It began with blood. Everything does. For you it began with your hometown, for others it began with a baby and its mother dying with blood still wet on her thighs, and for maybe the few more that know anything it began with a frozen something found by scientists who didn't know better. You're all wrong. This is an ancient thing, far older than that. It has nothing to do with you, with us. But it got us anyway, drew all of us together in one cosmic swoop of the net, all these strangers becoming tangled in each other's lives.

It has everything to do with you, with us.

What are you doing? Come, what are you doing traveling, paying bills, playing games, waiting for the phone to ring – acting like this is an ordinary day? This is the anniversary, come join the masquerade, we're waiting.

Come and follow us. Leave it all behind for a while, you won't need it. Walk with us as we've walked beside you; forget those mortal things that have no meaning and remember.

Don't turn away! Why so bitter? Because no one else sees the significance? Everyone forgets; that's the way of it – isn't this proof for you that time is merciful, rather than the opposite? Everyone forgets. Except for you, of course. You, who's healed mind is cursed with a memory that calls up specific events with ease, as merciless as the truth and as real as death.

Remember the way the flames felt on the day your world blew apart around you like a house of cards, the sheer heat of them on your skin? Remember how it sounded, it smelled, it tasted, remember that crackling noise of human flesh being reduced to charcoal around you, the screams of those refusing to go quietly into the night, the soft whisper of blade and blood?

Remember the edge of the scalpel, the glint of light on its fine edge, the sour fear it evoked that you could taste in your mouth? Remember how afraid you were that your skin had become glass and a breath too deep, too long would shatter you into a thousand pieces, tiny shards of you too small to gather together again, too large to let you disintegrate into oblivion?

Remember the sound of bullets tearing through flesh, the sight of blood arcing in the air, carmine droplets showering across your face and into your hazy mako-drugged eyes?

Remember that sound, of sword sheathing itself in her flesh? The way her hands fell to her sides, her fingers unlacing as they fell, the way the ribbon fluttered loose from her hair in absurd synchronization, and the materia falling against the altar, bouncing with musical little chimes that struck you to the quick?

Remember his face as your own blade struck down, again and again and again, the gasping, sucking sound of pulling it free of the flesh to hit back once more, just once more, arterial blood spraying into your face and the look in his eyes as they widened with – ah, no.

Torture? No. In your heart you know this is justice. You're the lucky one, after all. You're still alive.

What is it like, being dead? Take a guess.

You know me, I think. Zack Fair, at your service. Or are you at mine?

Ah, so you do know me. Ready? Let's walk, you and I. There are a thousand places to visit, a hundred lives to examine, so many things to regret.

Where to begin?

Here. The beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, as Valentine might philosophise. My death. Our deaths.

When I died, I turned into a mirror. The moment that fatal bullet blew out the back of my head, I became glass, and I was trapped inside, an image of past time, of an era now ended. I saw Cloud, and I watched as he reached inside the mirror and drew out my crystalline heart. He held my heart in his hand and he unlocked his chest with a key that became a name, and within the cage of his ribs his own heart was made of mythril and mist and lightning lit up its centre with sorrow and rage. A tiny key made of a wing tied to a chain unlocked the mythril and mist heart, and he placed mine inside it, where it thumped and cried out to me as he locked it away with the wing key and sealed up his chest once more with the key that was a name.

I didn't see any of that, however. The moment he took my heart from me the mirror exploded into a hundred thousand shards and became a suit of armour, and in every plane I saw my face.

When I woke again, I was part of this thin existence, this stretched place of memories and Lifestream, this sheer reality between waking and the Promised Land, as close to living as death will allow.

Sephiroth told me that when he died – the first time – he drowned in a sea of tears. There was a chain of ink and black silk around his left ankle, tying him down, and a chain of mist and silver looped around his right arm that sang in metallic voices, and as he kicked and thrashed trying to get the surface he turned the sea of tears into blood. The blood became a bridge and he walked across it until he reached a white shore, where his chains tugged him towards two different paths – one leading down a bright path of scouring flame, and the other leading down a path of shadow and thorns. He chose – or perhaps he didn't, what do I know – the path of shadow and thorns, looping the singing chain around his body so that he would not forget, and he walked and walked, leaving blood-streaked crystal tears to mark his way back until the two paths combined once more. In a clearing of thorn and flame he met a boy with scars on his knees that screamed and cried and begged him to go away but he was the first being Sephiroth had seen for what felt like eternities and he wrapped his arms around him and he would not let go. The boy slipped through his fingers like dreams, and he looped the singing chain of mist and silver around him so that neither of them could run far enough to leave the other behind.

When he woke again, he had not lost the chains as I had stopped being the mirror, and he could not stay still and rest because they were both tugging him in different directions; he followed the ink and silk chain while holding tight to the singing one, and he couldn't remember why.

Aerith told me that when she died two gigantic white wings burst from her back and she flew high and far into the sky, until the Planet became the size of a materia that she cupped in her hands. She breathed hard into it so that it became a brilliant green and she strung it around her neck where it sang in a million voices that made her shrink back into her old skin, which rippled and shone like the Lifestream. The million voices became a ribbon that led her through the tracery of fine veins in the underside of a leaf that became a maze and in its centre, she said, she saw my back, but I slid into my shadow as she reached for me, and we tumbled over and over through a colourless sky until we landed in a field of white and yellow flowers.

Those were the paths we took to the other side of life.

The flowers still bloom in the church, and hidden among them tiny mementoes, little snapshots of affection – tattered bows and ribbons, tiny cards curling and browning with age, illegible script smudged with rain and time declaring they'll remember her forever, a washed out yellow flower, carefully pressed and trapped in plastic like a fly in amber. He keeps returning here (—Criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, eh?

—Hush, Zack, Aerith says sharply, elbowing me in the ribs.)

He's closest to us here, to Aerith specifically, can almost feel her presence hovering at his side, hear her voice in his ear. It's Aerith Cloud calls for, Aerith's conversations he hears and recalls, but it's Sephiroth over there that stands so often at his shoulder, watching over his every little action with hate or pity or disinterest or nothing at all, his face is that hard to read. (—I don't hate him, Sephiroth says simply. He promptly ruins the redemptive moment by adding pensively, —Not right now, anyway. Aerith and I meet gazes and silently agree to pretend the last statement wasn't made.

—He hates you, I tell him quietly. —You broke him.

He smiles at me as if I haven't just told him he's destroyed a man. —I know, he says. —I happen to think I like him better broken.)

It might be hate or anger or fear or simply memory that makes Cloud think of – and therefore call to – Sephiroth so often, but it's still a call, and it pulls Seph to him, so strong its literally impossible for him to stay away. It hardly matters, because Sephiroth delights in haunting him. He's learnt that his touch will bring memories and nightmares, brief flashes of rapid-fire images that make Cloud reel away and shudder; so at odd moments he'll brush outstretched fingers across Cloud's face, his shoulder, his throat, the delicate stud in his ear, the nape of his neck. His touch is a poison that seeps through Cloud's skin and into his heart and mind, corroding his thoughts with memories he's tried to lock away.

(He's the oldest of us, but the delight he finds in this petty cruelty… He wasn't always like this. His mind… let's just say it's never going to be the same again.)

Every night he leaves us to watch Cloud sleep, sometimes filled with fury at a pulse taken for granted, sometimes just hurting and desperate and so tired of being nothing. It's being nothing he can't stand most of all, because for so long he was so many people's everything; he just can't stand being forgotten so easily. So he clings to Cloud, who can't let him go, and even when he wants to he can't leave. He's realised at last that the puppet strings between them can go both ways.

Why should you live? Why should you live?

For as long as Cloud lives, Sephiroth will be there, watching him take every breath.

(—Immortality at last, Sephiroth says dryly, a flash of that rare morbid humour we all thought lost with him so long ago)

It's been a year since Sephiroth died for a second time, since Meteor fell, since what could have been the end of the world. A year, and everything and nothing has changed.

About Sephiroth. Let me try and explain.

No, that will turn out as badly as everything else. We'll muddle through an explanation somehow.

Where to begin? There is a choice you make, when you die. There are as many Promised Lands, as many afterlives and as many ways to get there as there are people, and everybody makes their own. Some won't want to stay here, will join the Lifestream and become part of everything new – the grass, the earth, the new creatures, everything, and they'll leave all they were behind and never know to miss it. Some people will find their Promised Land, some people will become what you call ghosts; some will walk dark places few have the courage or the conviction to follow. And sometimes it's not really our choice at all, but yours, because you need us so.

For example: Aerith told me once of a little girl she saw in the street, watching her mother. But the girl was dead, and the glimpse of her squeezed her mother's heart in an iron fist, tore at her throat with a gasp that formed her daughter's name. Have you come for me? her mother asked in her mind, and Aerith felt the longing that swept through her, a tide that would never go out.

But then she could no longer see the child, and while her mother-heart insisted she was still there, her mind was already forming excuses – I did not see my dead daughter waiting for me on that street corner. My mind has tricked my eyes, my baby girl is dead. There is no such thing as ghosts. I do not want to see her. I am over it.

There are as many Promised Lands as there are people; it all depends on the point of view. Do you understand this?

Let me be blunt. Something went wrong with Sephiroth when he made his crossing, when he took the path from life to what is beyond life. If it hadn't been for Jenova, I don't think he'd be here. The Sephiroth I knew would never have chosen this place; he wasn't the type of person to tie himself uselessly to the living, to want to spend his time watching what he could not change. There is enough left of what he was for him to know this place is wrong for him, but not enough to know where exactly he was supposed to go.

That's why he wore (wears) the chains. One chain was for Cloud, and he made it himself out of guilt and need and a strand of his own hair so that it was a part of him and he couldn't loosen it if he tried. The other chain was of Jenova's making, though he placed it upon himself by his own free will. They tied him to the living, but in two utterly different ways, and so he split in two.

What I like to call The Real Sephiroth could sometimes be seen here, a grave, sombre apparition that couldn't stay in any one place for long, trapped in this in-between place. He couldn't leave one way or the other, and he appeared here and there but most particularly where and when Cloud needed him most.

The image of Sephiroth, the mockery of his former self, was Jenova's. He was none of our concern – he belonged to the living world, and that was their problem. (And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.)

We all thought… well, I thought that when the body died, the spirit would be whole again.

Hah, too bloody optimistic a belief by far. Sephiroth's second crossing was even worse that his first. I don't know what happened, because Sephiroth has never been able to tell us, never had enough coherence, but what was left after the end was neither The Real Sephiroth nor the Jenovan mockery. It's the greatest mystery of the afterlife – where is The Real Sephiroth, when will he be back… or is the shattered person Aerith and I see every day the real Sephiroth, the sum total of his devastating experience? Did Jenova's puppet meld with the General at his second (true?) death? Is the fucked up thing I spend half my time pitying and half my time fearing actually the genuine article?

Once upon a time, Sephiroth had a brilliant mind. Now he's got fractured little shards of thought that are not only completely incompatible at times but when in direct contradiction also actively fight like rabid Turks over the last cup of coffee. In three minds about absolutely everything, he walks the fine line between each warring set of ideas like a drunk taking a sobriety test.

Which is to say, he's a total lunatic. Give it five minutes, you'll see that.

So, now that you know that, where do we go from here?

The beginning. Or what was our beginning, anyway. But what was the start? In Wutai, where I saw a man-monster crush a nation and became friends with him anyway? When I met Cloud, who was to become the saviour of the world? When Sephiroth decided pyromania was the way to go? When I died and Cloud became something other than Cloud? When we all met up again? Where do you want me to start? Everything is so messed up.

How about this – we don't talk about it at all. How's that?

Wutai is harsh and beautiful. I remember thinking that when I was there. Wutai is harsh and beautiful, and she taught this to her people. They have a deep respect for the land, for the land is powerful and before her they are nothing. Wutai teaches her people to be proud, to be harsh, to never give up, because you could never survive otherwise. Wutai teaches pleasure in simple things – to find beauty in the temporary and peace in the eternal. I remember thinking how much I wanted to see things the way the people of Wutai did, how much I wanted to understand.

I felt ashamed not to know it, and then I felt ashamed to think how much I envied the enemy. What the hell, I was very young. I'm still very young.

I'd been in Wutai about a month by then, and we stood on sentry duty, my friend and I, arguing good-naturedly over just how useless the new C.O was and which conspiracy theories were so ridiculous they might just be true and that old soldier complaint, bureaucracy. He was older than I was, at least twice my age, and had taken it upon himself to show me the ropes, to be someone to watch my back (you're supposed to be fourteen before you can join the army, but the war had been going on for a long time and nobody particularly cared about how old you were any more so long as you could hold a gun). He talked a little of his wife back in Midgar, and how he was going to get leave soon. When the topics tailed off, we stood watching our breath crystallise in the air, and I looked up at the stars, so bright and clear, sucking in cold air so deeply my throat burned in time with my pulse and my lungs ached and every inhale sounded like a gasp stolen from a dying man.

"Gonna snow tonight," my friend said. He'd been in Wutai for a long time, almost since the war began, and knew the warning signals of a Wutai winter. "Tonight or tomorrow."

(It did. More snow than I'd ever seen in my life before – trees surround Gongaga, sheltering us from the cold north winds, and beyond the jungle the plains are wide and flat and the weather temperate. It covered my friend's body until he was nothing more than an odd hump in the snow, filled in the last footprints he'd ever make, covered over the red stains with treacherous white. When I brushed it away his skin was blue and his features edged with rime. His dog-tags stuck to his flesh and when I hung them with the others gathered strips of frozen skin hung down like ribbons.

There were so many battles in the next months the letter of condolence didn't get sent out until half a year after his death.)

I wasn't paying any attention anyway. I was thinking about how I never praised my mom's cooking, about how much I should have. I was thinking about the child-general with his silver hair, and how that would be pure white surrounded by snow, and of his cold green eyes, and how he wasn't a child any more and probably never had been.

I was cursing myself for a fool for liking him anyway, even after I'd seen what he did to the POWs, and trying to be his friend, and joining the army just to see if he really was as he had appeared on television so many years ago. He had been fourteen, fifteen (little more than a child! My mother had wept, although he was almost twice as old as I was then, and the few seconds of shaky footage of him on the battlefield was enough to still that cry). I was thinking how he'd seemed poised and graceful even then, walking the blurred line between adolescence and adulthood, and I envied it now that I had reached that awkward period myself.

I was thinking of the battle that was sure to arrive the next day, and wondering if tomorrow would be It.

I was feeling I might like to die, because at the moment my throat was killing me, and I was thinking how much Wutai was like her people, or maybe how much her people had learnt from her – to be harsh and beautiful, death or victory, always, and no in-betweens.

"I give up," my friend said with mock-irritation. "Don't think too hard Spinifex, you might strain something." He waved as he walked away, and I made a mental note to apologise the next day for being a terrible, neglectful friend, when I had time, when I saw him again.

I look for him sometimes, when Aerith has gone to the fields and Sephiroth is standing sentry, tapping his fingers against Cloud's forehead and thinking of ways to kill him, but the Lifestream is a vast place, and who's to say my friend has the same deal I do?

Maybe he's gone. Maybe his spirit has already let go of everything, become part of something new, is now part of the grass and the flowers and the water and the newborn creatures. I don't know. I think maybe he has.

It keeps me busy. It keeps me from thinking how tired Aerith's eyes are when she hugs Tifa at night and tells her not to cry. It keeps me from thinking about the sneer on Sephiroth's face when he looks at the blind masses walking the streets. It keeps me from thinking about how much I hate Cloud's pilgrimages to the bare patch of earth where my sword, rust-touched and old and no longer the blade I treasured, is sheathed in the dirt.

(And sometimes I want to ask, the hell do you think you are, keeping us here?)

This is the way to deal with horror, with war. You laugh, you play games, you kiss pretty girls, and you do more than kiss if they'll let you.

You don't hold your feelings tight against your chest, wrapping yourself in the image of the perfect soldier, unable to reach out, unable to share, just burying them deep and pretending they never existed.

You don't wind yourself tight like a clockwork toy, because eventually you'll break.

Ah, Nibelheim.

(Fire, fire everywhere, and nowhere near a shrink.)

I remember Nibelheim like this. My lip was bleeding, I bit it through when I left the Mansion and saw what my best friend had done. I could feel the heat of the flames on my skin, through my boots. I saw Cloud outside of his mother's house, and I remember looking inside and not wanting to, seeing his mother – couldn't be anybody else, with that hair – staring at me with blank, accusing eyes. There was blood on her skin, and her dress caught fire as I watched, I saw the flames lap at her, at her skin, her face, her face-

I remember Cloud said a name (Se…phi…roth…) brokenly, in pieces, like it was made up of pieces of bone he had to spit out or he'd choke. I remember wondering why he was there, because he'd been guarding the entrance to the basement for as long as Sephiroth had been down there.

Did he see the insanity in Sephiroth's eyes as he left the basement and run ahead to try and reach his mother first? Did he trail after him obediently, only to watch in horror as he cut down the first person to ask him if he was all right? Did he abandon his watch outside the basement and go to visit his mother, having decided that Sephiroth had been down there a week already with no sign of moving, nobody would notice if he wasn't around for a few hours? Was he being fussed over by her when Sephiroth stormed in with fire in his eyes and the Masamune in his hands? But then, how did he end up outside?

I never asked. You don't get all the answers coming here. All the present is open to us, but the past is closed, and the future as obscure to us as to anyone still living.

I knelt down beside him, and I was grateful he didn't seem to see me, that he kept calling Sephiroth's name, choking on those syllables of bone, because otherwise I'd have had to tell him, "Your mother is dead". But maybe he already knew, and I hated myself for hoping that was true, that he'd seen it happen, just because it meant I wouldn't have to tell him. Then I caught sight of Sephiroth through a curtain of flame.

I remember that I left Cloud there and chased after him, too full of fury and hate to do anything else. I was arrogant, and I was a fool.

I remember looking Sephiroth in the face and thinking (...oh, god, I'm dead) I'd never seen anything quite so scary. I'd been his friend long enough that I'd forgotten what I thought I never would – that this man was not like me, like everybody else, that he was something far beyond us. I'd forgotten the Sephiroth I saw on the battlefield, I had forgotten that this was the same man who had torn through the Wutai army like a hurricane, like a reaper cutting down great swathes of wheat with a sharp scythe – because over time I had come to believe that I had no reason to fear him, that there would never be a situation where I faced the same thing.

I remember… that his blood on the Buster Sword was almost black. It was the first time I'd ever seen Sephiroth bleed, and I watched his blood trickle down the edge of the Buster Sword and I thought… I thought… (this can't be happening) that an era was over, that everything was over. I saw the Great Sephiroth bleed at the hands of an ordinary soldier. I saw him look like – for the first time truthfully, not because I liked him and he was my friend – a normal man. After my arrogance and my pride, to see him hurt by Cloud, just a normal guy, nothing special, a ShinRa grunt (a wolf that had been pretending to be a dog) … I almost wanted… no, I lie, I did want to see him turn around and fling him aside as easily as he did me. I wanted to see him toss Cloud around like he was toy, pitch him into walls hard enough to make a dent because how could I have done nothing, and Cloud everything? How could it have been so easy for him to bat me aside like an irritating insect… but so hard for him to even speak when Cloud got one good hit in? How could it have been so goddamn easy for Cloud to do what he did, when I had failed?

(—What you are failing to take into account, Fair, Sephiroth says in the iciest tone I have ever heard from him, sane or insane, though whether it's because of the memory or because of what I've just been saying I don't know, —Is that it was Cloud Strife's hometown I burnt to the ground, not yours. Naturally, he desired my end far more than you did. Not to mention he was intelligent. He didn't give me a warning. It has nothing to do with mako or the absence thereof.)

That's why… I told Cloud to kill him. I wanted… Cloud… I wanted… to see you fail.

I've regretted that moment of thwarted pride for the rest of my life and beyond it, but that doesn't change anything, doesn't change the fact that when I saw him pin Cloud upon the Masamune like a butterfly some part of me, the SOLDIER part that was used to being considered above ordinary people and had come to believe its own hype, some part of me said yes.

(—If it weren't for the lack of options, The Real Sephiroth said to me very softly in a deadly voice when I told him this, and I remember how ashamed I was and how his eyes looked into me and saw filth, saw something so hideous he wouldn't even touch it with his boot —I would never speak to you again.

I wouldn't have blamed him either, because when I think about it, I don't ever want to speak to me.)

I remember Zangan's face, etched with worry and determination, I remember watching him run past Cloud on the walkway like he didn't matter, scoop Tifa carefully into his arms and run back out. I remember cursing his name in my mind for weeks on end for leaving us.

I remember the end of my world like that.

Let's talk about Zangan for a moment, try and see it from his eyes.

You're a martial artist, a good one, a great one. You have one hundred and twenty-eight students across the world, from Midgar to Wutai. When the Great Sephiroth loses more than just a few screws, you try to help the people in the village, and that's well and good (except what did you help them to live for? They became the Black Cloaks after all). You don't go after him – you, a fighter with all your years and experience, the only person in the town with any real chance.

(Call yourself a warrior, old man? You stood by and you tried to save the townspeople… and then, after a SOLDIER had tried, after your fifteen year old pupil and a sixteen year old boy with no better training than any other ShinRa grunt tried, you abandoned those people like pieces of nothing and you came.

Were you afraid? Did you watch the way he carved up men, women, children with effortless, lazy flicks of that long sword? Were you spellbound at how easily he reduced people to corpses? Did you tell yourself it was not fear but caution that stayed your hands and your feet?)

You enter the reactor. There are three people. A boy you don't know, a girl you do, a SOLDIER you told to kill Sephiroth (well, that certainly taught me the danger of arrogance.)

Three people. The boy is closest, the boy who did what you could not, what you – martial arts master, with pupils from Midgar to Wutai – should have done. You don't know that, of course – you weren't there. He's badly wounded, possibly dying.

Perhaps you were jealous of this boy? Of the feat of strength you could not perform? Or perhaps it was simply the way he was lying, crumpled like a marionette with the strings cut, and the warrior part of your brain saw how he lay, saw the blood and the paleness of his skin and said, he won't live and the human part of you said, I don't know this boy.

Just past him is a girl, a girl you have trained and cared for carved up like a turkey.

Was that all that saved her from the fate that awaited the other survivors of Nibelheim? That she was your pupil? Did your emotions override your sense, as we are taught never to allow them to do? He cut her open without even thinking about; I watched her skin, her flesh peel apart and unfold like a red flower to reveal bone beneath – did you think she would live? Where was the warrior part of your brain then?

(I wonder sometimes if he meant her to live. I've seen the Masamune cut through bone as if it were butter. I've seen him carve people up like a fucking artist. If he wanted somebody dead, they died. Or maybe it was all a game: if you die, well that's fine; if you have enough strength to force yourself to live, you probably deserve to. Maybe he was playing with his puppet even then, watching his responses like observing a lab rat.

Maybe he just didn't give a fuck.)

Furthest from you there is a man badly wounded, but infused with mako that will make short work of those injuries.

(I would have recovered. A matter of days, a week, I would have recovered. Hell, give me a few hours or a Cure spell – I'd be shamed if Cloud could do something I couldn't, a frickin' First Class and all. I could have gone back. I would have gone back.)

You have five minutes, possibly less.

How do you decide, in a situation like that, just who you should save?

Did he know what he was leaving us to? Even not knowing, was he consumed so utterly by the thought of his prize pupil he could spare none for us? He left her Midgar the moment he got there. Why did he not come back, if only to assuage his conscience?

But he didn't come back.

(Am I being unfair? Well just what the fuck did you expect? The blame has got to go somewhere, and not all the guilt in this caper can be mine.)

Don't think I didn't love Cloud. I died for him, something you'll hear everybody talk about but rarely do. I died for him and that wasn't a mistake, there was never another choice, no matter how selfish I sometimes feel. And okay, so wishing him impalement wasn't exactly generous of spirit, but don't think I wouldn't take that thought back if I could. Don't think I haven't cursed myself over and over for succumbing to such human egotism.

Don't think I stand here and wish Cloud ill. Don't think I wouldn't do it all over again if I could.

But don't think I'm some sort of saint, either. I was just a normal guy who got messed up in things way beyond my understanding, and I did the best I could.

How dare you judge me?

(Se...phi...roth...) I heard that beneath Cloud's tears, beneath his hatred and fury. Little syllables of bone.

That was the end of my life; everything that followed was only the afterimage.

At fourteen Cloud Strife was small and skinny and pale, and I remember thinking he had the brightest, bluest eyes I'd ever seen without the help of mako. He had spirit then; he was like a colt just being broken in, and you could see it in his eyes that he was fighting the process every step of the way.

SOLDIER training did what it was supposed to do and beat him, broke him, reset him, smoothed away his edges; made him just like every other tiny cog in the great big ShinRa machine, and he learnt from it. He didn't get into fights. He didn't backchat officers. He didn't make waves. He slipped so effectively into the walls it's a wonder the Turks didn't realise what a rough diamond was beneath their noses and snap him up. He was a ferocious little wolf masquerading as a puppy dog, and nobody could see it but me.

(—I saw, Sephiroth whispers, so low I almost think it's just my imagination. I'm not inclined to believe him. He's been obsessing over killing Cloud for years; that has got to screw with the memory. I'm not saying Sephiroth doesn't recognise there's something special about Cloud – there has to be, for a lowly grunt to kill him. But I doubt he saw it at that time.)

He was utterly fearless, too focussed on his goal to care for much else. He had what Reno has, what any good Turk or SOLDIER has – every time you knocked him down, he just got right back up. No matter what you put him through, he kept going on, if he had to drag himself to do it. Determination like that is rare.

Which just makes all that happened to him all the more wasteful and stupid. The best I can describe it is… a kid. A kid with a new toy, one of those really expensive robotic new toys and this kid, he smashes it repeatedly against a wall until the toy is scattered into a thousand twisted pieces of electronic components. And then the kid puts it all back together again, but topsy-turvy, and the result is something that doesn't bear any resemblance at all to the original. Then the kid talks about this replacement as if it's something superior, because he rebuilt it with his own hands.

Wasteful. Stupid. Worthless.

The lab… the world was made of glass walls and glowing green and screams. No. Let's not talk about that. I can talk about what happened after, if I close my eyes and pretend it all happened to someone else. I can talk about what happened to Cloud, if I don't think about what it really meant. I can talk about those things and tell you with as much honesty as I possess about them, but don't ask me to walk that way again.

The Great Escape… yeah, sure I can tell you about that.

In the lab… in the lab, Cloud talked all the time. In the beginning. But never to me, as if I was part of something less real, as if I were the hallucination, me and the lab, the glass walls and the mako stink and the measured tones of laboratory assistants. The only thing that was real was the voice nobody else could hear.

He'd call Sephiroth's name, and he'd curse and he'd snarl like some demented wolf and sometimes he'd just sit there and hum some really pretty songs I'd totally have liked if it weren't for the circumstances and occasionally he'd say some really weird shit. I hoped that last was the drugs they kept pumping into him, because the alternative was too ugly and painful.

(—The thorn, for a path of trouble and pain Cloud said once, I dunno, maybe three months in? Quite a while, anyway. So he says this right out of the blue, and then he stops and listens. He didn't move exactly, he still pressed his forehead to the glass, didn't even really move a muscle, but he didn't move a muscle in a way that made you think he was listening to something, like he'd been talking to someone and they were replying. Then he laughed, really softly, a bit like a single bloodstained feather floating in the air, it was that lost and that pathetic.

Ice, he whispered, —for a path of sorrow and loneliness

—Liar, he said in response to the invisible conversationalist, but he said it in the sort of way that makes you think of old friends or new lovers, really fondly, like it was true and they both knew it but he didn't want to hurt the other person's feelings over it.

The wild ox, for bravery and strength. I don't think – huh, you do, do you? But you're biased, aren't you?

—Stop it, I said to him, —Cloud, just stop it.

A Pine torch, you will find out a secret. That sounds kinda cool, doesn't it? Do you want to know the secret when I find it? I'll tell you if you like. But you've got to tell me a secret too, because that's only fair, isn't it?


A Stone, disappointment awaits you. I told you fortune telling with runes was stupid, I've already had every disappointment I could possibly get. Let's talk about something else. …Hey, Sephiroth?

Why didn't you talk to me? You were my friend; why didn't you talk to me?)

Then he stopped talking at all. I waited for months and months, because sometimes Cloud went deep inside and it was difficult for him to find his way back. I waited until the day something appeared inside Cloud's head and looked out and wrote in Wutai letters upon the glass that was the edge of the world, and I couldn't pretend anymore.

Let's get out of here.

I was ready. But Hojo was ready too.

Sometimes I wonder if Hojo had something planned with our escape. With my death and Cloud's survival, and the Reunion starting the moment Cloud got locked up in the ShinRa tower, sometimes I wonder if the slimy bastard planned everything.

Then I try not to wonder at all because it makes my heart hurt and my stomach clench and my eyes sting. How could anybody, anybody possibly be so sadistic, so cruel, so fucking monstrous –

Oh god, Cloud.

Ah, Sephiroth. Sephiroth.

God. Just… god.

(bullets and pain, and forget him, he's a waste of bullets and my last thoughts were all full of relief, because it was all going to be okay for Cloud, he was going to be just fine, and what the hell did I know, and if I had I might just have taken the knife I kept in my boot and put it through his throat.)

I didn't think about it at all at the time – there were big now things to worry about, like how to get Cloud out of there and how to get away and who gave a fuck if there were far less guards then I was expecting and they were so pathetically useless for people who had supposedly been guarding us for five goddamn years and

God. God, I saw the sky for the first time in five years. It was all clouds – boring, boring grey – with the sun fighting tooth and nail for exposure, lighting everything up for a few lame-ass seconds every ten minutes or so and it was the type of weather I always hated because you could never be quite sure of where it was gonna go, but oh god, it was so beautiful.

It was so goddamned beautiful and I was so happy I put Cloud down for a few moments and I just stared like some whacko, spinning around and around with my arms spread wide like I could hug the whole damn world until I fell over and just lay there, staring at the sky.

I lay there for all of ten seconds and then I got up, and I hauled Cloud onto his feet and dragged him along while he made little whimpering noises that never meant anything. Except that I wanted them to so badly, because they were the first noises Cloud had made for months upon months that weren't screams.

So there we were, free at last, Cloud drooling like my grandpa – he was senile, or at least, he was every time there were family gatherings, because nobody's going to slap a senile old man who doesn't know better than to make extremely inappropriate remarks, are they? – and I was shaking and shivering and Nibelheim was all around us, and for a moment I felt so hopeless I wanted to give up and just lie back down and stare at the sky until the bastards in white coats and blue suits came and dragged us back.

What would they have done if I had done that, I wonder?

Nibelheim. If it hadn't been for time constraints and the need to just get the hell out I'd have burned it down again, because building a perfect duplication of entire town, right down the fucking roof slates could be nothing good.

Nothing good at all.

If I knew what I was saving Cloud for, I might have given in to the urge to put my hands around his throat and strangle him. If I knew what was coming for him, would I have done that?

I think… I think I might have done.

The day I died, I thought everything would be worth it, all the pain and suffering and lost time, all the experiments and blood and hubris, it would all be worth it if only Cloud could live. I truly believed that. But if I had known what the life was to be that I saved him for, I would have killed him. Guilt and Destiny be damned, I would have killed him.

It hasn't been long since I died – not long enough to forget how it felt to lie on fresh-cut grass, to forget the best of the sunrises or the taste of a cold beer (nothing doing, naturally, but it's the principle of the thing – what, you've let Seph convince you I don't have principles?) or the smell of Aerith's skin…

I was willing to lose all of these things. The smile Aerith would give me in greeting, the taste of my mom's cooking, the exhilaration of a good spar, every good and precious moment that I had and never recognised I lost in seconds to the feel of bullets in my flesh and blood thick on my skin, but I was willing to lose them all, to lose the most important battle of my life if only my friend, the last friend I had left, could live.

(I'll tell you a secret, yeah? Just between you and me. I'm not that selfless. There are days when I wish it had been Cloud instead. Anybody who says they'd tell you something different is lying.

I'll say on those days that I'm thinking of Cloud, I'm thinking of the all the suffering Sephiroth put him through, of all the flaming hoops he had to jump, how he was torn apart. There are even days when I could tell you the reason was simply that I wanted so badly to be the one to cut Sephiroth down – I was owed that, he was owed that – to die on a SOLDIER's blade. It's true enough. The best lies always are.

But I'll never tell anyone else that there are moments when I want to say it should have been me, I should have lived. I was the SOLDIER; I was the strength, the sword, the shield. I should have lived.

But I didn't and here I am and there he is, and I don't ask, why was your life worth preserving above my own? and I don't ask myself how much longer I might have lived if I'd left him behind, because I wouldn't be able to stand the answer.)

So long as Cloud was alive I was too, lingering in his wake like a second shadow (Or maybe a third or fourth. I think he collects us, you know. He certainly doesn't try to get rid of us) and I watched. I watched as out of guilt he made a space inside himself for me to reside in, a void so wide and deep there was room for everyone but my best friend. I knew he hollowed himself out too far; that the walls were thin and would crack and crumble and collapse, that the ceiling would fall in upon his poor muddled head, but I wanted to live – it still meant something to me (I was twenty-three, goddamn it, and nobody, whatever the fuck their occupation, wants to die at twenty-three) – so I stayed and let him hide behind me like a child I didn't know.

My friend was nothing but void, an empty space he filled with disparate memories and the thoughts of other people and different lives, as if Cloud Strife wasn't good enough. (Who the fuck made him think that? Did he think I'd die for just anyone the way I did?

—Self-sacrifice has far too many drawbacks, Sephiroth drawls in a perfect imitation of Reno. —Which is why I get other people to sacrifice themselves for me instead. I can handle their deaths far better then they can deal with mine.)

I watched him fall to pieces and I realised nothing had been worth it at all. It would have been better for him to die. (But every time he comes to us we'll send him away – sorry friend, ain't your time yet, ain't ever your time)

It would've been better for him to die, but Cloud Strife was – is – my friend. Friends don't give up on each other. Ever. Not friends like us, who lived for each other during the days that death would have been the best gift anyone could have given. I don't stay here because I have to; I stay here because I chose to. Because some things make me think, hey, maybe he can make it. There is a reason my buddy lived; it's not some capricious whim of fate that only he can beat Seph.

Half the time, I figure I'm lying.

But the other half… I see Sephiroth's face, I see him walking in Cloud's dreams and I know. I see his smile and I see the chain wound around his arm and I know that he knows.

(You, he has never said. You and no other. If I were still alive, would the privilege have been mine?)

When Sephiroth and I met again in this place, I tried to strangle him. Not the smartest thing to attempt in the afterlife on a man who'd tried to kill me the last time we saw each other. But what else could I do? He was the reason my world split apart at the seams, he was the reason Cloud spent five years of his life delirious or screaming, the reason I died on a cliff outside Midgar; just what did you think I was going to do, hug him?

After that though, it was almost like old times. Almost. He wasn't dead and he didn't belong and there was no control in when or where he showed up. But back then, split in two, when he was here, he was Sephiroth.

When he made his rare visits, he and I used to vie silently for the opportunity to speak to Cloud, both of us hoping against hope that it would be on our shift that he had those brief periods of lucidity, was able to hear us and answer back. I had the advantage – he was hiding behind me, after all; in every gesture he thought without knowing it of me. Sephiroth could never stay long, and he was quiet and brief whenever he did manage to stay long enough and speak.

I saw him for perhaps two hours all put together during the 'Crisis' and I learnt more about him then than I did during the entirety of our friendship.

He was steady and determined and as constant as it was possible for him to be, guiding Cloud as well as he could down the best paths for him without ever letting him realise it, like all the best guides. It was his way of atonement, Aerith explained to me when she got here, satisfied, like a huge piece of a puzzle she'd been trying to figure out for ages had just gone and put itself in place.

He even managed to take control sometimes and he knew what had to be done in those moments. He influenced himself, he made the mockery of himself listen and react to what he said, so that he – well, not him exactly… you know what I mean, right? The… image, the cheap imitation remainder of him – ended up stripping Cloud of his armour, peeling back the layers of memory to get that sixteen year old that killed him, that had never felt a scalpel blade; he nudged Cloud this way and that towards enlightenment even as he tried to kill him.

Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Poli, poli, di umbuendo, I remember him whispering into Cloud's ear, weaving a shield for him with ancient words. I had to ask Aerith what they meant.

Be patient and endure; some day this pain will be useful to you. Slowly, slowly, we will get there

The problem was that taking his protection from him like that meant there was a very long period (for a living person, I mean) where Cloud stayed with us and refused to go back, helpless and confused.

You have to hurt to heal, Aerith explained to me when I cursed him for Cloud's condition, calling him names I don't think even Highwind's heard before.

—Help him, I burst out at last. —You broke him, you fucking fix him, goddamn you! (Nobody will ever know desperation as I knew it in that moment.) —Please Seph, do it for me.

The scowl on his face said very effectively what he wouldn't waste breath on: what do I care about you, you've been a pain in the ass from the moment I met you.

—Fine, do it for Cloud then.

Slowly, slowly we will get there.

It was the wrong approach to take, to ask him as if he cared. —What do I care for some pathetic little human He said, mocking himself, his voice so hoarse from disuse it was impossible to hear in it the normal undertones of his barely discernable dry humour.

—Perhaps because you've been obsessing over that pathetic little human for five years, I said impatiently. —I know you were in the lab, I added.

The edges of his mouth tightened with displeasure; an inquiring eyebrow raised itself disdainfully.

—Ifrit's horns, I muttered. —Did you seriously think I wouldn't realise something was up when my best friend started having one-sided conversations with thin air saying it's you?

There was an almost apologetic grimace before he crossed his arms and settled back. (—It was my fault, he explained quietly the very last time I saw him. —Nobody should have been there, not you and especially not him, he wasn't even– he was just a trooper. It was right, you understand? If I could give him something to cling to, to keep him living, even if it was out of hate, it was right. It was the only way I could even begin to apologise.)

—Do it for you, Aerith suggested gently. We both whirled around to face her. He opened his mouth to reply, or to ask her to clarify, I don't know which, only he blinked out of existence.

—Shit, I said. —There has got to be some way to make him stay here longer than five minutes.

—Only true death, Aerith said, clasping her hands together. —And I'm not so sure about the effectiveness of even that. Don't worry, Zack. If he can't do it, we can.

—Bullshit, I said, burying my head in my hands.

—We can, she said resolutely, her eyes flashing. —And Sephiroth has enough pride left that he can't stand to see the image of himself committing such atrocities.

—You are so manipulative, I grinned tiredly. —No wonder the Turks were after you.

She beamed in response, and made that beautiful swaying movement that always made me want to kiss her until air reminded us it was a necessity, not an option. —He'll be fine, she repeated firmly.

—What doesn't break you makes you stronger, eh?

—Uh-huh, she smiled sweetly, and I forgot all about Cloud for next few hours.

Be patient and endure; some day this pain will be useful to you. Slowly, slowly, we will get there.

This is us. Right here, this is us. We are not a game.

A/N: Rambling, pointless, and confusing. Not to mention, cheerfully steals ideas from all over the place. If you made it this far, I salute you and offer candy.