Notes: I hope "Iezon's" characterization is alright. Judging from what I've seen of him, I think I'm writing him fairly accurately.

Chapter Five

Sephiroth crossed his arms, his green eyes narrowed as he glared into the night.

He was standing outside the hut that belonged to the village doctor, where he, Cloud, and Sora had immediately brought the wounded once he had transported them all back from the forest. It was typical, even though Zack had been the most gravely injured, he had still insisted that the others be treated first. But the doctor had not listened, and had tended to him anyway.

He could not have protested much, even if he had wanted to. He had lost consciousness shortly after he had been laid on a bed in the hut, which connected directly to the hospital. It was amazing that he had managed to stay aware as long as he had.

For that matter, he was lucky to be alive at all, after what he had gone through and the blood he had lost. His wounds had been tested for infection, and a transfusion administered. Apparently, wherever the physician had come from, he had brought modern medical equipment with him. And, if he was to be believed, Iezon had also assisted.

Sephiroth and Cloud had lingered while Zack had been treated. In a strange location, where the only resident they had previously met had been unfriendly, they did not feel it paranoid. And one positive factor about the small village was that they were not turned away, as they would be at a hospital. Though, Sephiroth thought to himself ironically, hopefully in a hospital they would not feel the need to be present.

Actually, they might both be thrown out of a hospital anyway, even from visiting, just because of their extra appendages. It seemed that prejudice against winged people was increasing, at least back in Hollow Bastion. It was something so rare and strange that many people did not know what to think.

That was one thing Sephiroth had definitely noticed as being different here---neither Iezon or the doctor had batted an eye at him and Cloud. Maybe there were other villagers who were afflicted in such ways, or similar ways. The phrase "fallen into ruin" could be interpreted to mean so many things.

It could be people who had been experimented on, genetically altered, permanently scarred . . . people who had committed heinous crimes . . . people who had life-threatening illnesses. . . . Even all of the above, and more. Though the doctor seemed healthy enough. And Zack had been protecting children. How could children fall into ruin? Maybe only some of the residents had problems, and they blended in well with whatever more normal people had made this place their home.

Sephiroth smirked grimly to himself. No one was really normal, he decided. Not once one became acquainted.

"Thinking about your friend?"

He frowned, his head jerking up at the familiar and unwelcome voice. It was Iezon, calmly and unashamedly walking toward him.

"He is still alive, unlike what you decided," Sephiroth grunted, making no attempt to mask his annoyance both at Iezon's earlier attempts to discourage him and at the current interruption to his reverie. The man was a nuisance.

"So I've heard. You and those with you must be overjoyed."

Sephiroth regarded him coldly. Cloud was with Zack at the moment, and Sora, having sensed that Cloud wanted time alone, had started to wander the village. Sephiroth could see him now, at the other end of it. All the excitement had awakened most of the residents, and it looked like the Keybearer had found one of them to converse with.

"What do you want?" Sephiroth asked at last.

The other had stopped in front of him, his arms also crossed, the hood still concealing his face. Sephiroth still had to wonder if it was completely disfigured underneath the dark cloth.

"I didn't say I wanted anything. But I've wondered about you, in passing." The turquoise eye focused on him. "And you've been wondering about this place, as well."

Sephiroth grunted. This man was certainly blunt. And he seemed to think that he could read Sephiroth well. That sort of attitude was one of the quickest ways to make him irritated, especially from a stranger.

"Those wings aren't typical. Have you been wondering if you belong here, as well?"

Sephiroth deliberately flicked the top wing in irritation. "How can I, when I don't even know what 'fallen into ruin' means?" he retorted.

"What do you think it means?"

"It could mean many things," Sephiroth answered. "It could refer to physical calamities of some kind---illness, mutilation. . . . Or it could pertain to emotional and mental devastation, such as if the person has been treading a pain of sin."

"Or maybe both?"

The hood slipped onto Iezon's shoulders. His skin was raw and red, scarred from unknown causes. His silver hair, a darker shade than Sephiroth's, was chin-length with a long fringe falling over his right eye. Turquoise gleamed from behind the locks, and the completely visible left eye remained fixed on Sephiroth's emotionless stare.

He looked young, really . . . perhaps his early twenties, perhaps a bit older. And his weary eyes, showing the mistakes of one far beyond that age, seemed out of place.

"What happened to you?" Sephiroth asked. It was the fact of him seeming so young that made the former general the most curious. Iezon did not look that much younger than Sephiroth himself had been when hatred had begun to control his heart.

"I was an apprentice to a scientist," he said, but then frowned slightly. "No . . . Ienzo was. That was in another lifetime.

"Ienzo and his associates betrayed the man eventually, taking his research and attempting to expand on it. He had been studying hearts and how they worked . . . not medically, but otherwise. His apprentices took the experimentation much too far, and as a result, one by one, they became Nobodies. Ienzo became Zexion, number six in Organization XIII."

Even though Sephiroth had not planned to be taken by surprise, this was a shock. One of Organization XIII's members was yet alive? All of them were supposed to have died during the war, save only Roxas. How had this one escaped?

"For years it went on in that way, as Organization XIII planned and struggled to become whole again. Then, during an important mission in Castle Oblivion, Zexion was betrayed by another member." His tone darkened. "It wasn't a secret that most of the members did not get along well with each other, but there had not been open betrayal to this extent before these events. His power was drained and he was left for dead.

"Instead, he managed to half-crawl to a back exit and escape. No one ever found him, but they believed that there was nothing to find. And Zexion became Iezon."

Sephiroth frowned deeply. Then this was a man who had nothing. His sins had led to grave consequences. As a Nobody, he was still incomplete, or he perceived himself as such---though Sephiroth had long held the suspicion that Nobodies still felt emotions and pain, even if they had been conditioned to believe that they did not. These turquoise eyes were certainly not empty and blank, the eyes of one who did not or could not feel.

How had he ended up back in the world which he and the other original five had nearly lain waste to? And why? Did he consider it his punishment? He had surely wandered for ages before arriving here, as Sephiroth himself had done during his treacherous year of limbo. But there was a very big difference between Sephiroth and this man. Any friends, if Iezon had held anyone dear, were dead. He was alone.

And yet . . .

"You still have some sort of existence," Sephiroth spoke now. "In this village, the people seem to look up to you. The soldiers were telling me that you've been a valuable strategist and help." He gripped his arms. "You've been granted another chance to pick up the fragments of your life, to try to make amends for the wrong you have done. Don't take it lightly."

Iezon studied him for a moment. "It's the same with you, isn't it?" he mused. "Whatever else you've been through, you're still here. Why are we still in this world?"

Sephiroth stiffened slightly. It reminded him of something Zack had said to him once, "Hey, Seph . . . where there's life, there's hope. I know you don't like being bound to Cloud and all, but it is a second chance for you! To try to make up for what you did, you have to help someone else not mess up the same way." And he had smiled, in his trademark way. "You're not dead, Seph. You're not a ghost. Look, you've got a real body! Your wing's crippled, but it's a sign that you're alive! You've made it through some dark parts in your life, and you've got the opportunity to try again. Not everybody gets that chance, and especially not after they've already died. You're really lucky, Seph." Then he had paused, amending the statement. "No . . . you're really blessed."

Blessed. . . . That was certainly not the way he thought of looking at things. He had attributed it to Zack's endless optimism, but maybe . . . maybe there was truth to it.

He looked back to Iezon, who was still studying him as he waited for a response. "I can't speak for you," he said at last, "but I still have something to live for. No, I don't belong in this village, if it's only for those who have 'fallen into ruin.'"

He pushed himself away from the wall. "I suggest that you ask yourself why you're still alive. You could kill yourself if you wanted to get away badly enough. Instead you've taken on another identity and another life. Why would you, if some part of you did not desire to keep existing in whatever way you could?"

Iezon watched him in silence before slowly pulling up the dark hood again. "Sometimes, I wonder," he said.

They were a strange pair---two men who had brought grief and agony upon themselves, in various ways. And while their experiences and how they had reacted were very different, there were also similarities. Perhaps more so than they even wanted to believe right now.

It was unlikely that they would ever meet again, once this experience was over. But neither would forget.

Cloud sighed to himself as he leaned forward on the chair, observing Zack's motionless form. He was hugging the pillow in his senselessness, his spiky hair finally drying out and relaxing back into its usual style. He was wearing dry clothes now, and he seemed peaceful enough, though cold. A noticeable shiver went through his body as he burrowed into the bed.

Cloud reached over, gently pulling the quilt up around Zack's shoulders. In the past, he had been the one laying in bed, with Zack tending to and keeping vigil over him. At least, Cloud could do that much now. But it still seemed inadequate.

How could he ever repay Zack for the many times he had been helped, all the years Zack had watched over him, even from afar? And Zack had always told Cloud exactly what he did not want to hear, especially when it was what he needed to hear most. He had warned Cloud many times of the path he had started to travel, pleading with him to realize what he was doing before it was too late. And now, as the blond thought back on it, he remembered how pained and worried his friend's lavender eyes had been. Almost as if it was not the first time he had seen it happen. . . .

Zack had told Cloud that Sephiroth was not a villain, that he actually was trying to help Cloud. Of course, Merlin had said that, too . . . well, at least the first part. But when Zack had also said it, and had revealed that Sephiroth was his best friend from the military, it had been such an extreme shock that Cloud had not known what to think. However, when he had finally calmed down and had begun to process the information, he had realized that he was willing to trust Zack on the matter. And when Sephiroth had suggested the truce, Cloud had accepted it almost instantly, another surprise.

It had been done for Zack. Cloud had known how happy his friend would be, to see both of his friends even attempting to be civil. And his expression earlier that night upon seeing them both had made the experience well worth the trouble.

At least he was safe now. . . .

Zack stirred, the lavender eyes slowly opening. He looked over at Cloud, blinking as his vision came into focus. He smiled weakly. "Hey," he greeted.

Cloud nodded in reply. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Oh . . . I've seen better days," Zack grinned, not seeming extremely bothered by his misery.

He sobered, looking at Cloud with concern. "What's wrong?"

Cloud silently muttered. He never had been good at hiding his feelings, and Zack always managed to read him so easily!

"It's nothing," he said then. Even as the words left his lips, they sounded ridiculous. Zack would not let it drop.

Sure enough, he was met with a mock stern look. "Come on, pal, I know you better than to believe an obvious untruth." Zack raised himself up slightly on his unhurt arm. "Is it because you're worried about me?" He grinned again. "I'll be just fine! That dragon didn't know what hit it."

Cloud smirked slightly, but it was forced. "I'm sure it didn't."

Zack watched him. "So, it's something else, then," he mused.

Cloud grunted. The last thing he felt like doing was playing runaround. But he also did not want Zack to be pouring all his energy into trying to make him feel better. He needed to think about himself for once.

"Come on, Cloud," Zack half-whimpered. "Now I'll just be worrying about you, and I won't get any more sleep at all until you tell me your troubles!"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Dork," he said, not unkindly. Unfortunately, Zack's words, though said in a goofy manner, were true. He would never be able to rest now, unless Cloud talked.

He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms. "I'm just . . . sick of not being able to be there for you when it counts," he said finally.

Zack blinked in surprise. "Well . . . you did okay tonight, didn't you? You and Seph. . . ."

Cloud blew out his breath in frustration. "Sephiroth's probably been a better friend to you than I have," he grumbled. "Even tonight. He was the one really in charge of the whole thing. And I got myself clawed by that stupid dragon. It was Sephiroth and your wolf who came to help me."

"You looked like you were holding your own," Zack answered firmly. "You stabbed it in the shoulder." He smirked. "It's not like you were some helpless damsel in distress."

"Ha ha." Cloud sighed. It was not really the dragon fight that was the problem, though it certainly added to his frustration.

"It's not just that, though," he said now. "I keep thinking about all the times I screwed up, when I could see something was wrong and that you were upset, but I never even bothered to ask."

Zack smirked. "You've always said it's not in your nature to pry," he said.

Somehow, his continuing easy-going nature was adding to Cloud's exasperation. "Come on!" he burst out suddenly. "How can you just be so calm about it?! Doesn't it bother you at all?! It's been this way for years!"

The raven-haired man sobered, as if seeing that humor was not going to work this time. "I never expected you to ask, Cloud," he said firmly. "You had so much of your own to deal with. I wanted you to work out your own problems, not to worry over mine."

He was obviously sincere. But Cloud was still frustrated. He reached up, running a hand through his hair. "You had more to deal with than I did," he insisted.

"Hey, who's to say who had it more rough?" Zack returned instantly. "Everyone's got their own set of problems, and everyone handles them differently. What's hard for one guy might be easy for another, and vice versa."

He smiled. "Sure, you can be one of the biggest pains when you start flying off the handle or being stubborn, but it's just part of who you are. And you have been a good friend. Don't try to make yourself think different than that."

Cloud looked away. Even after all these years, Zack never failed to amaze him. If it was anyone else, Cloud might be inclined to think he was only being nice. But Zack was completely honest. His blunt opinions on what he thought of those around him testified to it. If he thought Cloud had been a good friend, then that was what he truly believed.


Cloud rolled his eyes as he glanced back. "Okay, sure. Whatever."

"Good," Zack said, satisfied. As always, he ignored Cloud's noncommittal "Whatever."

Now he paused, looking up into Cloud's confused blue eyes. "It means a lot to me that you were trying to work with Seph to find me," he said. "I know it must've been hard for both of you." He smirked again. "You guys are just too much alike sometimes for your own good."

Cloud snorted. "I guess."

Zack gave him a look. "But yeah, seriously Cloud, if you're ever upset about something, I want you to come talk to me about it," he said. "I mean, haven't we already learned that bottling up your feelings is a dumb thing to do?"

Cloud muttered. "Yeah, yeah."

Zack nodded approvingly. "Good. Don't forget it!" He pointed his finger in emphasis.

He still worried about Cloud a lot. Judging from this conversation, Cloud still felt guilty about things that he should put behind him, as did Seph. Those poor guys! Really, Zack had moved on. He had forgiven them for any times they had hurt him, but neither one of them were able to forgive themselves. That was one of their biggest weaknesses, and yet, Zack could understand where they were coming from. Sometimes he wondered if he had ever forgiven himself for not being able to get to Seph in time on the battlefield, all those years ago.

And yet . . . if that had not happened, and Seph had not died, would he have still come as far as he had now? Zack wanted to believe so, but he did not know. All he knew was that now, after all of that pain and sorrow, Seph had managed to start picking up the pieces of his broken life. He was trying hard to repent.

Cloud had come a long way, too. And it was strange, how much he really had grown since Seph had started attempting to help him. His fighting skills had improved extremely. While watching him battling the dragon earlier, Zack had been struck by how focused Cloud was on his goal. Focused, but not obsessed. He had not lost himself in his emotions, as he and Seph had both done in the past.

He smiled quietly to himself. Those two were good for each other, with their awkward mentor and student relationship, whether they wanted to admit it or not.

"Hey, what's so funny?"

Zack snapped back to the present, looking up innocently at his suspicious friend.

"I was just thinking how silly you'd look in a dress," he smirked, "if we were doing a play and you had to act out the part of the distressed damsel."

Cloud stared at him for a moment. "Well, you can't be too bad off," he muttered then. "Your sense of humor's as awful as ever."

Zack snickered. "And yours is non-existent!"

Cloud swatted him lightly on his unhurt shoulder.

"Have mercy!" Zack cried over-dramatically as he pulled back. "It's an unfair fight!"

Cloud leaned back, shaking his head at his friend. "You're going to wake up the other patients," he scolded. But, he realized, he was smiling a bit as he said it. Zack had managed to calm him down, somehow. As always. And it had been so subtle he had not even realized it until now.

Zack realized it too. He moved further into the pillow as he relaxed, satisfied. "How's your arm?" he asked, eyeing the bandages. A bit of crimson had started to seep through, staining the off-white gauze.

Cloud looked down at it. "Fine," he said honestly, giving a slight shrug. "I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it."

"You and Seph and the others were lucky," Zack told him somberly. "There weren't any serious injuries, were there?"

"No," Cloud replied, shaking his head. He frowned. "Well . . . a soldier was found dead earlier tonight, while they were looking for you the first time, but I don't know any details. . . ."

Zack nodded slowly, looking away himself---but not before Cloud caught a flicker of worry and sadness in his lavender eyes. Any dead soldier would be from his unit, someone he had known and trained and had been friends with.

"Where's Seph?" he asked now. He had been wondering about the location of his other friend since awakening, but he had not said anything due to worrying about and trying to help Cloud. As he remembered from earlier, before he had passed out, Seph had only had a small wound, a minor cut on his forehead. So hopefully he was not off somewhere in pain.

"He's outside," Cloud answered. "Do you want me to get him?"

"Yeah," Zack said, nodding again as he turned back.

"I'm inside now," a voice grunted from behind them.

Both turned to look. Somehow Sephiroth had slipped inside without either of them hearing at all. He looked tired, but upon seeing that Zack was awake, he seemed to perk up, as if a heavy weight had just been removed from his shoulders.

Zack grinned, happy to see him, and to find that he was well. "Hey, Seph!" he greeted.

Sephiroth nodded, allowing himself to smile slightly.

Cloud stood to let him have the chair. "I'll let you two talk," he said, and departed before either could respond.

As he pushed open the door and stepped into the night air, a breeze smacked him in the face. He frowned, glaring in its general direction. Wait . . . something else was there, too, in the distance. No, someone, walking away. Someone wearing a dark cloak and nearly blending into the night. Actually, it could be that Iezon person. Why had he been here? Had Sephiroth seen him?

Cloud rolled his eyes. It would just be typical, for Sephiroth to have spoken with him, ending up learning something important, and then to not tell anyone else.

Shaking his head, he started off to find Sora.