No one had time for any relief once the truck was out of eyesight of the warehouse and, more importantly, Kadaj. Kunsel had the steering wheel in an iron grip, his teeth clenched as he desperately tried speed along the road and not end up crashed in a ditch on the side of the road. This was made a hundred times more difficult by the chaotic scene in the seat next to him.
Cloud was flopped against the passenger side door, gasping and wincing in pain. The holes where his left ear piece and left arm used to be were still sparking from their fresh injury and Cloud was slumping down further and further as the seconds passed. He seemed to be barely keeping conscious, based on his lack of reaction to Zack, who was still sitting in between Kunsel and Cloud.
“Shit, shit, shit…Cloud, I—” Zack gasped, tears leaking out of his eyes. He put one arm around Cloud’s shoulders and the other around his waist in a desperate attempt to support him, though he didn’t seem to know what to do with his body or what to do to try and help. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…!” Zack turned to Kunsel, his voice shaking. “Kunsel we gotta get him somewhere to fix him! Can’t this thing go any faster!?”
Kunsel winced as a large semi-truck blasted its horn, Kunsel barely managing to avoid side-swiping it as their small truck cut in front. “I’m going as fast as I can!” He shouted back. “I just don’t know where the hell I’m going besides away from there.”
Kunsel glanced back at Cait Sith, who was barely holding onto the side of the flatbed to avoid rolling off and under the wheels. “Hey, you got any bright ideas back there?!”
“I- Woah!” Cait Sith flattened himself to stop himself from flying off as Kunsel took a sharp right turn, wheels squealing as he did. It was getting more congested on the road as Kunsel went further and further into the heart of town, with more cars and trucks blasting their horns angrily as Kunsel continued passing them. No one seemed to be chasing them, but Kunsel was driving on pure adrenaline at this point. “I would in just a second if ya don’t send me flying off to become road kill!”
“What about your place?!” Zack asked desperately, then quickly turned his attention back to Cloud as the robot let out a pained groan. “Hang in there, Cloud…!”
“Like hell, you know my building’s like a few blocks away from the government HQ, right?! There’s no way people are just gonna keep quiet about us dragging Cloud in there with how he looks right now.”
“I’ve got it!” Cait Sith called from the back. “Back to Zack’s shop!”
Zack’s eyes widened. “Back there? Have you lost it!?”
“Haven’t lost a thing, lad! There should at least be some things to get our boy here out of crisis mode there and give us a second to regroup.”
“It’s not a bad idea…” Kunsel bit his lip thoughtfully. “Plus there’s nowhere else I can think to go that has any sort of equipment to fix a humanoid robot like Cloud. Not anywhere where we wouldn’t get a million questions about how that happened at least.” He gestured towards Cloud. “Right?”
Zack looked ready to argue but was stopped as Cloud slumped further down in his seat. “Cloud! Shit— Okay, okay, let’s go let’s go!”
“Don’t have to tell me twice!” And with that Kunsel made a quick U-turn and they sped off through the center of town, off towards Zack and Cloud’s old home.
The sun was starting to set by the time they got there, even with Kunsel’s erratic driving. It provided a nice cover of darkness in addition to the area seeming relatively abandoned, meaning that Kunsel was able to park the truck in an alley behind the shop without anyone noticing.
I guess there wouldn’t be much reason for people to be hanging around with nobody here and doing any business… Zack thought. He waited until Kunsel came around to the passenger door before moving to open it. It was a good thing he did, as the second the door went out from underneath Cloud, the robot immediately slumped over and nearly took Zack with him onto the ground.
“Woah there!” Kunsel immediately went to catch him and put Cloud’s right arm around his shoulder. “Shit— Okay, come on Zack, just slowly lower him down and we’ll…start by getting inside at least.”
Zack nodded quickly, his throat tightening as he tried to move Cloud out as gently as possible. He accidentally brushed against Cloud’s arm stump as he did, causing Cloud to let out a weak cry of pain. “Shit! Cloud, fuck, Cloud I’m sorry…!”
Cait Sith came up on the other side of Zack, holding his finger to his lips. “Sssh! We’re in the clear for now, but we gotta not draw much else attention.” He whispered. Zack grimaced and looked back at Cloud, who was staring at the ground with a dazed expression. Cloud looked over when he noticed Zack staring at him.
“I’m….okay.” He said hoarsely, his voice almost too weak for Zack to hear. “Let’s…keep going…”
Zack stared back before nodding quickly. He pulled the keys from out of his pockets and silently thanked Kunsel for not commenting on how badly his hands were shaking as he unlocked the door.
Zack and Kunsel managed to get Cloud over to a work bench, letting the robot collapse onto it as gently as they possibly could. Zack could tell Cloud was trying to hold in most of his reactions by the way he grit his teeth and inhaled sharply as he lay down on the bench.
It was a pitiful sight. Cloud was strewn across the bench, eyes closed as he took slow, painful breaths. There were sparking wires where his left ear piece and half of his arm used to be as well as multiple deep gashes along his face and remaining arm that had torn off his synthetic skin and revealed metal underneath.
Zack’s eyes were suddenly drawn to the sound of Cait Sith running around and quickly closing all the blinds. Once the robot was sure that no prying eyes could see into the building, he turned on just enough of the lights in the shop so that they could see what they were doing. The light was just enough to reveal a sight that had Zack reeling back in horror.
The shop was still in complete disarray from Kadaj’s attack. Zack hadn’t had a chance to really take it in before, but now that they were all here again he was able to truly see how horrible it was. Papers and tools were strewn everywhere with shelves full of all of their hard work carelessly knocked over and ruined. The place where he had met Angeal, worked alongside him for all those years, where he had basically grown up…it was destroyed.
As Zack’s eyes scanned over the wreckage, images flashed through his mind, unbidden: He saw himself fixing Cloud, naming him, showing the robot how to help around the shop as Cloud got more and more confident with himself and with his own strength. His eyes finally rested on the Cloud of today, battered and broken and crying out in pain as Kunsel was trying to gently start moving and covering up some of the exposed wires.
“C’mon Lad, don’t ya have anything to dampen the pain?” Cait Sith asked as he moved to the other side of Cloud. “This isn’t going to feel good at all at this point.”
Kunsel grimaced. “I can’t find anything…the place is so trashed that it’s better to just start with something rather than waste hours looking, right?”
“I guess you’re ri—” Cait Sith paused as Zack suddenly moved next to him.
The look on Zack’s face made Kunsel briefly stop what he was doing. “Zack—”
Zack collapsed onto his knees and grapsed Cloud’s hand in his, holding it up to his forehead as he began to sob. “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry Cloud…I’m so sorry!” He took a shaky breath. “It’s all my fault, all of this is my fault!” Cloud’s eyes cracked open, the blue light dimly illuminating the scene around him as Zack continued weeping.
“I-It would’ve been better…if you’d been f-found by somebody else…” He choked out. “All that’s happened since you met me is that you’ve gotten into more and more trouble…and now this!” Zack looked up at Cloud, tears streaming down his face. “If I hadn’t been stupid enough to get involved back there, this…” Zack’s words faded into more sobbing as he looked down again.
Both Kunsel and Cait Sith looked unsure of what to do, especially when Cloud moved his head and shifted his body towards Zack.
“That’s not true.”
Cloud’s firm voice was enough to snap Zack out of his thoughts and he looked up at Cloud with a wide-eyed expression, tears still running down his cheeks.
Cloud looked at Zack with a weak frown that quickly melted into a smile, though it was still strained from his exhaustion and pain. “I don’t regret it…Zack.” Cloud pulled his hand out of Zack’s grip and moved it to the back of the other’s head instead, using it to draw Zack towards him in a hug.
Zack blinked back fresh tears as his forehead rested against the other’s shoulder. Without looking, he could feel the small movement of Cloud nuzzling into his hair. “C-Cloud…”
“You’re safe. That’s what matters.” Cloud’s voice was getting increasingly hoarse but he continued anyway. “If the same thing happened…I’d do it again.”
Zack had to stop himself from grabbing Cloud in a tight hug of his own, knowing he would only make the other’s injuries even worse. He looked up into Cloud’s battered, exhausted face, feeling his lip tremble as more tears slid out. “But I—”
Cloud shook his head. “I said I would protect you...” Cloud leaned forward slightly, resting his forehead against Zack’s. “My special someone.”
Zack choked down a sob. “Cloud…” Zack moved a hand onto Cloud’s cheek, brushing his fingers through his bangs as he did. “Okay…I get it. I get it…” He sniffed, scrubbing at his eyes with his free hand then looked to Kunsel.
“Let’s get him fixed up, then.”
Kunsel looked between the two of them then gave a resolute nod. “Right.”
A few painstaking hours later, Cait Sith, Zack, Cloud and Kunsel were all upstairs in Zack’s apartment. To help avoid suspicion, only a small lamp on Zack’s bedside table was lit, casting a faint light to break through the shadows. Cloud was laid out on Zack’s bed, sitting up with the help of a few extra pillows for support. He looked exhausted but less ragged than before but it was obvious that the repairs had been a patchwork job. The new ear piece on his left side was slightly too small and a dull silver color instead of black. His face still had some exposed metal showing as well, though his arm was still the worst off. The sparking wires were gone, replaced by a smooth white bandage that was wrapped around the stub at Cloud’s elbow. Cloud had said it wasn’t painful anymore but Zack still felt slightly sick every time he saw the place where the rest of his arm should be.
“We’ll probably have to find something from another humanoid manufacturer or…well…best case scenario we’d get it from my work, but I dunno how likely it is that that’s gonna happen.” Kunsel murmured, stretching his neck side to side as he leaned against the wall of Zack’s room. “Or how long it would take to get”
Zack, who was sprawled on the floor next to the bed, let out a sigh. “Neither of those options sound very easy.” He closed his eyes. “Man, I could probably just fall asleep right here at this point.”
“A little bit of rest probably would do everybody some good, I’d say.” Cait Sith chipped in from his spot on Zack’s bedside table. The cat looked over at Cloud. “How’re you feeling over there now, lad. Any better?”
Cloud, who had been lost in thought, blinked and looked over at Cait Sith. “Huh? Oh…” He glanced at the bandages along his left elbow then returned Cait Sith’s gaze. “Better.” He said with a nod.
“Hm…” Cait Sith looked at Cloud suspiciously but then seemed to let it go. “Well since it’s quite a bit past Midnight at this point, I think we could all use some rest. Especially you, Cloud.”
Everyone began to shuffle around to figure out how to figure out how to place two grown men and a cat on a couch and the floor but were suddenly interrupted by Cloud’s voice. “…Before that,” Cloud started, his eyes shifting from the bedcovers over to Cait Sith. “There’s been something I’ve been thinking about.”
Cait Sith tilted his head. “And what’s that now?” Both Zack and Kunsel (who was now sitting on the floor) looked up at Cloud curiously.
Cloud paused, hesitant to continue. “It’s about…Kadaj.”
The atmosphere immediately shifted back into a weighted, tense one. Cloud grimaced, noticing the change immediately but continued on. “It was strange. The way he was acting, I mean. The way he attacked me, it seemed as if he hated me and wanted to hurt me but…like he wanted something else too.” Cloud glanced at Zack. “He kept saying that Zack was tricking me and keeping us from being together.” Cloud shook his head. “I didn’t get it.”
“Cloud—” Zack started but jumped a few feet in the air when a sudden fifth voice interjected.
“I think I can answer that.” Came Reeve’s voice, causing both Kunsel and Zack to look around frantically.
“Where the hell—Reeve!?” Zack pulled his cell phone out of his pocket just to double check he wasn’t getting a secret call.
Kunsel, finally noticing where the voice was coming from, tapped Zack on the shoulder. “Zack, I don’t think it’s coming from a call.” He gestured at Cait Sith, who was suddenly standing with a more neutral expression than before.
“Sorry for the scare.” Came Reeve’s voice out of Cait Sith’s body. “I just thought this would be the most direct way of answering your questions”
Zack and Kunsel looked at each other, back at Caith Sith, then back at each other in silence for a good ten seconds before Kunsel immediately went to grab Zack around the chest to prevent him from throttling the robot cat. “Easy now, Zack…” Kunsel started.
“You…could do that…this whole time—!?” Zack seethed through clenched teeth, pulling against Kunsel’s grip.
Before things became too heated, Cloud spoke up. “Do you know why, Reeve?” Seeing Cloud’s serious expression caused Zack to pause and look back at Cait Sith with his anger dampened to a pout.
“Mn.” Cait Sith’s body nodded. Zack would have found it funny enough to laugh at the cat’s suddenly serious expression, his arms folded as the voice of an adult man came out of him, if he wasn’t discussing such a serious topic. “It seems that, while, they used the basics of Cloud’s programming, Hojo didn’t seem to think it was important to put the entire thing in Kadaj’s AI.” He paused and Zack could hear Reeve sighing. “He never did attach much importance to it, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, this means that the things that make Cloud, well…himself, so to speak, aren’t really there like they should be in Kadaj’s AI. I wanted Cloud’s AI to be as human-like as possible when I was designing it, so he could hopefully make connections to people like a normal human would.”
“Well I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s passed that test with flying colors.” Zack interjected, earning an elbow from Kunsel. “Hey!”
“Let him finish, Zack.” Kunsel looked back at Cait Sith. “So those parts of Cloud’s programming, they’re not there in Kadaj, right? So what’s the problem, wouldn’t that make him like some of those Turk models they’ve got, like the one that attacked Zack and Cloud a while back?”
Cait Sith shook his head. “Not quite. I can imagine that there are ‘echoes’, so to say, of the intent of Cloud’s programming. That is, the need to interact with and form connections with other people; The need for acceptance, and even love. It would be like something is missing but he wouldn’t be able to understand what or even how to fill that gap within himself. By rushing through and focusing only on Kadaj’s combat ability, Hojo ended up with a half-twisted empty shell that doesn’t know how to understand himself or those around him…but knows that he’s incomplete and wants to fix that with any way possible. ”
Cloud glanced away, lost deep in thought. “Acceptance and love, huh…” He murmured quietly. “I’m sure he’s not getting that from Hojo or anyone else there.” After a moment, Cloud looked back at Cait Sith. “That must be why he’s so obsessed with bringing me back, with trying to convince me that I was being ‘tricked’ by staying here. Why he wants…a ‘Reunion’.”
Kunsel rubbed the back of his neck frowning. “I guess that would explain a lot, but…”
“It doesn’t excuse what he did to Angeal, or Cloud…or anything else.” Zack added, barely restraining the bitterness in his voice. “No matter what his reasons are, I can’t….” His fists clenched reflexively and his voice softened slightly. “…I can’t just forget about what’s happened.”
An awkward silence fell over the group, with Kunsel and Cloud both staring at Zack in concern before Cloud quickly glanced away with a deep frown. Zack noticed Cloud’s gesture and looked away as well, rubbing the back of his neck.
For better or worse, Reeve decided this was the best time to log out of Cait Sith, causing the entire party to jump when the Scottish accent returned to declare “Well and with that I think now would be a good time to take a lil rest!”
With some slight rearranging, the group was able to settle in for the night. Zack had made sure to text Aerith a cryptic “Hey don’t worry we’re all doing okay” text and a promise to explain more tomorrow on the phone when she replied with demands for more information, since she hadn’t been able to get in touch with Kunsel for a few hours. Cait Sith had made himself comfortable on a pillow and blanket on the floor next to the couch where Kunsel had just drifted off to sleep. Zack had just finished showering and was wandering towards the bed, where Cloud was turned on his side with his back towards him and facing the wall.
Just as Zack was about to suggest that Cloud take the whole bed due to his injuries, the robot scooted closer to the wall in order to make room for Zack. His heart clenched at the sight and he immediately slid into bed next to Cloud, lying on his side with his arm wrapped around Cloud’s waist. Despite the fact that Cloud seemed intent on not looking at him, he leaned back against Zack’s chest and let out a small sigh.
“You sure you’re gonna be…comfortable like this?” Zack whispered.
“Mn.” Cloud nodded.
The two of them sat there in silence for a while. Occasionally, a car would pass by the shop and its headlights would spread a dim light across the room. Zack noticed that each time this happened Cloud would tense up slightly, almost as if he was expecting the car to be Hojo or Kadaj coming to try and find them.
Zack found himself unable to even try and close his eyes to drift off. Despite how tired his body was, his mind was still racing. Cloud seemed to be having the same problem, since after a while he finally spoke up.
“Zack…” His voice was quiet.
“Yeah?” Zack tilted his head slightly.
“…I’m sorry.” He murmured and Zack could feel Cloud’s body tense up in his arms. “I know you can’t forget what Kadaj has done. I didn’t mean—”
“…You’re sorry for that?” Zack interrupted. “You know I’m not mad at you about that, right? Don’t beat yourself up about it”
Cloud frowned in response, though he did relax somewhat. “It’s just…” He continued quietly. “We are connected…whether I like it or not. And I feel like I can understand a little bit of how he feels, since we’re based on the same system.” He closed his eyes. “And I feel…sorry for him, I guess. Just a little.”
Zack sat up slightly, propping himself up with an elbow. “Well, I guess…I can understand where you’re coming from. Even if I can’t forgive him for any of it, especially…” He trailed off as his hand moved to rest on the make-shift ear piece on Cloud’s left side. “Especially this.”
Cloud’s eyes opened and he shifted so that he was lying on his back. “Zack—”
Zack shook his head with a small, sad smile. “Come on, we’re probably just keeping Kunsel awake at this point” He lay down again, moving onto his back. “I don’t think either of us are gonna be able to sleep well tonight, so let’s just stay like this for a while.” Zack wrapped his arms around Cloud’s neck and gently nudged him so that Cloud was lying closer to him, with his head on Zack’s shoulder. “…Okay?”
Cloud looked up at Zack, his eyes glowing in a sad, but affectionate, expression. “…Okay.” He whispered and moved slightly so that he could hold Zack’s hand in his own and nuzzled against Zack’s shoulder as he closed his eyes. “Good night, Zack.”
Zack watched Cloud quietly for a moments before closing his eyes as well, giving Cloud’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Good night, Cloud.”
Just as dawn was breaking, all four of them were awake and quietly moving back towards Kunsel’s truck.
“Okay, so the plan is…what again?” Zack yawned, stretching his neck from side to side as he did.
“The sooner we get outside of town the better, then maybe we can regroup and figure out a place to hide Cloud for a while.” Kunsel pulled out his keys and moved to unlock the truck door. “Once we get that far, then…well I guess we’ll figure that out as a next step.”
Suddenly a gleeful, sickeningly familiar voice came from behind them. “Well I don’t think all that planning will be necessary”
All four of them whipped around to see Hojo standing there in his familiar lab coat and greasy, sneering smile. “Now, are you really that surprised?”
“Hojo!?” Zack felt his heart stop, his stomach twisting in a mixture of rage and terror. This was the man who had tormented Cloud and now was standing there with an expression that clearly said ‘I won.’
Cait Sith yelped and quickly moved to hide behind Zack’s legs. Kunsel was glancing between Hojo and the truck, as if trying to calculate how fast they could all get in the car and how comfortable he would feel running over a human being.
“…You…” Cloud snarled, his eyes flashing a bright, wrathful green for a split second before he moved his right hand towards his legs, fully intent on ending their problem right then and there.
“Ah ah, I wouldn’t do that, my little failure.” Hojo wagged his finger. “Unless you think that you’d be fast enough to stop the pavement from being splattered with the inside of these two boys’ heads.” He gestured upwards and, as if on cue, dozens of military grunts stood up from their hidden places on the roof on either side of the group, rifles all pointed towards them. Just to add to the effect, a military-grade truck rolled up behind Hojo to allow another dozen soldiers out. They all drew their weapons in synch, the sound of dozens of triggers being readied and trained on Cloud, Kunsel and Zack.
Cloud quickly shifted so that he was in front of Zack, his eyes moving frantically along the scene as he took into account how many guns were pointed at them. His hand twitched but he didn’t release his swords from their compartment in his legs.
“You bastard…!” Zack yelled. “So that’s it, huh!? You’re just gonna…murder us!? Just like that, out here in the open?!”
“Why would you think that would be a concern of mine?” Hojo smirked. “I’ve been hunting down two dangerous criminals and a stolen government robot. What would I have to worry about?” Hojo chuckled softly. “But I’m not a heartless man. I’ll give you a chance, a very generous deal, I might say.” He shifted his gaze to Cloud, who returned his glance with a fierce glare.
“If you come back with me now, there won’t be any need for bloodshed. You won’t have to be an even more miserable failure who caused such…senseless deaths. Come now, both you and I know this would be impossible even if you weren’t so horribly mangled and useless like you are now.” Hojo tapped the side of his temple. “It only takes one mistake, one stray bullet straight into the brain for it all to be over for them.
Zack’s eyes widened in horror as he saw Cloud’s expression shift. “Cloud…Cloud don’t you dare! I’m serious…Hey!”
Cloud’s hand went limp against his side as he lowered his head. “I…”
“Stop all this foolishness and I’ll let them go.” Hojo scratched his ear casually. “But I am a busy man and don’t have the time to stand around for hours in this trash heap of a neighborhood.” He smirked.
“So which is it? Will you come with me, or try and fight and cost all of you your miserable lives?”