Notes: Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed, and again, especially to Lisa and Stacey! I've had a lot of fun writing this, and I hope to be able to write more stories about the Pre-Nibelheim time period.


He could feel the desperation, the hopelessness, that was choking the air, clouding and corroding it. He was not sure why it was there. It was as if there was a veil over all that he knew and had known. Everything seemed unreal, as a dream. Maybe it was a dream. . . . But some things still felt authentic.

There was a voice, a familiar voice, pleading, calling desperately to him. And he could feel air being thrust into his lungs.

"Come on, Seph! I'm not giving up on you yet! You've gotta wake up! You've just gotta!"

He still wanted to live. He wanted to accept the breath that was being offered to him. It was as if he was tumbling over a cliff and someone had thrown a rope. He reached for that rope, strained for it. It seemed just out of his grasp. But his rescuer let it down another couple of feet and he was able to snatch the very end of it.

He gasped, his eyes flying open as he drew in the needed oxygen. As it rushed into his body, the blood suddenly rose in his throat as well. He turned his head to the side, coughing, struggling to get it out.

"Seph! Hey, I knew you had to still be in there, old pal!"

Blearily he looked up, seeing a spiky-haired brunet leaning over him. He was grinning with relief, despite his weary and worn-out appearance and the traces of tears still on his face.

"Zack. . . ."

"Yep." Zack moved back slightly, pressing a cloth against the wound. "You're gonna be okay, Seph. You're gonna be just fine."

He closed his eyes wearily, allowing his friend's voice and his gentle actions to carry him into unconsciousness.

The beeping noises were what he became aware of first. They were irritating and incessant, with always the same, exact sound over and over again. Were they what had awakened him? Actually . . . how long had he been asleep? He did not recall the moment when he had dozed. And where was he?

Slowly he opened his eyes. Everything was a confused blur of whites and grays, and it was too bright. He winced, shutting his eyes again.


Zack. . . . He turned his head slightly towards the sound of the other's voice. "Turn down the light," he mumbled.

"Sure thing." In a moment he heard a click, and he could tell that the glow had diminished by the way it fell on his eyelids. "Is that better?"

He opened his eyes again, cautiously. Now the room was lit as if by a nightlight. He relaxed into the soft pillow, nodding slowly in acknowledgment. "Where are we?" Obviously he was laying in some kind of bed, and it felt like he was bound in some way. Idly he glanced down, seeing that his left arm was in a sling and that there were bandages around his chest and up over his left shoulder, wrapping around to his back.

"The Shinra medical center at the Western continent's base," Zack answered grandly, leaning an arm on the bed's railing. Then he gave the other a mock stern look. "You've really kept everybody on our toes! First I find you and you die in my arms. Then some of the other SOLDIERs try to help me get you onto the helicopter to take you here, and for a minute you act again like you aren't breathing. And when we get you here, we find out you need a blood transfusion. So then your body acts for a while like it won't accept that." He shook his head. "Oh yeah, not to mention that for a while, they wondered if there'd been poison on the sword you were impaled with. There wasn't, by the way."

Now he paused. "And you're supposed to wear that sling for a while, probably at least a couple weeks," he added. "Rakesh really did a number on you! You're just lucky he didn't break your collarbone. It did get scratched pretty bad." He shuddered a bit. Seph was lucky to be alive, after everything he had gone through. Though of course, they both were.

Sephiroth nodded, frowning. It was hard for his tired mind to process all of what Zack was saying. But the memories were slowly coming back. He remembered being locked in combat with Rakesh, and the other's sword being driven into his body. He recalled Rakesh deliberately pushing through the railing to kill himself, and that then he, Sephiroth, had tried to get down the stairs when they had suddenly broken. Recollections of Zack finding him were still fuzzy in his mind, though it did seem as though it had happened, and that Sephiroth had felt himself slipping away at that point.

"I died," he repeated, looking at Zack questioningly.

"Yep." Zack nodded, pointing a finger at him in emphasis. "And I couldn't get you back for a while. You scared the heck out of me."

Sephiroth looked up at the ceiling again, thoughtfully, trying to remember. The memories teased him, dancing past too quickly for him to fully take hold of them. It was frustrating.

He glanced back to Zack after a moment. "You . . . you were trying to revive me," he said slowly.

Zack smirked mischievously. "And that," he declared, "is the only time I'll ever have my lips against yours."

Sephiroth grunted. "How long has it been?"

Zack leaned back in the chair. "This would be the third day," he said. Now his exhausted appearance was apparent. His hair was even more wild than usual, his eyes were bloodshot, and there were dark circles under them. There was a bandage on his cheek, and another on his right arm. Various bruises were also visible, and several places on his skin looked sore, perhaps from the electropoles.

"You haven't slept," Sephiroth accused.

"Sure I have." Zack continued to grin, and despite the fact that he looked ready to drop, the relief and joy in his eyes was clear. "Just not very much." He placed his hands behind his head.

Sephiroth used his right hand to push himself up further on the bed, using the pillow as a support for his back. "What happened with Dalton and the rest of the townspeople?" he asked. His long hair fell around him, slipping over his shoulders as he moved.

"Well, Dalton's alive, he just has a bad headache. He and the other villagers who made it out alive are being held in a Shinra-owned prison." Zack started to stretch, hearing his tired muscles crack and pop. "Worst fate for them, you know. Maybe we should just keep them there."

"They might orchestrate a prison break," Sephiroth pointed out sarcastically.

"Too true." Zack looked back to the other. "But if Shinra can't keep them in check, then what are we coming to?" He spoke lightly, his tone relaxed. Sephiroth was awake, and already trying to sit up even though he probably should not. That meant he was feeling a lot better. Everything was going to be alright.

". . . Was it ever discovered who actually did kill that villager?"

Zack shook his head. "Nope. Some SOLDIERs have been looking into it. All they know is that the guy wasn't one of the prisoners. Some of the townspeople identified him." He frowned. "And the knife that was used belongs to Dalton, as well as the brick the guy was holding."

Sephiroth frowned as well. Would Dalton have been so desperate to incense the people against them that he would have committed murder, destroying the life of one of those whom he was supposed to protect? Or could it have been an accident? But there was the mystery of the missing brick. That indicated that maybe the act had been premeditated, that maybe Dalton had placed it in the man's hand after killing him.

Now the silver-haired man was silent for a moment, continuing to ponder as well as to gather his strength. "What's going to happen to the girl, Maryn?"

Before Zack could answer, a soft knock came at the door. Then it was slowly pushed open, and the child shyly peeked in.

The brunet smiled over at her. "Hey, come in!" he said. "Seph's awake!"

Maryn brightened, coming in further and going over to the right side of the bed. "We've been really worried about you, Mr. Sephiroth!" she declared. Hesitantly she reached out, hugging him quickly before pulling back, a soft blush coming across her features.

Slowly Sephiroth laid his hand on his head, again looking to Zack with questions in his eyes. What was she doing here, at the base? He glanced back to the girl. "How did you come to be here?" he asked.

She looked up into his green eyes with her own. "Everybody had to leave Dismal," she explained, "and Zack said I could come here for a little bit, until we knew if you were gonna be okay." And while she had been very frightened for Sephiroth's well-being, she had also been very worried for Zack, as well. After the rough beating he had taken, and nearly being killed by being hanged, he had found that his best friend was gravely wounded. She had wanted to be there for him, to try to offer whatever comfort she possibly could. Zack had tried to be strong for her during the past days, but she had been able to easily tell that his heart had been aching.

Zack nodded in agreement. "It turns out Maryn here has an aunt living in Kalm," he announced. "And she said she'd be happy to have Maryn come live with her."

"She's really nice!" Maryn chirped. "And Zack said maybe you and he could come visit sometimes!"

"Maybe." Sephiroth looked to Zack. "But right now, you should get some sleep before you pass out," he said in a flat tone.

Zack was unable to stifle a yawn. "I'm okay," he said then, rubbing at his eyes. He could not deny that sleep sounded wonderful. His body was aching, still not recovered from all the events in Dismal. And it had not helped to keep pushing himself afterwards. It had been a very long, torturous three days, waiting to know if Sephiroth would live or die. It seemed like it had been yesterday when the other's condition finally stabilized, but he was not sure. Everything ran together as one, agonizing experience.

He had watched over Sephiroth almost constantly during that time, once he had been allowed to see the silver-haired man. Maryn had been with him at some points, but he had not wanted her to be there much. She was too young to have to worry about being in a location as potentially grim as a hospital, and to see Seph laying so weak and still in the bed, when he might not survive.

He had wanted to believe that Sephiroth would survive, that he would wake up and be fine. After all, he had come as far as he had. He had to make it the rest of the way. But there had still been times that he had wondered, that he had worried, that Seph could still die. It had been agonizing, to watch him looking pale and half-dead, and to remember when he had not been breathing. Zack did not think he had ever felt despair as acutely as he had when Sephiroth had not responded to Zack's efforts to resuscitate him.

But over the past few hours, he had definitely improved. Before he had finally regained consciousness, the color had come back to his flesh and he had looked as if he was sleeping normally. Zack had then finally began to feel that it would be more likely that Seph would be alright. And now he was certain of it.

"Sleep." Sephiroth's voice was commanding as he sternly looked at the other.

Zack looked back, amused as he was dragged back to the present. He would never tell Seph the depth of the feelings he had experienced since first finding him laying in the prison. That was not the kind of friendship that they had. Theirs was better---Seph knew anyway, without Zack having to say anything.

"Is that an order?" he said now, playfully. "We're the same rank."

"It's an order anyway."

Zack gave him a mock salute. "Yes, sir!" he said. He stood up, stretching again, and then walked to the empty bed in the room. Slowly he sank down on it, relaxing into the softness of the mattress. It felt so good, especially after everything that had been taking place. And now he could fully enjoy it. . . .

Maryn giggled softly at their banter. "I'll be quiet," she said, sitting down on a nearby chair.

But Zack was already, peacefully, asleep.

Sephiroth watched him, nodding approvingly. "He deserves a good rest," he said, half to himself.

Maryn nodded as well. "I'm really glad I got to meet him, and you too, Mr. Sephiroth!" she added quickly.

He smiled slightly.

"I wish you and Zack could take me to Kalm," she said now. "It'll be a really long trip, and I won't know anyone. . . ." Of course, someone or another would be appointed to see that she would arrive safely. But she could not deny that she wanted more than anything for it to be Zack and Sephiroth, people she already knew and cared about, and trusted.

Sephiroth leaned back, thoughtful now. "We'll have to see," he answered. He would not promise anything. But, if there was not any immediate need to return to Midgar, then perhaps they would be able to make a stop in Kalm first. He would not be able to be actively involved in combat for a while, so it was unlikely that he would be sent on any missions in the next few weeks.

Maryn brightened. That he would consider the idea was good enough for her.

Sephiroth pushed himself down so that he was laying with his head on the pillow again. He was still exhausted himself, and he had probably spoken too much too soon. Not that he would admit it. But a natural sleep was sounding very appealing. He closed his eyes. He would just rest them for a few minutes.

Before he could stop himself, he had dozed.