Chapter 20: The Sacrifice
Sephiroth's features flickered and shifted unnaturally, his skin changing to a pale blue color, his eyes glowing a vivid red. Cloud watched in sick fascination as Sephiroth's hand seemed to grow back, but his new hand was grotesque and deformed. Sephiroth laughed lightly, an odd, female echo ringing through the air. Cloud shivered, gripping his sword more tightly for security, bracing himself for another mental attack. Any minute now, he could lose control of himself, and Zack would be fighting alone. He saw a flash of green next to him, and he jerked his head in Zack's direction. His friend had a calm, serene look on his face, and the pale green glow of Curaga was fading away. What was Zack doing, casting Curaga already? Cloud was suddenly worried he'd injured Zack when Sephiroth – no, Jenova, had taken control of his mind.
"Zack?" Cloud asked urgently, eyes shifting between his comrade and his enemy. "What's wrong? Did I -"
"Don't worry, Cloud," Zack said gruffly, grinning bravely. "You just stay focused on staying alive, okay?"
"Okay. You too."
"This building won't last much longer," Zack said, his eyes flicking downward. "We need to end this quickly." And Zack lunged forward, his legs pumping as he launched himself across the fiery rooftop toward Jenova, a harsh battle cry tearing from his throat. Not to be outdone, or to let his friend fight alone, Cloud jumped after him, determined to catch up and give as much as he got.
Despite the fact that Sephiroth was really Jenova, she still retained all of Sephiroth's unnatural speed and strength, and perhaps was even further enhanced by her own alien powers. So even though Zack swung his Buster Sword precisely, Jenova brought up Sephiroth's sword without flinching, and the sound of metal on metal grated against Cloud's ears. Luckily, he and Zack had the advantage of being two on one. Cloud swung at Jenova's unguarded side, hoping to get in a shot, but Jenova dodged his swing with apparent ease.
Cloud barely had time to register what was happening when a flame shot at his face, and he rolled to the side in the nick of time, the heat roaring past him, his skin blistering from the intensity of it. "Shit," he panted, gritting his teeth. "Get a handle on it, Cloud," he said to himself, and got back up again, sweeping his blade back toward the unnatural creature in front of him.
Zack looked like an unstoppable force, coming back time and time again, even as Jenova sent a slew of spells his way, mixed with a flurry of sword attacks – the two were locked in an intricate dance, their moves graceful and fluid, even with the jarring force their blows created. Their faces, however contorted in rage and madness, seemed almost ethereal, lit up in the sickly glow of spells. Jenova was totally focused on Zack, intent on killing him. Cloud realized that, to her, he was only a distraction, and Zack was the real threat.
He clenched his jaw angrily. He was just as dangerous as Zack, and it was time to prove it.
Tifa was beginning to regret staying behind. There was nothing for her to do. Aerith had fallen into some sort of trance, her lips moving silently, her hands clutching the small orb of materia, but nothing appeared to be happening. Tifa had passed the time staring at her amazing surroundings, and she marveled, unable to believe that the city was still so grand after all the time that had passed. Despite it's grandeur, though, she was beginning to grow bored. Then Aerith gasped.
"What?" Tifa asked, tensing as a shock of adrenaline surged through her.
Aerith blinked slowly, shaking her head. "I thought I felt...nevermind. I'm sorry." She closed her eyes again, taking a deep breath, wiping a bead of sweat off her forehead. Tifa sighed inwardly, letting herself relax again, listening to the water gurgle softly. She'd almost been hoping or something to happen. Anything. Just as long as she didn't have to sit around feeling so...useless.
A moment later, Tifa remembered that people always had to be careful what they wished for. She heard a scrabbling noise, then watched as a small rock fell from above. She glanced up at a strange, lizard-like creature, hissing angrily down at her, with several more like it following it down on the steps.
"Aerith, we've got company," Tifa said urgently to the flower girl, to no avail. Aerith was deep in her trance now, and she wasn't responding.
"Well, I got what I asked for," Tifa muttered to herself, pulling herself upright as he strange creatures clambered down the stairways, climbing over each other and hissing in their eagerness to get to ground level. As the first ones neared her, Tifa crouched, her feet slipping easily into her fighting stance; her hands tightened into fists, her leather gloves groaning in response. She took a deep breath and let her mind clear, to not let herself grow panicked at the alarming number of monsters heading her way.
Deal with them one at a time, she told herself, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet. As the first creature lunged at her, she ducked to her left, pulled her arm back, and then let her fist fly into the creature's stomach. The soft flesh gave way beneath her punch, and with a winded gasp, the lizard flew back in the air, colliding into two others in the process.
Tifa's worries slipped away as she fell smoothly into the fight, relishing the feeling of her body, tense, alert, rushing with adrenaline. Crack! She let her foot connect solidly with a skull that bounced painfully off the stone. Another met a flurry of stout punches, and yet another was kicked away from her.
She hissed as one of the creatures managed to get past her defenses, clawing at her arm painfully. She shook it off, pummeling it's face with her closed fist until it dropped to the ground, limp. Although there were several lying motionless or twitching on the ground, more kept crawling down the stairs to her level.
"Damn," she cursed. "Where are they all coming from?" What was even more disconcerting was the lack of emotion in their eyes – they were blank, mindless, as though something were controlling them, urging them onward. Her body was beginning to protest, but she had no choice but to push on through – she had to protect Aerith.
The minutes dragged by, her muscles burning more with each passing second. Tifa didn't consider herself unfit by any means, but the endless fighting was wearing her down – there were simply too many to keep up with.
"Aerith!" she gasped out as one of the lizards slipped past her, teeth bared, heading straight for the trance-like flower girl. Suddenly, though, the monster stopped, hissing in pain, and Tifa had to squint as she watched Aerith's body steadily grow brighter with white light. The monster backpedaled furiously, clambering over several more of it's own as the light continued to spread out, bathing the stone and water around them in fantastic light, and Tifa felt a rush of serenity wash over her. In fact, she felt wonderful – her wounds no longer throbbed, and her muscles felt more relaxed then she could ever remembered. She felt at peace.
Aerith's eyes opened abruptly, and she stood, chanting under her breath. Seemingly without reason, all of the lizards began to flee from them, scrambling up the stairs, hurrying for the exit.
"What-?" Tifa asked, her mouth opening and closing wordlessly. "I don't understand."
Aerith didn't answer for a long time; she merely continued to chant, until ever last lizard had fled, even the ones that had been wounded.
"Care to explain?" Tifa asked as the last tail disappeared out of sight.
"It was just a feeling," Aerith said, sounding close to exhaustion. She opened her mouth as though to continue explaining, but she closed it again, swaying on the spot. "Thank you," she said instead, steadying herself. "For protecting me."
"Of course. Thank you, too." At this, Aerith's brow furrowed in confusion. "You protected me just as much as I protected you," Tifa pointed out, and Aerith nodded slightly.
"I'm sorry," she apologized after a moment, gesturing downward. "I have to continue...the meteor is headed our way..."
Aerith sounded so weary that Tifa wished she could take on the burden of saving the Planet for her. But there was nothing she could do to help, but stand by and wait.
"I'll be here when you're done," Tifa promised, and Aerith smiled at her, eyes shining with sincere gratitude.
Aerith wanted nothing more than to sleep, it seemed. The effort of calling upon Holy was undeniably draining, as as much as her mind and body cried out for rest, she knew the Planet was depending on her. Zack was depending on her. She smiled softly as she thought of Zack. When this was over they could finally go back home – no more running, or fighting. They could just live. The idea filled her with warmth, and she felt stronger than she had before. She closed her eyes and let her connection with the Planet surge outward. She felt connected to everything, it seemed, but with that connection, she could also feel the imminent danger looming above.
If she reached out, she could almost feel people – like Tifa in front of her, her life force bright, but small compared to the life surrounding her. Aerith couldn't focus long enough to find Zack or Cloud though, not for a lack of trying. She had almost felt Zack for a moment, earlier, she thought, but...
Don't think about it.
She drew in another steadying breath and closed her fingers into her palms, her lips moving silently. With everything she had, she expelled energy outward, envisioning it swallowing the meteor whole and disintegrating, safely above the Planet's atmosphere. She felt the drain a moment later, and for one panicky moment, she thought the effort might kill her. Her mind strayed to Zack, and she could see his face clearly, his blue eyes glowing happily, his lips pulled up into that grin she loved, his arms held open wide, as if beckoning her, and she knew she couldn't die, because she had to stay for him. And then everything went dark as the last of her energy flowed out of her, and she collapsed gratefully onto the ground, into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Zack hoped Aerith was doing okay. He knew how much summoning could take out of a person – some of the rarer pieces of materia had always done that to him. He brought his sword up to block Jenova again, gritting his teeth as a flash of pain tore through his abdomen. He could feel himself growing weaker, and clumsier as he fought of the alien creature in front of him. Jenova had already gotten a few lucky shots in, and Zack was bleeding from his arm, though he barely felt the burn compared to the almost disabling pain in his stomach.
Zack strafed to the side, dodging another magic attack, and felt his heart freeze as the floor beneath him rumbled ominously. The building wasn't going to hold up for much longer...the fire was steadily eating away the foundation. Next to him, Cloud was fighting furiously, and Zack felt a swell of pride rise up in him. He was immensely glad he was able to witness Cloud fighting, like a true SOLDIER, without fear, without hesitation.
Despite their combined effort, though, Jenova had barely been scratched, and any hits that did manage to escape her defense sent her into a rage that only appeared to fuel her strength. They needed some sort of distraction, anything, to end this before the entire Shinra building crumbled to the ground. Zack could feel the heat beneath the soles of his shoes and knew the fire must be very close to the top now.
Zack swore as Jenova landed another hit on him, slicing deep into his leg. Zack retaliated, even as his leg screamed in protest, jumping upward and slicing down furiously, only to miss. Zack cursed his slowing reflexes, and his wandering mind. The pain was making his head fuzzy and unclear.
Zack's missed attempt, however, provided an opening for Cloud, how lunged forward smoothly, driving his sword deep into Jenova's abdomen, who, in turn, screamed in an unearthly pitch, making all the hair's on Zack's neck and arms stand. Jenova shot off several wild fire balls, one that collided right into Cloud, sending him flying backward.
"Cloud!" Zack shouted, diving low to the ground to dodge one headed his way, then hurrying as fast as he could with his injured leg to his friend. Cloud groaned as Zack neared him, shaking his slightly burnt head and trying to sit up.
"Easy, now," Zack said lowly, reaching for his green materia. "Hang in there, buddy," he encouraged, casting Curaga on his friend. Zack felt a little more energy leave him, and knew he didn't have it in him to cast another Curaga if he needed it later.
"This building's going to fall," Cloud said seriously, accepting Zack's waiting hand, who pulled him up shakily.
"We need a distraction," Zack replied, watching as Jenova, still in the strange, mutated form of Sephiroth, clutching at her wounded belly. Zack peered skyward as he heard the chop-chop of a helicopter above him, and he remembered quite suddenly that Tseng was still waiting for them. He dug into his pocket, his fingers closing around his old cell phone. He tugged it out, flipping the top open and dialing Tseng's number rapidly.
"Got any missiles on that thing?" Zack demanded as Tseng answered the phone.
"A few. What do you have in mind?"
"Shoot the damn thing!" Zack answered, exasperated. Jenova was recovering already, and she looked pissed.
"The building will fall if I shoot, Zack. I can't -"
"Shit!" Zack cursed as the building lurched beneath his feet, and he dropped his phone, watching as it skittered across the rooftop. "Cloud, we have to end this, or we're all going to die!" Zack shouted.
"Pincer move!" Cloud didn't wait for a response before he ran toward Jenova, legs pumping across the unstable roof. Zack followed, the weight of his sword heavy in his hand, his body feeling utterly exhausted. He just needed to end this. Then it would all be over. Zack just wanted to be able to see Aerith one last time, if he could. His heart ached, along with the rest of him, but he couldn't focus on the pain or else he'd never make it. So he pushed it aside, and focused on one singular thing: killing Jenova.
He attacked like a wild thing, with no regard for his life. It didn't matter – he was dying anyway. And so Zack swung viciously left and right, thrusting and parrying, putting all his strength into all of his blows, driving the alien back into Cloud's waiting sword. Zack was attacking so swiftly that Jenova didn't have time to block Cloud's waiting attack – Jenova didn't see it coming. But Zack saw it happen almost before it did: Cloud's blade came thrusting, glinting beautifully in the firelight, whistling through the air, like the very molecules there were being split by the sharpened metal, aimed straight at her heart.
Zack made sure Jenova wouldn't have an opportunity to block, and lashed out, grabbing firmly onto her hand, wrenching the wrist viciously so that she screamed, the long sword in her hand clattering to the ground. Zack saw the tip of Cloud's sword protruding from her chest, thick with blood, and the screaming stopped abruptly, the only sound left the surrounding crackle of fire. Cloud put one foot on her back and shoved, pulling his sword out of her chest, and Jenova slumped onto the ground, Sephiroth's hair pooling around her dying body. A low groan came from the body, and Zack watched as the feature changed back slowly, taking the form of Sephiroth once more.
"I...where...?" No longer was it the voice of the alien, Jenova. Zack recognized that Sephiroth was once again in control of his own body, his own mind, only now, he was dying.
"I'm sorry, Sephiroth," Zack said, kneeling down next to the Ex-1st Class SOLDIER, the best there had ever been.
"My mind...she's gone," Sephiroth said slowly, his hand fumbling at his chest, steadily pouring blood as his heart wrenched out its last beats.
"Jenova is dead," Zack assured him. "You can rest now."
"Yes – for...the best," Sephiroth choked out, head twitching convulsively. Zack felt a twinge of sadness as he watched Sephiroth die, green eyes wide open, blood soaking his silver hair. And then he felt another, much more painful twinge, and was brought rushing back to reality.
"Time to go," he said roughly as Cloud helped him back up, unable to hide a wince.
"Zack?" Cloud paused uncertainly, concerned.
"Later," Zack dismissed. "The building -" but he was cut off as a low rumbling started, and he felt the rooftop beneath him beginning to crumble as the fire at away at the last of the supports. "Go!" he shouted wildly at Cloud, gesturing to the waiting helicopter hovering by the building. "GO!"
Cloud hesitated only momentarily, then he strapped his sword haphazardly to his back and grasped Zack's arm firmly, tugging him along as he tried to keep his balance on the uneven rooftop. Zack staggered, and he felt the warmth of blood soaking into his clothes.
This is it. He didn't know how much longer he'd be alive for. But he and Cloud had finished it. They had saved the Planet. Saved Aerith and Tifa. The bargain had been fulfilled.
"Come on!" Cloud yelled urgently, yanking roughly as Zack stumbled yet again.
"Just go," Zack urged, trying to release his arm from Cloud's grip. "I won't make it -"
"You will!" Cloud interrupted wildly. "You have to! You promised Aerith!"
"I promised I'd try!" Zack choked out, his heart squeezing guiltily.
"Then stop giving up!" Cloud ordered, heaving Zack upward again. Cloud was right, Zack realized. He was giving up. The least he could do was try. So he pushed away the pain once again, even though he could hardly focus, and he tried to concentrate on running. He could feel the heat grabbing at his legs as the fire tried to devour him and Cloud, but he ran, and ran, his blurry eyes locked onto the sight of Tseng in the helicopter. Ahead of him, Cloud gave an almighty lurch as the building tipped severely, but regained his balance, scrabbling upward. Zack followed vainly behind him, and he wondered where all his grace had gone. If he hadn't been injured, if he hadn't been dying right now, he could do this effortlessly.
Cloud gave a cry and leaped out to the helicopter, landing clumsily on the floor, his feet dangling out the door. He pulled himself upright and held out his arm, the other wrapped firmly around the handle of the helicopter door.
"Jump, Zack!" Cloud demanded, his arm outstretched to it's limit. Zack summoned the last of his remaining strength and gave an almighty push off the rooftop, even as it fell away beneath him. His fingers slipped from Cloud's grasp, but he instinctively grasped for the next best thing – the rails underneath the helicopter. Above him, Cloud laid himself on his stomach and reached down, and Zack reached up, hand grasping blindly until he felt Cloud's hand. Cloud pulled up with a grunt, and Zack flinched as his stomach ran over the cold metal of the helicopter as he was pulled in.
"Zack, are you okay?" Cloud asked, but his voice sounded so far and distant.
"I..." Zack tried to answer, but all of the pain finally registered, unable to be pushed aside any longer, and he blacked out.
"Are we taking him to the hospital?" Tseng asked Cloud as he expertly maneuvered the helicopter away from the crashing building. Cloud stared out the window, fatigue running through his very bones, watching as all that remained of Shinra tumble to the ground, fiery ashes in its wake.
"No," Cloud finally answered, turning to face Tseng. "We have to go back to the Forgotten City."
"Zack needs medical attention," Tseng insisted, but Cloud shook his head fiercely.
"Take us back. This isn't over yet. We don't know for sure that Aerith's stopped the meteor...and...she'd want to see him," he added, his throat tightening painfully. Zack had passed out, blood spilling out onto the floor until Cloud had found some gauze and wrapped it around his friend's wounds tightly to stop the bleeding. He had a horrible feeling that Zack was dying. "Aerith will heal him," he added as an afterthought.
"Can she do that?" Tseng asked incredulously.
"She's tried before," Cloud answered dismissively. "She tried with Cissnei..."
"Cissnei died!" Tseng interjected sharply.
"Zack's different!" Cloud barked back, his every nerve on edge. He sighed as Tseng eyed him warily, taking a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he apologized, running his hand through his sooty hair. "Just...trust me on this."
"If you say so," the Turk finally acquiesced, pulling the helicopter around sharply and heading back in the direction they had come from.
Cloud leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes, and letting his mind go over everything that had happened. He had done it. He had killed Jenova – Sephiroth – whoever it was. He, Cloud, had done it, fought like a real SOLDIER...and he had never felt more exhausted in his life. Was this the life he'd really wanted all along? Looking back on it, he couldn't fathom why he'd wanted such a violent life to begin with.
To impress Tifa, he thought with a snort, shaking his head to himself. Now...he had Tifa, didn't he? He didn't need to fight anymore. As long as the meteor was destroyed, none of them would need to fight anymore. He could just live a normal life.
Cloud gazed down at his friend, face covered in dirt and sweat, his breath harsh and rattling in his rib cage. Live, Zack. You can't die, not after all of this. Zack deserved normalcy and happiness as much as anyone did, maybe more. It seemed so unfair that it could all be taken away in a moment, by someone who hadn't the right to take lives anyway.
"You should rest," Tseng broke the silence, interrupting Cloud's internal musings.
"I know...I'm just worried."
"I'll wake you if something happens," Tseng promised. "You need your sleep, or you'll black out just like Zack did. He pushed himself too hard. You shouldn't do the same."
Cloud gave in reluctantly, letting his head fall back against the seat. Sleep wouldn't come to him, though. His mind was too busy reliving everything that had happened. It was all so surreal.
I'll never be able to fall asleep, he thought sullenly, focusing his eyes downward, peering at the scenery as it flew by. He was too worried about Zack, about Tifa, about whether the entire world was going to end...
"Cloud, wake up," Tseng said suddenly, and Cloud blinked slowly.
"What?" he asked groggily.
"We're here," Tseng said, and Cloud swore he heard a hint of humor in his voice.
"Wha-? When did I fall asleep?" he mumbled, rubbing a crick out of his neck. He remembered Zack and felt a jolt run through him, thoroughly awakening him. His friend was pale, and his bandages mostly soaked through, but he was still breathing.
"He's still alive," Cloud whispered, his voice trembling slightly with relief. "Help me get him down there to Aerith," he told Tseng, kneeling down next to his friend and scooping his arms under Zack's neck and knees. Tseng helped lift Zack, who was mostly dead weight, and for a brief second, Cloud wondered if this was how Zack felt lugging him around all that time ago, carrying him across the country. They eased him out of the helicopter, then stood on either side of him, each supporting Zack's sides.
"Hurry, but be gentle," Cloud commanded. "We don't need to bang him up anymore than he's already been."
The lives of heroes are never fair, and always so fleeting.
What? Aerith thought, confused, disoriented.
"Aerith, wake up," a voice said from above.
Wake up, the Planet encouraged her.
"Aerith, are you okay?" the other voice repeated urgently, and she felt a pair of hands shaking her lightly.
"Stop," Aerith mumbled, blinking blearily. "I'm okay. I'm awake," she assured, and Tifa's face came into view above her.
"You passed out," Tifa explained, helping Aerith sit up slowly.
"We're safe," Aerith said, smiling softly. "I stopped it...it just took a lot out of me. I'm okay now, though, I promise."
Tifa looked relieved. "You did it," she laughed shakily. "Now we just have to hope Cloud and Zack stopped Sephiroth, too."
"They're coming," Aerith repeated the Planet's words aloud, standing up quickly, only to have to stop as dizziness swept over her.
"Whoa, easy there," Tifa urged, grabbing her by the shoulders to steady her.
"Thanks," Aerith muttered, embarrassed at her hastiness. "But they're here. They're coming!" Aerith couldn't explain her feeling of urgency, but she felt as though something were...off...something wasn't right.
"Let's go meet them up there, then," Tifa said, and she helped Aerith safely get across the stone steps, and then to climb upward. With every step, Aerith felt stronger, and she felt the pull of urgency even greater.
"Come on," Aerith insisted, and began to run up the stairs, Tifa hot on her heels. Aerith's legs burned as she climbed the steps, but she ignored the burning, pushing through until she was at the top of the steps and heading out the door, Tifa breathing heavily behind her. Aerith herself was panting, a sharp cramp stinging in her side.
She let out a squeak of surprise as she almost ran headfirst into Cloud and Tseng, holding Zack up between them.
"Zack!" she cried out, paling as she saw his condition. He was covered in so much blood, and his face looked so...lifeless. His body was limp, and his head was lolling on his chest. "What happened?" she asked, hurrying forward.
Cloud looked severely shaken, but he and Tseng eased Zack onto the ground before he started to explain.
"I don't understand why he's bleeding so much...Sephiroth...Jenova...agh," he stopped, clearly frustrated. Tifa walked up softly next to him, her own face pale and lined with worry. She took Cloud's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"Just heal him, Aerith," Cloud begged. "He's dying. He can't die."
Aerith knelt on the ground, her hands shaking as she placed them on Zack's body.
"He's cold," she whispered, gritting her teeth. "Zack..."
"He's alive, Aerith! Save him!" Cloud repeated desperately, his glowing eyes shining brightly. Aerith felt a tear slip down her cheek, and she ran her fingers through his hair, her other hand running over his features.
"Zack," she repeated, closing her eyes. Another tear escaped. She couldn't heal him. She could feel him already, being pulled into the lifestream.
It's not fair.
Zack coughed suddenly, weakly, groaning in pain as he did so. His eye opened clumsily, unfocused.
"Cloud?" he spoke, his lips dry, his voice raspy. "Where's Aerith?"
"Zack, I'm right here," Aerith said, her heart leaping as he spoke. Maybe he could still pull through...
"Aerith?" he repeated, his head moving jerkily as he looked for her. She leaned down over him, her face right above his.
"Right here, Zack," she whispered, a tear drop landing on his face. He finally seemed to focus on her, and he smiled weakly, that brave, wonderful smile she loved so much. It made her heart ache to see it. What if it was the last one she ever saw?
"Hey," he breathed, the pain etched in his face gradually slipping away as he looked at her. His hand fumbled around until he managed to reach up and touch her cheek. A strangled sob fought its way out of her throat. "Why are you crying?" he asked her softly.
"You're dying," she gasped out, the tears falling faster now. "I can feel it."
"I know...they...they let me come back...so I could-" he stopped, coughing again and wincing. "To save you," he finished, his voice barely discernible. "I made a deal," he chuckled, smiling again. "Cloud stopped Seph- we – did you stop...?" he trailed off, apparently unable to continue.
She nodded, her lower lip trembling and her hands shaking uncontrollably as she smoothed his hair back again. "Yes, I stopped it. The Planet is safe."
A look of relief spread over his face, and he looked, for a moment, at peace. "You did great," he whispered.
"This is what you wouldn't tell me about, isn't it?" Aerith asked, hiccuping.
"I didn't...didn't want you to...worry," he replied, his eyes locked on hers. "Forgive me."
Aerith shook her head and sniffled greatly, then leaned down and kissed him softly. "Of course," she said, and she felt him wipe away a tear from her cheek with his thumb.
"Why aren't you healing him?" Cloud's voice broke through, and Zack's head rolled in his direction.
"It's too...too late, Cloud," Zack wheezed out. "No more chances...for me."
Cloud's face contorted into grief and anger, and he shook his head with disbelief.
"I don't believe it," he argued. Aerith watched Zack, who sighed, looking paler than before. He didn't have much time, but she could see he had accepted it already – just like Cissnei had, all that time ago. No, healing wouldn't do anything but drain her. It would be too cruel to try...only to fail.
"Take my sword, Cloud," Zack said, his voice stronger than before. "It's my honor...my dreams...take it...take care of Aerith...and-" he coughed again, then continued, "and Tifa...and...you did good. Great..."
Cloud shook his head and covered his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking slightly. Tifa wrapped her arms around him, tears running down her cheeks as she tried to comfort him.
"Aerith," Zack said her name again, his voice weak once more. "It's okay...if you move on..."
"I won't," she whispered fiercely, shaking her head over his. She found his hand with hers, and squeezed it tightly. "You're my sky," she managed, but the words brought about a fresh wave of tears. She blinked rapidly, and with a start, she saw his eyes were rather wet, too.
"You're...my earth..." he rasped in reply, breathing in shakily. "I..." Zack trailed off suddenly.
"Zack?" Aerith asked shakily, watching in horror as his eyes dulled before her. The mako glow faded away, and she could feel it deep inside as his essence seeped into the Lifestream, as he reunited with the life force of the Planet. But his eyes were still open, and his hand was still in hers, his lips partially open, his last words left unsaid. Aerith felt like ice water had filled her lungs, because she couldn't breathe. She closed her eyes tightly, tears spilling out, and she clung to the feeling of him, and briefly, she felt all of him coursing through her and around her, enveloping her...then he was gone.
She had lost him once before, but it had been so different then. She had loved him, yes, but not in the same way she loved him now. She hadn't known...she didn't know how she was going to make it through the days without him.
"Zack," she cried out miserably, falling onto him, curling her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. It didn't feel right though. He didn't wrap his arms around her, and he lacked all the warmth she had come to know so well. He didn't rest his chin on top of her head, or smell her hair, or murmur comforting words and sounds in her ear. Aerith swallowed heavily and shook, unaware that she was sobbing, oblivious to everything around her.
What did the earth do without the sky? She wondered. It started to die, didn't it? That's how she felt now. Like a part of her was dying, withering up inside her as it curled up, dry and brown. She didn't know how long she laid there, on Zack's cold body, his blood seeped into her dress. Eventually, a pair of arms lifted her up – Tseng, she thought, but she could barely recognize him – and Cloud, she watched as he lifted Zack's body from the ground, gently, his own face a mask of pain. Tifa came up to her and pulled her close, murmuring apologies, but Aerith couldn't focus on them.
It isn't fair.
It never is.
The funeral for Zack was small. They buried him in the Church. Aerith knew he'd always been fascinated with the flowers she grew there, and so she'd asked that he be placed right there, in the soil they grew in. Cloud dug carefully with Tifa's help, making sure they didn't damage the flowers, and then they lowered Zack's body into the ground. Nobody had cleaned him up, but Aerith had closed his eyes.
"He wouldn't have wanted to be cleaned up, like he had died naturally," Cloud had said stiffly. "He was a SOLDIER – he died fighting...we should leave him in his uniform."
And so they had. Cloud had Zack's Buster Sword strapped onto his back, even as he shoveled, too reluctant to set it on the ground, lest it be damaged.
"We should say something," Tifa said quietly as they all stared down at Zack's body. His face looked so peaceful, Aerith thought. Like he was asleep. She kept waiting for him to wake up and smile at her. But he didn't.
"Zack Fair was...a great fighter," Cloud said, his voice constricted. "He was a great mentor...my best friend...like my brother. He fought for what he believed in, for what was right...for the people he loved," he added lowly, and Aerith saw him glance at her. She kept her eyes on Zack's face.
"No one will know Zack Fair for what he's done. They will never know how close they all came to dying, and how they get the chance to keep living because of this man. They will never realize...the sacrifice he made..." Cloud stopped, his teeth gritted, his hands clenched together.
"We'll know," Tifa said soothingly, her face drawn out and sad. She wrapped her arm around Cloud's and ran her hand along it slowly, and he relaxed one fist. She slid her fingers into his, and smiled softly at him, and Aerith had to look away. They had each other for support, and she felt like she had no one...she wanted to be happy for Cloud and Tifa, but she couldn't...not right now.
"Do you...do you want to say something, Aerith?" Cloud asked her gently. Aerith met his eyes briefly, and then shifted her gaze back to Zack's face. What could she say? All of her words seemed so inadequate to describe what Zack was to her...he was her best friend, the boy she had fallen in love with, the man she trusted with her life...
"Zack Fair..." she began slowly, her voice barely a whisper. "Zack was a hero. My hero." That was it. That was all she could say, but it felt right, because for the longest time, all Zack had ever wanted was to be a hero. In the end, he had been.
She watched as Cloud shoveled the dirt over top of Zack's body, trying her hardest to control her shaking. When the last of the soil was over him, the flowers arranged neatly over top once again, the three of them sat in one of the wooden pews, watching quietly as motes of dust swirled lazily through the sunbeams, the blue sky clear and bright above them.
A/N: Well, folks, I hadn't planned on this being the last chapter, and I had originally envisioned it being much different, but this ending came out instead, and I couldn't force it to be anything else. I feel like I've come a far way, and it seems ironic that I wrote a Zack survival story, only to have him die again in the end.
In any case, I think there's going to be a sequel, most of it from Aerith's POV and well...I can't say much about it, except that I have most of the first chapter planned out; if I say anything else, I'll give everything away, won't I?
Thank you everyone who has read this, reviewed this, fav'd this, etc. It's been a journey, a surprising one at times, and definitely a long one...I'm afraid I'll always be horribly slow at updating. I hope this was worth the wait for all of you though, and I hope you all won't kill me for this ending. Haha. I want to especially thank those of you who gave me words of encouragement, or even little reminders to update, because sometimes it was just what I needed to write again. I'll see you all again soon, hopefully. (: