his eyes. 'I will, I promise. Trust me.'
The door to the lab opened not long after and one of the nameless minions stepped in. (Nameless, but not faceless - Zack would remember each of their faces for as long as he lived, burned into the back of his mind in the special place he reserved for hating people like Hojo.) They barely glanced in Zack's direction, but Sephiroth's scrutiny made them pause - awake, for Sephiroth, meant 'dangerous,' and the assistants were understandably wary.
It was Sephiroth's tank that the minion approached. Or rather, the bank of machines that sat near it. Sephiroth didn't take his eyes off of the man for a second - didn't even seem to blink - and after a moment of dials and knobs being silently turned, he seemed to realise what was going on. His lip curled in disgust. "Putting me to sleep again, are we?" he asked of the assistant's back, derisive. As if he couldn't believe the audacity of it.
The assistant hunched his shoulders, refusing to be drawn into conversation as he adjusted the level of the various chemicals. Zack kind of admired his balls. Even trapped in an experimental Mako tank, half-naked and half-mad, Sephiroth wasn't the kind of man you could just ignore.
Nevertheless that was what the lackey did, and within minutes Sephiroth's eyelids began to droop. Just before he succumbed completely to the sedatives, Sephiroth met his gaze across the room. Zack nodded slowly and clearly, and watched as the older man's eyes finally slipped shut.
Their food came right on time. Zack watched the assistant come in, balancing a tray on one arm, and felt his heartbeat begin to pick up. Adrenaline spiked through him and suddenly all the low-level, constant aches and pains in his body faded away to nothing.
Zack knew the routine like the back of his hand. He tracked the man across the room as he went to the bank of dials next to Sephiroth's tank. The older SOLDIER was normally given nutrients through an IV rather than risk feeding him the normal way. Once that was done, the assistant would come to Zack and Cloud and start draining their Mako. Then he would open Zack's tank and give him his food.
Zack had never given them any trouble. He'd understood what might happen to himself - or Cloud - if he was uncooperative. He knew that he was considered 'safe' by the scientists, and so he knew, as the Mako drained around him and the door was opened, that the assistant hadn't been expecting the punch in the face at all.
The man crumpled to the ground almost silently, nose almost certainly broken. Zack scrambled out of the last of the Mako and out of the tank and cared about the blood beginning to run down the assistant's cheeks only as an indicator that he wasn't going to get up anytime soon.
For a moment Zack stood there, frozen, heart pounding in his throat and his mind blank. He was out, he was free, but there was no time - he moved for Sephiroth's tank and stumbled, legs wobbling beneath him. The world tilted crazily around him and then righted itself again. After a moment of panic he made it the short distance and began to punch the buttons he'd watched the scientists push a hundred times before. There was a hiss and then the Mako solution began to empty away.
It felt like an eternity before the level had dropped low enough to open the tank. Zack reached for the release button - and stopped, fingers curling back into his palm. He stared at Sephiroth as the man's body sank to the bottom of the tank, slumping awkwardly against the glass. What if this was a huge mistake? What if he should just grab Cloud and run for it? Something wasn't right with Sephiroth, and if he turned on them then Zack didn't think he could stop him -
- but Sephiroth had been so very lucid these past few days, had looked at Cloud's broken body with such emotion, and hated Hojo /so much/ -
- and Hojo would surely kill him if he remained here.
He hit the button. With another hiss of air, the tank sprang open. Ears straining for any sound outside the lab, Zack reached in and pulled the IV line out of the back of Sephiroth's hand. "Sephiroth," he hissed, shaking the man's arm. It hung limp in his grip. Blood was welling up from the needle-puncture and beginning to drip red down his white fingers. "General, wake up, we need to get out of here!"
Sephiroth didn't even stir. His face remained slack, eyes closed. Zack had no idea what drugs they used on the other man but they had to be strong to knock out a SOLDIER First. He could only hope a SOLDIER First system would also burn them off quickly. "Goddamn it, wake up!" he cried, grabbing Sephiroth by the shoulder and shaking him as hard as he could.
Sephiroth's eyes snapped open. For a second he looked confused. "General - " Zack began - but got no further, as Sephiroth's arm suddenly shot out and his fingers closed around his throat. Zack gagged, eyes wide, and the other man uncurled from the floor and stepped out into the room without letting go of him. He raised his arm and lifted Zack's feet from the floor like he weighed nothing.
"Traitor," Sephiroth hissed, thin lips drawing back in a snarl. His slit pupils were contracted so thinly they were barely visible.
/No, no, oh no not now, not now, why - /
Zack tried to gasp but it was impossible to draw in the air. He scrabbled desperately at Sephiroth's arm but the Mako residue left on the both of them meant he couldn't get a firm grip, fingers slipping and sliding and unable to find purchase. He couldn't breathe, his chest burned with it, heart beginning to pound so hard he thought it might burst.
Sephiroth merely watched him as he struggled, no recognition in his face at all. His fingers tightened beneath Zack's jaw, and Shiva he was going to die, Sephiroth was going to break his neck, snap it like a dry twig, and Cloud - oh gods /Cloud/ -
The blood rushing in Zack's ears was so loud he almost missed the sound. Something /whined/ like a beaten dog behind him and Sephiroth's gaze flickered towards the noise, grip loosening just for a second. Zack reacted on instinct; with a grunt of effort he brought his flailing legs up and /kicked/.
He must have caught Sephiroth in the knee or something. The other man abruptly staggered to the side as one leg crumpled beneath him, and Zack's other foot found purchase against his stomach. He kicked again with all his might and Sephiroth's fingers slipped from his throat.
He hit the floor with a gasp. His shoulder bore the brunt of the impact and the shock of the pain as it lanced through him made his eyes roll up into his head for a second. He was well-trained, though, and his body was struggling to get upright even as his head continued to spin. His throat hurt as he gulped in air.
When the world righted itself, Zack was on his feet between Cloud's tank and Sephiroth. He was desperate to look around and see if Cloud was okay - had /Cloud/ been the one to make that noise? It had to have been him - but he didn't dare take his eyes from Sephiroth, even for a second.
The General was sitting on the floor. As Zack watched, he raised a hand slowly to his temple and drew them away red. He stared at his stained fingers like he'd never seen blood before. Then he turned his head to Zack, looking dazed. "Zack," he said. "I - what..."
He must have hit his head on something when Zack kicked him. It looked like it had knocked Sephiroth right out of his little episode, but Zack couldn't afford to be complacent. "We don't have the time," he said. It hurt to talk and his voice came out scratchy and low. It sounded so unlike him that even Sephiroth seemed startled. "We need to get out of here now. Can you stand?"
The older man nodded and began to clamber to his feet, a little unsteady. As he did so, Zack backed up towards Cloud's tank and reached for the door release. He was about to turn to pull Cloud out when Sephiroth made a hesitant step towards them, blood dripping sluggishly down the side of his face.
"No," Zack hissed. Amazingly, Sephiroth stopped. "No, you just tried to strangle me. You're not coming near Cloud."
"I - " Sephiroth said.
"No!" He realised, dimly, that he was attempting to shield Cloud entirely from view with his body, like Sephiroth would forget he was there if he couldn't see him. "We don't have time, we could be discovered any minute. If you want to be useful, go out and find clothes and weapons. Clear the way out for us. But you don't come near him."
For a second Sephiroth's face was as open as Zack had ever seen it, confusion warring with something like hurt. It was enough to make Zack's heart twist with guilt, but then the shutters came down and the older man's face became as blank as stone. Without a word, he walked past Zack and out of the lab. The door shut quietly behind him.
Zack let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, and turned to Cloud's tank. With some effort he managed to pull Cloud's lifeless body into his arms. His hair and skin was thick with Mako and the higher concentration tingled unpleasantly wherever it touched Zack's skin.
It didn't stop him from nuzzling Cloud's temple, hot tears beginning to spill down his cheeks. He could no more have stopped them than he could stop his heart beating. "Come on," Zack whispered hoarsely in the blond's ear. "Let's get you out of here."
The tears wouldn't stop. He didn't know if it was stress, or adrenaline, or even joy at finally being free of the tanks.
He could only pray that Sephiroth kept it together long enough to let them out alive.
End Chapter 1.
A/N: Thanks for reading! All comments appreciated :)