Hi everyone. Thank you so much for your reviews and messages. I haven't responded to them yet but I will soon. I appreciate all your comments. I'm so happy and grateful to have you reading along and hope that you'll enjoy what's to come in the following chapters.

~Twenty-Two~

Water. Clear and crystal, shimmering like a glinting diamond blanket made of silk fluttering in a breeze. The air was hot but the wind coming over the coast from the open water was cool. Out of the water a figure began to emerge, like a shadow against the sun. He walked out like a mirage toward the shore. He was tall and strong and as he drew nearer he looked like a giant.

Cloud felt like he was getting smaller and smaller as the figure approached. He felt stuck in one place, trapped. He was buried up to his chest in sand. He struggled to free his arms and with them he began to dig around himself, trying to escape. The sand was hot, even under the surface and every time he scooped or pushed a handful of sand from around him more was collapsing inward, one grainy avalanche after another.

He couldn't get away. The figure was standing over him, looking down on him. He couldn't see his face for the sun above him.

"You can't get out?" the figure asked him.

His voice was deep and one he was sure he recognized but couldn't place a face to.

"Genesis?" he asked though he knew it wasn't him.

The figure crouched then and suddenly he could see his face.

"Angeal?" he said to him in awe and something like despair in his voice.

The man looked at him with a pitying expression. His eyes were sad.

"Don't you know?" the man asked him before he rose to a stand once more. He lifted something from the ground as he did so. It was the handle of something. "Some things aren't meant to be buried," he said. Finally, Cloud could see what he was holding as its blade reflected the sun. It was a shovel. "And some things should stay that way." He dug the shovel into the sand then and scooped up a heap of the hot grit. In one sharp movement he was throwing it Cloud's way. The sand hit him in his face and over his head. Some of it went into his mouth and his eyes.

"Wait!" he called out but another heap was coming at him crashing against his head and neck. He was coughing then. The sand was everywhere. In his nose. In his throat. He could feel it coating the inside of his mouth and lining his eyelids on the inside. He couldn't breathe without taking the grains into his lungs.

"Wait, please!" he cried but the sand kept coming at him, until he was buried up to his face and finally he was in darkness.

He woke up then, opening his eyes fast with a sharp inhale. He started to relax immediately when he realized it was just a dream. The same dream he'd had a few times over the past week.

He sat up slowly in bed and noticed that he was sweat covered. It was still fairly dark in the room so he checked the time on the wall clock opposite the bed. 5:04 a.m. Late enough to not bother trying to go back to sleep.

He took a mental survey of his body instead to see if he was going to be able to control his response to the dream or if the stress of it was going to send him spiralling towards a panic attack. After a moment he decided he was probably just a little thirsty more than anything else. He reached up to click the alert button just above his head. A minute later a nurse was at his door.

"Need something, hun?" she asked him kindly.

"Just, uh, some water, please," he replied and she nodded.

"Be right back," she told him.

She was back within a few minutes to hand him a cup full of cold water.

"You looking forward to going home today, hun?" she questioned him with a smile.

"Sure," he told her politely, even if it wasn't exactly how he was feeling.

Home. Midgar was never going to feel like that to him. He'd taken for granted his small town that he never quite felt like he fit into. Some days he missed Nibelheim terribly. Missed his mother more...

Truthfully he was a little scared about leaving the hospital where he'd been treated for the past week. He felt a lot of pressure to be different, to be better mentally than when he'd first been admitted.

It was Mia, his therapist, who had strongly suggested he admit himself for psychiatric care following what happened at his apartment with Reno finding him heavily under the influence of the drugs he'd basically purposely overdosed on. She was concerned that he might do it again and while he didn't have plans to, he knew he was capable of it, especially after having heard all of Rand's recording and being incredibly confused about how he felt about it and what the man had offered to him.

He hadn't wanted anyone to make a big deal out of his hospital stay and that included his release back into the world once more. It didn't matter what he said though, Zack was still waiting for him when he was discharged. His friend immediately opened his arms to hug him when he was led out of the locked unit, forcing a smile that did nothing to hide how tired he looked.

"I told you, you didn't need to come," Cloud said to Zack over his shoulder as he was hugging him back loosely.

"Why would I listen to that?" Zack responded rhetorically. "You don't have a bag or anything?" he questioned and Cloud shook his head. He hadn't gone to the hospital with anything other than his phone, keys, and wallet so there was nothing else to leave with.

"Well, you've gotta be hungry," Zack said then, "after days of only hospital food. You want to go get something?"

"Sure," Cloud said, though truthfully he wasn't really hungry and couldn't have really cared less about food. He liked the idea of spending time with Zack though.

"So, buddy," Zack said when they were seated with some burgers and fries at a fast food place down the road from the hospital, "I really missed you. Now that I've got you in front of me and you don't have the advantage of just ignoring me through text message, you care to explain the reason for refusing visitors?" he questioned.

Cloud sighed a little. "Not really," he replied at first.

It was true, he'd refused to see anyone over the week that he was admitted at the hospital. He'd had his phone though so he'd been returning text messages from some people, like Zack. But mostly, he'd wanted to just keep to himself and take the time in there to focus on himself, to try and get something positive out of it or make the stay worth it. It was hard being in that clinical environment without freaking out. He had to keep reminding himself he was there voluntarily and could leave when he wanted.

"I just…wasn't feeling up to it, I guess," he said then.

"Not even me though?" Zack said and it was pretty evident he was a little hurt by it.

"Yeah," Cloud confirmed. "It's not that I didn't want to see you Zack. I always do," he told him and Zack smiled.

"Aw," he said.

"I just, I admitted myself because I needed to have time away from my life the way I've been living it and all the guilt that I've been drowning in and, honestly, seeing you would have made me feel…" Cloud tried to explain.

"What?" Zack asked when he was hesitant on finishing his thought. "Guilty?" he asked and although Cloud shook his head, something about his expression seemed to confirm it right away without him saying anything. "Do I really make you feel that way?"

"No," Cloud denied. "It's not like you make me feel guilty. It's my problem. My brain. My issues. It's not your fault. But…yeah, I mean I do feel guilty around you. I'm working through it," he explained.

Zack supposed it was a fair explanation. He never really stopped feeling guilty either, especially when he could see how Cloud was struggling most days. He cleared his throat a little then. "So, Reno ended up telling me what happened before you went to the hospital," he revealed and Cloud didn't seem surprised at all. His expression remained neutral.

"I figured he probably would," he said simply.

He wasn't exactly happy about the fact Reno had told Zack what had happened but he'd expected it. He supposed it was better that way, since the last thing he'd wanted was to have to tell Zack himself. All he'd told him when he'd contacted him from the hospital was that he was having a really difficult time taking care of himself right then and that his therapist had recommended he get some help from the hospital.

Of course, Zack had scolded him a little for not going to him instead, reminding him that he was always going to be there for him and would always take care of him if he needed the help. He told Zack he didn't think that was his or anyone else's problem and that was really how he felt. His life was his own responsibility now.

"You know what that looked like to him though?" Zack questioned next and Cloud nodded.

"Yeah," he admitted.

"Was he actually wrong?" Zack asked and it felt pointless to lie so he didn't bother.

"No," he said. "I did purposely over-medicate," he admitted.

"But not to the point of—" Zack started to question and he cut him off.

"I wasn't trying to kill myself. I told him that and I meant it," he explained. "Did I mean to put enough drugs into my body to numb what I was feeling and make myself pass out so I wouldn't wake up for as many hours as possible? Yeah." He knew the answer wasn't a comforting one.

"But you know what could've happened?" Zack said to that quickly. "You know how dangerous that was?"

"Yeah," Cloud agreed with a light shrug. "That's why I agreed with Mia that I should go check myself in voluntarily at the hospital." Zack looked down at the table space between them, shaking his head a little. "I get that my reasoning wasn't healthy," Cloud went on then when Zack was quiet. "I get it all, Zack. I know that all of what I've been doing since we got back from Costa del Sol falls into the category of pretty terrible coping methods. It's just, it's like this never ending cycle," he said and Zack looked up at him once more. "I feel so lost and weighed down by all of what I'm feeling, and I try to do something to prove I'm fine. That I'm not terrified all the time. Then I feel guilty about it and the guilt makes me just do something else stupid because I feel like crap about myself. I never ends."

He could tell without Zack saying so that his friend did understand. He stayed quiet though as he thought through what Cloud was telling him and what he did want to say to it.

"And you were probably right," Cloud went on during that silence from him. "I was sleeping around to try and make all those times I didn't have a choice seem insignificant. It seemed like a pretty sure way to get it to not matter so much but, surprise, it didn't fix anything," he explained dully.

He'd spent a lot of time in the previous days talking about it with the psychologists treating him as well as Mia when she visited the hospital to have some sessions with him and check on him. He'd finally spoke about his sexual activities and as he was forced to talk through it he was also forced to admit to himself the reason for why he'd been getting involved with so many people he knew nothing about. He wanted sex to mean nothing at all. Make it mean nothing and the assaults he'd endured didn't exist. It wasn't an offence if it had no significance.

"I'm sorry, Spike," was all Zack could really say in return at first. "I wish, uh…" he started to say but he stopped himself. Saying he wished Cloud hadn't had to go through what he had just seemed too little and he'd already said it before. "I'm just really sorry," he said instead.

Cloud just nodded a little and looked down at his untouched food. He took hold of the cup on the table in front of him and drank from it slowly.

"Spike, um, Six told me about the recording Rand sent to you," Zack revealed then and Cloud felt his stomach sink immediately. "You need to tell me the truth," he spoke seriously as Cloud set the cup back down on the table and avoided looking at him. "Was that the actual reason you purposely over-medicated and then decided to check yourself into the hospital?" When Cloud didn't respond right away he asked, "Did whatever he had to say to you make you do that?"

"It's not that simple," Cloud tried to claim as he shook his head a little.

"What was on that recording?" Zack asked him.

"You didn't go looking for it to hear it yourself?" Cloud asked back to that, still with his eyes away and looking out the window to the street then.

"Of course I did," Zack replied sharply.

"You tear the apartment up looking for it?" Cloud questioned sort of dryly and Zack scoffed a little at the subtle indication in Cloud's voice that said he knew he couldn't have possibly found it and there was an obvious reason for that.

"Yeah, for a while," Zack admitted, "Until it hit me that what I should probably be more concerned about is your reason for hiding it."

Cloud looked at him finally. "You think I'd want anyone, especially you, hearing it?" he questioned and Zack laughed a little.

"Why especially me?" he asked.

"It would just get you mad," Cloud pointed out.

"So?" Zack said back fast. "It's not like I'd be able to do anything. He's presumably dead, right?" he said in something of a challenge. "There's no reason to think otherwise is there? Maybe something he said on that recording suggests differently?" Cloud smiled a little but it was out of annoyance over what Zack seemed to be suggesting more than anything else. "Something funny?" Zack asked him and he looked back at him hard.

"You think I'd hide that from you?" Cloud said and Zack nodded.

"Yeah, I do," he confirmed. "And I like to think it'd be out of some kind of protectiveness. Like you're just worried I'd get into trouble if I knew he was stalking around here, obsessing over you, but I'm not that naïve."

Cloud was a little offended then. "What are you saying? You think it's the opposite? That I'm protecting him from you?" he asked and Zack shrugged a little. "He's dead," Cloud stated firmly.

Zack seemed to study his expression for a moment before asking again, "What was on that recording?" Cloud sighed as he rolled his eyes, looking away again a moment. "You have to tell me, Spike," Zack insisted and Cloud's eyes were back on him fast.

"No, I don't!" he claimed loudly, drawing the attention of a few customers at other tables nearby. "I don't have to tell you, Zack," Cloud said a little quieter once more. "You can ask all you want but I don't owe you that. It's no one's business."

Zack sat back in his chair then, shaking his head. "I can't believe you're doing this," he muttered mostly under his breath.

"What?" Cloud asked.

"I'm supposed to just guess at what he said? You think it's not going to drive me nuts not knowing? I'm just supposed to accept that right after you get this surprise message from that asshole that you drug yourself to unconsciousness and then decide you're unable to take care of yourself but there's no connection there at all?"

"I didn't say that," Cloud argued sharply. "I just said it's not that simple."

"Okay, eff off with the games and the attitude, bud," Zack told him as he leaned onto the table. "I don't have the patience and I don't deserve that."

Cloud shook his head to that. "There's no game," he insisted. It was Zack rolling his eyes then.

"I really thought we were closer than this," he said then and suddenly he was pushing his chair back to get up.

"Okay, wait," Cloud said fast, stopping him. He was actually a little shocked that Zack looked like he was ready to just walk out and away from him and the conversation. It actually scared him a little. "Yes, okay, it was part of it," he admitted to Zack as he sat back down slowly. "The recording...what he said…it wasn't what I expected and it messed me up. I was already messed up about some other things from earlier, I mean, I guess I'm always feeling pretty messed up, and…I guess it just pushed me over the edge. But it wasn't like the recording alone made me do what I did."

"Why would you even listen to it?" Zack asked in return, sounding more irritated than sympathetic. Cloud didn't know how to really answer that but Zack didn't really give him a lot of time to assemble an explanation. "What did he say?" his friend asked again and Cloud just looked away. "You're really not gonna tell me?" Zack questioned with incredulity. He sighed with frustration then. "Spike, I need you to be straight with me about how you really feel about him," he said and it shocked Cloud a little.

"What?" he replied, meeting his eyes once more.

"I hate that I have to ask that," Zack told him.

"Then don't," Cloud basically snapped back at him.

"I have to. For my own sanity," Zack claimed softly. "You're kind of acting like you feel guilty about what's happened to him, like that's somehow your responsibility. You haven't wanted to talk much about him and when you have it's like you want to try and justify the unforgivable shit he did to you," he said, his tone getting more forceful again as he was explaining how he felt. "He terrorized you. And he's a goddamn sadistic, manipulative rapist, Spike," he declared angrily while leaning in toward Cloud. His voice was low but severe and it had Cloud wincing a little like the words physically hurt to hear.

"Zack," he said with his eyes closed, shaking his head.

Zack exhaled deeply and Cloud could hear the tension in his body that caused his breath to shake.

"I just can't stand the thought of you doing something to yourself that hurts you because of something that piece of shit said or did to you, Cloud," Zack told him, speaking quietly. "Because of some influence or power that he or your memories of him have over you and your actions. I need to know, I need to understand, if it's just the pain from what you went through that is too hard to handle, or if it's something else. Some feeling that you're fighting that you think you can't handle…or that you think I can't handle."

There was a moment of silence between them when they were both just breathing a little harder with emotion. Cloud finally decided on what he wanted to say but he couldn't look at Zack as he said it. "Sometimes I feel like I just can't do it anymore, Zack," he told him first.

"What can't you do?" Zack asked him.

"I can't handle living with the pain of feeling like an abuse victim all the time. You know, it was kind of different with Hojo…the things he did. I mean, it was still fucked up. He treated us like we weren't even human but with Rand…it's just, it's confusing. How he treated me sometimes, the things he said, the way he…" He had to stop for a moment and try to think through how to explain. It felt impossible. "I…I can't live under that notion that everything Rand did was just simply a crime. That there was no other reasoning behind it," he explained reluctantly. He glanced at Zack briefly to see how he was taking what he was saying and knew he wasn't taking it well. "Look, I know that mentally after I had the implant, that I technically couldn't understand the significance of what he was doing or what we were doing together, and couldn't legally consent to the…to the sex, but..."

"Oh, come on Spike, please don't do this," Zack was quick to respond then, sounding almost exhausted as he spoke, like he was entirely fed up with the situation and Cloud's struggle to call what Rand did to him what it obviously was.

"I get it's not what you want to hear," Cloud replied slowly and Zack cut in quickly.

"I know maybe you think somehow it's going to be easier to live with if you—"

"I can't live any other way, Zack," Cloud interrupted him. The statement seemed to take Zack off guard. "If the only way to survive is to accept what fits into my head the best, even if it means I take some responsibility for what happened—" he tried to explain.

"Fault, you mean," Zack said and Cloud huffed a little, feeling like he wasn't getting anywhere.

"You know, I physically fought the others," Cloud told Zack then and Zack knew he was likely referring to Mailer and Sephiroth. "I didn't want what happened to happen and I fought," he said. "I didn't fight Rand," he concluded. "Not like that."

"That's how you're judging the situation?" Zack replied flatly. "You didn't want him to do what he did, Spikey," he stated firmly.

"I don't know," Cloud tried to claim and Zack's eyes widened at the response.

"Yes, you do," he argued.

Cloud shook his head again. He didn't know how to explain and make sense of what he was feeling for Zack. "Things were complicated...I could see how it could be confusing from his perspective too," he said and Zack looked ready to either laugh or throw something. "Look, even if everything he did was wrong..." He paused to take a deep breath and looked at Zack straight. "What am I supposed to do if I know his intentions weren't to hurt me?" he questioned seriously. "What if he really is sorry? What if he thought there was something more between us and I just didn't make my thoughts clear? Maybe like it or not, whether I had an implant inside my head, or not, we still ended up forming some kind of relationship, even if it was a screwed up one. One that I participated in because on some level I was actually okay with that."

Zack looked away from him then, clearing his throat a little like he completely disagreed and was trying to keep from blowing up at him.

"There's already so much I—we, have had to live with when it comes to Hojo and the experiments and all the torture. That's been hard enough. This whole other thing with Rand…I think it's killing me to fight against what my mind wants to believe more than it would kill me to just accept it," Cloud concluded and waited for Zack's response, only it didn't seem like one was coming. Zack was leaning back again in his chair with his arms crossed tightly as he stared out the window next to the table. "Are you going to say anything?" he asked Zack after a moment.

"What the hell am I supposed to say?" Zack retorted angrily.

"So you're just going to be pissed with me then," Cloud spoke of what seemed obvious and he put his face in his hands to rub at it tiredly. He felt like crying but at the same time didn't feel he had enough emotional or even physical energy to do it.

"I am...upset, in general," Zack said. "I don't agree with what you seem to want or need to accept and tell yourself." He forced himself to face Cloud again. "But I wasn't in your shoes and I'm scared that I'm going to lose you if I don't just go along with whatever you want me to," he explained.

"I'm not asking that of you," Cloud replied softly. He meant it.

Zack sighed a little as he uncrossed his arms. He leaned forward once more and put his elbow on the table, resting his chin in his hand. "I'm here for you," he said. "That's not going to change. But I don't think for a second Rand was confused about what he was doing with you. I think he used your vulnerability against you so that he could have what he wanted. That's it," he said shrugging. "And, I'm really disappointed that you're not going to tell me what was on that recording—"

"It was an apology," Cloud finally told him. "A goodbye. That's it." It wasn't the whole truth but it was truth.

It prompted a light scoff from Zack. "You think he meant it?" he asked.

"I don't know," Cloud said and Zack appeared immediately skeptical.

"Really?"

"It sounded like he meant it. I think I want to believe he did…" Cloud told him a little hesitantly. "I don't want to want that," he added sadly. "I'm sorry," he said to Zack. "I don't know that anything I do or what I think is, or ever could be right at this point."

Zack gave him a small smile meant to comfort him. "Whatever helps you get through the days and nights, Spikey, that's probably what's right for you," he suggested.

"Yeah, right," Cloud agreed a little dully. "We'll see."

"Well," Zack said then, sitting himself up straight again. "That better be the last little surprise from that asshole. Whatever you need to tell yourself to be able to move on from what happened and to have the life you deserve, Spike…I mean, I guess I support that," he said, though it was hard for him to imagine Cloud taking some kind of ownership or admitting some kind of willing participation in what Rand put him through.

"Thanks," Cloud said.

He appreciated the support from Zack. Really it was everything to him, but…moving on? That could be tricky. The thing Rand had offered up to him in his recording felt like a pretty big road block in front of him…

"There's something I want you to have, if you wish to have it, the project shares I obtained from the investors pertaining to you as an asset belonging to Shinra. I should think they mean relatively nothing at this point, in a legal sense, given the project no longer exists and your freedom has been given back to you."

"Still, should you have any question in your mind about whether the company may try in the future to claim some kind of ownership of you again or to resume project operations with your participation, willing or otherwise, having possession of those shares or transferring possession into the hands of someone you trust could be of vital importance. The paperwork is proof of what the company once believed they had a right to and saw fit to reduce you to."

"Setting that aside, I want you to have them because I want you to know that having ownership of you, even a portion, was not what mattered to me. You were not just a product or asset to me. Not just the participant of a project. I am sorry for the things I did. The things I had to do and the choices I made that hurt you. You don't have to worry about ever seeing me again. All I want is for you to be happy and to be able to make the most of the life you've been given back."

"I've given instructions to my lawyer in Junon that the shares are to be transferred to you legally should you decide that's what you want. In order to take possession, you'll need to appear in person at the law office of Garton and Gaspard and present identification but that's all that would be required besides a simple signature. My signature for transfer's already been given. The lawyer's name is Wally Gaspard."

"There's no time limit or expiry date for this offer, however should someone find my body and I'm declared legally deceased and you've yet to take possession of the shares, temporary possession will be held by my lawyer. You will still be able to have the shares transferred to you from him. I have the utmost trust in that. Of course, should you decide to decline the offer that's entirely your choice. I'll miss you very much, Cloud, and our time together. I hope one day you can find it in your heart to forgive me."