-1((A/N: Thanks for not killing me, you guys. I really appreciate it. Dedicated to all my awesome fans who kept reviewing and reading even though it was kinda shitty. 'Specially hittocere, lemon, crazyartist, niji, and Jade. 33
Also, tons upon tons of thanks to Xiaa (http://xiaa. who allowed me to use her image as my thumbnail on y!gallery. Also she's the bomb and I love her dearly and will one day convince her to marry me at Disney World just so I can get married to a girl at Disney World.
I actually did a teensy bit of research, but if I'm mistaken and you catch it, let me know.))
"Excellent." Hojo's lips curled into a smile and he pushed the wire-framed glasses closer to his face as he went over the file just delivered to him. "Yes, he is an even better candidate than I had hoped." He let out a short cackle, setting the folder aside. "And you informed Strife?"
"They've already been reunited." Reeve confirmed, feeling a certain discomfort as he sat in the stiff chair in front of Hojo's desk. This kind of work really wasn't all that new to him. His relationship with Cloud and the others had always been one of betrayal, yet slivers of guilt pricked through. This could be avoided by reminding himself just how much he was making off of this deal.
"Perfect...perfect." the scientist let out another one of his cackles, punctuating with a fist onto the desk, "all is going as planned. Strife's body is young and strong, the perfect host," how many times had Reeve heard the explanation? Yet, he didn't dare interrupt, "And Fair... his heart is stronger than any other's, in more than one sense." And finally, his most important ingredients, "Sephiroth's body has been stirring. His soul is weak and his conscience nearly non-existent. I can form it as I like." another laugh. Reeve had to steel himself not to cringe at it. "And the mind. MY mind. I will be unstoppable. Bound together by Jenova's cells, the reunion is already well underway. You administered the serum, correct?" his joviality ceased for a moment as Hojo's eyes locked with Reeve's, suddenly harsh and serious.
"I personally injected the Soldier. Cloud's was slipped through a drink. The effects should take as soon as Sephiroth is near enough for the Jenova cells to react."
"Perfect. Before long, I will have my reunion."
"Perfect." the whisper slipped through Hojo's lips as his cold, gloved fingers traced a line down his patient's jawbone, resting on his neck. A grin broke out as the fingers pressed firmly to the unconscious man's carotid artery, counting the strong, steady pulse. "Utterly perfect."
Hojo's plan couldn't have been going better. Three tables stood in a row in the middle of the room- Cloud's now fully paralyzed body furthest to the right, Zack, who he stood above now, in the center, and Sephiroth furthest left. Honey-colored eyes, wide with enjoyment, swept over the body laid in front of him. All three were completely nude, the only exception being a cloaking of monitors attached to each, and a thin covering below the waist for Cloud and Sephiroth. A cackle broke from his throat as his fingers slid further, pressing firmly into the soft skin concealing the prized possession he would soon be taking from his subject.
"Such a strong heart...it will be of great service." he spoke to the all-but lifeless Zack, leaning close to his ear only to let out another of his screeching laughs. A mask had already been fixed over his face, and a set of surgical instruments prepared and set up near the bed, "I hope you've made your peace." he added, reaching over to a machine and twisting a dial, ensuring Zack's continued sleep.
He took the scalpel from the tray, gripping it firmly as he traced the path of the incision lightly down Zack's chest, from the base of his collarbone to the top of his navel, a thin crimson line of blood springing forth as the blade slid across the skin. Hojo noted, though did not remedy the fact that the steady heart rate had jumped considerably on the screen near the bed. As long as Zack was sedated, his comfort mattered little.
The blade started again at the base of his neck, this time slicing in deep, cutting through thick layers of flesh. Hojo pushed the blade on down, working easily through the resistance. It wasn't until he had dragged the blade a good four inches that he stopped abruptly, interrupted by less-than-comfortable sensation of a pistol being jammed into the back of his neck.
"How are you feeling?" Vincent would have been perfectly happy to answer Reeve's question with a fist tot he nose, though he resisted the urge, letting out little more than a low grunt. Reeve had, after all, ambushed Vincent and Tifa in the hall as they left Cloud's room. Vincent wasn't sure exactly what he'd been hit with, but when he came to he was certain he took it to the back of the skull, and that Tifa had too- still unconscious on the bed next to him.
"What the hell is going on here, Reeve?" It was hard for Vincent not to show the betrayal he felt. After all the help he'd provided to Reeve and his WRO, this was his reward? And if Reeve was trying to take the two out, it wasn't a far leap to figure that he was somehow involved with the whole mess with Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth.
"It's Hojo. I don't know what the hell he's doing, exactly, but-"
"Hojo?" Vincent interrupted, eyes fixing on Reeve's, "How is he-?"
"I don't know. But I know that he wants to use Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth...something to do with a reunion...making him into some sort of god..." Vincent's eyes narrowed as he forced himself to swing his legs over the bed, slowly rising to his feet.
"And you know all of this because..." he prompted, quickly turning so that he blocked the way between Reeve and the door. History should have spoken for itself, but Vincent gave the man the benefit of the doubt once already. He wasn't about to let the rat escape before answering his questions.
"...I was working for him." Reeve admitted quietly, eyes shifting away from Vincent's, "but listen, there's really not any time for you to get upset."
"I won't need much time." Vincent replied coolly, but let the younger spy go on.
"You have to get to him quick. The plan is to remove Zack's heart, then put it into Cloud. I... just get there before it's too late, alright?" The shame was apparent in his eyes as the flittered towards Vincent's, then away again.
"Just make sure you're well hidden by the time I finish with him.
"I'd suggest you don't move a muscle." Hojo's body tensed. That voice... Vincent Valentine. He cursed himself for thinking he could get off so easily. Reeve. He should have known better than to trust him. He had little time to consider any of this, though, as he heard a low clicking, the hammer of the gun being pulled back.
"Now, now...it'd be best if you just calmed down..." Hojo let out a nervous laugh, raising his hands weakly above his head, scalpel still clutched tightly.
"Drop it." Vincent commanded, jabbing the gun again and slamming a hand onto the doctor's shoulder. He lowered the gun slowly, a mistake he would soon recognize as Hojo, in turn, lifted his elbow sharply, knocking the weapon away long enough for him to turn around, slashing harshly across Vincent's face.
"Wrong move." it was literally a growl ripping from his throat, and Hojo only realized his err upon noticing the sudden glow fierce in his crimson eyes. The blood dripping from his cheek was further contrasted as his skin seemed to take on a blue cast, the transformation already underway.
"Look, hey...uh...c'mon now..." his attempts at a bargain fell on deaf ears.
"How're ya feeling?" Zack's voice was soft as he ran his fingers softly across Cloud's forehead. He had broken out with a fever before they ever arrived at icicle in for the training exercises and was ordered to spend the day in bed. Now he lay in the heated cabin, heavy comforter pulled up to his chin, shaking badly even as his temperature continued to climb.
"I'm gonna die." Cloud groaned, curling his knees even closer to his chest, assuming a fetal position. He let out a whimper, a fresh wave of stabbing pain shooting through his abdomen. The pain was what really kept him down- a fever was easily ignored, as was the mild headache. The pain, however, was nearly unbearable.
"Don't be stupid." Zack spoke firmly, edging his chair closer to Cloud's bed, "it's probably just a flu. They sent for a doctor anyway." It was easier to scold Cloud and try to brush his condition off than to face the possibility that something could really be wrong. The boy's skin was pale and clammy, though his temperature was through the roof. Zack couldn't help but become anxious. They'd called for the physician while still en route and now, hours later, no word. He would have made a comment, but as soon as he opened his mouth to do so, a small woman burst through the door, carrying beneath her arm a large leather satchel. She wore a white coat, like something he imagined doctors in a hospital must be outfitted with, and had thick rimmed glasses that slid down her nose and fogged instantly in the warmth of the room. She was short and wide, with eyes a size too big for her face and a mess of shortly cropped brown hair soaked with snow.
"This is the sick boy?" she asked, shuffling across the floor until she stood next to Zack.
"Yeah..." he rose from his chair, gently shaking her hand when extended to him. "His fever's still the same, and he has a pretty bad stomach ache."
"Pretty bad!?" Cloud grumbled between groans, "unbearable." he corrected with a tiny whimper. The sound made Zack's stomach tighten. While he hoped Cloud was being melodramatic, the pain the boy seemed to be in hit him deep either way.
The doctor moved close to Cloud, setting her bag on the chair where Zack had sat. She pulled down the blanket to his waist, revealing that he was, at least that far, already undressed. A slight redness rose to Zack's cheeks as he looked Cloud over- his chest expanding quickly and deeply with each breath, trails of sweat running down from his hairline and streaking his chest. He couldn't help but notice the way his lips trembled as he let out breath, or how he had to lick his lips from time to time to keep them from chapping completely.
'Stop!' he had to force himself to look away. What was he doing thinking about Cloud that way right now? He was sick and miserable and suffering, and all Zack could think of was how badly he would have liked to take the boy. He stopped himself again, cursing under his breath and actually closing his eyes as he heard the doctor command Cloud to do this or that. Take a deep breath here, explain what felt there, open his mouth widely, keep the thermometer under his tongue. His eyes shot open, though, as Cloud let out loud, pained screech.
"What's wrong!?" Zack demanded quickly, close to his side again at once.
"She fuckin' jammed her hand into me! Psycho!" despite his harsh words, the doctor seemed to take it in stride, standing and grabbing the thermometer from his mouth.
"I'm calling for an ambulance." she announced, "It looks like appendicitis. See you in a bit." And with that, she strode from the room, saying it all as if there were nothing wrong at all.
"What!?" Both called after her, but with no response. Zack sat on the bed, though, close enough for Cloud to grab onto, tears in his huge blue eyes.
"They're going to cut me open..." he whispered, lower lip trembling. His hands gripped onto Zack's arm, hands cold as ice, "I don't want them inside me." Zack's eyes closed slightly, his heart aching at Cloud's fear as he pulled the boy close.
"It's gonna be fine, Cloud. Don't worry about it." he whispered into his ear, fingers running through his sweat-matted hair.
"Promise?" Cloud whispered into his chest, so low that he wasn't sure Zack would hear him.
"Of course." he responded with a slight nod, "Just hang in there, alright? Everything will be okay." He spoke without considering the words, doing anything he could think of to calm his ailing love.
"shhh." he put a finger over Cloud's lips before he had the chance to protest. "I'd never lie to you. I love you. And I swear, no matter what, as long as I'm here, nothing will EVER happen to you. I promise."
"...Cloud..." the word rolled from Zack's lips before he even realized it was a dream- a memory, that their situation right now was far more dire. The first thing he noticed was that the pain once plaguing him had changed completely. While he could feel his heart thumping deeply in his chest, it brought no pain; Rather, it felt like someone had indeed sliced his chest open...at least half way.
"You're awake." The voice that greeted him sounded grave, somehow drained. His eyes forced themselves open, then squinted shut again when greeted by a familiar, far-too-bright light. When he was able to focus, he noticed Vincent at his side, slumped in a chair. Blood stained his face, and his eyes appeared pink, slightly swollen. Were it anyone else he'd swear the man was crying. When he glanced on the other side, he saw Sephiroth, sitting hunched forward on the other table, unblinking, face damp. What the hell was going on? Looking again, he saw past Vincent to Cloud.
"This serum will negate the effects of the poisons I administered before." Reeve explained, handing Vincent the vial and syringe, "Zack...will probably be out for a while still. He was under an anesthetic when you came upon Hojo. The other two should awaken within minutes." he went on, watching as Vincent went to Cloud first, pumping a dose of the liquid into his veins, then went on to the other two, pausing a moment before Sephiroth.
"He deserves to atone with pain." he growled in a low voice.
"You know as well as anyone that Sephiroth hasn't been in control of that body in years." Vincent finished the injection before Reeve was forced to do it for him.
"I want to know why this keeps happening." Vincent's voice was low, somehow defeated. With the exception of Cloud, all of these men had been dead before, most of them more than once. How was it, then, that no matter what they did, they kept coming back?
"According to Hojo, it's all part of the Reunion theory. So long as the majority of Jenova's cells continue to survive, their hosts are, more or less, invincible." he paused for a moment, Cloud stirring in his bed. When he seemed to go back to sleep, he went on, "These four- Cloud, Sephiroth, Zack, and Hojo, are the only known carriers of any substantial amount of the cells. Those with trace amounts will die as any other and will not return to life. However, so long as there is enough of a presence, Jenova will regenerate herself." Vincent frowned at this explanation.
"But Zack, Sephiroth, Hojo...they were all dead. That means-"
"-That I'm the primary carrier." Cloud's voice startled both Reeve and Vincent. They looked over silently as Cloud sat up in bed, pulling away the bandages that hid his once again seeing eyes, an expression of guilt overwhelming his features. "I'm the reason that, no matter how hard we try, nothing is enough. So long as I'm alive,"
"Cloud..." Vincent tried to interrupt, but to no avail.
"So will be Sephiroth and Hojo. And so long as They're alive, Jenova's influence on them will continue to thrive, and our safety will never exist." Sephiroth had sat up by now too, watching Cloud and considering his words.
"Then why can't he fight the influence?" Reeve spoke up now, turning to look at Sephiroth, who said nothing.
"It's not that simple. She manifests herself in you, feeds on you, and controls you. Once she has taken control even once... you know your body is her's forever. Even when you are you... there's always that little something in the back of your mind, or the front with Sephiroth, that says, 'Never forget- you belong to me'." There was no response for a long moment. Vincent looked at Reeve, then Sephiroth, then back at Cloud. Finally, he spoke up;
"Then what do we do?"
"There's no question, really." Cloud's head turned downwards, his voice soft, "The threat... must be eliminated."
"No!" Reeve spoke up quickly this time, head shooting up as his body came to a stand before he realized what he was doing, "There has to be another way!" After all was said and done, Cloud was the cause of all the problems? He couldn't swallow it. There was no way fate could be so cruel.
"Stop." Cloud spoke firmly, his face becoming serious, "I've been thinking for a while... since I learned Sephiroth might be back, and this really confirms it. I'm the cause of all these problems. It's time for me to step up and end it once and for all." while his voice was strong, his hands trembled as he gripped the end of the bed and his heart raced a mile a minute. He didn't want to die. That much was for sure. However, more than he desired his own life, he desired Zack's.
It was a fair trade.
"What...No... NO!" Zack wasn't sure how he made it from his own bed over to the one where Cloud's lifeless body lay. "This isn't true! He's not dead! HE'S NOT!" he sobbed, crying out loudly as his hand wrapped around Cloud's cold one. He pulled away almost instinctively lashing out and knocking over the IV pole and monitor set up next to the bed, causing a magnificent crash. He drove his fist into the wall, screaming again, a low guttural cry that tore itself from deep within him.
"How could you let this HAPPEN!?" His fingers were wet with blood, last remnants of life that came from Cloud's wrist as he had taken his hand for just a moment. "WHAT DID YOU FUCKING DO!?" his voice was already rough and hoarse as he lashed towards Sephiroth this time, only to be caught in the general's arms, pulled close even as he punched into his stomach, writhed in his arms, screaming for moments more before his entire body let out a shudder and he broke into deep sobs, letting his body collapse into Sephiroth's.
"No..." he whimpered, over and over again. No matter what he said, what he did, Cloud was gone. Cloud had died- he fell asleep, left his friend defenseless and alone, and now he was dead. Gone forever. None of it would click together for him. The cold, half-dried blood on his wrist... Cloud had done this to himself? He couldn't have. It couldn't be possible. This couldn't be real. It had to be a dream. A nightmare. He would wake up soon, everything would be okay. Or at least Cloud wouldn't be gone. All the same, he found himself clinging to the silent General. When had Sephiroth become so comforting to him? But as he thought back, his memory foggy, his entire mind apparently refusing to function properly, he could scarcely remember a time Sephiroth, when in his right mind, hadn't been there for him.
"This isn't real..." he tried saying it again, but his head still pounded, he still felt like he was covered in ice, and Cloud still lay on the bed across the room from him, lifeless. As his trembling subsided, Zack pulled away from Sephiroth, returning to Cloud's side.
"What did you do?" he whispered into his friend's ear, tears still rolling down his cheeks, "What kind of damn fool thing did you do?" he repeated, but this time found himself crawling silently into the bed beside him, pulling the body close. It was something like holding a life-sized rag doll in his arms- cold and unresponsive, lacking that warmth that came with life. He laid next to him, running his fingers through the soft blond hair, tracing the silent features of his face, down his neck and across his collar. He gazed into the just-barely open eyes, stunned how dim they had grown, the mako-induced glow a distant memory. The breath caught in his throat as, by the second, the reality of the situation sunk in.
He let his hand come to a rest on the chest that would no longer rise and fall with breath, over a heart that would never again beat.
"Cloud." he whispered into his friend's- his lover's ear once more, "I love you."
"Don't you think you should at least wait until he's awake?" Reeve's voice was low as he set a new bottle and syringe on the table next to the bed Cloud sat on. Vincent and Sephiroth had been forced from the room, and Reeve would be sent out soon enough.
"He'd only try to stop me." Cloud replied, checking the bottle before setting it back on the table. Adenosine. The drug was commonly used to correct heart arrhythmias, though with the dose he would inject, it would stop his heart completely within minutes.
"That's my point." Reeve muttered in a low voice, meeting Cloud's eyes again. "You don't have to do this, Cloud. Listen to me,"
"No, Reeve." He spoke firmly, "I do have to do this. Now please... I have to make my peace." Reeve seriously considered fighting him- knocking the guy out, making sure he was somewhere protected, far away from anything that he could use to hurt himself, but what was the point? Deep down, just as Sephiroth and Vincent had recognized in themselves, he knew that Cloud was right.
This was the only way.
Cloud watched Reeve leave the room before crossing to the door and closing it behind him. He gazed at the floor as he headed to Zack's bed, grabbing the discarded scalpel that lay near what remained of Hojo's body. It was soaked in blood- Vincent's, Hojo's, Zack's? It didn't matter. Here he was, standing completely naked in a hospital room, about to kill himself. What did it matter if one of the instruments of his demise was dirtied?
He paused, though, at Zack's bed, guilt surging through him as he looked over Zack's calm, resting features. He steeled himself, not wanting to imagine the reaction the man would have when he awoke to find that the man he had called his love was dead.
"I'm sorry." Cloud's voice was barely above a whisper as he leaned forward, touching his lips softly to Zack's, a tear falling from his cheek onto the peacefully sleeping beauty. He reached to the table, where a thick folder lie, pen clipped to the outside. Making his way to the bed- his deathbed- he combed through the pages, finding an empty yellow page torn from a notepad near the back.
He took the pen and began to write. He had to explain what he was doing, even if it wouldn't help. Even if Zack would still, over time, hate him for what he had to do, at least he could explain himself. He filled the paper in a small, hurried scrawl, tossing the folder and pen away as he finished. He folded the paper neatly, tucking it halfway beneath his pillow as he lay back on the bed, pulling the cover up to his waist, fingers trembling.
He took the scalpel, surveying his wrist. He traced with his fingers first the vein running down from the base of his hand. He swallowed deeply, pressing the blade to the tip, closing his eyes as he pressed deeply, only opening them when he felt the sensation of warm blood running down his arm. He traced the line deeply, scarcely able to breath as he finally pulled back. There...one down. A drowsiness was already setting in, which he took as his signal to continue, before he botched the entire process.
He switched the scalpel to his left hand now, again dragging the sharp blade in line with the vein. Blood seemed to pour, staining his arms, dripping onto the sheets. Yet, for the first time since he had awoken, he felt calm. At ease. Peaceful, even.
"I'm...very sorry." he whispered, glancing over at Zack again as he took the syringe and filled it from the bottle. He pushed the needle hard into the developed muscle of his left pectoral, sliding it deeply between the ribs until he felt a sharp pinch, hard enough to make him gasp as his heart skipped a beat. He closed his eyes now, depressing the plunger fully before quickly pulling the needle out, letting it fall to the ground. Already, he could feel the life slipping from him as he lay back on the pillow.
The warmth was leaving his body through his wrists, his heart, before much like a jackhammer, was coming slowly to a halt. He gazed to the side again, watching Zack who slept perfectly still, now convinced that his last image should be one of beauty.
"I love you."
"You shouldn't spend so much time out here. You'll get sick." Zack didn't respond to Sephiroth's warning, rather remained where he sat cross-legged on the frozen ground, staring at the cold granite stone that bore the name of his love.
"I'll come in soon. Just give me a little longer." he finally said, not looking back. A sigh escaped the general's lips, but he didn't protest. He knew the pains of a broken-heart, one that only got worse every day, and as much as he hated Zack for leaving him with this curse, he couldn't bear to worsen the man's pain by voicing his own.
"Just don't catch pneumonia." His breath hung in the air as Sephiroth gave the younger man a warning before heading out of the churchyard, cringing only slightly as he had to walk through what was all but home to the woman he'd murdered.
"Cloud." Zack leant forward, running his cold fingers over the engraved name. In his free hand, he held a piece of yellow paper, torn from a note pad, folded neatly as it had been when he came across it. It never left his pocket save when he felt the need to read it- to remind himself of the man he lost.
Another piece of paper he held along in his hand, this one white, borrowed from the fax machine in Tifa's bar. He spent the better half of the day writing it, and now al that was left was to deliver it. Another message to the one he loved. He'd written at least a dozen, and thrown each away. It wasn't until now, half a year later, that he finally felt the words were right, that he could leave his proper goodbye.
"I'm so sorry that this took so long." he whispered, setting the piece of paper onto the top of the marker, putting a stone on top of it to keep it in place, "I hadn't forgotten, I swear. I just needed it to be right." he went on, putting on a slightly pathetic smile. He leaned in again, pressing his lips softly to the memorial, sitting this way for a moment before finally standing, only to be greeted by a gale of icy wind stinging his now teary eyes.
He turned, looking back at the marker again before heading through out of the small churchyard. He dug his hands into his pockets, looking up at the gray skies. From above, almost the moment he gazed into the dark heavens, large heavy flakes of snow began to fall, one after another, clinging to him, melting the moment they touched his skin.
Zack stopped once again before continuing back towards the bar he now called his home. He stared up, unblinking, whispering as the wind took his voice;
"I love you."
I know that you hate me for this, and I'm sorry.
Reeve and Vincent can fill you in on the details. I don't have the time to waste on that. What I want to tell you is that I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I'm too much of a coward to wait and tell you this to your face. I'm sorry that there's no other way to save you. Most of all, I'm sorry that I've hurt you.
You called me your lover. I wanted that to be true- more than that to be true, even. I want you to remember me as a friend and a companion, a lover, and a soulmate. But I can't ask you to do that. You can remember me as a coward, a quitter, someone you hated, and someone you still do. I just ask...that you remember me as something. Please don't forget me.
And for all of the horrible things I've done, and that you will remember me for...please recall just one more thing.
I love you, Zack.
As much as it hurts me to say it, and it will hurt you to read it, I love you.
I'm sorry for that above all else.
((( What a depressing ending. Once again, thank you to EVERYONE who followed this story all the way through. You guys are the best. Just two little things.
ONE- I'm changing my FFNet name in a few days to "CloZackPASSION" so if you get weird author alerts or something, that's me. Also, if you wanna read more things when I post them, that's me. hehe.
TWO- For any of you who understand the reference in the title of this story, you should know well enough that you have something to look forward to. That's all I'll say on that. 3 CloTi/CloZack/Crimsonbutterfly/Longislandteaparty))