lithic_rune: (Living legacy)
[personal profile] lithic_rune
Title: Slipstream
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Rating: PG13
Summary: A world where Zack survived. Memories that say he didn't. Zack has no idea who or what he can trust when a slipstream becomes a riptide.

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Chapter One


It was a dream.

-You'll be... my living legacy...-

Zack knew it was a dream. But even hours after he'd woken up, the words still echoed in his memory, making something twist in his heart. The dream itself had faded, leaving only bits and pieces, nothing coherent-

-mako eyes-

-the taste of blood-

-Cloud-


-but somehow, even knowing that it hadn't been real, even knowing that this was hardly the first unsettling dream he'd had since that day, for some reason it was hard to shove this one back. Something about it just... just... Damn it. Zack scrubbed a hand through his unruly black spikes of hair, not even sure how to describe the feeling to himself. He tried to dismiss it. It was just a dream. Just a dream, when he needed to focus. I can't afford to be distracted right now.

Footsteps echoed, drawing Zack's attention sharply back to the task at hand. He consciously forced himself to remain still, resisting even the urge to drop lower behind the lone rickety crate he was using for cover. Any movement, even a flicker of shadow in the already shadowy alley, might be all it took to catch the guard's eye. Definitely a guard, he concluded. The footsteps were too even, too regulation-march steady, and nothing could match the thick, heavy clomps of feet shod in military boots. Right. This is it. He let out a slow breath.

The guard stepped into view-

-ShinRa trooper-

-head swinging to the left as he checked the alley-

-Helmet, rifle, uniform. Standard gear-

-then started to turn away to continue with his patrol.

Zack hurled out of the shadows with all the speed of a SOLDIER First Class and slammed the side of his hand into the back of the trooper's neck. A choked grunt was the only sound the man made - had time to make - before he crumpled. Zack knelt hurriedly, pressing two fingers below the man's jaw to check for signs of a pulse. With gloves on, it was harder to feel, but it only took him a few moments to confirm that the blow hadn't been lethal. He released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"Is he dead?"

Zack glanced back down the alley to where a woman was emerging from behind an overly full garbage can. Between the dim light in the street and the shadows cast by the towering buildings her brown hair almost looked black. Even the bright blue of the shirt she wore beneath her armor seemed dull, dingy, gray. That had worked to their advantage. If the trooper had spotted either one of them...

Well. He hadn't, and Zack was just going to be glad about that.

With a shake of his head, hooked his hands under the soldier's arms, offering his companion a crooked, wry smile as he dragged the man into the alley. "No," he answered softly. "But he'll probably wish he was when he wakes up with the headache I just gave him." Still, better a headache than the alternative. Sorry, man, he apologized silently. He understood the trooper's position. He really did. Soldiers followed the orders they were given. That didn't necessarily mean they were bad guys. But ShinRa... ShinRa had to be stopped.

And unfortunately, that meant that the soldiers working for them were going to get in his way. People he'd worked with. People he might have worked with. People who thought they were doing something good. People who just wanted to put food on the table. People who had no idea what the company they were working for was doing. The thought of fighting them, killing them, was like a knife in his gut. He'd been one of them once.

Even so, leaving ShinRa unchecked would be worse. That was the reason driving Zack on this mission. He knew. He knew.

...a project created to make the perfect monster.

His jaw clenched as he pushed the memory back. Another thing he couldn't deal with right now.

"We'll probably have a ten minute window before anyone notices he hasn't checked in." Jessie's soft voice cut into his thoughts, grounding him back in the present. He nodded, listening, silently grateful that she was there. Not that he couldn't have done this by himself, but having someone with him just... helped.

He wasn't going to think about the reason why.

"Right," he said, straightening up. "Let's get moving." Ten minutes wasn't a whole lot of time.

Jessie led the way. Technically she was in charge at this point, with Zack playing bodyguard until they caught back up with the rest of the AVALANCHE group.

AVALANCHE. Man, who would have ever thought?

The street twisted around a corner. Zack reached out and tapped Jessie's arm, and was glad when she didn't argue the wordless signal to stop while he slid past her to check for other guards. Nothing. No one. The ex-SOLDIER marveled at how accurate their intelligence must have been to time their approach to the ShinRa reactor so that they only ran into one guard outside of the building itself. Not so long ago (a lifetime ago) that would have been disturbing, even alarming. Under these circumstances, though, he wasn't going to question their good luck. The fewer people they ran into, the better, as far as he was concerned. Just because he was fighting ShinRa now didn't mean he wanted to kill any more people than he absolutely had to kill.

"The door's just up ahead," Jessie murmured once he'd given her the signal for 'all clear.' "The others should be meeting us there. Keep an eye out while I work on getting the door open."

His mouth quirked up, not quite a grin but close to it, and offered a two-fingered salute. "You got it. You can count on me!" Not that she'd needed to tell him all that. That had been the plan from the start. But she was nervous and trying to cover it by taking charge, reconfirming plans. Jessie struck him as a woman who definitely preferred having a plan, and really, who could fault her for that?

Despite being curious, he only watched for a moment as his companion set to work on the key pad by the door. He turned, letting his eyes roam the street, combing the dark spots, the rooftops, anyplace that could possibly hold a nasty surprise if someone didn't think to look. For a moment, it felt like he was back in Wutai. Wutai ninja could literally be anywhere, it had felt like-

"You spiky-ass bastard! What the hell you playin' at!"

Any similarity to Wutai vanished in an eye blink when Barret Wallace stomped up the one path a Wutai ninja would never take: the wide and open street. Zack blinked at the barrel-chested black man, nonplussed. "What?" No, really. What? What was Barret going on about this time?

"Don't give me that!" Barret snarled, waving his gun arm back in the direction that he and the two men with him had come from. Wedge just shook his head while Biggs ignored the scene entirely and moved to join Jessie at the door. "I thought I told you to make sure the guards got taken out! You think bein' SOLDIER means you don't gotta do your job?"

Zack's eyebrows drew sharply down. He'd learned early and fast that Barret was belligerent by default, but that didn't mean he was going to stand there and take it when he hadn't done anything to set the man off. He crossed his arms, drawing himself up to his full height, and never mind if Barret still towered by a few inches. "Hey, I did what I said I would. We only ran into one guard, and that guard won't be a problem. Ask Jessie if you don't believe me." So maybe the trooper wasn't dead. It'd still be hours before he woke up. One way or another, they'd be long done here when that happened.

"That just means you didn't look, you goddamn ass!" Not intimidated in the least, Barret shoved a finger into Zack's chest. "We ran into three of them ShinRa bastards! You expect me to believe that was just bad luck?"

It was all Zack could do to keep from bristling at Barret's tone. "If you're suggesting-"

"Code deciphered!" Jessie straightened up and turned, eyes darting between Zack and Barret. The doors in front of her slid open with a hiss, but no one moved. No one dared.

Barret glared at Zack. Zack glared right back. If Barret was going to question his honor, they needed to have it out now. "I didn't set anyone up," he ground out, unfolding his arms and shoving the larger man's hand aside. "If I wanted you dead, I'd fight you myself. I don't stab people in the back."

Barret's lips curled back, and the moment dragged out.

-That's it! You're comin' with me from now on!-

"Fine! Whatever! But you're comin' with me from now on!"

Zack missed the moment when the gunman's expression changed because of the way everything... doubled, except not quite. Barret remained solid, but everything else flickered strangely. Even his voice seemed to have an odd echo. Zack frowned and shook his head, swiping a hand across his eyes to clear his vision. It seemed to help, and he followed after Barret, who was already heading through the doors. The others hurried after them.

But... what had that been? Vertigo? He hadn't hit his head.

Uneasily, the thought crawled up from the back of his mind that he didn't know if anything that Hojo had done might not have had... side effects.

-Cloud's eyes, bright with mako-

"So, are you really in SOLDIER?"

Jessie would never know how grateful he was to have his thoughts interrupted just then. This time he offered her a genuine grin. "Yup! SOLDIER First Class! Or, well," he amended, "I used to be." He scrubbed a hand through his hair, then rubbed his neck. "I guess you could say I quit." Was it quitting when ShinRa turned its back on you first?

Close enough. He wasn't going to argue semantics.

"I've never heard of a SOLDIER quitting," Biggs chipped in.

Zack nodded, unsurprised. "It doesn't happen often." And when it did, ShinRa did everything it could to cover the whole mess up. The thought brought a bitter taste to his mouth.

"Lucky for us, though, huh?" Biggs was clearly enthused. "An actual SOLDIER, working for a group like AVALANCHE. You don't see that everyday!"

"Luck ain't got nothin' to do with what we're doin'," Barret cut in before Zack could respond. "We're the ones who're makin' this happen! Now quit yappin' and start looking for the next door we got the code to. Every minute it takes us to do this is another minute ShinRa's suckin' the planet dry!"

The reminder of why they were doing this worked, dampening the conversation back down. Probably just as well, Zack thought. They were inside the reactor building now. The closer they got to the reactor itself, the greater the security had to be. Conversation would only risk attracting attention that they really didn't need.

Eerily, though, the halls remained silent, empty of any signs of life. Jessie and Wedge opened one door, then the next, and still no one stood in their way. No one even crossed their path. Somewhere in the back of Zack's head, alarms were going off. It shouldn't be this quiet. It shouldn't be this dead. Mako reactors were the cornerstones of ShinRa's power. It shouldn't be this easy to gain access to it.

Trap. Every instinct Zack had, instincts honed by years as a SOLDIER, instincts that had let him rise to First Class, instincts that had kept him alive that long year he was on the run, screamed that something was wrong. His fingers itched to pull the Buster sword from its harness on his back.

"I don't like this," he murmured. "It's too quiet."

"Told ya," Barret said shortly. "ShinRa pulled a bunch'a their troops for maneuvers out in Junon. It's quiet because they're understaffed. That's why we picked now to attack."

Zack frowned. The answer didn't feel right. There was understaffed, and then there was abandoned, and he knew which one this felt like. There should have been better security than just a few doors with compromised codes. There should have at least been some drones.

But if there was a trap, it never sprung, not even when he and Barret climbed down the ladder from the maintenance shaft and crossed the catwalk to the reactor core. No guards, no one there-

-except Sephiroth, so fast, no chance to react-!-

Zack shuddered, pushing the memory back. Unconsciously, he pressed a hand to his chest. For a moment, it had almost felt like Sephiroth had stabbed him, Masamune plunging between his ribs and all the way out the back. That didn't happen. He shakily pulled his hand down. That didn't happen. Not like that. They'd fought, he'd been beaten, but he'd never been injured like that. Cloud was the one-

A rough hand clapped him on the back. "Hey! Quit spacin' out!" Barret met him with a glare when Zack's eyes snapped up, but instead of saying anything else, the burly man just shoved a package into the ex-SOLDIER's unprepared hands. Startled, Zack looked down.

It was the bomb. That alone was enough to send an involuntary thrill of alarm through his blood, but it was more reflex than anything else. Anyone who didn't panic at being handed something explosive was seriously a little screwed up. Still, he lifted an eyebrow in surprise. "You want me to set this up?"

"You're SOLDIER, so I don't trust ya," Barret said bluntly. "You do it so I can watch what you're doin'."

Okay, that logic was a little screwed up, too, but Zack wasn't inclined to argue. Something about this place, about this whole situation, was starting to make his skin crawl. It wasn't even just the danger or the lack of security. It was the glow of the mako coming up from below, the memories that being here stirred. Memories of floating endlessly in poison and pain.

-endless green, consuming everything, until all that was left was-

-a number. Give me a number-


Maybe it was the mako that was messing with his head, giving him memories that didn't make sense. Zack grimaced, pulling his eyes away from the play of light on the walls. No, the sooner they did what they came here to do and got out, the happier he'd be. With an effort, he focused on the bomb in his hands, dropping to one knee so he could begin setting it up. There. That boxy machine hooked up next to the core would make a good makeshift table. He couldn't immediately identify what the machine was for, even felt like it was somehow out of place, but he figured in the long run it didn't matter. Soon enough it'd be so much scrap. As for the bomb itself, he was hardly an expert, but it was simple enough to switch the safety toggle off before hitting the button that began the countdown.

"Okay," he said briskly. "We've got ten minutes. Let's get out of here!" He rose to his feet.

Then nearly swore when alarms began to blare.

"Dammit!" Barret had no such restraint. "They figured out we're here!"

Figured it out, and were no doubt converging on their location right now. Zack wasted no time in breaking into a sprint. "Let's get back to the others!" Jessie, Wedge, and Biggs had all broken off at points to make sure their escape route stayed clear. While that was smart thinking, it also left them vulnerable. None of those three had the kind of combat training they'd need to take on the full brunt of ShinRa's security by themselves.

Obviously drawing the same conclusions, Barret swore and pounded after him. Together, they veered a hard right when the catwalk ended, rejoining with the main path. Alarms deafened their ears and red lights strobed.

"Barret! Zack! Look out!" Jessie's panicked shout came down from above. Zack's eyes flicked up-

-just as something massive fell - no, jumped, hitting the catwalk so hard that the whole platform shook with the impact and a resounding metallic clang. Zack's eyes widened. "Oh shi-!"

He didn't get the chance to finish even that. Only SOLDIER reflexes saved him in that moment, lightning-fast fingers releasing the catch on his harness so he could whip the Buster sword free. Steel crashed against steel, deflecting the Guard Scorpion's tail away before it could impale his neck. No chance to breathe, though, because he was suddenly dodging bullets when one of the machine's arms leveled his way.

Dammit, dammit, dammit! "Barret, distract it!"

Gunfire rang through the air in response. Unfortunately, it barely seemed to faze the Scorpion, leaving nicks and scores in the machine's red paint. Even so, it apparently registered the threat. It shifted its stance and took aim.

Zack didn't give it the chance. He lunged forward, blade swinging, aimed straight for the joint of one leg. His blade skittered as it struck - What's this thing made of?! - before he slid with his momentum right beneath the metal scorpion's underbelly. It did exactly as he wanted, stomping hard, trying to catch him as it turned to follow. Whoever had built it, though, had built it too large for the catwalk it was on. It had to turn in place, and that took time for a machine that big. Precious seconds.

Zack used them ruthlessly to charge a Thunder spell. Lightning crackled, then crashed into the Scorpion's back, the air filling with the scent of scorched metal. He could practically hear the electronics scream in protest.

Too bad that wasn't enough to take it down. It shuddered, but finished the turn anyway.

Sword in hand, Zack was ready. He charged, aiming for the joints of the legs once again. By their very nature, they had to be weaker than its armor, if he could just find the right angle to strike with. A battle cry escaped from his lips as he swung, mixing with the sound of gunfire from an attack from Barret he couldn't see, then his blade crashed into the joint again. The joint still didn't break.

But it bent. Probably weakened from the first strike, something wrenched just from the sheer strength he'd put behind this attack. The Guard Scorpion staggered before it caught it's balance, compensating with its other five legs.

One down...

Zack forced himself to quash the grim sense of triumph at succeeding with that much. They weren't out of the woods yet. Worse, they were running out of time. The bomb didn't tick, but it was still counting down. Every second they spent here was one less second they had to get away from the coming blast.

He darted beneath the Scorpion again, using its brief disorientation to start charging his spell a second time. What he wouldn't give for some of his old materia! He was lucky to have a Thunder at all, one he'd picked up from a shop in the slums and only affordable because it was unleveled, but this would still be so much easier if he could just cast Thundaga and have done with it!

Thunder, though...

"Barret, I have an idea!" he shouted. "Try to keep its attention!" He had no idea what kind of AI had been programmed into the thing, but so far it had seemed pretty straight forward, targeting the most immediate threat. The trick would be convincing it that Barret was immediate when Zack was closer-

Something exploded against the Scorpion's shell, rocking him back with sheer concussive force - and he wasn't even the target! The Guard Scorpion itself stumbled, taking a moment to right itself, forcing Zack to drop his concentration on his magic and spend a harried moment dodging scrambling legs.

"Not a problem!" Barret called back, smug cockiness strong in his voice. "Hey, tin can! You want another piece of that? I call it my Big Shot!"

Whether or not the Guard Scorpion was intelligent enough to understand the insult, the attack definitely did the trick. It rose and turned, posture suddenly changing until it screamed like a predator's stance. Its tail arced up high, ready to strike.

Uh oh.

"Don't shoot!" he snapped. "Not until I say go! It's got some kind of defense mode activated!"

"What the hell do you know?" Barret shot back, but thankfully refrained from attacking again.

"I used to work for ShinRa, remember?" Zack retorted. "Trust me! I know what I'm talking about!" Granted, he didn't know exactly what kind of counterattack a Guard Scorpion might have, but he'd bet good money it had something nasty, something they didn't want to see firsthand.

If there was one good thing about defense mode, though, it was that activating it tended to delay a machine's aggressive response. Defense took priority. Offense only happened next once it was sure it didn't need to defend. That meant it was standing still. As menacing and deadly as it was, it wasn't attacking for the few seconds it took to assess their threat. Zack wasted no time charging Thunder again.

One second.

Two.

The Guard Scorpion twitched.

"Now!"

Zack struck before it even finished switching modes, shooting a bolt of lightning straight for the machine's damaged leg. Electricity arced, eagerly racing through the exposed wiring. This time the shielding in its armor was no help. Zack could only begin to imagine the damage being wrought inside where he couldn't see. Outside, however, the Scorpion jerked spasmodically, partly from electrical overload, partly from the barrage of bullets slamming into its shell. Sensing victory, Zack cancelled the spell and charged. Buster sword flashed as it caught the light, then crashed into another of the Guard Scorpion's legs. The attack didn't do much more damage than the last strike had.

But this time the Scorpion's fried systems couldn't compensate, and its damaged legs buckled.

That was enough.

Zack shouted and shoved, throwing all his strength behind his blade. That was enough to tip the thing's balance, toppling it over the catwalk's edge.

Damn... He dragged in a breath and glanced over the edge, all the time he could spare to make sure it had fallen, then shot a look at Barret as he slung his sword back into its harness. The gunman looked a little ragged, but otherwise no worse for wear. "You alright?" he asked.

Barret grunted. "Jus' fine." He glared as though challenging Zack to argue.

No time. Even if Barret had been injured, they had no time to spare. Zack could've tossed him a potion if he'd needed it, but arguing would only waste breath that they'd need to get out of this place before it blew. Instead, Zack only nodded before breaking into a run. They only had a few minutes. Just a few minutes to collect the others and escape. First Jessie, then Biggs, then Wedge.

Zack was bringing up the rear, guarding them from any follow-up attacks, when the bomb went off. The air screamed, the building shook, and a wave of superheated air blasted past.

"Go, go, go!" Zack shouted, willing them faster, out the door! One last door. They could make it!

Then something hit him square in the back and everything went black.

-End Chapter One-

Next chapter.

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