Introductory Note and Content Warning

Gahhhh! I'm still here! Whyyyyyyy?!

Due to the continuing global viral crisis, I have SO MUCH TIME and since apparently there is something seriously wrong with me and this fic series will not get out of my head, I started writing another installment.

I MAKE NO PROMISES.

I have no idea how much time I will have to put into this installment. Probably none when I am actually able to return to work. But I guess I'm going to keep going with it? I know there's things left unanswered or unresolved from 'Renditions of Consequence' and trust me when I say it bugs me as much as it bugs some of you. So onward we go? For now at least XD

In the summary I put that this is 'A' sequel to Renditions. That's because I can imagine so many and this is just one. The first and most pushy one in my brain, fighting to get out on digital paper first. I am pretty sure not everyone is going to like it and I'm really sorry. I tried really hard to leave Renditions on a semi-happy and hopeful note that I was really satisfied with. I almost don't want to wreck that. So, I guess I encourage you to decide if you want to read on, because I don't want to disappoint you if you were really happy with the general resolution at the end of Renditions. There's going to be plenty of angst and struggle in this story. Still some humour and some cheeriness…but, uh, yeah, lots of angsty struggling.

If you're still interested and want to read on, I'm so happy to welcome you to the next part of this apparently never-ending tale that I will probably still be writing ten more years from now. Also, if any of you guest reviewed the ending of Renditions and I was thus unable to reply to you, thank you so much for your comments!

Lots of love!

Jaydee

Content Warning: Chapters in this story may contain upsetting or triggering content including but possibly not limited to violence, consensual and non-consensual sexual references and descriptions, drug and alcohol use and abuse, references to or descriptions of mental illness, self-harm or self-injurious behaviour, and references to or discussions of suicide.

~One~

Zack.

He looked different. His hair was getting longer. His face looked…fuller perhaps. His skin was definitely darker, tanned. How long had he been asleep? It didn't feel like he'd been out for more than a few hours.

Zack.

He needed to speak to him. He couldn't. His eyes felt so heavy…so dry. His chest hurt. His whole body hurt. Zack was smiling at him. He kissed him on the top of his head. He was leaving again.

Zack!

He tried to raise his hand out to him but he couldn't. He could barely move his hand. It was like being paralyzed by the drugs Hojo had used on him and Zack so many times before. He was panicking. Panicking for days.

Angeal. Zack needed to know. He'd brought Angeal back from the Lifestream. He'd left him with Genesis and Sephiroth. They'd had the Jenova remains with them. Shinra had blown up the helicopter but no bodies had been recovered from the site of explosion. What if Angeal was out there now somewhere, still alive?

Angeal. Angeal. Angeal. He said the name but nothing was coming out. He was trapped…he had to keep trying to get Zack to hear him. Day after day, until finally…

"I'm here, buddy," Zack said to him, his tone comforting and warm.

"Zack, there's something I..." he tried to say to him.

He couldn't get all the words out before he seemed to run out of the oxygen in his lungs to do so. He had to heave in another breath that he could almost feel failing to fully expand his lung tissue the way it was supposed to.

"It's okay, take it slow, Spike," Zack encouraged him.

"Angeal," he managed to get out hoarsely, barely audibly.

Zack's face took on an expression like exasperation. "Why do you keep saying his name?" he asked then.

Had he actually been managing to say Angeal's name? He must have been.

"He was alive," he told him.

"Angeal's..." Zack started to say, shaking his head slowly. "You know he's not," he said softly.

"Hojo had his body," he began to explain painfully, his breathing becoming harder the more he tried to say. "I pulled him back from the Lifestream."

"Cloud—" Zack said his name through a sigh. He sounded disappointed.

"He was alive…with Genesis and Sephiroth—" he tried to explain, to make Zack see, he wasn't just rambling in the midst of some post-coma haze or delusion.

"Spike, just—" Zack spoke sadly, shutting his eyes and shaking his head again.

"You need to listen—" he told Zack more urgently.

"Stop!" Zack demanded, silencing him. He had tears building in his eyes. "Just stop," Zack said more softly. "You need to just...just stop," he practically pleaded.

"You have to believe me, Zack," he said in return, his weak and strained voice starting to fail him. His body was telling him he had to stop. He was exerting too much energy too fast. "I brought him back f-from the Lifestream, like Johnny. Angeal…he found me there once. He said I felt like you. He was looking for you. I—I brought him back to his body. Zack, you have to believe me."

Zack looked sad. He just kept shaking his head at him. He wouldn't look at him.

"Zack," he said. "I forgot about it before, I wasn't trying to keep it from you. I'm sorry. I'm—"

"Just stop talking," Zack ordered him. His voice was soft but his command was firm. "You need to rest okay? Please."

"I'm sorry," he repeated, feeling his dry and itchy eyes filling with tears that only seemed to burn, not give relief. "If he died on the helicopter, it was my fault," he said.

Zack groaned with frustration. He leaned forward, resting his weight on the guardrail of the bed. "It's not, it's—just listen to me—" he begged.

He tried to catch his breath as he watched Zack, his friend avoiding his eyes.

"You don't believe me," he whispered in acceptance. Zack shook his head again slowly and wiped at his eyes.

"Angeal's gone. I did that. I took his life, Spike. I know he's gone. I made sure." Zack looked at him straight. "I don't know what you think you saw or did...It just...It didn't happen. Angeal's gone. You've been having nightmares and with waking up from a coma...You're confused. That's all. It's just something you imagined, okay?"

He didn't believe him. Zack didn't believe him.

He was panicking.

He really was panicking. He woke up panting from his memory-fueled dream covered in sweat and his heart beating hard in his chest. Despite the fan blowing on him, the room felt like a hundred degrees. Lying on his back, taking in short inhales, his chest rising and falling quickly, he reached over next to him and felt around for the clock on the side table. Holding it in a wet grip, even his palms sweating, he lifted it to look at the time.

4:58 a.m.

It's fine, he told himself as he set the clock back down next to him and shut his eyes. He took some longer, steadier breaths, counted in his head, and tried to imagine the tension leaving each one of his body parts one at a time. Relaxing his feet, relaxing his ankles, relaxing his calves…

His chest was tightening. His heart was still beating too quickly. Six o'clock was right around the corner. He felt a deep ache under his ribs, spreading across his torso. He hissed against the painful and uncomfortable feeling. His breaths were becoming shorter again. He wasn't fine.

He sat himself up in bed then, reaching into an empty and cleaned out ashtray that he kept on the table and feeling around for one of the small tablets inside. He was out of water, the cup on the table empty. Dry swallow, he didn't need the water that badly. He needed air. He needed to breathe.

He was heaving in and out erratically by the time he scrambled onto the floor from the bed. He needed to be on a solid surface. On the floor, he lowered his head between his knees and tried to do everything he knew he was supposed to, but the room around him was becoming metal and his skin was becoming welted and bruised, his ribs were cracking in his chest. He was barely able to hear the sound of his phone ringing over the thudding of his own pulse in his ears.

His phone was on the table. He had to reach up from the floor to get to it, knocking over the emptied cup that quickly rolled and hit the floor. It was plastic so it couldn't break. He'd learned the hard way a few times that glass wasn't a good idea around him when there was a chance of him swinging his arm or hand into it, and that tended to happen in the room at night.

With his phone in his hand, he blindly pressed on the answer button and lifted the device to his right ear. He'd never looked at the caller ID but he already knew who it was.

"Uh," was all he was able to speak into the phone through his short breaths.

"It's me, buddy," Zack's voice replied to him softly and a rush of relief went through him at just hearing the sound. "It's okay," Zack told him. "Just breathe slow, okay. You're okay."

"Okay," he managed to get out shakily in return.

"You take your—" Zack started to question.

"Yeah," he replied and nodded to himself before Zack could finish.

"Good, just relax," Zack urged. "Do the counts."

"Okay," he said again, holding an inhale for three seconds and then letting it out for another three.

He could feel his medication working. He could feel his body beginning to relax. He could feel that his chest wasn't somehow caving in on him and that his pulse was slowing. He wasn't going into cardiac arrest. He wasn't going to be dragged into a metal room when the clock turned six. He wasn't going to be beaten. He was fine. He was able to get back a normal rhythm of breathing after a minute or two. Zack could hear it over the phone.

"You're good?" he asked.

"Yeah, I think so," he told him quietly. "Thanks."

"It's no problem," Zack said warmly. His friend heard him though as he was about to start crying. It came on fast. "Aw bud, don't," Zack spoke sympathetically. "It's fine," he assured him.

"You shouldn't have to keep doing this, Zack," he said to him through his tears. It had been weeks of Zack calling to check on him around that time of the morning, talking him through his panic attacks when he was in the midst of one which happened more frequently than he wished.

"I don't mind. I'm up anyway, it's fine," his friend told him.

"Every morning?"

"Yeah, every single morning," Zack confirmed. He mostly was. He liked to go running first thing, so he was used to getting up around 5 a.m.

"Okay," he said a little lowly.

"Want me to come over?" Zack offered.

"No, it's okay," he said as he wiped his eyes and face with his hand.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm good," he insisted.

"Alright. I wish you could come running with me. It would really help you I think," Zack said, making him nod again to himself.

"Yeah, someday soon," he agreed. His chest and his lungs still couldn't handle the endurance.

"You working tonight?" Zack asked him then.

"Uh, no it's my night off," he replied.

"You gonna come to Tifa's then? To hang out?" his friend questioned brightly.

"Yeah, I'll be there," he told him.

"Cool. Maybe try to get another couple hours of sleep this morning?" Zack suggested.

"Maybe, yeah," he agreed, though he knew it wasn't likely to happen.

"Alright, I'll text you in a few," Zack said before ending their call.

He stayed on the floor another few minutes before dragging himself up to his feet to go shower off his nightly sweat glaze.

It had been months since the panic attacks had first started. Things had been relatively fine while undergoing Galen's treatment plan in Costa del Sol. Or at least, he'd been so preoccupied with his physical self that his mental or psychological self was pretty neglected.

Waking up from the induced coma he'd been put in for Galen to eradicate the Seraph strain in his body wasn't what he'd expected in the least. He'd gone into it feeling desperate and overwhelmed. He thought that when he woke up he was going to feel better somehow. That the passing of time would either make him feel rested or less like he was being crushed under the weight of his memories and everything that had happened to him leading up to that point.

He didn't. When he woke up he felt the same as he had when he went to sleep, only there was physical pain as a side-effect of the coma and a feeling like he wasn't in the same body anymore. One that was outside his control. Galen had initially told him to expect up to three months in the induced state for him to fully complete the procedure to kill and remove the strain that he and Hojo had initially developed and forced upon his body. The part biological, part synthetic substance that had bonded to him and encouraged the development of special enhancements in his body.

Through Seraph, he'd developed inhuman capabilities. He was able to see and hear through walls, to generate heat at destructive temperatures, even move objects with his mind. He could make someone do something they didn't want to do…Like Johnny, who had put his own gun to his head and pulled the trigger because he'd told him to do it. Forced him to do it by controlling his body, all without laying a hand on him.

He'd had the ability to heal from injury incredibly quickly and he could revive from death. Somehow his ability to travel in and out of the Lifestream made it possible for him to bring people back from it. He could reconnect their spirits or their souls with their bodies. And he had. He'd brought Johnny back, and despite what both Zack and Galen believed or wanted him to believe, he was sure he'd brought Angeal back as well. Well, most days he was sure…

The coma had been expected to last up to three months but he'd taken so well to the Seraph removal procedure that he'd only been induced for about a month and a half. Despite that, the process to wake him up had been slow and during that time he was in a paranoid, somewhat delirious state. It was normal, apparently. His brain needed to slowly come to the realization he wasn't in a coma anymore. The dreams and nightmares he'd been having while asleep overlapped with what was happening in the real world while he was waking up.

His body had weakened tremendously while he was out. He'd lost about twenty pounds of body mass and his muscles had atrophied. He couldn't speak until he was off of ventilation and even then it was only a word or two, barely discernible to Zack or anyone else listening.

When he was finally aware of his surroundings and he was thinking coherently, when he could finally speak again, he learned he'd been saying Angeal's name. He'd been trying desperately to let Zack know the secret that even his own brain had hidden from him until the very moment he was about to be rendered unconscious for weeks. It had been the last thing he thought of when he went to sleep and it was the first thing on his mind when he woke up.

He tried to explain to Zack what had happened, to let him know that the mentor he'd cared about so much may be alive somewhere. That he'd brought him back from the Lifestream. But what he'd said hadn't been received well. Of all the reactions he might have imagined Zack would have to what he was saying, he didn't think disappointment and irritation would be one of them but that's what he'd read on his friend. Zack didn't want to hear it. He said he must have dreamed it or imagined it. It wasn't real.

When he was able to, he spoke to Galen about it, asked him for the confirmation he was sure he would get from the man. At the very least, he wanted confirmation from him that Angeal's body had been in the facility in Gongaga. He'd seen it and surely Galen must have known it was there. His response wasn't what he thought he'd get from him either.

Galen didn't confirm that the body he'd seen was Angeal's. He pointed out that Hojo had been experimenting with cloning for years, and that Shinra had been doing it for decades. He told him that even if he had somehow managed to wake the person in the stasis chamber up, that after having been in the chamber for the supposed length of time he had been, that whoever it was wouldn't have survived for long outside of it anyway, not without medical assistance. He told him that it was more likely he had imagined what he thought happened.

He hadn't wasted any more time trying to convince anyone of what he thought. He'd focused on recovering his strength and mobility after the coma. He pushed himself as hard as he was capable of in his rehabilitation, determined to keep moving forward so he could begin the experimental treatment Galen had proposed to try to destroy some of the Jenova cells still living inside him. The treatment wasn't going to be able to do anything to get rid of the hybrid cells in his body, the ones that were a combination of his own DNA and Jenova's but at least it might destroy those that were free-floating and not fully bonded to anything.

He couldn't explain the urgency to have that procedure done. He just knew he wanted it as quickly as possible. Galen had told him he needed to be in good physical shape to begin the procedure because it would mean injecting him with a virus that while in the process of attacking and destroying the Jenova cells would also make him incredibly sick. It was going to infect every part of him. It was going to get into his blood and his organs and his respiratory system. There was no drug he could be given to cure him of the virus once it was in him, he would have to fight it himself until it ran its course and its lifecycle ended naturally.

Before the coma, Zack had seemed generally supportive of his desire to want to do the experimental procedure, but afterward his feelings had changed. He didn't want him to do it. At the very least he wanted him to wait a year or longer, until he'd gotten stronger and healthier. He didn't want to wait. He wanted as much of his traumatic past behind him as possible and each one of those Jenova cells in his body felt like one of those traumatic memories he thought he could eliminate. He wanted them gone.

He took seven weeks after waking from his coma to recover some strength. He had to work on getting his lungs better functioning after having been on breathing assistance. He had to be able to get himself walking again. He had to build muscle back up and gain back some weight. It wasn't enough, but he felt like it was. Despite Zack's pleas for him to wait, he pushed Galen into starting the viral treatment. Scared to lose him again, Zack had practically threatened Galen's life if he agreed to start the procedure without his approval. Regardless of that, Cloud was able to convince Galen to inject him with the virus while Zack was engaged elsewhere and couldn't stop it.

Having the virus reminded him of what having mako sickness was like and things didn't go as well as he had hoped. His blood pressure kept dropping. His fever kept climbing. There was nothing Galen or anyone else could do besides try to manage his symptoms. The virus had to run its course. Cloud knew that Zack was furious with him initially. He went so far as to say he wasn't going to look in on him, that if he died it was going to be his own fault and that he wasn't going to be there to see that happen. His anger was short-lived.

He had to be quarantined while symptomatic, so no one was really coming or going, except for Galen. Even though he'd said he wouldn't be by his side if the virus killed him, Zack wasn't able to be by his side anyway. He wasn't allowed in the room because he would be at risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to other patients in the facility. Zack spent hours sitting in the observation room next to his, talking to him through a speaker system wired into the room.

He knew it was different, but the room reminded him of what it had felt like to be in his cell in Gongaga, a window in the one wall where people could look in on him, a speaker where a voice could give him commands or ask him questions. There was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. He was alone and in pain. He really did think he might die in that room, and he almost did, but he survived.

Recovery from the virus took longer than Galen's projected four weeks. It took about six before the virus was no longer showing up in his bloodwork. The procedures to remove Seraph and as much of Jenova as possible did a real number on him. He'd lost so much of the weight he'd put on while in Gongaga and Midgar. He was sapped of energy. It was as though something had been sucking the life straight from him for months. But he was alive. Zack was so thankful for that. Thankful to a god he'd never really believed in but had prayed to a lot. Even thankful for Galen, as much as he hated him also. He was thankful for Tseng for making it all possible. Even Rufus a little bit. Even if the guy had tried to have him killed, he'd ended up helping them in the end.

He was so grateful. So relieved. So happy. But Cloud wasn't.

Cloud came away from his coma and fight with the virus that had nearly killed him seeming almost as distant as when he'd had the implant in his brain Hojo had decided to put there at the urging of Rand, Cloud's so-called Keeper. Zack tried to be only understanding. Cloud would need weeks of physical recovery and many more after for emotional and mental recovery. He understood that, but he couldn't help worrying. Cloud barely spoke for a few weeks after recovering from the virus. He spent a lot of time asleep. He wanted to be alone most of the time. He was...struggling.

The panic attacks started happening while he was still in recovery in Costa del Sol. They hadn't been frequent or predictable but since being back in Midgar they had grown more so. When Zack reached the sixth month mark since his intake into the facility the staff were satisfied that he wasn't a threat to society at all and could be released into the community. He'd already served some sentence time for his assault on Rand back in Midgar before being transferred to Costa del Sol and they felt he should be able to have the chance to return to normal life in order to stay on track with his own recovery from what he'd endured in the past.

The court system decided to accept the recommendation of the staff but decided that Zack was going to be released on parole with certain conditions or restrictions, one of the conditions being that unless registered as an inpatient in a treatment facility, he would need to stay within Midgar's city limits. Since his sentence had been for an indeterminate amount of time, up to ten years, the sentencing judge would review his case in another six months and decide to either end his parole and issue time served, in which case he'd be a free man, or he might have parole extended another six months before being reviewing again and so on.

So as not to be separated from Cloud, he contacted Tseng and asked if Shinra would be willing to pay to let him stay on in Costa del Sol as a patient until Cloud was ready to go home. Of course they were willing. Just as Tseng had said, Shinra was going to be willing to do just about anything for the two of them after he'd signed a document declaring he'd never pursue legal action against them in the future for what was done to him and Cloud.

By the time the two of them made the trip together back to Midgar, Johnny had already been back home for a few months, having completed rehabilitation for the gunshot injury he'd sustained to his head during the Shinra Spring parade.

Once in the city, Cloud had focused on his continued recovery, physical and mental. Shinra was paying for both him and Zack to have continued therapy in the city and they were paying for his physical rehabilitation as well. It was slow going and at the same time months passed incredibly quickly. It seemed as though in the blink of an eye a year had passed since he'd had the implant in his brain removed. A year had disappeared and he didn't really feel any better than he had when he went into that coma. He was still treading water.

After ten minutes of standing in the shower washing off his sweat and letting the heat ease his tense muscles, he shut off the water and stood for a moment rubbing his face with his hands. As he was stepping out of the tub and wrapping a towel around his waist he thought he heard something. Sounds coming from outside the bathroom, out in the living area. Someone was in his apartment and quickly his pulse was starting to race once more.

The bathroom was the one place he didn't have some kind of weapon hidden. Darting his eyes around the small space he spotted the dowel that was resting in the frame of the small window of frosted glass. It was there to keep the window from being slid open by someone trying to enter from the outside. He took hold of it in his hand and approached the door slowly.

His heart was thudding in his chest hard. He stood next to the door, his eyes shut, holding the dowel close to his chest, trying to breathe quietly and hoping whoever was out there would just be searching for some money to steal and would then leave. Suddenly, he heard the sounds of the approaching footsteps. He knew Zack's gait and his steps. It wasn't Zack and whoever it was, they were coming toward him.