Kingdom Hearts II

Bleed At My Feet

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! Thanks to Lisa for the title help! This is for prompts Thanatophobia; Fear of Death/Dying (the end is near) at 13 Fears and Truth (an honest answer isn't always a kind one) at 20 Heartbeats.

Zack knew that he was being watched that night. A trained soldier for years, who had participated in many violent battles, he knew how to detect the presence of other entities---especially when they set their sights on him.

The problem was that he could not discover where they were hiding. When he turned, sword in hand, there was nothing. The darkened streets were just as silent and deserted as they had been a moment earlier. The buildings were vacant, their occupants having long ago abandoned them for newer, more efficient locales. He should be alone, but he was not.

He narrowed his eyes, clutching tighter at the hilt of his weapon. Was that a click he had just heard . . . ?

Out of instinct, he whirled to the left, just as a small and shiny object whistled towards him. There was barely enough time to bring up the blade and deflect the bullet into the ground. Who was shooting at him? And why?!

Without warning the deadly rain was coming at him from all angles. Then he was dancing and weaving, shielding himself from an attack to the stomach . . . deflecting a strike to his face . . . catching a bullet that would have plunged into his shoulder . . . all within a miniscule amount of time. The attacks were coming instantaneously, and no matter how he bobbed and dodged, it was not going to be possible to protect himself with endless accuracy.

A gasp left his lips as something drilled into his lower back. He was hit! He stumbled, his hands trembling as he held the sword in front of him. He had to keep fighting, he had to keep shielding himself. . . . He was just lucky that it had not been his spine that was pierced. . . .

A second bullet slammed into his left side and he fell back again. It hurt . . . the fire was spreading throughout the surrounding area as the blood splashed onto the ground. If he could just clap his hand over the wound . . . try to ease the pain. . . . But he could not let his guard down! He had to hold onto the sword. The gunshots were coming, still coming. . . .

He stepped down into the small puddle of red that had formed. His foot skidded across the slippery substance, and then, as two more pieces of lead entered his body, he was falling, crashing onto his back.

This must be it. . . . He was going to die. How could he survive so many wounds? And . . . why? Why were they killing him? What had he done to make them so angry?

Someone was chuckling . . . coming towards him. . . . It was such an evil sound . . . unfamiliar, too. He blinked, struggling to keep his vision focused. Dark hair . . . white coat . . . wicked smirk. . . .

"Well, well . . . so you are Zack Fair." The voice was cruelly delighted. "Sephiroth's best friend." The words were so ominous, with a mocking undertone, as if he found any thought of friendship to be foolish.

"Seph. . . . How . . . how do you know Seph?" The blood was starting to rise in his throat, even as he fought to choke out words.

"Your death will serve a purpose, Mr. Fair." Still with the evil smile. "How will Sephiroth react? Will he lose his mind? Will he hate? Will he want to kill me?"

A fist gave a weak clench as it lay in the increasing, sticky liquid. In spite of the numerous injuries, panic began to break through the fog in his mind. This man was going to . . . to what?! To use his death to hurt Seph?! He gasped, still struggling to speak. "No! No, you can't do that to Seph! You can't. . . ."

The white-garbed man's boot raised, poised over the heaving chest. "Tell him that Doctor Hojo wants to see him. He knows where to come." It pressed down, right over one of the deepest wounds. "Tell him that I want to examine his mind now, instead of his wings." It rubbed over the spot, back and forth, as the helpless man grimaced.

Crimson spilled from the gasping mouth as the pressure increased. Then, abruptly, it was released. Hojo stepped back, a dark chuckle emanating from his throat as he turned to leave.

He was the one who had tortured Seph several weeks ago! His men had beaten Seph, pulling on his wings and taunting him! And now Seph was going to be tortured again, with Zack being unwillingly used to accomplish it. . . . No, no . . . Death could not come! He would not let it! That would hurt Seph too much. And it would hurt Cloud, too. Life . . . he had to grasp whatever threads were left of his life and hang on tight.

It had been quiet for so long now. . . . But he was still alive. The pain let him know that he was bleeding . . . that his body was screaming for medical assistance. He had to focus on the pain, the way Seph had taught him to do. Maybe . . . maybe if he concentrated hard enough on it, it could keep him alive and awake until help came. . . . Someone would come for him . . . someone would find him. When he did not return to the base, they would send someone to look. . . .

Was that footsteps running towards him now? Someone was coming, calling out his name. . . .


A black-cloaked figure dropped to his knees, the silver locks falling over his shoulders as he bent forward, staring in disbelief at the battered body laying before him. This was not real . . . it could never be real. . . . It was what he had feared at times . . . but he had not believed it would actually come to pass. It was a nightmare, only an incubus. Zack was not supine before him, he was not gasping from the pain of the wounds inflicted in his form, he was not half-drenched in his own blood. He was not, he was not!

But he was.

Lavender eyes blinked up at him, their surface glassy, but unable to conceal the strong emotion of pain. For a brief, agonizing moment, they remained blank. Then recognition flooded through, and a shaking, bloodied hand reached out to grasp the muscular arm.

"Seph. . . . Don't go, Seph . . . it's a trap. . . ."

He laid a hand over Zack's, the sickness twisting his insides. Zack was not making sense! Was he delirious from the pain and the blood loss? He needed help immediately! And who . . . who could have been responsible for this abomination? Who would dare to repeatedly shoot one so undeserving?

"Don't try to talk. You're hurt," he ordered. His voice was firm, but he caught a tremor on the last word. Hurt . . . Zack was hurt. He would die if he did not get assistance right now! It would be necessary to teleport this instant, into a hospital in town.

Zack shook his head weakly, gripping tighter. "It's . . . it's the guy who hurt you a few weeks ago," he choked out. "He . . . he wants to hurt you again. Don't go, Seph!" The panic was saturating his voice, his eyes wide and desperate. "Please . . . say you won't go . . . !" But Seph did not have the chance to say anything in reply. Zack shuddered, the pain overwhelming him. His eyes slipped shut as his weak fingers released the strong arm.

For what seemed a long moment, but which was only several seconds, Sephiroth knelt there, gently grasping the limp hand in his own. It was as if he was frozen, unable to move or even think of moving. Zack was . . . Zack was . . .

He could not say it. It was what he had always feared more than anything else. Zack was the only light in his life. He did not want, he could not bear, for that light to go out!

And . . . for it to be deliberately extinguished . . . for someone to be so treacherous as to want to remove a life that deserved more than anything to remain . . . they deserved to be eliminated. And wait . . . hadn't Zack said it was the man who had taken and tortured him, the man who had tried to examine his wings? The man who had let him stay chained to the wall, his body bare save for a sheet that he had been mockingly given? The man who had let his lackeys beat him daily, sometimes twice a day? He was the one who had done this to Zack?

He would die. He would be killed if Sephiroth had to choke him with bare hands!

Within his grasp, the clammy fingers moved ever so slightly. It was a small, simple action, but it startled him back into the present. Zack was alive. He was still alive, but fading fast. He needed help.

It only took a moment to send them both into the entryway of the hospital. Above him, he could hear the receptionist gasping in surprise and alarm as they appeared. His head jerked upward, his eyes dangerous and cold.

"Get a doctor," he ordered. "This man must not die!"

He was not welcome there. At least, he did not feel that they wanted him. He kept out of their way, near the corner by a plant and the window, his lower wings hanging to the floor. That was why they were wary of him. Humans were not supposed to have wings. The hospital staff did not seem to be among the number that thought of him as an actual monster, or he most likely would have been thrown out by now, but their suspicious gazes were always easy to feel upon his person, even when he was not facing them.

He gripped his arms tightly, the drying blood rough under his fingers. That was where Zack had grabbed him, when he had pleaded for Sephiroth not to go. But he still wanted to. He wanted to plunge the Masamune right into that madman's stone heart. For doing this to Zack, it was all he deserved!

Instead he had called Cloud to tell him what had happened. That had not gone well. A long silence had followed Sephiroth's declaration that Zack had been repeatedly shot and was in serious condition. Then Cloud had asked in a tight voice if it was known who had done it. When Sephiroth had answered that it was a mad scientist, Cloud had read between the lines. He had swore harshly at Sephiroth before terminating the call.

Normally he would not have even informed Cloud of as much as he had. This was personal. Hojo had tried to kill Zack in order to get at Sephiroth. It was not something with which Cloud should concern himself. But of course he would. Cloud cared about Zack, too. And if Sephiroth up and left for a while, someone should stay at the hospital.

Cloud must be furious at Sephiroth now. He probably believed it was the winged man's fault, somehow, that Zack had been gunned down. Maybe it was. He was the one that lunatic wanted to study. But . . . he could never have predicted this. He could not have known. How could he have ever known that Zack would be used against him? He had suspected that something was wrong when he had been allowed to go free several weeks previous, but this . . . no . . . he had not thought. . . .


His attention was immediately brought back to the present by the nurse's voice. He whirled, his wings flying out, and she took a surprised step back so as not to be accidentally hit with them.

"How is he?" he demanded. The look in her eyes was filled with dread. Did that . . . no, it could not mean . . .

She shook her head, her eyes glistening. "He's dying. I . . . I'm sorry, sir. I'm so sorry. . . ."

His blood ran cold. "What's being done for him?" he demanded, seizing her shoulders with his strong hands.

She tensed under his grasp. "He . . . he's lost so much blood," she said, her voice growing softer. "He was shot four times, and they're still working to get the last bullet out. It went in so deep. . . ."

His grip tightened. "He can't be allowed to die," he said, and despite how fierce he sounded, the desperation was also clearly present.

She looked at him with compassion. "They're trying everything they can to keep him here," she replied in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. "And he's trying too. He wants to live."


Both looked over at the exhausted doctor emerging from the direction of the operating room. Blood was staining his clothes and his gloves, and the glasses on his face were askew.

He looked to Sephiroth, then back to the nurse, and shook his head slowly. Words were not needed.

Something inside Sephiroth snapped at that moment. The hapless woman was shoved from him as he stormed past. Though she tried to call him back, her voice fell on deaf ears. He did not hear her. He did not hear any of the sounds around him as he marched through the sliding doors. Zack was dead. And now he was going to send the murderer to Hell, where he belonged.

The streets were deserted when he set out again, and the night sky was overcast. Any moment, the clouds were liable to burst open, generously pouring their contents over the grass, the buildings, and the roads. They would wash away any traces left of the blood where Zack had fallen, rendering the street unable to bear witness to the abominable crime that had taken place.

But more blood would be spilled. More blood would testify of this unforgivable act. It would be drawn to pay for the murder. And even then, it would not be enough. Nothing would be enough to give back the life that had been lost.

A thick blade suddenly gleamed out of the darkness, reaching threateningly for Sephiroth's throat. He froze, glaring into the alley. This was irritating. Not only was it a holdup along the way, but the sword was too familiar. It was not going to be just any confrontation.

"So you're just going to go out and kill the guy?" The voice was cold, accusing.

"Unless you wanted to do the honors, it shouldn't concern you." He gripped the hilt of the Masamune. There was no time to deal with this right now. Maybe he could leap back and either take to the sky or teleport. Those options were much more desirable than remaining here.

"That's what he wants you to do, you idiot! He wants to test you, to break you. And you're just going to let him have his way?"

"I'm going to avenge what happened. And I'm not going to allow you to stop me." His voice carried a warning. If the other interfered, he was not likely to be well-treated.

"I'm not letting you pass."

He set his jaw. "You know that any time I want, I can go above you and vanish."

"But you're not going to. You never run away from a fight."

His eyes narrowed. "You're challenging me?"

The red-cloaked figure stepped out from around the corner of the building, his eyes frozen, his hands clutching the hilt of the buster sword without apology. "Fight me, Sephiroth." His wing unfurled and he lunged, the heavy blade held in front of him. "I'm not going to give you a choice!"

The Masamune was instantly bared, meeting the assault just in time. The green eyes flashed with contempt as he threw his weight into forcing his opponent to step back. How dare Cloud do this now? He was this angry at Sephiroth, blaming him for Zack's death? Maybe what he wanted was to kill Sephiroth and then eliminate the actual murderer as well. But Cloud would not win! It was Sephiroth who had to end that scientist's life.

The battle was fierce, each man throwing his all into being victorious. Sephiroth had the upper hand for some time, as he worked at backing Cloud into a corner. The blond was forced on the defensive, just as was wanted. It was foolish of him, to have called his old enemy into this fight. He was not good enough. Sephiroth was the stronger of the two. He always had been. Cloud could only win when he focused and set aside his driving anger and loathing.

Now Cloud feinted, diving in so suddenly for the attack that he caught Sephiroth off guard. Before he could recover, Cloud lunged again, giving a direct hit at the other blade. Each leaned over his weapon, glaring darkly into the opposing set of eyes. What was only a moment had become an eternity for them. Then Sephiroth was forced back.

Time started once more as he stumbled. Cloud attacked without mercy, striking the katana. It flew out of the older man's grasp, clattering to the pavement. Sephiroth had lost.

His fists clenched as he raised his gaze back to the glowering blue eyes. How could he have let this happen? How could Cloud have beaten him? They had both been angry. They had both hated. And he should have won. Instead, the buster sword was being held again at his throat.

The only sound in the deep of the night was their heavy breathing as they began to wind down from their combat. Sephiroth's bangs were pressed to his cheeks, Cloud's on his forehead and over his right eye.

"If you're going to kill me, just do it."

Something else flashed through the icy orbs, something indescribable. Then the shoulders slumped and the blade was lowered. "I didn't come here to kill you," Cloud grumbled.

He didn't? Sephiroth's frown increased as he regarded the blond in confusion. What, then? Why had he come? He had been so furious on the telephone. It would not be hard to believe, that he would let his rage take him over, as Sephiroth had allowed to happen to himself.

"I came here to stop you. To . . . save you."

Now the look turned incredulous. "To save me?!" he repeated in disbelief. "From what?"

"From yourself." Cloud glared again, stabbing his sword into the ground and then leaning upon it. "Look, if I could beat you, do you think you could've got rid of that scientist creep? You would have been too blind to see that he had the upper hand. He wanted you to lose it! That's why he hurt Zack." His voice started to rise. "Would you want Zack to die in vain?! Is that what you want?!"

The words pierced far worse than Cloud's buster sword ever could. No . . . he would never want that! Never! It was horrible enough for Zack to die at all, without the thought of him being betrayed on his deathbed. Sephiroth looked away, feeling ill.

If he had gone to kill that creature, even if he had won, it would not have been a true victory. He should have learned that from the past, when he had entirely lost himself in his hatred. That man was not guiltless. He did deserve death, as far as Sephiroth was concerned. But . . . if he let the malice swallow himself again, he might not receive another chance to mend his ways. Zack might be lost to him forever, even after his own death. That would be unbearable.

"Zack would never forgive me if I just let you go off and do something dumb," Cloud growled. "And do you think I want to see you give up everything you taught me?!"

. . . What? Why was Cloud saying this? He looked back again, the bewilderment prevalent in his eyes.

Cloud was clenching his fists at his sides, his expression frustrated as well as angry. "You wanted me to learn that I didn't need hatred to fight. You were hoping that I'd control my feelings. You were trying to teach me all along that the light does suit me, if I let it---even if other people are trying to drag me down! Well . . ." He turned away. "Don't try to live in the darkness. Even if Zack is . . ." His voice caught in his throat. "Even if he's dead . . . if that light's been taken away . . . don't push off the rest of your light."

Sephiroth was silent. "I don't have any other light."

Cloud whirled back. "You have what he gave you!" he retorted. "You know how he hoped you'd live, because he cared about you and he wanted to see you happy. And if he can't be here anymore . . . why does all of that have to die too?"

". . . You've grown up, Cloud."

He had expected so many things, but never this. It had seemed so clear that it was the Cloud burning with violent anger who had come to meet Sephiroth. It had been obvious that he had sought his nemesis to kill him, to place blame on him for Zack's demise. Maybe the Cloud of the past would have done that. But this was not that Cloud.

"Sephiroth. . . ."

They stared at each other for a moment. Something was changing between them tonight. They were not friends, or at least, they would never admit to it if it were true---but their mentor and student relationship had deepened. The student had become the teacher this time.

"Let's go find that guy."

Sephiroth blinked in surprise. After all that Cloud had said, after he had brought the other back to his senses, now he wanted them to look for that monster?

"He needs to be stopped. And I think we both want some answers." Cloud straightened up, taking the sword's tip off of the ground. "I don't think he's in this alone. Do you?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "No." He bent down for the Masamune, his hand curling around the familiar hilt. "I think he's working either with or for someone else." He brought himself up to his full height once more.

Cloud nodded. "Then let's find out who." His voice lowered. "We'll make sure Zack's murder doesn't go unpunished. He'll be arrested and put on trial after we catch him." He half-turned, looking toward the old castle that towered over the city. In the night, the towers were clawed fingers, tearing up into the sky with malevolent intent. That was where they needed to go. That was where they should find the criminal.

Sephiroth brushed past Cloud, heading in that direction. Behind him, he could hear the blond hurrying to catch up.

General Mathews was livid. It had not taken long for word to reach him concerning the condition of Commander Fair. And upon hearing of the multiple gunshot wounds, it was much too easy to fit the pieces together. He did not like how they added up.

The door opened, admitting a calm, cool, and collected Doctor Hojo. "Good evening, General," he purred in his slick tones.

Mathews clenched a fist on his desk. "Shut the door!" he barked.

"There's no need for such anger." Hojo half-turned, pushing the wooden slab closed. When he heard it click, he turned back to face the man at the desk. "What was so important that you felt you had to call me in at this time of night?"

"Commander Fair was shot to death tonight." Mathews' voice was as sharp steel. "The casings that were found match the kind of guns your lackeys use."

Hojo did not seem to find this a matter of concern in the least. "Many people use those kinds of weapons," he shrugged. "General, surely you aren't accusing me of going against the deal we set?"

"I am accusing you of exactly that." Mathews studied the cruel eyes as he spoke. "Sephiroth, real or pseudo, was devastated. He remained at the hospital until word reached him that Commander Fair had died on the operating table. Then he left in an abrupt fit of madness. Was that another test?" His voice gained an even sharper edge. "Is that the sort of thing you were planning all along to inflict on that poor man?! I never would have dreamed . . ."

"You did want to know how he felt about Commander Fair, did you not? That was one of the main agreements."

Now Mathews rose from the desk, his eyes aflame. "And another of the agreements was that Commander Fair not be harmed!" he screamed.

"I can assure you, General, I didn't have anything to do with it. If some of my men took matters into their own hands, then it will be investigated and discovered as soon as possible." Hojo spread his hands, palms up, in front of him, as if to indicate innocence in the affair.

Mathews was far from convinced. "I was foolish enough to get involved with a demon such as you in the first place," he snapped. "I had misgivings from the start, but I didn't do anything about them. And now I've brought this devastation on one . . . no, possibly two, of my own men." His lip curled. "I'm sure Commander Fair can clear up any doubts about what happened tonight."

Hojo looked visibly shaken at this statement. But it only lasted a moment before it was gone, replaced by another wicked smile. "I didn't know you were now in the business of conversing with mediums, General," he said.

Now Mathews smirked. Hojo's first reaction was another witness to him of the truth. "Commander Fair is alive," he hissed. "If you wanted him dead, you've failed. His condition has stabilized, and he's going to pull through." He pressed a button discreetly on his desk.

The door burst open, and as Hojo started and turned in surprise, he was greeted by four stern members of the military police.

"General . . . what is this?" he demanded, a deep frown gracing his features.

"You are going to be held here while an investigation is made," Mathews answered.

Two of the men snatched Hojo's arms, while the other two kept their guns pointed threateningly at the mad scientist.

"This is outrageous!" Hojo protested, as they began to lead him out. "You don't have any evidence to hold me here!"

"Commander Fair should be conscious in the next few hours," Mathews replied calmly. "Then we'll see how much evidence there is."

Sephiroth gripped the handle of his sword, his knuckles turning white underneath the black gloves. He was walking back to town, Cloud alongside him, as before. They had failed to take that monster into captivity. They had not even been able to find him. But now it was clear that he had been observing them all along the way. Maybe he even still was.

The castle had been empty, save for a note that had been attached to the wall where Sephiroth had been chained.

"Come back next time, when your rage is consuming you."

His and Cloud's footsteps echoed hollowly on the pavement. The storm above them still had not split open, but the smell of rain was very clear in the air. It would not be surprising if there was a downpour before they made it back to the city. Even though they were almost there now.

Finally Sephiroth filled the vacancy in the air of a human voice.

"I thought you blamed me for Zack's death."

Cloud was silent for a moment. "I did," he said. "When I hung up with you, I hated you. I didn't want to see you or talk to you again." He paused. "But I knew Zack wouldn't want me to feel that way. And deep down, I knew it wasn't your fault."

He walked further ahead. "When I got to the hospital and they said what had happened and that you had stormed out, I realized what you were going to do. So I came after you." He glowered into the night. "I didn't even know why at first, or what I was going to do when I found you. I just . . . acted on impulse. I figured you'd probably listen better to swords than words, at least at first."

Sephiroth gave a slow nod. "That's true."

By now they were back at the hospital. The building loomed ominously in front of them, dark and cold, as the wind whispered through the trees. Zack had met his end in those walls. He had probably been unconscious at the last . . . but what had he thought once his spirit had left his body? Had he been confused? Awed? Regretful? Or all those emotions at once, and more?

Had he lingered? Was he still watching his friends? Maybe he was walking with them right now. . . .

"I guess . . . the military will take his body."

Sephiroth glanced over at Cloud when he spoke. "Yes." That was how it would be done. Zack had been a good soldier to the last, and he did not have any living family. Cloud was the closest thing to family the military would recognize, but he did not have the funds to provide for a funeral. Not that Sephiroth did, either.

Cloud clenched a fist. "I don't know that I can see him . . . like that."

"Then don't. You never had to see him in that condition at all. Don't try to imagine it. Think of him the way he would want you to---alive, cheerful, always happy to see us. . . ."

"Always hoping we could get along."

The blond gave the other a sideways glance. Sephiroth would not look at him now, but his latest words had seemed haunted. He had not seen Zack pale and cold, and dead, though his experience had still been terrible. He had found their friend struggling for life, bleeding profusely. Zack's blood was still on his coat. The top wing twitched, as if reacting to the memory and horror of that scene.

Cloud had seen Zack injured at times, but never so seriously. Still, there had been the time when they had been children---Cloud, six years old, and Zack, ten---and a devastating fever had swept through the land. Cloud had remained healthy, to his parents' relief, but Zack had caught the worst possible strain of the virus. The recollection of going to see Zack, and finding him laying so still in his bed, his skin flushed, his eyes closed, was an image that had plagued Cloud all through the years. At such a young age, he had believed that his dear friend was dead, and he had gripped Zack's hand as he had fallen to his knees and cried.

He could not see Zack so quiet again, and especially when his passing would not be merely a child's mistake.

The sliding doors opened with an abrupt motion, and both men were startled back to the present. The nurse from before was standing there, and as she regarded them both, her eyes were filled with obvious relief and joy.

"I believe," she said, unable to keep the happiness from her voice, "that you both have someone who wants to see you very much."

The words would not process at first. They could only stare at her, dumbfounded. It . . . it sounded as if she meant . . . but no! That could not be. That was impossible!

At last Sephiroth spoke. "Excuse me?"

"Your friend," she explained patiently. "He's alive! He regained consciousness a few minutes ago and is asking for the two of you. He's only semi-aware of things due to the drugs he was given, but the first thing he asked about was if 'Seph and Cloud' were okay and safe."

The two looked to each other, the disbelief and awe spreading across their features. Was this . . . could it be true? She would not lie to them; the joy in her eyes and words could not be counterfeit. But still . . . how could they believe it without seeing for themselves?

"Where is he?" Cloud demanded.

She turned to go back inside, gesturing for them to accompany her. "I'll show you," she said. "You shouldn't talk to him for long, since he desperately needs rest, but I don't think he'll go back to sleep unless he can see you." And until they could see him, they would not be at peace. It had pained her, to see their earlier distress over the report of his demise.

"Will he make a full recovery?" Sephiroth asked.

She paused, then nodded. "It may take a while for him to get well completely, but it will happen," she said. "And he'll have the both of you to help him."

Of course. They would do whatever they had to, for Zack.

They followed her down a long hall and through a pair of double doors before coming to the correct room. She smiled, gently pushing open the heavy door and allowing them to go in.

Zack looked pale and weak when they entered. He was wearing a dark purple robe, and his head was turned to the side, his hair spread out on the pillow. For a moment Cloud froze, the unhappy childhood memory returning again. Zack looked so much the way he had back then, save for the color of his skin. . . .

But then he stirred, turning his head back to face his visitors. Despite his exhaustion, his expression lit up.

"Hey! My two best pals in the whole world!" He grinned weakly. "I'd hug ya, but the drugs are keeping me down. Can't move too much."

And they knew then it was real, not a fantasy! Zack was alive, he was speaking to them! He was going to be alright!

They hastened to him, one on each side.

Cloud gripped at the shaky hand that was extended to him in greeting. It still seemed so incredible, so impossible, even though they were here, even though they could see and hear and feel . . . ! He ran his tongue over his lips before speaking the painful words.

"We . . . we thought you were . . ." But he could not finish.

"Me? Nah. I'm too stubborn." Zack gave a weak smirk, clutching at Cloud's hand as best as he could. Then he sobered. "I've got too much to live for to even think of dying yet."

He looked over at Seph, reaching up to grasp at the muscular arm. The sight of his own blood adorning the sleeve was not lost on him. Raising his gaze, he looked into Seph's sea-green eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked, his voice quiet as well as concerned.

Something passed between them in the silence that followed. And it was clear that Zack already knew what had transpired when Sephiroth had left the hospital, controlled by grief and madness. Maybe he had witnessed it in spirit form. Maybe he had tried to call out to the other, to bring him back to himself. Maybe he had seen how Cloud had been able to help bring about that very thing.

Whatever was being said, Sephiroth understood it all. And he nodded, the emotions rising within him as he gripped at the trembling arm.

"Yes," he said, overwhelmed. "Yes, I'm alright now."