In an odd way, he was flattered. Shinra had sent out most of the Army just to make sure that Zack went down and stayed down. It had taken nearly the whole army, too, just to bring him to his knees. Shinra may have wanted his life, and they were going to get it, but he had made them pay dearly for it.
After the last barrage of bullets, Zack could not find the strength to open his eyes. His body struggled to keep him alive, but there was only so much that mako could do for him. In a matter of minutes, his body would give out. He only wished that the Trooper had finished the job. Of course, any normal person would have been dead, so Zack supposed he could forgive the mistake.
They had been so close. In Midgar, they could have disappeared easily into the slums. There were people who had no love for Shinra and would have hidden them. Aeris would have been able to help Cloud, maybe even wake him back up from his mako stupor.
He had failed… fallen short at the finish. He would be dead. Shinra would find others like him and Cloud and the few residents of Nibelheim who had not died to repeat the nightmare all over again. Aeris would never know what had happened to him, would never get the chance to meet Cloud. And Cloud…
“What do you want to do with him?”
Cloud was going to die right next to him.
Zack flexed his fingers around the handle of the Buster Sword, willing his body to tap into a hidden reserve of strength and fight. When Cloud had awoken briefly in the mako tubes, Zack had promised himself that he would get them both out and then he would keep Cloud safe. Even when he slipped back into the coma, Zack still felt hopeful. Cloud was still in there and that was all Zack needed to know.
He forced his eyes open again, staring at the dark clouds that had rolled in during the long fight. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and Zack found himself a bit grateful. It would keep the helicopters from flying. If Hojo wanted his body while it was fresh, he would have to walk out here to collect it. It was a small victory, but it was the last one he would get.
He could see the edge of the Army Commander’s red coat slip past the edge of his vision as he moved closer to where he had hidden Cloud. The Commander hummed and Zack could hear Cloud groan low in his throat, “…Forget it. Just leave him.”
As the booted footsteps retreated, Zack could not decide which was worse… Cloud being executed in his hearing or knowing that Cloud would die a slow, painful death alone after he was finally gone. He gave up thinking about it and decided that both options sucked.
When the first drops of rain finally began to fall, Zack blinked out of reflex. The rain was warm, almost refreshing after fighting in the heat of the wastes. He could feel some of the tacky blood on his face being rinsed away.
There was a small, hopelessly romantic part of Zack the refused to accept this was the end. It was the same part of himself that had refused to let his mother read his soulmate mark to him. His last words had been predetermined by the planet when he was born. He had never met someone who had escaped their fate. He was not going to die alone in the wastes.
He could feel the skin on his chest trying to knit itself back together, to stem the bleeding and push out the bullets that had lodged in his chest. He had been shot before, knew what healing those wounds felt like. This was something different entirely. His body was failing and he was so tired.
A sound forced him back to awareness. Something was squishing through the mud, making little grunting noises. It was moving closer to him. Zack struggled to focus his eyes or move his head, anything to see what was coming for him.
He had not expected Cloud’s face to appear above him. Cloud’s eyebrows were furrowed, his own eyes a little unfocused, but he was moving on his own. Zack could see his arms shaking as they struggled to keep him propped up, “Z-Zack?”
Blessed relief coursed through him. He may not have been able to save himself, but he had saved Cloud. Shinra thought they were both dead. No one would be looking for Cloud. Once a mako poisoned person regained consciousness, they had survived the worst of it. There was a small possibility of relapse, but only if he came into direct contact with mako again. Cloud would live.
It was the best comfort he could have received in the end.
Zack tried to draw in a breath. If this was the end, he wanted to do it properly. The pain in his chest made him grunt, but he forced his lungs to work a little longer. He smiled up at Cloud’s mud-spattered face, “For the… both of us.”
Cloud’s head cocked to the side. He repeated the words slowly, trying to make sense of them in his mako-addled mind, “Both of us?”
“That’s right.” Zack encouraged. He had so much he wanted to say, but he could not breathe deeply enough to get the words out, “You’re… gonnna-“
“You’re gonna.” Cloud nodded slowly and Zack was sure he saw a flash of recognition in Cloud’s gaze.
He lurched upwards, reaching a hand up to close around the back of Cloud’s neck. He could not feel the raised lettering of Cloud’s soulmate mark through his heavy leather gloves, but he knew it was there and wanted to touch it one last time. He drew Cloud’s forehead to rest against the shredded remains of his own mark, caring little for the pain it caused. With a grunt of discomfort he said, “Live.”
Cloud rested heavily against his chest. Zack’s sudden yank had thrown his shaky sense of balance off. Zack reveled in the warmth of him against a body that was growing colder and colder. It was time, “You’ll be… my living legacy.”
Zack’s hand slid away, gathering his last reserves of strength for to pass on his most prized possession to the man he loved… a small piece of himself that could protect Cloud always.
Cloud’s lifted his face from Zack’s chest, the motion smoother and more controlled that any other had been. There was blood in his hair and on his cheek, but Zack would not have traded that last bit of contact for anything.
Tightening his fingers around the hilt of his sword, Zack lifted it and pressed it into Cloud’s hands, “My honor, my dreams, they’re yours now.”
The words seemed so inadequate. His whole life, he had dreamed of becoming a hero. He had left home too early, disobeying the wishes of his parents to do so, just to chase that dream. It had meant everything to him until Cloud had come into his life.
Zack had no idea exactly when becoming a hero began to pale in comparison to the dream of safety and survival for his soulmate. Lazard had once told him that unobtainable dream were the best kind, but Zack now knew he disagreed. Knowing that Cloud would live was the sweetest dream he had ever had.
Cloud’s fingers closed around the blade’s handle uncertainly, so Zack pushed it into his chest. He wanted to make it plain to Cloud. The sword belonged to him now. He needed to take it and use it to protect himself. It was the only safety left that Zack could offer him.
When he had imagined his soulmate speaking the words he had always worn over his heart, he thought that it would be an affirmation. He expected an impassioned promise to carry on after he was gone. Cloud’s words were a soft repetition of Zack’s own, bewildered, but spoken with the first bit of real understanding that Cloud had shown in almost a year.
The thought should not have been as comforting as it was. He was leaving Cloud to suffer the worst grief imaginable with a mind that was barely recovered from unspeakable trauma… but it was beginning to recover. That was enough for him. Zack closed his eyes and with a smile, breathed his last.
Cloud watched with dawning horror as Zack stopped breathing. His mother had warned him once that if he worried about his soulmate mark too hard that he would miss finding that person until it was too late. He wished that she had told him how much it would hurt to outlive his soulmate instead. Maybe she did not know how. Cloud could hardly think of the words to describe the sorrow.
Memories flashed through his mind. Everything he had forgotten, everything that had happened while he was trapped in his own mind, every story that Zack had told him while they were on the run, it hit him at once with blinding intensity. He stared sightlessly at the sky and cried out in grief and agony. He screamed until his voice was raw with it. Zack was gone and he was alone.
He clenched the sword against his chest and cried for Angeal who died thinking he was a monster. He cried for Zack, who had died to give Cloud a chance to live. It felt like he and Zack had just found on another and already Cloud had no idea how he was supposed to go on without him. Still, he had to go on. He owed that much to Zack.
Cloud turned his gaze back to the face of his soulmate. Zack looked so peaceful lying there as the sun broke through the clouds at last. Cloud knew he owed everything to Zack, but that the body lying in front of him was no longer his soulmate. Zack’s spirit was gone, returned to wherever the spirits of the dead went once a life was over. He had spoken his last words to his soulmate, but he hoped that one last feeling would find its way to him, wherever he had gone.
He cupped Zack’s cheek briefly, “Thank you.”
At last, he rose to his feet, clenching his eyes shut a moment to stave off the tears that threatened to fall. The walk to Midgar would be long and he felt shaky on his feet, but he knew he needed to go. Zack had entrusted his dreams and honor to him. It was time to lead a life that would live up to those expectations. He squared his shoulders and drew in an unsteady breath, “Goodnight, Zack.”