A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 17

By Twig


If there was one thing Cid Highwind didn't like, it was feeling guilty. Knowing that he had been given a chance to act, and had missed it. It /always/ gave him the same prickly sensation down the back of his spine, the same as every time in the past, when he had thought about going into space, and how he had failed.

//... but you got up there, didn't you? ... and it never would have happened... if it hadn't been for Cloud...//

What the hell had he done, what the hell was he thinking, letting Heidigger talk to his friend like that?

"I should have said something back there..." the pilot said, shaking his head, "... damn it... I should have..." He frowned, as if realizing the futility of his words, that there was nothing he /could/ do now, "... damn it!"

The blonde pilot looked down at his watch, almost groaned. Only a half-hour had passed since they had spoken to Cloud, and not even a quarter of an hour had passed since they had left the officer's area, the entire group wandering aimlessly towards a less quiet place, trying to escape the silence, the thoughts that it inevitably stirred up inside each of them.

Ten minutes. It felt like years.

After Cloud had vanished, returned to the meeting with Godo, Zack had also quietly excused himself, and went off on an important, private mission of his own. The former members of AVALANCHE were left with only each other to turn to, all of them still carrying questions they could not answer, and regrets, too many regrets for all that had happened in little more than twenty-four hours.

"What would you have said, man?" Barret muttered, rubbing his gun arm absently as they walked away from the officer's section of town, down towards the lower ranks, "I mean... after what Cloud /said/... he /said/ it, man..."

"I do /not/ like Anjele Heidigger..." Nanaki rumbled, low in his throat, "he is not to be trusted..."

"... but he's not the one who said Cloud killed Anjele. Cloud said that... himself." Vincent spoke softly, as if logic demanded he offer up what he did not want to speak aloud.

"Yeah, but did you see him...?" Yuffie said, gesturing furiously at empty air, "something was really wrong! It was like he was /trying/ to admit it, just to get Heidigger to shut up!"

"... but why...?" Nanaki said, looking up at all of them, asking the real question, the one none of them could answer. His hazel gaze drifted from face to face, finally coming to rest on Tifa.

The brunette quickly realized his were not the only pair of eyes on her, that quietly, or quite blatantly, they had all decided she was the one who knew what was going on.

The fighter shrugged hard, face twisting slightly with still unshed tears, fear and worry wreaking havoc on her already decimated nerves.

Tifa moved past Cid, sitting down hard on a low wooden bench near the wall, plucking a few pieces out of the straw bale supporting the plank underneath her, sighing. The release somehow managed to only increase the tension running through her. The brunette felt all her muscles tightening up as she tried to think of something to say, something to do... wishing for just one clue, one guide to point her in the right direction.

"I don't know... I don't know what's going on..."

Tifa didn't really want to open up more than that, didn't want to let them all know... to have to bear their questions about what had happened that they hadn't seen... what had happened between her and Cloud five years ago...

... but she knew it would come up, she knew they would ask, sooner or later...

//They're your friends.... you can tell them... they'll understand...//

"I... I thought that... after Meteor, and everything that happened... I thought he was happy... with me," Tifa murmured, and felt the familiar shame and sorrow, /knowing/ that she had done something to push him away, without any idea of what it had been, "...b-but..."

The brunette looked up at Barret, at Cid, the rest of them, her hands clenched into tight fists.

"He wasn't cold like this... he wasn't! I mean... I know something wasn't right back... back then... but it wasn't like this... I thought I had reached him somehow, but... but then he just... he left... he left me, he didn't say why... and now..." The brunette dropped her head, rubbing a hand across her aching eyes, "... I'm just babbling... it doesn't make any sense at all... I'm sorry..."

Barret put one large, warm hand on her shoulder, tried to smile comfortingly.

"It's okay, Tifa... he threw us all a curve ball... but... I know it's gonna be okay..."

Amazingly, she thought, it sounded like he meant it.

"So, what do we do now?"

Vincent was always the best at asking the most difficult questions, pulling them out of their combined silence, forcing them into the light. The long pause that followed made Tifa want to scream, desperate for something, anything to happen... all she knew was that the waiting, the uncertainty was driving her crazy.

A loud group of soldiers walked by them then, moving along quickly on the other side of the narrow alley, laughing and joking, not giving their quiet, somber group a second glance... Tifa felt her lower lip tremble, just a little, matching the stinging in her eyes...

//How long... how long since I've seen someone smile like that? Since I've been that happy, that carefree?//

Everyone waited in silence, until the group of revelers had passed, their cheers of joy fading in the air.

"... shit..." Cid muttered, and Tifa didn't have to look to know what he was doing, heard the sound of his lighter, the flame scraping its way into life. It appeared to be the only answer Vincent, or any of them, would get...

//I don't have anything to offer them... I don't know... and if Cloud really... if he... killed that woman...//

Tifa didn't want to believe... but Cloud had said it...

The brunette shook with the memory, his voice, those words.

//... he said it, though... he /said/ he...//

"The General did nothing wrong."


The voice was strong, cutting determinedly through the silence, as solid as foot-thick bedrock. Tifa turned, to see Li perched along the high wall over her head, watching them.

The cat leapt down gracefully onto the bench beside the brunette, and stepped down to the ground, watching them all with a deep, unflinching gaze.

"He did nothing wrong," she repeated.

"You were there," Yuffie said, nodding excitedly, "... you know what happened!"

Li shook her head, her dark mane swirling slightly in the air.

"We split... we were split up... and he and General Elicia went on alone, all alone... There were many monsters... they were everywhere... even if I... if I had wanted to, there was no way to follow..."

The cat's head dropped down, eyes gazing down at the earth.

"It is my fault we were followed, that we were separated. They were after /me/. I should not have escaped with The General. I put everyone in danger. Hojo had not expected that anyone would try to rescue me..."

Li looked up, sharing a long look with Nanaki, and Cid was sure he was not the only one who was surprised by the feeling he received, that the other cat had spoken very little about this, her past, even to the only other member of her kind.

"Will you tell us, please?" Tifa said quietly, almost pleading, "... anything, anything at all?"


"I remember very little..." Li said softly, sitting down, her voice almost inaudible beneath the ever-present raspy growl, just like Nanaki's, feline vocal cords using human words, "... white walls, cold days, chemicals... it smelled so sour... there were always metal claws everywhere... they hurt... pinning, holding me... and needles..."

The cat visibly shuddered, and took a breath to calm herself before continuing. Nanaki was at her side almost immediately, his head nuzzling hers, resting on her shoulder in silent support, tail flicking slightly, showing his anger, his sorrow at what she had been forced to endure.

"There was nothing to remember there... the blank... it was empty... white snow and vacant rooms... the silence... it would make my fur double back on itself, stand on end for hours while I waited... just /waited/ for something to happen... anything... but there was nothing worth knowing there, nothing to remember... until the General came..."

The cat looked down again, not sadly, but almost as if she were embarrassed.

"I did not look like this when the soldiers found me," she said, flexing a dirty but well manicured claw, watching the shift of the light, honey colored fur on her forepaws, "... I had not seen anything but the creatures who cleaned my cage... the monsters who took samples of my fur and skin... and they were nothing like you humans... They didn't care what I looked like..."

Li looked up for a moment, into Tifa's wide eyes, and the brunette could see the joy and hope inside the dark depths.

"The General was the first one to touch me... the first one to /ever/ touch me in kindness... I remember... I was weak... the creatures had given me something that made me ill... they usually did. I couldn't move well, but I could hear the soldiers, heard them fighting, the shots ringing out, yelling, saw them entering the lab, my captors falling at their feet...

I heard them talking. I had learned how to speak in human words. They taught me, the monsters in the lab, with videos... because I was an experiment... I suppose I was being tested, to see just how smart... an /animal/ like me could be..." Li's voice went harsh for a moment, "and so I understood their words... I knew they were arguing. The soldiers... many of them, at first, they wanted to kill me..."

Nanaki almost jumped in shock, staring wide-eyed at the dark-maned cat.


Li shook her head, patiently, kindly.

"They did not know I was safe, that I was not an enemy. They thought I might be one of Hojo's spies, or one of his monsters, one of Jenova's... /constructions/..." There was no mistaking the revulsion in the cat's voice on that word, the way her entire body seemed to curl up for a moment in disgust, "Many of them thought it would be better to kill me. Safer. Just in case."

Li's words took on a note of soft reverence.

"The General would not let them. He walked up to me... he... he touched me... took the iron bars from around my paws so easily, broke the collar I had always worn, snapped it in half, as if it were thin ice, not steel. He... he asked me if I could understand him... he asked me if I wanted to leave... I said yes. He took me in his arms, and carried me out of the lab. No one argued with him. He took me away from the walls, into the sun, and the wind. I had never felt the wind before... and he told me I was free."

The cat had her eyes closed, sat perfectly still for a long moment, as if reliving all that had happened, each moment clear and unforgettable inside her mind. When she finally looked up at Tifa, the brunette understood why the determination was so fixed, so permanent in her eyes.

"I love The General. I owe him my life. I don't know what happened... I don't know how General Elicia died, and I don't care. I would follow my commander no matter what... no matter what he has done, or why. He could do nothing, nothing to take away from what he has given me," the cat turned, nuzzled Nanaki briefly, touching her muzzle to his with gentle affection, "I love The General, I owe him my life... that is..." she repeated herself, and paused, as if realizing she hadn't meant to speak so long, and hadn't meant to be so bold. Li bowed her head again, stammering a little, her last words very soft,

"... that is the only thing that matters."


The meeting room, where only Cloud and Godo sat now, felt like a crypt, a place to store the dead, or things that had simply outlived their time. It felt old, ancient, even though the gleaming stone panels in the walls, the gold trim, all of it could only have been built a few years ago.

The first time Cloud had entered it, though, it had felt old to him, old and dry and dead, and Cloud nearly choked on the imaginary dust that swirled up as he sat down, heard the groan of ancient, sleeping spirits...

//... it's not the room, though... it's just me... I feel so old... I can't keep... I can't keep... /feeling/ like this...//

He felt ancient. The rest of his life, all things that hadn't happened yet, already seemed like history, distant enough to be pointless, completely unimportant. He had stopped wondering what was so important, what he was fighting for... knew he would remember when he had to.

The glass bottle Godo had thrown against the wall had been cleaned up, but the chair the Wutai leader had thrown to follow it still remained, a kindling pile in the corner. Cloud was surprised to see no dust on the shattered mass, no sign that it had not been there for years, millennia, and not only a few hours...

//... you're just trying to dodge... you think this useless pondering will solve something... will keep you from what is to come... and it's not long now... not long...//

The blonde didn't listen, refused to acknowledge that inner darkness, the knowledge of having to face his future, and let the seeming pause in time distract his thoughts instead. The feeling of thousands of years passing in the last few hours filled his thoughts, of all time stopping inside this silent room, as both he and Godo stared at one another.

Thunder rumbled high overhead, breaking the illusion of timelessness, and each leader saw the other flinch, muscles tensing, senses wide and waiting, both of them unable to make the distinction between nature and warfare for a heart stopping second.

An attack or a thunderclap? A simple shower or a prelude to yet another long, bloody battle?



The first few hard, heavy drops of water pinged off the roof, signaling the start of a deluge, and Cloud and Godo shared a long look, almost a smile, shared relief.


"I hear Heidigger's got your balls in a noose."

Progress. It was the first opening sentence from the warrior lord that didn't sound like a prelude to assault.

"It's nothing."

"Can you handle it, then?"


It was all he could say, Cloud couldn't remember whether showing strength in front of Godo was important or not, too tired to make much of an attempt. If the other man looked at him more closely, or strangely, for a moment, Cloud didn't care enough to notice.

"Fifteen percent of Wutai's soldiers from Junon, forty percent from Midgar... five percent from Rocket Town. That's my final offer."

Cloud shook his head.

"None from Rocket Town... empty Midgar if you have to, I don't care, but we can't afford to have /anyone/ leave Rocket Town now, especially not Wutai fighters..."

"You don't take me seriously."

"You don't take Hojo seriously."

Godo raised a hand, scowling, as if to snap back, and paused, lowering his hand to his temple, watching Cloud around his fingertips.

"They don't expect you to allow any concessions, you know? To them, this isn't supposed to be a meeting about negotiation..."

"I expected you to demand twenty percent from Junon, easy... and we can afford it now, with the destruction of the second Fullspawn," Cloud tried to shrug, but wasn't sure whether the effort produced any visible result, "ShinRa can't honestly expect to get away with what they did without some sort of retaliation."

His mild reply quickly angered the fighter, but of course, that was expected. Godo didn't like having the reality of the war, his true inability to do anything to severely cripple ShinRa, shoved in his face.

"I could pull them all out, you know, every soldier I have... I could fortify Wutai and leave the rest of you to fight your own war..."

It was the same threat he had screamed at Cloud, repeatedly, only hours before. The anger was still there, still hovering like a cloud around him, but Godo no longer had the strength to tap into that fury, exhausted by his own rage.

"You know that won't work, that fighting in isolation won't solve anything. ShinRa will fall, you will see its destruction... and then Hojo will strike at you with our dead, our weaponry... He will own the Planet... you won't survive long."

"I doubt that..." Godo said softly, "I imagine you'd kill him first."

Cloud laughed in complete surprise, he had not expected such a reaction...

//... remember, though, he /is/ Yuffie's father...//

"So, you'd gamble on that? Pull back your army, and force me to go on a suicide mission...?"

Godo's eyes widened at the lack of surprise in his voice, that Cloud did not seem at all shocked that the Wutai leader would make such a suggestion.

"... n-no... never... I wasn't really being serious..." Godo shook his head, dark brown eyes cloudy with pensive severity, "... it's just... odd... to know how much I depend on a ShinRa soldier... even when it's you..."

His gnarled hands clenched on the table top, and Cloud knew it was much more than simply 'odd'. Under any other circumstances, he knew, Wutai would have most likely closed its borders after the entire fight against Meteor almost permanently crippled ShinRa military power, closed its borders and never accepted anything from ShinRa again.

"It's lucky... in a way... that your soldiers and ours, are so young... They don't know the old war, they can fight together..."

He could tell Godo did not agree with his optimism.

"... because that goddamned /bastard/ Sephiroth killed all of our men /in/ that war! An entire generation /sacrificed/... only to watch our conquerors fall under the same blade that struck us..." The fighter paused, grinned as if biting down on solid steel, "Irony, that, I guess... it would be funny if it weren't so pathetic..."

"I know."

"He and his... what they did to us... how many /years/... living like feudal slaves on /our/ land! Goddamned ShinRa..."

Cloud could do, could say nothing against the man's tirade, but knew it would not last long anyway. All that had been dug up from the betrayal, all the anger Godo had inside had already been used, hours before, all that fury exhausted... these were merely the aftershocks.

//... and he knows I am not his enemy... the rage just keeps overriding that knowledge... not that I can blame him...//

The blonde could see the warrior lord fight with the violence that had sparked up again, watched it falter and die, the man sinking back against his chair, heaving a final heavy sigh.

"Gods above, I'm tired..."

Cloud nodded, leaned forward, head in one hand.

"Please tell me that means we've reached an agreement, then."

"No..." Godo snarled, shaking his head, "I'm still furious, damn it, and it won't change... Nothing... /nothing/ will change that... will alter what has happened, what ShinRa did... how they /lied/..."

His hand slammed down hard on the tabletop, muscles in the massive arm tight and tense.

"There will be no new treaties between Wutai and the ShinRa after this... none. We will take this war one day at a time from now on... we will not be made servants of it... a fight ShinRa and its kind are ultimately /responsible/ for starting."

His glare pounded into Cloud like hard-driven nails, though the blonde knew what was coming... the same question as before... always...

"/Why/ didn't you tell me, Strife? For God's sake, /why/?"

"They didn't tell me either, ShinRa wanted to keep this a secret... I never knew anything, not from them..." Cloud winced slightly, hopefully too little for Godo to see, the Planet giving him a small reminder, it seemed, of where that knowledge had come from...

He could easily remember how it had felt... both at the beginning and later, when the concrete proof finally came, the letter, a marker he could touch, adding just another pillar to the foundation, of what he already knew, what he could already feel inside... deep in his soul...

//He's back... he's /back/...//

"You should have told me."

"What would you have done?"

"I would have annihilated that lab, obviously! How would that not be better, to kill the son of a bitch before he came back, instead of now, when it would take so much to bring him down? How could that be worse than what we're dealing with now? You can't honestly tell me /you/ want him back, want him alive?!"

//... more than life itself... more than mine... more than yours, Godo... or anyone else... I would have done anything, /anything/, just to see him one more time...//


The impossible lie slipped from his lips as easily as truth. He was getting better at this, the distance between the real and the necessary falsehood increasing with every moment...

//... but that still doesn't mean it doesn't /hurt/...// Cloud thought, swallowing a stab of pain.

"I told your daughter, Godo. Yuffie knew, well before almost everyone else was told. I thought she would tell you... I thought... it was a family affair."

The Wutai leader was silent, for a very long moment, and the blonde spoke into what he thought was an oncoming strike, knowing full well that his words could bring on another firestorm of rage and pain.

"I know you have Neo-Bahamut, Lord Godo. I know you're hiding it from everyone... and from Yuffie."

"That is /none/ of your business..."

"... but punishing her by withholding it, it punishes us all. We could really use the help... it's one of the few functioning summon materia that remain," Cloud knew it had to hurt Yuffie, the seemingly insurmountable distance between her and her father, how that gap had only grown, threatened to swallow everything, after the tragedy outside Junon...

"... she didn't know what would happen to Leviathan, Godo. None of us knew what would happen... what the Fullspawn was capable of."

"You just fought one. All by yourself. You defeated it."

"I got lucky..."

Cloud was angry, that his victory somehow cinched Yuffie's defeat as an overwhelming failure in her father's eyes, that /she/ had to hurt because /he/ had done something even he thought would be suicide.

"... and if you think it didn't cost me, Godo... if you think..."

Cloud shivered slightly, though he knew the room wasn't cold, drew one knee up slightly, leaned back, trying to ease the brutal, stabbing pains inside his stomach, though it did little, if anything, and nothing for the headache slowly building behind his eyes. Things were getting worse... so much worse, and so quickly... the silence, the still... he couldn't take it...

//... have to get away... have to get /away/...//

The world blurred for a moment, shifting wildly as a burst of pure adrenaline poured through his system. It took everything he had not to run, not to follow his instincts and simply flee...

//They're going to destroy you... you know it...//

Not the Planet's voice, but his own, a warning never clearer than now...

//I know... I don't care.//


He didn't know how much Godo had seen of his inner turmoil, what the fighter was thinking, what he had assumed...

//... I'm falling apart... I'm no good to anyone like this... I can't... I have to end this, at least for tonight...//

"You're not going to abandon us, Godo?"

The warrior lord paused, for a long moment, almost too long, and the blonde did not know what he would do, did not know how to make a truce out of nothing, out of the hatred he saw in the Wutai leader's eyes... the anger of a fighter, and the overwhelming, bitter sorrow of a husband... a man who had lost all that mattered in the world...

"They killed her, Strife. Those ShinRa bastards... and Sephiroth gave the order. I know it. She was everything to me, /everything/... We had declared a truce, /just like now/, and they came anyway... they came, and they surprised us, and they..." The dark-haired man paused, looking away. Even now, it was too hard to remember, to push for the details of those still vivid memories, "He took everything."

Godo looked up.

"How can you fight for that, General? For them? After everything they've done... and everything that's been done to you? How can you protect them?"

The way the warrior lord said it, it sounded as if there could be no good answer.

"I'm not fighting for them. I'm fighting for Yuffie," Cloud hoped it didn't sound stupid, hoped somehow, his words would sink in... it was so hard to think anymore... the air in the room was stale, choking him... he was starting to get dizzy...

//... panic attacks... you weak bastard, don't you /dare/ do this...// His conscience, judge, jury and drill sergeant, //...keep it together, keep it together...//

"I'm fighting for Zack, and Tifa, and everyone else... Cid, Vincent, Li, Nanaki... all of them... the Planet... everyone... There will be nothing left if Hojo wins, no people, no life, /nothing/. It will be a nightmare. I can't let that happen."

"You don't trust /him/..."

"He killed Aeris."

Another lie, but what did it really matter anymore? It couldn't hurt /more/, right? It couldn't possibly hurt him worse than he felt now... that just wasn't possible. Cloud tried to tell himself he could barely feel the sting of it, across his heart, another mark against what was already scarred, already dying...

"There's nothing that can be done, though, nothing we can do to change what /is/. He... Sephiroth... he might..."

These words were much harder, for who knew if they were lie or not?

//... and who is the fool, whatever happens, who thinks he has the right to challenge the choices of a god?//

"... he might betray us, I don't know... but we may need... I think we /have to/ take that risk... and I know you know that too. I've seen Wutai, how hard, how long you've suffered..."

"We won't surrender," Godo said stubbornly, crossing his arms, recognizing the destruction, the ruin in his land with exactly the same stubbornness and determination Cloud knew Yuffie would have, had she been in his position, "... we won't surrender, /ever/. I cannot agree with ShinRa's actions... I will /never/ agree..." A pause, "but..."

Cloud exhaled in slight relief at that word, the world that had been alternating between gritty determination and an impossible terror, his world, now appeared to be leveling out...

//Thank God...//

"... Wutai will not be the one to break the alliance. You are... you are right... and no matter what I feel, I recognize what has always been true: we will not win this war divided. You have my support."

Cloud reached across the table, took Godo's hand for a moment, a quick handshake.

Their eyes met, and Godo's mouth curved into the barest semblance of a smile.

"Now that we've come to an agreement... I'd very much appreciate a chance to discuss the matter further, alone... with Heidigger."

Cloud nodded slightly, mirroring the Wutai leader's predatory smirk.


Sephiroth was not used to waiting, not used to sitting on the sidelines while the world moved on without him. He went where he wanted, did what he wanted, and was willing to deal with the consequences of angering whomever he did. He would fight those who stood in his way, he didn't care, would not fear retaliation.

If you weren't a fighter, life would destroy you. There had never really been a choice, until now.

He stood just outside the row of buildings lining the edge of the officer's area, as close as he could get to where he knew the meeting was going on, Cloud and Godo, Zack and some other important Wutai officials...

Lord Godo was very angry, Sephiroth had heard, furious enough that he wouldn't even see Zack, wouldn't acknowledge /anyone/ with past alliances to ShinRa, for what the corporation had kept secret from him, for all the memories that had surfaced because of that lie.

//As if we had time to indulge you, old man. As if anything that happened, when it all comes down to it, as if it means anything /now/...//

That righteous anger, the challenge to his sense of logic and honor had almost made Sephiroth /demand/ to see Godo, to cut through any politeness and decorum and just get down to business...

//... of who would live, and who would die, maybe. I don't really want to kill him, I never did, but if that is what it will take... if things won't truly be resolved, won't go forward until one of us dies... if the rest of the war is compromised, just because of this focus on the past...//

He had been ready and willing to deal with such a fight, to settle it quickly and permanently, but Zack had stood in the way, literally barring the door, doing everything in his power to make the white-haired man reconsider his course of action.


"He's just upset..." Zack stood, hand outstretched across the doorframe, watching the white-haired man, determinedly blocking his path, "... and a few of the other soldiers, the older ones, they're not taking this well... I'm just going to go talk to them, explain our position... and Cloud is already with Lord Godo. We're going to figure this out, we're not going to back down..." He raised his hands, a gesture of complete futility, "What's done is done. They'll just have to accept that... I swear, Seph, everything will be fine, but it's important... this transition... Godo's /not/ the most levelheaded person, especially considering the circumstances..."

"... and you're letting Cloud Strife defend me?" Sephiroth could not help but raise an eyebrow at the obvious irony.

//I wouldn't be surprised if they're counting out the minutes until they can get rid of me...//

No, he thought with a flash of dark humor. There would probably be plenty of torture first.

Zack didn't answer him right away, and Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as he looked up, and he found himself staring at his friend's unexpected expression. His gaze didn't match the flow of the conversation, the almost lost, terribly /sad/ look in the dark-haired man's eyes... distant, as if his comment had sent his friend off somewhere else entirely...

//... but what... I didn't say anything...// He frowned, still watching, as Zack snapped out of whatever daze he was in.

"Mm? No..." Hazel eyes tipped up to his for a moment, as casual, as unconcerned as ever... obviously hiding something...

//Cloud... that's who he's worried about...//

Sephiroth twisted that thought out like a dull knife, refusing to believe, even for a moment...

//... what's right in front of your face? He's just protecting you... doesn't want you to get hurt... that he and Cloud...//

//... just SHUT UP!!!//

"Don't worry, Seph..." Zack went on, unaware that anything was wrong, "... Cloud..." again, the pause, and Sephiroth tried not to react, "... he knows it's... important. He'll convince Godo, they trust each other... just... /please/... try and stay out of their way? Just for a while..."

Sephiroth finally nodded, conceding what he knew was little more than his own stubborn pride. Zack grinned,

"I owe you one."

It happened on pure instinct, one of his hands grabbing Zack's tightly, hurling the casual comment into oblivion.

"You owe me nothing."

Sephiroth couldn't help it, a part of him raged at his logic for betraying him, he /knew/ what Zack had said before, that he had been completely forgiven... but still... but still...

Glowing eyes, the color of warm, freshly upturned earth, smiled gently at him.

"Forget it. It's over. I don't need you to keep hurting... not for something I never blamed you for to begin with..." He paused, head tilted just slightly, almost daring the other man to argue, telling him in advance it would be futile.

"I /never/ blamed you, Seph. Not ever."

"You'd be the only one," Sephiroth murmured. Past Zack, on the other side of the street, a few Wutai soldiers were walking, each of them watching him, with coiled violence in every step, and every pair of eyes was daring him to step out, to challenge them.

"... No, I'm not..."

Sephiroth looked up at his friend's murmur.


Zack started visibly, eyes widening. He had obviously not meant to say that out loud.

"Nothing... it's nothing... and I have to go..." he pulled his hand free, grabbed some documents from the tabletop, "... trust me, it will all work out. We just need some time to set things right..."


Sephiroth had abandoned his friend's quiet aside after a moment or two of consideration, unable to make anything sensible out of it. Most likely Zack was just tired, muttering bits and pieces of his thoughts aloud to try and bring some clarity, and had been embarrassed to have been caught at it.

//Understandable, though... I'm surprised everyone's held up as well as they have... that this place isn't on the verge of collapse...//

It was nearing dark now, the meetings had been taking place for some time, there was no sign of any of the soldiers he had seen going in, of Zack, Godo, or...

Sephiroth's eyes quickly caught the sudden movement, light blonde hair reaching high in stubborn, almost arrogant spikes, a lone figure moving down a fire escape, quickly, towards the ground.


Sephiroth was standing in plain view, not even slightly in the shadows that had appeared as the streetlights turned on around him.

Strife still didn't seem to notice his presence, jumping off the edge of the platform, and hit the ground without ever looking up, moving across the wide courtyard that divided the officer's quarters from the rest of the town.

Sephiroth could see the blonde shiver slightly, though the wind and very light rain was barely cold, and watched as Cloud walked faster, pulling his hands up, rubbing at his arms as he quickly moved across the road.

//He reminds me... of someone... I think... from ShinRa...//

Sephiroth started to wonder, as the other man continued walking closer, still unaware he was on a collision course, if he should say something, should try to catch the fighter's eye.


The white-haired man knew what might happen. He was the enemy here, not Strife, and even if he did nothing, nothing except catch the other man by surprise, he had seen enough, watched the way the blonde's friends acted, to know what the reaction would be if Cloud, startled, attacked him... which he very well could...

//It would be unprovoked... but that word means nothing now, not here... I provoked him plenty, there is so much between us that /I/ don't even know about... and even if it wasn't really /me/... something tells me that won't matter much. I don't think he'll be as forgiving as Zack was...//

His stubborn side, though, refused to let him speak, refused to treat this new General with any special care, to walk on Chocobo shells around him, as if he were /afraid/ to anger the blonde...

//never afraid... of anyone... /ever/...///

It really didn't matter, either way, what his final decision was.

Well before he had made up his mind, Cloud finally looked up, and froze in the middle of the street as he saw who was standing on the other side.

The blonde stepped into the long shadow of a building as he moved forward again, just slightly more slowly. The pitch darkness obscuring even most of the glow from his eyes, as his head tilted away, but as he came out of the shadows Sephiroth saw his worst-case scenario was probably the one that would come to pass.

There was only icy, unforgiving anger in the blonde's eyes as he continued forward, and an increasing sense of tension, power building with each step he took. Sephiroth considered reaching for his sword for a moment, but realized that would surely instigate a battle... and Strife had not moved his hand yet, had not reached for the weapon strapped across his own back...

//... but if he decides to fight...//

The white-haired man did not want to deal with it, did not want to come to blows over nothing. It would, most likely, be a duel to the death, he doubted Cloud would give any quarter, and Sephiroth knew he would fight to win, as he always did...

//... and if I won...// He couldn't imagine the number of people who would come down upon him for that "victory"... ShinRa, the soldiers and the officers both... the blonde's friends, all of them decent enough fighters in their own right, the pilot, the barmaid... and he could /not/ defeat them /all/... Godo, Kisaragi, the rest of Wutai...

//The Planet...//

He could not tell if Cloud was having similar problems, but the push of voices was back in full force, the surge of emotion inside his mind was getting louder and louder as the blonde drew closer... He could barely make out any words, just the anger, the fury... that he was not allowed to /touch/ Strife, not allowed... that he should turn and walk away... leave, how dare he... how dare...

//He's the one coming towards me, damn it!!!//

Sephiroth had reached a very dangerous boiling point with those voices, with the Cetera. He had assumed, through a few whispers of returning memory, through simple deduction over the past few days that /they/, those stewards of the Planet, were the origin of the voices in his head, the ones always trying to push into his thoughts, to threaten him,... the same voices, he assumed, that Strife was dealing with.

//... the flower girl... I remember... she was one of them...//

...except those voices helped the blonde, it seemed, while they only saw fit to torment him.

//... because I am Jenova's child...// the absolute idiocy of that hatred almost made him laugh, //yeah, right...//

With all his might, Sephiroth forced the voices back, knowing they could not control him, pushed them down behind a sturdy mental wall, until they were only a bare murmur, clamoring at him from far away.

Cloud finally stopped, a few feet from where he stood, and those blue eyes locked on his, staring at him silently, devoid of all emotion save anger. It was then that Sephiroth realized who he was reminded of... the look in his eyes, the arrogant, naive rage...

//Rufus ShinRa.//

Sephiroth couldn't say exactly why the thought hit him... physically, the two men were completely different...

//No. No they're not, not really...//

Cloud and Rufus, he thought suddenly, were easily two of the prettiest, and for the most part, straight-acting boys he had ever seen. Fine, delicate features, slight builds, beautiful, wide eyes that looked vulnerable, no matter how strong, how fearless the personality that lay behind them...

//Strife even has an /earring/, for God's sake...// The tiny, gold dot winked in the blonde's left ear like a silent smirk, some rebellious transgression.

Making ludicrously obvious passes at the abysmally uptight Rufus had always been one of Sephiroth's favorite pastimes, back in the old days. There was nothing quite like the joy of watching the other man squirm, seethe or outright scream back at him with every veiled comment he made.

He realized now how stupid it had been, that it had been one of the reasons the President had truly been uncomfortable around him, always secretly fearing for his son's "virtue"...

//... no loss there, I'm afraid... the little brat never had any to begin with...//

... and he knew it had also been both horribly self-indulgent and incredibly immature...

//... but there's nothing better than cracking some tight-assed upstart's entire smug, self-assured little world, making them lose that impenetrable calm they all think they have... it's gratifying as hell...//

Even now, with all that he knew of the past, all that he knew of the man in front of him, he found himself wanting to slap the self-righteous fury right off of Cloud Strife's face. There was something so annoying about the way the other man was standing, almost preparing himself for battle, the stubbornness in the set of his jaw, the already cocked and loaded retaliation, as if he expected a fight, when Sephiroth had presented /no/ offense...

"What?" the white-haired man finally said, voice as dry as dust, completely unimpressed, and nearly laughed as Cloud blinked, fumbled for a moment with his blank expression...

//Did you not expect me to say something, Strife? Or was I just supposed to stand here and wait for you?//

He had to give the blonde credit, though, he recovered quickly. A heartbeat later, there was no sign of any surprise or confusion on Cloud's face.

"Don't go near Godo. He wants a battle... a rematch. You're not allowed to give him one."

Sephiroth's thoughts crashed into each other, in complete disbelief. He would take advice from Zack, hell, he would take /orders/ from Zack, but if this little bastard thought he...

"I outrank you, you know."

Sephiroth startled, just slightly, unnoticeable to anyone but himself... Strife had read him, somehow...

//... impossible.//

... he /knew/ he had shown nothing, that no expression, no emotion had ever been strong enough to break his front of calm. Years of dealing with ShinRa officers and their bullshit had drilled into him the necessity of revealing nothing, of being completely unreadable...

"I won't apologize for what happened in the ShinRa-Wutai war. I followed my orders back then. I did what I was told."

"That would be a first."

Sephiroth felt an insane rush of anger, and for a brief, electric moment, wanted nothing more to drive his fist right down the shorter man's throat, beat the hell out of him for daring... daring to...

The white-haired man felt it all dissipate, the fury gone as quickly as it had come, as he realized why he was so angry...

//He's the first person... the first person to talk to me like this, to be this rude... in...//

It had been so long, he could not remember, if a time had ever existed at all...

//... so... he's not afraid of me.//

Cloud winced suddenly, putting a hand up to his temple, bending over slightly, his other hand on his knee. The blonde couldn't keep any sense of power, or ready defense about him now, breath coming in short, painful gasps, teeth clenched against the pain.

The sight drove all thoughts of immaturity or surprise out of Sephiroth's mind, and the voices surged back inside his head, driven forth by some new burst of power.

//... you... Jenova's... Jenova's child... you did... to him... leave him... leave... alone... /now/...//

He didn't flinch, didn't try to deny that cold murmur, that accusation. The voices spoke the truth.

//... and I won't run from it... not anymore...//

He wondered though, that if he didn't have that power, if he was no longer was a tool of Jenova's will... how was he hurting Cloud now? ... and if he wasn't, why was the blonde in such obvious pain?

Strife recovered after a long moment, keeping his hand against his head as he blinked slowly, several times. The walls had cracked, fallen apart, Sephiroth could see confusion, vicious agony inside the sparkling blue waters as he slowly stood...

"... don't... don't touch me..."

Cloud had to have meant him, there was no one else around... but Sephiroth hadn't moved to help him... though for a moment, the white-haired man felt the strange urge to do so...

The blonde looked, just for a moment, as if all his defenses had failed, as if he were truly without hope, help, or protection, in serious danger...

Sephiroth was actually startled, as those glowing eyes turned up and focused directly on him. Though he knew Cloud /knew/ who he was, the white-haired man could see no anger in that gaze anymore, just a searching, questioning look, the blonde blinking slowly, as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

Another strike of pain hit him, sending the blonde to his knees as his face twisted in pain, both hands up this time, shaking, trembling as he fought off the silent attack...

/but how... and why? I'm not... /I/ didn't do anything.../

//Leave, Jenova! LEAVE NOW!//

The voices inside Sephiroth's head swirled like dry leaves, but were no threat, they could do nothing, and he forced them back again... how dare they... how dare...

"/Don't touch me/!!!"

This time, the words were louder, aimed directly at him, and Sephiroth realized only after they were spoken that he /had/ been moving towards Cloud, one gloved hand extended to help...

//... to help... what the /hell/?!//

He was more surprised than Cloud ever could have been, ignored the blonde as he stepped back, immediately shoving that surprise, that unexpected reaction into another place in his mind... not forgetting... he wanted to think about it further, but right now, right now there were more pressing concerns.

The blonde slowly stood up, and his eyes were flashing wildly. For a long, silent moment, Sephiroth was sure they were heartbeats away from battle, he could almost see Cloud drawing his weapon, lunging forward with a wild cry... it sparked a distant memory...

//no... no I didn't... didn't mean to... didn't want...//

Voices again, but these were memories... diamond tears in the darkness... his life was fading, draining away to nothing, and someone was leaning over him, crying... his last sensation... the new wetness, falling atop his own, freely flowing blood...

//I didn't... please.... forgive.... I'm so /sorry/...//

"Just don't do anything stupid," Cloud murmured, dropping his eyes, stepping past Sephiroth and continuing down the path.

"Strife," the white-haired man said, "... we haven't solved anything, yet. There are things... I think we should discuss..."

"Save it for someone who cares, Sephiroth," Cloud did not even turn to face him, looked only halfway back, turned toward the street, "I'm not going to sabotage this war for any personal vendetta, and I can only pray that you won't either. Just stay out of my way, and we won't have anything to worry about."



"Come here, you," Billy muttered, adjusting his grip as the warm, chubby Chocobo chick tried to wriggle its way out of his arms.

"Wark, wark!"

At his feet, a half-dozen more chicks and slightly older birds kept bumping and pecking against his shins, clamoring for attention.

"Oh, stop that! You don't like this, remember!? It's medicine!"

He expertly pushed the tiny beak open with one hand, and squeezed the dropper full of disgusting green slime down the bird's throat, letting the chick drop to the ground as soon as he had done so.

He couldn't blame the birds for not liking the stuff, he had taken a test whiff once and spent the next fifteen minutes turning various shades of green, and nearly hacked up a lung to boot. It drove him crazy, though, how the chicks only seemed to remember that they didn't like the medicine when he was trying to feed it to them, and never before or after. The tiny bird he had just given its dose to, for instance, was already standing with one claw on his foot, chirping up at him excitedly, beady eyes following the rest of them, all on the bottle in his hands.

"Wark! Wark wark wark wark!"

"Oh, come on! You just had some! You know it's not food! It's not treats!"

He winced the moment he said it, knowing the birds recognized that word.

"Wark wark wark wark wark wark!"

//"Oh, it will be all right, Billy..."// Priscilla's voice was clear as a bell in his memory, drowning out the sound of his own grumbling, //"they won't cause too much trouble..."//

"... my ass... her and I together, we have enough of a time keeping them corralled..."

The young man gritted his teeth, wondering how in the world he was going to separate them into their pens for the night. He should have known better... to bring them all out at once...

//There was no simple way to do this... I just could kill for another pair of hands...//

"Wark?! Wark!"

A head shot up, turned towards the door around the corner. Billy heard a creaking sound, someone else inside the breeding pens.

"Wark wark wark wark wark!!!!"

"Come back... no... come back you stupid...!" He nearly lost his footing amidst the sudden stampede of tiny, excited birds, each of them chirping madly as they ran to greet the new arrival...

//No one was supposed to be here now... God, I hope it's not...// The list of people he did not want to see covered in rambunctious, gleeful Chocobo chicks was about a mile long.

Billy quickly stumbled around the corner... heard a voice amidst the still frantic chirping...

"... hey there... you look healthy..."

He knew that voice, but couldn't place it right away...

Billy rounded the corner sharply, and nearly ran into The General, who had knelt down, was gently petting one of the blue Chocobos.

"Oh! Ah, er! General, sir!"

Billy saluted, nearly went white in alarm as a stupidly brave gold Chocobo chick, freshly hatched, made a wild jump onto The General's shoulder and started biting at his hair.

The soldier's jaw almost hit the floor as Cloud only laughed, angling around to gently grab the tiny bird, lifting it away from its merciless attack on his blonde spikes.

"They're not greens! They're /not/ greens!"

He set the bird down, tapping it slightly on the head, a gentle punishment the bird missed entirely, as it tried to leap up and grab one of the blonde strands before he stood up, barely missing the target.

"Sorry sir... sorry..." Billy quickly grabbed the small golden ball of fluff, ignored its struggles, hoping he didn't seem too nervous. The General's smile faded like dawn to daybreak as he looked up, and nodded slightly.

"It's fine, Bill. You here all alone?"

"Yes sir... Priscilla had to go out to one of the Wutai encampments. Bad grain... some of the birds aren't doing too well..."

The General nodded, looked down as one of the tiny black Chocobos chirped in frustration, and started attacking a small, torn off piece of his boot. Billy winced, but his commander merely pulled a tiny package from his back pocket, bent down again... He tore off a piece, held it out...

"They're not too fresh, but they're good..." Another impossible chuckle, as the bird nearly took the tips of his fingers off along with the greens. The chick immediately started warbling for more, and the rest of the group quickly chimed in, crawling all over each other to get closer to the treat. Cloud took the bag back out, crumbling the rest of the greens in his hand, and tossed them in a wide spread. Feathers and tiny claws flew everywhere as the chicks scattered, quickly eating up the delicious snack.

The General dusted off his hands as he shoved the bag back into his pocket, fixing Billy to the spot for a moment with his trademark icy blue stare. There was nothing dangerous, no need to be afraid, and yet the chocobo master still felt his stomach drop a good four feet, knocking at his knees.

"I didn't see Karat in the infirmary stalls, and... I thought they'd all returned, in the last hour or so..."

There was no infliction in the General's voice, just a statement of fact, although the way the bird had looked when he had seen it last, Billy knew where The General assumed the chocobo had gone.

//God... he's really made out of stone... just like they say.//

"He's fine, sir."

A flicker of light, in those cold, glowing eyes, or just his imagination?

"The injuries were bad, but he's healing very well, and we moved him to the larger stalls, for the less wounded birds just a little while ago. We find... er, I find, they do better with company, and I thought..."

"Good job, Bill. Thank you."

Billy swallowed the rest of that sentence, silently cursing himself for his rambling, saluting as the General walked away.




Karat's golden head lifted a few inches from the fresh bed of straw it had been laying on, small breaths testing the air, familiar smells stirring sensations of recognition, as a figure melted out of the darkness...

"Wark, wark?"

"It's just me, stupid bird..."

Cloud dropped down into a low crouch for a moment, but thought the better of it, removing his sword and letting it rest against the side of the stall, sitting down next to the resting Chocobo. Karat lifted his head a little higher, nudging the blonde's chest with its beak.

"Sorry I didn't come sooner... I just learned they brought you back..." He grinned as Karat's beak nibbled slightly on the front pocket of his uniform, and the bird warbled in curiosity.

"I gave the last treat I had to the hatchlings..." Cloud reached up towards the bird's feedbag, pulled out a handful of greens, "... but hey, these are still good. Hell, they're better than what the line's serving up for dinner, I can tell you that..."

The chocobo delicately took the greens from his hand, ate slowly as Cloud threaded his fingers through the bird's thick plumage, gently stroking the shimmering gold on the top of his head, letting the feathery silk slide slowly between his fingers.

"Good bird... eat up... you'll get healthy again... we can get you back out on the field..."

//... where you'll probably die...//

Cloud felt his breath hitch, an intense, unexpected pain cut into him with the thought, as if he had suddenly been slit from breastbone to throat. He grimaced, forcing the sudden tears back, even as they seeped down around his closed lids. The most likely foreshadowing, he knew, to nearly lose Karat, right before the real tragedy... the future could /only/ get worse...

//... not now... please... not now... I can't... can't lose it now...//

If he broke, this late into things, with everything that still lay ahead, Cloud didn't think he'd have the strength to put himself back together.

The blonde ran a hand through his hair, swallowing hard, breathing raggedly as some sort of calm returned to him. He was shaking slightly, felt horribly cold, even though Karat's warm head had dropped down, was now resting in his lap.

//Sick... you know you have a fever... you're sick... and you don't /get/ sick... you know... what that means...//

He had been pushing himself too hard, for too long, as Melissa had so angrily pointed out... even his Mako-enhanced body couldn't keep up under all the strain... the fatigue... near starvation... not to mention the fighting.

//There's nothing else I can do, though... the army needs me, all those soldiers... whether I can do it or not, they need me. There is no choice... I /have/ to fight...//

It was better, really, in every way... and so much better than the alternative... of having to actually /live/ his life instead of just exist, let it fall in around him. If he felt like shit all the time, he didn't have to think about anything else except making it through the day, everything else faded mercifully to the background...

//... all that matters... the fight... all that matters, that is your life now... just don't think... don't...//

He forced himself to calm down, listened to the sound of his heartbeat, until it stopped pounding, and no longer made his head ache. Cloud looked down, across the rough cut, stone floor. A few lanterns were lit, giving the room a dim, quiet ambience. The only sound was that of soft, peaceful breathing, five or six other Chocobos, recovering from their injuries, resting quietly...

The blonde gently stroked the top of Karat's head, more to calm himself than anything, felt the heat radiating from the mass of feathers beneath his fingertips, the shifting of bones as the bird swallowed in its sleep, turned its head slightly, its beak now parallel with his knee. Familiarity brought the only comfort he could accept anymore, and this had been how he had spent many nights, many quiet moments in between battles, just resting with Karat, not thinking about his defenses, not fearing questions, curious glances. Animals were nice that way... they couldn't see his secrets, never wanted for more than food and water, a little kindness now and then, a pile of special greens or a pat on the head... they didn't ask things of him that he could not provide.


//... why are you so afraid, Cloud? Why are you so afraid to love?//

Only stupid people asked questions like that, only witless, /stupid/ people would dare to ever say something like that to him. Anyone who felt things as strongly as he did wouldn't even think to ask. Cloud didn't remember which doctor had said it, where or when or why, only that he had quickly relieved himself of that physician's services, determined never to go back.

He didn't want to live like that, though, not anymore. He didn't /want/ to feel things anymore, to even bother to ask himself the questions, to feel bad about it. It only hurt, God, all it did, /all/ it brought him was more pain...


The voice was soft, a whisper in his mind, a memory still too close, still too painful...

//You'd let me die, you'd sacrifice me in your heart, because you can't get past your self-pity? You'd let me die forever, because you think you're /suffering/... because it's just too /hard/ for you...//

/No.../ he whispered back, feeling the tears fall, hating himself for his own weakness, his horrible selfishness, the accusation in her voice... /... Elly, I never... I didn't mean it like that.../

He deserved to hurt, for all he had done to her. He deserved to be tortured, to suffer, forever.

//... and how much can your love really mean, if you're not strong enough to bear it?//

The voice changed, and he shivered, all the way down to his soul, cowering away from what that new presence knew about him... /everything/... all his faults, all his flaws...

//... you're just like the worst of them... nothing special... just as fickle and self-deceiving, and so /selfish/... you never loved me...//

Cloud was horrified past rational thought, that accusation shattering all that he was, the very center of his soul...

/no... no... Sephiroth.../


"... no! I didn't mean to... I never...!" Cloud jerked out of his half-daze, blinked, words fading as he realized he was still staring at the same patch of lamp-lit floor he had been watching before, that he was alone. He didn't remember... what had...

//I fell asleep...//

/... one moment of rest... one moment of calm... that's all it will take... you break so easily... weakling.../

Cloud shivered, unable to deal with that voice, his vivid, brutal conscience, now some secret oracle, mocking his weakness.

//I have to go on... I have to go on... nothing else matters... I just /have to go on/...//

He gently lifted Karat's head from his knee. The bird gave a very sleepy chirp of protest, annoyed at being awakened, quickly settling back down against the straw, to sleep, as its rider slowly climbed to his feet.

The room spun as soon as he was upright, and the sudden throbbing pain in his head, hands, feet, /everything/, threatened to send him back to the ground. Cloud reached out quickly, drunkenly, hand grasping the side beam of the stall with clumsy fingers. He leaned against the support for a long moment, half sure he would still fall, the ache in his arms and legs incredible, as if he were being beaten, muscles shivering from overuse. The blond felt sick with sudden warmth, the heat radiating from his skin was incredible, burning from the soles of his feet to his sore, tired eyes. He desperately needed to rest... God, just to rest, recover even a little strength...

//I can't... I can't...//

It wouldn't help to sleep, he knew that, because he would dream... and he did /not/ want to dream.

//Keep moving... just keep moving...//

Cloud forced himself away from the support, pushing the exhaustion, the awareness back, hiding in the anger, drawing it up around him like a comforting blanket, using the pain like scalding water, forging his will... unbreakable... he had to be... there was too much, too much weighing down on him, to break now...

//... take strength in the battle... take solace in the fight... it will feed you... anger, pain... believe in it... you know it will never leave you...//

Somehow, there was even comfort in the agony, a certain peace of mind in knowing that Anjele would seek to destroy him, that he would surely see more friends die, that he would be cast aside, abandoned, alone... Misery seemed to seep through even the most joyous parts of life, attacked without warning or provocation, destroying anything pure or beautiful...

//... Aeris...//

At least if he lost all hope, if he lived with the expectation of brutal, pointless violence, he would never have to feel the sting of sudden disappointment, no one would touch him, make him feel, hurt him again...

//You really don't believe that, do you?//

The voice was so loud in his mind he swore someone had spoken aloud, and Cloud dropped into a crouch without thinking, pulling a smaller dagger from a hidden sheath, ready to plunge it into the heart of his enemy...

... even before he looked up, even before he saw the green glow that had replaced most of the other light in the room... and the figure watching him, tossing strands of hair away from her eyes, hair that should have been brown... not shimmering green, aquamarine and endless... the Lifestream...

"... Aeris?"


It wasn't possible. He had finally gone completely, irrevocably insane...

Or perhaps not, one look into those green pools, no different color from the rest of her green-blue form, glowing more powerfully than his eyes ever could, told him this was not the kind, gentle Aeris who had come to him in the past...

//... the Aeris who says she is true, the same way this Aeris says she is true... and both, the Aeris that I... that I destroyed...//

/You really think you're so cold? You're so brave, with your pathetic, self-serving martyrdom?/

The shining Aeris crossed her arms, angry eyes narrowing in contempt and fury. Cloud did not move from where he stood, and only put the dagger back because he was sure, if she attacked him, a few inches of steel would do little to stop anything she could do to him.

"What /are/ you...?"

//... you really think you can live through it, don't you?//

The brilliant green ghost wavered in and out of reality like a flickering candle, ignoring his question completely.

//Do you remember what it was like, really, to live like that? We can see... we know what it was like... curled on your bed at thirteen in tears, begging God to kill you... begging for anyone to end it, just so that you didn't have to wake up one more day... that you didn't have to get up and live for one more day...? You can do that now? You can ignore that now?//

"I was a child then... I didn't understand..."

//... that things get better?// Aeris's voice was a snide, sarcastic hiss, tearing through his hopes, his future like a whirlwind, ecstatic fire consuming everything but the hate, the anger, the shame.

//No...// He nearly laughed, once again, at the Cetera's simplicity, the understanding that was at times so insightful, but at others was incredibly dim. Did they really think /that/ was what had kept him going, all this time? That he was an optimist?

//No... but things can only get so bad. It can only hurt so much...//

//... and that you can live with that worst case? You can somehow learn to numb the pain?//

He gritted his teeth, knowing what they would do a split-second before it happened, feeling that green reach plow into him, unstoppable, split and divide inside his mind, throwing out image after image, memories he did not want to see... The horrible ache, regret, sorrow, shame, came well before recognition....

His mother... his town... the fires of hell, consuming everything he never knew he had held on to so tightly... and Tifa... most likely Zack's memory, but he could still see it, still see her make that desperate, /stupid/ lunge for vengeance...

/Tifa, oh God, Tifa get /back/!!!/

He had thought she was dead. He had been so sure, all that time, that she had died along with the rest of his world...

//The specimen's growth rate is slowing...// Cloud winced, knowing he would remember every line, every wrinkle in that smile until the day he died, //I will be increasing the dosages... administering electric shock in addition...//

The never ending smell of chemicals, thick in the air, unavoidable... it would have made him puke, if he hadn't been trying to scream at the same time...

Hojo, always Hojo, at the end of every nightmare, on the other side of every heart-shattering darkness, when he woke up on the field and didn't know where he was, didn't know /when/ he was, whether it had all been a dream, or if he was back... back for another set of experiments... another round of tests...

...and that smile... the pain coming... it was coming, to tear right down his center, right through his soul, and destroy... destroy everything...

He had been so afraid.

/Elly was afraid, too.../

The thought, so vivid, hit more than hard enough to impale him, sending a piercing pain down through his body, stabbing at weak, shaking limbs... It should have, that day should have killed him then and there... so much should have killed him... so long ago...

Jenova... that coal-black darkness slithering through all his protections, that unstoppable, intimate touch... god, it /hurt/... and his most private, most sacred memories, his life, everything he had held true... she shit on it all, she laughed at what he thought was important, because she knew that all his work, all his reverence was nothing... Jenova forced him to see, to admit that his life was nothing.... and then she shattered it, broke everything... he had felt her, felt the joy she took in watching him break... could feel her /devouring/ his life... saw the pieces of his soul fall like splinters of worthless glass all around her... her invisible smile of unending, sadistic glee... how could /anything/ be so cruel?

//... a lifetime of this... of pain on top of pain, and not even the knowledge that you have a noble soul to pull you through... you know... you /know/ that in the end, it's all meaningless, all this pain, and you'll simply /die/...//

Cloud gasped, swayed on his feet, determined not to fall, eyes closed, hands clenched at his sides, paler than death... knowing they were right, there was no way to fight back... knowing that pain came in so many forms, so many, and it didn't matter how hard you fought, how many hopes you had for the future...

Zack. Zack was dead, his body limp and lifeless in the mud over Midgar... and Cloud couldn't do anything... couldn't change /anything/... and didn't even have the strength to lift his friend into his arms...

Only an hour ago... they had been well on their way to safety... and now Zack was dead... ShinRa... they had taken everything /again/... his happiness, the only thing he had left, the only person he could trust

... they were going to be safe... it was going to be all right...

His life ended that day. Again.

//... and even when you tried to cushion the blow, soften the strike even a little bit... no one would let you...//

At the very first, there had not even been a Zack, not until Cloud had needed to fill in the gaps, flaws in his recollections that he simply could not overlook... and even then, the half-memory, the deception, even living in only partial truths, Cloud had still felt the hole inside, the friendship that had been so easily torn away...

//... and even then, it wasn't enough...// The Cetera chuckled, amused by the depth, the unending potential of human suffering, //... even then, they wouldn't simply let you be...//

/I didn't want to come back, Tifa!!! You /stupid/, heartless bitch, how /dare/ you bring me back!!! It hurts... it /hurts/... I DIDN'T WANT TO BE HERE!!!/

Cloud couldn't help the moment of anger, that searing rage at Tifa Lockheart, for meddling in things she could not possibly understand, making choices, consequences /she/ didn't have to live with... not anything like what he had to realize... what he had to bear...

/I wanted to /stay/ there... don't you see that? I didn't want to know... I didn't /want/ to remember... There was nothing left for me, nothing except knowing that I wasn't... that I wasn't.../

That he wasn't important, he wasn't special. That his place could have been filled by anyone, absolutely /anyone/. That, ultimately, and forever, he was nothing, he never had been of any value, just the body that had happened to be in the way.

//That's it... let it out, human... let all that rage out...//

Always smiling for her, supportive for /her/, for /all/ of them, pretending he fought alongside them, that he had believed in their cause, that he truly /cared/ what happened to himself or the Planet... because he knew that the battle had to be fought, it /had/ to...

//... to save the Planet... a planet full of people who probably don't deserve to be saved...//

His conscience, judge, jury... but Cloud could not bring himself to be executioner, could never decide to sacrifice the world, to not fight, no matter what /he/ had thought... no matter what the price.

... and none of them knew that. None of them ever understood what it cost him... what he saw every time he closed his eyes... why he didn't sleep if he could do /anything/ else, wouldn't even rest if there were Hypers in reach... and why he usually woke up screaming.

No point. There was no point in sharing that, sharing what would only make them hurt more, could only cause unnecessary anguish...

... even though their camaraderie was something he could see but never reach, no matter how much he lied, no matter what they thought... Tifa, Cid, Nanaki... their friendship was like a fire... he could stand as close to as he wanted, but would never get any warmth... he was always on the outside, always alone... a thousand miles away...

//... the pain never goes away, does it Strife? That day you're waiting for, what you want, it will never come... and you want it so badly... you can't deny that you want it... you can't lie anymore... You've always felt like that, it's been your entire /life/...//

... watching them... always watching, for years and years, knowing he would never, ever be good enough, never be even /second/ best... he would never speak... could never... and they would never know...

Light and dark, the brightest star and his shadow double, walking through the world as if they owned it, everything they did carrying such confident ease, everyone they passed always impressed, watching them walk by in awe and pride... Never wrong, never arrogant, never shamed, some higher power had decreed their perfection, their place at the top of the world, that they would always be perfect in every way, and, God... they /were/. Cloud could no more strive to emulate them than he could wish to join the stars...


"Zack..." Cloud whimpered softly, the memory drawing him back to the real world for a moment, his shaking, sore limbs barely holding him upright, a headache slowly crushing his skull into dust.

He knew his friend could not hear him, that the other General was far away, out on an important mission... doing something that /mattered/...

//... solving a problem, saving a life... making a difference... not like you, not like you, you worthless... worthless...//

Cloud could not hide, there was no safe haven. When the Cetera were not attacking him, his conscience quickly stepped in to fill the void...

//...and most likely,// it whispered bitterly, //Zack doesn't care about you anymore, anyway...//

"That's not true..." The blonde hissed, blinking back tears of agony, the pain in his head almost unbearable.

//...after all, you didn't save his life when the soldiers attacked, did you? He was there... always there... when you needed him... but when he was in trouble, where were you?//

Cloud knew he was weak... knew he was pathetic, and it hurt him, shamed him to not have the strength to keep from calling out anyway, he was not strong enough to salvage his dignity from fear, to call out to the one he had betrayed most with his cowardice...

"Oh Zack... /please/... please... /anyone/... help me..."


It was the base of his existence, and truly, he could not remember more than a few fragments of a time before he had watched from the shadows, a moment when that hero worship, that longing had not been with him.

The power... the control that they had been born with, the respect they commanded... the camaraderie... and Cloud had spent hours at night imagining that, wondering what it would be like, to have someone like that, to know that he wasn't completely, /utterly/ alone. He dreamed about it, until everything dissolved into tears, until he sobbed, alone, until he fell asleep, consumed by the knowledge of what would never, ever be...

...it hurt so badly, /all/ the time, and whenever he saw them he could not stop watching, while with every moment his heart was snapping in his chest, and he wondered if he could die from it, from the longing, that need to belong, if only for a moment...

Just one look... oh god, just one moment... to feel that I am needed... that I could ever offer something... they would want... /he/ would...

//Life will never give you that, human... not even that one, simple thing... You know that... even the simple things... you'll be denied...//

It couldn't hurt this bad forever, could it? It couldn't be like this every day, could it? He kept telling himself that, that something would change... though nothing ever did...

He woke up in despair each morning... and each moment hit him just a little harder than the last... and every day was like an eternity, but somehow time passed... time passed...

//... but it can hurt worse, Strife. It can /always/ hurt worse.//

... the feel of the pressure, against the edge of his blade, and the release of flesh and blood, the blow hurting so badly he thought he had somehow struck /himself/... and amidst the fury and power of the Omnislash, he could still feel when the deathblow had been made... could feel the moment in the silent green, it had been so /silent/... the moment he cut out his own heart... for the second time...


Cloud was losing himself inside the memories, each one its own separate hell inside the heavy, swirling tempest of his past, a crushing sea, threatening with every moment to drown him, end it all...

//please... please God just let it /end/...//

The blonde could barely think, single words drifting up between the heat haze that was drowning his body in fire, and the relentless tidal pull of memories he was too weak to fend off... He knew the Cetera were still speaking, saying something... it was too much effort to listen, to fight to care...

//... don't care... haven't cared for years... for a /lifetime/...//

The blonde opened his eyes with no little struggle, glaring into green-marble eyes, Aeris's eyes, statue eyes devoid of pity or mercy.

//I don't care... but neither... neither do they... the Cetera... don't... care...//

He felt a tendril of anger stir up, in the center of the stormy sea that swirled around him, and lunged for it, drawing it up, feeling the memories fade, stubborn defenses making themselves known, reminding him... he had to remember... the Cetera were not his friends... Aeris... Aeris was /not/ his friend, not anymore... and she was fucking around inside his mind... trying to deceive him, force him to do her will...

//No. not again, never again... no no NO...//

... force him, just as Hojo had... just another /goddamned/ push, from another heartless, soulless bastard who thought he was weak, who thought he could be moved like a piece on a chessboard... without protest... that he could be used, /easily/ used, for their own gain...

//... but you know we're right. You know...//

"So WHAT?!" Cloud screamed, surprised that he did not wake the Chocobos, that the room seemed to remain silent, nothing stirring despite his rather loud cry. Had he only thought it, or was he still asleep at Karat's side, and this was all a dream?

A fury, based purely in illogical, irrational anger rose up inside of him. He couldn't remember, really couldn't remember why the Cetera were wrong, or even if they /were/ wrong... but it didn't matter... he wasn't going to let them keep pushing him... he /wasn't/ going to help them anymore.

"I don't care. I don't care if you're right and I'm wrong, I don't care what happens... I can't... I /won't/ let you use me..." he remembered, then, the most important argument.

"I won't hurt him again."

Aeris sighed, as if annoyed.

//You're still obsessed with our conviction that Jenova's child...// The Cetera paused, Cloud was too distraught, all his energy focused on rebellion, to notice, //...that Sephiroth must die, aren't you?//

"I won't kill him. I won't. There is /nothing/ you can do to change that... no argument... /nothing/."

//How can you care so much about him? He doesn't give a damn whether you live or die... he barely knows your name.//

Cloud could feel the tears coming, did not care enough to wipe them away, though the shame burned hot and painful inside his chest. He knew they would attack him like this, with the obvious... and he knew it hurt to hear it, said so easily, so casually... but he had always known... always known... and it hadn't ever changed anything before.

"It doesn't matter... it never mattered..."

Aeris smiled with malicious wonder at his naiveté, sighed, shaking her head, the sage about to impart wisdom to her foolish, headstrong student.

//You say that so easily... but we can see inside you, all the way down, and we know you're lying. You really think he'll love you someday, don't you? You try not to admit you believe it, you've denied it to yourself over and over again because you /know/ how stupid it is, but deep down you still really think that, one day, he'll just magically notice you somehow, that he'll wake up realizing what you feel for him, and that he feels the same for you, and you'll be /happy/.//

Aeris smiled broadly as he paled, and peals of laughter took the place of the voice inside his mind.

"Shut up..."

Cloud gasped, looking down at the ground to avoid those taunting eyes, fists still clenched, the fire inside of him now stoked higher, that shame threatening to eat him alive, the laughter slicing at him like razorblades, but on the inside, where he couldn't fight... the bile rising in his throat, he nearly threw up as he swallowed a stream of salty, bitter tears...

Oh god, it /was/ stupid... he was so, so /stupid/...

The anger wasn't helping, and it faltered, he could feel it breaking inside of him, a scaffold supporting too much weight...

/I can't breathe... I can't.../

He couldn't lose it now, he /couldn't/... the Cetera... this was what they wanted, this was what they needed him to do, to lose control...

//... you're so good at self-delusion... Hojo got lucky to choose you...//

Cloud felt like a powerless child, his weapons, all his defenses no more than broken toys, scattered at his feet... how pathetic, that they could defeat him so easily...

//... so easy... little puppet...//

"... SHUT UP!!!!"

The smile snapped off of Aeris's face, she started to pace forward, eyes locked with his, cold, brutal, utterly alien and completely devoid of caring.

//We can tell you the future, Strife. You've known it all along. He will stay. You will stay. You will fight Jenova. Whether he betrays you before you die is not important, because the end will be the same. You will die, without ever touching him. He will never hold you close, or say one kind word, or even glance your way. You are nothing to him. You are null space, a void where something important ought to go. He will never consider you special, because you are not. Your entire life is nothing more than the sum of what Hojo did to you, and what we have bestowed upon you.//

Aeris smiled again, still pacing towards him sedately. He had never seen anything as blatantly cruel as the curve of her lips, her stride, a predator finishing off prey that it knew could not escape, fatally wounded.

//You're right about him, you know. We never said anything before, but in a way, you're completely right. He /is/ nearly flawless, in his own twisted way, powerful and perfect and... in every way you think about him, he really is almost a god,// Cloud didn't think the smile on her face could have grown until it did, as if it was feeding off his growing horror, he could feel himself getting weaker... //... and you... you are just as worthless as you think you are.//

"What do you want?" He finally croaked, very weakly, feeling /nothing/ as he looked into her perfect, pitiless eyes. All the pain, all the rage inside of him was starting to go numb, beaten to nonexistence by a steadily growing shock.

He had nothing left to give, to argue with, and nothing left to lose... he was simply a shell, something that may have held something once, something small and unimportant, a long time ago...

"We want you."

Aeris reached out, and Cloud would have cried out as she brushed her hand against his cheek, except that he found himself paralyzed, unable to do more than tremble violently. Her touch burned with intense, cold fire, piercingly sharp, and he groaned as she put her hand against his neck, left it there, wave after wave of icy darkness pouring down on top of him, pulling him apart...

/... hurts... Aeris... please don't... it /hurts/.../

//Just give up, Cloud.../ So many voices, the pressure falling down on top of him unbearable, crushing him in a wave of whispering murmurs... some of them coaxing, soothing...

//... hero... savior... you've done enough... you don't have to fight anymore... just sleep... rest... we will take care of you...//

He wanted to believe... a part of him only wanted peace, craved oblivion, an ending, /any/ ending... but the cold, the darkness... it wasn't right, this /wasn't/ right...

The freezing emerald steel was slowly carving him open, tearing him apart piece by piece, just as excruciating as any experiment Hojo had ever performed...

It hurt, it /hurt/, the voices and the pain all mixing together, an unintelligible, all-consuming wave of pure darkness... and it would consume him... devour him as easily as snuffing a candle flame... already, everything was fading... he was falling... there was no choice... he was too tired... too tired to struggle anymore... nothing... there was nothing left to fight for...

/Aeris... please... don't.../

//You can go to the Promised Land... You can be with me, Cloud... be with me forever...//

The voice was so sweet, for a moment, he only wished he could open his eyes... had the strength to see... God, Aeris... was it really her...?

//You can leave the war behind... all that pain... no one will ever have to know what happened... what you did to Elicia...//

Another stab of pain... the weight increased, the cold sharpened, everything pushing him deeper down... down...

/Aeris.../ He could barely even think the word... couldn't breathe... the pain building inside his chest...

//Just let go... we don't want to hurt you... we only need the vessel now... don't fight... just let us take your pain away...//

Dimly, so dimly now, inside the darkness, the incredible cold that burned, scalding, but did not numb, never eased the ache gnawing inside... the pain... the shame...

/... they can't... they can't take it away... if I don't... agree.../

He stirred slightly... the thought nothing more than the barest whisper... at first... but growing... /He/ had been holding on to the pain... that was why it hadn't been taken away...

/they can't... they can't... take /me/... unless I agree.../

He felt a moment of what was almost despair... that he had to fight... that once more, the final decision rested in his hands... in his strength...

/nothing... no more strength... nothing left to give.../

Nothing but one memory... the sun shining... a laugh in paradise, a smile in a summer garden... and it was not false... /not/ a dream... and if he let go now... everything he had pledged, everything he believed in, all his love would mean nothing.

/You'll kill him. I won't... I /won't/ let you... no matter what./

Cloud's eyes snapped open, and the mirrors he looked into were brilliant with rage, full of razorblades, fury and incomprehension, timeless hatred and the promise of a torturous death.

Her frozen touch dug deeper into his skin, fingers suddenly like ice picks, driving into the soft, tender space, the pressure point just behind his jaw. Cloud cried out, screamed louder as she lifted him completely into the air, holding his weight all by her fingertips. His legs kicked weakly at nothing... he could not think past the surging agony... his hot tears now all tears of pain...

//No one will come and save you, Strife! No one will hear your final screams for mercy! No one cares! Not your so-called friends, not your pathetic allies, and not your precious Sephiroth! You will die alone, in more pain than you can possibly imagine... we will /show/ you what Hojo SHOULD HAVE DONE!!! You will /beg/ us while you slowly rot... and when your body finally has no more to give, we will tear your soul apart and scatter it to the winds... you will be lost /forever/, you pathetic, worthless, spineless /NOTHING/!!!"

/You won't have me... you won't.../ The pain was too much, everything was fading, but they had threatened him... they would take everything, but he hadn't agreed, he would never agree...

Cloud tried to smile, hoped he succeeded, feeling the world growing more distant, even the pain losing the edge of reality...

/... finally... finally.../

He had /finally/ been able to sacrifice himself for the one he loved.

Cloud felt the Cetera release him, and heard his body hit the ground with a hard, painful sound, in the same moment that everything slid into darkness.


"Wark wark wark wark wark?"

"Shh!" Billy hissed, gathering his keys, a few documents, pencils, pens, his phone... He didn't even bother to look up at the clock, knowing it was already half-past brain death. Behind him, a pen full of chocobos watched him with excited eyes, no comprehension at all that playtime was over.

"Wark wark wark!?"

"Will you please, /please/ just go to sleep!"

Billy kept moving, quickly locking down a few drawers containing medicines and other supplies, though who he was protecting the medicine from, he still wasn't quite sure.

//Stupid ShinRa protocol... just don't ask questions... questions only mean you get less sleep, trying to find answers...//

Priscilla was still working with the birds at the south Wutai pen... if he joined her soon, and if things were looking up for the ones she was tending, they might actually be asleep sometime before the sun rose.

Billy made some final notes for the morning staff on a piece of paper, but the pencil froze halfway through his final stroke, as he realized he could hear the sound of the lead crumbling on the page. The room was dead silent.

//... that's too quiet, /way/ too quiet...// he thought in alarm, turning immediately towards the chocobo's pen.

Billy had decided it would be impossible to separate each of the birds into their own individual pens by himself, and that one night in the larger pen wouldn't hurt the birds any, and would also be safer for his sanity as well.

His eyes widened, as he saw a black Chocobo lifting a gold chick on it's back, and he remembered just how smart certain kinds of chocobo were, /especially/ blacks and golds... just as the gold bird pushed the pin restraint out with its beak.

"Wark wark wark wark wark wark wark!!!!"

"Oh /no/!!!"

Billy made a valiant leap for the cage door, but it was far too late. The gate swung wide, and tiny chocobos dashed in every direction, chirping with manic glee.

"Aw... for the love of... I mean... /really/ now... I just..."

Billy took a few deep breaths, contemplating a long and thorough review of every swear word he had ever heard, and finally decided it wasn't worth the effort.

He quickly pulled his keys back out of his pocket, sure there was a 'Chocobo Lure' in one of the drawers he had just locked. It might not work, the birds weren't usually that dumb, not to realize what was going on, that he wanted them back in their pens, but it was all he had... there was no way to catch them all now unaided... or more precisely, he didn't even want to try.

"Wark, wark!"

The soldier turned, wincing as he realized someone had opened the front door again, the sharp squeak as the door falling back on its hinges instantly capturing the attention of every chocobo chick in the room.

"Wark, wark!!!"

//Please, /please/ don't be The General again...//

"All the birds are loose!" He called out miserably, knowing he had given whomever walked through the door no more than two or three seconds warning before they were trampled by dozens of tiny claws.

Warm, rich laughter filled the small paddock, and Zack walked around the corner before Billy had started to move forward. The man carried a gold chocobo in one arm, and another black chocobo was perched awkwardly on his shoulder, alternately struggling to balance itself while lunging out and making attempts to grab his gently swinging dreadlocks. Billy immediately threw out a salute, which Zack just as quickly brushed aside.

"At ease, soldier," The general's easy grin widened as he looked across the chaos, spilled grain, scattered tack, the birds had caused with only a few minutes of freedom.

"It looks like you've been having some trouble with these little guys?"

The dark-haired man rubbed his knuckles against the tiny black bird's head, let it leap from his shoulder to his hand and then to the floor, gently dropping its golden playmate off at its side. Billy shrugged, rolling his eyes with a sigh as the two chicks crouched down low to the ground, circling each other for a moment, before launching into a play-fight tangle of feathers, beaks and claws.

A few of the other chocobos were inspired by the sudden, new game thrown out before them, and in only a few moments, Zack and Billy could barely hear themselves over the torrent of chirps, squawks and other feeble but determined battle cries.

"Yes sir," the soldier sighed wearily, "... they... got the better of me..."

Zack grinned, nodded in understanding.

"Can you hand me that?" he said, pointing to the Chocobo Lure Billy hadn't even realized he had managed to retrieve. He handed it to the general without comment.

Zack quickly cast the tiny spell, watching the small green globe begin to glow with a dim, soft light. The Chocobo Lure really wasn't much of a spell, Billy thought, remembering with just a little shame how much he had overcharged those poor souls who had needed it from him, didn't know what kind of scam he was running. His mouth quirked slightly...

//... just a little shame, though... not much...//

Zack shook the materia a few times, tossing it from hand to hand, making sure every beady eye in the room was on him, and then threw the materia across the floor, a gentle, underhanded, perfectly aimed pitch...


The Materia rolled, the chocobos followed... and Billy's eyes widened in surprise, as the Lure rolled right into the pen, with every bird chasing after it, and Zack calmly closed the door behind them.

"Do you have a lock?"

"Y..yes, sir!"

Billy quickly grabbed a lock from his pocket, wrapped it between the wire and the latch, discouraging any further attempts at jailbreak. Zack leaned into the pen, retrieving the materia, and received several coos of obvious displeasure, beady black eyes watching him reprimandingly as the birds slowly realized what had happened. The dark-haired man only chuckled, tossing the materia back to the chocobo master.

"Don't worry, there's plenty more mischief to get into tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after /that/..." He called back to the pen full of angry chicks, receiving a few more plaintive coos for his trouble. Billy smiled as well, moving to return the now dark materia to its case.

"Thanks... I don't know how in the hell I would have gotten them all back before dawn..."

"Heading out again?" Zack said, arching an eyebrow in surprise.

Billy nodded, "... Priscilla needs me down at the Wutai camp... I've been hearing periodic reports, and it doesn't sound too bad, but I should probably go down there anyway..."

He turned back to his papers, leaning over the desk, "... is there something you needed to see me about, sir?"

"Have you seen Cloud around?"

Billy stood up, slightly surprised.

//I thought they all kept an eye on each other... huh...//

"The General? Yeah... he came in here, maybe an hour ago... The birds gave him about the same treatment they gave you... He wanted to know about his bird, Karat... the gold that got pretty banged up during the war? We were worried he might not pull through, but he healed pretty quickly, except for a few of the broken bones and a pulled wing muscle and..." Billy shook his head sharply, knowing he was going into too much detail, that when the subject ever turned to chocobos, he tended to ramble, "... uh... we moved his bird to the A stable, for the less injured chocobos... last thing I know, that was where he was headed..."

Zack nodded, a surprising seriousness in his usually light and carefree glowing hazel eyes.

//I forget, sometimes, about him... that he's the same... a SOLDIER, just as serious... just as cold as the rest of them, when he wants to be...//

"Did he go alone?"

"Yes sir."

"Can you just forget, maybe, that you told him where his bird was? That you saw him at all? Tell a few people when you walk by, when you check in, to ignore patrolling the stables tonight?"

"Sir?" Billy definitely felt like he was missing something.

"That's an order, soldier... unless you think it could harm the birds, not to check..."

"Sir, no sir. It won't be a problem, sir."

"Thanks, Billy."

The soldier stared at the back of his commander as the dark-haired man returned to the rainy night.

//I don't know what all /that/ was about. I don't know, and I don't /want/ to know...//

Billy sighed, knowing he could only focus on the problems he understood, the situations his skills could handle, and that neither General Zack nor The General needed his meddling, or his concern. He had to go to Priscilla, he thought, he had his own job to do.


It had to be over now... it had to be... he had to be insane by now, and there was peace in that madness, there /had/ to be... if he were incompetent, they wouldn't let him lead... if he were crazy, he wouldn't have to... have to...

//You have to. There's no one else. It's your responsibility.//

Cloud desperately tried to ignore that voice, fighting for any sort of calm... but he could not seem to stop shaking... could not get his heart to slow down...

//I'm fine... I'm fine... I'm fine... not... not...//

...certifiably crazy... or... what, what was that thing? That thing, when the brain just shut down? When the mind couldn't take any more?

//Nervous breakdown. It's called a nervous breakdown.//

Oh yes, he realized, this most definitely had to be a nervous breakdown, because there was nothing funny, nothing at all amusing, and yet he could not stop laughing.

The next voice inside his head was most definitely his own, full of familiar anger, and complete disappointment on the most personal level.

//You're faking, you know... you know you can do it, you know you can get right off this floor and get back up out there and fight. This is all some act, you're trying to force yourself into something that won't happen...//

That voice, that determined conscience had always been there in his mind, the drill sergeant to tell him what was sane and what was not, what he should be doing, even when he was confused, scared, hurting, the right thing to do, the smart thing. No matter how bad things got, a part of him could step outside himself, and have a logical viewpoint no matter what he was acting like, no matter what was going on.

... except that, as he listened, that voice wavered... vanishing inside his mind... he tried to reach out for it, but it vanished, as his thoughts shifted, slid out from underneath his concentration, his consciousness resting on alarmingly unsteady ground...

//I don't care... I don't care... leave me /alone/...//

Cloud sighed, knowing the insane grin was still plastered to his face, dug the palms of his hands into aching, hot eyes, feeling the wetness sliding down his wrists... the cool of the floor against his burning skin... He made a face, turning his nose against the stone... it smelled horrible, not a huge surprise given the location, but the smell wasn't bad enough to outride the feel of the freezing rock against his cheek... he wanted to wrap himself in that cold, let the rock swallow him whole...

//...so tired... so /tired/... can't do it... can't do anything... no more... please, God... please...//

After a few more moments, with the tight collar nearly choking him, the burning inside his chest growing, as if to consume him, Cloud almost tore his shirt off, pulling the sweat soaked material up over his belt, yanking the Mystile off his arm and throwing it away... where didn't matter... he had to get free from its weight... had to get away... escape... had to escape...

//... Cetera... the Cetera... I can't get away...//

He knew they weren't gone, even now they /still/ weren't gone, but it was as if they had been screaming in his ears, full volume, for hours, and now all he could hear was the ringing aftereffects of that scream, and nothing of what they spoke of now, what they were discussing in some distant corner of his mind. Not that Cloud needed to hear, not to guess what they were talking about. He knew, he knew what they were planning, what they wanted from him.

The blonde laughed again, the cold stone almost stinging against his bare back, and then his side, as he started to cough violently, laughing even through the choking gasps for air.

//... now the Cetera want to kill me. So... I think that's everyone, then...//

He lifted up one hand, started to count on his fingers, knowing it looked like madness, not caring if it was self-indulgent. No one was here to see him but the Chocobos, all of whom were sleeping soundly, brought back from whatever time freeze the Cetera had placed the room in but still not listening, not interested in him or his increasingly deteriorating mental state.

//Cetera, now... and Aeris... I should count them separate, I lost their faith at different times...//

It was interesting, he thought, that he could still /feel/ the pain of that statement, but that it didn't seem to fully connect, he could move past it even as it was digging, eating its way through his heart.

//... Hojo, of course, Jenova... Godo probably wouldn't mind a chance at you, really, you /did/ defend the soulless corporate demon that slaughtered his wife in cold blood... and that's another one, the soulless corporate demon! I'm sure ShinRa would /love/ to stick you in the gas chamber once they've heard about what you did to Elly, about what monstrous /thing/ they chose to lead their army! ... and then, of course, everyone else goes along with that little secret, once it's been told... Tifa, Cid, Nanaki, Barret... get in line...//

A flash of memory, Tifa's father, stalking toward him, pale in his fear and fury... Tifa had been hurt, had fallen... and it was his fault, those eyes said... his fault...

The elder Lockheart had a large piece of chain, was carefully wrapping the dull links around his knuckles as he moved inexorably forward, the cold steel matching the iron determination in every line of his face. This was no simple punishment. He was ridding the world of something dangerous, something unnatural that /had/ to be destroyed... something that should have never been born in the first place...

//He was right!// Cloud slapped the stone floor with one tightly clenched fist, coughing his way back into laughter, //the man didn't even know it yet, and he was right!//

Cloud had no control... no choice over anything anymore, even what happened inside his own mind. Memory, reality and a cold, empty blankness flickered interchangeably when he closed his eyes, bad home-movie images of all he had done, every horrifying deed... and all he knew was he couldn't manage to pick himself off the floor... not just yet... not yet...

Eventually, Cloud found himself curled up on his side, rocking slightly, repeating "I'm sorry" to the empty air in a wooden, mechanical whisper, his hands wrapped tightly around his chest.

He had pulled himself from a very dark place, back into that reality, and had no idea how long he had been there, at what point he had slipped into or out of the almost catatonic state. It was still night outside, still raining, the floor was bitterly cold, and none of the animals seemed to have stirred.

//... better get up, dumbass, before someone comes in and finds you like this...// The voice was back, but weak, and sounded like a bartender trying to talk sense into a drunk, //come on, come on... it'll all be better in the morning...//

Cloud reached out for his shirt, realized a moment later it wasn't where he thought it should have been. As he hauled himself up onto his hands and knees, he saw the Mystile out of the corner of his eye, where it had ricocheted against the far wall, into a thin beam of moonlight.

//God... threw it harder than I thought... don't know my own strength...//

He laughed again, /that/ one was actually kind of funny...

The laugh quickly turned to a series of jolting, painful coughs, Cloud dug his toes into the stone beneath him, pressing until it hurt, trying to hold on as the seemingly endless spasms shook him. Without his shirt, he was still so hot... he hurt all over...

The slight pull, something digging into his neck, finally caught his attention as his coughing subsided. He let his fingers come up, catching the two small spheres and lifting them closer, to really see them...

Had the light gotten dimmer since he had arrived? His night vision... it was supposed to be better than a normal person's... and weren't eyes supposed to adapt to the darkness anyway? He tried to rationalize this, even as his vision blurred in and out, dark shadows swimming through his gaze...

//... dark... like it was dark... at the end... dark and green and vengeful...//

The memories, the Lifestream, the Cetera... and he shuddered again, unthinkingly holding the two spheres in a sudden death grip, taking comfort from equally dim, faded memories, of times he had been willing to forget, that were now his lifeblood... Aeris... Sephiroth...


He had to hold on to that thought, if nothing else would stay. If he could just convince himself that there was something worth living for... if he could only remember the good times... the smiles, the warm days, even the /smallest/ of kindnesses... Tifa, Zack... all he had to do was believe the lie... just for tonight... and tomorrow, he could go on...

//... Elly...//

Cloud winced, almost cried out, because /all/ his memories were suddenly full of death, he would /not/ be allowed to believe anything else.

//the snow... so cold... her eyes... disbelief... horror... how could you... /HOW COULD YOU/?!//

He struggled to hold on, trying to focus his thoughts, not to think about it, not to think...

//Aeris... the sword impaling her so easily, her body sliding off the blade... feeling her for the last time, in my arms, as I let her go... I let her go...//

//... you let her go so /easily/... coward...//

"No... please..."

He didn't know to whom he was pleading, the Cetera were no longer here, his own conscience would not listen, and he did not believe in a God anymore, in anything or anyone who cared.

"... please... no more..."

//Zack... Zack died because you were weak...//

"I can't... I didn't... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."

//... everything... everyone will die because of you... you useless... /worthless/...//

"... just kill me then..." he begged, to anyone that would listen, God, the Devil, whomever would listen to his pathetic attempts at fealty, begging for mercy... "... please... just let me die..."

//... and you would run from that love, that eternal, undying love you supposedly believed in, supposedly lived for? You would run, like a coward, at the first sign of trouble?//

Cloud's eyes opened wide, staring with unseeing horror at the green and black, the shining spheres hanging in the air, for both he had fought, for neither one had his struggle changed a thing... He /was/ pathetic, so easily driven from his task, so weak, to cower from the first moment of pain...

"... I didn't... I didn't..."

//... and he will never know you, Cloud, he will never love you... you are nothing to him... nothing...//

That word reverberated in his mind, louder each time, not an echo but some growing chorus of voices... he couldn't breathe, chest aching as if he were turning to stone. Oh yes, this was everything he didn't want to face, everything he thought he could hide from... he was nothing... he was alone... he deserved to be alone...

Cloud pressed his face against the rank, stinking stone floor and, too weak to even scream, moaned, slamming a hand over his mouth as he realized the scream was still burning inside his lungs, still scrambling to get out... The blonde breathed hard, gasping as he fought to hide that pain inside... unable to escape that need... that longing, /always/ digging its way out of the past, out of his weariness... he could /never/ escape that horrible feeling, and it all came back to the same thing, in the end, his entire life spiraling down to one futile, bitter tragedy...

//I love him... I love him /so/ much...//

He could no longer see, the tears filling his eyes, pouring over the trembling hand that was pressed tight against his mouth, clamped down so hard it hurt, but the pain couldn't do enough, anymore... nothing he could do would release the tearing, wailing thing inside of him. He was dying... he knew he was dying inside, and oh god, it would still not kill him, no matter how much it hurt inside, this nightmare would /never/, ever end...

//... please... please...//

Out of the darkness, out of nowhere, a strong, gentle hand touched him, careful fingers running lightly through his sweat-soaked hair.


Cloud was most definitely not in control of the next few moments of his life, as he rolled backward into a low crouch, fingertips digging into cracks in the stone, the knife back in his hand so fast he didn't remember ever putting it away, didn't remember anything... blindly grateful for the sweet, hot rush of adrenaline that filled him, taking all the pain away for a moment... and he looked up... ready to attack... to push off and strike and /kill/...

His eyes focused sharply on the profile in front of him, and Cloud forced himself to blink, to remaining completely motionless, even as his nerves screamed at him to move, to attack, to fight...

He blinked again, took a very slow, deep breath, and exhaled, feeling the strength to stand leaving him as the panic drained away, but pulling himself up nonetheless, moving out of the low, defensive crouch with all the strength he had left.

"... Zack?"

The real world, the reminder of the physical beyond the furious chaos in his mind, jerked him almost violently back into true reality. Cloud realized his friend was staring at him, and as he righted himself, slid the knife back into its sheath, the blonde realized that Zack wasn't waiting to speak, that he was just staring, watching him closely with wide, glowing hazel eyes.

//... act normal, act normal...//

So dangerous. If anyone could break him now, if anyone could... could...

... could what? What was he so afraid of? What was it Zack could do... if he... he...

//He'll make you talk... he wants to know what happened... to Elicia... he'll make you tell, he'll know... he'll know...//

Cloud froze, terror replacing the adrenaline that had been ebbing away, sending every nerve once again on edge. He couldn't... oh, he /couldn't/ do that... and couldn't stand to see the hatred fill the other man's eyes, when he realized what Cloud had done... He couldn't...

"Sorry... battle nerves..." Cloud murmured, dropping his hand from the hilt of the blade with an abashed shrug, "You look like hell."

He was amazed his voice didn't shake, hoping beyond hope to hear his friend's echoing refrain, the words more of a joke than anything to them. Cloud winced as, after a few moments, he realized it wasn't coming. He looked up, still avoiding his friend's eyes, and watched a few drops of water fall from the ends of Zack's thick, black dreadlocks. The other man had, somehow, avoided most of the downpour, the shower that Cloud could still hear falling on the roof above him... in the silence... as his friend still refused to speak.

//Please, Zack... please just don't care, just keep it casual... keep it /brief/. Give me an out, any out, any way to walk away. You have to stay away... away from me... I don't want... to hurt you... or... the Cetera... to hurt you... I don't...//

"God, Cloud..." Zack said softly, eyes wide with sorrow, confusion and disbelief. "My God, who did...? What /happened/ to you?"

The blonde reached up, realizing what Zack meant as the barest brush of his own fingertips against the side of his jaw, the place where Aeris had driven him into the air, made him almost cry out, the skin badly bruised and terribly sore...

"It wasn't a dream... It wasn't... it was /real/..." He heard his own voice crack in the air, but it didn't sound right, too soft, too weak, and Cloud saw that his hand was shaking, realized /he/ was shaking, all over, and couldn't stop...

Zack took a step forward, but Cloud just as quickly leapt back, and his friend stopped, one hand extended, that look of stunned, horrified disbelief never leaving his face... and Cloud could see the concern, the compassion enter there... and that alone almost broke him. He could feel the tears in his eyes, his walls threatening to crumble and fall...

//No... no no /NO/!//

"So... what... what do you want?"

Cloud turned away, cursing fate, that there was nothing to reach out and grab hold of, nothing to pretend to be interested in...

... nothing to hide the tremors that had suddenly taken hold of him... he was cold... so cold. He realized then, as he rubbed one arm against the other, that his shirt was still off. He looked around for a moment, but couldn't see it.

//Stupid... you idiot... nice way to play it casual, to act /normal/...//

"I came to talk to you."


//keep it light, keep it simple, don't panic, don't panic, don't panic...//



"Don't do this, Cloud, not to me. You know /why/."

Zack didn't want to sound angry, but his voice ground down on the last word despite his best efforts to keep his calm.

He couldn't help it, he was so frightened, seeing Cloud, really /seeing/ him for the first time, alone, and it was easier now than ever to see how much abuse he had taken, what of his friend had survived to the end of the nine month tour through hell...

Cloud looked awful, thin enough that Zack could see the outlines of all the bones not covered by muscle, his body as pale as death except for the bruise, dark blue and tinged in white, almost like frostbite, trailing down the side of his neck...

//It must have happened in the last hour at the most, all his other scars are almost gone... but what could have...? Here? What happened... what happened?//

The blonde's face crumpled for a split second, and Zack chastised himself sharply for his words, the anger, /knowing/ his friend would take it all on his own shoulders, would take any annoyance /very/ personally.


The dark-haired man watched Cloud struggle to bring himself back under control... but it wasn't working very well, not anymore... he could easily see the pain, the fear, all those emotions his friend had hidden, leaking out...

Zack wanted nothing more than to just take the blonde into his arms, hold him close, and never let anyone come near him again...

//... but I can't even touch him now... he's shying away from me... just like he used to... he's so /afraid/...//

Zack knew he would get what he wanted, that he /would/ get Cloud to open up to him... but he had to be careful, had to move slowly, or risk pushing the blonde further than he could take, pushing the blonde away completely...

//Slowly... go slowly...//

Sharp instinct snapped back furiously at that cautionary tone.

//Fuck slowly! He's dead on his feet! For God's sake, Zack, look at him! Do something! Now!//

"N-no, Zack... I don't..."

Cloud turned away slightly as his body was suddenly wracked by a fit of coughing. Zack could see his muscles tensing sharply under the near-white skin, the blonde wincing with each new tremor that shook him, and the dark-haired man had to use all his determination to keep himself still until the dry, rasping coughs subsided...

"I don't know what you mean, Zack..." Cloud finally responded, his voice very flat, very calm, and his eyes full of a bitter, chilly distance that stopped the other man cold.

"Here," Zack said finally, after a moment of dead silence, tossing Cloud a bottle of pills. The blonde caught them easily, looked up at him, the question in his eyes.

"They'll make you feel better... I swiped them from the med building. I know you're not feeling good, Spike, don't try and pretend you are. You don't like meds, I know, but if you've been downing Hypers like you told Melissa you have, you can at least take a few of those for me."

Cloud shrugged, caught the water bottle Zack threw next, shook a few pills from the container and swallowed them. The dark-haired man waited for him to finish...

//... he looks horrible... I don't even know if that will help... I didn't realize... how bad...//

Zack also knew that the problems weren't merely physical. He could easily see that Cloud had been crying for a long time by the time he had arrived... God, seeing him on the floor like that, curled in misery, it was almost more than the dark-haired man could bear.

//Take it slow, Zack... take it slow, just be gentle, and this will all work out fine...//

That other voice muttered that, no matter what he did now, it was very unlikely that things were going to be "fine".

"So... you want to talk?" Cloud's tone made it very clear that was the last thing he wanted to do.

"About Sephiroth, for starters..." Zack said slowly, saw the blonde repress a shudder at the sudden jump into very sensitive territory, "... I don't think I've ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined you calling him /anything/, let alone... what was it? "ShinRa's bitch"?"

He couldn't help but smile, just slightly, knowing Sephiroth's reaction had to have been of equal disbelief, though the white-haired man had remained silent.

"... and it got me thinking, Spike, back to the past... back to everything that happened... to me, to you, to him... back to the academy..."

"You didn't tell anyone, did you!?" Cloud's voice was a sharp, sudden, half-hysterical whisper. He took a few steps forward, watching the dark-haired man with wild eyes, "Please Zack, tell me you didn't... you won't... you /can't/..."

Zack swore his blood froze solid at the desperation, the sheer terror, the panic in his friend's eyes. It confirmed everything he had been trying to convince himself /couldn't/ be true... though he had seen the way Tifa and the rest of them acted around Sephiroth... though he saw how /Cloud/ had acted... but he had told himself there was no way, no /way/ the blonde could have kept it all inside, not for all those years...

//... all that time... all that time, and he kept it /all/ buried inside...//

"No one knows, Cloud? No one...?" He trailed off, as Cloud barely nodded, and a bitter grin flashed across his face, eyes full of pain, shame, and fear.

"How could I tell them, Zack? How could I tell them, after everything that happened? He killed Tifa's father, Zack, you knew that, right? Killed him... Tifa's father... my mother... /everyone/... as if it were nothing at all. He tried to destroy the Planet... he killed... Aeris... he killed her so /easily/, he just... he... and I did /nothing/... I did... they all saw, that I..." Cloud looked down at his hands, "I couldn't do /anything/... he killed... and I still... I couldn't... I..."

The blonde looked up again, staring past his friend's shoulder, at nothing, brilliant blue eyes now sparkling with nothing but anguish, terrible pain, all of it ice cold, and deep... so deep, as if there had never been even a moment of joy in his entire life.

"Did they ever tell you how long you'd live, Zack?"

"What?" The dark haired man blinked, the sudden change of topic leaving him reeling, "... I don't understand..."

"How many years longer... than a normal person... How long the Mako would enhance your lifespan?"

Zack shrugged slowly, still not sure of where the conversation was going "... about 75 to 100 years above normal... maybe a little more... there was never really a way to test it, but maybe... 200 years, one hundred plus a normal lifetime..."

"I remember Hojo talking once... you weren't there... you were..." Cloud's voice was distant, eyes looking away from him, narrow and hard, as if dredging memories up was costing all of his strength, "... I don't remember... but he was bragging... as always..." a short, vicious smile, "... he was always bragging... God, even /Jenova/ must have gotten tired... he /never/ shut /up/..."

"Cloud?" Zack couldn't help but take a step forward, though the blonde didn't seem to notice.

//I'm losing him... God... I don't know how but I can feel it... I'm going to lose him...//

He froze as the blonde's gaze fixed on him, fever bright, the sorrow so strong it bordered on insanity, one tear falling straight from his eye to the ground in a perfect drop of light, like a falling star.

"He said... so many things... he did... so many things... to me. I was... his perfect weapon... perfect... pieces of Jenova... pieces of... Sephiroth... the perfect... /eternal/..."

The blonde's voice stuck on the word, cold enough that Zack nearly shivered, as if someone had slid an ice cube straight down his spine.

"Cloud..." He was dangerously short on time now... he just /knew/ it... and how in the hell had he let things ever go this far?

"What's twenty times a hundred, Zack? I remember he said twenty... twenty times longer... what's that? Two-hundred years? 2000 years? Or did he mean 20 times longer than a SOLDIER? Immortality? Is that what I get? Eternal life... a graveyard full of memories... do I get to be alone forever? Was what I did /that/ wrong?"

//Oh God...// The pain in his friend's voice was like a knife in Zack's heart, the living, suffering consequence of all his mistakes, all his inaction, his broken promises... Cloud was dying in degrees, because he hadn't been there, because he hadn't known, hadn't ever thought it could all go so wrong...

//It has to stop... right now... It has to /stop/.//

"Enough... that's /enough/..."

The dark-haired man moved forward swiftly, before Cloud could realize what he was doing, and just threw his arms around the blonde, holding him tight. He noticed instantly how cold, how clammy his friend's skin was beneath his warm hands, and that the trembling he had been able to see felt a thousand times worse now that the blonde was shaking in his arms.

"Let go..."

Cloud's voice was icy, he was anything but grateful for Zack's embrace.


"Let go, Zack..." A pause, and a desperate whisper, "please..."

The ice was melting, Zack could hear it, hear the blonde's voice starting to crack. He knew those walls were breaking down, they /would/ break down... and he held on.

//I won't lose you... I /won't/...//

"Talk to me, Cloud... let me know who's hurting you... tell me how I can help, what I can do..."

"Let me go... /please/, Zack..."

Cloud was struggling against him, but very weakly, the dark-haired man barely had to strain to hold on to him...

//He's so worn out... he's got nothing left to fight with...//

"... I don't want to hurt you, Zack... I don't want..." Cloud took a deep breath, as if even the slight exertion was too much, too fast, "Let me go, /please/... before they... don't you see..." He shut his eyes tight, barely able to get the words past his fear, "they'll make me /hurt you too/!!!"

"They?!" Zack looked down sharply, the glowing blue mirrors that looked back did so reluctantly, shining with a thousand unshed tears, a deep, nameless horror, utter dread...

"... I can't... I won't... you don't understand what they want... what they me to do... I can't..."

//... is it real, or... delirium, maybe...? God, he's /really/ sick...//

Zack gently reached out, cupping his hand over the bruise that spread along the blonde's cheek, moved it up to the wet, sweat-soaked forehead, eyes widening in alarm at the heat beneath his palm, the blonde's dazed, feverish eyes gazing up into his own.

"Cloud... you're burning up..."

The blonde shook his head, still trying to pull away.

"Nothing... it's nothing... not that high... not bad. I've fought with worse... for months... Please let me go... please just let me go... please..."

The tears came then, fast and desperate, and Zack held on, one hand against Cloud's back, the blonde's muscles so tight and strained that his body ached in sympathy. He dropped his head low, doing his absolute best to shield his friend from the world.

"... let me go..."

"No," Zack murmured into the soft blonde spikes, "No, Cloud... I won't leave you like this... I won't let you go through this alone..."

//... whatever happens, Cloud... whatever happens, you'll never be alone again... I /swear/...//

"Let go... please..."

The words were only whispers now, barely audible between the dry, choked sobs, and negated by how hard Cloud was now holding on to him, his head buried against the other man's chest, hands clenching the back of his shirt in a death grip.

"You don't have to hold on so tightly... I promise, I won't let you go... I won't leave..." Zack spoke slowly, calmly, trying to provide some counterpoint to the other man's quick, uneven breathing, to give his friend an anchor back to the real world, something safe, "You don't have to hide... not from me, /never/ from me... you don't have to be afraid... I'm here... I'm /here/..."

He could feel the moment his friend finally broke down, the blonde's fragile defenses, held fast against constant attack for far too long, falling away to nothing as he was offered a true chance for release. Cloud howled, all that pent-up grief and sorrow bursting out in one explosive cry, choking on the sobs that followed, as if the tears could not come fast enough for the grief, release the total despair.

//He trusts me, maybe even whether he wants to or not, and he can't keep it in anymore... not when he knows I'll be here... that I know... that I care...//

The idea that his caring was such a rarity in his friends life had /always/ scared Zack, but never more so than now.

Cloud sobbed, long and hard, his head buried against Zack's chest, his entire body shaking, as if he would fall apart at any moment. The dark-haired man stood fast, just held on, being the support, the anchor... murmuring comforting words, anything he could think of to try and ease the pain.

"I've got you, Cloud... I'm here... you're safe now... you're /safe/... I won't let go... I'll never let you go..."


It was too much. Too much, when he had told himself, had forced himself to believe that anything kind, anything comforting, or beautiful... pleasure, happiness... it could only be dangerous, was ephemeral and fickle and fragile, ultimately could not last, and therefore was to be avoided at all costs. It was too much, this feeling of safe haven, coming out of nine months of constant danger, the unexpected promise of support and safety, of not having to push himself as hard as he could... knowing that he would /still/ fail, no matter how hard he tried...

//Nothing safe... this isn't safe... you can't... can't give in now...//

Cloud knew it, knew that he had to keep fighting, that he couldn't let himself believe... but he could not let go, could not pull away even as the tension of Zack's arms around him lessened, when he knew the dark-haired man could not have held onto him had he tried to run.

The sobs that tore out of him were sheer torture, each of them extracted with excruciating slowness, like shards of barbed iron, slivers of glass from a deep, painful wound... but there was also release in that pain, the glimpse of a true peace, for the first time in months, if not years... and he was too tired... to tired to try and pull away... Zack was here now, really here holding him, and everything was all right... it was going to be all right...

//... but it's not safe... it's not all right... it never will be... never... never...//

The dark-haired man seemed to sense his distress, the conflicting emotions clashing with brutal force inside of him...

"... don't think about it... you don't have to think about it now... just relax... please... just stop fighting and let yourself rest... I love you, and I'm not going to hurt you... no one's going to hurt you now... you're /safe/..."

The blonde's grip tightened, he felt a wave of new tears flood over him, washing away anything that had attempted to regain control, to give him back the mask of uncaring. The pain smashing against him hit hard enough that he nearly doubled over... except that Zack was there... and he knew everything... and he /cared/...

Cloud cried for a very, very long time... new tears coming in waves of sorrow, despair, and finally relief... and that promise, of peace, of safety, something he had thought was lost forever... the blonde thought, as the tears fell, that he was crying for that the hardest of all.

Finally, Cloud forced himself to regain at least some control, to breathe slowly, find a calm center and pull himself together. He was still hidden in the darkness and protection of his friend's arms, felt the slight scratch of a dreadlock against his cheek from time to time, closed his eyes and rested against the hard, muscular chest, /not/ moving away, not even a fraction of an inch, unwilling to lose what he had been given, to risk shattering the security that had placed itself so gently around him...

"Relax... it's all right... I'm here, Cloud... I'm not going anywhere..."

Cloud breathed in deeply, once, again, shivering in between spates of still falling tears, though the time between the pain of those horrified flashes of memory, the overwhelming bursts of guilt and sadness was getting longer... very slowly stretching out to nothingness.

The blonde couldn't believe how much he had missed it, as he leaned into Zack's embrace, how simply being able to touch another human being meant /so/ much, how wonderful it was to feel anyone's presence nearby, let alone that of a beloved friend. Zack's warmth, his /scent/ was a wonderful thing, so human, so close, when Cloud had been alone for such a long time... warm and alive... sweet, and blessedly /safe/...

The blonde realized, belatedly, that the other man had been rocking him slightly, a gentle swaying motion, barely moving his feet or the blonde's, as if the two of them were trying out for the title of the world's worst dancers.

He sighed, letting the gentle rocking slowly take everything else away, let all of his life come to exist within the circle of those warm, strong arms. Cloud could still hear all his doubts, all his fears, knew they had not left, were hovering just outside his consciousness, trying to take hold... to dig in and force him back into the fight...

//... you can't believe... you can't believe he'll be all right... nothing is all right... you're still responsible... /nothing/ will change what you did... what you...//

The panicked, shamed thoughts faded and died, vanishing in the heat of Zack's embrace. Cloud guessed he could have seen them falling apart, if he had wanted to open his eyes, but he didn't bother. He just wasn't strong enough to hold onto them anymore, he could not bear to take hold of the fear... the worry... the knowledge that, even now, this was all just a pretty lie...

//... I'll take it... I'll believe... I like it here with him...//

Nothing made sense anymore... nothing mattered... and maybe, that was all right... just to be here... for a little while... to not have to move or speak or /think/ anymore, just to be warm... swaying gently... with those strong, sure arms wrapped tight around him...

He heard Zack give a slight, short murmur when, moving back just slightly, letting go for only a moment, the blonde swayed on his feet, dangerously out of balance, no longer able to stand on his own...

"God, you're all used up, aren't you...?" The dark-haired man's murmur filled Cloud's world, and the blonde smiled. He had always loved the sound of that voice.

"Just tired... it's nothing... doesn't matter..." The words were difficult to get out. More than once in the short sentence the blonde actually considered just stopping, mid-syllable, completely exhausted.

As Zack stepped back, arms still on his to keep him steady, Cloud could feel some of his old professionalism sweeping in, that authoritative voice nagging him, telling him it was not right to act like this, that his breakdown was not proper... that he had to... had to...

"Zack... I have to... I..." He could barely hear his own voice, felt the other man's arms tighten around his. Zack said something that came out as only a dull murmur, from very, very far away, and Cloud looked up, saw the other man's surprise as he noticed the blonde's confusion.

"I said, nobody knows that you're here. I'm the only one who saw you come in. Nobody's going to come looking, either. If this is what it takes... for a few hours of peace..."

Zack took hold of his arms again, and stepped forward, towards the south wall of the paddock. Cloud followed, barely able to keep one foot in front of the other, too tired to question, to do anything but follow the dark-haired man's lead. It was more and more difficult with each moment to even keep his eyes open... the world kept fading... fading... away...

His shoulder gently brushed up against the hard wall, and as soon as the blonde was leaning against it, Zack's hands disappeared. Cloud could feel that he was alone, the sudden coolness where the warm touch had been only moments before. The sharp change was surprisingly disorientating. He startled, attempting to pry his eyes open... when had they closed? He tried to see what was going on, to ease the totally irrational panic that had suddenly seized him...

//... alone... alone... all alone...//

He heard a distant, rustling noise, and then silence.


Cloud took a step forward, flinched as he felt the wall slide past him much too fast, his legs buckling... he was falling...

A slight shout of surprise, and a pair of strong arms caught him, pulled him to his feet. More words, but he couldn't hear them, only the strong, soft murmur...

//... the strength in those words... I missed him so much...//

He was being drawn forward, his feet sliding more than stepping across the stone, muscles unwilling to cooperate with weary orders his brain had almost stopped bothering to give. It was as if someone had pulled a plug, as if all his strength had disappeared with his tears...

//... of course it did... which is why you couldn't break down... why it was so dangerous... you idiot. Do you honestly think you'll last, the way you are now...? They'll tear you apart... Anjele... Melissa...//

He must have said something, though he didn't remember speaking, because Zack's hands tightened their careful hold on him.

"It's okay... don't worry. I've got you, I won't let /anyone/ hurt you."

Those words went so deep, meant so much, and Cloud wanted to believe... wanted to hide inside Zack's friendship, protected by the promise in those careful hands... He could hear the fear surging forward again, the force of those arguments, all those reasons why he had to ignore that friendship, that he could not reach back, take what was so freely offered, but before they could reach him, before he had to listen, Zack stopped moving, paused for a moment with a short sound of puzzled consideration.

//... what...?//

Cloud opened his eyes, looked blearily down, at a few shafts of golden straw being ground to dust beneath his feet. He was standing at the edge of one of the empty chocobo stalls, fresh straw laid out for the patient that would eventually arrive... except someone had placed a blanket on top of the straw, and another lay in a heap in the space between the edge of the pile and the stone wall. The blonde didn't know what was going on, what Zack was doing or why he had stopped moving... and didn't realize what happened next until it was over.

"There's no real easy way to do this, so we're going to go with the quickest, and hope for the best..." The dark-haired man murmured in his ear, with the barest hint of daredevil pride in his voice. It was a confidence Cloud loved to hear, the Zack who could do anything, who would always win, no matter what.

//... except... what?//

The dark-haired SOLDIER was standing behind him, and in one quick movement, spun around, swinging Cloud in front of him, and dropped backward onto the blanket, pulling the blonde down with him as he fell.

Before Cloud realized what his friend had done, it was over, and Zack was sitting on the blanket, his back against the rear of the stall, with the blonde nestled snugly in his arms.

"Well, I'd say that was a success..." Zack muttered, and suddenly scowled "... except for..."

"Zack... what?" Cloud muttered sharply, unable to do anything as the other man leaned to his side, gently pushing the upper half of his body out of the way, and calmly bent over, unzipped two pairs of boots, kicking his off and throwing Cloud's after them.

"No one can sleep in shoes. I've tried it... can't be done." Zack said simply, returning to his former position, against the wall. Cloud sighed... he wanted to agree, to do just what Zack had implied... there was nothing more he wanted than to sit here, to rest, but the slight release of tears, Zack's presence, his confidence had given the blonde just enough strength back to know he couldn't... to know he had already risked too much...

"Where do you think you're going?" A hand suddenly tightened around his waist. Cloud gasped in surprise, before he realized he had already been moving, preparing to stand, his body acting without conscious direction.

"I can't stay here, Zack... I can't, they... the soldiers..."

"The soldiers are /all/ gearing up for very nice hangovers, and there's not much you can do to help them with that... maybe hold a funnel for a beer bong, I don't know... Godo's off moping in some corner... even Anjele's probably whined himself to sleep by now... You don't need to worry about anyone right now except /you/..." The hand adjusted its grip, but still held him firmly in place, "... they take advantage of you anyway..." Zack murmured softly, an aside the blonde could still easily hear.

"They don't have a choice... you know that..." Cloud knew he couldn't keep arguing this... that he had to move, that he couldn't stay here... because... because...

//I have to... that's all... the why... the why doesn't matter...I'll remember it later...//

"They can take care of it for one night," the dark-haired man muttered more firmly, just a hint of annoyance in his voice.

Cloud almost started to cry again as those rough, callused fingertips ran through his hair, almost playfully, carefree, as if Zack had all the time in the world... as if they could both afford to relax for hours, days... forever...

//Oh God... so nice... feels so /good/...//

It could kill a person, he knew now, not to be touched, to live all alone for too long. He knew that now, knew about touch, and friendship... When he had been younger, it hadn't seemed important at all, affection not something he received much from his mother, or from his town, from /anyone/... but then he had met Zack... and Tifa had changed when they met again, was almost a different person... and he learned that he could no longer pretend that he didn't need simple human contact, that it /hurt/ when it was gone...

... a terrible, inescapable weakness... being human.


Zack grinned, as Cloud leaned into his touch with a small, /real/ smile, the first happy expression he had seen on his friend in a very long time.

"You really tore the hell out of that Fullspawn, you know? That's all anyone's been talking about, from the soldiers to the commanders... Wutai probably wants to make you a god..."

He didn't know why he said it, it fell out of his mouth without conscious thought, though his conscience was spring-loaded to deliver him an instant, angry critique.

//Smooth, Zack, real smooth. You're supposed to make him feel safe, remember? Not remind him what kind of nightmare's he's knee deep in...//

Cloud shivered, and pushed back against him, curling up as tightly as he could. Zack put an arm around his shoulders, the other still wrapped around his waist.

"I'm sorry... I didn't mean to bring it up... but you really should be proud. You saved everyone. Most likely, you saved the entire war."

"It was cold..." Cloud whispered, staring out into the darkness, "... the Planet... the green... it was so cold... and /lonely/... I've never been that alone... not like that... /ever/..."

The last word was a choked sob, the blonde bend his head down, and Zack could feel new tears falling onto his knuckles, as his friend's body shook with old terror and new sorrow.


It took a long, long time for Cloud to calm down, and even then the peace was tenuous, threatened to break at any moment, as it had countless times before. The blonde had curled more on his side as the night had progressed, head still against Zack's chest, resting over his heart. Zack could see the exhaustion catching up with him by the minute, but always, at the end, held at bay by the sadness, by the fear...

Was that what had been driving him so hard, all this time? Had this been the way Cloud had spent every night, for the last nine months, crying alone in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise?

"What... what was that stuff you gave me? Those pills?" Cloud murmured softly, eyes closed. It was a vain hope, Zack thought, that they would stay that way.

"Nothing special. Painkillers, I think that's the main ingredient... They're the only stuff I could ever find that wasn't special made for SOLDIER's without running completely counter to Mako, in a high enough dose to make a difference. Which means they work... sometimes."

He winced as Cloud bent forward, just slightly, and Zack could easily feel the ridge of the bones in his spine, pressing against his palm.

"Of course, they work better when the SOLDIER in question has worn himself to a nub..."

Blue eyes looked up at him sharply, as if trying to see whether he was serious or not, just sniping at him, as most did, or speaking out of actual concern. After a moment, they melted back to a sky-blue softness, as he seemed to pick the latter.

"Rations were low, there were wounded men and women...and of all people, you and I should /not/ be having this argument. You know everyone had to cut back, even more among those at the front... no one was eating well out there..."

"Lieutenant Roman didn't look half starved, though..."

That comment garnered a look of real annoyance.

"I can take it. I'm stronger than he is, stronger than any of them... and... I can't eat too much anyway..." The blonde averted his eyes for a moment, as if ashamed, "I can't keep anything down anymore..."


"Just nerves," a ragged sigh, "I'll... I'll be all right."

"Cloud..." Zack didn't want to push things, didn't want to interrogate his friend, to ask the same things he knew others wanted to, and expect his friend to answer... but he had to know... it was so important, "... can I ask you a question?"

Instantly, he felt Cloud go stiff in his arms, every muscle as tight as ever, and those glowing blue eyes were staring at the front pocket of his uniform hard enough to burn a hole through the material, utterly refusing to meet his.

"What?" The voice was soft, dry and strangled.

"... what did you mean, "they"?"

Cloud relaxed slightly at that, eyes finally looking into Zack's, confused, bewildered... Obviously he had been expecting some other question. The dark-haired man immediately shoved all further inquiries aside, though, after the reaction to the first. He could not put Cloud through this, not now, didn't really /want/ to know what question would have garnered such a response.

"... huh?"

"You said that you were afraid... that "they" would hurt me. Who are "they"?

Cloud shuddered again, closed his eyes and didn't respond. Zack reached up, put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

"I'm here, I'm not going /anywhere/. No one can hurt you now... I won't let them..."

"No... /no/..." Cloud murmured, and a chuckle burst and died somewhere within that hurried negation, "... you /don't/ understand... they're everywhere... /she's/ everywhere..."


Cloud stared at him, glowing gaze full of sorrow, afraid, ashamed to tell, not wanting to cause more pain, to dig up the graves of the dead...


The blonde knew Zack would be silent, and it shook him to the core. He turned his face into Zack's chest, against the rough fabric of the uniform, trembling wildly, "... she won't... she won't leave me alone..."

The dark-haired man stared blankly into the dim recesses of the paddock, his mind slowly, deliberately trying to take in what Cloud had said.

//He's not crazy... I /know/ that...//

The blonde had told him about Aeris, though, how he and the flower girl had become friends after Zack's death, how his former love had still remembered him, spoke of him with a smile, and died with a smile, saving the Planet, sacrificing herself for everyone... and for Cloud to be this frightened of her now? What in the world?

//... and how could she even reach...// Hazel eyes widened in dawning recognition, //... they say Cloud can hear the Planet... I remember, I remember him, in the lab, he said he could hear it then... God, he was so messed up... He never spoke to me directly then, and won't talk about it now... but the Planet must be... and Aeris could hear it... She'd never talk either about it, but... she heard it too... Are they talking, somehow? Can he hear /her/ voice, inside the Lifestream?//

It still didn't make sense.

"Aeris...? Why? Why would she hurt you?" He gaped at another bolt of realization, looking down at the bruise that still trailed along the side of Cloud's neck, ".. did she? Did /she/ do this to you?"

Cloud nodded mutely, breathing very hard, and ran a hand through his hair, clenching it into a fist over his temple, gritting his teeth as if in pain.

"There's too much," he murmured, rocking just slightly inside Zack's embrace, "... I can't... I can't keep it straight in my head anymore... and they want... Oh God, Zack..."

Terrified bright blue met equally shocked deep hazel.

"The Cetera... I am the Cetera's Vengeance..." Zack was shocked by the strange statement's dead, flat finality, but Cloud didn't seem to notice, his voice tightening on every word, "... and they want... they want... because he's the enemy... and Aeris... she's so /angry/... I didn't... I never meant..." The blonde froze, words choked off for a moment by some new horror, "... and... he... he really... he experimented on you too... and if you try and interfere... with them... oh no... no... /no/..."

"Shh..." Zack cupped the side of Cloud's hot face in one hand, stopped his relentless rocking, still not understanding anything, except that the blonde was fast approaching hysteria, that whatever was going on, it was well on its way to destroying everything he had managed to accomplish tonight, if not more than that, "... shh... it's all right, Cloud... it's okay..."

"... I don't want them to hurt you, Zack... I don't... I won't let them... I promise... I..."

"Shh... it's all right..." Zack soothed, holding that frantic gaze with his own, "It's going to be fine. No one's going to hurt me... I'm going to stay here for a long time... I'm /okay/..."

"... but... but..."


Zack knew Cloud wanted to argue, could feel the angry tension in his friend's body, but the blonde was too exhausted to put up much of a struggle, and perhaps the slight power of the medication was starting to have some effect, breaking down that seemingly impossible barrier between the soldier's frantic thoughts, between his iron grip on alertness, and the sleep his body so desperately needed.

"Just relax, Cloud... I swear it's going to be all right..."


Cloud didn't want to relax, didn't want to give up his anger, feared the dreams that would come in his sleep, what he would have to remember, to live through again if he gave up to the darkness... and there was so much that he /had/ to explain... that Zack needed to know... his life... his life was in such danger...

//never... I'll never let them hurt you, Zack... /never/...//

... and he was always watching from the shadows, always with his eyes turned up, towards the two brightest stars of ShinRa, always hearing their laughter, in the light...

...and maybe he could not join them, would /never/ be worthy, but he could protect them... yes... he would always protect them... with his dying breath, he would ensure their survival...

//always... always... I can't lose that... not again...//

He had his head against Zack's chest once more, too tired to think, his eyes closing of their own will, relaxing into that greater strength...

... and just like that, as sudden and final as a sword stroke, his entire life was suddenly forgotten.

All of it, everything, was suddenly gone, all his thoughts, his frantic concerns, /everything/ just vanished against the new darkness that surrounded him. The strange thing was, it didn't feel all that bad, not to have to think, to remember, the temporary amnesia, dulling most of the pain, the guilt and fear, was almost a welcome friend...

He knew... he knew he should have been worried, should have been trying to reach them, to pull himself back into the pain, to focus... He couldn't rest, for some reason, some very /important/ reason... there was no time... no time...

"There's tonight, and however long you need after. You don't have to worry anymore. Just relax, Cloud, and sleep..."

He had been talking out loud. Damn.

Cloud felt so heavy, laying in Zack's arms, the other man's heartbeat just underneath his ear, the strong, determined rhythm striking out against death, against the darkness, pushing it away from both of them... His head moved, just slightly, as the dark-haired man breathed, chest rising and falling at a slow, easy pace... inviting peace, and calm, and sleep...

It was a struggle to open his eyes, break the silence, but the blonde pushed himself forward anyway.

"... what do you miss, Zack? Before the war... before... everything..."

God only knew if he'd fall asleep before the conversation was over, perhaps before his friend could reply, but Cloud wanted to talk for a few moments more, wanted to be reminded of the good things he couldn't seem to bring to mind...

//... I want to know this is real... I want to stay awake... so when tomorrow comes... I can remember//

"What do I...?" Zack murmured thoughtfully, pausing for a moment, "Bookstores, probably. The smell... all that new paper, all those possibilities... so mellow and calm in there..."

The dark-haired man chuckled as Cloud's eyebrow arched in obvious disbelief, "Don't you look at me like that. I'm not completely illiterate."

"Me Zack, Me big, me hit things, smash good... then read Shakespeare?"

"Quit that." Zack snickered, "what, do you have something so much better?"

"Not really. Restaurants, maybe... the good kind," Cloud shrugged slightly, "... steaks and potatoes, or fried rice and teriyaki chicken, or pasta... Mostly, though, it was not having to worry... just being able to relax... not having to always think nine steps ahead... not knowing that the future would... always be a fight..."

Zack frowned.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you."

Cloud looked up sharply, stunned by the sudden, /completely/ unnecessary apology.

"How can you..." The blonde shook his head, "how... how could you /apologize/ for something like that? You didn't do anything wrong... do you think I want you to... that I...?"

"I never did before, that's all... and you were all alone... and I'm sorry..."

"... don't..." Cloud murmured with a sudden smile, letting his head drop back against Zack's arm, eyes closed, "... you were still there with me... You were always there when I needed you..."

The blonde smiled as a thumb gently traced the curve of his jaw, the kind, caring gesture pausing just before it reached the injury, the place Aeris had struck him. It didn't matter, Cloud thought, he could no longer feel it anymore... the bruise didn't hurt... nothing hurt... everything was so safe, and comfortable, and warm...

"Love you, brother..."

Cloud wanted to answer, to echo the voice that rumbled like thunder through his mind, but before he could, the darkness wrapped around him like a thick, soft blanket, and took everything away.


Zack shifted very carefully, easing some of the pressure of Cloud's weight off of his left arm without waking his friend, letting the blonde curl up closer, smiling as Cloud snuggled against him with a contented sigh. It was surprisingly easy... his friend was actually a very light weight... too light...

//... working himself to death, doing the work of ten generals, and only feeling shamed that he cannot do the job for twelve more...//

Was that it, then? Was that his answer? Cloud's guilt, his sorrow had somehow manifested itself in some sort of hallucination of Aeris?

//... but hallucinations don't leave bruises...// he thought, almost reaching his hand up again, wanting to take the dark stain away, //... not physical marks, not like this...//

Cloud could have done that to himself, of course... but Zack /knew/ there it was more than that, that he couldn't just jump to that conclusion because it was plausible. There were many things he didn't understand about his friend's connection to the Planet... but that didn't mean it wasn't real.

//... and do you think, you really think, that if Cloud had wanted to hurt himself, he would have only left a bruise?//

Zack nearly shivered at that thought, thinking about how easy it would be, the myriad of ways for the blonde to do something more permanent, to escape whatever, or whomever was tormenting him.

//... he wouldn't, though... not Cloud. He'd never take the easy way out. He won't even let you /help/ him, and do you think he'd be sleeping now, not worrying about the rest of the soldiers, without those pills?//

The dark-haired man knew he hadn't asked a quarter of what he needed to know... about the war, about Sephiroth, about how Cloud had fought and defeated the Fullspawn...

//... and most of it is tied up with this new Cetera business... and I've got many more questions than answers...//

... and, of course, Elicia. What had happened to her, and why Cloud said what he had. In retrospect, Zack realized /that/ was probably the question Cloud had been dreading, fearing he would ask.

It all reminded the dark-haired man too much of Nibelheim... the questions without answers, the foreboding silences, the feeling that reality and control and sanity were being pulled right out of his grasp, slowly sliding through his fingers, in preparation for the one wild jerk that would send everything tumbling, falling into chaos and death.

//I'm not going to let that happen again. I'm /not/.//

As far as he was concerned, Anjele could take his entire interrogation, sit on it, and rotate.

The dark-haired general smiled wolfishly at several images, the possibilities flashing through his mind, of ways to "convince" Heidigger to leave Cloud alone, how to tell him the whole investigation was over.

Zack had only tolerated the young man for this long because his ShinRa arrogance and bravado had never reached beyond that of any other leader the SOLDIER had worked with before, and it had become almost second nature for him to pretend to hear, while doing his own thing anyway, and blatantly ignore Heidigger whenever he didn't care to even feign listening to him anymore.

//Only now, he's decided that he's in charge... He's going to start a witch-hunt, to topple Cloud and put Sephiroth in his place... like I'd /ever/ let that happen...//

Zack's dark thoughts faded as Cloud murmured in his sleep, face turning in a scowl, struggling just slightly in confusion or anger. The dark-haired man held him gently, knowing the importance of the slight difference between support and restraint in his touch, how thin the line was, before Cloud would lash out in instinctive terror, fear... for every memory of being helpless, being unable to move, was a memory of Hojo, and the lab.

//That damned lab...// Zack knew it would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life...

... and he had been a battle-hardened SOLDIER /before/ it had happened... and Hojo hadn't done half the shit to him that he had done to Cloud.

The blonde finally quieted, and Zack carefully put a hand against his brow, smiled slightly as he realized all his hopes hadn't been for nothing. The drugs were working, Cloud's fever wasn't nearly as high as it had been, and hopefully would go down even a few more degrees in the night.

The dark-haired man knew he should have taken Cloud to the North Corel military hospital, that the simple medication he had would do little for any real problems, that a night of sleep could not possibly counter the effects of nine straight months in the field...

//... more than that... I'd say, for the whole five years... I doubt if he's had a real break since this entire war started...//

He wanted to get Cloud some serious medical attention, and an official leave...

//... but Melissa would be there, she'd be the one who'd have to give the order, and he'd never get a moment's rest then, because she'd start interrogating him, and everyone else would know where to find him, and they'd have questions. Tifa, Cid, all his friends... I know they mean well, but he's still hiding from them, and it takes so much out of him to do it, it /has/ to. He'd never be able to take a breath without feeling like he had to hide it... and some commander somewhere would no doubt find another "urgent" assignment for him... and Anjele would butt in... and the doctors would probably decide to give him something in an IV, or an injection, and God, after everything that's happened, how could Cloud /not/ hate needles?//

It was safer, and, Zack told himself, more healing for Cloud to be able to just sleep secure, resting his mind completely for once, even if it meant ignoring some of the needs of his body.

The dark-haired man had even considered casting a Sleep spell, just to ensure that his friend rested undisturbed, but while the Materia's effect on normal people were almost always benign, a person who had already taken in too much Mako energy could suffer, or even die under its added power.

//... and who knows how much Mako he's absorbed over the past nine months? ... and then that shit with the Fullspawn? He's probably risking poisoning right /now/...//

No more, then. No more of Cloud pushing his limits, getting hurt in degrees, no more fighting, no more strategy. No more talk of meetings, of conferences, of learning "the truth". His friend could keep all his secrets locked away forever, if that was what would make the blonde happy. Cloud owed ShinRa nothing. As far as the dark-haired general was concerned, the blonde had given the corporation more than they ever could have asked for /before/ the damned war had started... and now he had offered them a dead Fullspawn, and the most stunning turnaround victory Zack had ever seen as the latest spoil of war... a success /no one/ could have expected, that he pulled out of the air like magic. They had no right to ask any more of him.

"... you... angry?"

Zack blinked, realized he had been so deep in thought he hadn't noticed Cloud had woken up, was watching him with wide, blue eyes, hazy with sleep even past their normal glow.

"Did I wake you? I'm sorry..."

"... don't worry 'bout it..." Cloud murmured, voice thick with sleep, smiling up at his friend, "... jus'... I had another question..."


//God, he looks so /young/...// Zack thought in amazement, watching Cloud's brow furrow slightly as he struggled to remember, soft blonde hair falling down in front of the deep blue pools. If the other man hadn't always been there, hadn't gone through everything Cloud had, those five years of impossible pain, he never would have believed the story, would have pegged the blonde as a new, green recruit.

"He's here... isn't he, Zack? He's... he's really here?"

The question, so full of hope, made Zack's heart shake in his chest. The question of whom "he" was did not even have to be asked.

"Yes, Cloud... he's really here."

The blonde nodded, and the dark-haired man could not read the expression that filled his eyes, only that it flooded out, unstoppable, covering everything.

"It's going to be okay, Cloud."

"No..." Cloud said, voice weak, trembling, "... no, I don't think so." He sighed, frowning slightly, his words so fragile, almost childlike,

"... they told me... everyone... knows that the hurt goes away, no matter how bad... how much you loved... That after a while, you don't miss them like you used to... that it's easier... it gets easier..." One or two new tears fell, though the blonde's expression barely changed, so lost, in such agony,

"It never went away, Zack. Never. It never got easier. I still missed him... every day... just like it was the first day. It never... it /never/ changed... it never stopped /hurting/..."

"Just go back to sleep, okay" Zack murmured, wiping the new tears away, not betraying the shock in his calm, steady tone, almost wanting to cry himself...

//God, Cloud... what do I /do/?//

The dark-haired man couldn't believe it, as he opened his mouth, and uttered the dumbest lie of all, simply because he had nothing left to say, "It's going to be okay... things will be better in the morning..."

The blonde nodded slowly, sighed, eyes already clouding over once more with exhaustion.

"I would have let him..." Cloud said faintly, "... you know that, right Zack? I... if it had just been him and me... I would have let him... if he wanted..." His eyes closed, voice faint, sliding back into sleep, "... I would have given him the world... if it would have made him happy..."

Zack didn't have an answer to that, knew it wouldn't have done Cloud any good anyway, that his friend was already asleep... but he wanted to say something, find the truth, if only for himself. He looked up, wishing he could see past the beams, to the starry sky he knew was there, above the rain clouds, beyond the reach of the Planet and all its power ... wished he could ask a question, just once, of anyone who might be able to tell him...

It hit him then, that the question he wanted to ask was the same one that had been bothering him, teasing at the back of his thoughts while he had comforted Cloud, something that had always bothered him, but that he hadn't had the words for until now.

//... that he has never asked me why. Simply, why? Why he had to hurt, why he had to suffer... what he did, to get involved in this...? He's never asked, he's just accepted it as his due... as if it's what he deserves, as if it's just the way things are...//

Well, Zack frowned, /he/ needed an answer to that question, even if Cloud did not. He would not be content to believe that it was simply meant to be, that the innocent man in his arms, who had always tried to follow a good path, to do the right thing, that he deserved to suffer, that it was some sort of fate, or destiny...

//Why? Why are things the way they are? Why can they be so beautiful, and yet so cruel? Why does this have to happen? Why?//

He sighed, shaking his head, and held his friend to him even more tightly as he settled into sleep, knowing there would be no answer, save the one he found for himself.

Zack looked down just before he let his own eyes close, found his smile mirroring that of the sleeping blonde's, and felt relief fill him. He had feared that joy was gone, that it might have been lost forever.

//... is this a second chance for me, then? Well, I promise I'll do it right this time. I'll protect you, Cloud. I /promise/... even if the gods /don't/ care... we still have each other... and I'll always be here for you... always.//





Author notes - revenge of the nerd!

1. Yes, it's long. I don't care. You write 16 chapters of pure angst and see if you can live without a long, squishy scene!

2. Yes, they have Shakespeare in this world. Shakespeare is everywhere, as it should be, and if you haven't seen Titus yet, then why the hell are you reading this? Go find a VCR, sit down, and watch 2+ hours of the most violent, vicious, horribly decadent evil ever written in such formal speech. It'll swear you off chicken pot pies forever, I guarantee. : ) Anthony Hopkins is the MAN!

3. Yes, they have fried rice too. I can't remember what they serve in that damn restaurant in Wall Market, but I don't think it was very good anyway, so who cares...

4. I don't know when to capitalize Materia and Chocobo, so it's very haphazard.

5. With the spaces in between paragraphs, my computer says this chapter is 72 pages long. I don't believe it, but even so, there are probably a few mistakes.

6. My God, Mission to Mars was a horrible, horrible movie. Bad Gary! Bad Tim! No cookie!

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