The sound of his booted footsteps echoed strangely in the halls, sounding hollow like the steps of a ghost. Cloud found he was moving gingerly to try to muffle the sound, and forced himself to walk normally. There was nothing here that could hurt him. He'd already chased off the few orderlies and lab assistants who had remained, working away faithfully despite the fact that they hadn't heard from Hojo or Shinra for years.
There hadn't been many, and they'd been dismayed more by hearing that Shinra was gone and their funding had dried up than by hearing about Sephiroth's attempts to destroy the world with Meteor. Buried miles underground, almost completely self-sufficient and contained, this hidden lab of Hojo's had remained oblivious to what was going on over their heads.
This lab was no different than any of the others Cloud had been in, and he'd been in far more than he'd ever wanted to be. Whether it was at the top of the Shinra tower, in the basement of the Shinra mansion, or buried deep beneath the mountains south of Kalm, Hojo's labs were all the same. It made his gut twist with vague memories of horror, and he resolved to get what he'd come for and get out again as quickly as possible.
Hojo's lab in the Shinra tower had been destroyed, of course, and all of his records there with it. Cloud had found some few records of the experiments Hojo had done on him in the Shinra mansion, but it was obvious that the majority had been moved somewhere else. At first he'd despaired, thinking they must have been taken to the main lab, but then he'd run across mention of this super-secret lab. He wasn't even entirely certain Shinra had known about Hojo's third lab.
He wanted to know what had been done to him. It was more than just what SOLDIERs were put through, he knew that. Now that the geostigma was gone he wanted to know what else he could expect, how much damage might have been done to him, and whether or not new side effects might continue to crop up as the years went by. If he was lucky, his records had been moved here rather than to the Shinra tower. It might take him years to decipher the scientific language and figure out what the after effects would be, but he wanted to know.
He passed a large plate-glass wall, overlooking a lab area with four mako tanks. Cloud shuddered and turned away quickly, the diffuse green glow of the concentrated mako bringing up yet more memories he didn't want to consider. Hojo's office would be at the end of the hall, and that was where he would find the records he needed.
Two steps past the window, he paused, looking back. The green glow of mako light meant at least one of the tanks was full. Concentrated mako was too valuable a resource for the scientists to just leave in the tanks when they weren't in use. That meant something was in the tanks. Something, or someone.
Dumbfounded, Cloud moved back to the window and stared out onto the lab floor. One of the tanks was unmistakeably occupied, the man inside suspended in the viscous liquid facing away from Cloud. Dark hair drifted slowly in the currents of the mako, but the man wasn't moving at all. He might not be awake, or he might have been trapped inside his own mind, like Cloud had been for so long.
It had never even occurred to him that they might still be experimenting on people, but it should have. With no further orders from Hojo, the lab assistants would have kept on with whatever they'd last been told to do. Cursing, Cloud turned and moved quickly towards the door to the lab. After all this time the man was almost certainly too far gone to be saved, but Cloud had to try.
The smell of the mako hit him the moment he opened the lab door, but he did his best to ignore it. He was sure his eyes were glowing in reaction. The tank was a more advanced design than the ones in the mansion, and he had to hunt for the controls to empty it.
As he came around the front of the tank he glanced up, and froze. The dark-haired man floating in the tank had his eyes closed and his hair partially obscured his features, but not to the point where Cloud couldn't get a decent look at him.
Even after so many years, even after having his memories so badly scrambled, Cloud couldn't have failed to recognize that face. "Zack?" he breathed, lifting his hands to rest on the glass tank. It couldn't be possible. It just couldn't really be Zack in there. "Zack?" he repeated, louder and more urgently.
Sound travelled oddly through the thick mako, distorted and warped by the liquid, but it was enough to get the man's attention. For a long moment the noises seemed random to him, not making any sense. Slowly he opened his eyes, and through the green haze of the mako he saw familiar blond spikes and wide blue eyes. That was when the word suddenly made sense; 'Zack' was a name. His name. How long had it been since anyone had called him that?
Tentatively Zack lifted his hands to press against the glass on the other side of the blond's. He couldn't trust his memories, didn't believe who his mind was telling him was standing there. It couldn't be Cloud, because Cloud was dead... but it sure looked like him. Right down to the stunned look in his big blue eyes. How often had the little blond been shocked by something outrageous Zack had said or done?
Staring up into Zack's painfully familiar blue-violet eyes, the colour vivid enough to show even through the green mako, Cloud couldn't seem to remember how to breathe. He was shaking, too, his hands trembling against the glass. Could it be some kind of clone? Had Hojo somehow succeeded with Zack what he'd failed to do with Sephiroth? But why would he have even tried?
Nor would that theory explain the bemused recognition in the expression of the man in the tank. Cloud couldn't see much but his eyes around the oxygen mask that let him breathe, but it was enough. "Just... just hold on," he said, his mouth so dry it almost hurt to speak. "I'll get you out."
Gamely, Zack gave the blond a weak thumbs-up gesture. He'd decided to play along with his hallucination. It was a hell of a lot nicer than what was probably really happening to him. The most vivid and personal of his mako-induced hallucinations tended to come when his mind was protecting him from reality, and this was by far the most real one yet. He didn't like to think of what that implied about the level of what his body must be going through. Well, maybe he'd get lucky and they'd finally go too far, and kill him.
In the meantime, a dream of Cloud rescuing him was much more pleasant than his usual replay of the events at Nibelheim, or of the endless days he'd spent on the run with his comatose friend. He could definitely live with this being the last thing he ever saw, if they did manage to kill him.
Fumbling with the controls, Cloud growled under his breath and was seriously considering just trying to smash the glass when he finally found the release. Mako hissed as it was pumped out of the tank, the levels dropping far too slowly for Cloud's non-existent patience.
The moment the door locks released, he wrenched it open so hard it nearly came off the hinges. Zack was leaning against the glass wall for support, weak and uncoordinated after an extended period in the tank. How long had it been, anyway? He lost track of time so easily these days. Before, in the mansion, any time he'd caught himself drifting off or thinking about giving up all he'd needed to do was look over at the next tank where Cloud was. When they'd brought him back, though, and told him that Cloud had been killed, he'd more or less given up hope. He had nothing left to fight with, and little to fight for.
"Zack?" Cloud whispered, reaching out with shaking hands to tug the oxygen mask off. The face beneath was older and far more worn than the brief flashes of his friend that he had found in his scrambled memories, but then again Zack would be twenty-six now, not eighteen. If he had lived. "Zack, is it really you? It can't be..."
"Hey, kid." Zack's voice was harsh and raspy after a long period of disuse, but his quirked smile was still the same. Lifting a hand that trembled with weakness, he brushed his fingers over the boy's - no, young man's - cheek. "I always knew you were still in there somewhere. Welcome back."
Ramuh, how often had he dreamed of being able to say those words, during that year they'd spent on the run? Some days Cloud had been more responsive than others, just enough to keep Zack's hope alive, but he'd never woken completely. The blue eyes that looked back at him now shone with the subtle gleam of mako, but they were full of personality rather than dead and empty.
Choking softly, Cloud tried to contain the wellspring of emotions and memories that had suddenly burst open within him. It was Zack. Incredibly, impossibly, it really was Zack. He recognized Cloud, remembered their journey across the face of the world. A clone wouldn't have those memories, wouldn't have faint traces of scars that Cloud remembered; the thin line running through one dark eyebrow, the ragged mark on one shoulder, and...
And, gods help him, the horrible pucker of bullet exit wounds on his chest that had obviously been left untreated too long for magic to prevent the scarring. It was those more than anything that convinced Cloud of the identity of the man before him. "You're dead," he said faintly. Distantly he was aware that he was probably going into shock. "You're dead, you died on the cliff." It was one of the most vivid of the few memories he had won back from within his mako-shattered mind, in fact. Probably because he relived it so often in his dreams, now that he had remembered it.
"Funny," Zack's lips twisted in a way that said it wasn't funny at all. "That's my line. But that's okay, I'm only dreaming this, so you can be alive if you want to be. It's a hell of a lot better than the dreams where you show up to chew me out for not saving you. You're not going to do that, are you? You don't usually rescue me first in those ones."
He was rambling and unfocused, and Cloud grimaced as he recognized the signs of mako overexposure. Apparently even Zack, who had held firmly to his sense of self throughout tortures that had sent Cloud fleeing into the depths of his own mind, had limits to how much he could endure. "Not saving me?" he repeated incredulously. "You did. If not for you I'd have been just one more black clone making my way to die at the Reunion."
Seeing the total incomprehension in Zack's eyes, Cloud shook his head. "That's not important," he said. "Come on, let's get you out of here and find some clothes for you." Slinging Zack's arm over his shoulder, eerily aware of the role reversal, he helped the man out of the tank.
"This is a switch," Zack announced, his thoughts following much the same path. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I wonder if they're taking me out, and my mind is just replacing the tech with you? If so, they must be confused as hell if I'm actually saying all this stuff out loud." He snorted with amusement at the thought. It had been a long time since he'd bothered trying to talk to the techs. They'd probably assume he'd finally lost himself to the mako.
Maybe he had. It wasn't as bad as he'd been afraid it would be, if so.
"If anyone is dreaming here, it's me," Cloud told him. He got them pointed at the door and moving, and with each step a little more of Zack's coordination and strength returned. The brunet started walking more confidently, taking more of his own weight, but he didn't make any effort to pull away. Cloud was grateful. He was afraid it would all vanish if he took his eyes off Zack for even a second.
"Well, don't stop dreaming, then," Zack ordered him. "I won't if you won't. I like this dream." As his strength returned, he struggled to fight his way out of the morass of thoughts and memories that were not his own, inflicted on him by the mako. He didn't remember it being this difficult. Was it just that the effect was much stronger now, or had it been so long since he'd last tried that he'd gotten out of practice?
Grunting his agreement to that, Cloud got them through the door of the lab and into the hall. Looking from one side to the other, he debated. This corridor ended at Hojo's office, so the living quarters must be elsewhere. That was where he was most likely to find clothing for Zack, but he didn't really want to have to walk past the lab more often than he absolutely needed to.
Zack first, he finally decided. "This way," he urged the older man, turning away from Hojo's office. "There were a dozen techs and assistants, one of them will have something that fits you. I chased them off already."
"You didn't kill them?" Zack wasn't sure whether he should be disappointed. There was a part of him that longed for a chance to turn the tables on the bastards who'd made his last few years a living hell, but he'd never really been the sort of person to focus on revenge. He preferred to look forward to better things. If Cloud had already killed them, then the temptation for revenge would have been removed.
"I didn't realize they were still experimenting on people, or I would have," Cloud growled. "I may yet track them down. Later." Much later. After he was sure Zack was real, that he wouldn't vanish given half a chance.
They reached the living quarters, and Cloud helped Zack sit on the edge of the first cot. "Stay there, don't move," he commanded. "I'm going to look for something that will fit you." He was reluctant to step out of reach, but he couldn't exactly take Zack out of here wearing nothing but his scars.
"I'm not going anywhere," Zack informed him, leaning back on his hands and shifting to a position where he'd be able to see most of the room. He wasn't going to let Cloud out of his sight, for fear the dream would change or end.
Most of the techs' belongings had been hastily gathered up as they left the compound after Cloud had gotten through with them, but they'd been in too much of a hurry to take more than they could carry. There were plenty of clothes left. He had to dig past the ubiquitous lab coats, but finally he managed to find a pair of black jeans and a white shirt that he thought would fit.
Bringing them back to the bed, he handed them to Zack. "Here," he said gruffly, feeling his hope and disbelief grow with every moment that passed without the other man vanishing. "I'll look for some boots, too. You can't go out barefoot."
"Thanks," Zack said softly, taking them. The textures of the fabrics felt strange against his skin; it had been a long time since he'd felt anything but the mako or the coarse robe they gave him when he was out of the tank. He'd also lost all the callous on his hands, he realized with a grimace when he rubbed his fingers together and found only soft skin. Probably on his feet, too. He was going to be suffering blisters for a while.
That reminded him of something else, though. "I need my sword," he said as he stood carefully to pull the pants up. They were a little loose at the waist, but not so much they were sliding off his hips, and he'd rather they were loose than tight. The shirt was too small, but it was soft and stretchy so it just meant it was a close fit. "I don't know where they're keeping it, though."
Cloud froze, his heart skipping a beat. The sword. Zack's sword. Automatically his hand went to the hilt of the pieces of First Tsurugi that were in the sheath at his hip. He hadn't bothered taking all six, only the first three. "It's not here," he said, releasing his grip and going back to his search for boots. "I took it. It's back in Midgar." Planted on the cliff where Zack had died... except that apparently he hadn't. It was starting to sink in that this might just be real.
"You made it, then," Zack exclaimed, breathing a sigh of relief. "Good. Did you find Aerith? Was she able to help? How long has it been since then, what have I missed?"
"A lot," Cloud replied shortly, unable to get more out past the lump in his throat. Aerith. Oh gods, Zack didn't know about Aerith. How was Cloud ever going to tell him? "It's been three years since then," he managed after a moment. "I'll tell you everything, but not now. I want to get what I came for and get the hell out of here."
"What you came for?" Zack blinked. Didn't Cloud already have what he'd come for? "You didn't come to rescue me?"
Finding a pair of heavy work boots that he thought would fit well enough, Cloud took them and a pair of socks back to Zack. He knelt to help get them on, but his hands were shaking on the laces. "I thought you were dead," he whispered. "I thought... I had no idea you were here. I came looking for my records." What if he'd never found this place? What if it had never occurred to him to go looking for the account of what had been done to him? Sweet Shiva, what if he'd walked past the window to the lab and never looked inside, for fear of the memories that would come? Zack might have been left here forever.
"Hey." Concerned at the choked sound in Cloud's voice, Zack ran his hand through the spiky blond locks. This much hadn't changed; Cloud was a man now, not a boy, but stroking his hair still felt the same. "It's okay, kid. I'm just glad you found me, even if it was an accident."
For the first time he started to seriously consider the possibility that this wasn't just another mako hallucination. If he was going to imagine Cloud coming to rescue him, he didn't think he'd have made it an accident. But Cloud was dead, Hojo had told him personally after he'd been here for a month, just to rub it in...
Wait. Hojo had told him? Since when had Zack ever taken anything Hojo said at face value? He must have been more affected by the mako than he'd thought, even then. It had never even occurred to him until this moment that it might have been a lie.
And if it had been a lie, then maybe this was real after all.
Taking a deep breath, Cloud got hold of himself. "We'll get your records too, then get out of here," he said, mostly thinking to himself out loud. "I think... we'll go to Kalm, not back to Edge. We can talk there." He didn't want to subject Zack to the sight of the remains of once proud Midgar until he'd been prepared a little. Also, there was the fact that the only two places he had to go in Edge were Tifa's bar and the church, both of which would bring up problems all of their own. He didn't want to explain about Aerith just yet, and he didn't want to give Tifa a heart attack, either. He'd have to call and warn her somehow.
Realizing what he was thinking, Cloud snorted. Right. Because if he started dropping hints that he'd found Zack alive in a secret lab somewhere, Tifa would definitely believe him rather than thinking he'd lost his mind. Again.
"Kalm? Aren't we going to run into troopers there?" Zack asked. The quaint little town was a popular place for Shinra troops who had a weekend leave, which was long enough to want to get out of the city but not long enough to go very far. The absolute last thing he wanted was to be recaptured a third time.
"No," Cloud shook his head, and finished lacing up the boots. They were too big, but they would serve until he had a chance to get something better. "That's one of the biggest changes. We don't have to run and hide any more. There is no Shinra Company."
"No Shinra?" Zack stared at him, wide-eyed. Suddenly this was tipping back towards being a hallucination again. Shinra pretty much ruled the world, and it had definitely still been in prominence when he'd been on the run with Cloud. It had taken him the better part of a year to get them from Nibelheim to Midgar, because he'd had to keep making detours to avoid troops. He couldn't imagine the company would have vanished in just a few short years. Even if something had happened to old man Shinra, and for some reason his son hadn't taken the reins, the company must still exist in some form.
"Like I said, it's a long story," Cloud told him. "You'll have to trust me, Zack. Nothing is the way you remember it."
Smiling, Zack caught the younger man's chin in his fingers and lifted his face until he could see those shimmering blue eyes. "So far all the changes have been for the better," he said. "You have no idea how happy I am to see life in your face. Of course I trust you."
That earned him a lopsided smile in return. "Yeah, well," Cloud waved that off, standing and offering Zack his hand. "Trust me, not all the changes are good. Probably not even most of them. We'll talk in Kalm, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Zack agreed, and let the blond help him up to his feet. Once there he tested his balance and decided he could probably walk on his own. He promptly slung an arm around Cloud's shoulders, because why would he want to walk on his own when he could enjoy the desperately missed feel of Cloud against him? "Huh, this is more awkward now that you're the same size as me," he noted. "Guess I won't be able to drape myself all over you any more."
His words triggered a rush of forgotten memories for Cloud, and the blond had to bite his lip to keep a soft sound from escaping him at the flood. Dozens of flashes passed through his mind's eye, of the way Zack was always touching him. An arm over his shoulder, a hand ruffling his hair, a warm body leaning against him in a chair; Cloud had always protested, but he hadn't realized how much he'd missed that friendly contact until Zack had reminded him that he'd ever had it.
Swallowing, Cloud shrugged and wrapped an arm around Zack in turn. "You'll manage," he said gruffly. "I'm sure it won't take you more than a day or two to find new ways to pester me."
Laughing in delight, Zack hugged him briefly before moving forward, towing Cloud along with him. "Let's go get those records. I want to see the sun and sky, and feel the wind on my face. I've been underground way too long." Hallucination or not, he was going to enjoy that.
"Yeah, I bet," Cloud agreed, catching up so they were walking side by side. It felt right to be at Zack's side like this, and something inside of him that had been aching so long he hadn't even realized it hurt finally relaxed. Not for the first time Cloud wondered how much he had forgotten, how many memories of his time in Shinra had been lost or scrambled beyond trusting. All he'd really had were the 'memories' of Nibelheim that he'd screwed up in his head, and the hazy recollection of their flight to Midgar and Zack's death. Almost everything before that but after the promise made with Tifa had been lost in the haze of mako.
Just having Zack there with him was bringing some of those lost memories back, and he treasured every moment of them. Even the ones that were embarrassing, of which there were more than a few. They were his, and they were of Zack, and that made them precious.
There was a part of Cloud that had never been quite sure if he really had been friends with the strong, confident, charming SOLDIER 1st Class. Sure, Zack had gone through hell to get him out of the lab and back to Midgar, but maybe Zack was the kind of person who would have done that for anybody. Most of his memories of their time together in Nibelheim had been twisted to be from Zack's point of view, as if Cloud was looking at himself from outside his body, so he couldn't trust what he remembered of the way Zack had treated him then.
But what he was remembering now confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Zack had been, first and foremost, his friend. They had never been equals, the difference in their ranks and abilities as well as Cloud's utter hero worship had ensured that, but Zack had been like the kind of big brother who enjoys having his little brother tag along on all the interesting stuff.
Feeling about a hundred times happier than he could ever remember being, Cloud wasn't even bothered by the sight of the lab as they walked by it again on the way to Hojo's office. He was too busy revelling in the memories to pay attention to it.
Once inside the office, however, he forced his mind to focus on work again. "I don't suppose you know anything about his record-keeping system," Cloud muttered, looking around at the stacks of filing cabinets labelled with strings of letters and numbers. "I just hope they've kept everything on you updated all this time."
Bits of remembered conversations that he'd overheard returned to Zack through the mako haze, and he frowned. "I think... everything you'd want will be on the hard drive," he said, gesturing at the sleek computer on the desk. "Hojo always kept one set on his computer, one backup disk offsite, one on him, and hardcopies in the cabinets just in case something happened to the computers. He was a paranoid bastard, but he was a thorough paranoid bastard."
"I hope so," Cloud agreed, running his hand over the label on one cabinet that proclaimed it to be part of the Genesis Project. He had no idea what that was, but it wasn't likely to be any more pleasant than the Jenova or Chaos Projects had been. Finding a cabinet for the Jenova Project, he winced as he saw it was only the first of many. "Because I don't think I could possibly get all of this out of here unless I call for Cid and the Sierra."
Going to the desk, he shoved the monitor out of the way and started dismantling the computer. He would take the drive back with him and find out what was on it; he'd probably need help cracking the encryption that was undoubtedly protecting the files, so there was no point in trying to look at it now. If it turned out he needed the hard copies, he could come back for them.
Slipping the drive into his pocket, he turned and found Zack leaning against the wall by the door, arms crossed and one foot up flat on the wall. His heart caught in his throat as another whirlwind flash of memories told him that this was Zack's favourite 'waiting' pose.
"You okay?" Zack asked, concerned when Cloud stopped in the middle of the room and just stared at him. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I have," Cloud replied, shaking his head to rid himself of the memories for the moment. "I'm looking at him right now. It's overwhelming."
"Yeah," Zack agreed, his eyes softening. "I hear you. C'mon, kid, let's blow this joint. I want real food and a real bath, and I want to hear the whole story of what I've missed."
Nodding, Cloud moved to leave. Zack reached to ruffle his hair as he passed, a motion Cloud automatically tried to duck away from. He'd never been able to manage it before, with Zack's SOLDIER reflexes so much faster than his, but this time he actually stepped back out of reach before Zack could get to him.
They blinked at each other for a moment, both surprised and disconcerted. Cloud found he was disappointed that he'd evaded the touch, and Zack must have read some of that in his eyes because he took a step forward and did it anyway. "Aw, it's not as much fun if you're not all grumpy and protesting," the older man teased him with a gentle smile.
"So you'll just have to move faster," Cloud told him, biting down on a smile of his own. There was no point in encouraging him too much. "You were getting sloppy anyway, it'll do you some good to have to work for it."
Then, just because he could, he lifted a hand and ruffled Zack's hair in turn, catching the man completely off guard. Zack squawked and flailed in surprise, much as Cloud had once done. Cloud had never attempted to retaliate before, just to avoid it. For one thing, he'd never have been able to catch the SOLDIER if he'd tried.
Fighting fire with fire, he discovered, was much more fun. "Now I finally see why you kept doing that," he said with a soft laugh. The laughter was tentative; it had been a while since the last time he'd laughed about anything. "You do look pretty damn cute with that shocked look on your face."
Zack stared at him, then started laughing as well. "It's about time you learned how to fight back," he told the blond, delighted. He'd been distressed when Cloud had avoided him, afraid that maybe too much had changed between them for them to regain the easy friendship they'd once enjoyed. He'd been right; their friendship was never going to return to what it had been. But having Cloud as an equal was going to be even better.