Final Fantasy VII

Jenova Corp Shooting

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! This is another post-Sunrise and Midnight and pre-A Simple Mission in Triplicate fic, taking place after Highway Crash. I wrote it last summer and am finally posting it here. It is shameless angst and hurt/comfort and cuteness (and probably cheese). And I'm afraid I made the person Cloud talks to sound too much like Aerith, but that's how she came out, soo...

It had been hectic at Jenova Corp the last few weeks. The discovery that someone had been embezzling funds made Sephiroth, Cloud, and Zack very wary of most all the possible suspects, trusting no one except each other. For days they had been poring over employee records, searching for anyone and everyone who could be the culprit. Several names had come up more than once, and those had been kept in everyone's minds. No more funds had gone missing since they had begun the investigation, as well, which seemed to say that the criminal must realize he or she had been found out. And though they were still looking with diligence for the guilty party, the trio had started to wonder if anything more would be done, or if they would now be left in peace.

Their minds were occupied with other matters as they kept the top floor lit deep into the night hours. There were business proposals to look over, documents to sign, and other such every day activities. None of them were thinking of the embezzler right then, and they could never have predicted what would happen next.

The door burst open with an abrupt bang and crash, shattering glass across the floor. Three sets of eyes immediately looked up, only to behold a man with whom none of them were familiar. His receding brown hair was a wild mess, tangled from his own fingers running repeatedly through it. His tie was loose and his shirt was unbuttoned about one-third of the way down. The sleeves were rolled to the elbow, the way Sephiroth usually wore a shirt, and the hands were shaking. Clutched between them was a deadly weapon, gleaming in the lights of the office.

Cloud was the first to rise, pushing his chair back in stunned shock. This was not the sort of interruption that they were used to having. And it looked like the guy meant business. "What is this?" he exclaimed. "What are you doing?!"

Wild eyes darted from him to Sephiroth and Zack, who were getting up as well. "You ruined my life!" the newcomer screamed, his voice rasping and filled with despair as several harsh curses were thrown into his speel.

"Hey, just calm down," Zack said, trying to look him in the eyes. "Maybe we can talk this out." Inwardly he did not feel the least bit calm, but if this guy could just be made to listen to reason . . . ! Who on earth was he? An employee from the looks of him, and unfortunately, they did not know every one of them by face. But what could they have done to anger any employee this much?

"Lower your weapon," Sephiroth ordered, his voice as stern as it had been when he had been a powerful general. That voice had made many obey him, out of fear if not respect. But this opponent was crazed. He would not respond to either fear or respect.

Another foul curse. "Go to Hell, where you belong!" The man whirled without warning. Cloud had come around from his desk, and was attempting to ease his way over to the other without making noise. And it would not go unpunished. The trigger squeezed once, then twice.

Cloud stumbled back, a gasp coming to his lips. It felt like thunder had just ripped into his body. Something sticky was emerging from his chest. It was seeping over his shirt and clinging to his skin. And more of it was starting to rise in his throat. He had been shot. Another, choked gasp struggled free as the floor rushed to meet him. This was what had happened to Zack, so long ago, on that hill overlooking Midgar. . . . Now it was happening to him. There was shouting, somewhere around him, but it could not be processed.

It was only several seconds, but for Zack, it was an eternity. The gun raised . . . fired two times . . . Cloud staggered back, his eyes confused. . . . Then he collapsed, his blood dripping into the carpet.

No . . . no . . . it could not be happening! Cloud could not be suffering the same fate as Zack himself had in the past! Cloud could not die!

"Cloud!" The voice was all around them, tearing through the office. And then Zack realized, it had been his own cry.

The man turned, his frenzied gaze focusing on Sephiroth. The company president was trying to open one of the desk drawers. What was in there? A button to call for security? A weapon? Whatever it was, he would not reach it. Again the trigger was pulled, the bullet ramming into Sephiroth's left side. The pain flamed, and the effort to open the drawer was abandoned as the silver-haired man doubled over, clutching the wound.

Zack snapped. Now he was no longer thinking. He was moving, running forward, launching himself at the nutcase who had just shot his best friends. Something tore into his arm, and it looked like a bit of blood was splashing from a new cut, but that was not important.

He tackled the man to the floor, both of his arms wrapping around the outstretched limb with the revolver. The weapon went off again, harmlessly into the ceiling. Then the arm was being forced down, the hand aiming the gun at Zack's face. A harsh punch was delivered to the other, perspiring cheek.

Legs kicked up, kneeing Zack in the chest. But he would not let go. He banged his head against the other's, ignoring the stars springing to his vision. For a moment his enemy was dazed, but then he started to rise again. Zack slammed his right hand against the heaving chest, forcing the body back to the floor. With his other hand, he still gripped at the trembling wrist. If he could just get the gun away, or stun the guy, or do anything to make this stop . . . ! It had to stop! Cloud and Seph were still alive. And it was going to stay that way, no matter what.

The shootist, receiving an adrenaline rush, lashed out at Zack without warning. It was just the break that was needed, and the brunet cried out as he was pinned flat to the floor, his legs being held down as they were sat upon. The gun jabbed into his chest.

Was he going to die again? There should only be one bullet left in the gun, and the guy probably had not thought far enough ahead to bring extras. But one bullet was plenty to be deadly. Still . . . if it was used on him, it would not be used on Cloud or Seph. . . .

He did not want to die. He wanted to live! All of them should be able to live! This was not going to be a repeat of Midgar. It would not!

He reached up, grabbing again at the wrist. His grip tightened, and his opponent screamed, the fingers shaking as the appendage was twisted. The weapon fell onto Zack's chest, then to the floor. The last bullet ejected into the carpet.

Now Zack brought up his other fist, delivering a harsh cut to the man's jaw. At last he fell back, and Zack shoved him away as he got his legs underneath him again. He leaped to his feet, his heart and mind racing.

The glint of silver was seen out of the corner of his eye for only a split-second. It was a knife . . . the guy had a knife too! But gunfire again erupted, this time from a different source. Shot in the chest and the head, the man opened his mouth in a silent cry of pain before slumping to the floor. The knife slipped harmlessly from his grasp.

Zack slumped back, his breath heavy and winded. That had been too close. He would not have been able to react quick enough to have stopped the blade from entering his body. And . . . the other gun . . . ? He turned, looking toward Seph's desk. Seph was still doubled over, blood oozing from the wound. In his left hand he was holding a dark revolver.

"I . . . hate guns," he grunted.

Zack gave a weak grin. "Can't say as how I'm too fond of them myself, but you saved my life with that one, pal," he returned.

In a company building, swords were not always convenient to use. They had taken to keeping a gun in the office, just in case something came up that would render its use necessary. Even Sephiroth was grateful for its presence tonight.

Zack studied the other. Seph needed help right away, but he at least looked like he would be capable of trying to stop the bleeding himself. Lavender eyes looked to the other side of the room, and a huge lump came into Zack's throat at the sight of Cloud laying lifeless on the floor. Cloud had not moved at all since being shot.

Dizziness swept over him as he ran over, his legs giving out as he crashed down beside the younger man. "Cloud!" he screamed, gripping at the stiff shoulder as he gently turned Cloud from his side onto his back. Blood trickled from the side of his mouth, and his eyelids flickered. They only opened halfway.

"Cloud, you've gotta stay with me!" Zack pleaded, ripping off the bottom of his own shirt in one swift motion. He leaned forward, pressing it against the two wounds. Cloud barely reacted, even though it had to be causing him endless pain. That was not a good sign.

Glassy blue eyes watched as Zack worked. He was struggling so hard, trying to stop the bleeding. But it was not going to stop. It kept coming, coating Zack's hands red, coloring the carpet crimson, seeping into the walls. Blood was dripping from the ceiling. The entire room was bathed in it. And the darkness was too strong. He wanted to speak. He tried to speak, but words would not come. They caught in his throat.

The cerulean eyes dimmed, the lids closing over them as they went completely blank. The wounded body fell limp, the chest still. Zack froze, shaking, his hands poised against the wounds. This was not real . . . it was not happening. . . .

Again his voice choked out, almost without him being consciously aware of it. "Cloud! No . . . no . . . oh God, no. . . . Please, don't take him!" He leaned down, keeping his face right in front of Cloud's. There had to be breath. There had to be a heartbeat. But there was nothing.

Immediately he pulled open Cloud's mouth. Was blood blocking his airways? Crimson trickled out again, splashing onto the carpet, but other than that, all looked clear. Zack moved to his motionless friend's side, kneeling by his shoulder and bending over again. Cupping his mouth over Cloud's, he forced air into his friend's lungs. This had to work. It had to. . . .

He leaned back, shaking and waiting. This was too much like how it had been when Seph had stopped breathing at Dismal. Zack had tried and tried, but nothing had worked, and he had given up in despair before trying that one, final time. When Seph had drawn breath at last, his eyes flying open, Zack's joy had been indescribable.

Cloud was not taking breath now. He was still, his face pale and growing cool. Zack leaned down again, once more applying artificial respiration. It was almost a mechanical action as the seconds dragged by painfully, lapsing into a minute, then another.

Somewhere in the background, he could hear Seph on the phone, his usually strong voice taut and at the point of breaking.

"Send an ambulance to Jenova Corporation," he was saying. "One man is dead and three others are wounded . . . one of them seriously." A pause. "No, he isn't breathing. He took two rounds of gunfire to his chest." Another pause. "Yes, I'm wounded myself." He sounded distasteful as he said this. "I took it in my side. . . . The bullet went straight through. . . . Yes, I've tried to stop the bleeding. . . . No, it hasn't stopped. Just come here." His voice lowered to a dark growl.

Zack looked up, swallowing hard. Seph was slumped in his chair, holding a hand to his forehead. The other was gripping the phone, shaking as he tried to keep a firm hold on the device. The blood on his hand was painting the receiver, making it difficult to clutch. He looked so dizzy. . . .

What should he do?! Should he leave Cloud, deciding that he was dead, and go to try to help Seph? But how could he just abandon Cloud?! . . . He might have two dead friends instead of one . . . but no! No, he would not have any! He shut his eyes tightly, tears leaking free as he leaned down once more.

"Cloud . . . you can't let me down, buddy," he whispered. "You've gotta breathe!"

He placed his mouth over Cloud's again, praying that he was not making the wrong decision.

Bizarre was a mild word for what was happening to him. Suddenly he found himself awake and aware once more. He was gazing down at his own body while Zack worked feverishly to apply artificial respiration. He stared, his eyes widening, his current form trembling in shock. He was not down there, he was up here, he was watching everything!

"Zack," he choked out, reaching for the other's shoulder. His hand passed through. The truth shot into him as another bullet, chilling him to the core.

"Dead," he whispered. "I'm dead. . . ."

Trembling, he brought his hand up to study it. It looked solid, but held up to the light, it was obviously transparent. He was only a spirit.

He looked back to the scene before him. It was beyond eerie, to be staring at oneself like this. Part of him wanted to say that what he was looking at was not him, it was some kind of imitation. How could he be in two places at once? How could he be standing up, alive and well, while staring down at the fatally wounded and pale version of himself? The other him should open his eyes, should be able to give some indication that he was fine, too. But that was impossible. That him was only an empty shell.

Had Zack felt this same sense of panic and horror, all those years ago at Midgar? Had he been unable to comprehend that his body was down there, while he continued to exist and observe everything? Had he stood and stared as Cloud had tried in vain to bring him back to life? Had he pleaded to be heard, screaming himself hoarse until he finally realized it would not do any good?

He could not die! He had to get back in his body somehow! Maybe if he reached out for it, he would be pulled back into it. Something had to be tried. He leaned forward, plunging his hand towards his own shoulder.

Some kind of energy forced him away, sending him falling backwards to sit down hard on the floor. A yelp of surprise and frustration tore from his lips. So this was it then? The situation had reversed and he had been killed, not to be allowed back?

Had Zack tried to enter his own body again, only to be pushed away?

How had this even happened? One minute that creep had been bursting into the office, waving his gun around, and the next he had been shooting Cloud down. Had Cloud not been as careful as he should have been? Had he let his guard down? He had been moving as quietly as possible. But surely this could have been prevented. He could not have been supposed to die.

Well, why not? Every other stupid thing went wrong.

His vision darted across the room, to where Sephiroth was still sitting uncomfortably in his chair. He was pressing something against his wound again, and rubbing his forehead with his other hand. From his eyes, he wanted to get up and go to Zack, but every time he attempted to move at all, more blood would rush forth. He was probably going to pass out from the loss before long, and if it and the wound were too serious, then . . .

Cloud leaped up, running over to his former enemy. "You can't black out!" he screamed with a panic that he did not altogether understand. But he tried to decide that he did. "And you can't die!" he went on. "Look at Zack, he's already really upset! What will happen if he doesn't have you, either?!"

Sephiroth took no notice of him, continuing to struggle with his injury.

Cloud slammed his hand on the desk. "Listen to me!" he yelled, leaning over to be right next to his old adversary's face. "I know it's weird for me to be telling you to live. But you have to. Zack needs you right now!" His voice trailed off into hopelessness. "He needs you," he repeated, his voice having quieted. "Sephiroth. . . ."

His eyes flamed again. "If you show up here, with me, I'll see to it that you're able to get back in your body even if I have to shove you in myself."

He looked back to Zack, who had slumped back in despair. Now the sirens could be heard nearby, and growing closer, but Zack did not seem to hear anything. He was staring blankly at Cloud's body, trembling in shock and horror.

Cloud clenched a fist. That must have been how he had looked upon finding Zack dead. He had never wanted Zack to suffer the same pain. It was too horrible. And there was no going back now.

"I don't want to be dead!" he screamed, crashing to his knees. "Send me back! Oh God . . . let me go back. . . ."

His voice echoed throughout the office, unheard.

Sephiroth drew a shuddering breath, frustrated as the crimson continued to ooze over his fingers. The wound did not feel especially serious, save for the fact that it would not stop bleeding. And blood loss, combined with going into shock, was what had nearly killed him in Dismal. That was not a pleasant thing to remember.

The ambulance was coming now; the sirens were probably a block or two away. But it looked as though it was too late for Cloud. From Zack's expression, he could not process what was happening.

Sephiroth pressed the cloth harder against his side, then placed his other hand on the desk for balance. Zack needed someone to be there for him. He would not want Sephiroth to get up when he should stay down, but it could be managed. Easing his body out of the chair, he began to move forward with careful precision until he reached his friend.

The hardest part would be kneeling. He lowered his right leg first, leaning heavily on it as he moved to bend his left knee. Even so, the pain shot through him once again. But it would have to be ignored.

He reached out with his right hand, laying it on Zack's shoulder. "Zack. . . ."

The younger man started from the touch, then slowly looked over his shoulder. His lavender eyes were haunted. "He . . . he's dead," he whispered. "I . . . I tried to save him, but this time I couldn't. . . ."

The crimson trails down his right arm were quickly noticed by Sephiroth. The wound was not serious, but it should be treated. At least, that was something else he could do. Tearing off a piece of his shirt that was not already covered in blood, he wrapped it around Zack's upper arm.

"Raise your arm," he said quietly, still using his left hand to combat his own wound.

Zack did, the action almost mechanical.

"That should be me, if it had to be one of us," he choked out. "Not Cloud. . . . I always tried to protect him . . . and you. . . ."

"Do you think either of us could have endured losing you a second time?" Sephiroth's voice was still quiet, partially from the immense pain and partially because he felt that was best. "And what about Aerith? No, Zack." He kept the cloth firm around Zack's arm as the limb remained elevated. "It should not be you." He paused. "It should not have been Cloud, either."

It was hard to know what he felt about Cloud's death. It had happened so fast. Maybe he had not even processed it at all yet. But what he had said was true—Cloud should not have died. Seeing his form so still on the floor, knowing that he would never get up, left him with such a cold feeling.

If this had been before Nibelheim, and Cloud was the teenage boy who had idolized Sephiroth so much, Sephiroth would be angry, downright furious, that such a young life, and one so close to him, had been ripped away. If it was during the time when he had been mad and Cloud had been his mortal enemy, he might have been pleased . . . or he might have regretted that he had not been the one to end Cloud's life. But right now, he just felt numb.

In any case, his heart ached for Zack. He might never get over it.

It was about then when the paramedics hurried through the door. Again everything was a blur, as they tried to glean the full story from Sephiroth, and from Zack, when he was able to deliver details. Cloud's body was loaded onto a stretcher, as well as the employee's, and their vital signs were checked—but the results were not anything they had not been expecting.

Unwillingly, Sephiroth had to be lifted onto a stretcher as well. It was maddening, not to mention humiliating. But it would not be possible for him to walk all the way down, and even he was forced to admit that. Zack walked right by his side as they were hurried out of the office, his lavender eyes filled with worry for Seph, as well as sorrow for Cloud.

"He's gonna be okay, isn't he?" he exclaimed, laying a hand on Seph's arm as he spoke to a paramedic.

"He might need a transfusion, but he should be fine," came the reply.

It was irritating, to be talked around. It was not as though he was at the brink of unconsciousness. Though he had felt a definite wave of vertigo when being placed on the stretcher. Maybe now the blood loss was getting to him. That would be highly annoying, but not surprising.

What was that, out of the corner of his eye? It looked like another person, walking on the other side of the stretcher. . . . But not just any person. It looked like a spiky-haired blond. . . . A very cranky spiky-haired blond, wearing dress pants and a white shirt with a red tie.

So now he was hallucinating? He tried to turn his head further to the right. Cloud was glaring down at him, his form translucent. The lights of the elevator could be seen through him. It was actually unsettling. And to see him like that . . . what did that mean? If it was real, did that indicate that his own death was imminent, that there was something the paramedics did not know yet?

"One of us has to make it," Cloud's ghost grumbled. "And since it can't be me, it's going to be you."

He tried to open his mouth, to force out words, but at first they would not come. Then he extended his hand, grabbing in vain at the spectre. It passed through. And the words finally reached his lips.

"Cloud . . . ? You're dead. . . ."

"Yeah, tell me something I don't know," was the sharp retort. "Like, why can you see me now?"

There was no answer for that. "I don't know. . . ."

"Seph?" Zack was leaning over him now, a growing fear in his eyes. "You're still with me, aren't you?"

He looked up at his friend, his own vision glassy. "Cloud's here," he said. "He's coming with us. . . ."

Zack froze, going pale. "Cloud. . . ." He took hold of Seph's hand, feeling for the pulse. It was slightly slower than normal, but not so much that it would be life-threatening.

He looked back in the direction Seph was indicating. No one was there—at least, no one visible. But it was very likely that Cloud was there. Why shouldn't he be? Zack had stayed with Cloud after his death, for as long as he could—even though Cloud had suffered a breakdown and had not remembered Zack at all back then.

"Zack . . . he says he's sorry. . . ."

Zack shut his eyes tightly, gripping Seph's hand as they descended in the elevator. "I know," he choked. "I know. . . ."

Cloud continued to follow them until they boarded the ambulance, his . . . well, he did not still have a heart, but whatever he had instead was growing heavier. With painstaking movements he climbed the stairs, slipping into the corner most far from everyone. It was weird, and downright creepy, to have people passing right through him. He did not want to experience that again.

What was he supposed to do, anyway? Just follow them around? Not that he did not want to watch over them and make sure they would be alright, but . . . what about the afterlife? Was there even one for him, when he had been displaced from his own world? Or maybe his ties to loved ones still alive were too great for him to pass to Heaven, or purgatory, or wherever it was he was allotted to go. Maybe he would just stay here as a wandering spirit.

He crossed his arms, glaring at the floor. "Why did this have to happen?" he muttered. He did not often talk to himself, and yet now he was doing so. Maybe because no one could hear him. "I didn't want to die. . . . I didn't want Zack to suffer like this . . . and what about Tifa and the kids?" The more he thought about it, the more sick he felt. How could he put them all through this? They already worried about him so much as it was.

He ran a hand over his face. "Stupid . . . I'm so stupid," he grumbled. "If I'd been quicker . . . if I could have knocked the guy out before he fired at anyone. . . ."

"So many 'ifs'!"

He froze. That voice . . . he had not heard that voice for so many years. Not everyone had been restored on this planet, and among those still deceased was . . .

"Mom . . . ?" Was she here? Or was it just his imagination? He looked up, his imaginary heart racing, his anticipation building.

There she was, standing in front of him—looking as he had always remembered. She smiled softly, so many emotions going through her eyes. She was happy, she was grateful for this chance to talk to him. She was saddened by his pain, and the sorrow of those who would miss him.

He launched himself at her then, shaking, clutching her as he tightly shut his eyes. Such shows of emotion were more Zack's thing, but this was a special case. Cloud had not seen her for so long, not since that fateful mission to Nibelheim, when he had finally revealed the burden of the lies he had carried. He had never made it into SOLDIER, let alone First Class. He had become only a lowly Shinra guard. But his mother had not been angry with him. She had suspected it for some time.

And then . . . then he had never been able to see her again. She had died in the fires . . . those horrible fires, started by the man he had looked up to and loved. . . .

"Shh . . . don't think of that," she told him, rubbing at his back.

How did she know what he was thinking?

Almost immediately the answer came, silently in his mind. There was a thought transference between spirits, and he had inadvertently passed his thoughts on to her in his overwhelmed and vulnerable state.

"I'm so proud of you, Cloud," she said, her voice soft.

Had he heard right? How could anyone, even his mother, feel proud of him? "Why?" he choked out. "I haven't done anything worth being proud of. . . ."

"Haven't done anything!" She pulled back to look at him. "You helped stop Meteor back on Gaia, didn't you? And then you worked to protect the planet again two years later."

Gently she brushed the bangs away from his right eye. She had told him not to let them fall like that. She had tried to make it stop, but no matter what she did, they always fell right back into position again. So at last, she had been forced to concede defeat.

Her smile softened further. "Those are wonderful things, Cloud . . . but I'm even more proud of you for the other things you've done.

"It makes me so happy to see you with those children. You always were good with them, and they adore you. And to see you able to work with Sephiroth, to forgive him for what he did . . . there are not many people who could do that."

Cloud looked away, suddenly embarrassed. "I didn't even know it happened," he mumbled. "I just realized it did. I mean . . . I didn't decide one day to forgive him. I didn't want to forgive him. I wanted to hate him. I did hate him, for years. And I let it poison me." He shook his head. "I don't see that there's anything good about that."

She watched him, the compassion and unconditional love in her eyes. "It was a very human reaction," she said. "You kept it inside for so long, and then it finally had to come out. But underneath it all, you still cared about Sephiroth, didn't you?"

Cloud shrugged. There was not much point trying to lie to his mother, especially when she would know if he was doing it. But it was still something he did not like admitting. That was why it had pained him so deeply, and had continued to do so. Even knowing that Sephiroth had lost his mind and had not wanted to do those things had not taken away the immense hurt and the hatred.

"The two of you have a special bond," she said. "Maybe it's true that you were destined to be enemies. But haven't you both proved that destiny can change?"

"It's not like we're friends or something," Cloud grumbled.

"You aren't enemies, either." She regarded him in amusement.

"What does it matter, anyway?" Cloud's voice turned bitter again. "I'm dead now." He turned, looking to Zack's distraught form. The brunet was sitting down, leaning forward as he tried to talk to Sephiroth, who seemed to be still conscious, but dazed. Zack sounded as though it was taking every bit of his willpower to not crack under the strain.

When Cloud spoke again, he sounded far away. "I'm leaving so many people behind who are going to be crushed. . . ."

"You have wonderful friends, Cloud. But there are many people who have had to die and leave behind loved ones."

He turned back to her. "So I should give up and accept this?" he cried.

She shook her head. "Do you want another chance, Cloud?" she asked, her voice gentle again.

He looked back to Zack. There were loved ones both here and in death. But when it came right down to it, he just could not bear to leave. He did not want to see them in agony, and he did not want to be away from them.

"Was I supposed to die tonight?" he asked at last.

"Would I offer another chance if it wouldn't be possible for you to have it?" she answered quietly. "This decision must be made by you, Cloud."

He nodded slowly. "I still want to go back." And once he had said it, it felt right. It was what he had been longing for since he had found himself standing outside his body, but he had begun to decide that it must have been that he was supposed to perish. And it had made him feel bitter and despondent. Zack would say that he had let Sephiroth's pessimism seep into his soul. Cloud would say he had always been that way himself.

He turned back to her. "I just wish you could come back too. . . ."

She smiled, bringing him close in a final hug. "I'll always be watching over you," she told him. "I love you so much, Cloud."

"Yeah. . . ." His voice caught in his throat. "I love you too . . . Mom. . . ."

After a moment she released him, giving a nod of encouragement. "It's time," she said.

Cloud nodded as well, turning to walk back to his body. Staring down at himself, he gave a shudder. He looked so pale and cold, and blood was everywhere. . . . And they were almost at the hospital now. He reached out again, and this time his hand phased through his body's shoulder. He should be able to climb up and get back inside.

"Well," he said, his voice dripping sarcasm, "time to scare the heck out of all of them."

The sudden gasping for breath startled Zack out of his worry and grief-filled reverie. He looked up with a start, his heart picking up speed. That was . . . but no, it was impossible. It could not be. Yet it was. It was!

"Cloud!" he cried, and even though it was not a wise thing to do in a moving vehicle, he leaped right up, making his way to the other stretcher. Cloud's eyes were open, staring glassily at the roof as he drew ragged, pained breaths. His fingers curled at his sides, indicating the immense pain he was in, but as Zack leaned over, he gave a weak smirk.

"Did you really think I'd leave, after all this?" he greeted.

Zack broke into a joyous grin. "You had me freaked out for a while there," he exclaimed. Then the paramedics were hastening to him, and Zack had to step aside.

He turned, looking to the semi-conscious Seph. "Cloud's alive, Seph!" he said, gripping the clammy hand both out of excitement and joy as well as in an attempt to try to keep his other best friend awake. "He's alive!"

The green eyes blinked, beginning to focus. ". . . Alive?" Seph repeated, his tone incredulous.

Zack gave an emphatic nod, the wild spikes flying. "They're looking after him now," he said. "You guys are both gonna be okay!"

A weak smile of satisfaction played on Seph's lips. "That's good, then," he answered. Zack would be his usual, happy self. He would not have to lose Cloud.

Nor would Sephiroth.

Though he pushed that thought away when it appeared. Sephiroth had begun to care about Cloud, but Cloud was not likely to want his caring. He had forgiven Sephiroth, but could they really ever be friends? It sounded so preposterous.

A resigned sigh passed from his lips as he gazed up the ceiling. It drifted out of focus.

But he could still feel Zack's hand gripping his own.

He allowed his eyes to close, relaxing in his friend's care.

It was a kindness when unconsciousness claimed him as they arrived at the hospital. He would see to it that he stayed alive, that he would not have to worry Zack or any of his friends, but staying awake for long was not possible right now. The wounds were screaming and he was feeling ill.

For an indeterminable amount of time, he stayed in Oblivion's country, resting in the dark wasteland. There were no dreams, that he knew of at least—unless Oblivion itself was a dream. It was a welcome break from the horrors of the night, and there was always the sense that his mother was there, watching over him as she had said.

Then the darkness faded, his eyes weakly opening as the sounds of the hospital began to make themselves known. Hospitals were very low on any list of his favorite places, but at least, he decided, it meant he was alive. That did not change, however, that it was much too bright in there. The light was shining right at him. A wince came over his features as he turned his head to the side.

The lights dimmed. "Hey, pal," Zack greeted, his voice quiet, and yet at the same time filled with relief and joy.

Cloud moved his head back into position on the pillow, looking up at his friend. Zack was sporting a bandage around his right upper arm, but he was not wearing the same clothes from the shooting. He looked exhausted, which was not a surprise. When Zack was worried, he rarely slept, if ever.

"I bet . . . you haven't slept at all," Cloud remarked.

"Sleep? Me? When my buddies are shot up?" Zack leaned on the bed railing.

"You were hurt too," Cloud said. Either the drugs were wearing him down or he was just exhausted in general. He would not be able to talk for long.

"Just a flesh wound," Zack smiled. "See? I'm good as new!" He stretched out his right arm, as if in emphasis.

Cloud smirked a bit. "How's Sephiroth?" he asked, sobering again.

"He's right over there," Zack said, indicating the other side of the room. "He's been keeping me company for a lot longer than he should have. Finally fell asleep a few minutes ago."

Cloud followed Zack's gaze. Sephiroth had rolled onto his right side, facing Cloud. The long bangs were mostly concealing his eyes, which were closed, and his right arm was stretched under the pillow as a support. He did not look as though he was too bad off, to have moved into such a position. Though the hospital staff was probably annoyed by it. They preferred the patients to remain on their backs.

"He looks like he's okay, then," Cloud said, still watching him for a moment before looking to Zack.

"You know Seph," Zack grinned. "Stubborn idiot, but a great friend. Gotta love 'im."

"Or you do, anyway."

Zack poked him on the arm. "So . . . how are you feeling?" he asked, growing serious.

Cloud gave a weak shrug. "As good as I could be, I guess."

"Do you remember what happened?" Zack watched him, his somber eyes showing his concern . . . and his memories.

"Yeah . . . some idiot burst in shooting and I wasn't able to do anything about it." Cloud reached up, passing a hand over his face. "Who was he, anyway?"

Zack sighed. "The police are still looking into it, and we'll have to do some investigating ourselves when we're feeling better. Right now, we know that he had a lot of gambling debts stacked up. I think he may have been our embezzler, and he flipped out because we'd discovered the missing funds. Then he wasn't able to keep stealing from us to pay the debts."

"Wouldn't be surprised." Cloud frowned. "I remember him firing. . . . I fell down, and you came over in a panic. . . ." He hesitated. "Then I died and left my body."

Zack stared at him, his eyes widening. "You . . . what?"

"I kept thinking that's how it must have been for you . . . when I was roaming the office and I couldn't get you or Sephiroth to see or hear me. . . ." He clenched a fist. "I hated it. . . ."

Zack swallowed hard. "Seph . . . he said you were walking out with us," he said.

"I was. . . . I followed you into the ambulance."

Zack gave a slow nod. He had never doubted it, but for some reason it seemed surprising that Cloud remembered it, and was not passing it off as a hallucination. That could be attributed to the drugs' effects, he supposed. Cloud often became more talkative when he was given painkillers. Even a Tylenol could do it.

"Zack . . . I saw my mom. . . ."

Again Zack stared. Cloud was completely sober, his eyes glassy as he looked up at the brunet.

"I got to talk to her. . . . She said I could come back."

A gentle smile spread over Zack's features. "I'm glad," he said. "She's a really great person. I met her back on Gaia, after I died."

". . . You never told me that."

"It never came up," Zack answered, copying a line Cloud himself often used.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "How long was I dead?" It had seemed an eternity, and yet surely it could not have been more than several minutes. The brain would not last for long without oxygen.

Zack shook his head. "Too long—about ten, fifteen minutes, I'd say."

Cloud frowned. "That's not medically possible," he said.

Zack smiled again. "You know . . . I don't really care much," he said. "About figuring out the technicalities and that kind of thing, I mean. I just care that I have my buddy back."

"Sentimental dork," Cloud said, not unkindly.

Zack smirked. "And proud of it!" He gave Cloud a mock-stern look. "And you should get some more sleep. You've been talking too much."

"I thought you wanted me to talk." Cloud smirked as well, his expression tired.

"I do," Zack grinned. "But not if it's going to wear you down."

"Heh. Okay then." Cloud settled back into the bed, which suddenly seemed all the more welcoming.

"Tifa and Aerith took the kids to the cafeteria to get something to eat," Zack said. "I need to tell them you woke up!"

"Yeah, you do that," Cloud mumbled, already half-asleep.

There was no telling how long Cloud slumbered at that point. It was peaceful again, though at some point during later-forgotten dreams, the pain crept in. It was always a dull ache in his chest, somewhere in the background of his mind, and after a while it increased. Maybe it was that anguish that woke him up; he was never certain. But his eyes flew open, staring up at the ceiling.

"I wondered if you were going to wake up soon."

He started, looking toward the sound of the deep voice. Sephiroth was awake, still on his side as he watched his former nemesis.

"You looked like you were in pain," Sephiroth commented.

Cloud grimaced, raising a hand to his head. "Just looked?" he muttered in sarcasm.

Sephiroth made a grunting sound. "You're lucky to be alive."

"You could have died, too," Cloud shot back. As usual, he was not eager to get into a discussion over how badly he had been hurt. The fuss was embarrassing.

"We both know you were hurt the worst."

"Yeah, what of it?"

Sephiroth looked amused. "At times," he said, "it's difficult to comprehend that you are so vocal now, unlike the shy teenager you once were." Cloud was still shy, really—at least in some ways. Sometimes his sarcasm was just a mask for his insecurities. Sometimes he was honestly speaking his mind. But with some people, he had adopted it as a way of positive communication. He often bantered with Zack, and recently, with Sephiroth as well. It was a definite sign that his relationship with Sephiroth had improved.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Thanks," he said sardonically. "And you act so annoying now. It must be a talent of yours."

"I pride myself on any such abilities," Sephiroth answered in a smooth tone.

"I can see that." Cloud sighed, returning his gaze to the ceiling. "I guess I'll be stuck here a while," he grumbled.

"A few days. You can't really expect anything less, after the wounds you acquired. And when you are released, you'll need to stay in bed."

"Okay, Dad," Cloud said with sarcasm. "And I guess you think you won't need to? How will you walk, with your side blown out?"

Sephiroth gave him a bored look. "You make it sound a lot worse than it is."

Cloud frowned. "Well, how bad is it, anyway? For both of us, I mean," he added, not about to make it look like he was worried about Sephiroth.

"Both of us needed blood transfusions," Sephiroth said flatly. "One of the bullets that struck you cracked a rib. The other very nearly punctured a lung."

"Oh, gee, how fun."

"Yes, isn't it."

A pause. "What about yours?"

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

Cloud glowered at the quilt. "Because I asked," he mumbled.

Sephiroth was again amused. "You enjoy acting younger than your age, Cloud?"

"Is that your way of evading the question?" Cloud retorted, not bothering to respond to that remark.

Sephiroth shrugged. "If you need to know, the bullet didn't pierce anything vital. It passed in and out." And it had certainly been painful. It was still bothering him, but that was the last thing he was about to say.

Cloud sighed. "And for now, we're roommates," he said.

"It isn't the first time," Sephiroth said, recalling the fateful highway crash. "Though now it will be for a longer time period. Can you endure it?"

Cloud crossed his arms weakly on the quilt. "Do I have a choice?" he retorted.

"No." Sephiroth relaxed into his bed. "At least you and I are aware of each other's quirks by now, as opposed to how it would be if you were in a room with a stranger."

Cloud shrugged. "Hey, where's Zack, anyway?" he demanded. Throughout their banter, he had been wondering where their friend had gone, but had not found a good time to break in and ask. It seemed weird, to not have Zack there worrying and fussing over both of them.

"I told him to go rest for a while," Sephiroth said. "He's in the next room over, which is vacant."

"How did you manage that?" Cloud asked.

"I said I would wait to see if you woke up."

Cloud grunted. "Oh, so that's what this has been about."

"What it's been about?" Sephiroth repeated.

Cloud nodded. "You watching me, talking to me . . . it's because of Zack. You'd do anything for him, if you could." Not that he did not feel the same. Oh, what they would do for their friend.

"I'm also bored," Sephiroth replied, his voice matter-of-fact.

Cloud snorted. "You must be."

He settled back into the bed, gazing up at the ceiling. What an odd time this had been. And this was the last conversation he had imagined he would be having. But he felt strangely relaxed, instead of stressed—as was often the case when talking to Sephiroth. And Sephiroth appeared calm—not that he was not that way most of the time.

"How long has it been, anyway?" he asked, still looking at the white tiles. "Since the shooting, I mean. I'm guessing it's not the same night."

"It's been almost forty-eight hours," was the answer. "Tifa and Aerith and the children have been in to see you. But the women don't like letting Denzel and Marlene stay here overnight. They've gone back home, at least for now." The springs shifted in protest, and when Cloud glanced over, Sephiroth had moved further onto his back.

"That's better for them," Cloud agreed.

He hesitated. There was something he had been wanting to ask Sephiroth, but did he dare? Part of him wanted to just forget all of this experience—except for seeing his mother, of course. But to recall part of it, the rest would follow. And he was still curious.



Another hesitation. If Sephiroth did not remember, this would sound really stupid. And he did not want to look like an idiot in front of Sephiroth, of all people. But if he did remember, then what? Did he even have a reason for what he wanted to ask?

"Do you remember what happened . . . when you were being wheeled out of the building?"

Sephiroth grunted. "Which part?"

He was not going to make this easy, was he. Well, this was Sephiroth, after all. When had he ever made anything easy? Even before Nibelheim, he had made Cloud work hard for whatever goal he wanted to achieve, and he always got Cloud to say more on subjects than he wanted. It was frustrating, but it was expected.

"When you were talking to Zack," he grumbled.

"I spoke to him several times."

There was no choice. "You said you saw me," Cloud snapped.

Silence followed. A long, exasperating silence. Why was he not saying something? Did he not want to talk about it? He would not have just fallen asleep then and there, would he? Or did he not believe it? Would he say something like "Did Zack tell you I said that?"

The urge to turn around and give him an expectant look was increasing. Or maybe he should just let it be, if Sephiroth would rather do likewise.

". . . Yes, I remember that."

That startled him back to the present. He had not been expecting Sephiroth to respond at all.

Cloud shifted as much as he dared. "What did you think?" he addressed the comforter.

"Honestly, I wasn't in any condition to be analyzing the situation."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "I mean, was it disturbing? Was it weird and bizarre? Or did you really care at all?"

"How would you have felt if the situation was reversed?" Sephiroth was not willing to reveal anything, not that it was a surprise. Well, two could play at that game.

"I would have yelled at you for haunting me again," Cloud said.

Sephiroth was amused. "Then you wouldn't find it anything out of the ordinary," he deduced. "Unlike myself."

He sobered. "It wasn't an experience I would want to see repeated."

"Same here."

Now Sephiroth's eyes were watching him. The piercing stare could be acutely felt, and it was making him annoyed.

"What was the point of asking me this?"

Cloud clenched a fist. "I just wondered if you remembered!" he retorted.

"So you would be assured it actually happened?"

"I know it happened!"

Sephiroth observed him, amused again. "Your voice is raising," he said.

Cloud's shoulders slumped. He would not face the other. He was just digging a pit for himself now. If he had just not asked. . . .

"Keep your secrets," Sephiroth broke into his thoughts. "If you don't want to explain, I don't care."

Cloud gave a barely perceptible nod. That was a relief. When it came right down to it, he did not know why he had asked. Why did it matter whether Sephiroth remembered it or not? It was probably just curiosity.

. . . But he did wonder why Sephiroth had been able to see him. Had it only been because Sephiroth had been badly wounded? That would explain why Zack had not seen him, too.

He had a special bond with Zack. He had known that for years. But his mom had said that he also had a special bond with Sephiroth. Why? After the road they had traveled, being mortal enemies, how could they have any kind of positive bond?

Yet, whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not, something was there. They would not be having this conversation if there was not.

"Hey! You guys are both awake!"

Both looked up at the cheerful Zack in the doorway. He leaned on the frame, grinning. He was definitely more rested than earlier.

"I heard you next door, Cloud," he said, mock-scolding. "Looks like things are already going back to normal."

Cloud shrugged. "Looks that way," he agreed.

Sephiroth studied his friend. "The rest did you good," he said.

Zack sauntered inside, raising his arms in a lazy stretch. "You guys are looking better, too!" he chirped. "Maybe you'll both be able to come home before too long."

"I hope so," Cloud said in sarcasm. "I don't know how long we can go on sharing a room." He shot Sephiroth a Look, to which he received a deadpan gaze in return.

"Aww, come on," Zack protested with a mock whimper. "Seph isn't bad company. And you guys work in the same room every day."

"And that's long enough. I've always wondered how we've managed it."

Zack looked to Seph. "What's your take on it, pal?" he asked.

Sephiroth shrugged. "He's tolerable . . . for a while," he said, playing along.

Zack cuffed him lightly on the shoulder. "You guys are incorrigible!" he exclaimed.

"What can we say?" Cloud said. "We're destined to be enemies."

Zack smirked. "I don't believe in destiny!" he said. "Haven't our crazy adventures proved that we make our own destinies?"

"Maybe," Sephiroth grunted. "Or maybe that we're destined to take part in bizarre adventures, whether we plan it or not."

Zack shook his head ruefully. "Your world view hasn't changed any, Seph."

"Neither has yours."

Cloud relaxed, listening to them pick up the thread of banter. Zack was right, everything was going back to normal. He closed his eyes, a slight smile coming over his features.

Thanks, Mom, he said silently.