A/N: Excuse the James Bond reference… It just kinda happened and I didn't have the heart to take it out. Let's just imagine James Bond exists in the world of FF7, shall we? Thanks to everyone who reviewed! This will be the last chapter. As in the others, italics are for flashbacks and inner thoughts.
Step 3 – Letting Go and Living Free
He's standing on the edge of the cliff looking out at the skyline of Midgar, hands in his pockets and hair blowing against his cheeks. There is a buster sword in front of him, point pressed into the ground and blade rusted, but it still looks imposing and powerful, like the man that once owned it. Zack.
He knows his eyes have been open all this time but it feels as if a blanket has been lifted from his head and he's seeing for the first time in days. There is bright sunlight forcing him to squint as he lifts his chin, heart pumping faster than it should because he knows something bad has happened. Fingers press into the ground, dirt grinding up under his nails as he claws his way forward, toward the dark shape at the edge of the cliff, arms stiff and legs numb from days of not using them. It's quiet, so quiet, and he feels tense waiting for a sound, for Zack's voice to fill the air. It doesn't. And when he finally makes it to the dark shape on the cliff edge, he sees lifeless blue eyes that look unspeakably dim without the familiar glow of mako.
Cloud breathes in suddenly, not realizing that he had been pressing his lips closed against the air. He clears his throat, shifts his weight, looks down at his black boots and then up at the sword again. "You're the last one," he says finally.
Nothing happens. The sun is high overhead, bright just like it was that day. A sigh slips through his lips and he tries again to speak. "You're the last one in my head that I haven't been able to get rid of."
He winces, not liking the way the words sound. "I don't mean it like that. I mean, it's not that I want to get rid of you. I just…"
His brain feels frozen, slipping backwards to the back of a pickup truck, bumps in the road and a cranky old man. Then Zack's face, close to his: "We're friends right?" Telling him that he'll never leave. Telling him that they'll stick together.
"I need to let you go Zack." He shakes his head, like he's trying to jar the words out of himself. "I told you that I'd live life for the both of us…"
A pause. A breath. Another gust of wind slapping his face. "But I can't."
He feels the sweat on his palms and rubs his hands against his pants, letting his chin drop so that he can squint at the ground. "Remember how you dragged me along after you got me out of Hojo's lab? I feel like that's what I've been doing with you… only…" Looking up, he regards the sword in front of him, sun reflecting off the metal and wind whistling through its materia slots. "You don't need me to do that, do you? You're not like I was then. You're okay."
His gaze travels out to the view beyond the cliff, toward the dirt road that lines its base and leads back toward Midgar. "I'm finally ready, Zack. I want a family of my own, and I think I'm finally ready for it. Remember that girl Tifa I was so lovesick over?"
He smiles now, finally able to manage it, but the expression fades and he feels the downward pull on his lips that he somehow feels unable to control. "I'm gonna miss you, man," he says, backing away. The next words come almost as a whisper: "Goodbye, Zack."
And then he turns, swinging his leg over his motorcycle as the rumbling of the engine cuts through the air. He knows it's the last time he will ever set foot on this cliff, but he thinks also that it's okay. Everything is okay now. As he winds the bike down the road past the cliff, he looks up one last time, and for a moment, for the space between blinks, he sees a gray wolf standing there, watching him from beside Zack's sword.
The cliff is far behind when he finally takes out his phone, one hand on the grip of the handlebars, the other pressing the speed-dial.
Two rings and then her voice. "7th Heaven. How may I help you?"
"I can think of a few ways." He's smirking as he says it.
Tifa laughs lightly. "What happened to the innocent, bashful boy from Nibelheim?"
Cloud shrugs, even though he knows she can't see the movement. "I guess you're a bad influence on me."
There's a pause on the phone and he knows she's trying to think of a good comeback. "Oh, is that it?" she says finally, using a standard, pre-packaged line. Maybe she needs more time to think, but he knows she'll get him back later.
"Yup," he says simply. "Is Marlene there?" He'd thought of asking for Denzel, but his mission seemed better suited for a girl rather than a rebellious pre-teen boy.
"Sure, hold on."
He waits, noticing the green of the foliage beside the road as he does. It looks out of place as he remembers how stark and lifeless everything used to be this close to Midgar. There are dandelions sprouting up through the cracks in the dirt and he thinks that Aeris and Zack would be proud to see how everything turned out. He smiles.
"Cloud?" It's Marlene's voice.
"Hey. I have a mission for you," he says.
"What's the payment?"
Cloud nearly chokes. "Payment?" Seriously, when did these kids become so plotting?
"Yeah. Like James Bond. He always gets some kind of payment when he goes on a mission."
"This isn't that kind of mission."
She's still talking like she hasn't heard him. "How about a shoe phone. That would be fun, wouldn't it Cloud? Then I could just take off my shoe and call you randomly throughout the day."
Oh, please, no. Denzel might be in a rebellious, "I'm not a kid anymore," stage, but Marlene is in the "I'm going to talk until I suffocate," stage. Between the two of them, he can barely keep up. "Listen Marlene, can you just find out what ring size Tifa is for me?"
"What?" He doesn't expect such a quick answer. "How do you know?"
He thinks he can hear her gloating over the phone. "Lesson number one. Be prepared for anything. Denzel's been teaching me."
He almost laughs. These kids are something else. "Hey, don't tell Tifa I asked you that, okay?"
"But she's standing right here listening."
The blood rushes to his face and he has to swallow quickly to keep from coughing. "Marlene…" His voice is tight and tense.
"Bye Cloud! And remember my shoe phone!"
The line goes dead. He holds the phone to his ear a few seconds longer, jaw loose and eyes blinking.
Those kids are really something else. He wonders vaguely how much worse his own kids will be one day and then figures he's got more immediate concerns.
Like finding a ring.