A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 21

By Twig


He might be a puppet's puppet, but he knew exactly the disposition of the strings.

-Where Angels Fear to Tread



Zack pounded up the stairs as quickly as he could, not knowing or caring if anyone had followed him, his full attention fixed on the trembling body he was now cradling. His thoughts were whirling like mad, full of dark anxieties, his instincts screaming that it was too late, and blaming him... how had he not /noticed/? Why hadn't he acted /sooner/?!

//I told him I'd take care of him, I swore...//

Zack shoved it all aside, not interested in self-pity, not now. There were other things, much too important...

Cloud murmured something panicked, shivering uncontrollably, as if he had been dipped in ice to the core, though Zack could feel the heat radiating from his skin, through his clothing. It felt as if the blonde was burning away.

//No, damn it! NO!!//

Zack said as much aloud, though he feared his friend was too far gone to hear.

"You stay with me, Cloud... just stay with me... MELISSA!!!"

He roared the doctor's name again, as he reached the top of the staircase, and slammed through the door to the infirmary. The doctor looked up lazily from an interior room as he rushed inside, strolled out with knowing sarcasm splashed across her features.

"I'm not surprised. I told you, that he'd..."

The woman cut her commentary off short, eyes widening in alarm at the overwhelming panic on Zack's face, and the tremors that shook the very pale blonde in his arms.

"Get him on the table! Now!"



Cloud opened his eyes, for only a moment, biting back a cry at the powerful blast of light that drove into his eyes, nearly knocked him senseless. He tried again, but shut them just as quickly against the visions in front of him. The initial brightness had dulled somewhat, but the world was still twisting, a nightmare of blurry shapes, distended angles. He could hear voices, knew by the pressure against his back that he was laying down now, that the voices overhead were talking about him, but /how/ he knew...? Everything was fading so violently in and out... Cloud tried to focus, struggled for any sort of clarity beyond the clashing sensations of fire and ice, battling inside, but felt his body fail him, filled with an exhaustion too powerful to fight.

//Where am I? Where?//


"What happened?!"

"Take your pick!" Zack snapped back, his mind racing for an answer, or even a likely starting point. God only knew, from the way Cloud was talking, just before he collapsed... that the Cetra, that they had somehow blocked him, from sensing what had happened in Gongaga.

//Gongaga?// Of course, the dark-haired man was waiting now, knew that within a few moments, /someone/ would tell him what had happened, just how badly his hometown had been hit. Zack was waiting, expecting the worst.

//The worst. Was that it? Was this battle just too much for him to take, one too many? Or was the strain of telling us all about Elicia? He's always held his pain so close, so tight...//

"Holy God..." Melissa breathed, as she barely touched Cloud's forehead, and pulled her hand away as if it had been burned. "Get his shirt off, I need to start monitoring... and why the /hell/ is he in handcuffs?!"

Zack stared blankly at the remains of the metal restraints around Cloud's wrists, quickly pulled out his master key and rid the blonde of them. It probably wasn't the most important thing... Zack scowled, ignoring that though.

//I won't allow it. I should /never/ have allowed... how could I /not/ have expected this?!//

Cloud whimpered as the dark-haired SOLDIER lifted him slightly, undid the lacing on the back of the belt without even looking.

//Of course I know how... it used to be mine...// His belt, just one more piece of baggage Cloud carried, one of the rare few that was solid to the touch, not locked inside the blonde's mind, another memory he would not leave behind.

//Who has more right, though, to hold on to the past, and to fear for the future, than he does?//

"What happened?" Melissa was once again at his side, checking the blonde's erratic pulse, scowling at the intense heat beneath her hand.

"I don't know. I don't..." The thought struck him then, what had been just another detail he had tucked away, of minimal importance, and he slid off Cloud's glove, turned his hand, exposing a thin, red line, nothing at all, more than nothing... but they both knew there shouldn't have been a mark at all.

"... fuck..." Melissa muttered, pulled a scalpel off of a nearby table, not willing to waste even a second searching for another instrument, knowing that what she expected to find would show up just as well on the blade as on anything else. Very carefully, she made a slight incision, barely breaking the skin on a parallel line next to the scar. Cloud didn't move, didn't stir, but Zack hissed as she pulled the blade back to reveal its alarmingly /wrong/ edge, red-mottled-black, Cloud's blood laced with darkness.

"He's been poisoned." The doctor pulled back immediately, tossing the scalpel on a table, hurrying towards the rest of her equipment


Zack swallowed hard, wanting nothing more than to tear something apart with his bare hands, the impulse passing as Cloud's eyelids fluttered, those eyes sought him out, brilliant blue fires burning /much/ too brightly now, watching blindly, utterly lost. The dark-haired man didn't know if Cloud actually saw him at all.

"You just relax, okay Spike? You're safe now. I'll take care of you, I promise." The words were nothing but breathless babble, Zack had no idea how to help, what to do as the blonde's eyes closed once more.

The dark-haired man turned, at movement in the doorway behind him, expecting to see the rest of the interrogation room, all those he had easily left behind in his dash to the infirmary. It was a doctor instead, or an intern, someone in a medical uniform that he didn't recognize. Melissa turned, without ever slowing her step, and tossed the man a blue bag.

"Give him one shot of /everything/ in that bag, now!" The woman turned to Zack, motioned him to her side of the room. "I need you to help me, I need to double-check... I know the dosages, but I want to be sure-- shit! Goddamn it!"

Melissa's hands darted across the keypad, the combination lock to the most powerful and dangerous drugs ShinRa kept on hand, swearing as anxiety caused clumsiness, and the lock remained closed. Zack stepped up beside her, and with one quick motion, simply tore it away.

There was more noise from outside in another few moments, and this time it /was/ the team. Zack could hear cursing from Barret and Cid, the trampling and chaos of many pairs of feet trying to make it up the narrow staircase all at once. They almost poured into the room, Tifa in the lead, her eyes widening in horror as she saw Cloud, pale and motionless on the examining table.

"Oh, hell no." Melissa muttered, rounding on them all. "This is an emergency! There's no time and no room, /I/ sure as hell can't work with you all here, so GET OUT!!!"

None of them had time to answer, before Melissa's attentions were turned sharply, as the intern prepared the first injection... and Zack and the doctor both realized that Cloud wasn't moving, but he /was/ awake, blue eyes barely open, but /very/ alert, all his attention focused on the needle in the intern's hand.

"Shit! Don't!" Melissa yelled, stretching a restraining arm towards the other medic, who unknowingly was already well into the danger zone.

The man looked up in surprise, unknowingly took a step closer to Cloud, not realizing that it was all the blonde had been waiting for. With one massive kick, Cloud lashed out, sending the intern flying across the room, the man slamming hard into a metal table before sliding to a heap on the floor. His body hadn't hit the ground before the blonde was up and moving, making a wild dash for the door.


It hurt to open his eyes, or to keep them open for long, and he was too weak to wipe the hot tears that formed at their corners... but he had to know, had to answer the question that was pounding a wild drumbeat through his clouded mind.

//Where am I... where am I... where where where??!!//

He could remember nothing clearly, only vague sensations, sorrow, shame, grief... and those could easily have been from any time, any place. The world seemed so distant, blurred and insubstantial, he could barely distinguish the real from that other place, the distant, rumbling green...

Except that the green wasn't so distant anymore, and its murmurs were growing louder, and louder. Those voices threatened to drown out the real world entirely, whispering dark promises, and terrifyingly confident threats that were just too distant to be audible... but Cloud knew enough to still be afraid. Very afraid.

The blonde ignored the voices for a moment, in search of the answer to a much more immediate problem. Where the hell was he /now/? Who were the masters of those elusive, distant voices in the real world, those cries that seemed to come from miles overhead?

The fighter's heart skipped, as he realized why the lights seemed so bright, how well they reflected off the pure white walls, the ceiling, that spotless, pure white... everything, shining and metallic, void of color or texture or life. He remembered this place, remembered this smell... the smell of the endless /white/...

//Medical... No, it's a lab... oh god oh no... /his/ lab...//

It wasn't... couldn't... he was just... where was he? What had happened? He could remember nothing, the past was just a solid, unmarked wall, offering next to nothing.

//His lab... can't be... it can't be it /can't/ be!!!//

Cloud forced himself not to move, to betray a single gesture of intent, his mind racing between opposing thoughts. One said that he was completely wrong, that he couldn't be... it just didn't make /sense/, that he was somehow a prisoner again. The other, completely irrational urge was /howling/, barely even words, just the emotion... panic, fear, terror, oh yes he was exactly where he thought and the nightmare was just beginning...

//Not again not again never never never please /NO/ not again NOT AGAIN!!!//

It took an incredible effort to force his eyes open, though he hadn't even noticed they were closed. The room was blurry, everything seemed to shift in a heat haze, for which Cloud knew /he/ very well may have been responsible. It felt that bad, the burning, wild flames tearing him open from the inside, burning through skin and bone with ease.


He tried to focus on the dim, wavering image in front of him, distant, almost too distant now to matter. It was his friend, yes, he would be safe... Zack wouldn't let anyone...

The relief cut short, turned into a noose that jerked tightly around his neck, as his friend's shape wavered, and shifted, replaced itself with a smaller, hunched-over form. The long white coat fell to the wrists of those ever-moving hands, the bony knuckles sliding through a long whip of greasy hair. Glasses perched over a terrifying memory of a dark, shark-like expression, those beady eyes glinting, gun barrels and knife blades...

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

Cloud squeezed his eyes shut until he saw stars behind the darkness, and then did his best to open them wide, ignoring both brightness and pain in his effort to see clearly, to discover the truth. His heart was racing, every nerve lit up and ready, bracing for the realization. If the truth was as bad as he feared, the fighter didn't think he could survive.

//No... it's not... it can't be... it just /can't/...//

The thought cut off, to a desperate whimper... why couldn't it be?

The figure continued to change, at the end of whatever long, dark tunnel had risen up between them, and refused to assume any shape for long, wavering between friend and foe, heaven and hell...

//It's not /real/! Zack... Zack is here, and he's real... Hojo... that bastard is only a nightmare. It has to be.// Cloud's voice was much more a plea than a demand. //Just once, let the dream be real... it /has/ to be real.//

He wanted nothing more than to believe, knew he had to trust in Zack, had to believe in his friends, and they would never let him... they had just been here- here, when he had... he had spoken, and they, they had all... they had been listening... hadn't they?

//What if you're wrong?//

The voice that uncurled inside of him was the essence of every shattered promise, each useless scream for mercy, all of the nightmares of five endless years.

//All you have to do is be wrong now. What if that was all a dream, all of it, and this is the reality? ... and Hojo got careless, and this is your last chance, your very /last/ chance to escape?//

Careless, yes. The scientist had been careless before, once... but then...

Afterward, they all realized he really had done exactly what he meant to, and Cloud... the failure, had /still/ managed to best him...


It had all happened once, hadn't it? Hadn't it? The war... the five years' struggle... why did it suddenly seem so distant, muddled, nothing more than his own desperate fantasy?

//Stay, don't move, if you're /sure/ this is real...//

The blonde knew he wasn't tied down, and adrenaline was holding back the exhaustion, the fires that were still burning inside. He /could/ make a break for it, if he wanted to. It was a terrible risk to take, he would have no control, no way to stand and fight if he was cornered, no way to even /move/ for long. Cloud could tell already that, when the thrill of terror had left him, simply standing would leave him breathless and dizzy, and walking would be akin to standing outside his body and just hoping for the best.

//I don't need control... I just need a few seconds, I can make it, I can /do/ this...//

The terror wouldn't leave him, not until he was far away, and that would be enough. This white room, the shifting forms of nightmare and beloved friend... none of it made sense, /nothing/ was clear. All he could do was run, run and decide later, when he was alone, and safe.

//I can't... I can't risk it... the not knowing...//

If he had any doubts at all about running, they vanished completely as he saw a white coat, and the flash of a needle, slowly moving closer.

//Needles. That shine, just like his eyes... how many days, how many years...?//

He remembered, his body had recorded every last second in immutable clarity. The tubes, feeding liquid Mako straight into his veins, for hours and hours and hours, like a Slow spell turning five years into five hundred, until he couldn't scream anymore, and his body jerked only in reflex, his tears falling beyond his control, disappearing, frozen in the cold, empty white. Hojo hadn't cared, wasn't even watching for signs of danger, and Cloud knew, knew it didn't matter if he survived or not. The lunatic wanted only to push it, push as far as it could go, and then go for /more/.

Cloud knew that, beyond everything else, that he had gotten to that man in a way almost no one else ever had, had managed to reach his heart, and wound his ego. Hojo /hated/ him for what he had done, for the perfect solider he had destroyed... and the blonde knew he would pay for it a thousand times over, that the scientist would /never/ be satisfied with his revenge.

//Not again... not /this/ time...//

He waited, watched the white coat move closer by feet, by inches, watched it hover agonizingly close, but not enough, not yet...

//... come on come on come on you sonofabitch, MOVE...//

His body was tense, ready. Only one strike, he would only get one chance, and then he would have to run, with everything he had, as far away as he could get. There was movement everywhere, dark shadows watching him from all sides, and whether they were monsters or people or friends, it didn't matter, nothing mattered except getting /out/.


Two more inches... One-and-a-half...


"Shit! Don't!"

//Too late, motherfucker!//

Cloud lashed out as hard as he could, and he was on his feet and running before he heard the first cry of alarm. The blonde was running blind, could see movement all around him but ignored them, heard cries... or were they the sounds of alarms, announcing his retreat, screaming for his blood? A voice whispered somewhere, that he should slow down, if only for a moment, and try to make sense, to define the dim, hazy world shifting around him...

//...like /hell/!//

If nothing else, Cloud was fast. He knew he had always been fast, he had been born for it. Tifa might have thought him a brawler, but she had no idea, of all the fights he should have been in, that he had been able to escape instead, all those bullies he had been able to outrun. Cloud could feel the spark of raging, rebellious joy, pressing power into already screaming muscles, forcing himself to give that extra push... and knew no one was good enough to stop him, no one would catch him. It was his salvation, he /would/ be free.

//Give me one chance, I'll /show/ you what fast looks like...//

The only part of his thoughts not focused on the flight was waiting, with a maddening certainty, for the sound he prayed he wouldn't hear. Teeth gritted, he dove towards the door, but waited to hear the sound of a gun, not the killing kind, but the other... the kind that slowed him down, made him easy to capture... a sound so much worse than death.

The door hovered in front of him like a prize, close and moving closer. There was no way for any of them to stop him, none were close enough, none were fast enough. He pushed off for the final step, almost laughed, he was going to make it, he was going to be free...

Cloud had been waiting, expecting the gun. He hadn't seen the strike coming, the brick wall that came out of nowhere, and tackled him head-on.


Zack hadn't expected Cloud to have the strength to move, let alone fling a man across the room with a perfectly-aimed kick, before lunging toward the door with every bit of speed and power he could manage.

//No one that sick can move that fast!//

None of the others had been close enough to stop him, and the dark-haired man really wouldn't have wanted any of them to try. It was clear from the way he had taken out the intern that Cloud didn't realize where he was, and, confused and frightened, he wasn't holding anything back.

Zack had moved immediately, and even then he knew he had almost been too late, his yells mixing with the panicked sounds of the crowded room, Melissa's voice somehow over it all, warning him that if he didn't stop Cloud, the blonde would die, that he couldn't let the other man escape...

//Yes, Melissa... duh, here?//

...and Zack measured the move even as he leapt, in what was probably the most graceful flying tackle in the history of man. Cloud never saw it coming, another sign of how out of it he really must have been, how he had focused everything only on his escape.

The dark-haired SOLDIER was grateful for that, and just as grateful that he was able to grab a foothold as his arms wrapped around the blonde, using the inertia to turn them both before they hit the opposite wall, so that he would hit first, and take most of the impact on himself. It wasn't pretty, but he was able to get a better hold on Cloud when the blonde crashed into him, adjust his already loosening grip. The lucky streak didn't last long, though, and as he struggled to catch his breath, the other fighter very nearly wrenched himself free.

"Cloud, Cloud it's me!"

Nothing. Not a sign of understanding from the man in his arms, and the blonde did not stop fighting him. Though Zack was holding Cloud from behind, the dark-haired fighter didn't think it would have made much difference. The blonde was too far gone, sick and confused and absolutely terrified, to be aware of anything at all, to know the difference between truth and dream. The only thing he knew was fear, fear and the need to flee.

"Cloud! It's all right!"

Zack kept talking, hoping it would help, somehow it would reach through whatever delirium had taken hold of his friend, was astonished, as Cloud pushed forward, off the ground, and nearly flipped /backwards/ out of his grasp, with an inner strength Zack was stunned to see still remaining, power fused directly to the blonde's fright, as the fighter strained against him, trying to kick, punch, bite, /anything/ to make Zack release his hold.

... and his friend was screaming, horrible, desperate screams the dark-haired man remembered too well, sounds he never needed or wanted to hear again.

//Trapped... he thinks he's trapped... and this room... god, he thinks he's gone back to the lab.//

Cloud was strong, his fear easily replacing whatever the sickness had taken away, but Zack had just enough of a size advantage, and more control, was able to use the blonde's momentum against him, although how he managed to get Cloud back on the stretcher without hurting him more, or getting hurt in the process was nothing short of a miracle.

Zack growled around clenched teeth as one of Cloud's blows finally found a mark against his side, but he refused to loosen his death grip, holding on as tightly as he could to lower half of the stretcher's frame, his body straining with the effort of pinning Cloud's down, the blonde /still/ nearly throwing him off with each attempt to free himself. The fighter looked up, found Sephiroth, was furious that the white-haired man seemed as stunned as the rest of the room, was just standing silent and still along its edge, watching him.

"Goddamn it, Seph, HELP ME!!!"


Capture. Capture and fear, those first few, sweat slick seconds, no pain yet but he knew it was coming, Hojo looking at him with those needle eyes, sliding on those /god-damned/ gloves, and he knew... knew it would hurt... they were going to hurt him over and over and again and again....


He raged, lashing out with every bit of strength that remained. Break a limb of theirs, or with luck, break his own neck. Slip from this creature's grip for only a moment, land the wrong way... One accident, one blessed fragment of pain, and it would all be over. No more lab, no more punishments, not for the failure, no more no more no more...

"Cloud! Cloud, it's me!"

Lies. Righteous anger mixed with the terror, an almost manic glee, at the stupidity... the utter idiocy, for Zack was dead... long dead and gone.

... and Cloud's soul had been clawing at the inside of his chest, Zack needed his help, needed him now as he never had before, and there was /no/ way to reach him in time... his muscles wouldn't work, wouldn't obey-/bullets and bullets into you, my sweet brother/- strong, pale body broken in the rain and mud... he had tried... he had /tried/-/don't die, don't die Zack don't /leave me/!!!/

//Die, you fucking imposter. Die!//

He wanted to kill the owner of those iron arms, the unimaginably cruel bastard for daring, daring to use that gentle voice to try and fool him... but Cloud could feel the anger slipping away, new fear rising to take his place as the battle continued to rage, as he found he could /not/ slip free, the arms around him solid and unrelenting, pulling him down, crushing him...

... and all the rage was gone, all the determination, for vengeance, and there was only terror, the need to escape, and they were all around him now, he had lost his window, had lost his only way out...

//NO NO NO NO!!!//

"Cloud! It's all right!"

The memory had vanished, the voice was nothing, he could not even hear it anymore, too busy fighting, feeling the drain, the heavy weight pressing down harder and harder against his chest, and knowing he wasn't going to make it, that there was /no/ chance, /no/ hope...

//Oh God no, PLEASE!!!// One moment, one lucky break... all he would need, all he was asking for... /please/ let it come...

Cloud leapt, kicked out, and hit the ground hard, pinned now on his back, no new chances for freedom now, and his spine had turned to barbed wire under this new monster's touch, all his nerves were razorblades, but /still/ he fought, he would fight until the last cell in his body had been torn apart. The weight was incredible, crushing him, and the pain, the all-over /burning/ heat... but they would have to kill him first, for he would never let them, never never NEVER let them... Hojo would never... never again... not again...

"Goddamn it, Seph! HELP ME!!!"

Distant, that name sparked something, recognition through the heat and darkness, and two more bars, twice as strong as the last, came down upon his shoulders, pinning him in place. He gasped, strained forward with all his might, but they would not move, these restraints did not yield even an inch, would not give him a moment of hope...

... but still he struggled, and still he screamed, as he watched his hope crumble, /felt/ it abandon him, and fall away.


Zack couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief as Sephiroth stepped up to help, finally releasing his frozen hold on the bed, able to reposition his hold on Cloud without fear of losing him entirely. The white-haired man had been quick to act when called, holding Cloud's shoulders down against the stretcher, moments before Barret and Vincent had stepped in to each pin one of his legs. The blonde was /still/ fighting, and from Barret's muttered curses, not completely in vain, but he was weakening fast. That last desperate flight had been the very end of his strength.

Zack didn't see Melissa approach, but didn't have to, watching Cloud react to her instead. The blonde choked off his screams, until he was breathing in short, shallow gasps, his eyes wide, locked onto the sight of what Zack could only assume was the needle in her hand.

"I'm going to need you to keep him still, or there's no way I'll be able to get this in." Melissa said softly. Zack nodded.

//What I wouldn't give...// He thought, glancing at Sephiroth, who was still concentrating on keeping Cloud from moving. //He'd convince Cloud with a single word, I'm sure of it, but then I'd have to ask, and then he'd want to know /why/ and then everyone else... oh hell, forget it...//

The dark-haired man moved closer, blocking the view of Melissa and the needle, forcing the blonde to look at him instead.

"Cloud...? Cloud, it's me. Zack. Come on, /look/ at me..."

He brought a hand up, cupped the side of Cloud's face - /god/ he was burning alive - and gently turned those eyes to his.

//Please, Spike...// He tried to tell himself the blonde was still stable, that Cloud's fever wasn't rising beneath his fingertips, that he wasn't drifting further out of their reach with each second that passed, //Please, there's no time...//

A moment of recognition in the blue, fading away, lost amidst conflicting terrors, confusion and fear enough to break Zack's heart ten times over. The blonde tried to speak, lips moving slightly, but the words escaped him.

"You have to trust me, Cloud. Please. Just trust me..."

There was an easy chance, Zack knew, that he was just asking more than his friend could give. Cloud saw Melissa come closer, the dark-haired man felt the body beneath his touch tighten up in panic, heard the blonde draw a single breath, terrified, as the needle's tip gleamed in the light. The blonde fighter was no longer struggling to be free, but desperately pushing back against the stretcher, straining away from the doctor, his eyes never wavering from the syringe in her hand.

"It'll be okay, Cloud. Come on, just look at me..." Zack drew himself close, until he could feel the heat of Cloud's brow against his own, and those blue eyes were all he could see. "Cloud, you're /safe/ now. I promise. I /swear/ it..."

He held Cloud's eyes, pouring every bit of friendship, of honest fear into them that he could, and blessedly felt the blonde go still, just long enough for Melissa to do her work. The doctor moved with impressive speed, the needle in and out almost before Zack could blink, but Cloud's single, terrified whimper haunted him, the muffled sob of deep despair, because the blonde truly /didn't/ believe Zack's words, didn't think he was safe, but no longer had the strength to fight back.

No one released their hold, until Zack finally felt Cloud start to relax, until he knew that, at least for the moment, the disaster had been averted.

"That might not even be enough to knock him out completely, but it should keep /this/ madness from happening again..."

Melissa waved a hand towards where Cid and Yuffie were extracting the battered medic from the remains of the small cabinet he had broken in his fall, before she quickly started sorting medicines, lining up another series of shots.

"What's wrong with him?" Barret said, disentangling himself from where he had been holding the blonde, as whatever Melissa had given Cloud started to do its work, and the drugs swept away what remained of his strength. Sephiroth had removed himself moments before, apparently to take up Zack's former place at Melissa's side, explaining to her which medicines would work best, and in what dosages.

"Poisoned." Zack could hear Tifa gasp beside him, and she reached out to Cloud, taking his hand tightly in hers.

"Son of a bitch! That thing--" Yuffie yelled, pointing at Vincent, who quickly agreed, "That thing we fought, that monster thing that Sephiroth killed... it must have been... Son of a /BITCH/!!!"

"It barely touched him." Vincent murmured, nodding gravely.

"It was enough." Melissa muttered, not looking up from her work.

"What do we do? How do we cure it?"

Tifa turned, Cloud's half-open eyes staring hazily at her, and gently touched his cheek, moving closer, still waiting for an answer, but never letting her eyes leave the blonde's.

"I'm here, Cloud. I'm right here."

The fighter turned back when no one spoke, staring at Melissa, and then at Zack. Tifa could feel her heart beating faster, as no one answered her.

"What do we have to do to help him?"

"I don't know if there's anything we /can/ do. These poisons... they're all completely original, each one we've ever encountered has its own unique chemical structure. We can try to..." Melissa paused, looking up sharply at the wobbly intern, who was taking a few limping steps across the floor. "Can you walk?"

After a few more gingerly taken steps, the medic looked up, and nodded.

"Go call the lab, division blue. Tell them I need them all to get ready, I'm bringing down an emergency sample."

"What's division-?"

Tifa's question was sharply cut off, as with a loud yell, Ro darted into the room.

"Sir... I..."

The redhead froze for a moment, staring at the scene, the injured medic, the remnants of his landing spot... The General, lying on a stretcher...

He had been Cloud's second-in-command, though, for a long time, and was well equipped for the surprises of his job, no matter how shocking. The redhead only paused for a moment, took it in stride, seeking Zack out in the span of a heartbeat.

"Sir, I've got Reno on the com, sir. Says they just got plowed under at Gongaga. They're holding together, but they need reinforcements /soon/."

"Reno?" More than one voice murmured in surprise, though Cid's was first, and loudest. "I thought he was dead!"

Zack turned to Tifa, aware that his entire world seemed to be on fast forward, nothing more than a blur, and took her free hand briefly, glancing down at Cloud as she looked up at him.

"Keep him calm, Tifa... just do whatever Melissa says, all right? I'm counting on you."

Tifa didn't have the chance to respond, before he turned and followed Ro out the door, Sephiroth quickly moving to join them.


The brunette was dimly aware of hands moving beside hers, Melissa's careful movements, pushing equipment against her suddenly awkward fingers, telling her to place small monitors against Cloud's burning skin, on his forehead, over his heart. At the periphery, she could tell Barret, Vincent and Cid were watching warily, not wanting to get in the way, tense, nervous, and waiting, just in case the blonde somehow panicked again.

Yuffie was at her side, near Melissa, moving things when the fighter was unable to, for Tifa was unwilling to let go of her hold on Cloud's hand, even for a moment, especially as Melissa approached with more medicine, and she felt his hold tighten on her, body rigid with terror, glowing eyes turning to her in a silent, frightened plea.

//He's so scared... Oh Cloud, what happened to you?//

"It's okay, Cloud. No one's going to hurt you. I promise" Tifa turned to Melissa, the warning in her eyes, that the doctor had better agree. Zack may have trusted the doctor, but the brunette did not, could not completely overlook the woman's cold professionalism. It reminded her too much of Scarlet, this icy ShinRa employee who didn't really care about the life or death of another. Melissa scowled, taking the hint.

"I'm only trying to help him. I don't want him to die any more than you do. Don't think I don't know what the consequences are."

Tifa looked away, kept her eyes locked on glowing blue, as Melissa continued working, injecting him with one drug after another, desperately trying to counteract the poison in his system, to bring his fever down, stabilize his system. Yuffie continued to take her instructions, and, as Tifa stood there, the quiet beeping of several monitors slowly filled the air around her, until the ninja girl was done, and Melissa's precise movements lost the edge of what the fighter realized had been panic, and she finished by inserting an IV into the blonde's arm, and taking a vial of his blood. Tifa shuddered, had to turn away, at the sight of the dark, blue-black streaks inside the tube of red.

"What I've done isn't enough... not nearly enough to counteract the damage..." Melissa lay her hand briefly on Cloud's head, checked a few readings Tifa didn't understand enough to follow. "... but it's all I have for now, and it should keep him stable for a while, at least. I'll get started, right now, researching..." she trailed off, moving away, gathering a few books, some supplies, almost racing for the door. The woman paused at the doorway, turned to look at them, as if reminding herself, that she should probably give them some sort of instruction.

"I'll be close. Press the red button, on the pager on my desk, I'll be back up here immediately. Try to get him to sleep, if you can... He /absolutely/ needs to rest."



The fighter had been annoyed with Melissa's sudden, short explanation, and her swift departure, the idea that she would leave them, leave Cloud like that to go off and do whatever she thought was more important nearly made her blood boil... but all thoughts of the woman were swept from her mind at the weak whisper from the bed, the clear, confused lucidity that had returned to those smooth blue eyes.


The brunette drew close, stifled the sudden welling of tears that pushed forward, swallowing them back to a tightness in her chest, as Cloud reached up, gently followed the curve of her cheek with his hand, as if testing, unsure, fearing she would break away to nothing, or walk away if he dared to reach for her, touch her.

The brunette put her hand over his, still holding the other tightly, terrified by the way they burned, as if she were holding two glowing coals.

//... don't let go.// A voice deep within whispered urgently to her, //Don't let go of him now, or you'll lose him forever.//

"I'm sorry, Tifa... I'm so sorry..."

"No, Cloud. You didn't do /anything/ wrong."

"... never wanted... didn't want to hurt you... never wanted to hurt anyone..."

Oh yes, it had hurt, to hear that he had been with another, and the details of Elicia's death had been terrifying, horrifying... but none of that was Cloud's fault, he was not responsible for any of the turmoil she felt now.

"I always... knew... there was a reason... you n' me... A real... real reason... not just... me... just me..."

"Shh..." Tifa felt his hand go limp against her cheek, and let it go, to fall away back to his side, using the moment to wipe a few hot tears away, before he could see, before it could upset him more. The brunette didn't need to hear the words, didn't want to think about how they drove through her like nails, all her dreams, of a family, a new, normal life with him now shattered, forever beyond repair. "Shh... Cloud, it's all right, really. It's going to be all right, but you need to rest now. You /have/ to rest."

He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and as she stood with him his eyes finally started sliding shut, but he did not let go of her hand, holding on to the very last.

"Please... please stay. Don't go... don't..."

"Of course." Tifa murmured, surprised and saddened that he felt he even had to ask, giving his hand a comforting squeeze. Cloud did not respond, the drugs and the endless strain on his body finally taking their toll, and he was already unconscious.


Reeve was surprised to see Zack walk through the door behind Ro, the President hadn't actually expected him to show.

"So, what's the situation?" The dark-haired man muttered, moving towards the radio, looking briefly over the map that had been set up by the others in the room, the best image they had of what the battlefield looked like, in the aftermath of the surprise attack. Reeve already knew it didn't look good, that the line of dots that formed the head of Hojo's assault had cut their hold on the area surrounding Gongaga almost in half, and that, most likely, the true line had been pushed back even further, the damage was even more severe.

"There weren't any civilians, of course," he found himself saying, and wondered briefly how that was supposed to make anything better. "Gongaga's been a military base from the beginning..."

Zack nodded, and though Reeve didn't want to ask, to risk rerouting his focus, he couldn't help but ask.

"How's... Cloud?"

The man saw, not emotion, but the place where it should have been, a spasm of blankness pass swiftly across Zack's face, but the SOLDIER said nothing, kept watching the map, listening to the frantic, hushed voices of the various technicians and workers without saying a word.

"We're bringing Rude back now... he was the most badly injured, trying to save Elena, it seems, though Reno isn't doing too well either..." Reeve thought he had grown used to Cid and Barret's liberal use of certain... explicit words, but the injured Turk screaming into his radio had quickly put them both to shame.

"There's no one left to lead, is there?" Zack murmured, quickly getting to the center of the situation. "With the Turks gone, there's no one down there."


Zack was unusually silent, displaying a focus and reserved distance that, especially for him, Reeve found /extremely/ unnerving.

"Mr. President..."

It was an uncalled for protocol, and the tense, strangely emotionless way that Zack said it made it all the more frightening.


"If I come back from Gongaga, and find that Anjele's done /anything/ to Cloud, I'll kill him. In fact, even now I wonder why I'm bothering to let him live."

The poison was what was killing Cloud now... but Anjele had forced him to speak, to tell them all of his past, and broken something in him, perhaps beyond repair. Zack knew this, believed it was true, and was more than willing to funnel his rage onto Heidigger because of it. The fighter knew there would be more than enough anger left over, to take back Gongaga.


//... you all right?//


//can you hear me...?//


//back then... you could get by with just skinned knees...//

No. Not this, not again. Not /again/...

/... don't make me... open my eyes, and see her flowers, her voice, her face... I can't forget, and remember again, remember what happened, and who I have to be... I don't want to be Cloud... I don't want to... not again... not anymore.../


/not again... Zack, please don't make me remember... let me be you, just please let me be /you/.../

/take it slow... little by---/

//don't be gone again, Zack... please, don't be dead... I can't, I can't fight him again, not with you gone... not alone... I can't... I just /can't/... not /again/...//

Cloud could hear fabric rustling, a distant sound, and it took him a long time to put it together with the feeling of slightly scratchy material against his face, and the decided effort it took to move his fingers, to try and push it away. The fever dreams were thick around him, making everything fuzzy and unclear, and they did not recede from his mind with ease. It was hard to feel the difference between them and the world he knew was true, or at least, the world he wanted to believe in...


The room was very dim, not the brilliant, white-walled nightmare he remembered, although it took him a few moments to realize that the shadows were more than those simply those in his own vision.


Darkness... fading in and out... The dreams receded, granting him a small measure of clarity, and though the tubes, the wires all remained, there was nothing holding him down, he was not in the place he had been... no one here, with needles, waiting for him to wake up...

//Who... who's...//

The blonde turned his head, surprised at how limited the action seemed, and how much effort it cost him, as he tried to focus on the figure curled in the nearby chair.

//E... Elena?// Cloud wished he could move, get close enough to dispel the shadows from his vision. In the dim light, it truly did look like the Turk.

//Couldn't be... she died... the Cetra... she...// Cloud flinched, as just /thinking/ the name seemed to be some sort of call, and the soft light cast on the blonde's face suddenly took on a greenish tinge, and something in the air /dropped/, turned heavy and menacing. Moving his gaze away from Elena, the blonde found he knew exactly where to look, as Aeris, brilliant, smiling and chillingly cold, melted through the wall, pulling her long staff free behind her.

He didn't ignore the threat of the weapon, but knew she wouldn't need it, not to kill him, that she wouldn't need /anything/, really. The awareness, of his own fragility, brought along a strange sense of security. Anything could kill him, and so there was nothing to fear.

//Just don't wake Elena, she's tired...// he thought weakly at the glowing figure, feeling goose bumps shiver across his bare skin, as Aeris stepped closer, her near-solid emerald form radiating icy fire.

The flower girl didn't speak, but it really didn't matter, Cloud knew what she wanted, his eyes following her as she slowly paced around his bed. The brunette looked at the monitors briefly, and at him, seeing more than anyone human could have, the protection he had, that was killing him, and its collapse, which would also kill him. A silent word hung in the air between them.


The blonde clenched his jaw tight as determination, resolve flared up inside, that rebellion all he was really capable of anymore. He tried to picture his soul growing roots, tried to send the glowing figure the best image he could, that he would /not/ give up... that he would hold on, and that he would beat her... he would hold on until his body failed...

//I'll never let you hurt him. Never. /Never/...//

Cloud knew what was coming next, and braced himself, as one green hand reached out, traced its way down the center of his chest, boring through him, icy tendrils like piercing barbs reaching in deep, an incredible wash of cold, all the way down his spine...

... and it stopped, Aeris stopped, held at bay by the heat already inside, that poison, Jenova's dark power, that even the shepherds of the Lifestream could not counter, could not defeat. The blonde was saved from one fire by another, the sea of dizzying pain that was his shield, a salvation easily as dangerous, that wanted to devour him just as quickly, would do so with just as little remorse.

//... better that way, though... better than... what /they'd/ make me do...//

If he could just hold on, stay alive, the Cetra would fail, and then he could die... and no one else... /no one/ would have to suffer.

Aeris's hand drew away, and Cloud sagged back against the bed, shivering, panting hard for air, feeling rivulets of new sweat threading through his already damp hair. He thought, perhaps, the emerald girl spoke, but his ears were ringing too hard to hear her, and there was no place to pull stable strength from to try and listen, to recover, only the fire, or the ice, and the horrible, spinning vertigo that accompanied them both...

//I know, anyway. I know what she's... what they...//

Cloud knew what she had said, just as he knew he would not let the darkness take him again, not until she had disappeared completely, until that last glimmer of green, that he had once thought so beautiful, had gone. He knew, what final thought she chose to grace him with.



Cloud woke again... it could have only been moments later, for nothing had changed, the Elena who could not have been Elena was still dozing in the chair, except now there was a cool breeze blowing through the open window, across his skin, caressing his hot, aching body. Aeris, that dream woman of green ice, was gone, and the blonde sighed almost happily, found it was not beyond him to move, just slightly, to let the cool air spill down around him, bringing his dazed mind no small measure of relief.

He lifted his hand, just slightly, and looked at the twin spheres that had not been taken from him, the green, Holy, as dark as ever... but Meteor... it was hard to see, in the darkness, but he swore there was a slight light, the whisper of ancient, lost power...

//... reacting... to what's inside me? To the poison... I thought I heard... someone say I was poisoned.//

Another moment passed, and Cloud let the small globes fall from his hand, uncaring. It was just an interesting detail...

//... meaningless as everything else.//

A storm was coming, he could hear it, in the way the wind whistled and twisted just outside the window, and how a few drops had come as prelude, splashed against his skin... but familiar, their touch... and not like rain at all...

//Mm? Wh... what is it...?//

Crying. He could hear it, when he focused, the soft, choked sobs twining with the wind, and he recognized them, knew the sound of her sadness, as gentle as her touch...


The slight apathy that had formed around him was shattered by her tears. He wanted nothing more than to reach out, to the precious flower girl, to wrap his arms around her and take away her tears, tell her not to cry, that he would always protect her... but his body was too heavy, his arms wouldn't move... and he... had already broken that promise, to her... there was nothing for him to reach for.

//... don't cry, Aeris. Please... I'm sorry, please don't cry.//

He startled her, regretted it, didn't want to feel the shock and sharpened sadness that echoed back to him, plinking down that strange connection like bits of broken glass.

//Aeris... please, I'm sorry...//

Sorrow, because he knew his words only hurt her more. Cloud shrunk back, only to feel her spirit follow, so careful and kind, trying to make its way to him.

//Cloud... /I'm/ sorry... I should have... I couldn't...//


Her words were fading, even as she spoke, and Cloud struggled to make them stay, strained to listen.

//I'm here, Aeris, I'm right /here/.//

//... sorry...//


... but the voice had left him, her presence was gone, and he was once again alone.


"Oh hell... fer God's sake..."

Reno sighed, shifting his arm in its sling, and kicked Elena's chair sharply with the toe of his boot. His anger faltered, as it usually did around her, as the blonde woman stirred, looked up at him with sleepy, astonishingly innocent eyes.

//More innocent than I am, at least...//

"Reno...?" she murmured sleepily, quickly rousing as awareness and memory were abruptly returned, her weariness falling away. "What is it? What's wrong? Is Rude...?"

They had brought her back with them, though she hadn't been injured as badly, Reno knowing too well that Elena was completely useless on her own. The woman's overwhelming concern for the other Turk only clinched the decision in the redhead's mind... but in a good way.

"He's fine. He's resting, except when he keeps trying to get back up on that busted leg."

It had been a while since Reno had seen the other Turk so injured, and he had forgotten what a baby Rude could be, when the other man couldn't go where he wanted, when he wanted.

"Then... Reno, what... Omigod, Cloud!"

The blonde Turk leapt to her feet, and Reno nearly laughed, at the sudden display of what he had come to think of as "Elena nerves," but the humor was doused as she winced sharply. Yes, she had been the least injured of them, but even she hadn't come away unscathed.

"Cloud is fine... the room's a little cold..." Reno sighed, as he moved to the bedside, brushed a hand against Cloud's forehead to find it alarmingly hot despite the various medicines being pumped into him, and the chill in the air. "I just figured you ought to close the window, before Zack gets back."


"Don't panic," Reno muttered, knowing the hyper blonde wasn't listening to a word, "Zack'll probably flip, but I don't think the room temperature will change a damn thing."

The fighter was sick, any fool could see that, the way he was curled up and shivering with fever, but Reno knew the real damage was on the inside, and it was probably much worse than anything he could guess. It was the reason Tifa was walking around like a zombie, the reason trying to talk to Zack, even over the radio, was decidedly uncomfortable. Reeve had been the one to supply the only story he had been given, how Hojo had finally gotten to Cloud, and one of his foot soldiers had finally gotten lucky... that the blonde was dying, and that there had yet to be any sign of a cure.

"I think... I'm gonna go check on Rude."

It was a question, the way everything Elena had /ever/ said to him was a question, with a note of wary timidity, her gaze always half looking to him for support. Reno didn't smile, but held the warmth of that, of /her/, close, realizing after a quiet moment that he had left her hanging.

"Yeah. Go on. I'll stay here."

Reno was grateful, that Elena wanted to go, because he didn't have a way to ask her to, not without making her wonder... and now, standing here, there were things that came to him in this silence, that he had been trying to hide for a long time, things he just could not let her, or anyone else, know.

He was a Turk, and had stood up, unflinchingly, against anything that had ever come against him in his life, always living with a cool, professional detachment, always...

//Always...// The redhead shuddered, feeling the panic shooting ice-cold and lightning fast through him, and he moved towards the blankets bundled at Cloud's feet, pulling them up around the man, just to give his hands something to do.

The blonde, though not hurt by the cold room, had been chilled, his skin still burning beneath a thin sheen of cool wetness from the slight fall of rain. Reno's slight touch made him cower, curling tighter into himself, crying out softly in fear, though his eyes never opened.

"Ssh... it's all right. I won't hurt you."

Reno hardly believed his voice spoke those words, that his rough hands were the same ones so gently pulling the blankets up, carefully moving so as not to disturb any of the tubes or wires. He was amazed that this was Cloud, once his enemy, a /respected/ enemy... and that he now felt /ashamed/ to make the man tremble from his touch.

He was a Turk, and there had always been a certain acceptance of surprise, of chaos, if not outright joy in it... but even that wasn't enough, not anymore, for all that had changed in his life.

"God, I'm going fucking /crazy/..." Reno muttered, running his uninjured hand through his filthy, tangled hair. It was still unwashed, a trivial detail during the battle and it's aftermath, a detail he could continue to overlook, completely negated by the turmoil he felt inside. The redhead knew he had to be crazy, for the sudden panic he felt hadn't seized him during the entire time he had been fighting, and even when he thought Rude had died, there hadn't been the gaping hole of pure, frantic fear that had opened in him now.

//Rude's going to call me on it... I know he knows /something's/ wrong... and what the hell am I going to say to him?//

How many nights, in the last few months, had the Turk woke in a cold sweat, barely even able to stay still, forcing himself to focus on the warmth of Rude and Elena beside him. He almost always slept in between them now, just to try and force the night terrors away, to try and keep from waking in the darkness, feeling as if he stood at the very edge of some incredible fall. The panic seized him so frequently now, the intensity of it leaving him shaken, exhausted and weak with fright, something that had /never/ happened to him before...

The redhead really wanted to blame it on the man who lay before him, but knew that, truthfully, all Cloud had ever done was restrain himself from ending Reno's life before the Turk had found the past... or really, before the past had found the Turk.

Reno knew he had stepped beyond his position, beyond /himself/ somehow, when he had pushed the button that destroyed the Sector 7 plate. He had done that, had kept President ShinRa's hands clean, and it had been his job, and it had been /wrong/. The Turk was far past trying to rationalize it. Yes, he had killed before, and no, he didn't really feel any /shame/...

//Sure you don't...//

The rest of his life might not have been wrong, all the things he had done as a Turk might not have been wrong, but it /had/ been wrong to push the button, to drop the plate, and Reno knew that he hadn't yet paid the price for that error, that there was a judgment he would someday have to face.

The Turk didn't really believe in karma, was not afraid to die, or ashamed, overall, of what he had done with his life. He wasn't really even afraid to lose Elena, or Rude, or both of them, honestly... but Reno knew there was something beyond that, beyond everything, waiting for him, and only him, at the end of a long, dark place. That was what made him afraid, that was what had created the hole inside, and made his heart scream in the silent spaces, cower in the darkness.

"Don't you die, Cloud." He whispered softly over the prone figure, knowing it was more a prayer for himself than anything to do with the blonde.

The Meteor might as well have never dropped. The threat of annihilation, sudden death at any moment, had never really went away. With every inch of land Hojo's monsters took, every day the war went on, the possibility of total destruction hung, invisible, over the heads of all humanity, allowing no one to forget what Hojo wanted, or what Jenova would do if they lost this war.

Reno knew it wouldn't take a year, if Cloud died, for that future to come to pass. Of course, they would all fight to the bitter end, but the Turk knew even now what that outcome would be, knew how fragile the future was, how much hope lay in the blonde General's hands, hands that seemed weaker as each moment passed.

"Please, Cloud. Don't you die. I can't face that... not yet. Just not yet."


If Sephiroth had been in charge, Zack never would have gone to Gongaga. It was all too easy to see that the dark-haired fighter was wildly unfocused, and holding onto control only by the barest of margins.

//... but I'm not in charge here. If anything, /he/ is... and I didn't know... I never realized...//

The subtleties of their friendship were only now beginning to make themselves known to him, the supports and help that were only strung one-way. If he had been the one where Zack was, if he had been troubled, the other man would have called him on his moodiness immediately, would have forced him to open up and deal with it out loud, in the open. Sephiroth quickly realized that he had /never/ been the one to look after Zack, though, not ever, and that he just didn't know what to do, when his friend was the one who had put the distance between them.

Zack's focus might have been off, but his anger, compounded with worry and what Sephiroth knew must have been a hefty dose of self-recrimination, gave him back the strength and power to fight ten times over. They took back Gongaga, and the white-haired man almost believed they had done it as quickly, as thoroughly as they had, because his dark-haired friend would have refused to do any less. It was a swift victory, it was brutal, and Zack had been on the trip back to North Corel almost before he had arrived. Sephiroth hadn't bothered to talk to him, sure that the dark-haired man wouldn't listen, still fighting stab after stab of his own selfish, irrational hatred at his friend's worry, at how glaringly obvious his relationship with the blonde had to be... how had he not known? How had he ever convinced himself otherwise?

//It might help /not/ to talk to him now, but that's not the real reason you won't... You just won't, because you can't handle the fact that he loves Cloud. Very mature... just the right kind of attitude to have, when you're not even the one in danger of losing /anything/...//

The snide bastards in his head, his damned conscience was /never/ properly afraid, and told him the truth about himself more often than he ever really wanted to know.

"I'm going to go check on Cloud, when we get back."

It was no question, and Zack didn't even look his way, cold and distant, but his troubles were easily readable, as evident as if he were shouting them aloud.

//This isn't my friend, this isn't the Zack I know...//

Sephiroth felt a slight ripple of shock, considering the role reversal, and that, when faced with it, he was completely unable to do anything for his now standoffish, silent companion.

"Seph... listen, I... There's something I think you should..."

Sephiroth braced himself for it, was surprised by Zack's hesitance, sure that the dark-haired man would have just told him. After all, even if his friend /had/ lied to him, Sephiroth knew it was for politeness' sake, that Zack had the best of intentions, and they both knew that there was nothing to be done, nothing that could change who one did or did not love.

//I can't help but love you, Zack... and I can try to pretend it isn't there, and I /can/ go on, of course... but I still do, and I'm still jealous as hell.//

"I..." Zack winced, and turned away with a sudden scowl. "Nevermind."

A shout of warning from the driver announced they had arrived, and Zack was gone before Sephiroth could say he already knew.


It would have done nothing to follow Zack, the dark-haired man was too worried for Cloud's sake to notice much of anything, or anyone, but Sephiroth found himself following a similar path anyway, towards the medical facilities, the interior of North Corel.

He could have wasted a good hour, if he had tried to wander a little more, but Sephiroth had never been able to walk slowly anywhere, and in a very short time found himself at the entrance to one of the laboratories, saw Melissa walking among a small collection of scientists and technicians, past a group of soldiers and a wide steel door, into a bright white room.


"How did it go?"

He didn't announce his arrival, walking silently through the door, and the dark-haired woman never looked up, but somehow, she still saw him.

"Gongaga is stable, most of the land is ours again, with few casualties. How is Strife?"

Melissa's eyes flicked up to him, he could see nothing but grim determination in them, spilling over into the lines of weariness on her face.

"He's alive, for now."

Sephiroth nodded, and moved to a place that was out of the way, but where he could still observe her, and the rest of the room. Labs were not his favorite place, but he had spent much of his life inside them, and when their activity didn't center on him, he found it not impossible to stay, to observe science in action.

The thought of what waited for him outside the room helped his stay, knowing there was only confusion, chaos, and a Zack so changed as to be almost unknown to him, a friend who /didn't/ want or need him now...

//It hurts. Why? Why can't I just make it stop?//

A flicker of movement caught his eye, he watched along with Melissa as a long line of numbers, a thin string of bright blue, interspersed with darkness, began to flicker across a nearby monitor, until the strange calculation filled the screen, and still continued on, a shifting, mechanical sea, some places whole, in others, continually punctuated by fragments of empty space. Melissa frowned, the white-haired man could see she was taking notes, that the numbers that seemed random, useless, were apparently telling her something, and by the way she wrote, quickly, focused, it was vital truth.

Upon closer inspection, he saw that there was a small, dark-colored spot on a slide beneath the screen, and a bright light moving across it, quite possibly a laser... turning the dark mark into information, it seemed... but of what kind? For what purpose?

The white-haired SOLDIER knew he could go anywhere, given his rank, with no trouble, but Sephiroth still got the feeling that this place, this quiet, almost unobtrusive lab, was /extremely/ important, and kept in secrecy for an important reason. There had been nearly no mention of it, in anything he had read, though an impressive security system had been established outside, guards, guns and redundant identification systems, and the lab itself had been drilled into side of the mountain for protection. The SOLDIER could see that most of the cabinets, drawers and other containers were sealed with computer locks, in clean rooms behind layers of plastic, or under thick panes of glass, and even thicker steel doors.

"It really isn't all that much. Hojo took most everything, when he "retired," and afterward, when he pillaged Neo Midgar."

Melissa had been watching him, whatever analysis she had been performing completed.

"No one recorded that, I think it pissed off Scarlet something awful, and she doesn't want to admit she erred. She had been all ready to start searching through everything Hojo had collected, all he had researched over his lifetime, and then the bastard comes in and takes it all, right out from under her. There wasn't even a way to know exactly /what/ he took..."

"This is a warehouse, then?"

"Of a sort." Melissa gestured to a few cabinets, the small groups of white-clad men and women at various terminals, a few who were donning clean suits. "Everything left of Hojo's, the body of one of your "clones", a few encrypted data files, it all comes here first. Most of it stays, some gets farmed out to other labs. Your sword came here first, before we sent it to you. Most of it, though, isn't that special... we never seem to find what we need."

Talking to him was obviously not her highest priority, and he was obliged to follow her as she turned away, moving towards another group of computers and workers. Sephiroth glanced up, saw that more than one screen seemed to be broadcasting the same pattern that Melissa had been watching, though he quickly got the idea that this one was different, and much more complex. There were many more gaps, fewer icons darting across the dark void.

"What is this?"

"This is Jenova's presence in the Lifestream." Melissa said simply, handing her notes, and a computer printout she unfolded from her pocket to the nearest computer technician, muttering a few extra instructions Sephiroth didn't catch. He was too busy watching the screen, feeling as if the numbers he saw should have been familiar, a pattern he /knew/ at some very base level, but that his mind just didn't understand.

"Can you explain it to me?"

Melissa sighed, though her frustration didn't seem to be directed at him.

"We've set up sensors, mainly at and around the Lifestream crater at Mideel, to track the patterns of Jenova's movement within the Crater, and the way poisoned Lifestream moves within the planet. We've managed to create machinery sensitive enough to detect even small concentrations of so-called "dark" Lifestream, but with sensors sturdy enough to withstand its corrosive effects..."

Sephiroth nodded, watching another two numbers, widely spaced, fly across the otherwise blank screen.

"The poisoned Lifestream has the same composition in Mideel, even in its miniscule quantities, that it does everywhere else, including the highest concentrations at the Northern Crater, and, presumably, within Jenova itself."

Melissa gestured to the computer screens.

"We've managed to isolate and convert a very small amount of Jenova's genetic structure, the enzymes it uses to control the creatures that it creates, into computer code. As you can see... we have a very, /very/ small portion of the entire code..."

"So this..." Sephiroth pointed at the screen, "... is Jenova, moving in the Lifestream?"

Melissa nodded.

"By recording what we can, after an event like the Fullspawn emergence outside Rocket Town, and a few other battles the sensors have recorded, we've been able to isolate one or two enzymes that seem to be catalysts for such occurrences, the specific chemical structures Jenova uses to initiate her commands." The doctor shrugged. "Of course, we're nowhere near as skilled as someone like General Strife is, in determining where and when Hojo's army is likely to strike, or with what kind of forces... but..."

The woman took a short, stilted breath, and Sephiroth realized then how much tension there was in the air, that even here, everyone was fully aware of what had happened to Cloud.

"We realize, we might not have The General around forever... and we need to find a way to do what he can."

The woman trailed off briskly, but her words still revealed a very real fear, and Sephiroth didn't even have to ask, to know that Cloud wasn't doing well.

"... and Hojo's got /all/ the information, the tremendous dipshit..."

The technician in the chair under Melissa's right hand spoke without turning around, keeping his focus on the screen in front of him and his hands on the keys, "... what I wouldn't give, for just five minutes in his goddamned lab..."

Melissa took up where the man trailed off without a pause.

"Right now, we can isolate some of the chemicals in Jenova's poisons. This thing with Cloud wasn't the first time something like this has happened, and sometimes, when we work fast enough, we're able to deconstruct the poison, and build an appropriate antidote, and save some lives." The woman pointed to a set of computer terminals nearby, filled with quickly typing workers, "... that's what they're working on... trying to find an antidote to whatever it is that poisoned The General."

Sephiroth nodded, and noticed that the one computer screen he could see across the room seemed much more active than the ones he was currently standing in front of, that there were many more numbers than gaps flashing across the screens.

"What are you working on here, then?"

The technician, who still hadn't moved to face them, answered before Melissa could.

"If we can turn Jenova into code, we can, hypothetically, create a virus to counter that code."

Melissa nodded in agreement, eyes flashing with grim determination.

"We'll never be able to break the Northern Crater, to download the information Hojo /has/ to have there, on Jenova's chemical structure... but we can keep recording, and decoding the information we have. Someday... we may be able to discover the entire code of Jenova's genetic structure, and create the undoing to that structure... inject it back into the Lifestream..."

"... and destroy Jenova permanently." Sephiroth murmured, following the thought to its logical conclusion. "Break Jenova down, redistribute the energies she's absorbed back into the Planet as their pure, natural forms..."

"... and it would, theoretically, restore the Planet's energies to near normal, or close enough that it could heal itself within a century, or two..."

"It would be..." Sephiroth's voice was unusually soft and distant, contemplating a future he had never even dreamed of, "it would be as if Jenova had never been at all."



The voice rasped its way through the dark-haired man's consciousness, and as his head jerked up, Zack realized that he had been dozing, the fatigue of the battle finally catching up with him after so many days of constant fighting. Blue eyes, lucid but desperately weary, were watching him with surprising trepidation.

"Are... are you real, Zack?"

The dark-haired man reached over without hesitating, took Cloud's hand as a response, could see the blonde's fear ease at his touch. Zack frowned, as the blonde suddenly coughed, first weakly, then harder, the effort of it leaving him shaking.



Zack carefully helped his friend sit up, easing his arm down around the tubes and wires, bracing the blonde's head and shoulders, holding the cup, and trying not to wince with the realization of where he was, who he held... that Cloud wasn't strong enough to handle even a few sips of water without help. The blonde studied him briefly after drinking, but it took him a while to work up the energy to speak.

"I was... hallucinating, had to be. I thought I saw... Elena."

"The Turks offered to take a shift," Zack murmured, his voice almost apologetic. He still wasn't sure how he felt, learning that fact upon his arrival, but knew he had to let it go, "Tifa was exhausted, and the others have been asked to help, to tighten up security in the areas around North Corel. Nanaki might even go back to Cosmo Canyon."

Cloud nodded, the confusion plain on his face. "I thought... the Turks... Gongaga... I thought it had all been destroyed."

"It takes a /lot/ to kill a Turk, I'd forgotten, it seems, just /how/ much. They weren't dead, and we held Gongaga. Not by much, but we held it. That's where I was, these past few days..."

Cloud looked surprised, though whether it was because of the passage of time, or because he didn't know Zack had gone at all, the dark-haired man didn't know.

"We fought, regained some ground... I don't think Hojo had really planned..."

Zack cut himself off, at a soft sound of disbelief from the blonde in his arms.

"The Cetra... they lied to me..." Cloud sagged backward against him, crushed under the weight of that bitter truth, "... they /lied/."

"Don't think about it," Zack murmured, watched Cloud's eyes slowly turn down to the tube in his arm, "... and don't think about that either."

"I don't like it."

"I know, but you have to get better."

"Better." The word was a bitter laugh. Cloud sighed wearily, and closed his eyes. "... at least this life wasn't boring, I'll give it that much."

"Oh no..." Zack gave him just a little shake, to let the blonde know he was serious. "No, you're not talking like that now. Don't you dare, Spike. If you die on me, I'll... I'll kick your ass, and then Tifa will kick my ass, and it'll all be a huge mess..."

Cloud chuckled weakly.

"You really like her, don't you? I remember, in Nibelheim..."

Zack nodded, couldn't help but grin.

"You should have told me who she was. I wouldn't have been flirting like that..."

"/Sure/ you wouldn't." Cloud murmured, before the teasing dropped from his voice altogether. "You take good care of her, all right? She deserves it... and you'll be good for each other."

"/Don't/. You're going to be /fine/. You're the toughest little bastard I met, Strife..."

Zack fought the irrational urge to shake Cloud again when the blonde didn't answer, just to make him open his eyes, irrationally fearing the silence, that somehow Cloud's life would just slip, unnoticed, right through his fingers.

"You know..." Cloud finally murmured, "before Elly... died... there was a piece of Jenova in that lab I blew. At the core, some sort of central... nervous control, or something..."

Zack made a disinterested noise, casual, though he was concentrating on every word, every shift in the blonde's tone and pace.

"It... talked to me... as much as it could. Thoughts, feelings, that arrogance... hate, of course. All she knows, is hate... but I could see past it, to what she really..." Blue eyes sought his out again, for support, at a time Zack had rarely felt less in control.

"She's afraid, for the future, can you believe that? She's not sure... she doesn't know... but I do. I do."

"Cloud...?" Zack didn't like the way his friend spoke, the fatal, final infliction in his soft words.

"The Planet can't heal, without Jenova gone, and I'm not strong enough anymore... not with the Cetra... I'm not. I can't..."

"We'll do it together. We will." Zack couldn't help but tighten his already firm hold on the blonde, though logic told him it would change nothing.

//Please let me find the right words... please, make him stay...//

"We'll do it, Cloud. You, me... and Sephiroth."

The name had a different meaning, when Cloud was around, and Zack knew it, used it like a magic spell, only when he felt he had to, when he was too afraid of losing the blonde to death or pain or madness, and when that name was the only way to call him back. It was the power of an unbending, unconditional love, an emotion so strong that it couldn't help /but/ elevate the object of its desire, to something sacred, and divine...

//... but Sephiroth can't afford to be that in Cloud's eyes. Not anymore. It's /killing/ him...//

"He doesn't love me. He never will." The clear declaration cut deep, and Zack winced, knowing all the agony beneath the simply stated words.

"You need to try, Cloud. You need to tell him..."

Zack knew he had been damned close, on the truck, to giving up, and telling Sephiroth everything himself...

//... but it can't be my decision. I don't have the right...//

"It won't destroy you, if he says no. You're stronger than that, you are. He's only a man... and you don't have to be afraid. You don't have to..."

Zack sighed, and didn't bother to continue. Cloud had gone back to sleep, even the simple talk more than he could bear.


Vincent waved to the guard at the bottom staircase, and passed by the second at the top without a word. There were more sets of the soldiers, of course, stationed all the way out to the border of the town. Their orders had been officially ranked as protection for North Corel, but Vincent knew that everyone had found out, he had heard the whispers of fear and doubt, echoing from one end of the city to the other... that The General had been attacked, that an enemy had finally managed to best him... that Cloud Strife was dying.

//Just like Mideel.// He remembered so well, because it had struck him as strange, then and now, the way everyone, the way /he/ had changed, when Cloud had been in his coma, when they had been without him.

//He's important... more than I think even he knows.//

Tifa acted as if Cloud were eternally strong, always solid, and Vincent saw that many others on their team had treated him the same. Had he been the only one, to suspect that there were old wounds hidden inside the blonde, things Cloud would never say, but that didn't make them less important, or easier to bear?

//Not just Elicia, either. There is more, I'm sure of it.//

It was truly no business of his, though, and if hiding eased the pain, if dealing with it in secret made it easier for Cloud to deal with...?

//What right do I have, to tell someone else how to deal with their pain, when I'm still trying to deal with my own?//

He walked into the infirmary, knowing what he would find. Cloud was asleep, peacefully for the moment, curled on his side, the banks of monitors and machines moving through their electronic rhythms without urgency. Zack sat in a chair at the side of the bed, also asleep, slumped with his head propped up against his arm.


The one word was enough, and Vincent knew better than to touch him, watched the man's glowing eyes snap open, to look at him, saw the fighter move through that dangerous half-second of confusion, to awareness, and recognition.

"Vincent? Did Melissa... have they found...?"

The dark-haired former Turk shook his head slowly. "They're still working on it."

Zack had turned from him, was making sure Cloud was still all right, hovering over him in such obvious concern...

//That boy must have one powerful guardian angel watching over him...//

More memories of Mideel flooded back, and Vincent smiled gently, carefully stepping up to the fighter's side.

"I've come to relieve you, just for a little while."

"No, no... that's okay... I'm..." Zack stifled a sudden yawn, and grinned. "Okay, I'm exhausted... but I'd really rather..."

The slight grin dropped away, Zack struggled in silence with the words.

"He's dying, Vincent. He's dying, and I don't know what to do."

The red-clad man put a hand on Zack's shoulder. "Get some rest. You'll be no good to him if something happens to you, too."

Zack nodded reluctantly. "If there's any change..."

"I'll call."

Vincent watched the SOLDIER move slowly to the door, turn for a last look, leaving only as the red-clad man pulled up his own chair.

//Sleep well, angel...//


It didn't take long for his solitary vigil to end. Nanaki quietly padded into the room only minutes after Zack had left. The giant cat gazed up at him, dark, solemn eyes never betraying his youth, waiting for Vincent to admit him, or else give some sign of trespass. Vincent finally nodded slightly, and the cat moved closer.

"How is he?"

"Fine. Any word from... anywhere?"

"Cid is on the Highwind, but there's nothing. Barret is at the edge of town, nothing there either. Everyone else too, Li is out there... but there is nothing. Tifa is still sleeping..."

It had almost been a repeat of Cloud's attempt to flee, this time in reverse, Tifa fighting almost tooth and nail to stay at the blonde's side. Finally, she had been convinced to take a small nap... and thankfully, her body had done the rest, utterly worn out after days of near-constant worry. Cloud's condition had wavered chaotically, fevers to chills, complete unconsciousness to partial lucidity, and it seemed that the Mako in his body was even trying somewhat to fight the poison, and wasn't completely unsuccessful...

//He's still weak, though, and getting weaker...//

"The doctor will find a cure." Nanaki rumbled, sitting down heavily on his haunches. Vincent knew the cat was trying to comfort himself more than anything, that he /was/ still a child, and a child who had already lost the most important person in his life.

"... number..."

Cloud murmured, shifted, twitching slightly as his sleep became troubled. A few lines on one of the machine wavered, the mechanical beat off its rhythm as a nightmare stirred itself into being.

"Professor, please... number. I need... give me... a number..."

Nanaki and Vincent just looked at one another, knowing without words that they shared the same thought, the same hatred and sorrow. The cat nudged one of Cloud's slightly flailing hands with his nose in comfort, as Vincent stood, brushing his hand against Cloud's face, shoulder and arm, finding them cool, /too/ cool.

"He's freezing..."

It wasn't meant as a call to action, but Nanaki wasted no time, circling the bed, before leaping onto it gracefully, somehow managing to avoid jostling any of the medical equipment, and laying down at Cloud's side.

"... professor... please..."

The giant cat pressed a paw gently against the blonde's bare shoulder, stopped his slight, frantic movements, and Vincent could hear him purr, gently, the loud rumbling surprisingly soothing, a noise of peace and calm. Cloud stilled, shivers easing, and turned to bury his face against the cat's russet fur with a heartbreakingly contented sigh, looking like nothing more for a moment than a small, light-haired cub.

The red-clad man returned to his chair, as it seemed Nanaki had brought things back to some measure of calm, and just watched, content to sit and muse, contemplating nothing. He could see Nanaki clearly from where he was, though the room was more than half in shadow... the muscles in the lion's massive haunches, the marks, some of them more clear than others, and one clearer than all the rest...

//Please give me a number...//

"They can remove that, can't they?"

Nanaki raised his head slightly, looked to where Vincent had gestured, the mark Hojo had placed there, a dark number thirteen, that had given them their first name for him, well before Cosmo Canyon.

"It is... a battle scar. Just a sign, of another fight I have survived, an enemy who did not defeat me. It means nothing more."

Vincent nodded, and silence regained control of the room.


Nanaki had fallen asleep, by the time the ex-Turk spoke again. It was nearing dawn, another night had passed, and though there had been no improvement, things hadn't gotten any worse either.

//No new battles to be fought, and Cloud is sleeping soundly, I think... perhaps that doctor has even found a cure...//

Vincent rubbed his eyes briefly, sighing. Though sleep was almost unnecessary for him anymore, he still felt the strain of the constant tension that they were all under, the fear and uncertainty...

//... and to think, there was a time, in that coffin, that I had thought I would never be uncertain again. Of course, then, it didn't matter, and now...//

He sighed again, knowing his real reason for coming here, the memories Cloud's admission had brought to the fore.

"We have a lot in common, you and I..."

Neither figure on the bed woke, or even acknowledged he had spoken, and though Vincent knew it was folly to speak aloud, knew the anonymous listening ears of ShinRa were /always/ close by, he found he couldn't help it, that the speaking eased something inside, a place deep inside, that he hadn't realized until now had ached so badly.

"You weren't the only one..."

Vincent couldn't believe, even though he was the only one awake and listening, the words were still so hard to say...

"I killed Lucrecia."

The red-clad man waited, claws scratching slightly against the arm of the chair, half expecting the words to have some unexpected power, that once he had admitted their truth...

//What? The sky won't fall... lightning /won't/ strike you where you sit. You've been blaming yourself for nothing, Vince, absolutely /nothing/ for an awfully long time.//

"I lied to Yuffie. I found Lucrecia. It didn't really even take me all that long, not what I'd thought it would." He wondered now, if she had known, about Jenova, and the war to come. "She asked me to kill her, begged me to do it... and I did." Vincent looked down, the handle of the Death Penalty gleaming in the light.

"I think... I should feel worse than I do about that, but then I think... I spent a /long/ time with that guilt already, so sure I had been put where I belonged, so ready to take the blame... for sins that weren't even mine."

Vincent sighed, still feeling guilty, but stupid too... lost and tired and confused... and, astonishingly enough, happy. There was happiness, thinking of Yuffie, realizing that he really /could/ be at the start of some new, better life, if he wanted to try.

"I couldn't do anything but what I did, and I can't change the past. I can regret... but I don't really want to /do/ that anymore. Those sins weren't mine, it does me no good to hold onto them so tightly... and what happened with Elicia, Cloud, that sin isn't yours either. I think we both deserve to be able to let it go. I think it's all right, that we can be allowed to move on."

He hadn't realized he was tense, until a slight noise at the doorway almost made him jump out of his cape. Vincent turned swiftly, felt his breath catch in a painful lump, the fears he had forgotten in that moment of release coming back to him with a vengeance. Yuffie stood in the doorway, and he knew that she had heard every word.

"Uh..." Vincent winced, but could find no other words to fill the void, nothing to say that wasn't just as dumb, and useless, and frantic. "I... uh..."

"You should have told me."

The ex-Turk didn't move, couldn't speak, only watched as she stepped forward, crossed the distance between them, and he blinked, and her arms were warm around his shoulders, he could hear her heart beat, from where his head lay against her chest... and he lifted his human arm, to return her embrace, and knew, as he had knew only one other time in his life... knew what it felt like to be home.

The warm, peaceful feeling didn't fade, even though someone cleared their throat in the entranceway, and Yuffie stepped back, as Melissa approached. He felt steady, unshakably calm, and the vial in the doctor's hand, the triumphant smile on her usually stoic face turned his happiness into something resembling true victory.


//Hello, Cloud...//

The blonde trembled, though all was darkness around him, and nothing had happened... yet. The voice that had called his name was soft, but held a killing edge, a screaming, angry thing. Aeris had returned, and he could feel the fire inside of him ebbing, knew that he was healing... but the last thing he wanted to do now was heal.

He could not survive, he could /not/... but even as he thought the words, Cloud knew there was nothing he could do to stop it. Distantly, he thought he could feel happiness. Not his, but close, all around him... but those distant figures couldn't feel what he could feel, they didn't understand...

//Planets... dying.// Jenova had shown him, or maybe he found it for himself, somewhere in those cells that had been shoved inside of him... the nature of her mission, her place in the universe, as the antithesis of life.

//I can hear the stars singing...//

He had tried to tell Zack, here, or maybe in that laboratory of the dead past... he could hear the stars singing, and it was beautiful, the pure essence of timelessness, of hope beyond death... and no matter how hard Jenova tried, no matter how long she conquered, she could never have them all. It could go on for an eternity, and she would /never/ have them all...

It was not enough comfort, though, for the other dreams, the ones that came much more often, left him too devastated to scream... millions... /millions/ upon millions, all of them dying. Whole planets, teeming with life, drowning in fear, and being destroyed, devoured by Jenova... the virus... the parasite...

"... something's wrong..."

Where was that voice? When? It didn't really matter, too distant, too unnecessary... two were all he needed, their voice, and his own...

Sacrifice. Wasn't it worth it? His? Sephiroth's? The entire Planet, to stop such a monster, to save another billion lives?

... and they tried to tell him he was being selfish, and he knew it was true. They had tried to argue, that his resistance came because he couldn't comprehend ten-thousand, let alone a million, a hundred-million, billions of deaths, a destruction that he could stop... if only he would... all he had to do...

//I can't betray him. He doesn't love me, but I love him, and I can't... I won't, not again...//

"Cloud? Can you hear me?"

Distant... Beloved, but too distant to be more than a dream... and the Cetra were coming for him now, unstoppable.


"He's crashing!!!!"

"Cloud!" The words that came to Zack were harsh, spoken more to some invisible third party than to either the doctor or the body beneath his hands. "Come on Cloud, come /on/... Spike, don't do this to me... breathe, damn it... /breathe/!!!"

He didn't listen to Melissa, if she was even giving orders, and everything past the perimeter of the bed was a blur, everything unimportant but the few inches in front of him, his hands over Cloud's heart, forcing it to beat, Tifa poised higher, breathing for the blonde when Zack told her to... and the blaring drone of those damned machines, telling him it was hopeless, futile, that it wasn't working...

"Come on... come /on/!!!!"

Nothing. He pushed down, hard. Nothing. Again. Nothing, and he knew with manic certainty that they were approaching the moment when Melissa would slow down, and stop, and turn to him with somber, heavy eyes...

//NO! I promised him... I won't... Damn it, Cloud, I /won't/ let you go!!!//

Again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Zack grimaced, fighting panic, mind racing blankly, with nothing to guide him.

//don't leave... don't go... please please please...//

The steady bleat of the machine paused. He froze, felt Tifa do the same, their eyes on a single point, waiting for the tiny shiver of a thin green line, the necessary miracle... and a cold rush of adrenaline, or perhaps only fading terror struck him, as that miracle came, once, then twice, a steadily increasing pattern much slower than his own racing heartbeat. Cloud was breathing, his pulse had returned...

"... thank god..."

He could barely breathe the words, stepping back as Melissa and another medic moved in. Zack's mind was racing, but had snagged a single, frightening truth.

Melissa had administered the antidote, but Cloud was not getting better.


The doctor walked out of the room with Zack at her heels, moving quickly down the stairs and into the room Reeve had set aside for emergency meetings. Of course, everyone had assembled, watching quietly as Melissa stalked through the door, kicking a metal wastebasket that had dared to be just slightly in her way. It rebounded against the wall, wobbling, until Zack kicked it much harder, and the now crescent-shaped container rocked slightly against the wall in a distant, empty corner of the room.

Zack knew they all were watching him, and knew he shouldn't have been so angry, so out of control, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

"Is he...?" Cid started, speaking carefully, much more than usual.

"He's fine." Zack muttered, clasping his hands behind his neck and stretching out overly tense muscles with a slight groan, knowing he looked calmer than he felt.

//He's fine... except that he nearly died, and no one knows what went wrong or how to stop it or what to do to help him...//

Melissa was deep into whatever document she had taken from Cloud's room, and for a moment they all stood in silence, unsure of what to say or do. Finally, the doctor clipped the pen back to the board, and looked up, but there was nothing even hinting of optimism in her expression.

"So, what the hell happened?" Zack heard the furious fear grating in his voice, tried to pull some of it back, "What's going on? Why didn't your cure work?"

Melissa sighed, ignoring his questions.

"He's got 36 hours left to live, if that."

The simple words stopped the room instantly, sucked the oxygen from the air. Tifa paled as if she had been slugged in the gut, and even Barret's usually reactive temper was dulled blunt by the doctor's statement.

"What?" Zack whispered, the harshness of it cracking the air, staring at Melissa, seeing what he didn't want to, that she didn't look strong, arrogantly confident and distant... but tired, defeated.

"We're out of options, Zack. I don't know what else..."

"What do you mean, out of options?! You've /got/ a sample of the poison, find a fucking antidote!"

It felt like the world had crumbled in his hands, as if whatever power he had or thought he had to change things for the better had been ruthlessly, completely snatched away. It was taking everything he had not to let go and just scream at Melissa, though he knew it wasn't her fault, could see the same frustration in her eyes.

"We found the antidote. The poison..." Melissa looked back at her clipboard in despair, searching for some explanation, anything her already thorough search might have missed. "The poison is gone, the antidote worked, but his condition is deteriorating. It's like... it's like he's just given up..."

"Oh, /that/ is /bullshit/!" Zack's temper snapped, he was angry at the doctor, at God, at science, angry at the world, for a situation that he seemed powerless to alter. "Trust me, Melissa... the /last/ thing Cloud would do is give up!"

"I can't explain it, then, Zack. /I don't know what to do/!!! I've tried everything, but he just keeps moving away, and I can't pull him back! If he goes into arrest again, I don't know if we're going to be able..."

"NO!" Zack silenced her with a vicious gesture, "No, no you /don't/. Don't you /dare/ say that to me! You and ShinRa and every scientist I've ever known have come up with a /thousand/ ways to wreck our lives with your goddamned science!!! You did this to him, you figure out a way to /fix it/!!!"

He stormed out, as quickly as he could, so that he couldn't be followed, so that he wouldn't have to deal with anything but the grief and anger that choked him, hot and heavy as lead in the cool evening air.

Zack knew he couldn't stay there, couldn't be there, with Melissa's words ringing in his ears, the stinging echo of her defeat. Not when he knew she was most likely right, that the feeling he had, that sense of upcoming loss was nothing but the truth...

His friend was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.


"Zack? Hey... uh..."

"I'm fine, Barret. Really."

The dark-haired fighter saw the imposing silhouette of the muscular man stand motionless for another moment in the doorway, before he slowly turned, and walked away. Zack was alone again, with only the sound of Cloud's soft, shallow breathing, and the steady hum and whir of a few machines to keep him company. Melissa had already removed most of them, as the need to keep such close watch of Cloud became unnecessary.

"There's no need, not anymore... it'd be better, if he were as comfortable as possible, until..."

Zack hadn't answered her, hadn't bothered trying to talk to anyone who didn't speak to him directly, and then had only asked that they leave him alone. Cloud was his best friend, and, as far as he could tell, he was /still/ the blonde's only close companion.

It was only right, that he be here until the end. No one had argued, even Tifa, and so he sat at the blonde's bedside... just waiting.

//It'll only be me and Seph now, to remember the way it was, the way ShinRa was, before, and how all our lives changed in the span of what... two, three days? Just two... two people left in the whole world, who remember.//

It was now the clearest reason for his sadness, but those memories shifted from time to time, gaining and losing importance without his conscious direction, and Zack let them come and go without caring, let himself remember both the bad times, and the all too few good ones.

"You can't go, Spike..." He bowed his head into his hands, rubbing at tired eyes with his knuckles, "Kid... please... don't go."

He knew the blonde hated that particular nickname, and had used it only rarely, a special tease, though in his mind the blonde had always been that, the little brother he had never had, the naïve, gentle friend, and it had been Zack's responsibility to put the blonde through his paces, introduce him to the wonders of the big, exciting world...

//I was too confident... I really thought...//

He had thought, no matter how big the problem, he could face it, could always protect his friends. Hell, he had helped win a war, the last war of its kind, and there was nowhere else for ShinRa to claim. What could be bigger than that? What threat could still exist?

//I thought I could help him... I thought, he wouldn't be so shy, not after a while. I'd hook him up with someone nice, I thought, when I had still thought the thing with Seph was just a crush... but no matter /what/ happened, there'd be a way... I'd figure something out, and everything would be fine.//

Now... Zack didn't even have the words, knew he didn't really understand the scope of what was going wrong, only that the friend he had tried to protect had been hurt, horribly so, and was still being hurt, and he was helpless to stop any of it.

His reverie was broken as Cloud moaned slightly, turned away from him, curling up tightly as another wave of pain tore through him. Zack didn't have any way to measure them, but he /knew/ that the sudden seizures were becoming more frequent, and getting worse. He could feel the blonde shaking with the strain, shaking against the bed, and the dark-haired man reached out, running his hand lightly along the blonde's bare, hot back, wincing at the ridges, the bones his touch encountered, pushed up under the pale skin, Cloud almost too thin to be believed... Perhaps, it would be merciful, to let him go, but Zack couldn't bring himself to seriously consider it, he just couldn't.

"Don't go. Please, Cloud... don't."

"I'm still... here, Zack. I won't... leave... if you won't."

Slowly, the blonde turned back to face him, taking Zack's hand in his own before the dark-haired man could pull away. The fighter couldn't help but smile at the words, old memories, of a situation that had once seemed just as impossible, just as fatal as this...

"I dreamed, you were, you..."

Zack knew, as the blonde trailed off, how bad those nightmares must have been.

"I'm right here. I'll stay right here, I promise."

Cloud nodded weakly, with a smile full of sadness, the fatigue impossible to miss in his wide, hazy eyes.

"I thought... I dreamed... that when I told you all... about Elly..."

"You were sure, that we'd abandon you." Zack murmured, absently curling one of Cloud's longer blonde spikes around his finger. The fighter closed his eyes, nodded, the fear of that consequence still plain to see.

"It would never happen. No matter what." Zack knew his friend needed the unconditional. "We love you. /Nothing/ was your fault."

"... but..."

"No." Zack shook his head, tapping Cloud on the nose almost playfully with his index finger, amazed he could manage one of his usual, carefree grins. "No more of that. Don't even think about it... you need... you need all your strength to get better."

Zack tried his best to be brave, but knew the blonde saw through it, and heard each breath that caught, halfway out, the words that were almost too painful to say, because of what they hid.

//You know that I'm afraid, that you're going to... that you'll die...//

"I need you... to do something for me, Zack... it's important."


Cloud nodded, and gasped, his grip tightening on Zack's hand as the pain suddenly increased. The blonde was breathing quick and shallow, speaking through gritted teeth, determined to get the message out.

"I'm gonna... try to... I won't make you... /won't/... I'll try to, but if I..." The pain increased momentarily, Cloud's face twisting in a grimace, and then it eased, and the blonde found his voice again, "Promise me, Zack... if I go... crazy... you'll kill me."

Somehow, Zack thought dazedly, he should have been expecting the request, though as soon as he thought it, he realized it was insane, and choked in stunned disbelief on his reply.

"Cloud, I can't..."

//I've already done...// Memories, of fire, and death, and terrible choices, //I /tried/ to, but even then...//

"I couldn't /do/ that, I..."

"I know... I /know/, and I don't want you to... but if I can't hold on, until I'm /dead/... Zack, you /have/ to, they'll come after him, after you... It's all right, I don't... and you'll see, then. It won't even be /me/ anymore."


The blonde was talking what seemed like nonsense, delusions, and of course, when Zack pressed his palm against the blonde's forehead, he found it burning, but his friend's eyes seemed almost abnormally sharp and clear, fixed on him with almost frantic intensity...

"I don't understand, Spike... what's happening? Who's doing this to you? I can't, I /won't/ hurt you, no matter /what/ happens... Please, tell me what's going on!"

"I'll try... try to hang on..." The blonde let out a moan, under his breath, sinking back against the pillows, exhaustion fighting with another violent rush of pain, to see which would claim him first, "It won't be me... next time. It won't be..."

He turned away, words slurring as his consciousness faded, fighting to get out the most important part of the message, as if he knew the words would be his last.

"... love you, Zack... always."


There was a small balcony just outside Cloud's room, and Zack was grateful to step out onto it, suck in a deep breath of cool, night air. Though he could see lights in the distance, the many buildings of North Corel, workers and soldiers always on duty in the city that never slept, all the world directly around him was dark, and still, and silent. It made him feel small, and looking up at the surprisingly clear sky only made that feeling sink deeper, and touch the loneliest corners of his soul.

//I can hear them... the stars. They sing.//

Cloud had said that once, and it was true, that the blonde often seemed to be distant, especially when he thought no one was watching, listening to what Zack thought was only silence, hearing something no one else could, and sometimes... sometimes, it had even made him smile.

The dark-haired SOLDIER's mind caught on the edge of that memory, of that rare, sweet expression of joy, and Zack slid against the wall, to the ground, bowed his head to his knees, feeling the heat in his eyes, the welling tears like hot wax against the cool darkness. It was no special sense of decorum or pride that kept him here, hidden away, but it was too draining, trying to deal with anyone else now, Zack knew he had very little left to give.

//They're all so scared... Tifa and Reeve, Barret and Yuffie, and /everyone/...//

He had been asked, more than once, quietly petitioned in spare, halting tones by villagers and workers with downcast eyes, if something had /really/ happened... if the rumor was true, and The General had truly been injured, if he really was ill, and dying...

//What am I supposed to say? He's their hope... he's the one thing /everyone's/ come to depend on... and he's...// Zack choked on a sob, felt it twist in his chest like a knife, //He's my /friend/, and I don't want him to /die/, damn it!//

There was so much more, there was /supposed/ to be so much more, things they had never done, all the happy times they had never had a chance to share...

Zack knew holding back his sorrow would do nothing, and so he let himself cry, feeling the regret, the hopelessness... and the fear, knowing that he would be the one, that he would hold Cloud as he... he...


The dark-haired man looked up, wiping the tears away as best he could, as Tifa stepped out onto the balcony.

"T-tifa... hey..."

The brunette quickly sat down at his side, watching him anxiously, her eyes worried, and apologetic.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you..."

"It's all right."

Strangely enough, in that moment, it /was/, and he was glad that she was there. Zack felt no need, for some strange reason, to hide what he was feeling from her, to pretend to be strong, that he had a solution, that he wasn't just as lost as everyone else. There were tears still glimmering in his eyes, but he didn't bother to brush them away.

"He's going to die, isn't he, Zack?"

The dark-haired man opened his mouth to speak the word, closed it, and found he could only nod instead. Tifa took a slow, steadying breath, gazing out, off the edge of the balcony.

Time passed, and for a while neither one of them moved, or said a word, only listened to the quiet night, roaring at the edges with the noise of the town beyond, and more softly touched by the steady sound of machines behind them, reminding them that time was running out.

//It's nice... just sitting with her.// Zack let himself finish the thought, already resigned to what his heart knew was true. //Aeris... Aeris was a lot like that too...//

"I'm surprised... you're not with Sephiroth."

Zack arched an eyebrow, and shrugged.

"I can't really... not when I get upset. He always thinks it's his fault, somehow, and so I spend all my time just trying to convince him he hasn't done anything wrong." The dark-haired man sighed deeply. "I just can't... not now. Not with this. I can't think about anyone else right now... except Cloud."

Tifa nodded, and Zack turned his attention back to the stars, surprised but not taken aback, as he found a warm hand cover his own, and Tifa moving closer to him, leaning her head against his shoulder. He quickly brought his arm around her, pulling her close, and let the heat of her comfort him, taking solace in feeling her breathe, and the way her body felt, where his arm had wrapped around her.

//It's going to be all right... somehow, some way... it just /has/ to be...//

"He's going to be fine. He has to be."

Tifa's echo of his thoughts almost startled him, though his nerves were too shot at the moment to react to all but the most violent of surprises.

"This happened before... at Mideel... and he came back. He came back."

"I know."

Tifa shifted in his arms, to look him in the eye.

"What did Cloud tell you?"

//Not much, actually.//

He had been given what he was sure had been the abridged version, cut apart by the blonde's own shame, his embarrassment at using Zack's memory as nothing more than a crutch, a prop...

//As if I'd ever take offense... after all he went through, all that he survived, I'm just glad I could be of help at all, even if it was just as a memory...//

Zack knew he had been given an incomplete picture, and he knew Tifa had to have been given even less, that there were allusions Cloud had made, fears he had shared with Zack that, of course, he wouldn't have told anyone else.

"He said he had been trapped, and that you freed him. Of course, he told it better..."

"Do you know what I remember?" Tifa paused, but Zack knew it wasn't for him to answer, and waited for her to continue. "I remember... /before/ that... before I was in his memories, with his... with all the different pieces of himself. He doesn't know, and I never told him..."

Tifa's voice was soft, almost hesitant.

"It was dark, Zack. Very dark... and so /angry/, and so sad, and /lonely/." The brunette fighter caught his eye again, almost fiercely, with that familiar flash of protectiveness. "He didn't know, it wasn't /him/ doing it, he would never..." she trailed off for a moment, her eyes turning from him, becoming distant again, "Maybe that's why he would never... because he keeps it all inside..."

Zack shifted, until he could rub the back of her neck with his hand, warm the cool skin, giving her what support he could offer.

"What happened?"

"The voices... It was dark... and there were voices, /his/ voice, all of them, yelling at me. I... I'd forgotten, that when we had been young, I hadn't been very nice to him. I regret... a lot of things, but I thought he'd forgotten... I thought he'd let go of the past, like I had."

Zack couldn't help but chuckle, smiled at her confused look.

"Not likely. Trust me. Spike /doesn't/ let go... of anything... /ever/."

"Yeah." Tifa turned her eyes downward, fingers rubbing the edge of her skirt. Zack frowned, surprised at the speed of the sorrow, when he didn't think he had said anything to merit such a reaction, nothing more painful than anything else they had discussed, the situation they were facing now.


He drew his fingers slowly through her long, smooth hair, watching her work for the words, trying to guess at the source of her troubles.

"I still don't understand why he left me, Zack. I don't know what I did... how I hurt him, what I couldn't fix, to make him stay."

//You couldn't have done anything. He was never yours to begin with.//

It would have been simple, if not easy to say, but Zack held back, knowing that the truth didn't always cause less pain, knowing he couldn't... couldn't tell her everything, no more than he could tell Sephiroth.

"I don't think... I don't think it has anything to do with you, Tifa. I really don't."

The brunette nodded slowly.

"I had been... so jealous of Aeris, because I thought she and Cloud..." The fighter shook her head, slowly twining her fingers together, "... but that wasn't it, was it? It wasn't like that between them, and I'm not just saying that because I was... because I wanted Cloud to be with me. I don't think he ever really loved her."

"He didn't." Zack could feel Tifa tense up with his affirmation, and knew that her belief in her own words was shakier than it had seemed, "He really didn't. He told me so."

Tifa nodded, and though she didn't move, and her eyes were still turned away, Zack felt as if she was drawing back, silently pulling away from him.

"Zack, does Cloud love... you?"

"Yes... but not like that."

He noticed that the tension in her body didn't ease at all, though she let out a very ragged sigh.

"... then... what's /wrong/ with me?"

It might not have been the smartest thing he could do, and rationally, Zack knew it would solve nothing... but his instincts told him it was right, and that now was the time, and so, very carefully, gently, Zack turned her face to his, and kissed her.

He felt her tense in surprise, but she didn't push him away, though she did not draw him closer either. The kiss changed, slowly, from a passing glance to something deeper, more permanent. He was trying to say what he couldn't tell her in words, not safely, not without pain, about her, and Cloud, and all the complex bullshit that the world had set up in their way... The kiss was a horrible translation, he was sure, and he only hoped something was getting through... about what he felt for her, and that there was nothing, absolutely /nothing/ wrong with her.

Tifa finally pulled away, breathlessly, her eyes filled with something that seemed all things, confusion, regret, and apology.

"I'm sorry, Zack... I can't... I can't do this right now... I just... I'm sorry."

The fighter leapt to her feet, and was gone without a backward glance. Zack didn't move, until long after the lingering warmth of her was gone.


"No... absolutely not!!!"

"Why the hell... what is your problem?!"

Melissa rounded on Yuffie with her hands half raised, as if barely holding back the impulse to tear the ninja girl's hair out.

"Gee, let me think... because it's a fucking /stupid/ idea? Because it's scientifically unsound bullshit with no basis in medical fact?!"

"Oh yeah, your "medical fact" has sure done a hell of a lot so far!"

The woman standing near the door interrupted the argument, murmuring a few words to Yuffie, and quietly excused herself, to Melissa's dismay.

"Where the hell does she think /she's/ going?!"

"She's Wutai's strongest shaman, and she's going to go examine Cloud!" Yuffie sighed, dropping her hands onto her hips, staring at Melissa in exasperation, and despair. "Come on, doc... really, what can it hurt now?"


Sephiroth stepped aside to let the woman pass, frowning as she met his gaze, held it, acknowledging that yes, she knew him from the Wutai war, but either had let go of her ill will, or just wasn't willing to deal with it at the moment.

He quietly followed her up the stairs, to Cloud's room, was surprised to find it empty, though the blonde appeared to be resting calmly, and there was no sign of danger. Perhaps Zack had gone for some food, or to find someone to relieve him...

//... but I would have seen, if he had...//

That was, unless Zack didn't want to be seen. Sephiroth frowned slightly at the thought. The distance between them was wide, and as cold and solid as an unbreakable wall of ice, a glacier. The white-haired man didn't know what he had done...

//... more like what you /haven't/ done.//

He looked down, to where Cloud was sleeping, his skin nearly as pale as the sheets he slept on, matching the décor of the all-white room... Hell, even his /hair/ looked as if it had been drained of all but the barest traces of yellow...

//He's dying, of course Zack is going to be distant... and what lame reason do you have, for not reaching out to him /first/?!//

Sephiroth swallowed hard, knew the decision he had to make. When Zack returned, he would tell his friend... tell him what he knew, about his and Cloud's relationship...

//... and that it's all right, and that I don't care. It's okay. Right? Right?!//

Sephiroth frowned. He would have to work on that part.

The white-haired man took a step closer, watching the shaman do her work, which didn't seem to consist of much more than shaking a bird's wing rattle a few times over the blonde, and watching him very closely, as if seeing something Sephiroth could not. Once, the woman did reach out for the Holy materia still resting on his bare chest, but she pulled her hand back quickly, as if she had been burned.

//Useless, new-age garbage...//

It couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, before the woman shook her head, stepped back, and gathered the few items she had spread out.


He was impressed with the continued strength of the woman's gaze, as she turned to him with an unflinching eye.

"I can do... nothing. I came, with enough... if I could have done... but no..." The woman shook her head, gestured to Cloud with a wave of a weathered hand, "... his spirit is gone, too far for me to help. Too many spirits in the air... this one belongs to them now."

It was apparently that simple, and the woman walked past him without another word, presumably off to tell Yuffie the same thing. Sephiroth didn't watch her go, gazing at Cloud instead, trying to see what the old woman was talking about. Looking more closely, he could see that the blonde was /not/ sleeping peacefully, as he had presumed before, but appeared to be caught in the grip of an intense nightmare, barely moving because every muscle in his body was tensed tight, fighting some inner demon...

//... too many spirits in the air?//

Sephiroth frowned, listening... and found he was amazed at the lack of noise in the air, not any audible sound, but that secondary, shuffling murmur he had long come to ignore, had been able to push into near silence most of the time.

//... but it's silent now, even when I'm listening, when I'm /looking/ for it... and it was /never/ this silent before, especially when I was this close to him...//

The Cetra... where were they?

//... this one belongs to them now...//

Sephiroth frowned, took a step closer, reached out to the blonde, unsure of exactly why, of what it would accomplish... Cloud whimpered suddenly, jerking back, and the Holy materia flared like a star...

//GET AWAY!!!!//

The voice was a howl, the fury stronger than the simple words, more violent, stronger than any force the Cetra had brought against him before, the unexpected, concentrated anger actually /throwing/ him back a few steps, away from the bed. Sephiroth froze, as he felt the emptiness surging in, the voices snapping back to their former place... around Cloud.

//What the /hell/ is going on?!//

He didn't know what turned his head, what slight sound he heard that he had missed before that moment, but Sephiroth turned, looking out the window, to see Zack and Tifa, who were much too busy, locked in a passionate kiss, to notice what had happened.


The universe twisted around him, /inside/ him, a swift, sudden snapping that would have easily killed him... if he had still had a body. Cloud wondered weakly, with just a bit of humor, how much longer this would go on. Death was supposed to edge on the terrifying, not the boring, not this long, steady, painful march to the end.

Another surge, like electric fire crackling through all of his nerves, and Cloud could only hold on... though to what, he wasn't sure, he found he couldn't remember anymore. His body, if he had ever had one, had gone numb long ago, and he could feel nothing but the waves of pain, and the bitter chill between. Cloud knew he was holding on, though, that he had to be, for there was still pain, /they/ were still fighting him.

//Always... fighting... always...// A thought struck him, a fairly important one. //Who are they?//

There was memory here, but only what had been supplied, what they had chosen to give him and he had no strength, to reach out, to find or sift through anything more on his own. All his energy was set solely, to holding on - but to what, and why? He didn't know, but it didn't matter. Cloud only knew, somehow, that he had to keep holding on.

The thoughts, dreams, places and people he was given, his memories were /thrown/ at him, like knives, not to make sense, not to clear up his muddled mind but only to cause pain, and /they/, whomever they were, he knew they wanted him to give up, loose his death grip, and Cloud knew they would stop hurting him, if only he would let go...

//Your soul... they're trying to... and it's killing you. Their gamble, to pull you out, take your body before you die...// Another sharp, vicious lurch of pain underlined this thought, and he knew it was truth. //If you hold on, and they can't pull your soul free, before you die...//

The thought escaped him, as he was trying to examine it, another possible window to the past slipping from his grasp. He had a past, didn't he...?

Of course... or else, what were they throwing at him, how could those images hurt so much?

//... one with blue eyes, and a great white sword...//

Swords. He knew swords, lots of swords... especially /that/ one... long, and thin, and cruel... taking his life away, taking everything away... he should have known, should have seen it coming...

//... great white sword upon his back... will not lead to the Promised Land.//

Promised...? He knew that name, there was something sacred in the green dream it brought back to, something gentle, someone...

//You can't change anything, by just sitting back and looking at it...//

He cringed, not needing the reminder, that he wasn't strong enough, hadn't done enough...

/I tried to save her... tried to save... all of them... I tried, but I... I.../

//Let go. Just let go. If you do, it won't hurt anymore... it will all be over.//

/I never lived up to being Cloud. I'm a... failure... and there's nothing... nothing left.../

//We won't hurt you, if you just give us what we want. Is there anything, really, that you're fighting so terribly hard to keep? Any reason, really, to stay?//

It was the wrong question, bringing back only one memory, but the /right/ one, the vital one, the one that had become the line beneath his hands, the thread of life that he would not release.

//A smile, in the sunlight...//

That was worth living for, fighting for, even if no one ever knew...

//... if he kills me, if he walks away, if I never see him again, it will /still/ be right, it will /always/ be worth it.//

He caught that memory, pulling close every shadow and line of that untouchable figure, the sweep of a coat, like midnight descending...


The name... the figure was woven in to every memory, both good and bad, twining its way into the deepest parts of his soul... and there was fire, and blood, but that sunlight, that smile was a part of it too, and /both/ were true, but in the light of that sun, the fire burned itself away... and all that remained was the light, the laughter, and Sephiroth... beautiful, perfect, and well worth dying for... It was worth holding on, no matter what... and Cloud reached for that memory, and drew it close to him, ignoring all else... He reached...

... and, in an instant of impossible contact, he found the man beyond.

//GET AWAY!!!//

So fast, the Cetra's reaction, stunning him as they rose up, the green wave smashing into him, again and again, throwing him away, back into the darkness. Cloud cried out, as he seemed to topple from whatever fragile perch he had scaled, whatever he had gained lost completely in the pain, lost as he struggled simply to hold on, and the pain increased, not waves but a steady stream, until he was holding on with all he had, submerged in a raging river, unable to breathe, or think, or remember... remember that for a moment, he had not been alone, and not just that... but it had been...

... but it was gone.


Zack finally hauled himself up off of the cold balcony, moving back into Cloud's room. He had heard nothing to concern him, no cries, no sudden, bleating alarms...

//Although you /were/ a bit distracted, you must admit...//

He realized he must have been more distracted than he had thought, as he stepped into the room, and found Sephiroth sitting in his chair.

//Huh... when the hell did he...?//

It had gone without saying, of course, that Sephiroth hadn't come around before this, that he /still/ wasn't trustworthy in the eyes of almost everyone except Zack, especially with Cloud in the condition he was in now. The white-haired man had, until this night, respectfully kept his distance...

//... and that's because something's wrong. He's pissed, I can tell it from here.//


No answer, and Zack almost winced, not in worry but frustration, the fact that Sephiroth wasn't looking at him, and looked completely unconcerned, making his feelings perfectly clear.

//Shit... /I/ did something...//

There was no sign of anger on his friend's face, only a blank boredom, which, of course, meant something was /really/ wrong. Sephiroth sighed, crossing his arms, those green eyes still refusing to meet his.

//Seph...// Zack fought alternating impulses, to ask what was wrong, or just to kick the dark-clad man as hard as he could. //Seph, you know I love you, but I /don't/ have the time for your cold, distant /bullshit/ right now...//

Any temporary stability he had gained from those few minutes with Tifa had vanished, leaving him cold, tired, and pissed off at the world, barely able to gather the strength to speak, let alone try to do so politely, or to give a damn about what anyone else, even Sephiroth, thought.

He ignored the white-haired man briefly, stepping to the bed, checking Cloud's pulse, smoothing the blankets, and noticing with a sinking sensation that the situation hadn't changed in his absence, that the blonde was still shivering in pain, curled into the tightest ball he could manage. There were no drugs to ease his suffering, Zack knew, nothing Melissa could do, to dull that agony, nothing any of them seemed able to do, but wait...

"Why bother...?"

He recognized the tone, matched it with the way the man was acting, and knew for sure that Sephiroth was just pissed at him, and would say anything, tactful or not, to express it.

//The words...//

The words, the tone made him see red, and Zack had to fight hard to keep his temper in check. On a good day, the fighter knew he could handle his white-haired friend in any of his foul moods, but this was most /definitely/ not a good day, and Sephiroth had already pushed Zack's temper to the edge.

The dark-haired man turned, unsure of what to say, couldn't believe that Sephiroth would do this to him now, that, whatever the hell was wrong, whatever had angered him, he would still assume the privilege of taking it out on Zack.

"I can't do this... I can't... not today..." The dark-haired man growled into the empty air, unable to hold back all of his anger, and felt his nerves jangling as he met that emerald gaze, Zack knowing he wouldn't give the other man an inch this time, wouldn't back down to give Sephiroth the free reign with his anger that he usually did.

"What? Damn it, Seph, don't sit there and pout... just /tell/ me, whatever the fuck it is... What?"

The man's mask of cool indifference was almost more than Zack could bear, especially when mixed with the anger he could easily see. The dark-haired man knew Sephiroth wasn't the easiest of people to deal with when he was angry... that this had to be handled delicately, carefully...

//Oh, fuck that. He can damn well take it like a man. Like the rest of us.//

"No..." Zack spoke before Sephiroth could answer, trying to shove the rage anywhere, before it became more than he could take. "No, we're not doing this tonight, Seph. We're not going to do this bullshit where you don't talk and I have to pry the answers out of you. I don't know if you noticed or not, but I'm exhausted, and Cloud... he isn't..." Zack cut himself off, it was too hard, too much truth to admit to aloud. He nearly screamed, as the white-haired man still remained silent, his gaze steely, unreadable.

"What?! Why the fuck are you so pissed at me?"

"Does Tifa know about you and Cloud?"

The question stunned him, and he could almost hear his brain searching through its memory banks, trying to find the right response, to figure out what in the world Sephiroth was talking about. Surprisingly, it took a while, given that the memory he finally came up with had happened only moments ago.

"You..." He pointed to the balcony. "You saw me and Tifa."

"Does she know, Zack? From what I've seen, she doesn't exactly strike me as the sharing type."

"Woah." Zack put both his hands up, palms out. "Wait. Stop." He took a few steps away, and pulled a chair back to where he had been standing, looking up at Sephiroth only after he was seated. "Now... what the /hell/ are you talking about?"

"I saw you and Cloud, in the chocobo stables... together."

Zack blinked, knew he was staring blankly, but was unable to do anything about it, even as Sephiroth got angry.

"Don't look like that, I /know/ about you, Zack. I know that you and Cloud are a couple, that you lied to me about... all of it... and that you're lying to Tifa now... and I highly doubt if Cloud knows about her, now that I think of it... It doesn't make sense! You've never acted like this before... why now?!"

The truth of it, what Sephiroth was thinking, hit Zack all at once, nearly sending him to the floor.

"You think... that Cloud and I..." The fighter shook his head, dreadlocks flying, "Seph, I wouldn't lie to you. I'm not... we're not..."

"I /saw/ you in the stables, Zack!"

There it was, the real Sephiroth, just for a moment, the dark-haired man had a glimpse of that pain, the hidden emotions that he had always known were there.

"You didn't see /anything/, Seph. It was innocent. Cloud was falling apart, with all that happened, with Elicia... he thought for sure he'd never be forgiven, he thought it was all his fault, that when he told, we'd all hate him! There's more, a /lot/ more, and I don't understand it all myself... but he needed someone to talk to... someone safe, to help him through it..." The dark-haired man smiled softly. "I think you know what that's like, maybe?"

It was rare to see Sephiroth surprised about anything, although Zack knew that if he had to pick a topic, that emotions would be it. The white-haired man's expression, the anger he had finally let himself show, eased slightly, before his eyes darkened again, and he seemed to take hold of it again, almost defensively, unsure and wary, and Zack knew he was holding himself back from believing, trying very hard not to let himself trust.

"It's the truth, Seph. /Look/ at him..." They both fell silent for a moment, watching the pale, worn figure laying motionless on the bed, "This was a long time coming, and I tried..." Zack clenched his hands together in sorrow, turning away, "I tried to stop it... but I couldn't even slow it down. He's my best friend, just like you are... but you never needed me like he did, like he does."

"That's not true." The words were a soft, halting admission, but one Zack had not expected to hear. He looked up, caught that glowing gaze, and held it.

"I... I owe you an apology, then, Zack... I..."

"Forget it. Just... it doesn't matter." The dark haired man sighed, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, the oft-repeated gesture reminding him of just how long this all had lasted. When he finally looked up again, he found Sephiroth quietly watching the blonde, chin cupped in his hand, a strangely complex look on his face that Zack couldn't even begin to decipher.

//I wish I could wake him, he'd hate to hear that he missed this...//

It hurt, to know how much Cloud would have taken, just from that one glance, what it would have meant for him to know that, for even a moment, he had caught Sephiroth's eye.

"He pushed me... out of the way."


The white-haired man turned.

"When that creature attacked... the one who poisoned him, he pushed me out of its path..."

"He's always respected you. Why do you think he hung out with me so much?"

One pale eyebrow arched in surprise, and Zack nodded.

"You were his hero. I tried to put in a good word, where I could, get him in the right places... it hardly ever worked, really..."

A dim, distant memory sparked in the cool, green depths, and Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, as he searched for the full recollection. Of course, he had known, Cloud Strife had been in Nibelheim, but the past had been dim until this point, nothing like the specifics that suddenly came to mind.

"Nibelheim. The soldier, the one who got motion sick... /that/ was him, wasn't it?"

It was Zack's turn to be surprised. "You remember that?"

"I wondered why... I remember, I saw you talking to him a lot. I don't think he said three words to anyone else."

"He didn't want to come home. He'd promised, he'd told a bunch of them, that he'd come back as a SOLDIER. It was too hard to face them, when he didn't make it."

"Why would he come back at all, then?"

"For you." Zack said it simply, because to him, it was obvious. He realized a moment later that Sephiroth was staring, that his matter-of-fact tone had surprised the other man.

"He was willing to face the humiliation, face being a disappointment, just to be near you. Cloud was always around, anywhere he could go, to be near where you were. He'd sneak in to the balconies, at the parties... I usually could spot him watching, just about anywhere else..."

"Hero worship."


It was getting harder, to keep the secret, to convince himself that he was right, that it was still not his place to tell.

//Hero? Of course you were... and more than that, Seph. You have no /idea/...//

"... and he doesn't hate me now? He really doesn't... I don't understand..." The white-haired man's voice was gentle, musing, his green eyes curious as he turned his gaze back to the blonde.

"He never hated you. Cloud knew that wasn't the real you, just like I did. You and he..."

So much he could say, and perhaps, /should/ say... Zack swallowed, spoke carefully.

"You and he have a lot in common." he winced, "...but I guess that doesn't really matter now."

No answer, and he looked up, to see Sephiroth still staring at Cloud, but the curiosity was gone, replaced with something harder, more calculating, a look Zack remembered well, though it seemed utterly out of place here... it was the way he had looked at Wutai, when he had been charting a battle, quietly tallying up how long the enemy might stand in his way.

"Seph? Hey... what's...?"

There was no warning as, all at once, several of the machines surrounding Cloud began to whistle shrilly, and the blonde shivered, jerked where he lay, caught in another seizure, as if strung and shaken by some brutal, invisible hand...

"Cloud!!! Shit, NO!!!"

Zack remembered, had lived through this, and too recently, knew which machines would flatline first, and when, and how little time he had... and he knew that Melissa had already decided, that this time there was nothing to be done, no reason to bring him back, if it was only to make him suffer more. The drugs the dark-haired man would need weren't even in this small room, but at another lab, minutes away at best...

//... as if that's going to stop me.//

It was insanity, and Zack knew it, knew it was not Cloud's wish to stay alive, but only his own, and that pulling his friend through this would not work to ease the blonde's pain, but only to keep his own at bay. It was selfish, it was cruel... and it didn't matter. He /couldn't/ watch Cloud die.

Zack paused, just briefly, near the door, looked back at Sephiroth for a moment, but the worry of leaving the man alone with the blonde, the questions and outrage it could bring up later, was nothing compared to the panic at the possibility of losing Cloud altogether. The white-haired man nodded once, for him to go, or perhaps Zack only thought he did. Either way, in the span of a heartbeat, he had left them both, and was hurtling down the stairs.


Sephiroth was almost grateful, as he heard Zack's footsteps echo, and vanish down the corridor. It would be much easier, he thought, to do this alone.

//Do what...? What are you...?//

He took a step closer to Cloud, and another, waiting for a reaction, for the Cetra to respond as they had before, but there was nothing. He had wondered, even before this moment, why there had been nothing from them until that last, brief attack, moments ago. There had been nothing while he had been in the room with Zack, and nothing when he had helped to hold Cloud down to prevent his escape. Nothing, from the Cetra who seemed to have guarded him so jealously before now.

//They're not guarding him, though. They're hurting him. Aeris, she was trying to warn me, before they took her away...//

The white-haired man didn't know the whole story, but he knew the Cetra were here, now, and that, with Jenova's poison gone, /they/ had to be the ones hurting Cloud, that whatever their motives, they were /not/ the benevolent presence he had once assumed them to be.

//What are you going to do, then...?//

//I'm not sure...//

Sephiroth was sliding off his gloves before he realized what he was doing, but didn't pause, quickly pulling the black leather away from his hands. He was unable to keep from staring, just for a moment, down at his hand, a habit recently acquired, looking at the bare skin clean of any marker, clear of that damned number. That had been one cruelty he almost had not been able to bear, a vicious act that had dug into his heart like a hook...

//I almost killed Hojo for that...//

Sephiroth knew he had been very young when it had happened, but still couldn't remember what had stopped him from trying to hurt Hojo, when he had realized he had been marked, forever, with something that no title or distance could erase, a connection to his past that he couldn't rid himself of, /ever/.

//... but you took that away from me, didn't you?// He lifted his eyes past his hand, watching Cloud struggle weakly, gasping as if he couldn't breathe, //You took that away, and gave that part of my life back to me.//

The determination in his next words, clear and absolute, had conquered nations.

//I won't let you die.//

Sephiroth didn't know what he was doing, didn't know he was right, until he reached out to Cloud with his bare hand, and pulled it back sharply, as a shiver of green electricity crackled across the blonde's skin, and snapped into him, and the voices that had been unusually silent since the prior attack suddenly swept into a frenzied scream.

//Get away... Jenova's child... away AWAY... nothing to do with you... nothing... we will kill... destroy... get back get back get back!!!//

There was murder on their minds, blazing fury in that collected voice... but Sephiroth paused, and waited, and saw that, once again, just as it had been before, there was /only/ that rage, that hate, and the oppressive fury that seemed to fill the room truly /did/ nothing, the Cetra could only threaten...

//What are you so afraid of?//

Sephiroth was intrigued, as he reached out again, wondering what the answers would be, to questions he hadn't even thought to ask, what secrets the Cetra were guarding, inside the broken man in front of him.

There was no shock this time, at least not one that he could see. He brushed two fingers against Cloud's temple at first, hesitant, before laying his palm flat against the blonde's forehead as there was no reaction to his touch. He could feel the tension there, Cloud's weak shudders, the man too exhausted to do more than tremble against whatever vicious punishment was being brought down upon him.

//What are you doing?// His mind's own question, for himself, and one he could still not answer.

//I don't-//

Sephiroth gasped, put his other hand on the bed to steady himself, as the world before his eyes split, sliding violently apart into a double image. He could see nothing clearly, this new world a blur of strange, unfocused images, laying atop the world he knew and bleeding it into a haze. Not knowing what else to do, and unwilling to break the connection with Cloud, the white-haired man shut his eyes tightly, and felt the world seem to drop out from underneath him... watched the new world before his eyes shudder, swimming into sudden clarity.

//This is...//

It was the land of his dreams, the land of shifting green that had been behind, had created all that Aeris had shown him, a green he knew, recognized from his soul...

//The Lifestream...? ... but how... and why?//

/... help me.../

He turned sharply at the shattered, almost inaudible whisper, but there was nothing behind him but the swirling green, no sign or sound of anything, alive or dead.

/...please ...help./

Sephiroth turned again, and saw that the world in front of him, formerly as empty as everything else, had changed greatly while his back had been turned, the green solidifying up and out, presenting the illusion of a large rock wall, its edges still only half-focused, shifting in and out of the flickering currents that surrounded it.

The wall was undecorated, the green, slightly glowing marble bare but for a single outgrowth, a slight bulge at its center. It took the white-haired man a moment, to realize that it was Cloud.


The blonde had been pinned against the wall in a near spread-eagled sprawl, and Sephiroth could see, as he stepped closer, that the deep-green marbled wall was much different than the rock that had nearly covered Cloud's body, holding him in place. A shimmering green had spread across the blonde, all the way up to his neck, and even there Sephiroth could see the signs of the slow, steady advance. The light green stone was pebbled, rough, and shone like crushed ice in the sun.


There was no response, the blonde's eyes were closed, his head slumped lifelessly to the side, revealing a slack, pale face that was the near mirror of the "real" blonde in the other world. Whatever was happening to that man now, the SOLDIER thought, this one was faring no better.

Sephiroth quickly stepped forward, and swore as he reached down to his side to grasp at nothing, realized that the Masamune was once again not with him.

//Don't worry... I'll get you out...//

The stone was semi-transparent, and looked no stronger, no more sturdy than a thick layer of ice. It would be no great task, to break-

//GET OUT!!! NOW!!!!//

The noise would have deafened him, if he had heard it with his true body's ears, and even here it was nearly overpowering, a million voices all united as one against him, all that anger, focused onto him. The scene in front of him, all but the wall directly around the blonde, flared and shifted, seething with anger. Cloud moaned softly, his head drooping even further forward, a burning glimmer flickering across the green ice that held him.

Sephiroth braced himself, prepared to fight, the whispers of rage, shouts and screams of righteous anger all around him now... he knew, knew they would attack, that those united voices would rise against him... and he waited, and watched, but beyond the startling, dizzying rage, the new, even greater fury pulsing through the air, there was nothing. No attack, no signal, nothing to start the battle that was so obviously set up, poised and waiting... nothing, nothing but him, and the Cetra, and Cloud in between...

"You... you can't."

The white-haired man watched the bands of swirling green, dark shades like roiling storm clouds, with lighter green streaks twisting and curling throughout, patterns of swift violence around shapes that almost looked like faces snarling in anger, calling for his blood... but it was not the intimidation that it ought to have been, as he continued to wait, and nothing more happened.

"You /can't/ fight me, can you?"

Voices, that near-eternal, all-consuming anger, more powerful, more violent than anything he had ever heard... but that was all, and he realized that the noise, the sense of danger, was all there ever would be.

//... and you knew, that if I got too close to him, if I came here, I would figure it out...// He smiled, took a step forward. //... and then, you knew what I would do.//

He ignored the screaming chorus, stepped up to the wall, and calmly started to free Cloud, found the icy green even less sturdy than it looked, watched it quickly crumble to nothing beneath his fingertips.

Cloud fell forward as the last of it was removed, landing limply in Sephiroth's arms. A quick check revealed that the man had a slow, weak pulse; he was still alive, but just barely. Sephiroth only hoped that this place, this dream would somehow translate to the other world, and that somewhere, the real Cloud was also being aided, pulled away from danger.

//He is, I know it. This /is/ a real world.//

/He is ours, ours! Let him go! This has nothing... we will... we will.../

"He is /not/ yours!" Sephiroth turned to face the roar of the Cetra head on, knowing he had won an important battle, that with Cloud now safely cradled in his arms, there was nothing at all to fear.

"He is his own, and no one else's... and you are only shadows. You are /nothing/, and you have no power over him... not anymore!"

The words held something more, some greater strength, a presence that even he had never expected, and Sephiroth felt something /snap/, in a rush, felt the howling clamor, the anger, the tension, /vanish/.

He stood, with the blonde still cradled in his arms, in the calm, peaceful green sea that slowly swirled around him, carrying no hatred, with no attack, no anger...

The Cetra were gone.

"Come on..." He murmured to the still unconscious blonde, noticing, as he carefully adjusted his hold, that Cloud no longer looked so pale, and seemed to be resting peacefully.

"Let's go home."



The voice was dim and distant, and as the white-haired man struggled to open his eyes, he realized he had, only moments ago, been wondering just how he was supposed to get back, from wherever it was he had been.

Sephiroth took a deep breath, shifting slightly from where he had been standing, forcing rigid, tense muscles to relax. He swore he could feel his body and soul reconnect, sliding back together, and the room felt strange, much more /real/ compared to that other world, a feeling that clung to him for a few moments more, before fading away. Sephiroth closed his eyes briefly, both hands against the edge of the bed, and waited until he had caught up with the world again, until all had returned to normal.

The white-haired man heard breathing, very close, and turned to see Zack watching him, eyes wide and stunned, blankly confused. His friend had a familiar-looking medical case clenched tightly in one hand, but seemed to have forgotten it, staring at him in shock. Sephiroth turned, as Cloud shifted on the bed, and realized that all the machines were reading perfectly normal, and that the blonde looked much better, had uncurled from his tight, fetal ball, no longer shaken with chills, or crying out in pain.

The white-haired man took a step back as Zack approached, lay one hand on Cloud's forehead, and looked up at him, the disbelief never leaving his hazel eyes.

"His fever's broken. Everything's... /normal/. He's... he's fine."

Sephiroth nodded, feeling no less bewildered than his friend looked. Yes, he remembered what had happened, but that didn't mean it made any more sense...

"Seph, what the hell did you do?"

"I have no idea."


His grip was slipping, the voices were growing, louder, /hungrier/, wanting their revenge, their chance, /now/. He called out, knowing no one would answer him, that no one would hear...

//... help me...//

It was so cold... how could it be this cold? He didn't want... there was so much... he had to... but it was too late... the end... and he couldn't keep his hold... this was it... he was afraid, to die, alone in the dark, the cold...

//... please... help.//

//I'm here.//

Here, here with him. Cloud knew at once, who it was, that brilliant presence that called so calmly to him, so sure in its strength... Sephiroth was here.

The ice was melting from his limbs, though he could do nothing to assist it, could barely keep himself from falling, dropping into the darkness that had beckoned for so long... though he would now, would do /anything/, now that /he/ was here...

//I held on... for you... I...//

Strong arms wrapped around him, he could feel their heat, the first that he had felt anything, for a long, long time. The blonde turned into that embrace, sheltered by that warmth, and if the Cetra still lay beyond, he couldn't sense them, and didn't care, knowing he was safe, knowing the power in the embrace that held him so tightly, sheltering him from any danger.

Cloud smiled, snuggling further into that protection, breathless, and frightened, and thankful, all at once, until all that was left was the weariness, the exhaustion from fighting a battle much too long, and all alone...

A slight rustle, at the edge of his hearing... the dark coat, or wings...?

//One-winged angel...//

The thought was fleeting, and Cloud knew, even if it was true now, he didn't have to be afraid. This was not the monster from his nightmares, not the creature that had signaled the end of everything, the start of the end of his entire life...

Not that, this time, not that sorrow, not that pain. He was /safe/, and felt the retreat of those voices, the swell of a blessed, total silence, for what might as well have been the first time in a lifetime. There were only the thick, green dreams, the gentle rocking of a kind tide... and those wonderful hands, so warm against his skin, so careful, bringing him back, taking him home. When Cloud found he could no longer hold on, he let himself go, not falling, into a frozen, inescapable oblivion, but drifting away, to a warm and gentle slumber, secure in the arms of the one he loved.

The nightmare was over.





Yes, we have no Author's Notes!

1. This chapter's still not longer than 17, believe it or not. Whew. I'm tired. This is sort of a transition chapter, tying up a few loose ends while bringing out a few more.

2. Some game dialogue in here, cuz I took notes while I played it through this time around.

3. Jenova code... think Matrix-style, only horizontal instead of descending code. And green... okay, maybe blue. Pale blue... royal blue?

4. There might be one error here in "who thinks what when and why" so if you find it, read around it. : ) I can't tell whether it is or not so I just left it in.

5. I just wanna say thanks again to everyone for writing reviews, sending mail, drawing such awesome fanart. You make me try harder with each chapter, and I thank you all forever for it. Love&Peace!!!

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