Disclaimer: FFVII is property of Square-Enix. I hope.
When I was a kid, I used to gaze out across the plains around Gongaga and imagine a life of turbulence. Back then, inaction was the enemy and a lack of adventure was no worse than death in the eyes of green naivety.
'Anything,' I thought, 'to get me out of the status quo. Anything, to steer me towards a life of purpose.'
I'd look up at the night sky and envision a day when the list of my accomplishments would be great enough to land me a spot amongst the stars. A day when I'd be able to look back and smile down on the planet and be proud of the ladder of my trials. I'd envision building my city, filling it with stories of my successes and failures and people would listen, remembering me. Enshrining me.
With hungry eyes eager to learn more, I'd always try to reach out for the burning white spheres of glory. But no matter how high I stood, my desire fell short.
"Dad," I would ask, seated on my father's shoulders as he stood across the porch and we stared up into the glorious, glittering black blanket. "When can I touch them?" It would be the same question nearly every night. My most vivid memory of him.
"One day," he would reply as we'd look up with the sparkling innocence of youthful enthusiasm. "One day, you and I, we'll build our bastion in the stars…"
I constantly dreamed… and hoped… I hoped for a day when the sweat of my labor and the blood of my trials was enough to earn me a place in the sky. I hoped that all my efforts would change this majestic but troubled planet for the better and guide it towards tranquility. I hoped my efforts would cleanse the filth away, washing the land of evil. Of corruption. Of greed. Of misguided lust. Of misplaced ambition. Of apathy. Of negligence. Of unjust abuse.
Now I stand, gazing out across a faceless enemy. Perhaps my final one.
One sniper rifle amidst many…
An endless sea of assault rifles…
Multiple helicopters polluting the sky…
An army of stony, tertiary-eyed harbingers…
It's all that stands in the way of one dream to another—the grand but forgotten desires of a young, eager boy versus the simple, jaded goals of a warrior carrying his share of weight.
"Boy oh boy…" I look on with a wistful smile, reminiscing of a time when I took simplicity for granted. "The price of freedom is steep."
Shinra's guards apathetically gaze back with reserved steel. The warm sun basks us in its splendid glory as I draw out the Buster Sword—a symbol of resolution and will, a homage to a once great man. Remembering, I hold the blade vertically, pointing it towards the airy expanse and recall an old proverb from my fallen mentor.
"Embrace your dreams," I began reciting. "And, whatever happens, protect your honor…" The guards—their confidence boosted through solidarity—stand listless and wait, both out of respect and patience.
They have all the patience in the world because they know that on this sweet, fateful summer morning, across this field of dreams, this story of mine likely ends.
"…As SOLDIER!" I race ahead, eager to author the possible final chapter of my verse. "Come and get it!"
They begin their calculated assault, firing diligently and without remorse, showering me with pellets of metal fury. The automatons in the air join in by delivering gifts of explosive rage.
I shrug, dance, cut, spin, spit, parry, strike, jump, step, charge, fall, sweat.
Even as I collapse to the earth, I'm driven by my limbs, their mako filled chambers glistening with power. They provide the fuel necessary for me to get up and continue in my quest to write a perfect final verse.
They can strip my personality… but they'll never have my pride.
They can strip my rank… but they'll never have my title.
They can strip my desires… but they'll never have my aspirations.
They can strip my records… but they'll never have my accomplishments.
They can strip my freedom…but they'll never have my liberty.
They can take my goals… but I'll still have my dreams.
I dig my heel into the soil and smile, wiping trickling currents of blood from my charred face—blackened from the pollution of their gunfire and the surrounding dirt.
My shoulder guards rise and fall rhythmically as I steady Buster Sword ahead once more, fueling my lungs with warm, tasteless air.
As I gaze out across the brazen faces of the cold robots, I can't help but feel pity. Pity and remorse. Amongst them are comrades I've likely interacted with; rivals I've bested during training; students I've tutored; friends I've shared a laugh with and warriors I've fought alongside. But now, our goals and ambitions—divided singularly across one great chasm—stand in the way of our affiliation.
I continue to wreak havoc across the setting as I exchange belligerence with my former members. They provide acute metal pain and I'm eager to return the favor with swift but brutal strikes from my cleaving hammer.
I run and run, cutting up men close to my fury but they keep returning, like the tides washing across the sand. As blue tailored grunts fall, even more are there to replace them, their vigor not waning. Explosive shells burst around me as I dabble with fire, ice and the warm embrace of healing magic—anything at my disposal from the socketed materia gems—to grant me longevity. Again, I move around the field swiftly as their endless barrage hammers home, the sting of their bullets and the searing blast of explosions decaying my skin further.
I don't know how much longer I can last. I gaze up at the brilliant blue sky after dropping a cluster of men and afford a second's tranquility before the violent chorus of gunfire floods my senses once more. Again, I dodge, duck, turn and swipe at the cancer.
More bodies fall but just as many—if not more—are there to take their place.
I unleash a powerful wave of smoldering heat, igniting everyone within radius aflame. The helicopters above still remain out of reach and for a second, my eyes flutter, and I recall a face… or two… maybe three—past comrades who've come and gone. Am I fighting for them? For their goals, ambitions or hopes? Am I fighting so I can see them again?
A series of rapidly flashing faces whisk by.
I suddenly remember. I remember that I'm fighting to preserve his goals as much as I am mine. Finding renewed strength, I charge at a trio of guards, obliterating them with a powerful, arcing swing. I'm instantly rewarded with a rocking violent explosion from another homing missile that erupts at my feet and sends me crashing backwards.
Stunned, I shake disorientation away and leap from more hostility, separating myself from a new flock of guards.
Smiling, I wipe a thick stream of blood away from my mouth, smearing my face in the process. My ragged breaths come out swift but steady, both soothing and stimulating my soul.
I feel alive and motion with a hand for them to come while tightly clutching Buster Sword tightly with the other. They're eager to take the bait and leap forth, meeting their end like their predecessors. Only this time, it seems to take longer as my swings—previously vicious and unforgiving—have lost some of their power due to compounding fatigue and blood loss.
I stare up at the helicopters, looking past their tinted fronts and into the hulls. I imagine the operators—once my uneasy allies in the Turks—glaring back at me with mixed emotion. Uncertainty, fear, panic, distrust, scorn and guilt. It must take its toll I imagine, having to constantly befriend people and cast them aside like cheap, expendable plastic.
Tseng. I question what he's doing right now. What's on his mind? How he's reacting to all of this? Surely I can't just be another easy target for him in light of everything we've been through right? But then I stop myself and remember… I remember that I'm dealing soulless creatures who've been conditioned to feel nothing.
Again, I clutch the hilt of my sword and point it straight ahead, ready for another swarm.
Second by second, minute by minute, breath by breath, as the bodies fall and their numbers slowly but surely begin to dwindle, the day winds down as a dark set of clouds roll in.
With furious breaths, I pause. My bloody, sweaty, dirt stained face looks out across the rocky hill. Only a hundred or so soldiers remain, a far cry from the sheer numbers earlier. There are two helicopters still circling the sky, the third meeting its demise from an unexpected blast of ultima magic an hour before.
I wait with apprehension—a first for me today and a first since my unfortunate clash with Sephiroth—for anyone to make a move. I'm tired. Tired of always being on the offensive. Tired of always lunging forward. Tired of being on my feet. Tired of fighting. Tired of the bloodshed.
But still, I know my effort can't fall short. Not just yet. I begin to see the cracks in their armor and suddenly realize that even Shinra—in all its infinite might—has an endpoint.
Once more, I beckon for the grunts to come and they do, this time with more reservation. We dance around each other as they fire while I parry, absorb and strike. My skin continues to consume more bullets as I strike everything within reaching distance. I call on materia once more, emitting a powerful shock wave blast of searing energy that disperses and rips the flesh clean off bones. They scream in agony and drop, their clothes smoldering.
I'm suddenly blinded by the powerful headlights of the two helicopters and barely have any time to block another missile that explodes across the width of my blade, rocking me back. I cough furiously, spitting out more blood and get up, having to use the sword as a crutch for the first time.
My brows furrow and a surge of adrenaline courses throughout my mako infused veins as I let out a piercing scream and extend my left fist towards the two aerial death machines. A sweeping, pulsating heat energy travels throughout my arm as it emits a greenish hue.
A second later, everything around me is engulfed in a flash as a powerful volley of ultima magic strikes the helicopter to my left. It lights up in a brilliant flame of mesmerizing yellow across the dark sky before plummeting in all its disfigured glory to the ground below.
I don't have time to admire my work as several more gunshots ring throughout the cool air, some ricocheting off my blade, others striking skin, embedding themselves within my warmth. I shrug off the attack and speed ahead, disposing of bodies left and right with a mix of intricate but labored blade swipes and materia magic.
Once more, one by one—sometimes more—they fall. With every additional body that bites the dust, I feel an increase in weight across my shoulders to the point where I'm now hunched over. They must know I'm weakening. I can sense it in their renewed confidence. Still, I continue, absorbing what I can and reflecting as much damage as possible.
As more time passes and their numbers drop to a handful few, the faint glimmer of hope I possessed earlier is replaced by a questionable uncertainty. After cutting down another grunt, I trudge backwards and glance down at my tattered uniform and bloody, bullet riddled body. I cough once, spitting out chunks of red, and exhale loudly. It takes more effort to breathe now.
I quickly turn and look behind at the city of polluted dreams. Midgar stands tall, the height of Shinra headquarters stretching out in the middle of the city towards the dark, clouded sky. It's where all my aspirations currently lie. It's where the only people I look forward to seeing are waiting for me. It's where Cloud and I will aim for some semblance of normalcy in this cruel, savage world.
Coughing out another glob of crimson, I turn back and blink slowly, feeling the weight of my eyelids guiding me towards slumber. But I have to stay awake. I have to stay awake for the people I promised I'd return to. For the ones I promised…
Unable to find the energy to continue my train of thought, I look down as drops of blood stain the dark dirt underneath my worn boots.
It's suddenly then and there that a certain resignation finally sinks in. As I watch the red droplets descend, I realize that I'm slowly returning to the planet bit by bit. I can feel the Lifestream calling to me.
With melancholy eyes, I look up but don't grant my aggressors the satisfaction of anguish as I steer my blade forth once more.
There are less than ten of them now and the lone helicopter in the sky—now depleted of ammunition—circles overhead. The guards insert new clips and tread toward me slowly, ready for an unexpected counterattack yet eager to finish the job. They point their rifle ends and unleash a torrent of metal rain. Moving with what little speed my limbs provide, I attack one guard, needing several swings to cut him down. At this point, I can no longer invest energy towards deflection. My hardened skin will have to suffice as armor and I hope it will hold out long enough for me to strike down the final few.
Now just seven left. Soon six. Five. Another desperate but lucky swipe and it's down to four.
I breath sharply and gasp as they approach with trepidation. Narrowing my eyes, I focus on one and clear my head. There is insufficient energy but I channel an inner will and raise my fist as they brace. An arctic chill seeps throughout my arm before a stream of ice explodes at one guard. It's enough to bring both him and I down as I keel over, completely drained.
Now it's three. Three guards stare back at me, hesitant in demeanor. They're uncertain of what I'm still capable of, having caught them by surprise on more than one occasion. But truthfully, there's nothing left. There is absolutely nothing remaining to power my limbs, to continue clutching my sword, to deliver a competent strike. I'm depleted.
It's then that I realize the cruel bitterness staring back. So close yet so far. I've made it down to three but taking them out seems like a tall order now. Had Shinra sent in just five less soldiers, I'd likely be singing a different tune. But the planet has a cruel sense of humor it seems.
I peer down in thought and close my eyes solemnly.
Cloud… I'm sorry…
The guards pause before opening fire, lighting the dark sky with a furious rally that tickles, pinches and plucks at my skin. I feel my limbs involuntarily shudder from the force of shell impacts and it continues for some time. I finally scream out in pain and collapse as tired, glowing mako eyes peer up at the cloudy sky above.
From my side, I witness a guard approach carefully. As my young harbinger looks on, he appears almost apologetic. "Sorry," he seems to cry out, his faceless shield disguising emotion. Sorry. For this man is not driven by a sense of desire, but by one of duty, handed down from the ranks of the heartless and derelict few perched above.
Shinra, Heidegger, Scarlet. Hojo…
The blood spilled today is at the hands of their machinations. So many lives needlessly lost, just to quell their corrupted appetite.
The guard looks on a final time and steadies his rifle, pointing the barrel straight at my heart. I gasp and brace for a final hardened shell as it's fired. The echoing sound thunders, ringing across the plains.
And then… everything glows white and I enter blissful silence and tranquility.
As several moments pass, I'm suddenly bombarded by images of my past with the various people throughout my life. Their faces pass in a flurry of successive flashes before one in particular lingers, her ethereal green orbs peering at me with delicate simplicity and unrivaled innocence.
Her shimmering eyes seem to call out as she clasps her hands together and peers up into the sky from the church. I try to respond but she's unable to hear and suddenly fades away into the darkness.
Something wet forces me back to my element and I stare up in solace. My dull senses awaken and it's suddenly then that I feel a shudder of a cool breeze as the first droplet of rain falls, striking my bloody cheek. I blink once… twice… and remain still, entrenched in the soft earth as pools of mixed water and blood surround me, Buster Sword to my right. I stare up at the endless blanket and blissfully get lost in the intricate pattern of descending water droplets.
"Zack…" I don't know how long it is before the young male voice breaks my reverie.
I twitch and painfully look to my side, at my blonde haired companion. My younger doppelganger has finally woken up. It's good to see. A small victory plucked out of a sea of defeat. I suddenly realize that all is not lost. He'll continue on… without me.
"For the… both of us…" I begin weakly, hoping he's in a cognitive state of mind.
For a second, I hold my breath and wonder if the words are lost to him—if he's still merely nothing but a vegetable, a physically capable vegetable. But… just before the final flame of faith is extinguished, his face contorts and he opens his mouth. "Both of us?"
I feel a flutter of hope and nod, delivering a faint smile. "That's right… you're gonna…" I struggle to continue but fight on, swallowing blood while keeping the grips of death at bay… if only for a moment. "You're gonna…" My left arm, now weighing more than the Junon Cannon, comes up and clutches the back of his head as I pull him down onto my chest. "Live," I breath out. There's still a chance that my dreams will be realized… only not by my hands… "You'll be… my living legacy." My hand slips off and his face rises, smeared with my red blood. He looks on with confusion but seems to understand and I realize that he's ready. Capable. Swallowing again painfully, I look to my right and grab the hilt of Buster Sword, dragging it with every remaining ounce of strength up towards him. "My honor, my dreams," I pant, sticking the hilt in front of his face, waiting for him to accept, "they're yours now."
It feels like an eternity as I hold the last physical tool of my existence and wait with baited breath for him to accept.
Finally, with the greatest sense of relief and comfort, I watch him react and slowly clutch the hilt. Releasing a breath, my hand slips away and falls, dropping to my side as I feel the coldness. I gaze at Cloud anxiously and wait for some sort of reaction.
His deep blue eyes gaze down and the words I've been longing to hear finally emerge. "I'm your… living legacy…"
Smiling, and finally at peace, I shut my eyes and let the darkness sweep over, suddenly able to see the burning spheres of white glory glittering across the vast black expanse. No more clouds. No more obstacles.
There's a spot for me up there on one of them, where I can build my city and wait for my father.
"When can we go there?" I'd often ask him during those warm summer nights on the porch.
"One day," he'd respond wistfully. "One day… You and I... we'll build our bastion in the stars… on top of white glory."
A/N: Dedicated to a great man.