Everything was like a shadow, as if all joy and happiness had been drained from the world. Around him, the deafening roar of the helicopters had subsided, as had the stampede of boots on the barren rock, and the thunderous gunfire of a thousand automatic rifles. However, those haunting sounds continued to echo in his ears, or his mind, he could not tell which. His body was still, unable to move as a result of the agonising wounds it had endured, now nothing more than a numbed shell. He was trapped in a prison of flesh and bone; alive, but alone.
Zack opened his eyes slowly, for even that simple act sent ripples of pain cascading over his forehead. It was then that he felt the gentle rain on his skin for the first time, spraying without care on his face, trickling down his cheeks like anxious tears. The sky above the Wastelands had grown overcast, the darkening storm clouds gliding solemnly across the lofty heavens; observing him; taunting him. Far below the cliffside, lakes of glassy silver were forming in the craters of the ordinarily-arid plains, and the landscape was shrouded in a murky haze, somewhat veiling the looming silhouette of Midgar.
He sipped at the air, inhaling tenderly, each breath excruciating as it fought to enter the collapsed lung on his left side. As his surroundings took shape, the gash on his temple began to sting, the oozing blood blurring his vision as it collected at the corner of his iris. His garments were heavy and sodden, clinging to his legs and torso, but he could not bear to look down, hanging on to a distant hope that they were soaked in water and not stained in red. For what seemed like an eternity, though it may have been only a fleeting moment, he watched the tranquil droplets tumble to the Planet, listening as they struck the ground around him, or pattered in the developing puddles.
Everything hurts…but, that means there's still sensation…
With a great effort, Zack curled his fingertips, immediately touching the leather handle of the Buster Sword through his gloves. Knowing that the magnificent blade was still close by comforted him, but he no longer bore the strength to wield it. He gripped it lightly nonetheless, as it was a connection to the real world, one from which he was beginning to understand that he would soon pass.
The prospect of death did not frighten him, but he was saddened by the idea of leaving behind his friends and family. He thought of his parents in Gongaga, and how they might forever wonder what became of him; he thought of Aerith, tending her flowers at the church in Sector5, feeling an ache in his heart worse than any of the bullets in his chest; and, finally, without even a remote suggestion of bitterness or regret, he thought of Cloud, the companion for whom he had sacrificed everything.
Cloud…where is he…?
The Shinra commander had presumed the blonde fugitive dead which, deliberate or otherwise, meant his subordinates had displayed a level of mercy and humanity that the Army had not reserved for Zack. The Company had ultimately deemed the pair's existence too much of a threat, and had unleashed a significant number of SOLDIERs and infantry battalions to eliminate two former servants. Grimacing as he turned his head slightly, careful in his minute movements, Zack glanced back towards the rock formation that he had concealed his friend within, his pulse quickening as he saw no sign of life.
The aftermath of battle was prominent across the plateau, with many of the weeds that sprouted from the hilltop now floundering in pools of blood and sludge. Hardedge swords stood erect in the soil or cleaved in half, assault rifles lay strewn amid hundreds of discharged slugs, and even a selection of defaced helmets had been abandoned. The Shinra military had at least shown some decency by retrieving the bodies of those that had been slain by Zack's hand. It was not in his nature to kill unless absolutely necessary, and it disgusted him to think that his last meaningful act in life had been to send so many soldiers to their graves. However, that was cast from his mind in an instant as something stirred from behind the nearest boulder.
A shuffling sound floated on the wind, then a distinct scrape of plated metal against stone. To the right of the bulbous rock, a clumsy hand appeared, followed by a drooping head of spiked blonde hair. Despite his overwhelming gladness, Zack could do little more than wheeze with relief, smiling weakly, the sight dulling the searing pain that tore through every inch of him.
He…he's okay…he's moving on his own…
Cloud clawed at the earth in an awkward bid to drag himself gradually forward, his frail arms shuddering under his weight with every strained advancement, his struggling shoulders bearing the added burden of the armoured pauldrons from the old SOLDIER uniform. He grunted as he pulled his knees determinedly through the thickening mud, crawling on all fours like a new-born beast, his legs reluctant to cooperate. Their flight from Nibelheim had brought the duo halfway around the world and, for the first time since escaping the laboratories of Shinra Manor, the effects of Cloud's severe Mako poisoning were evidently subsiding.
More than a minute had passed by the time the boy had managed to haul himself over the short distance to where Zack lay, the rain falling harder upon the bluff. With considerable effort, he propped himself up alongside his comrade, his glistening blue eyes steadily processing the scene before him. As his confused gaze scrambled from the holes on Zack's top and braces where countless bullets had ripped through, turning the material a chilling shade of crimson, to his grime-smeared face and matted fringe, Cloud's expression was swiftly overcome with fear.
"Z…Zack…?" he whispered softly, his hoarse voice being used for the first time in almost five years.
To hear those words filled Zack with elation. He wanted to embrace his friend, to shout aloud how proud he was of him, but only a stifled groan emerged from his lips. He gaped at Cloud, his eyes wide with frustration, desperate not to waste what scarce time remained for him. He gulped to clear his dry throat, wincing, gathering as much energy as possible to speak.
"For the…both of us…" he stammered, ignoring the torture that came with each forced syllable.
"Both…of us…?" Cloud repeated distractedly, his mind barely coherent.
"That's right." Zack affirmed, fighting to breathe. "You're gonna…"
An alarming surge of discomfort pierced his muscles as he slowly reached out with his left arm, and placed his hand firmly at the back of Cloud's neck. As he did so, a great swell of emotion erupted inside him; all the heartache; all the worry; all the complexities; everything that had happened with Genesis; being pursued to the ends of the Planet; every last drop of sweat; it was all worth it just to see Cloud released from his state of perpetual vulnerability. Overcome with compassion, Zack drew the young man's head to his own chest, knowing that part of him could continue on.
"You're gonna…live…" he vowed, gritting his teeth with resolve. "You'll be…my living legacy. The proof…that I…existed…"
He trailed off, helpless to prevent his hand sliding away from Cloud as his grip slackened, his arm slumping to the ground. Cloud remained there a moment longer, savouring the intimacy, before rising once again. The jagged locks that framed his face now dripped with blood, the pattern of Zack's injuries imprinted upon his cheek, trickling slightly as the rain washed it away. Their crestfallen gazes met, lingering, both finding a silent understanding amid a howling wind.
Cloud was scared, that much was obvious, but the same power and drive that had conquered Sephiroth all those years ago still resided within him. Zack felt obliged to protect him, like the unconditional love of an older brother, but he knew that he had to let go; Cloud would be able look after himself now. Zack's journey was almost over, but Cloud's was only just beginning. Glancing to the Buster Sword, he clasped his fingers once more around its leather grip as tightly as he could.
"My honour…my dreams…" Zack gasped, summoning every last ember of strength left in his broken body as he lifted the weapon's handle towards Cloud, offering it to him, "they're yours now…"
Hesitantly taking the greatsword from his guardian, Cloud stared mesmerised at the gilded decoration carved at its base, its value immeasurable. The Buster Sword was an heirloom to be treasured; a privilege to brandish. It was a heritage to uphold; just as Angeal's dying wish had been for him to take on its might, so it was for Zack. As the boy accepted it with both hands, he gave one final push, relieving himself of its tenure forever. Only the fading sound of the storm endured as he closed his eyes, smiling, and with that, Zack Fair went to sleep for the last time.