Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Square-Enix or Squaresoft or whatever they're calling themselves these days. Even I belong to them. Sephiroth, however, does not belong to them as he is untouchable

Hey! Uh... yeah. Im not even going to make excuses anymore, I feel they are kind of void at this point. But yeah. Be thankful to Gaarahottie who sent me a pleading PM to update this, and I went and had a look at the chapter and managed to finish it off. I even started the next one. Amazing, ne? Heh heh...

I love that peoplefelt sorry for the raptor. I felt sorry for the raptor too and it made me sad for it to die. Also, I loved the Double-Shot Mako Expresso I recieved courtesy of Constance Truggle; I think it made it into the fic. Anyway, enough rambling. On with the fic!

Chapter 19; The Aftermath

The hulk of Junon gleamed in the morning sun as Zack, Reno and Cloud trudged across earth hardening from the sun's rays. The last stretch of land between the forest and the spire of Junon seemed impossibly long, like one of those dreams where the corridors were never ending and you could never quite reach the door.

What made it worse was that the sun was now shining down on them directly for the first time since they'd started the venture, having travelled at night so far. This made them extremely wary as the monsters were a lot more active and moved more swiftly during the day. They were walking as fast as they could, but with their gear in pieces and having to pretty much drag Reno, who seemed to be coming down with sunstroke, they weren't going anywhere fast.

It was about midday when they first heard the telltale hissing around them that made it very tempting to look over their shoulders and cautionary stuff like that. The snakes attacked out of nowhere, two of them, about twice as tall as Cloud and with a mouthful of glittering fangs.

"Ah, damn!" Zack cried as they began running. "They're baby Zoloms!"

"What's a Zolom?" Cloud yelled at him, frantically trying to keep all the gear together and not leave any more of it trailing behind.

The snakes chased them and nipped at their heels for so long that they began to run out of breath, and Cloud could feel the buzz of the mako subsiding, which meant that Zack and Reno's had probably died down a couple of hours ago.

"We're going to have to fight them!" Zack yelled, and Cloud looked at him like he had two heads.

Fight them? In the state they were in at the moment? Reno was practically unconsious, he was hanging off of Zack's arm! There was no way they could take down two pretty strong monsters with only him and Zack, especially since their health was abysmally low.

"Are you insane?"

"What, you see any other option?" Zack cried back. "They aren't going to stop chasing us, and I can't run for much longer!"

"But we're almost there!" Cloud yelled and it was true, they could see the very gates of Junon now, black and inviting, but really, it wasn't terribly likely that they'd even make it there.

How utterly embarrassing, Cloud thought angrily. Having made it all this way under such crippling circumstances, it was almost laughable that they were to be cut down by a couple of baby snakes fifty meters from the finishing line. Mind working furiously, he prayed to the planet that someone would pass and see them in time to break out the Pheonix Downs. Otherwise they would be seriously screwed.

"Argh! Fine!" He said, and as one Zack and he dropped their respective burdens and spun to face the snakes, swords out and taking up the standard battle positions next to each other.

The snakes paused, apparently taking in the fact that their prey was putting up a fight now. One of them hissed, wide mouthed, and Cloud grit his teeth as the fangs dripped steaming saliva onto the grass, burning it and making the grass shrivel and spit. The acrid smell was acidic and sharp with the tang of mako making Cloud's nose sting, but he blinked the reflex away. Sneezing right now would be very unhelpful.

They fought hard, trading powerful blows with the monsters that left injuries on both sides. Unfortunately, the monsters clearly had the upper hand, and several times Zack and Cloud had to jump in front of the prone form of Reno, taking a blow that was meant for him.

They were running out of time.

Breathing heavily, Cloud gulped down his last potion and dodged a lashing tail as it flicked out at him. "No more potions." He gasped to Zack, who was in the process of swiping his sword at the head of the other snake.

"Damn! And Reno's got the Cure materia as well." Zack panted, leaping over the body of the other boy to escape the counter attack the baby Zolom had responded with.

Cloud swept an arm over his eyes, wiping the sweat away and focussing once more on the enemies. One of the snakes was badly injured, weaving a little and bleeding copiously from the throat, but the other barely had a scratch. Even the wounded snake was still extremely dangerous, spitting it's poison at Zack and hitting him in his side, over a slash in his uniform.

Zack doubled over, clutching his side and groaning, his skin taking on a green tinge. The poison began its slow toll on him, his strength waning. Cloud glanced over at his teammate, checking if the other boy was okay, but in doing so made his critical mistake and took his eyes off of the monster.

A crippling pain caught him in the side of his head as the Zolom's upper body smashed into his, the fangs of the snake scraping across his skull and ripping open his scalp. Yelling in pain, he knocked the snake away but the swipe was weak and he could feel himself getting dizzy with blood loss. Then the poison in the bite kicked in and he felt himself retch with nausea, lightheaded and barely able to keep himself from throwing up on the grass.

He never saw the tail swipe to the head coming, and as the world faded to black Cloud couldn't summon a single coherent thought.

The soft sounds of murmuring voices, the faint beeping of electronics somewhere a little way off and the overly clean, sterile smell of the room told Cloud that without a doubt he was back in the Infirmary.

His head was swimming alarmingly even with his eyes closed, it felt like the bed was rolling about underneath him and nausea was washing over him in waves, his stomach clearly having a field day with all its bouncing around and churning. He vaguely wondered why he couldn't taste the remains of Coolant in his mouth, running his tongue over his teeth and finding a distinct lack of small blue crystals. There was something different, something not quite right about all this, his symptoms were far above and beyond what he usually had to endure on such occasions of waking up in the infirmary.... Something was wrong.

Then suddenly it all came rushing back.

"Zack!" Cloud gasped, eyes flying wide open and sitting up in bed, regretting it a moment later when a massive headrush caused his vision to swim alarmingly and a nearby assistant to approach his bed.

"Are you alright?" The man asked, putting a hand on Cloud's shoulder to steady him. Gulping and fighting nausea, Cloud nodded and scanned the beds around him, looking for his dark-haired friend.

There was no sign of him. "Um, sir? Is my friend here?" He asked the medical assistant, who strode to the end of the bed and picked up his chart, flicking through it.

"Lets see... would this be Reno Kisaragi?"

"Reno's here?" Cloud exclaimed, and sure enough he could see a flash of red hair on the other side of the ward. "Uh no, actually he's my other teammate."

"Ah. So I presume you meant Corporal Zack Fair?" Cloud nodded. "He was here until this morning, but his injuries were much less serious than yours and he was removed from the ward and sent back to classes. I understand you just got back from your midyear exam?"

"Y-yeah." Cloud said, lying back down and allowing the relief of being horizontal to calm his body into something resembling normality. The dizzying effects of the headrush faded but the nausea refused to go away, lurking unpleasantly at the back of his throat and in the pit of his stomach like a hungry wolf. He raised a shaking hand to his head and pushed the damp blond spikes away from his uncomfortably hot skin.

The medic watched him with a cold eye. "Yes, you may be feeling unwell. We think you may have contracted some type of mako-based disease from one of the creatures that attacked you. It is as yet unidentified however, and the effects of it are making your return to classes unadvisable. I'm afraid you will have to stay here until the medics diagnose the problem." Cloud's sentanc pronounced, the man strode away to another part of the ward.

Cloud closed his eyes in frustration. He was stuck here? For the forseeable future? Well that was just great. He had just been improving in his classes, finally making fruend, or at least avoiding enemies, and he was suddenly pulled out. He didnt even know whether Zack, Reno and he had passed the exam or not! Frowning, he tried to think back to the final moments of consciousness on the mission.

They had been just metres away from the gates of Junon, he remembered. Zack and Reno had been out for the count, then Cloud had got bitten in the side of the head by those snake things... and passed out. How in Gaia's name had they actually managed to survive that, let alone make it back to the gates and to the infirmary?

It was reminding Cloud worryingly of the effects of his Mako overdose.

For the next few hours, Cloud was stuck in the bed, watching the comings and goings of the hospital staff. He saw Reno come round from his pain-induced slumber, saw the medics test and then Cure his broken leg, leaving him gingerly hobbling around the ward. He didn't seem to see Cloud, and was too far away for Cloud to call to him to say hello. Within half an hour of his waking, Reno was out of the door of the infirmary, leg still a little fragile but healed enough to allow him to continue classes.

Cloud was not so lucky however and as the day stretched on he felt himself slipping into a state of lethargy caused by being forced to stay in bad all day. He didn't really have much choice in the matter however, the couple of times he had attempted to remove himself from his cotton prison the walls had seemed to swim alarmingly and the floor threatened to leap up and smack him in the face. There had been a couple of doctors who inspected the chart at the foot of his bed but they had ignored his questing eyes and simply walked off again without providing any new information.

As the sun set outside the windows of the ward and the artificial lights turned themselves on in flickering sequence, Cloud cast around for anything to keep himself occupied. The remaining patients seemed to be night-stays only and the few doctors still around were content to huddle at their desk spaces in the corner of the overly-large room and let the single nurse do the round every half an hour.

Cloud had just resigned himself to a night of forcing soporific oblivion on a body that hadn't done enough to be tired when the infirmary doors slipped open quietly and a very unwelcome figure entered the room.

With mounting apprehension Cloud followed the slightly hunched figure with his eyes as it crossed the room to the desks of the doctors on duty, making every effort to hide his distinctive blond spikes in the nestle of blankets and pretending as hard as he could to be asleep. It was no use however and within moments his ears picked up the sound of two sets of footsteps approaching.

He managed to feign sleep right up until the point when the first step of footsteps was right by his head. Opening his eyes he wearily sat up, eyeing the man standing not two feet away from him and trying to suppress his nervousness.

Professor Hojo raised one black brow at Cloud and tilted his head to the side as if he were studying a particularly rare insect. The man's glasses were slipping down his long nose as usual and beady black eyes pinned Cloud with interest like a sharp spike. Shifting uneasily, Cloud fought to keep the scientist's gaze.

A cough reminded them both of the other doctor's presence and what was quickly developing into a staring contest was broken as both heads turned to look at the other man, who looked a little surprised at the sudden attention. "Ah, Private Strife, Professor Hojo has expressed an interest in your condition after I told him of the symptoms. If you could detail the circumstances of your illness he may be able to help you."

Silence fell, and the doctor seemed unsure as to the cause. Of course, the man couldn't know the history that Professor Hojo and Cloud already, the fact that Cloud was dreading saying anything to the scientist. Only a quirked eyebrow on Hojo's part and the knowledge that it had to come out at some point forced Cloud into providing a response.

"I feel... sick. And hot. Whenever I try to get up I get dizzy." He muttered through clenched teeth, and Hojo's blank face spawned just a hint of a smirk.

"I see. Were there any significant events that preceeded these feelings? That you can recall?"

"I got bitten by a monster as we neared the end of the exam. I passed out." Don't mention the mako overdose. If anything else, the regular doctors shouldn't know about it.

No one should.

Hojo was still looking blank, but Cloud could see a faint flicker of somehting in the scientist's eyes and wondered if the man was containing himself until they were out of the company of the doctor. He could feel the edges of a headache that had been threatening for a couple of hours now just working their way round the his temples and he resisted the urge to rub his forehead, preferring not to show any weakness in from of the doctor and professor. Hojo must have seen something in his expression though because the man suddenly quirked his thin lips and tilted his head.

"I should like to perform a blood test Doctor. Please get me the equipment and then leave me." Hojo spoke without inflection and Cloud saw the doctor frown at his orders, but the Professor turned his head slightly to gaze at the other man and within moments the doctor was scuttling away, cowed by the stare and the reminded or Professor Hojo's higher status.

Hojo approached the bed slowly and Cloud fought the instinct to edge away from the man. Stay calm. Stay calm. He chanted in his head, trying to keep composure. He really didn't like the way the scientist was looking at him.

"High levels of mako were found in your bloodstream, Strife. Concentrated. Along with the strain of venom from that beast outside the gates it is no wonder you feel unwell." A grim smirk on his face, Hojo suddenly extended one white hand like a serpent striking and brushed a strand of hair away from Cloud's face, dragging across his skin as he went.

The burning sensation was not entirely unexpected, but dread filled Cloud as he pulled away from the Professor's fingers sharply, sucking in a pained breath as fire erupted across his skull from the touch, agonising and entirely too familiar.

"No..." Cloud gasped as the pain faded. "Not again. I don't want it again!"

"I'm afraid your 'wants' are not taken into account." Hojo said nastily. "Mako Poisoning gets progressively more intense and damaging each successive time a person contracts it, so you body has been affected even worse than last time, which is why you are suffering these extra side-effects. The poison in the venom has also taken a toll on your immune system, meaning it will be more difficult to maintain a stable level of health."

"How can I make it go away?" It was a futile question, they both knew, but Cloud asked it anyway beause his head bloody hurt and Hojo was smiling entirely too much.

"You can't." The expected answer. "We must wait until Sephiroth is available, unfortunately." Hojo began to move away, then turned back and watched him. "I will provide a medicine for the doctors to keep your condition from declining until an appointment can be made."

Great. Cloud thought bitterly.

There was a bright white light surrounding him as he floated through the void, cushioned against the dark by the softness. He felt... hollow, but calm, as if all his emotional ability had been removed along with everything else in his mind. He could hear very faint voices on the edge of his consciousness, and felt his arms and legs being moved as if dragging through treacle.

There was a very slight pinch to the skin on his arm, barely enough to register and the equivalent of poking himself lightly with a mechanical pencil. Cloud vaguely remembered doing that a couple of weeks ago to Zack whilst they were practicing. It had been funny, Zack pouting overdramatically and all three of them had laughed happily. Cloud giggled a little at the memory, and his brain felt like cotton wool as he tried to work out why the giggle had made his chest hurt slightly. Where was he?

The infirmary. Hojo. The sudden flash of memory made Cloud's eyes open, trying to sit up but unable to move a muscle. There was still the fogginess pervading his mind and his eyes rolled wildy in his head, trying to make sense of the images of who stood around him. There were a number of white coats, metal tools and hands holding his body down, which Cloud thought was a stupid idea seeing as he couldn't feel a thing. Then one white coat turned Cloud's arm over with a touch too light for Cloud to feel, baring the boy's wrist, and pushed a syringe into it.

Cloud felt the burning-freezing spread up his arm, giving him an odd prickling sensation until it reached his chest area, where the unpleasant prickling was replaced by something far worse. In seconds, every muscle in his body went from lax and gooey to hyper-tension, painful in it's intensity. The pain shocked some sense back into Cloud's mind, and his eyes widened. Now the reason for the doctors holding him down became clear. His body thrashed, muscles wildly spasming in a way that was far too reminiscent of his mako attacks. There still didn't seem to be any serious pain though, and for some reason sound was completely cut off. He couldn't hear a thing, even though he could see the doctors' lips moving.

Scanning those around him with the little sense he could summon, Cloud was relieved to see that Professor Hojo was not among them. Was it safe to assume then that this spasm attack was not his doing then? Cloud doubted it somehow. There had been nothing like this the last time he had contracted Mako Poisoning, even taking into account the apparent increase in symptoms the Professor had predicted.

His muscles seized again and this time his throat constricted in a way which meant his breath was cut off, leaving him gaping and screwing his eyes up at the pain in his chest. He felt rather than saw the flurry of activity as doctors noticed his plight and tried to reopen his airways, but the blackness was enroaching too far on the edges of his vision and he passed out.

The next time Cloud awoke there was far less of a fogginess in his mind than before. He still felt exhausted, without the energy to even lift a hand, but he managed to force his eyes to flicker open, dazedly looking around. The infirmary was nearly empty, there was little light coming in form outside and most patients seemed to be asleep, the little he could see of them. Looking down his own body, he saw that his hand was being held, an odd thing to notice as he couldn't feel any sensation from them. Following the arm up the mysterious body he found Zack there, sleeping in a chair beside his bed with his shaggy head rested on his chest, a position which Cloud knew couldn't be comfortable and therefore wouldn't have been possible for the other boy unless he had been very, very tired.

Trying to gain some feeling in his hands, Cloud attemped to move his fingers and mentally frowned when they declined to respond. He tried to open his mouth to speak but his lips wouldn't part, wouldn't even twitch, and he felt a twinge of panic that manifested as a low whine coming from his throat.

Zack seemed to wake instantly, eyes flicking immediately to Cloud's own and the sight of the blond's consiousness seemed to make Zack overjoyed. "Cloud!" He said loudly, then ducked his head and looked round the otherwise quiet infirmary. He continued in a lower tone. "Gaia, Cloud am I glad to see you awake. I've been pulling my hair out in worry over you little buddy. And that's not a good thing." He gave Cloud a mock-stern look, breaking into quiet laughter but frowning when Cloud didn't respond in any way other than to continue staring at him. "Cloud? You are awake, right?"

Cloud was fighting, frantically trying to get his body to move, to respond to his best friend, but he remained completely unable to do anything, even turn his head to the side. He let out a breath of frustration that turned into a sound, annoyingly like a whine or a whimper. Then Zack moved to the bed itself, sitting down and looking Cloud in his face, making Cloud glad he didn't have to strain his eyes to the right anymore.

"Hey Spike, you having trouble talking?" Cloud made the sound again, hoping Zack would understand. The boy didn't let him down. "That's okay. Just squeak like that for yes, and twice for no, kay?" Cloud did it again, trying to express his irritating at Zack calling the sound a 'squeak' in what was essentially... a squeak. Zack laughed softly. "Aww, poor you Spikey. So, you feeling generally okay? Are you still in pain?"

Cloud squeaked twice. "Good. I won't get the doctors for a bit then. Can you move at all." Twice. "But can you feel your body? Like sense that all the limbs are there and stuff?" Cloud thought about it, then squeaked once. Zack tickled his side gently and grinned when Cloud squeaked in protest. "So you can feel that then? That's good." Zack grinned for a few more moments, then the smile faded. "Cloud... do you know what happened to you?" Unsure of quite how to get his point across, Cloud squeaked twice, slowly. "Uh... so you do... kind of?" One squeak. "Right. Uh, so the doctors said you have advanced Mako Poisoning from having been bitten by a monster... but I think it's not just to do with that, right?"

He gave Cloud a stern look, and Cloud looked away before squeaking once. "Thought so. Also... they say you went into Mako Shock a couple times, which is where your body just shuts down from the pressure it's being put under by the illness." Zack's eyes were sad as he looked away. "They said they'd had to restart your heart twice."

Cloud felt shock ripple though his body, the emotional kind. He... he had been dead? Twice? It was a terrifying thought, because Cloud couldn't help but wonder how much time and energy and equipment the company would pay for him to recieve before the doctors would be given orders not to try and revive him if he died again. How much time did he have left?

Zack seemed to see the fear in Cloud's eyes and stroked his hair, giving Cloud some small measure of comfort even though the crushing terror only receeded slightly. Smiling, although not quite able to make it stretch from ear to ear, Zack changed the subject. "We all passed, you know." Cloud looked at him, forcibly detatching his mind from the train of thought. "Yeah, I know. I thought we were gonna fail for sure, we ran out of time, most people died, you know. I think we nearly did fail actually, the higherups kept looking at us for days. I heard a rumor from some high-up 2nds that some bigshot pointed out to the examiners exactly what kind of fortitude it took to continue in that kind of unavoidable situation, and we got passed with merits all round. As soon as you're better, you can go and get signed up to confirm the pass."

Zack grinned, his smile seeming a little more genuine now. Then he looked around and leaned down to whisper in Cloud's ear conspiritorialy. "Reno's been missing for three days." Alarmed, Cloud flicked his eyes to stare at Zack's face, unsure with how to deal with the unconcernedness presented. Zack chuckled. "It's fine, I know where he is. Lets just say the Turks have... taken an interest in him."

If Cloud could have widened his eyes, he would have. Reno in the Turks? That was... unexpected, but he supposed that it sort of fit. Although, did that mean that they'd never see each other again? Or only when the training was finished? He assumed that that was what they were doing with the redhead. Another laugh from Zack made him refocus on the boy. "I know, wild right? It's pretty awesome, but not as awesome as me!" He gave a grin so wide it was blinding. "You know the three firsts? Angeal, Genesis and Sephiroth, right? Well, Genesis is a bit of a wild card and Sephiroth is... uh, Sephiroth. But Angeal has picked me out for mentoring. Mentoring! You know what that means, Spike? It means I get personal training by him, and get to go on missions with him and stuff... I'm going to be so awesome!"

Cloud smiled inwardly at his friend's enthusiasm, forcing down the dark, hollow feeling in his chest. He was distracted for a moment by an attendant doctor coming over, apparently attracted by Zack's exuberence. "Fair, what did we say about being loud? You know - Oh, you're awake Strife. You should have informed us as soon as he regained consiousness, Fair. Now get out of here, I have to run some tests." Zack pouted at the doctor but grudgingly stood up, giving Cloud's hair a last ruffle, making sure to keep eye contact with the blond at all times. Then he was gone, and Strife was alone with the doctor.

"Can you understand me, Strife?" The doctor asked, and Cloud squeaked. The doctor gave him a weird look. "What... can you not speak?" Cloud squeaked again, wishing that the doctor was as fast to catch on as Zack had been. The man frowned and scratched the back of his head. "Well, that could make things a little problematic. Looking down at his notes, he flicked through them briskly then looked Cloud in the eyes.

"I'm going to be frank with you Strife. I dont know if Fair told you this, but you've been in here for three weeks now. Most of the time you havn't been conscious, and you've had to be revived a total of five times from a variety of causes including your heart stopping and suffocation."

The doctor paused, frowning slightly. "The higher-ups have decided that no more medicine or bed space can be afforded to you, and the doctors have been ordered not to revive you any more." He gave a brittle smile to Cloud, who felt like he was having a heart attack right that moment, his chest was so tight. "So I suggest, Strife, that you make all effort not to die again."

The doctor turned to walk away, but paused and then gave his parting shot. "You do have one ray of hope, however." Cloud felt his heart constrict, in nervousness and anticipation. There was hope? "Professor Hojo has even this afternoon gone to the higher-ups to request that he be allowed to continue treating you. He has been treating you along with the other doctors all along, and seems unwilling to give up on you. You should be grateful to him for trying, even though frankly I do not believe his application will be sucessful."

He left, leaving Cloud alone. There were so many things Cloud felt pressing down on him to deal with that his head spun, making him feel dizzy and sick. There was Zack and Reno, both of whom seemed to be moving on without him, unable to wait for him who floundered around behind whilst their futures beckoned or kidnapped them. Then there was the poisoning, and the fact that he seemed to be getting worse, not better. Was this a result of the combination of infections as Hojo had said?

Where was Sephiroth? Cloud needed him now, if only for the company of another who knew the powerlessness that came from being caught in Hojo's web. Cloud had a sneaking suspicion that Hojo's 'treatment' of him was definitely not for Cloud's benefit, and any 'helping' the Professor was doing with the other doctors was likely to be making Cloud more sick, not less.

And then this ultimatum. There was no way Cloud was recovering on his own, and he was horribly aware that he only had a limited amount of time before his body tried to shut down on him again. Was it better to let go now and die quickly, if not painlessly? Would it be better than being at Hojo's complete mercy, where he could do Gaia-only-knew what to Cloud? Or was it better to have the chance of living somehow later on, if he ever managed to escape the man's clutches?

These questions and a thousand others pressed down on Cloud's mind, and he passed out once more.

AN: So yeah. Yay, finally ended the stupid expedition arc thing. Man, that thing was driving me crazy, I should be able to write more now. As long as Uni doesnt keep sucking my soul out with work. On the plus side however, Im studying Japanese, which means that I will be able to watch RAW anime and manga and so on. Will be very awesome. *nods*

So - dont worry about Sephy-pants. He will be showing up soon, and we will finally get to the relationship part of the fic, odd and dysfunctional as it may turn out to be. Yay! Oh, I missed you guys so much while I was gone.

You know the drill :p Review! Just a "gsfgrhgjkd I love you!" is so appreciated!