Author's Note:

My apologies again for the cliffhanger in the last chapter. Sleep, however secondary, was calling for my immediate attention at 1am. And now, at 7am, I'm regretting not falling asleep on my computer earlier. This will be the last chapter. Thanks for sticking with me through this. I'm trying my utmost to get this chapter to you as soon as humanly possible while maintaining a shred of grammar I can be proud of.

This will be short.

Disclaimer:

My rice is boiling...

Chapter eight:

The sickening smell of sterilized cold wafted nauseatingly to his nose, teasing, tickling them jolting right out of the fitful sleep he was in. The machine next to him bleeped in annoyance as the tubes in his arm jostled violently.

His head... There was a marching band in there and the trumpets were going way out of line.

"You need to rest." a soothing voice commanded. Bright blue eyes swam over to see the young woman, her brow twisted in concern. He brushed her hand away with a groggy grunt, wincing as a sharp pain seared through his side.

"You're lucky to still be here..." she said quietly, her rejected hand falling back onto her lap as she turned her gaze away from him and onto the ground.

Zack's calloused fingers grazed over the thick swath of bandages over his abdomen, still feeling the curious tingle of the many cure spells they had used on him. But aside from that, he felt nothing. The cavernous emptiness in him was crushing, sucking the happiness right out of his body.

"I DON'T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING YOU SAY!"

Raven bangs fell in front of glowing eyes aching with dejection. Cloud was right. He didn't have the right to tell the young blonde to do anything. Not after everything he had put him through.

He should have protected him.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, pulling the tubes calmly out from his slightly swollen veins. The long needles slid painfully out of his arm, earning themselves a sharp hiss and a violent toss to the ground from the dark haired SOLDIER. He hauled himself off the bed, slipping his feet into the combat boots laid out neatly by the side with his shirt.

"Where are you going?"

Zack paused, slipping his arms into the loose shirt. Where was he going? He didn't know where Cloud was. He didn't know if the blonde would attack him again. All he knew was he could not and would not fail to protect the young man again. The words slipped out from him as convoluted as they were in his head. "I want to- I need to get to..."

"Cloud?" she said quietly. "I don't understand, Zack... He's the one who did this to you..."

"Aerith... I want to explain this..." he began, turning to take her hands into his. "But I can't. Not right now. Not when I don't really understand this myself."

She sighed and turned her gaze back to painfully white floor of the medical bay. Part of her wanted to stop him as staggered out of the room. Part of her wanted to ask him to stay. Yet part of her wanted to tell him that she understood. They needed each other more than they loved. And they could love so much more than they needed.

She placed a hand on the quickly dissipating warmth where his body was mere seconds ago, letting herself cry.

--

The tanned man crept stealthily down the corridor, slinking from one shadow to the next, slipping just under the detection of the multiple cameras dotted along the path. The science department was a maze of doors and dead ends, many of which Zack had already tried in futile desperation. Time was running out and he knew it.

His cellphone vibrated in his pocket.

"I need you in Modeoheim." the message read.

Not now, Tseng...

His eyes tore away from the small cellphone screen to catch a glimpse of a bright halo of light behind one of the cold steel doors. That had to be it. The obnoxious cackle floating out from behind it only served to confirm his suspicions.

He snuck closer to the door, the smell of fresh blood and death nearly overwhelming his senses. He could not wait any longer. Cloud could be-

A thick combat boot made short work of the metal door, sending it flying across the room, slamming into the opposite wall with a deafening crash. Zack bolted across the laboratory, kicking aside the empty operating table before his hand swiftly came into contact with a stunned Professor Hojo's neck, ramming his frail form into the steel cabinet behind him. His right hand sprung to the hilt of the buster sword strapped to his back, ready at a moment's notice to shred apart the writhing man in front of him. Rage burned uncontrollably in his eyes, consuming his consciousness. The niggling threat of possible court marshal from his rash actions were silenced by the one single thought screaming clear in his entire being.

"WHERE IS HE."

The Professor choked out a laugh that made Zack's blood run cold. "You're too late." he cackled.

Zack shoved the aged man further into the dent of the cupboard with a chorus of bent metal and crushed glass beakers. "What do you mean, too late..."

Hojo struggled briefly, pushing the SOLDIER's shaking fist away and falling to the ground unceremoniously. He scowled at the young man, readjusting the rumples on his shirt. "You've been out for 3 weeks. Your... Student, has already long left this laboratory. One of our successes, I might add."

Zack's brow furrowed in anger. "What did you do to him, you bastard..."

A frown crested on the thin man's lips as he pushed his lop sided spectacles back into place. "Nothing too permanent." he sneered, turning back to the desk full of scattered notes and scribbled. "It would have been perfect if you didn't damage the specimen."

"Damage?" the raven haired SOLDIER questioned slowly.

"Psychological, physical, emotional." Hojo listed, flipping through the thick wad of pages on the chart in his hand. "A veritable wreck. We couldn't perform all the tests we wanted to. But he was nowhere near the failure you deemed him to be."

Zack glared at him. "I did what I had to to stop you from killing him."

"In science and war, sacrifices are always necessary." Hojo drawled, giving the SOLDIER a knowing look. "You of all people should know that perfectly well."

"Where is he now."

"Gone." the professor annunciated, turning to look at the seething SOLDIER in the eye for the first time. "But I'm sure you'll meet again soon."

His cellphone went off again.

Zack tore the phone of out his pocket, flipping with open with a frustrated grunt. "Zack. I need you in-"

"I know." he spat into the phone, snapping it shut and marching out of the room.

--

The cold was biting. Zack trudged angrily up the steep mountain slope, nearly sprinting with little regard for the rest of the group straggling in the frigid conditions. If Cloud was at the end of this path, he could not care less if he lost one or two in this hurriedly assembled task force. In his mind, the blonde was now at the end of every mission he embarked on.

Three months.

Three months of endless searching, hoping, waiting, wishing. Three months of nothing.

He cast an obligatory look towards the other members of the squad, only to see a guard following close behind him. He slowed, pausing for a break on a large boulder by the side of the barely cut path on the mountain side.

"At least someone's keeping up." he mumbled grumpily, sitting himself down. He hated stopping. These men were only slowing him down.

"I'm a country boy too." came the hesitant reply. Zack looked over at the guard who had taken out a flask of water from his backpack. It was some time since he tried having a civil conversation with someone. He had almost forgotten how it felt like, talking, smiling, feeling.

"What's your name, soldier?"

The guard looked up at the raven haired SOLDIER and slipped the heavy Shinra helmet off, soft spikes falling gently into place. Bright blue eyes tainted with the slight stain of mako glowed from under his unruly bangs. A warm smile slipped across soft lips as Zack's eyes widened.

"Cloud. My name is Cloud. And you are?"

-fin-