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“…Well?”

Hojo’s sneering voice snapped Cloud out of his thoughts and he raised his eyes to see Hojo tapping his foot impatiently. The man slid his glasses up slightly, a gesture that made Cloud tense in spite of himself. He knew that expression. He knew that Hojo was running out of patience.

“You have twenty seconds to decide.”

There’s no way I’d be able to take them all out like I am now, not without making mistakes.

Zack’s voice cried out from behind him. “Cloud! You don’t have to do this!” He felt his arm being grabbed by the other as Zack forced Cloud to look in his face. Zack’s eyes were desperate, fearful and angry, all expressions that pained Cloud to see them on Zack’s usually cheerful face.

“Fourteen…Thirteen…”

Hojo’s right. All it would take is one bullet…

“Ten…”

“Cloud, look at me! We have to run! Or at least you have to…You can get away if you go now! Don’t worry about us…!”

“He’s right, Cloud” Kunsel added, his voice shaking slightly. “You have to go.”

I can’t stop them all. I can’t protect them like this.

“Five…”

“Cloud! Run…!”

All I can do is…

“What are you waiting for?!”

“Cloud!!”

“Three…”

“That’s enough!” Cloud’s voice sudden broke through, silencing all of the others. Even Hojo looked a little shocked as he watched Cloud lower his head again, clenching his fist tightly. “You have to swear it…” Cloud lifted his face, his eyes sparked with determination. “That you won’t hurt any of them.”

“Cloud…!” Zack cried, desperately gripping harder onto Cloud’s arm and trying to pull him backwards, as if he could somehow get him further away from Hojo and get him out of danger. “You can’t, don’t you dare…” His words became more and more frantic as Cloud continued looking away from him in silence. “I won’t let you, Cloud! You can’t do this!”

Cloud couldn’t bring himself to look at Zack’s face. “I’m sorry, Zack.” He muttered softly. In one swift movement of his arm, Cloud threw Zack off of him, sending the mechanic flying several feet backwards and onto his side with a cry of shock and pain.

“Zack!” Both Kunsel and Cait Sith cried out in synch and immediately ran to his side, Kunsel moving to try and support Zack as the other slowly sat up.

Zack grit his teeth, holding the side that he fell on in pain as he looked up at Cloud. “Cloud…please…”

Zack saw Cloud glance back at him then guiltily look down again in silence as he slowly walked towards the military truck and Hojo. The gap was immediately closed by military grunts, who quickly blocked the way between the group and Cloud.

“I knew you would see it my way.” Hojo sneered as Cloud walked past.

Cloud paused briefly, speaking just loud enough for Hojo to hear. “If you hurt any of them, I’ll find out.” His fist clenched. “And then…”

“Oh enough with all the threats. I told you, I’m a reasonable man” Hojo snickered. “And I’m not petty enough to gloat too much after I’ve gotten what I wanted.”

“Stop it! Cloud!!” Kunsel had to hold Zack back as he tried to stand up again, desperately reaching out to Cloud’s retreating back.

“Don’t Zack, damn it, you’re gonna get yourself shot…!” Kunsel gunted in his effort to hold the other back. Despite his efforts to remain as calm as he could for his friend’s sake, Kunsel could feel his entire body trembling.

The back of the truck opened up as Cloud approached it. For a moment Cloud stared at it, the full realization of what the next step would bring finally dawning on him. He felt his bottom lip tremble slightly. “….Zack…” He whispered quietly then looked back at the group. Even from this distance, he could still see the heartbroken expression on Zack’s face and the horrified one on Cait Sith and Kunsel’s.

He gave them a small smile despite the horrible empty feeling that was growing inside of him.

“…Thank you. For everything.”

And with that the door behind Cloud closed and he was gone. Hojo jerked his head towards the truck shortly after. “No need to stay in this trash heap of a neighborhood. We’re going.” He glanced back towards Zack, who was now having to be held back by both Kunsel and Cait Sith, who had his robotic cat arms wrapped around Zack’s waist. “This is goodbye.” He laughed, adjusting his glasses slightly. “I supposed you’ll have to find a new doll to play house with, Mr. Fair.”

“You bastard! Come back here, damn it! Come back!” Zack struggled vainly against Cait Sith and Kunsel’s grip even though, deep down, he knew it was pointless. It only took a minute or two for the military, the truck, Hojo and Cloud to disappear and leave them in an unnatural silence. Both Cait Sith and Kunsel finally let go of Zack, Cait Sith slumping down with his ears lowered and Kunsel leaning against his truck, quickly adjusting his hat to further cover his eyes.

Zack stayed on his knees, staring out at the road that Cloud had disappeared on minutes ago, unable to process what had just happened. Cloud was gone. After everything he had done to try to protect him, he was gone.

“Cloud…” Zack’s voice cracked and he slumped forward, his nails digging against the pavement. “Cloud…!”

A scream ripped from Zack’s throat as he collapsed onto the ground, his body wracked with sobs as he screamed Cloud’s name over and over again into the nothingness.

***

Cloud’s nightmares had always started out like this: Being taken back into the government building through the basement entrance, the sounds of engines revving from the other vehicles and chaotic shouting providing a horrifying background. Then moving along narrow hallways until he reached the two large silver doors that lead to a long, silent elevator ride surrounded by armed grunts. This time, however, Cloud knew that he wouldn’t wake up next to Zack, that he wouldn’t be able to find comfort in the fact that it had all just been a dream. He knew that this was reality.

As Cloud glanced around he noticed that all the grunts were all regarding him with terrified expressions, their fingers twitching at the triggers of their guns.

Ah, that’s right. Cloud thought idly. I forgot what it was like to be treated like this.

Like a monster.

A soft “ding” indicated that they had reached the floor where Cloud had spent the first half of his life. As Cloud followed behind the military escort, the countless sounds and smells brought a rush of memories back to him, all unpleasant. The sense of despair that had been rising up inside Cloud’s chest since he had gotten inside that truck was threatening to overflow by the time he had reached the place where he had spent the most time: Reeve’s lab.

“Professor Hojo’s orders are for you to stay here until he arrives.” A grunt, who Cloud supposed to be their leader, barked. A not so subtle or else was conveyed through his tense jaw and ever present itchy trigger finger.

Cloud simply glanced at the man then looked back towards the ground, giving the smallest of nods to show that he understood. Seemingly happy with that, the group marched out, the door closing and locking with an ominous “clang”.

Once they were gone, Cloud slumped against the wall and buried his face in his hand. He knew this was for the best, that this was better than Zack and anyone else getting hurt but the sense of loss was overwhelming. He would never see Aerith or Kunsel or Angeal again, never take another visit to the library, never be visited by the neighborhood kids ever again. Worst of all, he would never hear Zack’s voice again or feel the sensation of Zack’s fingers through his hair as he ruffled it.

What would they even do to him in there? The best that Cloud could hope for would be that he would be destroyed as quickly and painlessly as possible, before his hopelessness could overwhelm him.

The only thing that kept Cloud from crying out in anguish was the single thought that he had at least set out to do what he had promised. He had been able to protect them, at least, and now that he was gone, Hojo didn’t have any reason to go after them anymore.

“So, you ended up coming back after all.”

Cloud jolted upright, his eyes scanning the room until they settled on a pair of bright green eyes staring at him from a shadowy corner. Kadaj had obviously been waiting in the room, completely silent, until now.

“You—” Cloud took a step back, unsure of where he could possibly go at a time like this.

Kadaj almost looked hurt at Cloud’s initial reaction but seemed to quickly shake it off as he took a few steps towards him, grinning. “You don’t have to worry anymore, Brother. Now that you’re here, we don’t have to fight!”

Kadaj waited eagerly for Cloud’s response, his face falling in disappointment as Cloud simply glanced away with a detached expression. “What…Why?” His face contorted in anger. “You don’t even have anything to say!?”

Cloud remained silent for another moment, then finally spoke. The despair in his heart was replaced by exhaustion. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with. “You’re right, I’m here.” He replied coldly. “And now that I am, what exactly do you think they’re going to do?”

The question looked to take Kadaj by surprise. “What?” He questioned, his head tilting slightly. “What do you mean?”

Cloud shook his head and glanced to the side. “They’re going to do what the meant to months ago. I’m a failure, remember? I’m going to be destroyed.”

Kadaj stared at Cloud for a moment then broke into a huge grin. “Oh…So that’s why you were so hesitant to come back before! I understand now, Brother…” Kadaj moved towards Cloud and went to put a hand on his shoulder, causing Cloud to recoil instantly. “You’re not going to be destroyed. I already told you, it’s going to be a reunion.”

Cloud’s eyes widened as he took another step back away from Kadaj. “What…are you talking about?” Even as he uttered the beginning of his sentence, Cloud felt a sense of fresh dread filling him. The gears in his head were starting to put together what Kadaj was insinuating, but the thought of it was too horrifying to acknowledge. “What did they tell you?”

Kadaj tilted his head again, smiling eerily. “You’re going to go back to the way you were before. All of that brainwashing that human did on you, it’ll be gone soon. You’ll be complete again, not just that human’s little pet.” Kadaj practically spat the last word.

“I’ve realized I may have been a little too hasty before.”

Cloud whirled around to face Hojo, who had managed to enter soundlessly behind him. He grinned, the evil glint in his eyes even brighter than usual. “Instead of just scrapping all of Reeve’s hard work and resources, a little bit of…refurbishment would be a much better use of my time. Don’t you think?”

“You—!” Cloud moved to release the swords from his legs but was easily stopped by Kadaj, who twisted his remaining arm behind his back and slammed him to the floor. Cloud struggled as hard as he possibly could, only crying out in pain slightly as Kadaj moved a knee to the middle of his back to incapacitate him further. Even running on pure adrenaline, he was no match for Kadaj’s strength after their battle yesterday. “You can’t!” Cloud screamed. “Don’t you dare, Hojo, for God’s sake if you’re going to do something then…then destroy me!”

“Oh come now, don’t be so dramatic…” Hojo squatted in front of Cloud, putting his face closer to the robot’s. Kadaj was looking between the two in bewilderment. Cloud’s reaction to his news had obvious taken him by complete surprise. “It’s not like you’ll even remember what you lost, right? That’s the nice thing about android brains…” Hojo tapped Cloud’s head with a smirk. “Things can just be wiped away in a minute or two and then it’ll be like none of all this idiocy ever happened.”

No!!” Cloud cried and began to struggle again, wincing when Kadaj tightened his grip in response. “Don’t! Please, I’m begging you…!” After a moment Cloud stopped struggling and bowed his head, breathing shakily as his forehead rested on the cool tile. “Please…please don’t erase them…please…”

Hojo let out a sigh. “So pathetic…See? This is why you were a failure in the first place.” Cloud flinched as Hojo removed the cap to Cloud’s non-damaged ear piece and pulled out a small metal plug from his pocket. “It’s going to be annoying if you keep struggling against it, so to expedite the process…” Hojo plugged the device into Cloud’s ear piece and flipped the switch. Suddenly a volt of electricity ripped through Cloud’s body starting from the piece, causing Cloud to go rigid as he began to scream in anguish. This went on for a few seconds until the device automatically turned off and Cloud’s body went completely limp except for his ragged breathing.

“There now…that should make things much easier. You won’t be able to move for a while after that” Hojo chuckled then looked to Kadaj, who had let go of Cloud at this point and was staring at him in silence. “Move over there and lock him in. I’ll get the program started.”

Kadaj looked between them, hesitating only briefly before moving off of Cloud and picking him up to place him on a cold metal table in the middle of the room. Once Cloud’s ankles and remaining arm were locked in place by the thick metal harnesses on each corner of the table, Hojo plugged a thick heavy wire into Cloud’s ear piece that connected to the large computer adjacent to the table.

“There we go.” Hojo looked to Kadaj, his tone cold. “Keep an eye on him while everything gets warmed up. It shouldn’t take any longer than 10 or 15 minutes.” He folded his arms behind his back as he looked to Cloud again, who was staring up at the ceiling in a daze. “I would say get comfortable but…you won’t even remember this conversation~” With a laugh Hojo turned around and walked through the door, leaving Kadaj and Cloud alone again.

Kadaj stayed quiet as the monitor flickered on, showing that the software was booting up. He looked to Cloud again, whose eyes were beginning to fill with tears.

“…Did it hurt that much?” Kadaj questioned. “It was for your own good, you know.” He added, a little too quickly.

Cloud weakly shook his head.

Kadaj took a step closer to Cloud, looking down at him uneasily. “Then why? Why did you try to fight against it so much?”

Cloud closed his eyes, his voice coming out in a weak croak. “You…wouldn’t understand…”

Fists clenched, Kadaj loomed further over him. “You keep saying that! Why?! Why do you think you’re so much better…!?” He slammed his fist on the table, just inches away from Cloud’s head. “You’re the one who was the failure! Not me! So why…Why do you keep acting so damn superior?!”

The room was silent except for Kadaj’s angry panting until a small “ding” came from the computer and a robot voice echoed “Memory scan: initiated. Now reading…”

Kadaj looked to the screen again as it transitioned to a fuzzy video feed. At first, it was too blurry to even tell what was going on, but a distant-sounding audio-track began to play.

“Zack, do you even have any idea how to fix a humanoid model?”

“No idea! But it can’t be too different from any other model I’ve fixed, right?”

Kadaj’s eyes widened. “Those voices…Those are the humans from before…”

The voices began to become clearer and clearer until the video feed suddenly snapped into focus. Zack’s face, as viewed from Cloud’s point of view, suddenly broke into a huge grin.

“You’re awake! Holy crap wait until Angeal sees this! I can’t believe this, I can’t believe it actually worked! There’s no way…!”

Kadaj clenched his fists as the video of Cloud’s memory continued playing. “This is the person you wanted to protect so badly?” He sneered at Cloud, his eye twitching slightly. “You were just a plaything to him from the beginning, right? Or did you delude yourself so badly that you couldn’t see that?!”

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong? It’s okay, Angeal’s not gonna hurt you…”

Kadaj turned back to the video, his eyes widening slightly. “…What…”

Zack’s face was in view again, leaning over Cloud slightly with a gentle smile as he moved his hand towards the other’s face. “There, see? Everything’s okay” The video shook slightly as Zack’s hand went to Cloud’s head and ruffled his hair gently. The sound of Cloud letting out a small laugh could be heard.

Kadaj’s eyes widened further. “No…This is a lie. Why can’t you see that he’s just lying…?!”

The screen transitioned again, going further and further into Cloud’s memories as a small progress bar began filling in the corner of the screen.

“You know, he doesn’t remember his name or anything. But I’ve gotta call him something, right? I can’t just keep saying ‘Him’ or ‘You there’ or stuff like that. So, how about…How about…Cloud?”

“What? Cloud?! Zack, what the hell, that’s so…That’s so damn cheezy!”

Kadaj’s hands fell to his sides, limp. “It’s a lie…”

“You know, now that I think about it, I dunno if humanoid models get cold or anything like that. Well, it can’t hurt to give you something just in case, right? How’s that feel? Okay?”

Kadaj hunched over, gripping either side of his head as he grith his teeth. “It’s all lies…!”

The view changed to Zack pulling Cloud into a hug. “Sorry, I can’t think of anything that I can do to make it stop hurting. But I’ll stay with you until it does stop, at least.”

Over and over again, the view switched to different scenes through Cloud’s eyes: Zack grinning at Cloud and ruffling his hair, Aerith holding up a pot of flowers up to him with a smile, Angeal patting his shoulder comfortingly then to a few children running up to Cloud excitedly and the height of the video changing as Cloud moved to crouch down to talk to them.

“No…No no no NO…!” Kadaj’s fingers gripped his hair as he shook his head, backing up from the computer as if the video and sounds were physically hurting him. “It’s a lie…It’s a lie…I can’t…I won’t listen!” Kadaj collapsed onto his knees, bending forward as he rocked back and forth slightly.

“…This is why…I said you wouldn’t understand.” Cloud muttered weakly. Kadaj turned his head to face him, his face a contorted mixture of rage and fear. “My memories…everything I cherish…it’s real. This is what it’s like…to be loved…to feel human.”

The robotic voice chimed in. “Memory scan complete. Synchronization: Initiated.”

Kadaj’s hands lowered as he stared at Cloud, eyes widened. “…Brother…”

“And now, I—…”

“Memory reset: Begin”

Cloud looked to the screen again, which was frozen on a glitching image of Zack, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at him with a sheepish grin. He tried to focus on the image as long as he could as everything began to go black around him. He could feel himself losing consciousness

“Zack…”

And soon, everything had gone dark.

…I’m sorry.

***

The atmosphere in Zack’s apartment was so oppressive it was suffocating. Zack was on the edge of his bed, hunched over with his arms resting on his knees. His bloodshot eyes were glued to the ground as he sat there in silence, seeming to have run out of tears. Aerith was sitting next to him, though her body language was tense and distant as she stared at the hands clenched in her lap. Kunsel was leaning against the wall, his arms folded while Cait Sith was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room.

The heavy silence had been persisting for minutes, though it felt like hours. Aerith bravely tried to break it.

“…So that’s it?” Aerith looked from Zack, who was visibly tensed, to Cait Sith then to Kunsel. “He’s really gone?” She pursed her lips, her eyes filling with determination. “There can’t be nothing we can do, right? We can go to the police, or—”

“That’s a nice idea, Aerith, except for the fact that it’s the government…you know, like the guys in charge of the police?” Kunsel shook his head. “Forget it. If anything, we’d be the ones who’d be in trouble for taking government property in the first place.”

Aerith opened her mouth to argue but then closed it again, looking down with a despondent expression. “You’re right. But we can’t just give up, right?” Her question was met with another few seconds of silence. Cait Sith suddenly went limp until Reeve’s voice began to speak from him again.

“The only thing would be if we could somehow get him out from their labs.” Reeve’s voice sounded tired. “But…”

“But what?” Kunsel questioned, a slight bit of hope beginning to sneak into his expression. “Reeve?”

Cait Sith’s body shook his head. “It would be impossible for me to go back into work and sneak Cloud out like last time. Since Hojo saw Cait Sith with you two, I’m sure he suspects something at this point. It wouldn’t take him very long to figure out that I had built Cait Sith and connect the dots from there…”

Kunsel sighed, adjusting his hat further over his eyes. “And it’s not like I can waltz back in there either.”

It was as if the color was slowly being drained from the room. Even Zack lowered his head further, his eyes closed in despair.

Aerith took a look around them then, to everyone’s shock, suddenly stood up. “Then it has to be me.” She said, her voice full of determination.

Even Zack turned his head to look up at Aerith in shock. The three of them were silent for a brief moment before all starting into arguments at once.

“What the hell are you saying?!”

You?!”

“Aerith, there’s no way—!!”

Aerith shook her head quickly. “We don’t have time to argue about it. Who knows all the horrible things they could be doing to Cloud right now?” She placed a hand on her chest for emphasis. “I’ll go. I’m not someone who’s worked for the labs…” She looked at Cait Sith and Kunsel. “And I wasn’t there when Hojo came to take Cloud.” She gestured at Zack. “So I’m the only option. I’ll get in there somehow…maybe I’ll say I’m looking for a job, or something like that.” Aerith looked down thoughtfully then nodded, as if deciding on the fine details of the plan. “And then when I have the chance I’ll let Zack in so that we can rescue Cloud. Kunsel and Cait Sith can be reconnaissance. You already have a way to connect to the cameras in the building!”

“Are you crazy?! If you get caught you’re gonna be hoping that they throw you in jail before Hojo gets ahold of you!” Kunsel shouted.

“Maybe I am crazy!” Aerith’s eyes flashed angrily, cowing Kunsel slightly. “But we have to do something and this is the best thing I can think of. It’s better than giving up, for sure!” She looked between the two men and one cat, who had gone silent. “It’s better than sitting around crying that there’s nothing we can do!”

A moment passed. Suddenly, Zack’s hoarse voice broke the silence. “You’re right.” Zack stood up, the burn of determination relit in his face. “You’re right, Aerith.” He took a moment and nodded to himself then looked back to Kunsel and Cait Sith, a light smile forming on his lips. “I won’t make you guys get involved any more than you already have, so I won’t blame you if you—”

Kunsel stood up, cutting Zack off midsentence. “Aw, to hell with that, Zack.” He put a hand on Zack’s shoulder with a cheeky grin. “I’m way, way too deep in to stop now. Breaking into the government robotics headquarters again? Heh…why not?” He nodded, a slightly more serious expression forming on his face. “We’ll rescue Cloud for good, this time.”

Cait Sith groaned. “Well now with all this buddy-buddy teamwork stuff, it wouldn’t look too good if I just bowed out now, would it?” The robotic cat hopped from the chair up to Kunsel’s shoulder so that he could be at the same height as everyone else. “Count me in too!”

Zack looked around at the three of them, feeling his heart begin to swell with hope as he blinked away his tears. “You guys…” He sniffed, rubbing his eyes quickly. “Thank you.”

Wait for us, Cloud.