Final Fantasy VII

Highway Crash

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is. This is the knitting together of several blurbs (of which have been lengthened in various ways), as well as many scenes written especially for this, and it takes place after Twilight and Dawn and Sunrise and Midnight, but before A Simple Mission in Triplicate. Therefore, Cloud and Sephiroth have not yet been able to sort out their friendship with each other. Because of these facts, I have hesitated in posting it anywhere except on Livejournal. But since my post-Twilight and Dawn stories seem to be well accepted, I have finally decided to post it here, as well. Thanks to NoBuddy for pointing out that I never expressly explained the deal about Sephiroth's Earth surname. I've made a quick tweak.

The sirens were wailing loudly, penetrating through to his weary consciousness. It also sounded as though people were screaming, both in horror and in pain. What was wrong? The scent of smoke and gasoline was so strong in the air. . . .

He struggled to open his eyes. The view was partially blocked by both the hair falling in his face and by the crimson trails running down from his forehead. Further sensations were returning, and it was obvious almost immediately that his head was throbbing, especially near his right temple. He must have struck it on the inside of the door. . . .

Now he remembered, vaguely . . . he and Cloud had been returning to the manor when another car had crashed headlong into theirs. It seemed that their vehicle had spun at least a couple of times before slamming into the railing. That must have been when he had lost consciousness. . . .

He recalled something else, too—red . . . red splattering on the opposite car window, and on the back of the driver's seat. . . . And a painful scream. . . .

A hand flew to his head as he tried to slowly turn and look. Moving was definitely not a good idea, but it was not as though he could simply remain slumped there and not do anything. It did not sound like anyone was near the limousine. And judging by the strong smell of gasoline, it was possible that it was their tank that was leaking, and the car could go up in flames at any moment. They had to get out of here.

His eyes narrowed as they focused on Cloud's body. The blond was laying limp against the seat, his head and neck falling back against the top of it. Blood trailed over his face, and in the shadows, it almost looked as though it was entirely coating the left side. More crimson was on his arms and chest, and broken glass was scattered all around him.

Shakily a hand reached out, gripping at Cloud's right shoulder. He had to determine how to speak, to form words, to call Cloud's name. He was not receiving any response from his actions. Cloud was lifeless. Was he . . . dead? His mind was in too much of a muddle to think. He would have to check later. The most important thing now was to be able to get out of the car with the other.

He shifted again, extending his left hand to try to pull up the manual car lock. Again and again it slipped out of his grasp, his blood-coated hands making it nearly impossible to get a firm grasp. Was it even locked anyway? The door almost looked jammed. . . .

He frowned, seizing the door handle and jiggling it back and forth. Nothing. But the breeze from outside was coming through, and not just from the broken window on Cloud's side.

Undoing his seatbelt, he turned to fully face the door. Maybe he could kick it open. . . . He raised his right foot, slamming it into the object. It groaned, weakening. Encouraged, he slid further back on the seat until his back was nearly touching Cloud's shoulder. Then he struck out again, with both feet. The door cried out, tearing free with a sickening scraping sound as it hit the railing.

He leaned forward, studying what there was of a view. Under the railing was a small hill, and down at the bottom, grass and wildflowers. It would not be too bad of a tumble. And by the looks of Cloud's damaged door, there was no way it could be pried apart. This was the only way out.

He looked back to Cloud. Still no movement. Slowly he put his hand behind the slackened neck, taking his fingers with care down the spine. It did not appear to be broken. But Cloud could still end up hurt worse during the tumble. His form would have to be held very carefully.

. . . Though, he could not feel any hint of breath as he leaned over to undo the seatbelt. Nor did the chest seem to be rising and falling.

Such thoughts would have to be pushed away for now. Gently he brought his left arm around Cloud's shoulders, placing the other behind his knees as the silent ragdoll was eased onto his lap. Certainly not the most desirable situation. If Cloud was conscious, he would be tensing all over and trying to pull away. But he was going to have to deal with it.

It was not that Sephiroth hated Cloud—he did not. It was not even that he especially disliked the other. He respected Cloud, though he still believed that he himself was the better fighter. Cloud had only managed to defeat him in the past because Sephiroth had allowed himself to be swallowed by darkness and hatred. And then he had not seen clearly, even though he had been certain that he could.

It was just so ungodly awkward, to be around someone whom he had hurt so much.

It was different with Zack, he supposed. Zack had whole-heartedly forgiven his old friend. Cloud had never managed to fully forgive Sephiroth—at least, it did not seem that he had. And Sephiroth did not blame him. He did not expect forgiveness. He would honestly be astounded if Cloud ever said that he had pardoned his old enemy.

At least Cloud did not hate Sephiroth so much anymore that it was warping his own soul. They could be civil with each other, most of the time, and sometimes they honestly did not mind each other's company. And that was coming a long way from what their relationship had been.

Cradling the form close and protectively, the man turned back to the opening, his green eyes once again studying the amount of space as well as the distance. The car's front end was practically smashed against the railing; all he needed to do was to dive out just right and he and Cloud would end up descending to the bottom of the hill.

And agility was certainly not a problem for him—at least, not under normal circumstances. Right now, his head was still pounding, dizziness was threatening to pull him under, and every part of his body seemed to be aching.

The eyes narrowed. He was a warrior; he knew how to ignore the pain. And there was no time to be hesitating.

In the next instant, he propelled himself and Cloud forward, into the momentary nothingness of hovering in the air. They flew out through the door, under the railing, and then suddenly the hill was there, guiding them as they tumbled over and over through the blades and weeds.

At last he hit the grassy bottom on his back, Cloud's form laying motionless against him. There had not been a single moan during the trip, which was a matter of concern. Now, even with their current position and his half-unbuttoned shirt, he still could not catch any hint of breath at all.

Blearily he stared up into the smoke-covered, orange-tinted sky. It was nighttime, and very late, so the hue was not from the sun. It was fire . . . either from their own car or one of the others. Now the vague crackling was apparent, mixed in with the screams. Were there people trapped in burning vehicles? That would be a ghastly fate. . . .

There had probably been people in some of the houses he had torched in Nibelheim, unable to get out. . . . They would have been left to burn alive, their agonized cries renting the night. . . .

This was not a time to think on the past. It was the present that was important.

His lips parted, the inner struggle to speak resuming. "Cloud . . ."


Somehow, the knowledge was clear—Cloud was dead.

Zack rubbed his eyes, frowning as he looked to the clock on his desk. Cloud and Seph should have been back long before now. He usually rode back with them, but this time he had not, as Aerith had wanted him to get back early tonight. He and the others had been working overtime all the past week, and Aerith had been feeling lonely for her beloved. Cloud and Seph had both encouraged him to return, and so he had taken one of the other limousines and gone back to the manor.

They were probably fine, back at the company. Maybe they had both fallen asleep there, like the old times before they had regained their memories. He smirked, thinking of Cloud sprawled on the old green couch and Seph falling over the keyboard. Yeah, that was probably what happened. In that case, they might not be back till morning.

"You're worried."

He looked up at Aerith's soft voice. She had come back into the room again, without him even realizing. Now she was over by him on the couch, putting her arms around him from behind.

He smiled, relaxing into her embrace. "Yeah . . . I guess I am," he admitted, placing his hands on her arms and gently rubbing. "I didn't think Cloud and Seph would be gone this long."

She leaned down, kissing his cheek. "You know how they are," she said.

"Chronic workaholics," Zack smirked. But he could feel in her body language that she was not altogether relaxed. She was concerned, too. Sometimes Aerith seemed almost to know things before they would happen, or to suspect, but right now she seemed not to be certain what to think.

The sound of the doorbell was startling. It was almost midnight; who would be coming now? Maybe Cloud and Seph just did not have their keys. No . . . that was not it. The lavender and the green eyes exchanged a worried look. Their owners both knew something was not right.

Aerith straightened up, releasing Zack as she headed for the door. No words were spoken, but it seemed an eternity before she and Zack arrived in the parlor. The bell rang another time, and now the doors upstairs could be heard opening.

"Aerith?" came Marlene's sleepy and confused voice. "Who's here?"

She turned to look up at the stairs, as Zack unlocked the deadbolt. "We don't know yet," she said, hoping that she sounded calm and comforting. "But it's late now. Go back to sleep, Marlene."

"Is Cloud back yet?" Denzel mumbled, looking out of his own room as he rubbed his eyes.

"No, not yet," Aerith said. He should go back to bed as well. She was going to tell him so, but the unfamiliar voice at the door made her freeze.

"Are you Zack Fair?" The tones were serious, grave. Aerith whirled to look. It was a policeman. The color began to drain from her face.

Zack swallowed hard, gripping the edge of the door. "Yeah," he nodded. "What's wrong, officer?" Something had to be wrong. The police would not come this late at night unless something horrible had happened. The only question was . . . how horrible was it?

"Is Cloud hurt?!" Denzel demanded from the top of the stairs. He opened his door further, stepping into the hall.

Marlene watched him with worry in her brown eyes. She wanted to know the answer, and yet she dreaded it. What would they do if something happened to Cloud? How would they stand it? How would Denzel stand it? They were all devoted to Cloud, but Denzel, who had already lost his biological father, was especially close to him.

The officer sighed, his expression sad. He always dreaded these kinds of assignments. It never got easier with time.

"There was an accident on the highway," he said at last. "Cloud Strife and . . . Sephiroth were both involved." He hesitated before speaking the second name. It was strange to only use one name for someone he did not know.

Though Sephiroth had originally used Jenova's name as his surname, that had ended once he had regained his memories. He had not chosen another yet, as it had not been that long ago that he had returned to run the company again with Cloud. Nor had it been long since the newly-restored Zack had joined them. Sephiroth was half-considering only using the one name he had always used on Gaia, especially after hearing of some among the famous on Earth who did the same. But he had not made his final decision.

The company itself was still using Jenova's name in lieu of something better, and they had all been trying to think of what that something could be. But this was not the time to be thinking of something so trivial. Zack swallowed hard.

The officer looked back to Zack, getting over his discomfort. "You were listed as an emergency contact, as well as Tifa Lockhart. . . ."

"Tifa lives here too," Zack said. Now he was growing impatient. Part of him wanted to just grab the man and shake him and demand for him to tell all of it, now! Seph and Cloud had both been in the crash, and from the officer's hesitation, they had not ended up with just a few cuts and scrapes. They were hurt bad . . . maybe even . . .

"Where's Cloud?!" Denzel screamed, running down the steps. He had to know! He had to know now! They had to go to him!

Another door opened on the second floor and Tifa emerged, a white robe over her nightgown, her reddish-brown eyes filled with a growing fear and dread. Something was wrong with Cloud. So many times she had been afraid that he would get into something he would not be able to get out of, that his recklessness would kill him, that his anger would kill him, that . . . something would kill him. . . .

"Come on, tell us, before we all go crazy!" Zack exclaimed, laying a hand on Denzel's shoulder.

The policeman nodded. "Both of them were found laying at the bottom of a hill, near where their vehicle exploded," he said. "Both were, and still are, to my knowledge, unconscious and unresponsive."

Aerith gave a quiet gasp. Above them, Marlene was starting to cry. Tifa went to the child, hugging her close.

Denzel had stiffened at Zack's side. The brunet swallowed, his mouth feeling dry. Both of them . . . like that. . . . But . . . it was still better than if they were . . .

"They're gonna be okay, right?" he cried. They had to be . . . they had to be!

The officer looked helpless. "I don't know," he said. "They're at the local hospital. . . ."

Denzel clenched his fists. "Cloud has to be okay!" he screamed. "What happened?! Why were they laying on the ground?! Did they get thrown out of the car?!" Zack's grip tightened on his shoulder, as if partially in fear and partially in warning, but he did not care. He wanted to know. He had to know!

"All I know is that it looked like Sephiroth may have been trying to save Mr. Strife's life," the policeman answered now.

Zack nodded shakily. "Well . . . thanks," he said, his voice quiet. "We're going to go there and see them." He paused, biting his lip. "Do you know anything else?" he pleaded. "I mean . . . you said they're unresponsive. Are they hurt really bad? Do they have any . . . permanent injuries?" The possibilities swirled through his mind. What if one or even both of them were paralyzed to some extent? Or what if there was brain damage and they would be comatose indefinitely? What if . . . what if they would not remember anything? It was too much.

Aerith came to him, gripping his hand in hers. She was distraught too, but instead of focusing on her own sorrows, she was trying to give Zack comfort. That was so like her.

The officer looked thoughtful. "I wasn't told about anything like that," he said. "Maybe they found something after I left, I wouldn't know that. But from what I saw and heard, I think maybe they were alright, except for being unconscious." He shifted. "But that could be a big problem, if it persists."

Zack nodded again. He knew that too well. "Thanks," he said once more, as the policeman turned to go. Suddenly everything was so messed up. But he could not let himself fall into despair.

He looked first to Aerith and then down at Denzel. "Let's go see them, okay?" he said, his voice quiet. He knew how much Cloud meant to all of them, and particularly to Denzel. Cloud would want them all to be strong, and for them to comfort and help Denzel and Marlene where possible. That was going to be a big task.

Denzel nodded. "Yeah. . . ." He sounded subdued now, but the worry and heartache were obvious.

He took a step forward to head out to the car, and then paused, looking back. "Zack?" he said slowly.

Zack blinked, watching him. "Yeah?"

"Do you think . . ." Denzel's voice trembled. "Cloud will be okay?"

Zack smiled, hoping that he sounded more assured than he felt. "You know how stubborn Cloud is," he said with a smirk.

Denzel gave a weak smile. "Yeah. . . ." he said once more. He turned again, hurrying outside.

Zack looked to Aerith now. "Shall we?"

She nodded. "Let's," she said with firmness. Behind them, Tifa and Marlene were coming down the stairs too.

A wan smile came over Zack's features as he led them out to the limousine. It seemed sad, that other than himself and to a lesser extent, Aerith, no one would worry about Seph as they would worry about Cloud. They would not want harm to come to Seph, but Cloud was their main concern. Zack worried for both his friends equally. Of course, other than Zack, Seph did not really have any friends.


He blinked in surprise, looking to Marlene as she tugged on the edge of his shirt. She gazed up at him in earnest, her tear-stained face plaintive and moving.

"Sephiroth really was trying to save Cloud, wasn't he?" she said, her tone soft.

Zack nodded, bending down to her eye level. "Yeah," he said, "I'm sure he was."

Marlene looked down, her brown eyes filling again with tears. "I want him to be okay, too," she said, her tone soft. "He was nice to me. . . ."

Zack broke into a smile. Well, so he had been wrong. In this case, he did not mind.

"I bet he'll be just fine," he comforted. "He's stubborn too, you know." He smirked.

Marlene beamed, giving Zack a quick hug before climbing into the limo.

Zack drew in a deep breath as he pushed open the door to the hospital room several moments later. They had been told that they could go in, but not all at once. Aerith had said that Zack and Tifa should go first, and she would stay with the kids in the waiting room. But the nurse had not acted as though the sight would be something so horrible for Marlene and Denzel to see. Both Seph and Cloud had been relatively lucky, as far as cuts and bruises and bandages went. It was the head injuries that were of the greatest concern.

Even so, seeing both of your best friends laying motionless in hospital beds was not something that could be prepared for. His throat felt dry as he gazed upon their still forms. They were both breathing on their own, at least, and the heart monitors were steady. They would be okay. They had to be! They had to be . . .


He snapped back to the present at Tifa's quiet voice. She was looking at him questioningly, the pain clear in her amber eyes.

He gave a weak smile. "Hey . . . you go to Cloud first," he said. "I'll go to Seph." Of course he knew of Tifa's devotion to Cloud after their long friendship that had begun in childhood. She should be the first to see him now.

The silent look in her eyes asked if he was sure, but she was swift to accept his decision. Crossing the room to Cloud's side, she leaned down to speak into his ear. And even though Zack could not discern the words, the pleading tone was enough to tell him what she was saying. She wanted him to wake up, of course, as they all did.

He swallowed hard, going the other direction to Seph's bed. The older man was wearing a black robe, open at the chest, and Zack winced to see some of the various contusions adorning the flesh. Poor Seph. . . .

"Hey, pal," he said, his tone subdued and quiet as he laid his completely well hand over the larger, scraped one. Seph's skin felt so cold. . . . "Man . . . this shouldn't have happened!" he declared, swallowing hard. "I wish . . . I wish I'd been there. I wish I could've helped."

He smiled weakly again. "And you went and saved Cloud, huh? Wonder what he'll think of that, when he wakes up."

His grip tightened. "You and he, you're both gonna wake up and be fine," he said, his voice firm. "You know I won't take No for an answer." Again with the wan smile. "But you don't want to die, do you, Seph? You'll fight to stay here. . . ."

The door opened again and he blinked, turning to look. Marlene was peeking around the edge, biting her lip. Her expression showed that she was still hesitant to come in while others were in there, but that she could not wait any longer. Behind her came Denzel and Aerith.

"Some of the hospital's rules are ridiculous," Aerith said calmly, meeting Zack's questioning eyes. "Especially when the patients are unconscious. How could they be bothered by the visitors?"

Zack had to smirk. "Good point," he said.

Tifa straightened and stepped aside, watching as Marlene slowly came over to the bed. "Cloud," the child said, her voice wavering. She reached out, grabbing the limp hand. Tears began to fill her eyes anew as she cradled it without getting a response. It was one thing to hear about him being injured, and that was bad enough, but actually seeing him like this was heart-breaking.

Tifa hung back now, still observing. Had it been a good idea to bring the kids here at all? Still, once they had known what had happened, it would have been almost impossible to keep them away. And . . . if something still did go wrong, it was better for them to have been able to have seen him, one last time.

No! She could not think like that. What was wrong with her? Nothing like that would happen. Cloud would be just fine. He just needed to wake up. . . .

Marlene looked up at her, the brown eyes filled with sorrow. "Can I get up on the bed?" she asked.

Tifa surveyed Cloud's form before nodding. There was not really anything that Marlene might pull out by accident. "Okay," she agreed, "but be careful. Cloud has a lot of cuts and bruises from the crash. You don't want to hurt him worse." She reached down, lifting the little girl under her arms and setting her gently on the bed.

Marlene immediately snuggled next to him, laying her head on the edge of the fluffy pillow. "I hope he wakes up soon," she said, moving a careful arm around him in a hug.

Tifa smiled a bit. The scene was adorable. She just wished that it would not be taking place under such sad circumstances. "I hope so too," she agreed, her voice barely a whisper.

She looked over near the door. Denzel was still there with Aerith, having hung back. Now he clenched his fists at his sides, looking down at the floor.

Tifa's expression became concerned. "Denzel? Are you okay?" she asked.

"No!" he cried in an instant. "No, I'm not okay. Cloud shouldn't be like this . . . !" He turned away, facing the corridor outside. "He shouldn't be like this!" With that he ran out, disappearing around a corner.

Aerith looked to Tifa, her eyes showing her regret. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I shouldn't have brought him. He wanted to come . . . but it was just too much for him." She did not know that much about the boy, as Denzel was still warming up to her. But Tifa had told her a little bit, including how his parents had been killed when the plate had dropped back in Midgar. To see Cloud laying so still now must have been especially unbearable.

"It's alright," Tifa answered. "I'll go find him." She walked past Aerith and into the hall. In one way, it was a relief to get out of the room. She could understand where Denzel was coming from. It was hard, and disturbing, to see Cloud like that. And on the other hand, Tifa wanted to be right there, to know the moment he woke up. Because he was going to wake up.

Zack sighed to himself, looking back down at Seph's pale form. "Man . . . what a mess," he said. "You and Cloud get better soon, huh?" He gave the hand a gentle squeeze. "We all miss you guys around here."

He could just imagine Seph's grim smirk and his response. "I somehow doubt that I am missed by anyone but you," he would say. "But that's good enough for me, and far more than I deserve."

It was so weird, waking up again.

There were flashes of memories going through his mind, things that seemed as though they had happened, and yet were so far away, as if in a dream or another lifetime. He could see a highway, a car—several cars, actually—and an eighteen-wheeler. One car had a collision with the truck, and then another car, swerving to miss it, struck a limousine. He knew that he was in the second vehicle, and upon the impact, there was the shattering of glass and a pained scream—his scream. Then there was nothing. If he was not coming to right now, he might be inclined to think that he had been killed.


He groaned, opening his eyes halfway as he looked toward the sound of the voice. Zack was leaning over the railing of the bed, watching his friend with worry.

He struggled to form words. "Zack . . . what happened?" His voice came out in a slurred mumble, and he frowned to himself. Was that even able to be understood?

But Zack seemed to piece it together. "You don't remember?" He gave a weak, rueful smile. "You were mixed up in a pretty bad crash, buddy."

So it was true then? It was not just a random tangle of dream incidents? He started to reach up to rub at his head, but the effort was interrupted by the discovery of a small body curled up at his side. He blinked, looking in that direction as he tried to focus. "Marlene," he realized, gazing at her sleeping form.

"She hasn't left your side since we came here," Zack grinned. "She's nuts about you, you know."

Now a weak smile crossed Cloud's lips. Then he looked back to his friend, wanting answers. "How long ago did this happen?" he asked. "You look awful."

Zack cuffed Cloud lightly on his shoulder. "Now that's the pot calling the kettle black," he smirked. His hair was a wild mess, not to mention his eyes had enough red lines to resemble a road map. Cloud's hair was unruly as well, and he had various cuts and scrapes on his face. And of course, he felt a mess too.

His smile became a matching smirk. "Yeah," he said, "I guess it is."

Zack sat down in a chair next to the bed. "It happened earlier tonight," he said. "Well . . . it's almost sunrise now."

"And you haven't gotten any sleep," Cloud accused.

"I told Marlene she could sleep for both of us," Zack smiled.

Cloud shook his head. Sometimes he wondered whether Zack had ever really gotten used to living again, the way he pushed his luck when it came to getting sleep. And then he would decide that it was hard to know, since Zack had acted the same before he had ever been killed.


The delighted voice brought him back to attention. Marlene was awake now, and pulling herself into a kneeling position to see Cloud better. She was beaming, her eyes shining and joyous.

"You're awake! Zack and Tifa and Aerith said you'd be okay!"

Cloud half-smiled. "Oh they did, huh?"

Marlene nodded emphatically. "I knew you would be, too," she said. "You aren't going to ever leave us again, are you, Cloud?" She leaned down, hugging him while making sure to be gentle.

He reached up, bringing her into a half-hug with one arm. What she was speaking of was probably when he had left after Meteor, unable to forgive himself for Aerith's death, or for Zack's, for that matter. He had not believed himself worthy to even stay around his still-living friends. But he had gotten set straight by their combined efforts—and strangely enough, also by Sephiroth. The silver-haired man had still been insane then, but fighting him had made Cloud realize all the more that he could be strong, that he was able to protect those he loved.

Sephiroth . . . what had happened to him? He had been in the crash too.

Remembering Marlene's question, he looked to her again. "I won't if I can help it," he said.

She snuggled. "Sephiroth was trying to save you," she said, her voice somewhat muffled as she buried her face in Cloud's shoulder.

The blue eyes widened. "He . . . huh?!" He looked back up to Zack for confirmation.

The brunet gave a slow nod. "Well, we don't know anything for sure," he amended, "but it sure looked that way. You guys were found at the bottom of the hill, and he was holding onto you."

Cloud frowned. "How is he?" he found himself asking.

Zack shook his head, a trace of sadness now creeping into his features. "Still unconscious, still unresponsive," he said, turning to look at the lifeless form in the other bed. He looked back to Cloud, grinning again. "But you woke up now, so maybe he'll come to soon."

Cloud followed Zack's gaze to the other bed. Sephiroth looked so quiet, so alone and not at peace. Something about the sight made him feel altogether sad. He frowned.

"Is he hurt bad?" he asked.

Zack's smile faltered. "Man . . . I hope not," he choked out.

"So do I." Cloud frowned more as he realized that he meant it.

The door opened again, and Tifa, Aerith, and Denzel were there. Cloud turned his gaze back just in time to see Denzel's expression light up in joyous relief. Then he was running in and over to the bed. "Cloud!" he exclaimed, gripping at the metal railing. "Are you okay?!"

Cloud blinked, then nodded. True, he was becoming aware of a pounding headache, and he seemed to feel somewhat dizzy, but that would probably pass soon. He was awake now, so that was a good sign.

"It's about time you woke up," Aerith said, her tone light. She smiled as she and Tifa came over as well.

"We've been so worried," Tifa added, her voice quiet.

Cloud had to admit, he felt somewhat embarrassed by all the attention he was getting. "I'm okay, really," he said.

"Good," said Aerith, "and you'd better stay that way."

Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud saw Zack leaving the group and crossing the room again to where Sephiroth was laying. It was likely to allow the others to have their time with Cloud, as well as to enable Sephiroth to have someone with him. Maybe what Cloud had earlier found sad was that Sephiroth had been by himself, while Cloud had so many who were actively worried about him and watching over him.

But . . . why should he feel that way, after all that Sephiroth had done?

The thought sounded hollow to him then. And, as Denzel and Marlene and Tifa and Aerith all spoke to him, he realized what he had been denying for some time.

It was a surreal experience, to stare down into the wooden box and see Cloud laying there.

The wounds were cleaned, the blood removed from his skin and hair. Never having been a suit person, he was dressed the way he had felt the most comfortable, in a sleeveless sweater shirt and dark pants. His eyes were closed, and really, he looked asleep.

Sephiroth looked away again, the frustration building. Zack had been mostly silent, and now he was standing on the other side of the casket, the vexation of the formal tie forgotten. He was staring down, his eyes hidden, but it was not necessary to see them in order to know what was within them.

At some point after the tumble, Sephiroth had lost consciousness on the grass. He and Cloud had later been found by paramedics, and he had came to in a hospital bed, Zack worriedly leaning over him. . . .

Staring up into his friend's face, the memories began to return—the accident, the blood, the fall. . . . Cloud was dead. He had known it then, and in Zack's eyes, he could see that it was true now.

It was still hard for him to speak. His body was so weakened, and his mind was in such a muddle. But he tried.

"Zack . . . I'm sorry. . . ."

Zack smiled sadly, laying his hand on the cool shoulder. "I know, Seph," he answered.

"I . . . I tried to save him. . . ."

"Hey, it's not your fault." Zack gripped his hand. "He . . . he probably died instantly in the collision. But I . . . I'm glad that you made it out." He tried to grin, but failed. "You just got a concussion and some cuts and scratches. Guess you've got a hard head."

Sephiroth gave a weak smirk in reply, but the pain was obvious in his friend's expression. It was too much. He had let Zack down again.

Did the rest of Cloud's friends believe that Sephiroth was at fault? It was hard to say; none of them had really spoke to him in the past couple of days. Zack and Aerith both had, and had repeatedly told him that it was not his fault, that he had done everything he could, but it seemed to him that he could feel looks of accusation from some of the others.

Maybe he was only imagining, but Tifa seemed especially cold to him. Did she think he had let Cloud die? Or did she just blame him because of the company, even though he and Cloud co-owned it now and Cloud was not just his assistant? Cloud had an equal say in the decisions. He could get out any time he wanted. He had chosen to stay.

They had co-owned it. Cloud was dead now.

Zack and Tifa had both delivered eulogies, and Marlene had played a piece on a portable keyboard. Denzel had been too upset to participate. If anyone blamed Sephiroth, it would not be hard to believe that it was Denzel. He had lost his biological father. Cloud had been a surrogate father to him. And now Cloud was dead too. He had certainly given Sephiroth a dark look when they had arrived at the site.

He had tried to save Cloud. It had already been too late, but he had tried. But maybe they did not blame him for that. Maybe they blamed him simply because he had survived and Cloud had not. That was not his fault, either! It was a mystery to him why he had lived. Why not both of them, or why not take his life, if one of them had to perish? Cloud's life had been stolen instead, for some reason or another. Why should he be blamed for that?

And yet again, after all he had done, why not? Why shouldn't they blame him? It was only natural that they would be angry with him. After all the treacherous things he had done, he was still living now—instead of Cloud, who had fought for righteousness. There was only one person who would miss Sephiroth if he had been the one to go. But they would all miss Cloud.

Did he wish that he had died in place of Cloud? No . . . not really. Zack would suffer no matter which was dead. What he wished was that Cloud had not been killed, that both of them could have escaped.

In some way, in spite of all of this, he wondered if he needed to say something—considering the company. But that was not really a good idea. Zack would probably encourage him if he brought it up, so it was better to not even mention it. The rest of AVALANCHE would not want him to speak, and anyway, what right would he have, since he and Cloud had been mortal enemies?

He smirked grimly to himself. It was so easy to picture Cloud staring, aghast and disbelieving, if Sephiroth decided to speak. That alone would almost make it worth it, but no . . . he did not feel like teasing the dead today.

. . . What would he even say? Would he talk about the long nights spent working on important projects, of Cloud's good business skills, of how he had sometimes flown off the handle and how their arguments had become commonplace to the secretary?

He would not speak of the few times they had managed civil conversation. Those occasions were private, only for his and Cloud's knowledge. So anything he would say would be trivial, unimportant, to these people—except to Zack. But Zack, who worked at the company too, already was aware of anything concerning it.

No, he would definitely not say anything at all. That was for the best.

Heh . . . some of those memories were actually not so unpleasant. But they were past now. It was time to move on.

Though it would not be easy. He did not know how Zack was going to manage. He had been so depressed and sad, though he had tried desperately to not show it, since he knew that Sephiroth still felt guilty.

"Will you miss him, Seph?"

Sephiroth frowned in surprise, glancing over to where Zack was wrestling with the tie. Sephiroth himself had just given up on the blasted things and was wearing a suit jacket with a mostly buttoned shirt, much to Zack's mock surprise.

"Is there a reason why I should?" he said now.

Zack smiled ruefully as he shook his head, the raven spikes flying with the motion. "Guess not . . . but I just wondered. You worked with him so long . . . and . . . you seemed like you were getting along okay with him."

"We had a truce. It was mostly for you."

Zack draped his arm around the other's shoulders. "Yeah . . . I know. It meant a lot to me." He continued to smile in that sad way. "But sometimes you acted like you didn't mind his company . . . that maybe you even liked it. He was kinda the same way after a while . . . not that you or he could ever admit it."

Abruptly he changed the subject. "And Seph, wow, you could've knocked me over with a feather!" he said. "I mean, actually wearing a buttoned shirt?"

Sephiroth shrugged. "It happens now and then."

It almost hurt worse to hear Zack trying to be cheerful, since he knew that his poor friend was anything but cheery right then.

Would he miss Cloud? It was hard to say. Maybe . . .

The thought remained unfinished.

It was time that they needed to close the casket. Everyone had gone up, paying their last respects. Sephiroth had hung back till the last, and now he was staring down at the body, with nothing to really think or say. If Cloud had attended his own funeral, what was he thinking right now? Did he like how it had gone? Was he trying to get people to notice him, in vain? It was easy to picture him standing behind Tifa or Zack, or even himself, Sephiroth, and yelling that he was right there.

What strange, morbid thoughts he was having. Was that a tinge of regret? He had not wanted Cloud to die.

He looked up in discomfort. Zack was coming back over now, intending to shut the lid. Every step he took clearly displayed his dread and sorrow over the situation. This was not something he wanted to do. He was not even certain that he could do it. When he reached the coffin, all he could do was to stare blankly at his friend's form.

It was something Sephiroth could barely stand to see. I'm sorry, Zack.

He glanced back down at the corpse. I'm sorry, Cloud. . . .

Zack took a deep breath, reaching for the lid.

Sephiroth took hold of it as well. Tifa was standing nearby, watching with pained eyes. He looked over at Zack, his eyes questioning. Are you ready? But even silent, the question was foolish. Of course, Zack could never be ready.

Still, the brunet managed a weak nod.

Together they brought the lid down, the sound seeming to make an endless, eerie echo throughout the cemetery. Zack's shoulders slumped, his head bowed, and he let out a deep breath. It was done, and yet he still felt as though he was abandoning a friend. Was that how Cloud had felt years ago, when burying him?

Sephiroth slowly reached out, laying a hand on the other's shoulder.

Zack started and then looked up, trying to give a weak smile. His eyes were different now. Part of the light had gone out.

And Sephiroth could hardly stand to look at him.

"I hate you!"

Both he and Zack looked up with a start. Denzel had leaped out of his seat, his fists clenched, the turmoil obvious in his bluish-green eyes.

Tifa stared at him, aghast. "Denzel!" she reprimanded.

"I hate you!" Denzel screamed again, facing Sephiroth. He began to stalk over, moving to attempt shoving the silver-haired man away from the casket. "You shouldn't even be here! It's your fault Cloud's dead! And you don't care! You don't care at all!" He beat his fists into Sephiroth's chest, but he was unable to uproot his target from the spot.

Sephiroth took hold of the boy's wrists, grasping them in his own hands as he began to step aside. Denzel had a point, with his first statement. Why was he there? Well . . . Zack had asked his friend if he would be willing to help, and Sephiroth had agreed, albeit with reluctance. Maybe he had thought it was the only thing he could do to ease Zack's pain at this point.

"The kid's right!" Barret yelled now, getting up as well. "He don't belong here! He tried to blow us all to kingdom come on Gaia!"

"That's right!" Cid chimed in. "He should just shove off now! He ain't got a place here!"

And then mass confusion erupted, with arguments being thrown on every side. Zack and Aerith tried to be heard over the din, to defend Sephiroth, but their voices were quickly drowned.

Sephiroth looked to his friend, slowly shaking his head. It was not worth it. These people would never feel differently about him. "Zack . . . stop," he said, his voice quiet.

Zack looked to him, swallowing hard as his shoulders slumped. Seph was probably right. But he had wanted to hope so much that they could see how different a sane Sephiroth was, that he had struggled to save Cloud, that he did not deserve all this hatred being directed at him.

Denzel ripped free from Sephiroth's grasp now, regarding him with sheer contempt. "I'll never forgive you!" he screamed. Then he pushed past, running off through the cemetery.

"Denzel!" Zack called after him, but in vain.

"I'm sorry," Sephiroth spoke again. "I shouldn't have come."

Zack frowned, returning his vision to Seph. "That's not true," he retorted. "You've got a right to be here. They're just . . ." He shook his head in sadness. "They're not ready to let the past go." He ran a hand through his hair, looking to the retreating figure of Denzel as he vanished into the thick trees.

Sephiroth followed his gaze. The new wounds added to scars that had never healed emphasized the fact that he would always be an outsider.

That beeping was so annoying.

He did not know of anyone who actually liked it, when he thought about it. Though, Zack had tried to give him a different perspective. It meant the person was alive, anyway, and that should be an encouraging thought. And the fact that it was slow and quiet indicated a stable condition.

Maybe it was the waiting he found to be the most exasperating. He hated to wait. He hated seeing how Zack was being run ragged by it all. His hair was sticking in even more directions than usual, his clothes were rumpled, and his eyes were bloodshot. But he smiled and pressed on, as always. If he ever thought his friend would not recover, he never showed it. Instead, he encouraged his other friend, insisting that everything would be alright.

Not that he was worried. Why would he worry about the man laying senseless in the bed? Why should he? He would be fine. And they were not on the best of terms.

Well . . . they had not been for years . . . but things had improved in the last several months. They were not out to kill each other.

"I guess . . . you saved both our lives," he muttered, slumping back into the chair as he crossed his arms.

The crash was a mystery to him. The last thing he recalled was the screeching of brakes on the highway. The impact of the cars, and of himself slamming into the window at his side, had fled from his mind. To be precise, at this point no one even knew how he and Sephiroth had escaped the limo before it exploded. But since the paramedics had found Sephiroth laying at the bottom of that hill, Cloud's body sprawled across him, they had determined that he had jumped from the vehicle holding on to the younger man.

Cloud certainly sported evidence of having been involved in the collision. There was a strip of bandage around his head, half-hidden by his blond spikes, and various cuts and scratches adorned his face and hands. Sephiroth bore similar wounds, though the bandage he had was only on his right temple.

He was so silent as he lay there, his long locks spread out on the pillow and all around him. Zack said that unconscious people sometimes could hear what was being said around them. Would Sephiroth be able to hear? He did not look as though he would. But maybe appearances were deceiving.

Not that Cloud would have anything to say to him.

There was really no reason to worry. . . . It had been almost twenty-four hours since the crash, but that did not mean that Sephiroth's life was in danger. Yes, he should have woke up by now, especially since Cloud had woke up several hours ago. Why was he like that, in such a deep state of senselessness? Any deeper and it would be a coma. Or maybe the official medical definition was already a coma; that was not something which he had ever studied much.

He should wake up. . . . He should be fine. Zack had said he would . . . he had never indicated that the doctors had spoken different words.

Funny . . . there were no hateful feelings here. There was no burning desire to see Sephiroth suffer. Of course . . . even when he had screamed that he wanted his enemy to be in torment, he had not harbored such feelings at all, when such a situation actually came to pass. Then he had regretted it and had wanted the other to be alright.

Was he worried?

What a stupid thought. Why should he worry? He had just been through that, in his mind. There was no reason to worry!

"Weird," he mumbled. "I realized something a few hours ago, and I've still been trying to ignore it. But . . . I forgave you a long time ago."

Sephiroth had been like a father to him, so many years in the past. It sounded strange, to remember that now. There were only nine years separating them in age. But when he had been a reckless, yet shy and impressionable teenager, Sephiroth had seemed so wise and great, someone much older than his early twenties.

He had been twenty-five, and Cloud, sixteen, when they had clashed at Nibelheim. And it had never been the same since. Cloud had hated him, oh, he had hated so much! Until just recently, he had managed to keep it under control for the most part. But it had always been festering within him, just waiting to be unleashed.

It had been fueled by anger and rage, but now as he thought of it, underneath the fury had been pain and hurt. Sephiroth had betrayed him, he had betrayed Zack, he had betrayed all who had looked up to him! In his mind he had known that Sephiroth had lost his sanity, but he had not been able to accept that as a reason for what had happened. Sephiroth should have controlled himself. He could have prevented what he did to Nibelheim!

That was what Cloud had told himself, anyway.

When he had regained his memories after they had been sent to Earth, it had been Nibelheim all over again. But then he had taken leave of his own senses, he had believed that Sephiroth had never been sincere, that he had only pretended to have lost his own memories, that he had been taunting Cloud all the time at Jenova Corp. He had finally let his hatred spill over, and it had almost destroyed him.

It was hard to pinpoint exactly when he had begun to forgive. The turning point was when he had freed Sephiroth from the stone in which he had been imprisoned. Ever since then, he had started to heal. It was a very gradual process, and it had happened almost without him fully being aware of it.

Now, as he looked upon the pale form lying in front of him, he felt no malice, no anger, no satisfaction. And the concern he carried was not for an idol, someone larger than life. It was for a man, a good man honestly trying to use his second chance as best as he knew how. The burden Sephiroth bore was heavy. Cloud could see it whenever he looked into the green eyes. He would always carry the sorrow and the horror of his actions.

"A few months ago, I wanted to make myself believe that I'd dance on your grave," he muttered. "Now, all I want is for you to get better. Maybe the doctors should have examined my head more."

He sighed, continuing to regard the older man with weariness. Not enemies . . . not even grudging allies anymore, some of the time. It was more like they had begun forging something else. A friendship, even?

What a stupid thought.

He was standing by the coffin again, staring down into Cloud's pale face, only too aware of Zack's despondent form standing next to him. Why was it this way again? The lid had already been shut. Everyone had left, except for Tifa, who had gone chasing after Denzel. Now they were all back, and the lid was up, as though it had never been closed.

This was irritating. How would they be able to even try to begin going on with their lives if they were brought back to this point? The casket would just have to be shut again.

He looked over at Zack, who met his gaze. Zack did not look confused, as if this had happened before. He merely gave a quiet nod, his lavender eyes filled with sorrow. Maybe it never had happened before. Maybe that was just in his mind. He had played the funeral out several times there, before it had actually taken place. Maybe this was the real funeral now.

They moved to shut the lid.

Wait a minute.

. . . Wait? Why? He frowned. Neither Tifa or Zack wanted to see the casket close, but it had to be done. And the longer they extended the time, the more difficult it was going to be. Especially since this had already been supposed to have been gone and done with.

Yet the prompting, the impulse, the whatever-it-was, was very insistent. Wait a minute.

He frowned more, relaxing his grip on the lid.

The blue eyes snapped open.

. . . What . . . was this?! A hallucination? No . . . Zack was sharply drawing in his breath. He saw it too. Impossible. Ridiculous.

It must just be a reflex. Dead bodies did that sometimes. . . .

. . . Dead bodies did not groan. Nor did they raise their hands to their heads, wincing, and then sit up.

The shock and the strain was too much. Poor Tifa collapsed, as Barret and Aerith rushed to catch her.

It was Zack who found his voice first. "What the . . . Cloud, what the heck are you doing?!" he cried, his lavender eyes wide, his body trembling. This was not real. This could not be real. . . . He could not believe it.

Cloud winced again, gingerly taking his hand away from the wound. "Coming back, I guess," he mumbled.

And Zack was diving for him, glomping him, laughing and crying and yelling unintelligibly.

Sephiroth could only stand there and stare, his thoughts racing, his mind reeling. Cloud was not dead. He was very much alive, looking slightly disgruntled about being glomped without warning, but then warming to the occasion and smiling a bit as he hugged back. Tifa was coming around, and upon seeing that the sight was not a fantasy, she was shakily getting up and coming over as well.

As were the rest of AVALANCHE.

An old enemy was out of place here. He stepped aside.

His expression softened as he watched Zack. His friend was joyous as he moved back to let the others get to Cloud. Barret was cursing as he demanded to know what was happening and how this was happening, and Cloud could only shrug helplessly before the kids were launching themselves at him, hugging him close and tugging on his hands, wanting him to get out of the coffin.

Cloud looked slightly amused. "I can't get out, until you guys move back to give me some room," he said. They quickly did, and with Zack's assistance, Cloud pushed himself further up near the edge, swinging his legs over the side as he began to climb out. He stumbled, his legs weak, and Tifa hastened to help him stand.

"How?" she whispered, her voice catching. She was holding onto him desperately, not wanting to let go—as if she was afraid that if she did, this reality would vanish and Cloud would be laying dead again.

"They said it wasn't my time," he answered, seeming to still be getting used to speaking again. "They said I could come back."

"Well, they sure picked a crazy time to send you!" Barret exclaimed.

Cloud managed a weak smirk. Then he gave a sudden blink, as if remembering something.

He looked up, his gaze drifting over everyone present until he saw Sephiroth standing awkwardly to the side, looking as though he felt that he did not belong. Cloud held the gaze for a moment, until green eyes raised and met the blue orbs. They stared at each other for a moment, as if not knowing what to think.

Then Cloud turned away, his eyes cold. He had nothing to say to Sephiroth.

Sephiroth turned as well. He was right. There was no place for him here. He was unwelcome. Zack would want to be with Cloud now; he would not notice if Sephiroth departed. Sephiroth would not tell him. Then Zack would try to convince him that it was not true, that his presence was wanted. And why fool themselves? Cloud had made it quite clear that Sephiroth should leave.

He smirked to himself as he walked through the grass. Well, if he was in Cloud's position, he would not want to be around himself either. Not after what he had done in the past. There was no forgiveness for that—neither from himself nor from Cloud.

Reaching the limo, he pried open the door on the driver's side. The chauffeur blinked at him in confusion.

"Get out," Sephiroth directed with a firm gesture.


"Get in the back," Sephiroth rephrased. "I'm driving."

The bewildered man swallowed, but nodded, and climbed out as was wanted. Brushing past his boss, he opened the door to the back and maneuvered his body inside before shutting the door after himself.

Sephiroth took over the vacated seat, closing his own door and reaching to turn the key in the ignition.

"Sir?" the chauffeur asked, his voice timid. "Aren't you going to wait for . . . ?" He nodded toward Cloud, the gesture visible in the rear view mirror.

"No," Sephiroth answered. "He's busy. He'll come back when he's done."

He had thought that things were somewhat better of late. Apparently he had been mistaken. It was a wonder he and Cloud ever managed to live under the same roof. But maybe that would have to change.

The sound of beeping machines suddenly filled his ears . . . incessant, unvarying. . . . It was one of the most exasperating sounds he had ever heard. And one of the most hated. He remembered beeping machines in the past, monitoring his progress after the scientists' experiments—and sometimes during them. Always, when he heard the infernal noise, it reminded him of those times—and in his mind he would feel the pain once again.

He could still remember the agony as they had surgically "installed" the black wing. They had forced him to stay conscious throughout most of the operation, wanting to test his endurance. After all, they had said, if he was ever taken and tortured by their enemies, they wanted to be assured that he could survive and that he would be a valuable weapon for them. But eventually, towards the climax, he had lost consciousness, and they had let him stay that way instead of cruelly rousing him again.

Then he had woken up in a bed, the wing protruding from his back. . . .

Where was he now?

He frowned, prying open his eyes. It seemed to be a hospital room of some description, just like most other hospital rooms. The lights were dim, and the bed had those irritating rails on it.

Weakly he turned his head to the left. Zack was there, his clothes rumpled, his hair wild, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was asleep, and he looked like he certainly needed it. How long had he been watching over his friend?

"You finally awake?"

He could feel himself freeze at the sound of the voice. That could only be . . . but it could not be . . .

As quick as he could, he looked back to the other side of the bed. A spiky-haired blond was sitting in another chair, his arms crossed, looking equally or more tired than Zack. He was wearing a dark robe, and around his head was a strip of gauze. A bit of red showed through the bandaging at one point.

There were other various cuts and bruises on his face and hands, and under the cloth of the robe there were probably others. He looked like he had just come through that car accident. . . . But . . . he had been killed. Sephiroth knew that he had been dead after the crash, even when he had been trying to escape the vehicle with the body.

And then there had been the funeral . . . but that was only a dream, wasn't it? . . . Or was this the dream? He frowned.

"How . . . are you alive?" he managed to ask.

Cloud snorted. "I wondered the same thing when I woke up," he said, then paused in discomfort. ". . . Zack and Marlene said that the paramedics found us laying at the bottom of a hill, and that it looked like you'd been trying to get me out of the car."

". . . You were dead when I got you out. . . ."

Cloud shrugged. "Guess not."

Slowly Sephiroth raised a hand to his own head. He seemed to have a bandage as well, but only on the right side of his forehead. And the surrounding area felt very tender.

"How long has it been?"

Another shrug. "Too long." A frown. "I came to hours ago, over there." He indicated the empty bed on the other side of the room. "Zack looked like he hadn't slept in days, but he said it was the same night that the crash happened. And now it's night again, I guess close to twenty-four hours since the accident.

"Tifa and the kids and Aerith have been in and out," he added. "They're down in the cafeteria now."

He paused again, looking further uncomfortable. Then he decided the floor should be addressed. "I guess . . . I owe you some kind of a thanks," he mumbled.

. . . A thanks? Cloud never thanked him. Even with their truce, he had not expressed much appreciation for anything Sephiroth had done. He had still acted annoyed and frustrated with the other, in general, which had finally given way to a sort of resigned acknowledgment. But these words were sincere, albeit difficult.

"Especially if you got me out even though you thought I was dead. . . ."

"Zack would have been despondent if I hadn't at least tried."

Cloud raised his gaze to the other. Sephiroth looked back. Maybe neither was being completely honest aloud, not wanting to give voice to their thoughts. Something unspoken passed between them.

"Hey! Seph, you're awake!"

Both started and looked over. Zack had woken up too, and now was leaning on the railing, his tired eyes relieved and happy—and looking as Sephiroth had always remembered. The light was back.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

Sephiroth shrugged, his shoulders feeling raw and weak. "I could be better," he grunted. "But overall, I'm not that bad off."

"Glad to hear it!" Zack grinned. "Man, both you and Cloud sure took a beating in that crash." He sobered. "Some people died. You guys are lucky to be alive . . . especially since the limo exploded. . . ." He gave a shudder. It had been horrible, to receive that visit from the police . . . to be told about the accident and that both of his best friends had been hurt. . . .

But then he smiled again. That was past now. There was no reason to dwell on it.

Sephiroth relaxed back into the bed. Yes, they had both survived, somehow. Probably he had just been so dazed that he had not realized Cloud was still alive. Or, for all he would know, Cloud had been dead for a moment and then had revived. Judging from their odd experiences, it was not impossible. And it sounded as though the car had been abandoned just in time.

Cloud leaned back as well. "When can we get out of here?" he grumbled.

Amused, Zack looked over to him. "I'll have to talk to the doctor. He might wanna keep you both for another night. Or maybe he'd decide that there wouldn't be any more trouble here that you could get into."

"Which is debatable," Sephiroth said with sarcasm.

Zack snickered. "Too true, unfortunately."

He leaped up. "I'll be right back," he said. "I'm going to tell the others you're awake, Seph. Marlene wanted me to let her know." Before either patient could respond, Zack was heading for the door. With a wave, he disappeared into the hall.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Well, that wasn't obvious at all," he said in sarcasm.

Sephiroth grunted, crossing his arms. "We already spoke to each other," he remarked. Zack had probably fled not only to tell the others, but in order to give the two time to talk. Zack himself would find a chance to speak with Sephiroth alone afterwards. Though he was naturally longing for such a time right now, he was going to wait his turn.

Cloud ran a hand through his hair. The debate was raging within himself. Should he leave things as they were, or should he say what he had at last discovered? His pride would rather accept the former. He and Sephiroth had learned to get along . . . some of the time. Why should he let things change from what they had been? There was not any need for it. Still . . . he knew how awkward Sephiroth often felt around him, and why. If he could ease those feelings, that would be a good thing, wouldn't it?

". . . I figured out something weird."

Sephiroth raised his gaze to look at Cloud, who was talking to the floor again. At last the blond shifted and looked up again. He should face Sephiroth, even though it would be difficult.

"I . . . I've already forgiven you."

A stunned silence followed. Cloud slumped back in his chair. A weight had been removed from his shoulders. And as he had spoken, any remaining doubts he had held about the statement had fled. It was true.

At last Sephiroth found his voice. "You . . . have?" He was still staring at Cloud. Of everything Cloud could have said, those words—and any variation thereof—were what Sephiroth had never dared to imagine he would hear. He had been certain that Cloud would continue to carry some semblance of those bitter, angry feelings with him forever, even with their truce.

Cloud gave a slow nod. "I don't even know when it happened," he said. "I just realized it when I was sitting here waiting for you to wake up."

A half-smirk came over Sephiroth's features. "You're not just saying that because I saved your life?" he said.

Cloud glowered. "I'd never try to butter you up because of that!" he retorted, his voice beginning to rise.

Instead of continuing to tease him, Sephiroth sobered again. "I know." He regarded his former enemy in weariness, but the exhaustion was only physical. In his eyes was reflected the immense relief and peace that he now felt.

Cloud sighed, suddenly feeling uncomfortable once more. "So . . . yeah." He shrugged.


". . . Yeah?"

"Thank you . . . for telling me."

". . . Sure. Whatever."

Cloud crossed his arms, glancing out at the night sky. Whether he would admit it or not, the release he felt now was wonderful. Any changes from this would only be positive.