Kingdom Hearts II

God Help the Outcasts

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! I've been planning this for some time (years, actually, and originally the plot was going to be used for an entirely different fandom and set of characters), and I have been working on the content that is this first chapter for several months. The title song has been an immense inspiration, as well as Lisa and Kaze! Some of this story will be taken from RPs with Lisa, so she must be credited for some of the twists. It takes place after Frozen Shadows, and it is what I promised it would lead to.

Chapter One

They Tell Us We Are Just Outcasts

Zack leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he clasped his hands under his chin. His heart was aching, shredded by what had occurred and what was still trying to be repaired.

With blank lavender eyes, he gazed at the scene before him. Cloud was laying so still and quiet in the bed, pale against the whiteness of the pillowcase. His wounds were bandaged, but his bruises and bumps were very visible. His expression was not empty, the pain still very apparent even in unconsciousness. Cloud had felt acute agony before he had succumbed to oblivion. He had been stabbed in his right shoulder, and when Zack had examined him, it had also felt like a rib had been cracked. That area was very tender, at least, and if Zack dared to pull back the robe to study it again, he would likely find that the flesh had begun to turn a cruel purplish hue.

One injury was still being tended to, by Seph. The older man had removed his gloves and threaded a needle, and was taking it in and out of the limp bat wing with care. Someone had taken their knife and had torn a good portion of the leathery appendage. Cloud was so deeply unconscious that he did not even notice Seph's attempt at mending it. Well . . . that was a good thing, at least. That, and the fact that the bones had not been damaged.

Seph had been hurt, too. The way he was holding his lower right wing so close to him testified of that. He did not want it to be bumped. It had been struck hard at least once that Zack had seen, and maybe other times too, when he had not been viewing it. Seph was moving slower than usual when he walked, and it was possible that he had gotten something else injured as well. He would never say so, not unless it became impossible for him to hide it. He had already told Zack that he was fine, and that Cloud needed their immediate attention. Of course that was true, but as soon as Seph finished with the wing, Zack was going to examine his other best friend, whether Seph protested or not.

And this had all happened just because of their wings. Their wings, which should be reverenced and respected for what they were---extra limbs capable of allowing their owners to take flight! The wings did not mean that Cloud and Seph were both demons who should be unfairly and outrageously beaten! They were both good and kind people!

Zack slumped into the chair, unclasping his hands and spreading them in front of him. He had snapped, when he and Seph had come on the scene and had seen Cloud being held down by all those thugs while others pounded his poor body. Seph had gone and ripped the closest ones away, and when they had recovered and realized that their plans were being foiled, they had started to lunge at him.

And then Zack had been bearing down on them, a furious battle cry tearing from his lips. What right did they have, to attack another human being and to not even give him a chance to defend himself? Cloud had been trying, and from some of the bullies' injuries, he had done a pretty good job of it. But they had still triumphed over him in the end. And Zack had punched and kicked and thrown them with all the strength of a powerful military leader. He had not been fighting them as such a leader, however. He had engaged in combat as an outraged friend, and they were not likely to forget the wrath they had brought upon themselves.

He looked back up at Seph, who was nearing the end of the tear. Seph had said that he wanted to take care of it himself, for several reasons. Since he also had wings, he would know best how it needed to be done. And he felt he owed it to Cloud, after the many long months Cloud had spent tending to Seph's wings and trying to help them heal. Zack had been perfectly willing to let Seph take care of it then; he was not sure he could have held his hands steady enough for such a task anyway. He was still so angry . . . !

Seph reached for the scissors, cutting through the thread. His able fingers began to tie it down several times, making certain that it would not come loose. The long bangs hid his expression, especially from Zack's position, but it was obvious that he was angry as well.

". . . It should heal normally."

Zack gave a brief start at the sound of Seph's voice. He was closing the final knot, and leaning back to survey his work. The wing did not so much as twitch. Cloud might as well have been under an actual anesthesia.

"You don't sound altogether sure of that, Seph."

Sephiroth shook his head in weariness, reaching to pull the quilt up over Cloud's still form. "It should . . . but that doesn't mean it will," he answered. "We'll have to wait and see."

Zack clenched a fist, pushing himself upright. "Well . . . it's time for you to get checked out now, Seph," he declared, forcing a lighter tone into his voice. "And don't protest!"

Sephiroth grunted. "I told you I'm fine," he said, a slight edge slipping into his own voice.

Zack stopped in front of him. "Your 'I'm fine's are pretty meaningless, Seph," he said, his tone quieting. "Your poor wing . . ." He looked down at it, reaching out a hand to touch the previously deformed bones.

Seph's hand shot out, grabbing Zack's wrist. "Please . . . don't touch it," he said. The pain in his voice could only barely be masked.

"Seph . . ." Zack swallowed hard, staring up at the older man. For Seph to be so desperate to keep his wing from being touched, and to actually say that to him, it must be even worse than he had thought. Seph was often stubborn and sometimes irritated by Zack's attempts to check him over after a battle, but most of the time he would allow it anyway.

The scream that had torn from his lips when his bent wing had been struck was still haunting Zack.

"It needs to be looked at, Seph," he said at last.

Seph shook his head with firmness. "I've already looked at it. It hurts worse to move it." It would be alright in a few hours. Once it had ached somewhat like this when he had fallen off Cloud's couch and had landed directly on top of it. Now the pain was just a more intense version of that. He would just have to wait it out, as miserable as that was going to be.

He sighed, uncurling his fingers from Zack's wrist. "At least one of them saw who you are," he said, his tone turning grim. "They won't let you forget it."

Zack again clenched a fist. "I don't care," he said emphatically. "I'm not afraid of those cowards. They messed up both of my best friends, and they didn't even have a reason!" It made him so angry! How could any human being stand there and relish inflicting pain on another?! Poor Cloud had not even been able to do anything to protect himself, once they had all pinned him down. And then they had started hitting Seph's wings without warning, once he and Zack had joined the fight. It was just mindless cruelty!

Sephiroth laid a hand on Zack's shoulder. "You may not care," he said, "but I do. I don't want to see you hurt." He paused. "You already have been, for that matter. I've noticed your limp is worse."

"Ah, it's okay." Subconsciously Zack rubbed at the offending leg. "Maybe I overexerted myself a little too much, but I had to do something."

"I know." But that did not make Sephiroth worry any less.

Zack looked over at him. "Hey . . . I'm already pretty mixed up in this, Seph," he said with a sad smile. "And I already have been hurt, but hardly any of it's physical. What happens to you and Cloud involves me too. We're all gonna have to ride this thing to its end."

Sephiroth knew that was true. And he was angry as well. They had no right to assault Cloud as they had done. When he had first seen his former rival's limp body, he had not even been able to notice breath at first. Cloud had looked so pathetic, laying on the ground, bleeding, his clothes and wing torn. . . .

"They beat him almost to death," Zack whispered, as if reading Sephiroth's thoughts.

Sephiroth's grip tightened. He wanted to tell Zack that Cloud would wake up, that his wing would heal better than Sephiroth's had, that he would be just fine. He wanted to say that Cloud's injuries looked worse than they actually were; that he was not really laying on the threshold between life and death.

But Sephiroth could not bring himself to tell a possible lie. Not to Zack.

So instead he simply remained there in silence with his friend.

Cloud grumbled to himself as he wandered down the lonely streets, making sure to keep his bat wing hidden underneath his tattered cape. That had been his practice for some time now, and with good reason. For the last several months, people in and around Hollow Bastion had been growing wary of anyone with wings. The extra limbs were such a rare phenomena that no one seemed to know what to think, and it was a growing viewpoint that such people (or "creatures" as they were more commonly called) would be the downfall of the entire town---maybe of the world, or the universe. The problem was, such ridiculous ideas were unfounded.

Cloud rolled his eyes. Prejudice against wings on any humans threw himself and Sephiroth into the same boat. Not that they were getting along so badly these days. It still bewildered him, when he tried to fully comprehend that they had slipped into a friendship almost without either of them realizing. But Zack had always known.

A footfall in front of him made him sharply look up. The shadowy man standing there looked like he belonged at the head of a gang, from the large muscles protruding through his ripped sleeveless shirt to the deadly weapon in his hand. Great. The blond narrowed his eyes. All he wanted was to go past. Was that going to be so difficult?

A brass-knuckled fist was shoved an inch from his face. "Not so fast," the thug said, his tone much too smooth and calm for comfort. "We just wanna have a friendly chat."

Cloud glowered at him, a chill running down his spine at the term "we." Gripping tightly at his sword, he started to turn around. Other gangsters were coming out from all directions, starting to surround him. There seemed to be at least ten in all. Ten too many. Under his cape, his wing twitched.

"I don't have anything to say to you," he said, looking back to the leader.

The muscle man shrugged, stepping closer to Cloud and starting to walk around him. "We're just . . . doin' a tally of all the people we can find," he announced, "seein' how many of 'em have wings and all that."

Cloud met his gaze coldly. "There's no wings here."

"You hear that, boys?" His voice had become boisterous. "There's no wings here."

All of them started to laugh. It was a cruel, heartless sound.

"You are Cloud Strife, aren't you?" the leader grinned, his yellowing teeth gleaming under the light of the stars.

It seemed pointless to deny it, but Cloud also did not want to confirm it. So he instead opted for saying nothing, glaring icily at his assailant.

"Spiky blond hair, black clothes, red cape, freakin' huge sword . . . and one wing." Without warning the man reached under the crimson material, his hand closing painfully around what he sought. Cloud gasped in agony as the extra appendage was drawn into full view of everyone there. It felt like it was being crushed in this man's hand.

"See this, boys?" the thug yelled, moving his hand so that it was tightly around the bone at the top. "This is a bonafied, genuine, demon wing." He inserted the most vile expletives that he could think of before continuing. "And we hate guys with wings, right?" His grin widened as everyone nodded.

The feel of the rough, unkind hand on his wing was horrible. More than anything at that moment, Cloud wanted to pull away. He wanted to whirl around, the sword held high, and force the creep to let go. And yet he could not. If he showed the first signs of violence, then they would all descend upon him for certain. He had to keep still and hope that they would leave him alone. But he knew they would not. He was going to have to fight them.

"It don't matter what kind of wings they got, we just don't want 'em around." Abruptly he kicked Cloud's legs out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground with a gasp. The wing was released, roughly, and it landed on the street at Cloud's side. A boot immediately stepped on it, pinning it down.

Cloud's eyes widened, the anguish shooting through him like a knife. They were going to crush it! They were going to try to cripple him, just like the dragon had partially done with one of Sephiroth's wings! He had to get away, he had to get up somehow. . . . Keeping his right hand on the sword's hilt, he closed his left hand around his captor's ankle. With a sudden jerk, he caused the man to lose his balance, and he fell backwards onto the ground with a curse-filled cry.

Immediately Cloud got to his feet again. "I don't want any trouble," he said, his voice gaining an edge. If he could just get past . . . !

"Trouble?" grinned a second man as he planted himself in front of the blond. "You got trouble when you decided to grow yourself a wing." He flung out a chain, wrapping it quickly around the buster sword. He yanked on it, trying to dislodge the weapon from Cloud's grasp.

But Cloud hung on, throwing all his weight into gathering enough momentum to send his attacker back. The chain unwound, hitting the thug in the face. Now that they were being aggressive, Cloud was going to have to be as well.

The man swore angrily, raising a hand to the cut that was forming. "Show him no mercy!" he yelled.

And they all ganged up on him at once.

Anger, panic, frustration, and fear surged through Cloud's heart. They were coming at him from all sides, even jumping from above! Every time he forced one back, two more leaped in their place. Surely there were more than ten now! It seemed that it must be twenty, thirty! They were everywhere! And they were all bent on one goal---hurting him in any way possible.

Harsh weapons slammed down on his arms and legs---clubs, sticks, the brass knuckles, whatever was available. Half the time he could not even see what they were using, but he would feel the pain once they did. Several times he was struck by chains, and then something stabbed him in the shoulder. A scream tore from his lips, and as they continued to assault him in unison, he could feel that he was losing his balance.

No, he had to stay standing! The moment he collapsed, he would be completely defenseless. He had to be able to fight!

The sharp object plunged into the leathery skin of his wing. He screamed again, feeling it tearing as the weapon was moved in a crooked line through the flesh. Clutching his sword, he turned as fast as he could, forcing the person to stop by cutting into his side with the thick blade. A strangled cry of pain met his ears, and then a chain went around his own neck.

"Here's the deal," a cruel voice told him. "We can hurt you, but you can't hurt us. Got it?"

A harsh boot kicked him forward onto the ground, releasing the pressure of the chain at the same time. Cloud gasped, the asphalt scraping his chin and his bare arms. Before he even had a chance to get up, they were all upon him again, beating, pounding, kicking, hitting, stabbing. . . .

Fire surged through his side as something pounded into it. His eyes widened, gritting his teeth as he clutched in vain at the ground. Now it felt like some kind of damage had been done to one of his ribs. Was it even broken? What if a lung ended up pierced? He shut his eyes, choking back a wave of nausea.

Was he going to die here, like this? Now he could not even get up to try to fight back. They had overpowered him. Their heartless laughter was incessant, echoing all around him and probably all down the deserted street. They were having fun. It was not as it was with some people, who were simply frightened of the winged men or who would attack out of self-defense. These people just wanted to be cruel. It was all a game to them.

It sounded like other voices were joining in now---indignant, furious voices. Then, gradually, the burden began to be lightened. He frowned a bit, struggling to drag himself out of the semi-conscious state into which he was slipping. What was going on? It sounded like the men hurting him were being attacked as they were pulled away from him. He could hear what sounded like punching, and cries of anger and pain on both sides.

Slowly he raised his head, blinking with bleary eyes at the sight in front of him. Zack . . . it was Zack. . . . He was flipping one of the men right over his shoulder, then immediately slugging another one across the face. He acted like he had completely lost it. Cloud frowned more, in concern. Of course he was grateful for the help, but Zack's fury could backfire and cause trouble for him later. What if these people came after him too? Or what if the military was angry at him? Maybe they would think that he was not making a good impression.

Or maybe even his bad leg would suddenly give out and he would fall. It had improved greatly since Hojo had shot Zack several months ago, but it was not entirely healed. The doctors wondered if he would always have some kind of a limp from now on. He had needed therapy for some time to be able to walk on it at all. And he still required his cane. He was beating one guy to the ground with it, when the creep had tried to kick Zack down.

Cloud had to smirk a bit at the blurry image. These people did need to be taught a lesson. Zack was the perfect one to do it, as long as nothing happened to him in the process.

The last of his attackers was pulled away, and he could hear the man slam into the wall with a yelp. Then he felt other hands reaching for him, carefully starting to lift him. He tensed. Zack was still fighting the others, so who was . . .

"There isn't any point in trying to get away from me. You'll hurt yourself worse."

He blinked again, staring upward at the cold voice. "Sephiroth . . ."

The older man tried to keep his expression impassive as he straightened up with Cloud's limp body in his arms. He would not openly display his concern for the other, but he was trying to hold Cloud in such a way that would not cause his wounds to be jarred. That was proving difficult.

Not to mention that he had been assisting Zack in the fight and he himself seemed hurt. Cloud had been right, the original ten had been joined by at least that same number. Sephiroth had been forced to use some of his lesser fire attacks on some of them, to create a shield and prevent them from coming back over to Cloud.

"You're lucky to be alive," he remarked, and then looked over to Zack. "Leave them for now," he directed. "Cloud needs immediate help."

Zack looked over, giving his opponent one final shove before hurrying to them as fast as he could. All the more, he was leaning on his uninjured leg. He swallowed hard, the horror obvious in his eyes as he finally got a good look at his childhood friend's battered body. "Cloud . . . oh man. . . ." He cursed under his breath, which was rare for Zack with his gentle nature. "What did they do to you?!"

Cloud tried to give a weak smirk. "That bad, huh?" The dizziness was starting to overwhelm him again. He was probably not going to be able to stay awake. Already he could feel himself fading, especially when Sephiroth seemed to abruptly teleport with them. Of course it was done to help them get away, but it was making unconsciousness come so much faster. . . .

"Cloud!" He could hear Zack pleading, as if from far away. "Come on, you've gotta stay with us! Focus on my voice. . . ."

But it was no use. The darkness was calling too strongly.

Zack rubbed his tired, bloodshot eyes, a yawn ripping free before he could stop himself. It was even later into the night by now. Cloud had not woken up, or even moved. His wing lay spread exactly as it had been when Seph had stitched it.

"Ah man," Zack murmured. "It's just not right, to see you so still, buddy."

He did not see how he would sink into sleep at all, not while all of this was going on and he was so worried. Seph had left the room a few minutes ago, having said something about warming something for them to eat. Zack did not feel like eating, either. But he knew he needed to. He stretched, yawning again.

A shadow falling across the doorway made him look up. He blinked in surprise when he saw Seph there, gazing at him with a knife in his hand. Seph's expression was devoid of emotion---his eyes cold, his jaw set. It was eerie in any case, but in light of tonight's events, it sent a deep chill up Zack's spine.

"What's up, Seph?" he asked, starting to get up. "Food ready?"

Seph did not move. "No," he answered. Without warning he lunged, bringing the knife up to an angle that would enable it to plunge into Zack's flesh.

Zack stopped short, his eyes wide as he stared at the man barreling at him. His mind had gone blank. Seph . . . what was wrong with Seph? What would make him act this way? Or was this even Seph at all . . . ?

His questions were answered as Seph was restrained . . . by another Seph who had come up from behind. The second one looked over the first's shoulder, his eyes displaying the recognition that Zack knew so well---along with panic and worry. While the first struggled, the real Seph began to drag him backwards, out of the room. With them both being the same size, it was a definite strain.

"Shut the door and don't come out!" he yelled at Zack. The fake one flailed, trying to jab his elbow into Sephiroth's ribs. Green eyes narrowed, and teeth gritted, but the impostor was not released.

"What are you saying, Seph?!" Zack demanded, finally finding his voice as the duo fell back into the hall. How could he just leave Seph to this fight? The last thing he ever wanted to do was to stand by and watch, or worse, to stay locked in the room while hearing the sounds of battle on the other side.

"You're the target!" Seph cried, his tone harsh from his worry. "Lock the door!"

Zack swallowed hard, his eyes widening in horror. He was the target?! He would be in the way during such a fight. But still, still he wanted to help. Seph should not have to fight in Zack's place.

A weak groan from Cloud promptly sliced his attention in two. He looked back, hopeful at the sound. Was Cloud waking up? He was stirring. Zack cried his other friend's name, taking a step in that direction.

. . . What if that fake Seph got in here somehow and hurt Cloud? Zack gripped the edge of the door, his knuckles going white. He really could not join the fight. He needed to stay here and make sure Cloud would be safe. Seph was capable of defending himself, and right now, Cloud could not do the same.

Gritting his teeth, Zack pushed the door shut, turning the lock before hurrying to Cloud's limp form. The blue eyes were half-open now, trying to focus. He looked confused, not to mention in pain. Poor guy, it was understandable, after what he had come through. And what a thing to wake up to, Zack thought as something crashed in the hall.

"Hey, buddy," Zack greeted. "How you feeling?" Though he was worried over what was happening outside the room, his smile was genuine. To see Cloud finally awake was an immense relief. Maybe his wounds were not as serious as they had worried.

"Could be better," Cloud mumbled. "What's wrong with me? My wing feels like it's tied to the bed."

Zack looked to it, seeing how it was limply stretched on the mattress. The dark thread holding the wound closed was visible if it was looked at from a certain angle. Cloud would probably not be happy about the stitches, but it really had been the only way.

"Do you remember what happened at all?" Zack asked, cringing as a muffled thump echoed from the other part of the house.

Cloud seemed too dazed to hear it. "Something about some idiots not liking my wing," he muttered. His whole body was aching, especially his left side. And his wing did not feel that great, either. It was so stiff.

"Yeah. . . ." Zack's voice was angry when he responded. "They had no right to hurt you like they did. If Seph and I hadn't found you . . ." He trailed off, the scream from beyond the door chilling his blood. Was that Seph . . . or the fake one? There was no way to really tell . . . not unless he went out there to look. And how could he not? What if it was Seph? He leaped off the bed, running to the door.

Cloud stared after him, his eyes bleary. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Who screamed?"

Zack shook his head. "I don't know!" he said helplessly, flinging the door open. He would have to brace himself for a battle. If Seph was hurt, than that fake was going to regret ever coming into this house.

The scene before his eyes elicited a gasp from his lips. The Sephs were standing all the way at the bottom of the stairs, locked in combat in the living room. The Masamune was stabbing into the imposter's stomach, having gone all the way through. The fake's eyes were flaming with pain and rage as he grabbed the weapon, trying to force it back. Seph himself was gritting his teeth in agony as he tried to hang onto his sword. The knife had been forced up under the shoulder armor, and blood could be seen seeping out and discoloring the painted white metal.

Realizing that they had been interrupted, the fake Seph turned, fixing Zack with a cruel sneer. Then he stepped back, shoving the blade out of his body at the same time. In the next moment he was gone, leaving two blue feathers in his wake.

The sound of the Masamune dropping to the floor tiles startled Zack back into the present. "Seph!" he screamed, running towards his friend as if he was just snapping out of a trance. He gripped the banister, his knuckles turning white as he descended. Twice he nearly stumbled, his bad leg almost crumpling under him, but he kept coming. He would not be deterred!

Seph looked up at him, his eyes bleary. "Don't hurt yourself worse," he warned. Now he was gripping the knife, attempting to ease it out of his flesh. At least it had not gone all the way through. But this was maddening. Where had the impostor gone? It was seriously wounded, and teleporting would only make it worse. It might just curl up and die once it got to its destination. Surely it would have realized the danger.

Zack reached him, the sick horror still in his eyes as he took the knife from Seph's red-coated fingers. He barely noticed where he put it as he set it down and fumbled with the straps holding Seph's armor in place. Seph had been hurt like this because he had been protecting Zack. And Zack being Zack, he could not help the guilt that was sweeping over him. It was his fault in some way, he told himself, even though that was not true in reality. But poor Seph. . . .

Sephiroth watched as Zack lifted up the armor on his right shoulder, throwing it carelessly to the floor. Through the torn black cloth, the wound was very visible, bleeding incessantly. It might or might not be very deep. It was an irritation in any case. Not only was it paining him, but it was worrying Zack. And of course he felt guilty about it.

"This isn't your fault," Sephiroth grunted. "And it isn't even that serious to begin with."

Zack shook his head, pulling back the ripped edges of the cloth as he examined the stab wound. "It's bad enough," he exclaimed. Tearing off a piece of his shirt, he placed it over the injury.

"I would worry more about the one who caused it." Seph's eyes were narrowed in a dark way. "Not only did he look exactly like me, but his skills and timing were almost a perfect match."

Zack swallowed hard. That was not what he wanted to hear. "What are you saying, Seph?" he asked then.

"Only that if Hojo is still making clones of myself, that must have been one of them. And obviously it isn't kind, like the one who gave his life for you and Cloud."

Zack gasped in alarm. Could that be true? Could Hojo have created a clone that was so diabolical and cruel, while at the same time possessing Seph's skills? It had already shown that it was ruthless. The more he thought on this possibility, the more it made sense---to his dismay and horror.

The upper wing twitched as Zack continued to work with the shoulder wound. It must have hit close to a nerve.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed in anger. He should not have been caught off-guard. There was no excuse. At least he had wounded the clone as well. Most would be dead from such an injury. It had been eerie in some way---to watch the blade go through the other's stomach. He had died in that way, years ago.

But he would not dwell on that.

"What's going on out there?!"

Cloud's voice was rough and harsh, but the worry was obvious. As well as the frustration that he could not rise.

Sephiroth started, looking towards the upstairs hall. Cloud was awake? He had not realized. But Zack did not seem surprised. He must have known, but had not had the chance to let Sephiroth know. After all, coming out and finding two identical men impaling each other must have been enough of a shock to drive out all previous thoughts from his mind.

"The fight's over," Zack called, his voice strained.

Brief silence. "And Sephiroth's hurt," Cloud deduced.

"It's not serious," Sephiroth said, his tone matter-of-fact.

Cloud grunted. "Is it, Zack?" he asked pointedly.

"Not as bad as it could be," Zack said, "and not as good, either."

Cloud snorted. "Can he walk?"

"Yes," Sephiroth said.

"Then you're better off than me right now."

Zack looked to Seph. "Can you hold this here, pal?" he asked, indicating the torn cloth. "I'll go get the first aid kit."

Sephiroth nodded, reaching with his left hand to keep the makeshift bandages in place.

As Zack hurried down the hall, Sephiroth slowly went up the stairs. Maybe he was foolish, but he wanted to get up there and see Cloud, and to speak to him without yelling back and forth. That could not be good for Cloud in his condition, not to mention it was just vexing for Sephiroth. He kept his lower wings out as much as possible for balance. It hurt too much to move the upper wing right now. And he had to keep his left hand clamped over the wound. It was difficult to operate his right hand to grasp the banister, but somehow he managed. Reaching the top, he turned to the right, only coming to a stop by the correct bedroom door.

"How are you feeling?" he asked. He took in the blond's form, slumped against the pillows. The wing was spread exactly as it had been left, and did not move or twitch at all. That must be an indication of how much pain Cloud was in. Usually the wing pulsated when he was angry or upset.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Annoyed that I'm laid up," he said. "I could've stopped it, if I'd fought harder. They shouldn't have bested me."

"You really think you could have taken on two dozen thugs by yourself, and won?" Sephiroth grunted. "Honestly, Cloud, even I know my limits."

Cloud glowered at the quilt. "It wouldn't be any problem for you to blast your way through them," he said. "And even just fighting with your sword, you're better and quicker than me."

"I can't imagine how you can be quick at all, when you have to throw so much energy into just lifting your weapon," Sephiroth said, his voice dry.

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever." Cloud crossed his arms, glaring at the wall.

At that moment Zack returned with the kit. "Send me on a chase all over the house, will ya?" he exclaimed. "You weren't where I left you!"

"I figured you'd know I came up here," Sephiroth returned.

"I did," Zack said. "But that doesn't mean you're off the hook!" He was trying to joke, but his heart was not in it.

And Sephiroth could tell. He gave the vaguest shake of his head, a signal for Zack to not keep trying. When Zack was feeling so downhearted, putting on a facade was just too much of a strain for him. Sephiroth did not want to see him like that.

Zack got the message. That was Seph, always trying to look out for him. Gingerly he pulled back the ragged part of his shirt, biting his lip as he looked at the wound again. "It looks pretty deep, Seph," he said, unwrapping an antiseptic wipe. He unfolded it, dabbing its surface across the gash.

Sephiroth did not give any indication that it stung. His expression remained impassive as Zack worked. In his mind he was turning over this grim event again. Was Hojo still at the abandoned castle, using it as his base? What was hiding beyond its walls?

It would not have been difficult for him to obtain a DNA sample during the time he had held Sephiroth captive. A fallen feather would work just fine, and during the many beatings, there had been more than one growth that had come loose. And from that had come not only the clone who had saved Zack and Cloud, but this one he had just fought.

Could there be many clones? What would Hojo be planning to do with them?

Zack frowned as he took the cloth away from the wound. "There's still some of Merlin's herbal paste stuff," he said, reaching for the bottle in the first aid kit. "You'll need it, Seph."

Sephiroth grunted, but did not refuse.

Cloud turned, watching as Zack spread some of the paste over the injury with care. He wanted to stay awake, but his eyes were growing so heavy. . . . He slumped into the pillow, pulling it close to him.

It's going to get worse before it gets better.

Well, that was a great thing to be thinking right before passing out. But with their luck, it was true.

He sighed, his eyes closing.

Now Zack was wrapping Seph's shoulder in the gauze. Seph watched him in silence, the upper wing twitching every now and then. When Zack was finished, he stepped back.

"I guess that's another coat shot," he said with a weak grin, eying the sleeve he had torn off and the blood staining the nearby fabric.

"I'll probably have to make more soon," Sephiroth said in sarcasm.

"How about leaving those things off the next batch?" Zack asked, poking the sewn bat wings on the sleeves.

"They're trademarks now," Sephiroth grunted.

"Your hair and wings are trademarks," Zack chirped. "And wearing black."

"Heh." Sephiroth inspected the bandages himself, running a careful hand over them. "I'll think about it."

"Good!" Zack said. "That's all I'm asking. What do you think, Cloud?"

No response.

Zack frowned in concern, turning to look. "Cloud?!" he exclaimed.

Sephiroth looked as well, narrowing his eyes. "He's swooned again," he realized.

That seemed to be true. Still, Zack needed to run over and make sure that all was well! After the night they had been having, it would not be a surprise if something was horribly wrong. But Zack would never get over it, and Seph likely would not, either.

He limped to the side of the bed, placing his hands on the mattress as he leaned forward. Cloud's chest slowly rose and fell as he breathed.

The brunet let out a sigh of relief tinged with sadness, slumping back.

They were all alive. Banged up pretty bad, but still alive.