Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII? Not mine.


Lately, Cloud could see the Geostigma out of the corner of his eye, encroaching upon the neatly freckled slope of his nose. He tried to tell himself that it was a smudge of dirt, and that he could easily wipe it off whenever he wanted. After the first few nights of scouring fiercely at the darkness on his body however, he was less convinced.

So, the swordsman slid his sunglasses over his eyes and rode Fenrir toward the Highwind, hoping to hijack it and spend all of his time hiding out in the Forgotten Capital, then maybe Nibelheim. He'd spent too much time hiding under the covers in his room already. The submarine docked just outside of Junon took Cloud and his motorcycle to the western continent, and he rode north toward the distant mountain range that marked Nibelheim. Rocket Town would be just beyond.

The town's arched gateway was in his sight, rapidly growing larger as he came ever closer, when something- an image, a memory- flashed in front of his eyes. Fenrir's wheels slid out from underneath him, and he was sent spinning through the dirt, coughing and gasping as his blackened skin scraped the ground.

The image flashed again, and this time he could make out the ShinRa training center in Midgar, and a familiar black-haired figure standing over him.

He hadn't realized until after the memory had gone again that he'd squeezed his eyes shut against the excruciating pain in his limbs. His sunglasses had fallen off and lay feet away, covered in a layer of dirt. The left lens was cracked vertically, spreading in little veins toward the edges. His fingers stretched vaguely, reaching out for them, but another hand, encased in a black leather glove, got to them first- picked them up gently and offered them to the fallen man.

He slipped the sunglasses back on, muttering a small thank you, forgetting the Geostigma that crept up his neck on across his cheek as he turned his face up toward his new company. His mako-eyes widened behind the mismatched lenses.

"Zack."

The SOLDIER's face softened as he stared down at the blonde swordsman. "You've really got it bad, don't you?" He sighed, reached down to lift the other to his feet.

Cloud could only stare dumbfounded. His mind searched for something to say desperately, and he wet his lips before whispering pathetically, "The Geostigma's back…"

Zack grinned at his answer, and even managed a chuckle when a pink flush spread across the untainted portion of the younger man's face. But the seriousness came back full force a moment later. "Jenova wants to bring Seph back, then. How far has it spread?"

After a moment, Cloud unzipped and pulled off his turtleneck to reveal the severity of his condition to his companion.

"Oh."

The blackness started just above his navel, covering his entire right half and spreading across the plain of his back. The Stigma enveloped his shoulders and reached up his neck, finally ending halfway up the bridge of his nose. Sickly stems of the poison stretched from the edges at least four inches in every direction.

Wincing, Cloud pulled the sweater back on and zipped it back up. There was silence while the reunited friends stared at each other.

"Zack… Is this real? I mean…" He chuckled sadly, pitifully. "When I saw you and Aeris the day Sephiroth came back, I didn't know if it was real or not. Am I hallucinating?" His voice broke.

Strong arms pulled him forward and he was surrounded by the warmth only another human could provide.

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

But quite suddenly they were somewhere else. Dirt rose in clouds underneath Zack's boots as he ran, screaming his name, and there was pain filling up every inch of him. His arms barely held him above the ground. Above the roaring of blood and mako in his ears, he heard the gunshots. Through tears, he watched Zack fall. The soldiers hung over him for a moment as his arms gave underneath him, speaking in loud tones.

Then they were gone, and he was drawing on any strength that Hojo's experiments hadn't sapped from him, crawling toward the body at the edge of the cliff with tears running in rivulets down his cheeks. The only thing he managed out of his throat as he reached his fallen friend was a confused, crestfallen, "Zack…"

He could see the mako all around, filling every cavity in his body, stinging his eyes. His neck was sore and bruised from the injections of---

"Cloud, c'mon, buddy. Stay with me."

Slowly, Cloud nodded, letting himself slip back into reality. Zack's hands slid to his shoulders, and the glow of their eyes found each other.

"I just wanted to let you know it wasn't your fault… Before…"

The fair-haired warrior saw something flash in the older man's eyes before Zack lowered his head, and was filled briefly with fear. "Before what?"

It was then that the pain overcame him, and he watched the world tip and the ground rise before landing in a fetal position. Dirt ascended to hang about his face. When it cleared, he look up to try to find Zack again, squinting through the hurt, but he wasn't there. Tears slid unbidden from his eyes. An erratic, panicked series of buzzes erupted in his ears as he watched the Geostigma on his skin ooze horribly in time with his pulse. His lips parted to let a thick, bubbling mixture of saliva, blood, and the Stigma's blackness stream out.

Green tendrils of Lifestream began to flit about him, tentative at first. He watched as they swallowed his feet. Slowly, he disappeared, fading away at the touch of the green wisps, until there was nothing left.

When he opened his eyes again, the first thing he saw was Aeris, watching him over her shoulder with sparkling green eyes. Uncertainty laced her smile, and as she turned to face him the gesture faltered. Their fingertips met and they shared a moment of desperate confusion.

"I'm… dead."

"The Planet," she rushed, lacing her fingers inside of his. "It said it was your time. You were Sephiroth's last chance…"

Images flashed through his head: Kadaj, post-Sephiroth, lunging at him to kill him and falling into his arms instead (there goes another one); one giant black wing wrapping around his former General; watching the dumbfounded man fall to his very first death while he ignored the burning pain that ripped apart his chest.

At his silence, Aeris dropped her gaze to her feet. "Are... you okay?"

His heart pulled painfully. Living meant Tifa's pretty face, Denzel and Marlene's little-kid antics. Living meant reunions. Living meant that the red ribbon around his arm actually connecting him to something important

But… hadn't he been running away from all of that? Being alive meant running to hide his Geostigma in his past.

"I don't know," he whispered finally. "But at least I can't run away anymore."

She smiled at him, her green eyes lighting up. "Welcome to the Lifestream, Cloud."

As if on cue, someone cleared his throat rather loudly to the swordsman's left. He turned, stepping back. Aeris freed his hands from her own.

Zack stood there, arms crossed over his chest and a charming but guilty grin stretching his mouth. Cloud narrowed his eyes at him, letting his own mouth curve up in an easy but sad smirk.

"I wanted to let you know it wasn't your fault… Before you joined us in the Lifestream. Before you died."


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