Two days had passed in a bewildered and frustrated haze for Zack. Two days without the reassurance of Cloud by his side, bereft of the knowledge of where he was and that he was safe.
Two bizarre days ago Cloud had announced that his squad had been selected to help out with a simple clean-up operation. Zack hadn't really known what to say to this seemingly out-of-the-blue announcement, as Cloud was still officially recorded as being on medical leave, and would therefore not be participating. Not quite sure why his friend was telling him this, Zack had responded with something neutral and perfunctory, he couldn't remember the exact words.
He should have known better than to make assumptions where Cloud was concerned. He should have trusted his instincts when he had felt a tiny part of him seriously doubt that his friend's piece of news was just that.
Because then Cloud had told him very quietly - head down, not wanting to meet Zack's eyes, as if afraid of seeing disappointment there – but very definitely, that he was going to accompany the rest of his squad.
He had then left to make preparations without once looking back or giving Zack the chance to respond.
When questioned as to what manner of mission Cloud's platoon had been assigned, the general's words had been an almost eerie echo of Cloud's.
"It is a simple clean-up operation. The retrieval unit are to travel to the outskirts, where there have been reported sightings of the latest creatures to escape Hojo's confines." The faintest trace of distaste and pity, unusually tempered by a palpable air of distraction. "Cloud's squad are to assist."
At best, Zack left his friend's office no less disturbed than before.
Zack heard no word from Cloud. Whether they had been gone a day or a month, there had always been some form of contact between them when missions got in the way.
Zack's PHS, lying always in his pocket or on his bedside table, remained bereft of the call that mattered.
Five days later – two behind the estimated schedule – Cloud's unit returned with unease in their minds and clear on their faces, and numbered one less than they had departed with.
His eyes were closed, and were the only part of his face to be left unscathed.
Just like the rest of his too-pale body, it was marred with jarring purplish lines running jaggedly from left to right.
Nobody ever realises just how dark even the palest of skin is, until they see it in death. It was the universal shade of white that meant wrong, not right, not okay. That caused something buried very deep down in every human being, in every living creature, to stir in protest. To scream 'wrong.'
Zack knew that it was screaming the same thing to the man beside him.
And yet Cloud stood there perfectly still, not a muscle in his limbs or in his pale - but not too pale, no, no, not too pale, that was all that mattered – but certainly too-still face, as he looked down at the corpse of the officer lying on the smooth, metallic slab of the mortuary.
He wanted to take Cloud by the arm and move him gently but ever so certainly away from this place. But something told him that this was not the right thing to do at this point. Something told him to wait.
And then Cloud shuddered, a tiny ripple that tripped from neck to toes, making his body convulse almost imperceptibly, and his lips – red, startlingly red in the face of the two shades of white on the two faces that Zack watched – trembled with the rest of his body before twitching outward in what could have been a horrified smile.
The well-established silence shattered so shockingly at those words that he would have frightened himself if he hadn't been agonising over the words in his head all evening.
The boy turned his head to look at Zack with an expression of shell-shocked confusion, and utter calm.
"Cloud, nobody would blame you if," Zack faltered a while, his ever so gentle voice trailing off for a moment, despite the mental rehearsal, "if you...had anything at all to do with this."
And wasn't that just the icing on top of this disgustingly sour cake. He knew that he had to say those words, but wasn't quite sure how, because he wasn't quite sure how Cloud could have had anything to do with it. The man had been mauled to death my Hojo's creations. And those things answered to no one. You got too close and you ended up like that corpse. But still. The man was Cloud's rapist. And by all accounts, Cloud had been right there. The closest to the carnage.
He hated to even think it, but he had to.
"Cloud, I promise you that I understand. But I need you to tell me now. Did you have anything at all to do with this?"
The fog of calm cleared with a snap as clear as the one that broke Cloud's voice when he spoke, as tears traced their old tracks back down his cheeks.
"No." Quavering, fragile and high, a young voice, coated with the thinnest of glass to protect it, which was riddled with a spider web of cracks. "I hated him. But I ran to help him. It's what you do. I couldn't just do nothing." The tears ran faster and the cracks spread further, in foreboding contrast to the statement of innocence that Zack did not doubt to be true. Rapidly breaking.
"But I can't help but wonder," Cloud leaned closer to whisper, just so much shattered glass, "if I couldn't have run just a little bit faster."
"Just who the hell was he, anyway Seph?"
The words were spoken quietly as Zack stared out of the large window overlooking the parade grounds. Where the outline of a black body bag on a stretcher was being loaded into a truck, due to be transported home for burial.
He leaned his head against the edge of the window, glass of whiskey in hands, courtesy of Sephiroth, and marvelled at the chaos and turmoil that one man – one single lapse in morals, one single chemical imbalance, whatever the fuck had made the guy rape an innocent subordinate – could cause.
Cloud had had something taken from him that he could never regain. The shame, the fear and the pain, the feeling of filth on his skin may never fade from his memory. Tabula Rasa was a nice concept, but it only worked once. The man's hands had marred that blank slate, marred Cloud's skin, as surely as paint on canvas. Even if you whitewashed over it, the brush strokes would always be faintly visible, lurking beneath that fake purity.
And Zack's heart had sank when he saw the faces of Cloud's platoon when they had returned that day. Twitching and fidgeting, unease had rippled through them, no-one willing to look the blond in the eye. Pity – because Zack was certain that somehow they knew, or at least suspected, and he didn't want to know how they knew.
Shame; shame for not speaking up earlier, shame because they didn't know what to say to the army recruit that had been raped. Men weren't raped. Military men were never raped.
Excruciating discomfort, unwilling distrust, because although they had seen Cloud, had seen for themselves that he hadn't actually pushed the officer in the path of those creatures, they could never be quite sure.
Automatic alienation, because although they softly whispered that they would probably want to kill anyone who did the same to them – and had Zack imagined a few faces twisting bitterly at those whispered words? – a person had still been killed, and who wanted to room with the would-be prime suspect?
And although Zack hated himself for thinking it, there was the man himself.
He had to have been an innocent boy once. He must have had friends who were now sitting in the same state of shock as he; he must have had parents who were sitting at home silently wondering where it had all gone wrong. The moment he had been motivated – for whatever reason – to violate another person, he had thrown away everything that he had ever worked for, and ultimately, his life.
Such a fucking waste.
And it left everybody it had touched reeling for purchase, not knowing what to think.
Zack was glad that the man was dead. And yet, deeper down than he cared to shine a light, he was ashamed of himself for thinking that. He had never imagined he would be glad for anyone's death.
But every time he thought of the man's parents, his friends, his life before he had surrendered to the monster inside – and he did think of them, oh how he thought of them – he would immediately think of poor, fucked up Cloud, and any sympathy would die in its infancy, drowned by the swells of fury.
Ashamed though he was, he tried not to think of frail Mrs Strife, sitting alone in that small home, flipping through the pictures of her little boy that had marched off to war. Wanting desperately to bring him home, to never let him go, but wanting even more desperately for her son to do what he had always wanted to do. To allow him to chase his dream. So he would be happy.
It was too painful to think of the woman whose voice he overheard on the phone, filled with such delight whenever Cloud called from the sanctuary of Zack's rooms.
The woman whose voice wavered at the end of each phone call, and who Zack was almost certain began to cry quietly after each call, because her son's words assured her that he was fine, but his voice told a different story, and she knew that her own son couldn't even talk to his mother anymore. He doubted that it would be much consolation to tell her that Cloud loved her more than anyone else. She knew that already. But it wouldn't take away the hurt.
"I've been concentrating so much on Cloud, and what happened, that I've forgotten all about the bastard himself," Zack murmured, quietly incredulous, "so who was he? You wouldn't tell me his name before. So now it's all over, who the fuck was he?"
Sephiroth looked over from the opposite side of the room, quiet as always, and Zack hadn't thought it possible for his friend to be even more somber.
"He was a member of Hojo's cleanup crew."
Zack closed his eyes and smiled mirthlessly. If he had to put bets on any squad being the most likely to be so screwed up, his money would have been on Hojo's servants. Cleanup crew was too polite. Their job consisted of tracking down and killing any creatures that had been unfortunate enough to end up in Hojo's care, and fortunate enough to escape.
The cleanup crew were charged with ending that good fortune. Although with some of the things that escaped from Hojo's lab, you had to wonder whether death was all that unfortunate.
Still. He had accompanied the cleanup crew once. The officer in charge had leaned over the already dying experiment, finally quiet after the last few moments of snarling and whining, and had fired two unnecessary rounds into the creature's head. He couldn't see the man's face beneath the visor, but he didn't think that it had been an act of mercy.
He was too tired to wander whether it was the same man.
And some part of him didn't have to wander at all. He'd seen the file.
Sephiroth stirred from the other side of the room.
"You should return to Cloud. Your support is everything to him."
Zack smiled faintly.
And despite the bleakness that threatened as he took one last look at the body bag in the truck below, he felt some measure of hope for the future.
Things had come to a head. It may have been cold and stormy at the top of the mountain, but at least there wasn't any higher to climb.
He should go back to Cloud.
Thanks ever so much for all the wonderful reviews and support that you all have given me, and another huge apology for my awful lateness with pretty much every chapter.
I hope I've done the subject even a modicum of justice, and if I have distressed anyone, all I can say is that I am extremely sorry, and to please PM me if you want to.