Kingdom Hearts II

The Fairest of All?

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and this nonsense is! It was totally inspired by a wonderful picture on DeviantArt called Who Is the Fairest... ?, drawn by LB82. The picture depicts the evil Queen from Snow White upset because the mirror has informed her that Sephiroth is prettier than she is. So this fic is a story within a story, as Zack invents a very twisted fairy tale. He draws from other stories besides Snow White, including Beauty and the BeastRapunzelSleeping BeautyThe Three Little Pigs, and even Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. It's been a while since I've written anything so absolutely ridiculous, but I'm pretty happy with the results. The framing story takes place during the most recent events of my timeline, probably at a point after On New Terrain. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help!

It had been a long and frustrating day. With Zack's leg still not entirely healed from the shooting courtesy of Hojo, Cloud and Sephiroth had gone out by themselves to search for any remaining dragons or mysterious fire imps. Some had supposedly been sighted near the Dark Depths, but after spending the entire day there, nothing had been found. Both men were tired and vexed by the time they returned. In spite of their admission of mutual feelings of friendship, their personalities still clashed on most days, and today they had become entirely exasperated with each other.

And it did not help when the promised winter storm became a blizzard that abruptly rendered the electricity useless.

As they and Zack sat in the dark of the living room, an annoyed curse broke the silence.

"Can this stupid day get any worse?" Cloud grumbled.

"Now that you've said that, it probably will," Sephiroth responded, his voice dripping sarcasm.

"Hey, it shouldn't be that bad!" Zack chirped. "We'll just find some flashlights, candles . . . it'll be fun!" He grinned. "I could make some sandwiches, and chocolate milk, and we could chill out in here and tell stories or something."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "My inspiration's dry," he retorted. "I'll find the flashlights."

As he stood up and moved forward, he heard a grunt of pain. And something had gotten under his socked foot. He glowered, stepping back. "Why don't you watch where you're going?" he snapped.

"You were stepping on my wing," Sephiroth retorted.

"Well, maybe if you wouldn't let them hang on the floor all the time, it wouldn't have happened!" Cloud all but yelled.

"Maybe if you were actually paying attention, it wouldn't h e happened," Sephiroth answered. He could see Cloud's vague outline in the darkened room.

"Maybe you should've gotten out of my way, if you saw I was coming!"

Zack slapped his forehead. "Come on, guys, cut it out," he said. Grabbing his cane, he eased himself off the couch and limped towards the window. As he pulled back the curtain, a bit more light streamed into the room. Outside, white was swirling past. The wind howled. And the temperature was going to go down quick.

"I'm going to start a fire, okay?" he spoke again, once the screaming had ceased.

"I could do that much faster," Sephiroth said. Coming over to the hearth, he pulled back the safety gate and held out his hand. A small ball of fire rolled from his palm and into the logs. The blaze roared to life.

Cloud shook his head. "Showoff," he muttered, turning to find the desk where the flashlights were kept.

Soon the sandwiches and chocolate milk were ready. The trio settled in the living room again, placing the food on the glass coffee table. Sephiroth kept his wings close around himself, curling the lower two against his legs. Cloud opted to sit as far away from him as possible, and sank into the couch on Zack's other side.

"Okay!" Zack grinned. "So! I'll tell a story."

"Then it'll probably be something cheesy," Cloud grumbled.

Zack just smirked, the light of the fire giving him an even more mischievous look. "It'll be adventurous!" he protested. "And different. You guys remember the Snow White fairy tale, right?"

Both winged men stared at their friend. "A fairy tale?" Sephiroth repeated, incredulous.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Isn't that the one where the girl's psycho step-mother keeps trying to kill her, and she ends up running into the woods and living with a bunch of old guys?"

"Something like that," Zack said, amused by Cloud's description.

"She's stupid enough to take food from a complete stranger and gets poisoned," Cloud went on. "And the old guys actually keep her in a glass coffin so they can see her!" He bit into the sandwich. "What's the matter with them?! Are they all a bunch of those creeps obsessed with dead bodies?"

"Even if they weren't, the prince most certainly was," Sephiroth grunted. "He was willing to pay the dwarves just to be able to take the body. And he wasn't happy unless the coffin was always right by him at his palace."

"Okay, that was pretty freaky," Zack conceded. "I mean, yeah, he was supposed to have fallen in love with her, but she looked dead."

"Any guy who falls in love with a corpse has got to have something wrong with him," said Cloud.

"And let's not forget that she was revived by a kiss, of all things," Sephiroth added dryly.

"True love conquers all," Cloud said in sarcasm.

"Only she didn't even know the man," Sephiroth said. "True love doesn't come instantaneously."

Cloud snorted. "Most of the time, it doesn't come at all."

"You guys are such pessimists!" Zack scolded, his tone light.

"It's realistic," they said in unison, and then frowned at each other.

Zack held up his hands, not wanting another argument to start. "Actually," he mused, "in one of the versions, she and the prince did meet before, and he'd been searching for her all that time."

"Well, at least that makes a little more sense," Cloud grumbled.

Zack smiled. "What we're gonna do here is mix things all up," he announced. "This is gonna be a fairy tale like you've never heard before!"

Cloud gulped down some of the chocolate milk before replying. "When you're telling it, that's obvious before you've even begun," he said.

Now Zack smirked. "Thank you," he said. "Now, this is about a self-exiled warrior, a swordsman for hire, an evil queen, and the seven Heartless."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Seven Heartless?" he repeated.

"Sure!" Zack chirped. "Those little guys cause a heck of a lot of trouble, but they actually look kinda cute."

Cloud did not look impressed. "Wouldn't they be better off roaming through the woods or something?" he said. "They can't even talk. They could be the dangerous things the huntsman figures Snow White'll be killed by."

"Yeah, that's true!" Zack said. "Okay, we'll figure that out when we come to it." He smirked again. "But Snow White isn't in this story."

Both men fixed him with blank stares. "Then what's the point of this nonsense?" Sephiroth asked.

Instead of answering, Zack just leaned back and grinned.

"So there's this kingdom, right? And it's ruled by a good guy and his witchy wife. Well, he dies—some say she did it—and she's ruling alone. And she's really vain. So she goes and talks to her mirror every day, and she asks it who's the fairest of them all. Then it says, 'The fairest is you, my queen.' Oh, here she is now."

The clicking of heels echoed down the hallway, accompanied by an ominous shadow that gradually diminished to the size and build of a woman. Her face, which could have been beautiful, was cold and hard, frozen in a perpetual scowl. Her eyes were glittering with the anticipation of her morning ritual. She needed to be told that she was the most beautiful in the land. No one else told her, because she did not associate with her subjects, and they did not like her, anyway. But she did not care, as long as she could rule over them with fear.

Reaching the throne room, she grasped the golden carved doorhandles and flung them open. Light spilled into the room, and the mirror glowed in response.

"Good morning, my queen," it intoned.

She smirked quietly as she walked over to it. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" she purred.

"You are very fair, it's true," replied the mirror, and the Queen's eyes narrowed at the new greeting. "But the exiled warrior who has arrived at the kingdom's borders is much fairer than you."

For a long moment an uneasy silence reigned in the spacious room. Then the enraged voice burst forth.

"WHAT?!" she screamed. "Who is this warrior? Show her to me!" Some filthy woman, no doubt, with short or unkempt hair and ragged, bloodstained clothes. How could she possibly be more fair than the Queen? How could anyone?

"Wait a minute," Cloud interrupted. "I thought the mirror just talked, and didn't show pictures."

Zack shrugged. "Hey, it's a fantasy," he said. "Let's just go with it. We're getting to the good part."

Sephiroth did not care one way or another.

"The warrior is not a female," the mirror said.

In the next moment the Queen's reflection faded in favor of a scene. It seemed to be part of the forest, and a tall, well-built figure was standing to the side of a pool. Apparently he had just finished bathing, as he was in the act of wringing out his hair. He was bare to the waist, and the three blue wings sprouting from his back twitched as the morning light hit upon them.

The woman stared in a mixture of shock, horror, and disbelief. This . . . this creature was more fair than she? No! That was impossible. The mirror must be malfunctioning. She drew back her arm, fury sparking in her eyes. She would destroy it and start anew! Another mirror would not speak of such outrageous ideas! Another mirror would recognize that no one was more pleasing to the eye than she!

But before she could smash the glass, the man turned, as if he knew he was being watched. His eyes narrowed in suspicion.

As the mirror went in for a closeup, an enraged gasp flew from the wicked Queen's lips. He was beautiful. His skin was smooth and firm, without blemish. His deep emerald eyes were framed by eyelashes for which many women would die. His expression was still serious, but it did not take away in the least from his features.

His silver hair was long and perfect. As he began to brush it, it glistened under the sun's rays. Most women spent their whole lives struggling to get their locks even half as fine.

She hated him. In one moment, her hatred had filled her heart nearly to the point of it bursting. A fist clenched, the long and pointed nails digging into her palm until drops of blood appeared.

"Sephiroth?!" Cloud burst out. "Sephiroth is the most fair?!" If this was an indication of what they were in for, it was going to be a really weird night. Trying to picture this twist was just too bizarre.

Zack smirked. "No wonder she's having a fit," he said lightly. "Not only is Seph much better-looking, but he's a guy!" He looked to Seph, who had crossed his arms and was regarding Zack with an indescribable expression. This was inane. Both of them knew it. Yet there was a certain spark of amusement in Seph's eyes.

"And I'm far more intelligent than to accept an apple from a complete stranger," he deadpanned.

"Of course you are!" Zack chirped.

Cloud shook his head. "Just much pain medication did you take?" he demanded. "You must be high on the stuff, to come up with something like this."

Zack just gave him an innocent look. "My leg wasn't bothering me too bad today," he said. "I didn't take any medication!"

Cloud took a bite of sandwich. "You could've fooled me," he muttered.

"Go ahead and continue," Sephiroth interjected.

Cloud gawked at him. "You're not really enjoying this?!" he exclaimed.

Sephiroth only leaned back, a trace of a smirk on his features. "Only . . . certain elements," he said.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Egotist," he retorted. Sephiroth's pride over his looks was well-known by both Cloud and Zack. Some part of him liked the idea that he was the most fair.

"And just what's the matter with that queen anyway?" Cloud added as an afterthought. "She's so worried about being the most beautiful, or something, but she's cutting into her hand!"

"That's what jealousy does," Zack said solemnly. "Fogs up your mind."

"I want him dead!" the Queen caterwauled, her voice echoing unfavorably through the room. Any servants in listening range made themselves scarce, not wanting to know to whom she was referring.

"Do you hear me? I WANT HIM DEAD!"

"I'm a mirror, not an assassin," retorted the wall hanging. "And don't yell at me, I only work here."

"Oh!" The Queen whirled around in disgust.

"I know what I will do," she plotted aloud, not caring who might be overhearing. "I will send for the best swordsman in the land. He will fight this warrior and bring his heart to me. No one will defy me by being the most fair!"

"Why, exactly, did I exile myself?" Sephiroth asked, his tone flat.

Zack held up a hand. "We're coming to that!" he said.

"Wait a minute," Cloud glowered. "You're not going to make me the . . ."

Zack only rushed on.

"So the Queen sent for the one guy she figured could get rid of this new threat. Not too much was known about him, except that he was honorable and good. There was no way that she could get him to kill poor Seph just because she was jealous of his looks. But, if she twisted the story around, she was pretty sure she could make him act as her puppet.

"When it was getting close to evening, the swordsman was finally found and brought to the palace. He wasn't told what the heck this was about, only that the Queen wanted to see him and that it must be serious, because well, she wouldn't be sending for him if it was something trivial."

The spiky-haired fighter for hire looked up, glowering in the general direction of the ceiling. "Will you shut up already?" he snapped. "I'm trying to think here."

Zack blinked at being talked back to by one of his story's characters. But then he merely threw up his hands in resignation. "Okay, okay!" he said. "You take over."

"Thanks," the other replied, rolling his eyes.

As he was led into the throne room, the Queen remained seated, staring down her nose at him. Such a sight he made, with his wild blond hair and his tattered red cape. From the left shoulder, a ragged bat wing was limply protruding. But what interested her was the large sword clasped in his hands. It could so easily accomplish her desires.

"You are Cloud Strife?" Her voice was dark and poisonous.

He took note instantly. "Yeah," he said, continuing to stand where he was. "What is it you want from me?"

Her lip curled in derision. "You dare to speak that way to your queen?!" she fumed. "Kneel! Bow before me as I am speaking to you!"

He flicked his wing. "I think I'll stay where I am, thanks," he said. So the rumors he had heard really were true. She was as unpleasant and annoying as everyone said. If she was worth respecting, he would do what she wanted. But as it was, there was no way he was going to adhere to her wishes. He had not even wanted to come there. But hey, what could he do, with guards prodding him all along the way? Maybe by coming, she would offer him money if he would do something for her. He could use it.

The Queen glowered. Oh, the insolent boy! She wanted to strike him down then and there. But she still needed him. However, after he did her bidding, she was becoming increasingly tempted to end his life.

"There is a vicious beast loose in the woods," she told him, her voice clipped and declaring her disapproval. "It may reach the town if left to roam. You will go after it and destroy it."

Cloud's expression never changed. "There's lots of creatures in the woods," he retorted. "How will I know which one? And more important, what am I going to be paid?"

"You will know." Her eyes were as daggers. "There is only one beast bearing three blue wings."

The blue eyes widened only slightly before returning to their indifferent gaze. "I won't go after anything without a down payment," he said.

A small bag was thrust at his feet. "That is only a brief portion of what you will receive for killing this monster," she said. "Bring its wings and its heart to me, as proof of its demise, and you will receive ten times this amount."

Cloud bent down, picking it up and weighing it in his hand. From the feel of it, there was enough for his introductory fee, plus at least ten extra golden coins.

"I'll go look for it," he muttered, turning to go.

That was true, at least. There was no need to let her know that he had no intention of killing this "monster."

"So what's the deal?" Cloud grumbled. "I'm a swordsman for hire, who knows who she's talking about, but I'm not going to try to do him in?"

"Of course not!" Zack said. "But there's no way you'd tell her any of that."

"And where are you in all of this?" Sephiroth frowned.

Zack shrugged and grinned. "I'm the narrator," he said.

It was after dark when Cloud journeyed into the woods, but he did not care. He was used to their every path and curve, and he knew how to avoid the dangerous Heartless creatures that made the forest their home. The "beast" he was tracking knew as well. He would have to, to survive here for some indeterminable time.

So, he thought to himself, you came back. After all these years, you came back.

He stooped to pick up a fallen feather. As he held it up to the light, the deep blue color shone clearly under the moonlight.

If he had refused the Queen, she would have only gotten someone else. And who knew what she would have tried to do to him. He was not afraid of her, but he was on guard when it came to a situation such as this. Since he had accepted, he could look for the warrior himself, speak to him, find out what was going on. It would be much harder to do that if he was trying to intercept some other mercenary.

Why did you come back?

After the disappearance of their mutual friend Zack, the other two had grown distant from each other. Eventually, their feelings had spilled over into a cutting argument. Each had vowed not to come back, nor to speak to the other, until they found news of Zack. Sometimes Cloud regretted what had happened between them. He wondered now and then if Sephiroth ever did, too. But their pride would no doubt keep them both from admitting it.

He himself had returned as a last resort, hoping against hope that Zack had found his way home again and that he was waiting. But there was no such luck. Zack was still not in the kingdom of Hollow Bastion. And Hollow Bastion itself had pretty much gone to the dogs. Cloud was seriously tempted to leave again, once all this was sorted out.

Yet it was still home. Instead of leaving, maybe he should stay and try to fix things. No one else seemed to have any intentions of doing so. Unless the Restoration Committee still existed, and was on the Underground, or something.

"You wrote yourself out of the story?!" Cloud cried.

"That's hardly fair, since we have to play our parts," Sephiroth remarked.

Zack looked at them innocently. "Hey, there's still a lot to go," he said.

Most people insisted that Zack must be dead by now. He would not have left if there was not some danger that he was afraid would harm his friends. He had probably led it away from town and allowed himself to be killed by it to save the others. But those who loved him would not believe it unless they found his dead body.

A rustling in the brush brought Cloud to attention again. He gripped the sword, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. It could be a Heartless, or some other unsavory creature. But on the other hand, it could be . . .

He saw the glint of silver a moment too late. The Masamune was being held at his throat.

"Well, this is interesting," a low voice commented. "You're losing your touch, Cloud. If I'd wanted to kill you, you'd be dead by now."

Cloud glowered. "Sephiroth." He was still in the shadows, but now his light breathing could be heard nearby. "The Queen's out for your blood. What did you do to her?"

"I didn't do anything to her," was the grunted answer. "I've never even met her. She's a useless ruler, caring only for her own vanity. But it isn't my responsibility to stop her."

"Zack would probably disagree," Cloud muttered. He could just imagine what Zack would say.

"Yeah," chirped the narrator. "If you and Seph don't take responsibility, then who will?"

"Stop reading my thoughts!" Cloud snapped.

"I'm just trying to help," Narrator Zack answered.

"Yeah, well, don't. This is our world." Cloud flicked his wing. "You're the Zack of that world."

"Guilty as charged," Narrator Zack smirked.

Cloud mumbled something unintelligible, probably a curse.

"I'm not that crabby," Cloud grumbled.

"Coulda fooled me!" Zack replied. "You and Seph've both been pretty cranky today."

"It was a long day," Sephiroth said.

"Yep," Zack nodded, leaning an arm on Seph's shoulder.

Sephiroth tensed, but then relaxed, allowing Zack to do as he wanted.

Cloud strained to see beyond the long katana to where his old rival was standing, but the shadows were too thick. A light breeze wafted through the trees' branches, and they waved their many arms, as if welcoming this meeting.

"Okay, that's really cheesy," Cloud complained.

"Just wait until later!" Zack smiled.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow.

Cloud crossed his arms, slumping into the couch. "I don't think I like the sound of that," he muttered.

At last Sephiroth stepped into view, the moonlight shining upon his flowing hair. He looked the same as Cloud had always remembered. The years had not changed him, at least not physically. But the tired look in his eyes was obvious. And his wings seemed to be partially drooping.

Cloud frowned. "Why did you come back?" he asked.

"I heard that Zack might be here," Sephiroth replied.

"Well, he isn't," Cloud shot back.

"Not in town," Sephiroth said. "In the woods."

The frown deepened. "What would he be doing here?"

"I don't know." Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder. "But I will be staying until I learn the answer."

Cloud gripped the sword. "Don't even think of leaving me out!" he snapped, his voice harsh.

"I never said I would."

"You didn't come to tell me about this!" Cloud retorted. "Do you know I've been hired to kill you? That's the only reason I'm even in here in the first place!"

Sephiroth paused. "You didn't come to kill me," he said then.

Cloud only glowered. "What makes you say that?" he snapped.

Sephiroth shrugged. "You wouldn't even be talking to me, if that were the case," he said. "You would have yelled and lunged with your sword."

"Maybe I still will." Cloud regarded the other in disgusted anger. "If you knew Zack might be here, then you must've heard I'd come back to Hollow Bastion! It wouldn't have been any trouble for you, to teleport to my place and let me know what you'd found out! That was the deal, wasn't it?!" The longer he spoke, the more his voice rose. No wonder they had grown apart.

The only indication that Sephiroth was even reacting was a twitch of his upper wing. "I had a reason," he said.

"Oh yeah!" Cloud said. "I'm sure of it. You didn't want me to know. What a reason!"

"I didn't want you to know," Sephiroth said, his voice even, "because I didn't want you to have your hopes raised for nothing. I wanted to find Zack first, or find out what had happened to him, and then tell you."

"I would've told you, if I found something out!" Cloud screamed.

"Would you?"

Cloud blinked. When he really stopped to think about what he was saying . . . would he? Or would he have done exactly what Sephiroth had done? Maybe he would not have wanted to take any detours. Maybe he would have just wanted to hurry and start looking. Even though two people looking would possibly bring results sooner than one.

"So where are you, anyway?" Cloud frowned. "You're not going to do some weird fairy tale thing for your fate, are you?"

"Nah," Zack smirked. "Too freaky. Don't worry, I've left all of us pretty much intact. It's just the story itself that's being mangled."

"How reassuring," Sephiroth said, his tone dry.

Zack just smiled.

"If you don't have anything more to say, then I'm going to take my leave." Sephiroth half-turned, keeping his wings close to him.

"Sephiroth!" Cloud brought the buster sword to the other's throat. "I meant it when I said not to leave me out. I'm coming with you."

Sephiroth paused. "We would be able to cover more ground if we went in different directions," he said. "The forest is large. And if you don't return soon with proof of my death, the Queen might send someone after you."

"She'd probably just figure that I got killed by the 'beast,'" Cloud retorted. "I'm not going back there, with or without you. Unless we went to try to bring her down or something."

Sephiroth smirked slightly. "I thought you hated being a hero, Cloud."

"I do," Cloud muttered.

"And are you ever going to take your sword away from my neck?"

Cloud rolled his eyes as he stepped back, lowering the heavy weapon to the ground. "Okay," he said, "we'll split up. But we need a plan. How about we meet back here in three days or something?"

Sephiroth pondered on that for only a short time before nodding. "Alright," he consented. "And if one or the other doesn't show up, the one there will know that something has gone wrong."

"I won't know what to do," Cloud said. "Just randomly look everywhere?"

"I'm going this way," Sephiroth said, pointing North. "I've searched the south side. Why don't you try West?"

Cloud nodded. "Fine."

"And so I meet the Wicked Witch of the West," Cloud muttered in sarcasm.

"Which would leave me to encounter Glinda," Sephiroth grunted.

Zack suddenly looked thoughtful. "You know, I hadn't thought of those twists," he mused. "Maybe . . ."

"No!" Cloud and Sephiroth answered in unison.

Zack shrugged. "Just a suggestion," he said.

"So Cloud and Seph went their own ways, hoping to find their missing friend. We'll come back to Cloud later. For now we'll follow Seph as he goes North, where the forest starts going uphill."

A wing twitched. Sephiroth looked up, as Cloud had done earlier.

"Are you planning to recount my entire experience?" he asked.

"That's the idea!" Narrator Zack said.

Sephiroth's expression showed unbridled disgust.

Zack chose to ignore it. Instead, he blissfully continued the narration.

"Well, it wasn't getting any earlier. As he went deeper into the woods, he figured he'd better find somewhere to crash for the night. Sleeping out in the open wasn't a good idea, because of the Heartless and all, but shelter was hard to come by. Still, as he came to the top of the next hill, he found what looked like an abandoned cabin. All the lights were off, and the door was even swinging open in the breeze!

"He thought it might be a hideout for Heartless, so he got his sword ready as he came to the door and peeked inside. Nothing creepy was in view, or in earshot, so he reached for the light switch."

"They have electricity in a fairy tale world?" Cloud snarked.

"Why not?" Zack said.

"It's already so inane," Sephiroth grunted. "Adding electricity isn't such a stretch by now."

Zack nodded, eager to get to the next point.

"So the lights came on and it was a fully furnished place, with chairs, a table, beds . . . but the weird thing was, they were all really small! At least the ceiling was a normal height, or Seph wouldn't have even been able to get inside. When he did, he found gems and coins on one of the little beds, and weird trinkets too, like keys and bottlecaps.

"Turned out he'd wandered right into the domain of the Three Little Pixies!"

Sephiroth, who was standing by one of the beds, looked up in disbelief. "'Pixies'?!" he cried.

"Pixies?!" the real Cloud and Sephiroth echoed.

"What about the Seven Heartless?" Cloud frowned.

"They work better as dangerous creatures in the forest," Zack grinned. "I decided to change it."

Sephiroth ran a hand over his face. "I would not be found with pixies," he said.

"You will be now!" Zack smirked.

Sephiroth frowned as he studied the unorthodox decor. If anyone still lived there, they were very careless. And he would not fit on any of the beds, even if he pushed all three of them side by side. They seemed to be crafted for children, and very small children at that. (Though, if that narrator was correct, it was pixies that had taken up residence.) But it was shelter from the Heartless, at least for now. He would just close the door and sit on the floor. Perhaps he would start a fire. The fireplace, amazingly, was normal in size.

Once the flames were crackling, he turned his attention to the kitchenette. He had not eaten since noon. Would there be anything here that would be suitable? He crossed the room, opening the first cupboard he came to. A jar of peanut butter and a package of crackers were inside. The next cupboard was bare. The third held a can of dried and candied fruit.

Not a very filling meal, to be sure. But he was not in the mood to go outside again and find an animal to kill. He pulled off his dark gloves, leaving them on the counter. Picking up the containers, he carried them to the child-size table before returning to search for silverware. With the dwellers' penchant for shiny things, it seemed that they would have collected knives, forks, and spoons. And here they were. He took a knife and returned to the table.

He would have to kneel on the floor to make the preparations. If he tried to sit in one of the chairs, he would only end up on the floor anyway—sprawling on his back and looking ridiculous.

He worked quickly, spreading the peanut butter on the crackers and pulling the plastic lid off of the metal can of fruit. Apparently it had already been eaten from, but there was still enough for him to have a good share and to leave some in case the residents came back (or in case he needed to come back). He could always replace it later, if need be.

He ate in silence by the fire, using a chair as his tray. His wings were spread around him, harmless as they lay on the rug. He stared into the blaze, deep in thought.

Where would Zack be, if he had come back? Why would he be in hiding? For that matter, why had he left? Was he badly hurt? Was he looking for his friends, as they were looking for him? Or did he even have amnesia? That was painful to think about. Zack looking at him, and not knowing him at all, was incomprehensible. But at least he would be alive. And he was such a resilient person, it was hard to imagine him not ever regaining his memories.

Finishing his scanty meal, he sighed and pushed the chair back. He had not slept well the previous night. And tonight he would need to keep semi-alert to watch the fire, unless he would rather sleep on the floor in the cold. Stretching out on the rug, he brought his wings close around him. His sword was right next to him, in case of a sudden attack. Not that children or pixies could do much damage.

He stared into the flames, his eyes half-open. A wing thumped lightly on the floor as he dozed.

"How comfortable," Sephiroth said dryly.

"At least you're better off than Cloud is right now!" Zack said with a shudder.

Cloud was eating the last of his sandwich. He made a face at this statement. "So Sephiroth's going to be tortured by pixies. Did I find Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house?"

Zack was amused. "You'd be able to fight off that old witch pretty well," he said.

"If I wasn't so hungry I ate the whole house," Cloud muttered.

"Then the witch would be the last of your worries," Sephiroth said, equally sarcastic. "Your stomachache would be galactic."

Somewhere in his semi-conscious state, the door was opening, and a trio of voices were exclaiming in disbelief at the state of their abode.

"Something took the food out of the cupboard!" exclaimed the first, who sounded the youngest.

"Something took a chair from the table!" cried the second, who sounded older, as well as the most kind.

"Something started a fire." The third voice sounded oldest, with a rough and suspicious hint to her tone. "And it's still here!"

"The Three Little Pixies. The Three Little Pigs. I didn't even connect that one." Cloud rolled his eyes.

Zack smirked. "It was too good to pass up," he smiled.

"I don't appreciate playing Goldilocks," Sephiroth retorted.

"What is it?!" yelped the first. Flying over, she surveyed the form in confusion. "It's got wings, but it's not a pixie."

"It's tired," commented the second. "But it has a sword. It could be dangerous."

"It's a man!" the third declared.

"A man?!" squealed the first.

"Men don't have wings," said the second.

"This one does," said the third.

Sephiroth grunted in displeasure at all the noise. Snapping fully back to awareness, he focused on the small creature in front of him. It was dressed in black leather, the silvery hair cut boyishly short with a random piece flopping into the face. But it was obviously a female. She narrowed her eyes as the bright green orbs focused on her.

"What do you want?" she asked. "You broke into our house. Don't you know what angry pixies do to people who intrude?"

"I didn't break in," he said flatly. "The door was open."

The second placed her hands on her hips, shooting a worried look at the youngest member of their team. "Rikku! Did you leave the door open?" she wanted to know.

The one called Rikku shook her head in vehemence as she threw up her hands. "No way!" she exclaimed, her long, sandy braids bouncing with the motion. "And invite all the thieves in? Are you kidding?"

The third frowned. "Our magic should have kept everyone out, even if the door was open," she said. "For you to get in, your powers are either stronger than ours . . ."

Which they are, Sephiroth added to himself.

". . . Or you were supposed to find us," the second finished, brushing her brown hair behind an ear.

By now Sephiroth was pushing himself into a sitting position. The three fairies continued to hover in front of him, torn between suspicion, fascination, and total bewilderment. Suddenly they all starting talking at once.

"How do you get your hair like that?!"

"Why do you have wings?!"

"They look a lot warmer than pixie wings. Can I pet them?"

Sephiroth regarded them in disbelief. "No," he grunted, in answer to the last question. "Who are you three?"

The third shook her head. "You're on our property. We've got the asking rights. Who are you?"

Sephiroth merely smirked in dark amusement. "How will you know I'm telling the truth, even if I give a name?"

"Oh, we'll know!" returned the first.

The third flew around him, her expression bespeaking intense concentration. She studied his face. She held up a lock of hair and examined his wings, much to his vexation. She checked his pockets to make sure he had not stolen any treasures. All the while he tried to grab for her, with her flying out of his reach every time.

At last she came to a stop next to her companions. They exchanged a look, and she gave a firm nod before looking to him again.

"You're the exiled warrior Sephiroth," she said.

He did not react. "What makes you think so?" he asked.

"It all fits," she said. "Sephiroth is known for his green eyes, amazing silver hair, and deep blue wings. And he's left-handed. Your sword is where it's easiest to lift in your left hand."

He continued to smirk. "Maybe I'm a magician who cast a spell in order to resemble him," he said. "Sephiroth hasn't been seen in Hollow Bastion for some time."

"If he's looking for his friend, he'd come back," said the second.

Now Sephiroth came to attention. Had they seen Zack? Or were they just trying to get a reaction from him? He kept his expression impassive. "What friend?"

"Zack Fair!" exclaimed Rikku.

"Have you seen him?" Sephiroth's voice did not change, unless a bit of a warning had crept into it. He would be furious if they were only using Zack's name as a way to learn information. And he would not let them gain whatever they sought.

"Maybe," replied the third, crossing her arms. "But you won't learn anything else unless you give us a treasure."

A wing twitched. So this was their game. He should have suspected it was leading up to this. They were obsessed.

"You already searched my pockets," he said in annoyance. "And you didn't find anything you were interested in."

"Oh well," the third shrugged, "I guess you won't find anything out then."

"That isn't nice," objected the second. "He's worried about his friend!"

"He doesn't act that worried," retorted the third.

And look vulnerable? Never! Then they would know for certain that they had him at a disadvantage. That would not help Zack . . . and it would not be very enjoyable for his pride, either.

"We've never had a man here," Rikku exclaimed. "Can we keep him?"

Keep him? As if he was some sort of pet that could be ordered about! The girl did not seem to have much knowledge of men. He would never remain if they tried to treat him like that.

"Of course not!" admonished the third.

Rikku pouted, then turned to the other. "Aw, come on, Yunie," she appealed. "What do you say?"

"Yunie" frowned. "We shouldn't," she said. "But if he needs a place to stay, just for the night . . ."

Rikku nodded eagerly. "And we need to find out why he passed through the spell, too," she said.

The third narrowed her eyes. "That's true, unfortunately."

"I'm right here," Sephiroth grunted. They were talking around him as if he could not hear a word. And it was irritating.

This was the last place he wanted to spend the night. It would be more desirable to go outside and stay on guard for Heartless. But Heartless would not know about Zack, and if they did, they would not speak. Though it might be easier to elicit sensible words from them than from this trio.

"If you stay," spoke the third, "we'll be watching you."

"I'd be staying where I am," he answered. "I don't have any interest in your treasures."

"Give him a pillow or something, Paine!" Rikku encouraged.

So now he knew the approximate names of them all. And all were odd names. But they were fitting for such an odd trio, he supposed.

"He can use his arm," Paine said.

Sephiroth shook his head. This was going to be a bizarre night. Slowly he laid on the floor again. Hopefully that would be a signal for them to be quiet. He was dozing again already.

He almost fancied that a fluffy pillow had magically appeared between his head and the rug. For that matter, it seemed that he was now laying on a cot, with a quilt as well. Pixie magic, perhaps . . . or his own imagination.

Though it sounded like "Yunie" was saying in satisfaction, "That's better!"

"Can this story really get weirder?" Cloud commented.

"You should never ask that," Sephiroth said.

Zack smirked. "Now, let's see what's happening to Cloud," he said.

Cloud reached for the mug of chocolate milk. "I think I'm scared to find out."

Zack sobered, shuddering a bit. "This queen is really scary," he said.

"You're only discovering that now?" Sephiroth asked, his voice dry.

"Well, she gets worse," Zack replied.

"So, around the same time Seph's chilling in the pixies' house, Cloud's wandered pretty far West. He's thinking he'd better find a place to lay down and sleep, too. Maybe climbing a tree would have to do. But when he thinks about it, he really feels too tired to bother."

"Don't tell me what I'm thinking!" Cloud shot back.

"I know, though," Narrator Zack smiled. "I'm telling this story, pal."

"Yeah right." Cloud flicked his wing.

"And, as Cloud burst into a clearing, he noticed something coming out of the sky, right towards him! He frowned, staring up at it suspiciously. Is it a bird? A plane? . . . It's a winged monkey!"

Blank stares.

"Okay, I really wasn't expecting that one," Cloud said.

Zack grinned, pleased to have surprised. "Pretty freaky, huh?" he said.

"You had to fit The Wizard of Oz in somewhere," Sephiroth grunted.

"Sure!" Zack chirped.

Cloud gripped his sword as the bizarre creature came to a landing. It chattered away in its language, holding out a wrapped scroll for him to take.

Slowly he accepted, stabbing his weapon into the ground as he did. It did not seem harmful, but he was not going to take a chance. He would keep the sword right here, where he could easily grab it. He had never seen such a thing before in Hollow Bastion. Where had it come from? And why was it offering him a rolled piece of paper?

He leaned on the sword, slipping off the ring as he spread out the parchment. And his eyes widened.

Your friend Zack Fair has returned and is at the palace. Come back at once.

That was all, though it bore the Queen's ring symbol at the bottom. Cloud could only frown.

This whole thing sounded weird. How would the Queen know about Zack? And why would she want him to leave his mission to kill the "beast" in the woods? She had been pretty adamant about him not returning unless he had Sephiroth's . . . ugh. His lip curled at the thought. That was just disgusting.

Maybe she thought he had already completed it. Or maybe she wondered if he had been the casualty instead of Sephiroth. Or there could even be some other explanation.

But in any case, he had to go, of course.

He folded the paper, sticking it in his pocket. Then he looked to the monkey thing. "Okay, I need to get there right away," he said, feeling silly for actually talking to it. But maybe it would understand something, right? After all, it had carried the message all the way here.

It moved forward, suddenly lifting into the air. As it did, it caught Cloud under his arms. He only had enough time to cry out in shock and pull up his sword before they were flying away.

"Carried away by a flying monkey." Cloud did not look impressed.

"Hey, if you'd thought it was going to hurt you, you'd resist!" Zack said.

"It's the principle of the thing," Cloud grumbled.

Sephiroth looked to Zack. "And I'm guessing you aren't really there? Or that you're being badly tortured?"

Zack nodded, without actually saying which was true.

"When they got to the palace, the winged monkey burst right through the doors of the throne room! It threw Cloud to the floor unceremoniously, then hovered right above him as it chattered some more."

Cloud grunted, more from annoyance than pain, as he sprawled on the cold tiles. He must look so stupid right now! Still clutching the sword, he began to push himself to his knees.

"Did you have success on your mission?" The Queen's voice was as clipped and frozen as he remembered. Or maybe moreso.

"No," Cloud said, pulling himself up all the way. "I didn't find anything yet."

"I see." She stared down at him from where she was standing. "How curious, then, that you were speaking to the creature earlier."

The blue eyes widened briefly. How would she know? How could she possibly know? Had he been spied on, like by these crazy monkeys? No, he would have heard them, or sensed them, or something. And Sephiroth certainly would have. Maybe she did not know any such thing. Maybe she was fishing for information.

"Why would I be?" he asked.

"A very good question. I am asking . . . no, I am demanding, for you to explain yourself." Her voice rose. It was almost imperceptible at the moment, yet he could make out the change very clearly.

He snorted. "I don't know what you're talking about. Why would I talk to him . . . it?"

Now the fire came into her eyes. "I see all that is happening in my kingdom!" she cried. "I know that you spoke with him, and that both of you are seeking Zack Fair. And I know where the beast has gone!"

Right now he was torn between asking where Zack was (which she probably either did not know or would not tell him), and telling her to quit calling Sephiroth a "beast." Yeah, he had wings, but so what? That did not make him a monster. Cloud had a wing too, for that matter.

"What's your problem with the guy anyway?" he said.

The rage multiplied tenfold. "You will not question me!" she screamed. "And you will not see Zack Fair, either. You will be punished for your disobedience and your insolence!" She pointed a clawed finger at him. "You will be executed for treason against the Queen! But not before Sephiroth lays dead."

Now Cloud's anger was building as well. "I'm not going to kill him!" he yelled back. "And you don't know where Zack is. You just used him to get me to come here!" He brought his other hand to the sword's hilt. He would fight his way out of here if he had to.

He never had the chance. The floor opened underneath his feet. A cry of shock left his lips as he began to fall . . . down, down . . . into oblivion.

"Please tell me I didn't just become the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk," Cloud muttered.

"Course not!" Zack said. "You just fell into the dungeon."

"Oh, so now I have to be rescued?" Cloud rolled his eyes. "I don't need a princess in shining armor to come bust me out."

"Everyone needs a little help now and then!" Zack said in amusement. "But hey, I'm sure you'll fight tooth and nail to get out of this mess."

"And if she knows where I've gone, I suppose there will be other problems as well," Sephiroth commented.

"Oh yeah." Zack nodded.

When Sephiroth began to awaken again, there was the strange sensation that he was not alone. Of course, there were others in the house, but it seemed as though one of them was right there next to him. In fact, it felt like something was touching a wing. It twitched in reflex.

His eyes opened. Rikku was sitting on the floor, running her small hands over the lower wings, which were hanging over the side of the cot and to the rug.

"It must be nice, to have wings like this," she said, looking up at him.

He grunted. "They're useful," he replied.

She shook her head. "Not just that!" she said with impatience. "They don't look like they'd tear as easily as pixie wings do. And they're so soft!" With that, she scrambled underneath the deep blue plumage. "Warm, too!" she called.

Sephiroth moved his wings away from her. "What time is it?" he asked.

She sat up again, pouting. "It's morning," she replied, pointing to the window. "But it's cloudy today." She stretched. "Yunie went to get some berries and stuff for breakfast. Paine's getting some food, too. It's my turn to watch you!"

And how lucky I am, Sephiroth thought with dripping sarcasm.

He pulled himself into a sitting position. The pixie was right about it being morning. He had slept better than he had done the past few nights. Of course, one could never sleep well in the forests. There were too many things that could try to kill the slumberer. But when he had known that he was relatively safe for the time being, sleep had crept up so easy.

"How do you even fly with three wings?" Rikku asked, blinking at him. "Don't you need one on both shoulders?"

"I manage," Sephiroth grunted.

"Did you ever have a wing there?" she asked, pointing to his left shoulder.

"No," Sephiroth said, his tone flat.

"That's weird," frowned Rikku. "And where did they come from? Did they just grow? Is there some sub-species of human that has wings?"

"I've never heard of them," Sephiroth answered.

"Then was it some really nasty experiment?" She blinked up at him.

He smirked grimly. Maybe in a way, it was, but not how she was thinking.

"It's just the way it is," he said then.

She pouted at his evasive responses. "Doesn't your hair ever get tangled up in your wings when you're flying?" she wanted to know. "It's so long! And what if it ever got caught on a sword in battle? Maybe someone would try to catch you by your hair."

"That wouldn't happen," Sephiroth replied in annoyance. Zack had wondered some of those same things in the past. It had amazed him that Sephiroth could actually manage with such long hair. But after so many years, Sephiroth was really quite used to it. It did not get in his way because he had learned how to ensure that it did not.

"How do you use that really long sword anyway?" she continued. "Especially if you're in a small place? What if it got stuck in the wall?"

Now Sephiroth gave her a weary look. "Do you ever stop asking questions?" he said.

She shrugged. "Sometimes."

"This would be a good time to stop."

Rikku crossed her arms, looking away. "Fine, then." She mulled over what had just transpired. "You know, you're as bad as Paine! Maybe worse."

He grunted. "Were you expecting anything different?"

She frowned. "I dunno."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Are some of these questions still in your own mind?" he asked, looking to Zack.

The brunet blinked innocently. "It just sounded like stuff she might ask," he said.

"And, as long as we're on the subject, do you have a burning desire to ask anything else?" Sephiroth continued, his voice dry.

Zack pretended to think. "You know," he said then, "I have been wondering how much shampoo you have to use on all that hair."

Cloud snickered into a couch pillow.

"I use enough," Sephiroth said, his tone matter-of-fact.

"But how much is enough?" Zack persisted. "A fourth of the bottle? A third?"

The look Sephiroth gave him said that he was insanely bored with the subject.

"Okay!" Zack shrugged. "Back to the story, then."

Sephiroth sighed. As long as questions were being asked, there was something he needed to know as well. And it was important, unlike queries concerning his hair and his sword. Perhaps, since this talkative pixie was alone with him now, she would tell him what Paine had refused to speak of the previous night.

"Answer me honestly," he said, his voice stern. "Do you, or your friends, know anything about Zack Fair?"

Rikku came back to attention, shifting uncomfortably. "We know he's around," she said in an evasive way, looking at the man out of the corner of her eye.

Sephiroth's intense gaze did not change.

"Okay, okay, already!" Rikku shrugged. "We really don't know where he is. We just heard he'd come back to Hollow Bastion." She paused, frowning. "And he might be hurt. . . ."

"How badly?" Sephiroth demanded.

Rikku shook her head. "It must not be so bad he can't get around," she said.

Sephiroth leaned back. This was not good. He had been afraid that something had happened to Zack, or he would not have gone missing in the first place. But if he was still hurt, or if he had been hurt worse since then . . . who knew how serious it could be. Finding him had to be first priority.

"And there's some of those weird flying monkeys in the woods!"

He snapped back to the present. "What?" His eyes narrowed. What was she talking about?

"They're like part of the Queen's private army or something," Rikku frowned. "I don't like them. They catch fairies and use them like toys, until they break."

Well, that was not encouraging. Not that anything about this situation had been encouraging.

"Why would they be out?" Sephiroth asked.

"I don't know!" Rikku exclaimed. "It was like they were looking for something . . . or someone." She crossed her arms. "The Queen isn't mad at you or anything, is she?"

Sephiroth grunted. "I'm not one of her favorite people, no." There was no need to tell the full extent of her anger, that she had hired Cloud to kill and mutilate him. But he should not stay here. He had wanted shelter for the night, not to endanger those who came in contact with him. And who knew what might happen if he stayed, especially if she had her spies looking for him? He had probably learned all that there was to learn, anyway.

He started to get to his feet, letting the quilt fall to the cot. "I should leave."

Rikku flew up near his face. "You haven't even had breakfast yet!" she scolded. "You can't go off looking for Zack without eating."

"I'll find something," he answered.

"Oh come on! Yunie and Paine'll be back soon!" Rikku protested. "And they'll be upset if you leave without even saying goodbye!"

"I doubt that," Sephiroth said.

Rikku did not pay attention. At that moment, a thumping sound came from the door. Two pairs of eyes turned to look.

"Maybe that's them now!" she said, flying over to the knob.

Somehow Sephiroth knew something was going to go wrong, before the door was ever flung open. He wanted to tell her to stop, to wait. But he never had the chance.

The explosion was deafening. Out of instinct he threw his arms over his face and neck as chunks of wood pelted him. A bomb? The Queen had already learned his location and was trying again to end his life? It would be too much of a coincidence, to imagine that it was another enemy striking.

Slowly he straightened. The door was swinging on its hinges. The wooden porch was in pieces. He coughed, waving away the collecting smoke. The sound of rapidly flapping wings was growing further and further away. A winged monkey had done this, at the Queen's bidding. And where was . . . ?

He took several steps forward, then stopped. Rikku was laying on her side near the doorway, facing away from Sephiroth.

He narrowed his eyes, increasing his steps the rest of the way before collapsing to his knees next to the tiny form. Carefully he turned her towards him. Her body was limp. And she was not breathing.

She had been fine just a moment ago. . . .

No . . . he did not want anyone to die because of him . . . !

"You killed off a character?" Cloud said in disbelief. That was not like Zack at all.

"Well . . ." Zack looked from Cloud to Seph in mock solemnity. "There's a way to save her."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. He did not like the way Zack said that.

"You've gotta clap!" Zack exclaimed. "You know, to show you believe in fairies."

. . . Now Sephiroth really did not like what Zack was saying. "You have to be kidding," he said.

Zack gave him a mock mournful look. "Aww, come on, Seph," he pleaded. "You don't want poor Rikku to be dead, do you?"

"Clapping won't bring anyone back to life," Sephiroth answered.

"Hey, it worked for Tinkerbell!" Zack said.

"If you think we're actually going to clap, you're crazy," Cloud said.

Zack's only response was to start clapping himself. Two sets of blank eyes stared at him. He was serious about this. Of course, they could easily get up and leave the room. Neither would want to admit if they were actually interested in knowing what happened next. But, in some morbid, deep parts of their hearts, they were curious. Zack had never spun such an odd tale before, throwing them into it. And it was relaxing in some way, to just be alone with their friend as the storm raged outside. They did not want to disrupt the moment.

Still, to be seen clapping, and to bring a fictional fairy to life at that, was absolutely mortifying. They had their dignity to keep hold of, after all. And if anyone else was in the room, they would never be caught dead doing it.

At last Cloud gave a half-hearted clap. Sephiroth just crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow.

Zack shook his head. "You've gotta clap like you really mean it!" he said. "You can't save her if you don't!"

Cloud rolled his eyes. Well . . . if it would finally get them past this part, then maybe he would have to try. Sephiroth was still not budging. Zack would never get him to comply. He began to clap with more vigor.

Zack nodded with enthusiasm. "Yeah, that's it!" he said. "But it won't work unless everyone does it."

Sephiroth's look was filled with daggers. Zack was not going to give up. But he had his pride. Clapping over an imaginary character was not high on his list of priorities. Yet, if even Cloud had worn down, Sephiroth would only look obstinate to continue refusing. He wanted to get on with this.

Zack grinned as Seph joined in as well. "You know, we're actually supposed to chant 'I believe in fairies'," he said.

"Don't push it," Cloud answered immediately.

"Well, I'm sure they hear the sincere chanting in your hearts," Zack smiled.

Sephiroth was silent for a moment. "The only thing I am sincerely chanting right now," he said, "is for this to end."

Deciding that he had tortured his friends enough, Zack stopped clapping and reached for another sandwich. Cloud and Seph promptly stilled their hands as well.

Zack leaned back, taking a bite before continuing the story.

It was then that the other two returned. As they approached, baskets in hand, they could only stare at the scene in disbelief.

"What happened here?" Paine demanded.

"Rikku!" Yuna cried, flying over and kneeling down beside the motionless pixie.

Sephiroth leaned back. When he spoke, his voice was sobered.

"A winged monkey left a bomb at the door. She didn't realize there was a problem and opened it."

If he had only been able to stop her, to warn her, that something would go wrong. . . . He had stood by, dumbly watching. Would there have even been time to say anything? She had moved so fast, flinging the door wide open. . . . Most likely, he could not have stopped her. But he still felt so responsible.

Paine's eyes flashed. "This is because of you!" she accused. "I knew you were bad news. I never should have said you could stay here."

Sephiroth began to pull himself upright. He should have left last night, even though they had agreed for him to stay. He must have been extremely tired, to the point of not fully being aware of anything. The last thing he wanted was to be a burden on anyone, but now it was much worse than just that. For someone guiltless to be dead because of him . . .

"Wait!" Yuna cried. "She's still alive!"

Both Paine and Sephiroth froze, turning to stare. Rikku was stirring now, weakly groaning as her eyes fluttered open. She blinked up at Yuna in confusion.

"Let's not do that again, okay?" she mumbled. "That was not cool."

Yuna just hugged her in relief.

Sephiroth stared. She had been dead. He could recognize a dead body when he saw one, especially after all the battles he had been in. How was she alive now? Was it some special pixie power? That would have to be it. Though Paine and Yuna had both acted like they believed Rikku to be dead.

Paine looked back to Sephiroth. "It doesn't change that this happened because you're a wanted man," she said. "I don't want you here, and I don't care how you got past our barrier last night. Maybe something else even broke it before you ever got here." For all they would know, the Queen had been spying from the beginning. Maybe she had planned on Sephiroth reaching the fairies' home. And even though Sephiroth would not be able to help that, it still made Paine angry.

"I'm not planning to stay." Sephiroth started to walk past them. "I've imposed too much already."

Rikku frowned, looking up at him. "It's not like it was your fault!" she exclaimed woozily. She was going to have to be more careful when she heard crashes at the door. She had just been lucky this time. It might not happen this way another time.

"It was close enough," said Sephiroth.

Yuna bit her lip. "If you need to go, we need to tell you something first," she said.

He stopped, looking back. "What's that?" he asked.

"The birds and some of the other animals are our friends," she told him, "and they're saying that the Queen has taken a prisoner—someone you were talking with yesterday."

Sephiroth froze, his eyes narrowing. Cloud? The witch had Cloud? How had that happened? Did she know Cloud had never intended to kill him? Had she gotten him out of spite and a desire to see him suffer? Or was there another reason. . . .

"Do they know what she's going to do with him?" he inquired.

"She'll kill him, when you're dead," Paine said. "Why does she hate you so much, if you've done nothing to oppose her reign?"

"I don't have any idea." Sephiroth gripped the Masamune as he headed out the door. "I'd offer to fix your porch when this is over, but you can probably do that yourselves, can't you?" Now his tone was matter-of-fact.

"Yes," Paine said gruffly.

He nodded.

"Have these animals said anything about Zack Fair?" he asked.

"No." Paine's voice was short. "They haven't seen him."

And that was what he needed to know. Spreading his wings, he took flight into the gray sky. Behind him, the pixies were still talking.

"Maybe we should help him," Rikku was saying.

"The warrior Sephiroth doesn't need our help," Paine scoffed, and Sephiroth silently agreed.

"I still have this feeling that something's going to go wrong," Yuna commented, worry in her tone.

Their voices faded as he rose higher, using the air pressure against his wings.

"And that's the last we see of the Three Little Pixies," Cloud said in sarcasm. "Do they end up helping out after all?"

"Wait and see!" Zack said. "Now we've gotta go back and see what's happening with you."

"Oh great." Cloud's voice was muffled through the sandwich he had just bitten into, but the look on his face was unmistakable.

"Hello? Helloooo?"

The voice penetrated his fragmented consciousness. He grunted, his wing thumping on the floor as he began to awaken. The fall had been awful. All he remembered of the impact was throwing out his hands to soften the blow, and that it had not worked very well. His head had hit the wall and it had been lights out. Was he even still alive at all? Death was weird, if this was it.

. . . No, the headache was stabbing through him with too much intensity. He was very alive.

"Where is this?" he mumbled.

"The dungeon, I'm afraid," answered a voice that sounded much too cheerful for the subject matter.

Blue eyes weakly slid open. Something was laying on the floor in front of him. . . . Something long and brownish-red in color. Okay, now he was fully awake. This hair was longer than Sephiroth's!

"Who are you?" He pushed himself into a sitting position, ignoring the headache screaming for attention. Maybe if he ignored it long enough, it would go away.

"Rapunzel," she smiled.

"Oh. Well, that's great," he said, still sardonic. "What are you in here for?"

She shrugged. "The Queen's jealous of my hair," she said.

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "Why not just cut it off?!" he retorted.

She reached around, idly toying with some of the auburn locks. "I think she gets more satisfaction out of having me down here," she said. "She really is envious of anyone who has what she wants most. Beauty is more important to her than anything else." Now her eyes widened, as if something was just clicking. "Oh! You're Cloud Strife, aren't you?" she suddenly interjected.

"Last I checked." While he spoke, he idly turned an extensive piece of hair between his hands. What was he doing? He probably looked like an idiot. He let go, dropping his hands into his lap.

"The Queen was very angry that you disobeyed her," said Rapunzel, her tone filled with mock reproach.

"Yeah, I actually figured that." Cloud frowned. "So what? You think I should've killed the guy and brought the Queen what she wanted?"

"Oh goodness no!" was the answer. "You made the right choice. Sephiroth didn't do anything worthy of death." She smiled in amusement. "Except to be prettier than she is."

Cloud's mouth dropped open. "That's what all this is about?!" he cried, incredulous. "She wants him dead because she thinks he's . . ." He made a face.

A nod. "She has a magic mirror that shows her things, and when she asks it, it will tell her who is the fairest in all the land. Since Sephiroth returned, it told her he was more fair than she is."

"That's just . . ." Cloud shook his head. There were no words good enough to express his disbelief over this idiocy.

"Haven't you ever tried to get out of here?" he said instead.

"The only way out is up," she said, pointing to the darkness above them where the ceiling should be. "But there's nothing to climb on. There's a ladder way up there, but I can't reach it."

Cloud frowned. One thing was sure. He was not going to stay in here. And there was no door; only a slot in the wall for a meager amount of food to be pushed through on a tray. That really did leave one escape option.

"What about your hair?" he said then.

She blinked. "Hmm?"

It was hard to ignore how ludicrous this sounded. But Cloud continued, "We could . . . I don't know, braid it or something, and then try to throw it up and get it caught on something." He studied the amazing tresses as a plan tried to formulate in his mind. If they braided it, and tied it in a loop like a rope, maybe they would have a chance. Right now, his head was throbbing way too much to even think of using his wing to fly. And he did not want to stay trapped for another moment.

"I tried that once," she said, "but it didn't work."

"Well, let's try again!" Cloud snapped.

"You've got to be kidding." Cloud frowned, staring at Zack. "There's no way I'm going to sit there and braid all that hair."

Zack smirked in mischief. "Then you'll have to wait for Seph to rescue you," he said.

Cloud made a face. "I'm not doing that either."

"It's one or the other!" Zack chirped.

"That's not fair," Cloud grumbled.

"And Rapunzel sounds like Aerith," Sephiroth commented. "Was that deliberate?"

Zack looked at him with innocence. "Just thought it'd be more fun that way, instead of making Rapunzel a complete stranger," he said.

"And what's this weird thing about throwing the hair up?" Cloud grumped.

Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, I'd already sent you to the dungeon, instead of to a tower, so I had to improvise," he said. "Besides, it's funnier that way."

"Oh yeah, big yuks. So I'd spin the hair around like this . . ." Cloud demonstrated by swirling an imaginary rope above his head. ". . . And yippee-kay-ay!"

"Your sarcasm is duly noted," Sephiroth said.

Zack laughed. "I never thought I'd hear you imitating a rodeo star, Cloud."

"I never thought I'd hear it, either," Cloud muttered.

Cloud did not know how long he spent braiding all of that hair. Every time he thought he was nearing the end, he looked and saw more coiled yards ahead of him. By the time he was at last tying a knot in the loop, he was exhausted.

"Just how long did it take you to grow all this hair anyway?" he exclaimed.

"All of my life," she smiled.

"And there wasn't some kind of hair growth spell put on you or something?" Cloud inspected the loop. If they were lucky, it would catch and they could climb. If they were not lucky, there were many possibilities. The loop could come untied. The hair could start unraveling. It could break. And all such scenarios would end with them crashing back to earth.

"Nope!" she said.

Cloud sighed. "Well, whatever. You'd better stand back. There's no telling where this thing might go."

Rapunzel stepped back, watching with curiosity as Cloud twirled the hair rope and threw it. Both stared at the natural lasso as it soared. In the next moment, it hit the wall and began to slide down.

Cloud let out a frustrated breath. "We'll just have to try again," he said.

And the scene repeated several times, in every variation possible. Cloud lassoed every one of the four walls, not to mention himself, Rapunzel, and once, both of them together. By this time his wing was pulsating with his frustration, and his hands were running into his hair, making it more wild than it already was.

"Patience!" Rapunzel said lightly.

"Easy for you to say!" Cloud retorted. "You probably had to learn patience, if you've been in here a long time."

"I did!" she confirmed, her tone cheery. "And it wasn't easy at all."

Cloud sighed again. Slipping the braid off from around their waists, he grasped it firmly. He would have to get control of himself. The more angry he got, the more trouble he would have concentrating on what he needed to do. Sephiroth had taught him that. . . .

He shook his head, sending the makeshift lariat flying once more. This was not a time to be thinking about Sephiroth's lessons in tough love. Why was he, anyway? He and Sephiroth had been estranged for some time.

The rope stopped. Cloud snapped back to the present, staring up into the darkness above. The hair was suspended somewhere up there, but would it come loose at the slightest movement? He gave a tug. It held fast.

"You did it!" Rapunzel smiled, mock clapping.

"Go me," Cloud shrugged. "Okay, let's try going up, before something else goes wrong." He grabbed the braid-rope, gripping tightly with his hands as he began to climb. Hopefully there would actually be something up there, a door, or even a window. Otherwise they would just be left dangling without a possible direction to take.

"Think positive!" Rapunzel encouraged, as she began to climb up behind him.

He spread his wing for balance. "Negative thinking is realistic," he said flatly.

"So is positive thinking," Rapunzel said.

Cloud snorted. "You really are a lot like Zack," he muttered. "Did you know that?"

Rapunzel just smiled.

"Can you imagine what Sephiroth would say if he came and found me like that, climbing up some girl's hair?!" Cloud muttered.

"I might not say anything," Sephiroth said. "I might be too busy staring in shock."

"Yeah, I bet." Cloud looked to Zack. "So, do we get out of there?"

"Getting interested?" Zack grinned.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "I just wonder how it's all going to be wrapped up, and if it's going to make any sense at all."

"It seems hopeless," Sephiroth said.

"Let's find out what happens next," Zack announced.

"Do you even know yourself?" Cloud wanted to know.

"Sure!" Zack said. "Some of it, anyway. I know where it's headed."

"So the Queen was pretty sure her bomb thing must've worked, and she was feeling smug about it. She went right to her mirror."

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" she asked.

The mirror sighed. "You are very fair, it's true," it said, "but the exiled warrior Sephiroth is more fair than you."

Her face contorted in rage. "HE'S SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD!" she screamed, a purple hue coming over her flesh. "I HAD HIM KILLED!"

"He survived," the mirror said boredly. "Isn't it about time you gave up?"

"Never!" she screamed. "He will come here to save Cloud Strife, and then I'll kill him. By my own hands, to make sure there aren't any more foul-ups!" And with that she whirled, flinging open the door to her private laboratory. "His friends are his weakness. I'll see to it that it's because of them he perishes!"

"Oh, and now she makes the poisoned apple?" Cloud said boredly.

"Maybe," Zack said. "She's doing something nasty in there, that's for sure."

"I won't eat it," Sephiroth asserted.

"You sure won't," Zack said.

It seemed too strange, that Sephiroth was able to make it inside the palace without incident. Nothing had tried to stop him, including the Queen's private army of winged monkeys. He was perfectly fine with that, except for the fact that it was probably a trap. He needed to get Cloud, and preferably defeat the Queen, before leaving. She would continue to come after them if he left her alone.

And so, he thought with grim amusement, the once-revered former general must step forward again.

Not that anyone would care. He did not operate to get recognition and praise, but it was still angering, when the townspeople took his and others' efforts for granted. Sometimes he wondered how Zack could want to even fight for such ungrateful entities. And Zack would tell him it was because it was the only right thing to do.

Sephiroth might add now that it was the only way to keep his friends, and himself, safe. Sitting around doing nothing had never been his style. He was a man of action.

The shriek that came as he neared the throne room was almost deafening. As he thrust open the heavy doors, winged monkeys greeted him with loud and vicious chatters. Nothing was visible in the room, save for this absurd army. He would have to get past them before he could do anything else.

He lunged, bearing his sword. They lunged as well, and feathers and fur began to fly. He was quick with his weapon, but they were full of mischief. And there were so many of them compared to one of him. They leapt upon his back. They threw long arms around his legs. They pulled on his hair and wings. And while they did this, others would try to bite and tear. It was all he could do to keep himself from being overwhelmed. He really needed someone else's help.

As he stepped further into the room, wrestling with a simian perched on his back, the panel under his left foot abruptly began to open. Now what?! With a grunt of surprise he moved aside, peering into the space with suspicion. Would more of the creatures come up? There were too many already. He had wanted to avoid using his fire attacks inside the palace. It was too dangerous. Yet it might be the only way to have a victory.

But it was Cloud who began climbing out. He took in the scene with narrowed eyes as he hoisted himself up and knelt on the tiles nearby. "What a circus," he muttered.

Then he fully noticed Sephiroth watching him. His eyes widened. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"I heard the Queen had taken you," Sephiroth said, his tone flat. As another monkey approached, grabbing at the previously-injured lower right wing, he swatted it away.

Cloud blinked. But then the registering surprise was gone. "You're going to get mobbed," he said.

"If you'd care to help, it would be appreciated." He turned, bringing up his sword in defense as a creature soared down from the balcony. From its outstretched, curled hands, it had every intention of attempted strangulation. Or even a swift snapping of the neck. In one movement it was cut down. Two more monkeys took its place.

"Such a sight!"

A female voice as well? He looked back to the hole. A strange young woman was climbing out. Well, she was ordinary enough—except that as she stood, she reached into the space to pull out her hair. Which kept coming. And coming.

"Rapunzel," Cloud said, by way of explanation.

Sephiroth gave him a blank stare. "And you made your way out of the dungeon by using her hair as a rope."

"Hey, if it works." Cloud shrugged.

"Can I borrow your sword?" she asked Sephiroth.

He fixed her with an annoyed stare. "No."

"Just for a moment!" she protested.

"A moment would be too long!" As Sephiroth spoke, half a dozen monkeys leaped at them. He and Cloud sprang into action with their weapons. Rapunzel twirled her hair as a lasso, capturing two of the creatures. As they were unceremoniously deposited into the hole, she smiled in triumph.

"There."

Cloud raised an eyebrow. Her only response was to hold out her braid, slicing it through the buster sword.

"It feels so nice, to have short hair again," she smiled, reaching behind herself to inspect the new length.

It was hardly what Cloud would call "short." Sure, it was not as long as a football field, but now it was an inch or two less than Sephiroth's tresses. Oh well. Who cared, when they were being bombarded by mutated monkeys?

Across the room, three more monkeys yelped as they were abruptly blasted. The trio looked up, staring in that direction. The pixies were hovering in the air, high-fiving each other.

"Alright!" Rikku exclaimed. "We'll beat this witch yet!"

"It's about time," Paine grumbled.

Yuna smiled.

Cloud continued to stare in disbelief. "Pixies?! Where did they come from?" he wondered.

Sephiroth grunted in reply. He was even more bewildered than Cloud. So Rikku and Yuna had finally prevailed and had gotten Paine to agree with them? Or maybe she had decided that they would be in danger whether they helped or not, and that they needed to help fight for their land's freedom. It did not matter. What mattered was that they now had more help. The fairies could serve as distractions, if nothing else.

As it turned out, they were valuable assets. They all assisted Rapunzel with sending some of the creatures into the dungeon, and once it had been filled, Rikku slammed the door on them. Then Paine made certain it was locked.

The Queen, emerging from her laboratory, could hardly believe her eyes. Her powerful army was being conquered! Some had been locked away. Others were dead. And all because of a small group of people. Look! Cloud Strife had broken free of his imprisonment, and . . . Rapunzel too?! That treacherous girl! She was enjoying herself as they defied the army and the Queen. Even some of the forest fairies had ventured out.

And there . . . there was the man who was the cause of all of this! Sephiroth was cutting down another beast, rescuing Cloud Strife from its fury. His hair was so perfect as it streamed behind him. . . . And his movements were so skilled and graceful. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, and perhaps anger, over the situation.

She would not stand for it. He would suffer for all he was and all he had done. She lunged.

Sephiroth, with his attention focused on the menace he could see, never had a chance.

The knife plunged into his back with a searing fury. He froze, his eyes widening in pain.

Cloud could only stare, his heart leaping into his throat.

For a brief moment, Sephiroth caught the other's gaze. A weak smirk came over his features. Cloud had been surprised when Sephiroth had come to the palace. Maybe to some extent, Sephiroth was also astonished. But though they had been estranged, his feelings that Cloud was an ally, even a friend, had not been altered. Something in Cloud's eyes said that he felt the same.

The second passed. The blade was withdrawn, its owner cackling in horrific glee. Sephiroth collapsed to the floor.

"WHAT?!" Cloud was leaning forward, nearly falling off the couch. How could Zack . . . why would Zack have such a thing happen, even in a fictional story? He could never bear to see anything happen to either of his best friends in real life. Maybe he was high on pain medication after all.

But . . . no . . . Zack was reaching up, wiping at his eye with the back of his hand. He was getting teary-eyed over his own story. "Man," he said now, "that's so awful to think about. . . ."

Sephiroth frowned. "What's the purpose of having me injured?" he asked. It was uncomfortable, to be listening to such an account. Zack would not invent a catastrophe without having a reason. And whatever it was, Zack must be convinced that it was very important.

Zack had to draw a shuddering breath before he could continue.

As the older man fell, Cloud came to life. "What did you do?!" he screamed at the Queen—the witch—standing before him. Hatred was welling in his heart. How could she do this? Sephiroth had done nothing to her, nothing that he could control, at any rate. She was willing to murder him because . . . because . . .

He dropped to his knees, not caring as he sank into the blood. Sephiroth was breathing heavily, clutching at the floor in desperation and agony. The upper wing, closest to the wound, gave a weak twitch.

Cloud reached out, grabbing for the older man's arm. His fingers curled around the muscle. "You can't die!" he yelled. "You're stronger than that! You can hold on. . . ." But he trailed off. Sephiroth's eyes were glazing over. His pulse was racing.

The Queen sneered at them both. "His strength won't save him, or his beauty," she said. "I put a fact-acting enchanted poison on the blade."

"You're horrible!" Rapunzel cried from the balcony. There were monkeys in her path, but they had ceased fighting for the time being. They were all watching the scene below. And Rapunzel was close enough to hear what was being said. The echo in the room was eerie.

"Don't listen to that!" Cloud burst out now. "What about Zack? We still have to find Zack. If he comes and you're . . ." He trailed off. At the mention of Zack's name, Sephiroth had struggled for awareness again. But he was quickly fading. And any shred of hope Cloud had tried to cling to was evaporating as well.

His shoulders slumped. "Don't die," he whispered, his voice cracking. They had encountered each other for the first time in ages, and they had slipped into their familiar banter. For a short time, one of Cloud's old friends had returned. This time he would not come back. And . . . was it Cloud's fault? Would Sephiroth be fine if Cloud had not come to the palace? But how could he not have come? What if the Queen actually had known where Zack was? Cloud had needed to find out.

Sephiroth only had the chance to give a weak smirk of regret before his eyes dimmed. The wings were still.

Cloud's own wing stiffened, then drooped. "No," he choked out. "You can't . . ."

And a burst of rage and desperation surged through his heart. "Wake up!" he screamed, giving the lifeless form a rough shake. "Do you want to see her win? WAKE UP!"

But Sephiroth did not respond.

"Are we going to have to clap for him, too?" Cloud frowned.

"That only works for pixies," Zack said. Now he was wiping at his other eye.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Then how . . . ?"

Zack continued the tale.

The witch threw back her head, cackling insanely. "I am the most fair once again!" she cried. "Sephiroth is dead!" She looked to the mirror. "Tell me, mirror!" she exclaimed. "Tell me that he is dead. Tell me who is the fairest in the land!"

"The fairest is you," the mirror said in resignation.

"Yes! YES!" the wicked voice screamed. Lightning flashed overhead as thunder boomed. The castle shook from its very foundation. Perhaps the building, and even the world itself, was furious at such treachery.

She did not realize that she was standing on the trapdoor to the dungeon.

But the pixies realized. And Paine had had more than enough of her. With a swift motion, she unlocked the passage. The Queen's eyes widened. Now she knew too late what was happening. A demented cry tore from her lips as she plunged downward. Immediately the fairies closed the door again.

"And make sure it's sealed doubly tight!" directed Rikku as they worked.

Cloud stared up at them as they finished the task. Now they were coming over, hovering above the body. All were solemn, and at least two of them actually looked sad.

Cloud clenched a fist. "Can't you do something?!" he demanded. "You've got magic. Get rid of the poison. Let him live!"

Paine shook her head. "We can't do that," she said. "Our powers aren't strong enough."

Despair stabbed into his heart. Sephiroth could not die like this! He could not! But wait . . . Paine had offered some other information. Cloud ran through the words in his mind. "Then whose powers are strong enough?!" he yelled. "In fairy tales, this kind of thing can only be fixed by that mushy true love trash! And Sephiroth never got into that stuff!"

Yuna pondered on his words for a moment. "There's more kinds of love than just one," she said then, her voice gentle.

More kinds. . . . He swallowed hard. Of course, he knew that. There were many kinds. But no other kind had ever reversed a witch's spell.

Paine sighed. "Look, what is Sephiroth to you?" she asked.

Cloud stared at the limp form. Now a certain numbness was starting to come over him. Dead. . . . Sephiroth was dead. . . . They had come through so much together . . . and they still needed to find Zack. . . . Now he would be continuing that quest alone. And to have to tell Zack that his . . . their . . .

"He was my friend," he mumbled. "I didn't want him to die. . . . I didn't want him to get hurt at all. . . ."

"And do you love him?" Yuna asked.

Cloud was silent. What a weird thing to be pondering what it came to Sephiroth. He respected Sephiroth, he liked him . . . he wanted to make sure nothing happened to him. . . . He swallowed down the cotton cultivating in his throat. "I . . . I don't know," he said at last. "Maybe . . . ?" He frowned, hesitating. "I think so. . . ." He stared at the body again. He just wanted Sephiroth to wake up. And to be alright.

"Yeah," he said then. As he said it, he knew it was true. "I do."

Yuna smiled again. "You and Zack are the people he cares about more than anyone else," she said. "The two of you are the only ones in Hollow Bastion who can save him, because of how much he means to both of you."

Hesitantly Cloud extended a hand, touching it to Sephiroth's neck. Nothing.

"Then . . . what do I have to do?" he asked. "Zack isn't here. That just leaves me." And it was suddenly an overwhelming burden.

"Focus on what you want most," said Paine. "You figure out the rest."

That was not encouraging. What he wanted most was for Sephiroth to live. But his desires alone would not bring it about. Neither would Zack's.

He frowned a bit. If the poison was enchanted (and he made a face at this), then was Sephiroth even really dead? If the poison could only be purged, then maybe he would be alright. But how?

Slowly Cloud took hold of Sephiroth's glove, pulling it off. His hand was cold, almost unnaturally so. And there was no pulse.

It was stupid. And ridiculous. But Cloud began to rub the limp hand, covering it with both of his own. If there was just some way to warm him again. . . . He should not feel this icy, not when five minutes had not even passed.

I don't know what to do! he screamed silently. Please . . . let him live. He doesn't deserve this.

. . . Could there be an antidote somewhere, even for an enchanted poison? Would the Queen have it?

The floor began to rumble from somewhere underneath him. His insides began to twist. That did not sound good. What was going to happen now? Were the Queen and her captive minions breaking free? The trapdoor was shaking.

With a burst of flame, it was thrown off its hinges. Something was emerging, but it was not a human, nor a monkey. It was hideous, with dark and scaled flesh, flaming red eyes, and sharp and taloned wings. It seemed to grow bigger once it was out of the passageway. Huge, clawed feet were placed upon the tiles, sending more tremors through the floor.

A gasp of disbelief left Cloud's lips. He threw himself over Sephiroth's stilled body, his heart racing. What was this?! Whatever it was, it was staring down both him and Sephiroth. If it suddenly breathed fire, there would be no hope for protecting Sephiroth. He could stand up and use his sword to try to reflect the blast, but it would not help.

"It's the Queen!" yelped Rikku.

Cloud stared. "Huh?!"

"She doesn't want you to find the way to save Sephiroth," Yuna exclaimed. "Her ugly feelings have turned her ugly on the outside, too!"

Oh, well, that was just great. "So now what?" Cloud yelled.

. . . Was it his imagination, or did Sephiroth feel the slightest bit warmer?

"We have to defeat her, of course," Paine retorted, blasting at the creature's shoulder. It roared in response, turning to snap at her.

"Isn't that from Sleeping Beauty?" Cloud frowned.

Zack shrugged. "Hey, it fits here," he said.

An arrow flew through the air, landing in its arm. It roared again, whirling to blast at Rapunzel. Still on the balcony, she had discovered a bow and a quiver, and now she was making use of them. She would not be left out of this fight. She wanted to help protect her new friends.

Cloud swallowed hard. Now he was torn. What should he do? Should he grab his weapon and join in as well? Or should he focus on trying to keep Sephiroth safe? What if the Queen did have an antidote, and they could learn of it if they defeated her? . . . The pixies had said that only Cloud and Zack could save Sephiroth. But maybe that was not true.

The long tail was swinging at them now. Cloud glowered at it. With all his strength, he pulled Sephiroth with him as he rolled away from it. Now Sephiroth was against the wall. Maybe he would be safe for now. . . .

There was still no pulse. But his skin was somewhat warmer. It was definitely not Cloud's imagination. Was it a sign that there was still some life left in his friend's body? If Cloud joined the fight, would that be taken away? What should he do?

He cursed under his breath. "Wake up," he pleaded. "If you're still alive, then wake up and show me!"

And suddenly a huge shadow fell over them both. The dragon was staring them down, ready to attack. Cloud cursed again. Would he be able to reach his sword? And to do so before he was swiped by a deadly claw or burned alive by its breath?

He would have to chance it. Stretching out his arm, he strained for the hilt of the weapon. It was there, so close . . . and yet just out of reach. When he had needed to roll away, he had not been able to take it with them.

The dragon opened its mouth, baring all of its sharp and gleaming teeth. Oh wonderful. So it was going to blow fire? Or would it just try to bite his arm off?

His fingers closed around the hilt. As he pulled it to him, he cut into the dragon's leg. It roared, but did not back down. Now it was coming in for another attack. Again Cloud struck. It leaned down, grabbing to catch the sword in its teeth and break it to bits.

And then it froze, crying out in pain once again. Something had plunged into its back.

Cloud looked up, his eyes widening. The color drained from his face.

It was a sword that had pierced the beast's flesh. And holding onto that sword was a spiky-haired brunet. He gritted his teeth, driving the weapon deeper. He was careworn and scarred, but instantly recognizable even after the time that had passed. His lavender eyes were filled with a dangerous fury. He would fight like a dragon to protect his best friends.

"Zack," Cloud choked out.

"Oh, so you're finally here," Cloud observed. "And making a great entrance for yourself." Only now did he realize how silent both he and Sephiroth had been for the past few minutes. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, they had both become captivated by the tale and wanted to hear the resolution.

And it was stirring memories in them both, of previous battles they had fought, and perilous situations they had become entangled with. They had come close to death before. And each had risked everything to save the others. Even though such a . . . weird scenario would not take place in reality (he hoped), the principles of self-sacrifice and fighting together transcended the bizarre elements.

Which may have been what Zack had wanted.

Zack grinned. "Of course!" he said. "Gotta show up good, after all, especially after being missing."

Sephiroth grunted. "And you still haven't resolved this problem about myself," he said.

"I'm coming to that!" Zack assured him.

And Zack was not alone. The cry that went up was almost deafening. As Cloud stared, other townspeople rushed forward, weapons and torches in their hands. Zack had rallied those willing and ready to fight to come with him and topple the tyrannical ruler of their land. Now they would have their victory.

With so many people attacking at once, even the fierce dragon was overwhelmed. Its howl rent the air as the weapons entered its flesh. Every time it moved to defend itself against some of the fighters, more would strike. And now Cloud was driving the buster sword into its chest.

It was over. The creature began to fade, the red eyes dimming and closing. In the next moment, it was still. The corpse vanished.

Cloud stared at the place where the wretch had been. Had the fight really ended? It seemed too incredible to be true, that their enemy was gone. But everyone else seemed to think it was finished. They were celebrating their victory.

"Cloud! Hey!"

Suddenly something was grabbing his shoulders. He started back to the present. Zack was gazing at him, the mixed emotions flashing across his face. He was worried, but he was happy to see his old friend. He was panicked for Sephiroth's safety. And he was outraged by this whole mess.

Cloud's own emotions were crumbling. Zack was home. He was alive. He shut his eyes, clutching at the other as if he was a lifeline. It had been so long . . . much too long. . . . He wanted to just stay like that, reunited with Zack, but they could not have a truly happy meeting until Sephiroth was back with them.

And then he swallowed hard. If there was any kind of antidote, they would never know about it now.

He pulled away. "Sephiroth . . ." he choked out, the helplessness overwhelming him. "Sephiroth is . . ."

Zack nodded shakily. "I know," he said, his voice quiet. He laid a hand on Cloud's shoulder before running to the other and dropping to his knees. Gently he reached out, feeling for a pulse. Still nothing. But he would not give up. This was Seph. And when the poison was enchanted, there had to be a way to break its spell.

"His skin's still warm," he breathed. "It's getting cold, but . . ." He grabbed the bare hand. "Seph . . . come on, pal! You've gotta stay with us. You've just gotta!"

Cloud ran over as well, sinking down and grabbing up the other hand. Had it been worse, for him to join the fight? He had really been forced to, but . . . what if that had been Sephiroth's only chance? No, he would not believe that. He had to focus on the idea that Sephiroth could still be saved.

Wake up. . . .

The fingers curled weakly around Cloud's hand. His eyes widened. And Zack had felt it, too. Sephiroth had done the same with Zack's hand.

"Seph . . ." He grinned now, his eyes shining with his joy. "You're still here!" He gripped Seph's hand, squeezing it gently.

Green eyes opened slowly in confusion. Sephiroth seemed to focus on both of them at once. He stared in amazement at Zack. He had really returned. . . . And he was alright . . . !

The pixies cheered.

"He's okay!" Rikku exclaimed.

Yuna smiled.

Paine half-turned, crossing her arms.

Zack pulled him close. "Seph! Oh Seph . . . you're okay!" He could feel the wound in Sephiroth's back. It would need to be treated. He would need to be taken care of for a while, but that was just fine. He was alive.

Cloud sat back, letting them have their reunion. Sephiroth was happy again. He had been so sad before, not knowing where Zack was or how to find him. And then he and Cloud had had their falling out, as well. . . .

It should not have happened. They should have kept in touch. They could have been there for each other, instead of distancing themselves and being angry.

Sephiroth glanced over after a moment, as if to make sure that Cloud was still there as well. In his eyes, the same thoughts were obvious. He also regretted the past. But they had the chance to begin again. He reached out weakly with his free hand, laying it on Cloud's shoulder.

Zack grinned, pulling Cloud into the circle as well.

Cloud stiffened, but only for a moment. He smiled, drawing his arms around them both and placing his hands on their shoulders.

"Oh man," Zack whispered, "I missed you both so much. I've wanted to come home for so long. . . ."

"But you couldn't?" Sephiroth's voice was weak and exhausted. Yet there was also a tired relief and a quiet happiness.

"I couldn't," Zack agreed. "I got banged up pretty bad." He indicated the scars on his arms and on the side of his face. "But I came back as soon as I could. I crossed through the woods until I got to the city. I thought it'd be better if I wasn't seen until then."

Cloud frowned. "What happened to you?"

Zack shook his head. "We'll talk about it later," he said. The first priority was to help Seph heal.

"Seph's wound was cleaned and bandaged, and both Zack and Cloud helped him until he was better," Zack said with a flourish. "With the evil Queen gone, Rapunzel decided to become the new ruler, and the townspeople were happy with that. She was a kind and good Queen, and Hollow Bastion started to perk up again. And everyone lived happy ever after!"

Two sets of eyes stared at him.

"That," said Cloud, "has got to be the craziest, cheesiest, most mixed-up story ever told."

"How, exactly, was I revived?" Sephiroth asked with a raised eyebrow. "Are you going to try claiming it actually was the 'power of friendship'?"

Zack smirked. "Hey, it counters Snow White reviving from romantic love," he protested.

"Neither way makes sense," Sephiroth grunted.

"'Making sense' and 'fairy tales' shouldn't even be in the same sentence," Cloud muttered.

Zack blinked innocently. "But it was more fun than snapping at each other all night, wasn't it?"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Oh, so that was your game."

Zack smirked again, poking him on the arm. "If it works, why not?"

Sephiroth had to admit that he was amused. That was so like Zack, to find some way to get him and Cloud to calm down. They had not argued while he had been spinning his tale. And now that it was over, neither was in the mood to be angry. Zack was clever.

. . . Though clapping over a fictional fairy was still ridiculous.

"What did happen to you, in the story?" Sephiroth asked.

Zack leaned back, gazing at the ceiling as he pondered. "That's a good question!" he proclaimed. "Maybe I'll have to tell you guys another story and figure it out."

Cloud grunted. "You're really not out of breath after all this time?"

"I'm ready and raring to go!" Zack declared. "Besides, wouldn't you guys like to visit with your alternate selves some more?"

"They might not like us visiting any more," Sephiroth said with heavy sarcasm.

"They'll get used to it!" Zack said.

The room suddenly flickered, then was bathed in a bright glow.

"Lights are on!" Zack chirped. He leaped up, going to the window. "And we've got a world of white out there."

"Oh yay." Cloud got up, stretching his arms and his wing.

"Let's roast marshmellows or something!" Zack suggested. "And I'll start putting together the scenes where Zack tells Cloud and Seph what happened to him."

Sephiroth shook his head. Roasting marshmellows was not something he had ever pictured himself doing. But neither was listening to a very twisted fairy tale. He stood as well, spreading his wings.

Somehow, he was sure, he would end up holding a marshmellow on a stick over the fire. Even if it was just because Zack had handed it to him.

"Come on," Cloud said then, glancing over at him. "Let's load these things in the dishwasher while Zack gets the marshmellows." He sounded relaxed, which was surprising to him as well as Sephiroth. Earlier that night, his tone most definitely would have been grudging.

"You're actually agreeing to the idea?" Sephiroth remarked, collecting his plate and glass.

Cloud shrugged, throwing an idle look at the window before walking across the floor. "Doesn't look like the storm is going to let up any time soon," he said.

"No," Sephiroth mused, following him into the kitchen, "it doesn't."

Behind them, Zack began to ease himself up with the assistance of the cane. "This is more like it," he said to himself.

And he smiled.