"Cloud," he said, "hey." He even smiled, couldn't help it, a small, maybe slightly shaky kind of smile. "You're a Third? That's great."
Cloud was staring at him with eyes as cold as the mountain river they stood by.
He'd grown up, thickened, though that only meant he had gone from runty to slender. With that mako glow in his eyes Zack figured he ought to add a 'deceptively' somewhere in there.
"Get down on your knees. Hands behind your head."
Zack knew the drill just as well as Cloud did. He shook his head no, slowly, a little regretful. It was nice to see him so professional -- no blatant openings to take advantage of, it would all be down to Zack's luck (sucky today) and how well Cloud could aim at a target moving at First Class speeds. Wasn't like the riverbank was wide around here, and the loose rocks wouldn't offer great footing.
"I can't do that," he said.
He could see Cloud gritting his teeth from here, something like offense flashing in his eyes, briefly.
"You think I won't shoot."
"... No, I know you will," he replied quietly, and wondered if he truly did. The kid he'd known would never have been able to. But there would have been more wounded surprise in the way he looked at Zack, more disbelief. It had been a while now and all the surprise was gone. The leftover was bitter, harsh. "It's just a chance I have to take."
He inclined his head toward the tunnel the river rushed out of, the buggy, the children waiting. The tip of the rifle tracked him, unwavering. Maybe if he took a step back they wouldn't see him fall bleeding, but that was defeatist.
"Reinforcements will be there soon. I can't waste any time." A 'I'm sorry' hovered on the tip of his tongue. He swallowed it back. He thought Cloud would only feel insulted. "So... You do what you have to do. I do what I have to do. We see what happens."
Cloud's eyes narrowed. One second, two, and Zack was about to move, throw himself to the side and attempt to pounce when Cloud gave a quick, jerky nod at the buggy.
"Get in. Behind the wheel."
At first he thought Cloud was letting him go, and gratefulness burst in his chest; but when he started to move Cloud mirrored him, moved closer as well, rifle shifting lower, aiming for a gut shot -- easier target to keep track while on the move, he supposed.
Maybe he wanted to make Zack drive them back to the nearest outpost, or up to the village. Oh, Cloud, no, he thought, because if that happened then he'd have to kill him, for real, and he didn't want to. He didn't really want to kill anyone but it was a neutral sort, a lack of desire for their deaths. But Cloud, he'd liked him, and. "... You gotta tell me why."
"No I don't," Cloud snapped back. "I owe you jack shit." But then he breathed out in a long, irritated gust, before Zack had any time to react. "You can explain what's going on while on the road. I can still shoot you afterwards."
... except that Cloud would never shoot him dead in the cab, in front of his kids, Zack didn't care that Shinra'd had him a full year and then some.
He was compromising. He... wanted answers more than to capture Zack, more than to respect his orders. Zack tried not to smile, because none of it meant Cloud was only pretending to be furious, and perhaps he wouldn't mind shooting Zack somewhere it would hurt a lot but not bleed too much. Zack wasn't sure he managed.
"Alright," he said. "Alright." He moved into the tunnel, Cloud still mirroring him with his rifle up, spared the kids a reassuring smile and shooed Jake and Nadine from the passenger seat with a flick of the hand. They retreated to the back seats in silence, their cat eyes fixed on Cloud.
The way Cloud raked them quickly with a side-glance, it was a threat assessment, clear as day; Zack could see his unease. Zack wasn't very surprised, though he was glad when it only lasted a heartbeat. He supposed his kids didn't behave much like most kids at times. Just prayed they wouldn't take it into their heads to jump Cloud.
He opened the driver's side door. "Alright, kids, Cloud here is coming with us for a bit. You sit down," he said in his 'I'm not kidding this time, for real' voice, "and stay seated."
He and Cloud slipped in more or less at the same time. The buggy was wide, could have fit a third person in between them; Cloud put his rifle across his lap, the barrel aimed at Zack's side. Zack set his hands on the wheel very visibly and telegraphed all his moves. No surprises.
He could feel his kids' stares digging into the back of his head. From the way the muscles in Cloud's jaw shifted he could feel it even worse. Heh.
It was strange but suddenly he really wanted to start singing something cheerful and inane, possibly about grand adventures. He shifted the buggy into gear and drove it into the river, laughing by reflex when water splashed all around and the vehicle bobbed up and down.
"Tadah. To the sea!" The buggy bobbed a little as he turned downstream, and then stabilized, and it was just a matter of letting it float down. "Kyril, get your hand out of the water right now," he said without even checking the rearview mirror. He didn't need to; it was as predictable as the sun rising in the West.
"So. The sea, huh."
Well, there wasn't much around here but mountains at their back that they'd only just crossed the other way a couple months back (and Corel so wasn't worth the trip) and semi-arid areas up North, and the ocean on both sides. "You don't really care about that," Zack said, eyes determinedly fixed upfront.
"No," Cloud said after a brief pause. "I don't."
The buggy bobbed along on the water. A few birds sang on the high banks, mostly out of sight. Apart from that it was quiet.
He didn't know how to talk to Cloud anymore. He could pretend they were still hotshot young SOLDIER and young hick from the mountains who needed to be charmed into relaxing, but they weren't those people anymore and that would probably just come across as insulting. Cloud wasn't asking either, as if now that he had a chance to, he had forgotten his questions.
"So. Still on the rifle? You got pretty skilled." He could tell, even if not a shot had been fired.
He remembered Cloud ranting for hours on end about how much he hated rifles and guns, how he couldn't wait to get into SOLDIER so he could ask permission to switch to a bladed weapon.
"Sword lessons are only for Seconds and up. I don't have a mentor."
I should have had one, he didn't say, I should have had you. Zack felt it anyway.
It was funny how responsible he still felt, a year and some months later, over a kid he'd mentored for, what, maybe four months tops before he had to hightail it out of Midgar. They'd... clicked. He couldn't explain it.
Cloud didn't say anything else; Zack didn't reply to what hadn't been said. The conversation died again. The river banks were high, so close to the village, much higher than the buggy, so that they mostly saw rising earth and exposed roots, and sometimes a branch trailing down over the edge. No one would see them float by either.
Zack glanced at the back. The camo net still stretched all over the open back like a tent, tied tight, though of course it wouldn't disguise a rectangular object on the water, no matter what color it was. At least it kept the kids in, though they could fit their arms through up to the shoulder. Only Kyril was doing that, though, and even he still stared ahead at Cloud's blond head even as he dipped his hand in. Zack chuckled ruefully and shook his head.
"What's so funny?"
"Them," he replied, because he didn't need Cloud to feel mocked right now. "Little bunch of creepsters," he said affectionately.
Cloud flicked a quick look at the rearview mirror. Zack caught him biting his lip, fleetingly.
"... Why do you have them?"
"Oh, that." Zack shrugged. "I stole them."
There was a pause, and then a tone of such restrained, oh-god-why-do-I-know-you patience it felt just like old times; Zack wanted to laugh, for real this time and not just from habit. "You... Zack. What. You stole them?"
"Zack, so help me, if you don't start explaining right now I am going to shoot you, and it won't be an accident."
Ludmila was on her feet in a second and surging forward. Zack twisted in his seat, swept his arm back between the seats so he could hold her back, felt the rifle dig in his stomach. "Ludy," he said as calmly as possible, because if he started yelling now they would all be having a meltdown in a second, "I told you to sit."
Cloud was a statue in his seat, but he'd taken his finger off the trigger. Zack breathed out, gave Ludy a little encouraging smile.
"Go back. Sit."
He waited for Ludmila to wedge herself between Gabe and Jake before he shifted back into his seat, slowly. Cloud kept still, as expressionless as he could.
Not expressionless enough. He was ashamed. Threatening Zack that last time might have been closer to their old jokes than any other threat they'd exchanged today but the kids had no way to know that and obviously they'd believed he would.
They were so silent in the backseat.
Cloud shifted his rifle up toward the ceiling, let the butt fall between his knees with a thump, secured the barrel with both hands. He stared blindly through the windshield, jaw clenched, pale. Zack closed his eyes and placed his hands back on the wheel, in full sight, and leaned his head back against the seat.
"What'd they tell you?"
"You'd killed a researcher," Cloud said, emotionless. "Killed a researcher, raided his notes, destroyed a whole wing of the labs. One of the troopers on guard duty left the service on disability. Never walked right again. They said it was industrial espionage."
Zack considered it, eyes still closed. "... Yeah, that's about it."
"For real?" Cloud asked, and there was something in his voice, a little offended, a little betrayed, that told Zack he'd still expected him to say it had all been lies, that he'd wanted to believe that. "You really stole important --"
Ah, the penny had dropped. Zack cracked his eyes open, flicked him a not-really-nice smile.
"... important research," Cloud breathed out, and turned in his seat to stare at the children, who stared back wordlessly with their slit-pupiled mako eyes. "Important research -- those are children!"
He stared at them, and then at Zack, pure disbelief.
The reaction told him everything -- that even now Cloud still trusted his word on what he could, should believe. Zack paused; not a real hesitation, even though it should have been, even though he should have weighed the price of telling Cloud the truth. He still had a life, a dream to go back to.
Bugenhagen had told Zack that if a child was asking something, he was ready for the answer, and Cloud probably ought to know who he was working for. Zack wasn't deluding himself that he was doing him a favor, though.
"Yeah," he confirmed soberly. "They are. That's Nadine, and Gabriel, and Ludmila, and Jake, and Kyril. They're my kids. I will not hand them back."
Cloud stared at them, one after the other. They stared back without a word, without expression, and that definitely wasn't something Zack had taught them. Though Jake was starting to get that mulish look...
"I." Cloud choked, a little bit. "I don't want to take you back. You stay with your dad. That's okay. I won't. I--"
Zack reached cautiously to rest his hand on Cloud's shoulder. Cloud's eyes were the farthest thing from cold and dangerous now -- young again, wide open, anguished.
"Zack," he whispered. "Zack, how am I -- what can I -- they do that sort of thing? Shinra?"
"Yeah," Zack replied, weary. "'Fraid so."
Cloud sank back in his seat, wedged himself in the corner against the door. Zack left him alone; he needed to steer the buggy past a fallen tree, and Cloud needed time to sort out his thoughts.
He drove the buggy over part of a submerged tree trunk, some rocks, the vehicle bumping them all to the sides as it listed and then fell back in the water with a loud splash. None of the kids shrieked. Zack clenched his teeth.
Cloud had scared them. The whole chase, most likely, but it wasn't the first time they had to run and most of the time they didn't seem to notice any difference between real escapes and drills. But they knew what a rifle was, what it did. The hunters weren't supposed to follow them on their escape.
"Hey there in the back. Anyone hungry? Cold? Need to pee?"
After a few seconds Gabe shook his head no. He was the only one who moved. Goddamnit.
"... I can't stay with Shinra," Cloud said quietly, still staring at nothing. "I can't -- I wanted to be a hero, I wanted to help, but they're not -- this is a lie, they're not helping--"
"They do help on some things," Zack said quietly. "Lots of hospitals who wouldn't have power or heat otherwise. Some new prescription drugs. Cheaper heating in winter. Lots of jobs to feed people's families."
"It's all a fucking lie," Cloud bit out. "There's no -- no--"
"Honor?" Zack suggested. He'd liked that word, when he was Cloud's age. "Higher purpose?"
Cloud flinched, closed his eyes. He was still so pale, looked like he was about to be sick. "I can't fight for them like this. I can't fight in the name of, of money and experiments, I can't."
Zack knew where this was going. He was -- tempted, a little.
Just a little.
"I need you to go back."
Cloud's head snapped around and he stared at him, aghast. "You're kidding, right?"
"I'm not. I -- Cloud, I'm starting to run out of places to sneak them into. I don't have enough intel, I'm cut off from everything out here."
"And you want me to --" Cloud fell silent, gave him a daunted look. "No way in hell that would work. I'm a brand-new Third, I don't have access to anything. I'd never know we're coming after you until we were in the transport and halfway there already. Likely I wouldn't even be on that team anyway--"
"Hey, that'd still be something -- but, no, it's too dangerous. It's not what I meant." He sighed, raked a hand through his hair. He trusted Cloud with his own life to try to do the right thing, but this -- this was trusting him with Sephiroth's, too; worse, this was trusting him with his kids.
This was trying to give his kids more chances to survive. Okay then. Even if Cloud got caught, Seph could handle it. Protect himself and Cloud both.
"I have this friend. I was trying not to get him too involved but I can't keep running around blind..."
"Send him a postcard," Cloud replied, strangled with incredulity. "I can't go back!"
Zack hated what came out of his mouth yet, but nothing less was going to convince him. "Frankly? You're a newbie. You can't have been a SOLDIER more than two months. I can't babysit you and the kids both."
Cloud flinched hard, as if Zack had sucked-punched him. Might have hurt less if he had. From the corner of his eye Zack watched him turn stiffly away, stare out of the window.
He would have apologized for hurting him but it wouldn't have made it any less true, or any less necessary. "You scare them," he said softly. "I can't deal with that right now."
"Enough, I get it," Cloud rasped, eyes closed tight in pain.
Another stretch of silence. Zack glanced at the backseat. His kids were still staring, disturbingly blank-faced, more like a pack of half-grown cubs waiting out a bigger predator walking past their den than five children. He flicked them a smile; Gabe and Nadine scowled at him.
"There's the Resistance."
"No!" Zack snapped without thinking twice. "Are you kidding me, they don't have a clue. You'd get killed in two weeks tops!"
"That's my choice!"
Aw, fuck, fuck, that look -- he just wanted to hug the kid, he just wanted to tell him it was okay, he could stay, Zack did want to keep him.
He wanted to keep his kids more, and he'd made them flinch right back into Blankville with that raised voice business. "Shinra knows everything about their higher-ups, and even an untrained Third is too dangerous for them to let the Resistance have. You'd just bring Shinra down on them if you joined up."
Cloud swung his fist into the door, denting it a little. Zack winced, but no trickle of water followed. "What the hell else am I supposed to do, pretend nothing happened and forget about it?!"
... Yeah, he kinda wished Cloud would, at least long enough to allay suspicions, and then get himself discharged and find some other job -- not that they were going to let go of a SOLDIER very easily after sinking so much time and money in his treatment and training. It'd be so much safer. But -- aw, hell.
There was no putting a chick back in the shell after it was hatched. Not even if you were the one who'd finished smashing the shell and forcing it out.
"You don't have to stay with Shinra," he said. "You just need to -- please, Cloud. I can send as many messages as I want but there's stuff my friend can't just put in the mail." A pause. "He'll be able to make sure you can get me messages, if -- if you still want to help, after. If you tell him. But I need someone I trust to --"
The look Cloud sent him right there made him snap his mouth closed, made him feel dirty for using the trust card, even if he meant it; it wasn't any less manipulation for that. Cloud stared at him for another second or three, jaw tight, stone-faced, and then looked away. The glow of his eyes had dimmed.
"It's the General, isn't it? Your friend."
"... Yeah." He arched an eyebrow in question. Cloud snorted quietly, still not meeting his eye.
"You always get the same look when you talk about him."
Zack blinked, wondered what look that was... and then didn't wonder, anymore, reddened a little instead. "Oh." Well hell, he'd taken three centuries to figure it out when apparently he would have just needed a mirror all along.
"He'll know where to find you?" Cloud asked briskly, hands sliding down his rifle to pick it up.
"Ah, we've got a couple means of contact."
"Roger. Pull over."
Cloud still hadn't looked at him again. Zack drove up against the high bank in silence, watched him slip the strap around his neck, and then catch onto the top of the door and pull himself out through the window with an economy of movement that was almost grace, that he hadn't had a year ago.
He wanted to tell him, 'you can come back when you're stronger, when you can defend yourself,' but he couldn't figure out a way that wouldn't come out backhanded and insulting enough to burn their last bridges. So he didn't.
"Your superior officers, how will you explain--"
"None of your business."
Zack saw him turn his head, steal a glance at the kids, but not enough for Zack to read his expression.
He squared his shoulders and climbed up the sharp, rocky slope of the riverbank. He didn't turn back even once.
Zack sighed, and started driving downstream again.
It took another half-hour before Jake cautiously crawled into the front seat.