He hadn't expected to get used to it, but most of the time he didn't even see the green anymore. Somewhere along the line, his eyes had adjusted until the world seen through mako-blur looked normal. It made him wonder just how long he'd been in, this time, to have that kind of acclimatization-- but his sense of time had been one of the first things he'd lost, if by no means the last.
Nearby, the words in the glass of his cage caught the light, glinted in the corner of his eye. He'd been able to move, back when he carved those, digging in with breaking nails and a strength he'd never had before, and it was a cruel irony that it had taken this to make him a SOLDIER. But somewhere along the line, something they'd done between then and now-- he flinched, mentally, from the fragmented memories of cold steel and bright lights and avid, dispassionate eyes-- something had changed. He had become a prisoner within himself, as if there was a wall between him and everything else, transparent and strong like the glass of his tank, only inside instead of out. When he was awake he could see and hear and feel but not do anything about it.
When he wasn't awake, he floated in an empty grey place, alone and aching and unable to remember anything. Or he visited warped parodies of places from his past, like Nibelheim before the flames, blown up out of proportion. Or he reeled through flashes of faces and things that were gone too quickly to know them. It was a long, twisted nightmare that he couldn't break himself free of, leaving him confused and aching when he finally did come out of it.
And the worst of it was-- he wasn't sure whether reality was any better.
He thought that Zack was still near him. He thought he could feel eyes on him, at least, other than those of the white-coated technicians, and he was reasonably sure it wasn't his imagination. That was a small comfort, even though he couldn't turn his head to find out for sure. The weight of those eyes helped him through the interminable waking hours, let him imagine that his friend was still scratching him messages in the glass, still plotting their escape-- even though in his darker moments, he was so terribly afraid that whatever chance they'd had was gone.
He had been drifting more and more into the grey, as it became harder to keep the dreams from dragging him under, when he roused to the feeling that something was changing around him. His vision blinked back on and the green was fading, and the technician was on the ground-- he saw red, achingly bright on the white coat before his view was blocked.
Zack was there, catching him when he fell through the opened panel, pushing back his hair and looking down on him with a desperate hope burning in his eyes. Calling his name, and calling again in a strained voice when Cloud didn't answer. Couldn't answer; his mouth wouldn't open.
And then Zack was moving him, and everything faded out again.
He thought he dreamed again, because it seemed for a while that he was in Nibelheim-- the real Nibelheim, not the warped mirror of it he usually saw. Even the air smelled right, cool and thin as it washed over his skin. But that was impossible, because he remembered fire and ash and blood.
He heard the brief sound of a curse before his head was turned away, taking the vision with it, and he gratefully let himself forget.
"Hey," Zack's voice came to him softly. "You smell that? Free air, that's what that is. No more lab basements for us." Cloud felt the touch of a hand on his chin, tilting his face up until he could see the sky. "Check out those stars. I'd almost forgotten what they looked like."
He saw, briefly, pinpoints of light streaking across a dark background-- and then a wink of grey, and it wasn't night anymore. He saw green, and blue-- open sky and forest leaves-- before the arm around him shifted its grip and his head nodded forward.
"They might have people out looking for us by now. Someone has to have noticed we're gone. But don't worry, no way in hell am I letting them take us back. And before you get all self-sacrificing on me, no, I won't leave you behind, so don't even think about suggesting it. We'll make it, together." The arm around him shifted, maneuvering them awkwardly through a tangle of branches.
"Everything's going to be all right," Zack's voice said, and the tone of it was such that Cloud almost believed it.
Night and day flashed by, meaningless sequences of shadow and light, forest and open sky, shifting as the world faded in and out. Zack was a solid reality under his arm, at his side, his voice familiar and painfully missed. Cloud drank in the sound of it, trying to focus on it, and he thought it might have helped-- the grey times seemed to come less often when Zack was speaking, even though that glass wall between them stayed as thick as ever.
"Midgar," he heard Zack say once, as they moved through thick grasses. "That's where we're going. And I know what you're thinking, but no, I haven't lost my mind. No more than usual, anyway." A grin, felt instead of seen, warm against the side of his head. "Think about it, it'll be the last place anyone'll look for us. And I know people there who can hide us for a while, until-- until you get better. We can figure out everything else after that."
At night, once, unseeing in the darkness, Zack settled him onto something that smelled of straw and dust, while animals called in the background. "I know it's not that hotel I kept promising you, but I guess it'll do for now." After a moment, he felt Zack's touch, hands warm on his skin, and lips on his own-- coaxing, teasing, bringing back a hundred vivid memories from the past. Cloud strained to respond, pushing at that barrier around him, screaming against it when it didn't budge. Leaving him lying in complete stillness and silence while his lover leaned over him and touched him gently.
Mere moments later, there were hot points of wetness on his face as Zack pulled away from him. "I'm sorry," he heard Zack whisper. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have done that, but I had to try. I won't do it again, I promise, not until-- please, Cloud--" Lips on his cheek, on his forehead, and more pinprick splatters of tears. "C'mon, kid, please wake up. Please--" The warm body slid down to rest against his shoulder, shaking faintly, and Cloud fought again to respond to the pleas pressed into his neck. Fought until the greyness came back and swallowed him whole, while frustrated tears that he couldn't cry felt like a branding iron behind his eyes.
The next time he knew anything, Zack's voice was cheerful in his ear, and the darkness was gone as if it had never existed.
He could feel changes in the air as they went-- he seemed more sensitive to them, when he missed the chunks of time in between. The cool sharpness of snow had quickly faded, giving way to the acrid stink of sand and heat. Then a salty dampness, bringing up memories of glittering waves and nausea. Then everything was green and dry again, for a short time, before the sense of green died away and left something flat and stale in its place.
It was then that Zack stopped, with a new tension in his arm where it wrapped around Cloud's waist, and an odd note in his voice when he spoke. "I guess they were expecting us after all."
Zack shifted, and the sense of motion changed; metal flashed as Zack drew his sword, and then Cloud was falling through the horribly familiar sounds of conflict, which seemed to go on forever as he could only lie there and listen. The next stretch of time was a muddle of jostling movement and flashing shapes, before he was set down carefully one last time, sprawled on his side with the metallic tang of dust in his nose.
Though some twist of chance, his head was turned just the right way to see the three dark shapes slipping through the shadows to one side, their noises lost in the background roar. They resolved into masked soldiers with long rifles in their hands-- horribly nostalgic, for one shocking moment-- and as he watched, they settled into position.
Some half-remembered instinct let him read their movements, calculate their aim, and the realization went through him in a jolt. Panic was a shrill ringing in his ears as he threw himself against the barriers holding him in, fighting against himself to move. The glass held, and he mentally gritted his teeth and tried again, and again, and again-- because damn it all, it was his body no matter what had been done to it, and it would obey him. Zack needed him, and therefore he would move. He would move.
The soldiers raised their guns.
Something snapped, hard enough to wash Cloud's vision momentarily red, but his body lurched up off the ground, moving in fits and starts as muscles flared on and off. He used momentum where finesse failed, ramming himself bodily into the three blurring forms before him, throwing them into each other. He heard bones break under the weight of his swings, and two out of the three went down and didn't move again. Cloud ended up sprawled across one body, moving in unsteady jerks as he tried to control his limbs. Sometimes when he tried, he couldn't make himself move at all; other times he seemed to overcompensate, moving too quickly and too far, and there didn't seem to be a way of telling which it would be at any given time.
The third soldier struggled out from under his comrade's corpse, came in too close and got in the way of one of Cloud's wild swings. Cloud watched in a kind of detached horror at the red dripping from his glove to the ground, and the grey started to creep over him again. But then there was a sound, and a sudden pain in his arm-- hot and sharp and enough to shock him out of it. He looked down to find the gouge of a bullet graze on his shoulder, looked up again to see more shapes coming through the trees.
It was instinct to call out a warning to Zack, though he wasn't sure his hoarse croak could be heard over the continued crashing around him. He wasn't even sure where his friend was, anymore, in the chaos. He managed to drag over one of the soldier's rifles-- put his hand right through the first one, crushing the stock and bending the metal, and his fingers shook as he reached for a second, gritting his teeth in an attempt for control. But once he had it in his hand, old training came back and guided his movements. He got himself propped up halfway, using his boot and the dead soldier in front of him to hold the barrel of the rifle in place, and fired as often as he could make his finger pull the trigger.
A shape rushed at him from the side-- he shifted as best he could, aimed and fired only to have the rifle click on empty. But then Zack was just there, rushing in with a wild yell and cutting through the man in one effortless swing.
Cloud must have blinked out again, because suddenly everything around him was silent. He was still lying where he fell, alone in the night, and for a moment he almost panicked-- but then relief welled sharp and acidic in his throat when his searching eyes made one of the shadows resolve into Zack, standing with his back to Cloud, shoulders moving rhythmically as he breathed.
Cloud tried to get up and go to him, tried to do something, but the panic and the adrenaline were fading and his energy was falling away with them, and the grey was there waiting for a chance to creep over him again. It was all he could just to sit and watch and breathe as Zack slowly, slowly turned to face him. Took a few steps forward, sword dragging heedlessly behind him. Sank to his knees, reaching out with unsteady fingers to touch Cloud's face. "Cloud?" he whispered.
With an effort, Cloud managed to twitch up his mouth in a grin, and force out a hoarse whisper. "Hey."
Zack let out a great gasp of breath and wrapped his arms around Cloud's shoulders, squeezing like he'd never let go. Cloud kept trying until he got his own arm to move up around Zack as well, squeezing back as best he could.
"Gods, you're awake." Zack pulled back, looking intently into Cloud's face, eyes bright and wide and hands moving restlessly through his hair. "You all right?"
Cloud opened his mouth, and on the first few tries nothing came out. "Things're-- weird," he eventually managed. "Nothing's really-- working right, yet."
Zack looked thoughtful, but just as quickly shook his head. "Doesn't matter. You're better-- you'll get better." Another explosive gust of air left him as his shoulders sagged, and he grinned incandescently. "Everything's going to be all right," he said, and this time it sounded like he believed it.
Cloud found himself nodding. "Sorry I didn't make it back sooner."
Zack snorted. "Only you could possibly be apologizing-- no, y'know, I don't think you could have picked a better time to wake up." He cast a quick look around, taking in the sprawled bodies, then visibly drew some mental calculations and swallowed hard. "Fuck. That was close."
Cloud just looked up at him and kept his smile. "Got your back, right?"
The grin came back. "Always." Zack leaned in and gently pressed his mouth over Cloud's, fierce and sweet. Just for a moment, everything else faded away-- they were just two boys again, sneaking out of barracks, with no worries beyond the vague threat of a broken curfew.
The sound of a helicopter, still distant but closing fast, prodded them apart. Zack helped Cloud upright, got him propped over his arm again, and it was easier now that he could move his feet, sometimes, to help. "Midgar's still our best bet. There's nowhere else to hide around here."
"If they're waiting," Cloud couldn't help but point out, "it'll be hard getting in."
The grin Zack turned on him was the same as Cloud remembered: bright and confident, like he'd never known doubt. "C'mon, between the two of us there's no way we won't make it."
And Cloud couldn't help but smile, even if his face still wasn't sure it wanted to. He closed his eyes briefly, resting against the strength of his friend's shoulder, then opened them again. The reflected light of the mako reactors was green against the clouds, making him shiver, but there was warmth at his side, and a voice still murmuring against his ear, and a hand at his back when he stumbled.
Getting into Midgar wouldn't be the end of it, he knew-- if someone thought they were important enough, the search would go on regardless. But somehow, he wasn't terribly worried.
Together, they would make it through.