Disclaimer - Aww . . . do I have to say it again? Grrr . . . fine, I don't own 'em. Happy?

AN - Last Chapter folks, Enjoy

Chapter 5 - Endings and Beginnings

"Cloud . . . man, you look like death warmed over." Cloud shrugged and concentrated on keeping his feet under him. Two days after his Mako conditioning and he still wasn't bouncing back the way they had said he should. At least this week it was all mental training, and nothing physical. Hopefully by the time they got back into the gyms, he'd be fine. He stumbled a bit, and righted himself quickly, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed. There was no one nearby.

Heaving a sigh of relief, he leaned against the wall, taking deep breaths and concentrating on his feet as his vision swam dizzily. It was evening . . . they'd just finished another class and he was supposed to head up to Sephiroth's suite to meet up with Zack and the General for dinner. He hadn't seen them since Monday . . . they had been out scouting for some upcoming training exercise.

He was still surprised that the General considered him a friend. They never showed it outside of when they were all together, but Cloud understood that . . . Sephiroth had to maintain his unapproachable appearance in order to keep his men in line. Even Zack and he were careful outside of private quarters to maintain a professional appearance, and Cloud had fallen right in with that practice. He still couldn't believe that they had taken him into their confidence. It seemed like a dream to him sometimes . . . the two biggest names in SOLDIER were his friends.

"Cloud?" A familiar voice startled him.

"Lieutenant?" A hand pressed to his forehead, raising his head to meet Zack's concerned eyes. Zack winced.

"Shit. We were afraid of this. Come on, I'm taking you to the General." Cloud nodded, and slumped into Zack suddenly. Zack bent down, throwing the boy's body over his shoulder and strode to the elevator, punching the up button with his fist.

Once the elevator arrived, he stepped in hurriedly, punching the button for Sephiroth's floor hurriedly, and checking Cloud's pulse. It was erratic, pounding as if the boy had just run a marathon. "Fuck!" he mumbled. "We should have known. Damn it."

Arriving at Sephiroth's floor, he kicked on the door to announce his arrival. The door, as usual, opened before his foot could even touch it.

"One of these days you're gonna learn how to knock like a normal person . . . what the hell happened to him?" Sephiroth asked, staring at Cloud's limp body.

"The Mako conditioning. He's not holding up under it . . . as we suspected." Striding in, he set Cloud down on the couch and stepped back as Sephiroth bent to examine the boy. With as much Mako as he'd been injected with, he was an expert at dealing with Mako poisoning in others. He examined Cloud's eyes first, then felt for the boy's temperature and heartbeat. Finally, he sat back with a sigh.

"He'll survive this one, although at the moment it might be hopeful thinking . . . but he won't be able to undergo others. He'll stay here until he's over this though. I'm making it an order. Someone is going to need to keep an eye on him."

"What about his training? And the other recruits are gonna wonder where he is. . ."

"Too bad. They can wonder. As for his training . . .I'll work on it up here with him when he's awake. He'll be the best tactics trained recruit we have, at least." He grinned suddenly. "Damn Zack, you're a bad influence on me . . . I'm getting soft." Zack snorted.

"You and the word soft don't belong in the same sentence, Seph." Sephiroth snorted and stood up.

"I'll go inform his instructors of his condition and move his stuff to your quarters." Zack's voice followed him out into the hallway.

"What the hell do you mean, to my quarters!?"


Cloud awoke slowly, staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling in puzzlement. 'Where the hell am I?' he wondered. Voices in the next room grabbed his attention. Although he couldn't make out what they were saying, he could tell it was Zack and Sephiroth . . . and Zack sounded rather annoyed about something. He stood slowly, waiting patiently for the slight dizziness to pass before walking to the door.

"God damn it, the President can't put you back under that guy's control! Didn't he learn anything from that last incident! They're gonna KILL you, Seph!"

"Look, Zack, I'm no happier about it then you are, but there is, unfortunately nothing I can do about it. He made it an official order, which means I can't go against it."

"What's going on guys?" Cloud interrupted. He figured it was time he let them know he was there. Sephiroth was beside him in an instant, making Cloud blink. He hadn't even seen him move. He submitted to the General's examination with a sigh. Finally, Sephiroth stepped back.

"It seems the rest did you some good. However, it still doesn't change the fact that you cannot undergo anymore Mako conditioning." Cloud looked at him in horror.

"You mean . . ." Zack nodded from over by the counter, his face sad.

"Your days in SOLDIER are done, Cloud. You'll be just a normal guard from this point on. Both Seph and I tried to pull strings, but the fact that your body can't take the Mako conditioning makes it impossible for us to do anything. In order to remain in SOLDIER, you'd have to undergo at least two more sessions . . . and you can't do it." Cloud collapsed into a chair, staring at him.

Sephiroth lounged against his bedroom door, watching the two. Cloud was taking it much better then he had expected, but then, he didn't have much experience with other emotions. Half the time, he barely understood his own. Zack hadn't told him the good news yet, though . . . if it could be considered good after being denied a position in SOLDIER.

"It's not as bad as it sounds, Cloud. As I said, we tried to pull strings to keep you in SOLDIER, but since that didn't work, we pulled other strings. Your unit is the one that Seph and I oversee . . . which means you'll still be going with us on missions." Cloud brightened at that, and Zack laughed. "See, I told you it wasn't that bad. Actually, Seph pulled more strings then I did . . . you've got new quarters. Right down the hall." Cloud turned to look at Sephiroth, who nodded once.

"I figured that if you had to take a step down in job, you could use a step up in quarters. This will put you not far from Zack and me . . . and should make our friendship a bit easier to keep under wraps."

"You guys did all this in the few hours I've been out?" At this, Sephiroth and Zack shared a glance.

"Actually, Cloud . . . you've been out of it for a couple of days now." Cloud stared at Zack in shock.

"Days?" he asked, confused. "How can I have been out for two days?"

"Your Mako poisoning was severe. I had to keep you sedated so you wouldn't hurt yourself while your body was working on accepting it. You were thrashing rather energetically." Sephiroth sighed. "And now, it seems, it will be my turn again."

"Hojo?" Cloud asked quietly. He knew how much Sephiroth hated the man, although he still didn't fully know why. Sephiroth had told him that the less he knew about it, the better off he was . . . but he wished the man would open up to him so he would understand. The General, while a friend, was still an enigma to him . . . and Cloud was pretty sure he would always be that way. There were a lot of secret's locked behind that mako gaze, some of which Cloud was pretty sure would turn a person's stomach.

"Well, enough of this serious stuff," Zack spoke up suddenly. "Wanna go to the club again, Seph?"

Much to Cloud's surprise, Sephiroth actually looked frightened for a second.

"Hell no, Zack! You are NOT dying my hair with that wretched stuff again. It took long enough for me to get it out the first time." Hair dye? What in the world . . . wait a minute. An image surfaced in Cloud's mind . . . Zack, in the elevator that first day, with a tall, black haired . . .

"THAT was YOU?!" Cloud glared at Sephiroth, who had the good grace to smile slightly and bow. "Oh, Planet . . . and I TALKED about you that night!" Cloud wanted to die of embarrassment right there. "Why didn't you say anything?!" he demanded.

"How was I supposed to? I was supposed to be in disguise . . . Zack's idea, I might add." Sephiroth sank gracefully onto the window seat . . . his favorite spot, from what Cloud had seen. He was always sitting over there. Sephiroth drew one knee up to his chest, the other dangling to the floor. "I spent the whole weekend washing my hair to get the dye out afterwards." He shrugged, and looked at Zack. "However, I am not doing that again. You can go right ahead without me, Zack. I'll stay here, thank you." Zack turned his attention to Cloud.

"You wanna go, man?" Cloud shrugged, and nodded.

"Sure, why not? Nothing better to do . . . unless . . ." he looked at Sephiroth, who sighed in annoyance.

"For Planet's sake, you two, I am perfectly capable of being alone. I've been that way often enough, I think I'll survive it." He mumbled something under his breath, staring out the window. Zack looked at Cloud, who shrugged unknowingly. Who knew what was going on in that silver head right now?

Cloud and Zack left Sephiroth to his thoughts, and went to get ready for another night out on the town.


Sephiroth staggered down the hallway to his quarters, his coat wrapped up in one arm, the Masamune dragging in it's sheath along the floor. He made it to his door and kicked it open, stumbling into the suite a few feet before collapsing to his knees on the floor. His blood felt like it was on fire, his skin burning back from his body as waves of pain crashed through him. He wretched, dry heaving as he collapsed onto his side. Curling up into a fetal position, he just wished for everything to go away.

Cloud found him like that a few hours later, blacked out on the floor, still curled into a fetal position, moaning. Quickly running to get Zack, the two of them managed to maneuver him back to his couch, where Zack once again placed a wet cloth on his forehead.

"Zack . . . they really don't give a shit what happens to him, do they?" Cloud murmured quietly, staring down at his hero . . . his friend.

"No, they don't Cloud. Eventually they are going to kill him with this shit . . . and we're the only ones who will mourn him as the man he is . . . not the image everyone has of him." Zack shook his head. "The only way for him to get out of it is to leave SOLDIER . . . and he can't and won't do that." He stared down at the unmoving figure. "He's had it worse then all of us combined . . . but he still won't give up. Because at least he has us, if no one else. Which is why I remain at his side through it all . . . so that he has at least one person he can rely on completely without seeming weak."

"He has me too, you know." Cloud muttered.

"I know Cloud . . . I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry. It's just . . . if I could tell you what his childhood was like, maybe you'd understand a bit better . . . but that's not my place to say. He sees himself as a monster . . . the screams of the dying haunt his dreams constantly . . . but as he says, if he didn't do it, they would find someone else who didn't care as much and wasn't as good at it. So he stays, and endures their tests and experiments . . . for us. So he can keep us alive, when another might not care how many were killed as long as the job was accomplished." He shook his head slowly. "I admire him . . . but I wish I could smack some sense into him."

"You and me both, Zack. You and me both."

"Will you stay with him tonight? I promised my girl I'd take her out to dinner tonight, and I'm already a little late for that, so I have to hurry." Zack looked at him questioningly. Cloud nodded.

"Yeah, Zack. Go ahead, I'll keep an eye on him."


"We've got orders," Sephiroth stated as he walked into the briefing room. It had been a year since Cloud first joined the squad he was in. Since then, he'd been on more missions then he could keep track of. He watched Sephiroth carefully for any sign of the strain he knew his friend was under. The man had become more and more withdrawn in the last couple of weeks, mumbling to himself often as if he was carrying on a conversation. Zack and Cloud had become increasingly concerned, but were unsure of how to approach the subject with him. In every other way, he was the same guy they were friends with.

There had been no more tests with Hojo for months now. The last one had sent Sephiroth into a coma for over a week, causing enough concern that the President had finally gotten his head out of his ass and told Hojo no more. Hojo had been seen storming out of the office that day . . . but the next day had returned with a smile and a nod. It had made Sephiroth concerned when he'd heard about it, but he was so relieved over the decision that no more experiments would be conducted that he'd dismissed it almost immediately.

Zack entered the room not far behind Sephiroth, as usual holding a ton of files and an annoyed expression. He shared a glance with Cloud as he set the files down on a desk, then went to stand in the back of the room near where Cloud sat. Where as Sephiroth was still very much a mystery to Cloud, Zack was an open book. The two had become close friends and went about together off duty often, leaving Sephiroth to his own devices. Sephiroth always seemed a bit more open when they came back, so they had begun to feel less guilty for leaving him out of the loop, figuring that he must be using the time to get himself straightened out.

Cloud turned his attention back to Sephiroth as the man began to speak.

"We've been ordered to Nibelheim on a routine inspection of the Mako Reactor there. I know it doesn't sound like the normal assignments we get handed to us, but they say there has been an outpouring of monster's in that area, and they want a few SOLDIER's with full escort to go check it out. We're to eliminate any monster's we come across, and check the reactor to see that it hasn't been damaged. The following list of men are going on the assignment . . . those of you not called will find yourselves with some leave time to take." He called out a list of names . . . seven in all. Cloud was one of them.

For some reason, Cloud had a vague sense of foreboding about this mission. Somehow, he sensed that no one would come back from this mission unchanged. He shrugged it off as being silly, and stood with the others to file out of the room to go pack.

If he had only know how much that mission would change life as he knew it.