The man climbed up the cliff, crunching his way through the snow. He'd never really been up here. Of course, he'd climbed the mountain before, but only to get to that accursed Mako Reactor at the top. He'd never taken time out to explore every nook and cranny of the massive outcropping. He was exploring, looking for the right place. After wandering through woods and rocky ground, he saw the spot. The ledge he'd chosen overlooked the small town of Nibelheim. That way, the boy could be home.
Home was a funny thing to Zack. His personal hometown, of course, had always been and would continue to be Gongaga. However, where he'd felt most at home lately was at the house he had in Edge. Something funny, now, however, was encroaching on that assurance; by finding Cloud again, his regret and his friend, he was in a new sort of home. He was doing his best to provide Cloud with a more permanent one now.
The spade dug deep. It was hard work, very hard work. The ground was frozen solid up here on the mountain. Zack went deep. He was past the snow, past the topsoil, into what he hoped wasn't permafrost. As he worked, a slow and laborious process, his mind wandered.
His attention drifted away, deep into his mind. It had seemed, only a few weeks before, that those years in the ShinRa Mansion basement were so long ago. However, in light of recent events, they were fresh – painfully fresh. The memories of before those fateful years were back as well. Those were the days he wanted to remember. Those days in Soldier, with Cloud.
He remembered the boy when they had been stuck out on that adventure together. The whole trouble with Angael, Genesis, and Sephiroth was rife in the air. Still, however, the two had managed to get to know each other and indeed, gotten to be friends. Later, the pair of them had climbed up this same mountain, and side-by-side confronted Sephiroth. Zack had fallen first, and begged his friend to carry on and save the day. He could only guess what had happened between then and the next time he awoke.
He'd awoken in a world of green. It wasn't air or anything like air. It permeated him. It soaked into every aspect of his mind and body. It was Mako, the same Mako that he had been treated with intensively as a First Class Soldier. Purified though that acidic substance was, it still drove him insane. What was worse was watching Cloud suffer the same fate.
Cloud had always deserved better, better than the experiments, better than the nothingness. Zack guessed he couldn't have been fifteen when they went in there. Fifteen was far too few years to live. After all, once they were in that basement, it was no longer living.
The memories welled in Zack's head, pouring like an avalanche over his consciousness, drowning it in the past. He remembered the first few times he'd been on the operating table. He remembered fighting, screaming. They'd given him heavy doses of tranquilizer. He was forced to quiet. As time wore on, he figured out that it was better to just not bother to fight, to avoid just one painful injection. After all, once that needle broke his skin, it was another wide-open pore for the Mako to seep in through. Zack knew that was bad for him. He was aware as he lost his mind as the days went by.
It was when he noticed Cloud and watched what they did to him that Zack realized what was happening to himself. Cloud was nothing anymore; a once-shy, once-innocent kid trying to be a great hero (just like Zack) had been destroyed. Zack saw nothing from him anymore. The boy slept and lay on the table. The scientists didn't even bother to tie him down half the time. They knew he was broken. Zack knew he was broken. The only one that wasn't aware was Cloud.
That image scared Zack. Something in the total lack of humanity shook Zack at the core of his being. It was then that he decided to leave. He had to leave, if only so that what happened to Cloud wouldn't happen to him.
A freak chance provided the man with that opportunity. A lax night-closer stumbled out without properly locking the door. Zack happened to be awake. He happened to have the will to try a daring escape. The man forced his unused fingers and hands to remove all the needles and things in his body. Next, he forced his wasting limbs to propel him up and out of his tank. He might have been suffering intensive muscular dystrophy, but he was infused with pure Mako and that made him unnaturally strong. He climbed out, he broke the locks. ShinRa thought he was catatonic and wouldn't try to escape. They were wrong.
However unaware ShinRa was, their electronic alarms weren't. Zack heard them go off as he hit the ground and rolled in the viscous Mako that had come with him out the tube. The Soldier pushed himself up and to his feet. He had to leave before the guards arrived. It was some insane hour of the morning, so they would be delayed – he remembered his own night shifts.
He remembered his own night shifts! The memories, the force of being alive rushed at him. It gave his shaking legs strength that he didn't remember he lacked. He remembered being in Soldier, he remembered his childhood, he remembered his father again. More than anything, he remembered Cloud.
He staggered towards the tank, coughing as he forcibly expelled the liquid from his lungs. Once there was enough air to gasp, he did so. He forced out words: "Cloud," Zack begged, slapping soaking hands onto the tank. "Please wake up."
The boy did not react.
"Wake up, climb out, we have to escape!"
The Mako swirled as the sleeping boy exhaled.
"Cloud!" Zack shouted. "Wake up!" He banged his fists on the tank. The glass cracked in the tiniest of spider webs. "Wake up, Cloud! Come with me!"
The boy stirred, but still remained in his sleeplike state. He looked so peaceful – the peace of nothingness.
Zack heard footsteps, the cocking of guns. The alarms were wailing in his ears. Cloud was here, he had to take him. He hit the tank harder, but the glass was refined for its job; it would not let him through. He cried the boy's name over and over again, but nothing was working. Cloud was gone. He was lost. With no warning, Zack turned and ran. "I'll be back," he said softly, from the doorway. "I'll save you, Cloud." Then he retreated.
Zack was surprised when he felt his face freeze colder than before. The man licked his lips, tasting salt tears he hadn't realized he shed. He hesitated, stopping for a second to dry his eyes. He knew, even now, that leaving the boy behind had saved his life. It was the smart thing to do at the time. But it still hurt to turn his back and run from the boy he knew would have expected to have been saved. And now this happened to him. This.
That monstrosity that had once been Cloud lay behind him, wrapped in a blanket and lying on the snow. Zack wondered, as he looked back at the prone figure, if he could have been saved. The Soldiers had taken a long time to get downstairs, longer than Zack had expected. What if he could have woken up Cloud in a few more minutes? What if he turned his back on his best friend?
He turned his eyes to the soil, trying to banish the image in his head. It was Cloud, blue eyes wide, banging on the inside of the tank, screaming for Zack to return and save him. But a heedless would-be hero just ran to save his own neck….
He had to wonder why he was crying so much. These were thoughts and memories that haunted him constantly; this was not new information. So why was it getting to him like this? It was because this was the end of the line. There were no more outrageous hopes for some form of redemption for this mistake. Cloud was further gone than before. He was out of reach.
He forced the spade deep into the earth again. Chunks of icy mud slipped off as it was added to the pile. Zack had to wipe his eyes again. This hole seemed deep enough; the cold earth wasn't helping him at all. He dropped the shovel aside and climbed out. He tried to remember what the symbolism for a shallow grave was.
Zack moved to where Cloud's body lay, wrapped in a warm, soft blanket. A last gift to his best friend. The man scooped him up and carried him towards the grave, laying him within. He looked at the crumbled and wasted body, and felt the desire to say something, some comfort, some apology, even though there were none living to hear him.
The hard shock of the reality of the moment struck Zack-full on. He straightened himself up, deciding that there were certainly few words to be said, but he'd say them anyway. "Cloud, most of all, I'm sorry," he began. "I honestly meant to come back to save you, but it never happened. I saved the world. If I'd known, if I'd been given the chance, I would have thrown that aside for long enough to save you." He looked down. His throat was getting awfully tight on him. "I can't believe that you were doomed. How old were you? Fifteen?" He reconsidered, remembering more. " I think I remember you said it when it was your sixteenth birthday. Sixteen years is far too short for a kid like you to have been alive." His eyes softened.
The man knelt by the graveside, the wet earth staining and seeping through the knees of his trousers. "How long did you last alone? I hope it wasn't too long… it must have been terrible." His hand reached out, touching the still-soft golden hair. His fingers lingered over the twisted, vile horns that poked up like dark imitations of the so many spikes that decorated Cloud's head. "You know, I wonder what would have happened if I had taken you along," he mentioned softly.
The ex-Soldier sat back, looking at the sky. He spoke to the corpse as if his old friend could still hear him. "I wonder. You and me would have made it to Midgar. You could've met Aeris. We would have saved the world together. Wouldn't that have been great?" He smiled through the new tears. "You and me would have gotten our dreams come true together. Imagine it, us both… the dynamic duo… saving the world side-by-side. We could have faced off against Sephiroth again, only this time, we would've won." He choked a laugh, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand. "Oh man, I'm so pathetic." The weak chuckle was sadder than ever.
He didn't know why, but he felt motivated to move. He braced his weight against the far side of the hole. His own spiked head came to rest on the center of Cloud's narrow ribcage. Zack heard his own heartbeat, the force of his own life and no one else's. He knew that there would be total silence below. Cloud's heart was probably as wasted and forgotten as his body. It was some comfort to Zack, knowing that he was doing his best, cementing one last memory deep in his own heart. It helped to pretend, to hear his own life and pretend that there was an echo. It would be a lie he could treasure.
In forever and an instant, he was on his feet again, picking up his tool and replacing the soil. He refused to say goodbye. He'd said goodbye once, but it was too much to repeat it now. His farewell had happened all those years ago. Now he was just finishing the job. The earth settled around Cloud's misshapen body like a heavy blanket.
He wouldn't say goodbye…. "Goodnight, Cloud," Zack whispered in the twilight on the mountaintop. He had one last task. The man freed up Angael's sword from off his back. His mentor had told him to protect the planet. He'd done that. But he'd failed to protect his friends. That was why he left it there, a token to his mistake and a marker for future ages.
The ground shifted as he slipped the thick blade into it. "Sweet dreams," he wished a final time. "Say hello to Aeris for me."
For the second time in his life, Zack turned his back on Cloud and walked away.
Author's Note: This could be the end, or I could add on some more. Depends on what you guys, as readers, want. Thanks for reading.
Tinni: But we all know you guys want more, right? XP