Notes: Many thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed, and to everyone who has given plot help, specifically Kaze and Lisa, and to Lisa for the idea on how to get Angeal into the last scene! This has been a really heart-wrenching and enjoyable fic to write.


Epilogue

The Dreams We're Searching For

Sephiroth was very lucky that his life had been preserved.

He knew that quite well, and he was thankful.

But he also knew, to his irritation, that he needed to stay home and rest for a while.

Before that could happen, however, they needed to get home. When the police arrived they wanted to question everyone, and the kinder policewoman eventually took them aside to inquire as to how they had met the deceased, where and why, and other such unsettling queries.

"I've also found it odd, how your company seemed to appear out of nowhere," she commented. "But that sort of thing seems to happen here."

"Seriously?!" Zack exclaimed.

She smirked. "It's as if you're all aliens," she said. "But I couldn't care less, as long as you're not planning to invade the planet."

Four sets of shocked eyes looked back at her. At last Zack managed to find his voice.

"You're kidding, right?" he said, trying to put a lighter tone into his voice.

"Maybe," she smiled, and winked. "Maybe not."

Zack shook his head. "You're sure a lot nicer than that other lady officer," he could not help commenting (and making a deliberate change of the subject). "Even though you look a lot like her."

"She's my cousin," was the answer. "Actually, she was transferred here because her superior hoped that staying a while in such a strange city would make her more sympathetic to people."

So far it's not working, Cloud could not help thinking.

"If you're ever in a tight spot, you can call me," she said. "Gabrielle Valesquez." And with that she gave a casual wave as she walked back to where the other officers were gathered.

The men were still standing and staring.

"So . . . does this mean we've got an ally, or what?" Zack wondered.

"I guess we'll have to wait and see." Cloud frowned. "But I'm not looking forward to finding out how this place is strange."

Sephiroth moved to open the car door. "I seem to recall Denzel mentioning something his friends told him about card monsters coming to life," he said, only half-sarcastic.

"Really?!" Zack gasped. "So it's not just kids' tall tales?!"

"Right now, I don't even want to know," Angeal said wearily.

Sephiroth and Cloud concurred.


When they finally arrived home, where they were greeted by the relieved Tifa, Aerith, and Marlene, and the aloof Denzel, Sephiroth insisted on having a shower. Once his hair was fresh and clean, he was able to relax into the bed. Somehow he ended up sleeping through the night and into the next day, to everyone's relief. They managed to sleep too, and since none of them had done so since the beginning of the nightmare, it was welcome for all of them.

But Zack still managed to be awake and by Seph's bedside the following morning, when Seph began to wake up.

"Hey pal," Zack grinned, leaning over into Seph's line of vision.

Sephiroth made a grunting sound in his throat as he began to focus. He was home, laying in a soft bed, and Zack was with him. It was not an illusion or delirium.

". . . I hope you haven't been here all the time," he remarked. Zack, and everyone else, had looked exhausted on the drive home. Barret had opted to go with them instead of with Cid and Vincent, in order to drive them home himself. Zack had nearly fallen asleep more than once, but had quickly forced himself to wake up again.

"Nope!" Zack grinned. "I just woke up not too long ago. How're you feeling?"

"Much better." He was still worn out, much to his annoyance, but at least he was no longer feeling ill. After a bit more rest, food might even start to sound good.

"Good to hear!" Zack leaned back, placing his hands behind his head.

"Are the others still asleep?" It would surprise Sephiroth if Angeal was, since he had always been a morning person. Usually, no matter how little sleep he had gotten the past night, he would be up by sunrise. The early morning start was something that had not been hard for Angeal to get used to upon joining SOLDIER.

"Most of 'em," Zack said. "Angeal went for a walk."

Sephiroth nodded. That was not a surprise.

". . . Have the police called to ask any more questions?" he asked. Hopefully the answer was No. He did not trust Officer Valesquez, but it would be a burden eased if she had seen to it that the reports they had given would be left alone and considered complete. They had delivered as much information as was possible without digging a pit for themselves, mentioning only that Sephiroth and Zack had met Koseki when they had worked for a company whose practices Koseki had abhorred. And the company was long ago defunct, its records destroyed. Valesquez had said that it was good enough for the time being, and that if anything more was required, she would question them herself.

"Nope!" Zack said. "Guess it's too early even for them."

Sephiroth was silent, his mind wandering back to the events of the previous night.

". . . Who'd have thought we'd run into that guy again, huh?"

Sephiroth gave a slow nod. Every now and then it seemed that they were reaping unpleasant consequences of him having sent all of them to this planet. He certainly had not meant to send Koseki. Or Dalton and his crew, for that matter.

"I guess all those years in prison really did to something to him." Zack frowned. They could have killed him during their confrontation in the Wutai palace so many years ago, but they had left him alive so that he could not be made into a martyr for his cause. After everything that had happened the past night, it seemed that it would have been a mercy to have ended his life instead. Keeping him alive certainly had not quelled the terrorists in Wutai. But it was hard to know; perhaps it would have even been many times worse had they killed him.

"His mind was already going before that. You remember how he behaved when we defeated him."

"It'd be impossible to forget!" Zack exclaimed, Koseki's crazed laughter echoing through his mind.

". . . I dunno," he frowned then, leaning forward in the chair. "I hated the guy so much, especially after what he did last night. I wanted to punch him out or even something worse. But I tried to grab for him when he fell. Why? He was probably already dead."

"You're a kind person," Sephiroth said. "You can't even be unfair to someone like that. You didn't know if he was dead, and instinctively you grabbed for him."

"Yeah. . . ." Zack shuddered. "I hated seeing him being electrocuted. That was just nasty." He leaned back, staring up the ceiling. "It kinda creeps me out, too--that he wasn't much older than me, I mean. He had pretty much his whole life ahead of him. But he just threw it all away to get revenge."

"He threw it away years ago, when he decided to adopt the tactics of terrorists," Sephiroth replied.

Zack nodded.

Suddenly his melancholy visage was replaced by a happy grin. "I can't feel down too long," he chirped. "You're home safe, pal!"

Sephiroth allowed himself a small smile in return.

But abruptly he frowned again, confusion coming over him as he remembered something strange.

"What is it, Seph?" Zack blinked.

Sephiroth sighed. ". . . When I was mixing the vials to inject myself, I started to get delirious," he said. "But I wasn't expecting what I saw." He still wondered if he had seen correctly, and yet he knew that he had. That had been what had startled him so much.

"I saw myself as a child."

Zack was stunned. "Really?" he said. Part of him wanted to exclaim loudly, but instead his voice came out hushed and shocked.

"Yes." Sephiroth frowned. "I can't explain why it happened. The spectre appeared when I was trying to decide whether it was safe to take the concoction or not. After I did, it vanished."

"Weird!" Zack declared, not certain what to think of this phenomenon. "How old were you?"

Sephiroth shrugged. "Around twelve . . . possibly older." He took on a dry tone. "I looked very unimpressed by my current self."

"Yeah? Well, I'm very impressed!" Zack grinned. "I mean, look at what you managed to do yesterday. You went all over that place, getting the vials and figuring out the paintings, all while the poison was trying to bring you down."

"I wasn't going to lay down and die." As far as Sephiroth was concerned, it was not impressive, but only the natural human instinct for survival. And his own determination and pride, of course.

"That's one thing I've always liked about you!" Zack declared. "You never give up."

"Someone who would give up shouldn't even be trying."

Against his will, Sephiroth found his eyelids trying to close. The conversation was wearing him down. He sank deeper into the soft pillow.

"Get back to sleep, pal," Zack said, a soft smile coming over his features.

Sephiroth could not manage anything other than an unintelligible mutter.


He awakened next to see concerned blue eyes peering in at him from the doorway. He grunted into the pillow. He and Cloud had not interacted or spoken much since Cloud had suddenly and shockingly hugged him last night, but he could tell that something was bothering the blond. Somehow he managed to gather the strength to speak now, even though he was still half-asleep.

"What is it?"

Cloud looked guilty to have been caught. "I . . . I was just checking," he mumbled, shifting his weight. "I wanted to see that you were still okay."

"What's wrong, Cloud?"

Sephiroth's voice was firm and matter-of-fact. Cloud sighed to himself as he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Sephiroth could not be fooled. And maybe Cloud would feel better if he could finally get what was bothering him out in the open around Sephiroth.

He shifted again. ". . . Do you know what that guy did at the crash site?"

Sephiroth watched him from where he was laying on his side. "He left a suicide note in my name," he said.

Cloud nodded. ". . . And he took your clothes and did stuff with them. But . . ." He looked away. "Before we found any of that, I . . . I was wondering if you could've wrote that thing." He rushed on, wanting to get in all of his explanation before Sephiroth responded. "I mean, I really knew you wouldn't! But I kept wondering. I hated the thought that maybe you'd felt like that and we . . . I . . . hadn't known to help you. . . ." His shoulders slumped.

Sephiroth was silent for a long moment. "And you're upset because you wondered?" he said at last.

"Yeah. . . ." Cloud looked back to him. "Zack and Angeal both had all that confidence in you. . . . Well, Zack said that even he'd wondered, but just for a minute, and . . ." A look of frustration passed over his features. "I don't know. I'm just sounding stupid."

"You worry too much."

Cloud blinked in confusion at Sephiroth's tone and his words. The green eyes were half-closed, yet Sephiroth sounded fully aware.

"You think you betrayed me. You haven't."

Cloud swallowed. "Sephiroth . . ."

"You're human, Cloud. If the situation had been reversed, I would have to wonder the same about you . . . even if logic said you would never kill yourself."

". . . What about Zack?" Cloud found himself asking. "I mean . . . if it was Zack, then what?"

A pause. "Yes. I would wonder then, too. But I would really know that he wouldn't do that, to himself or to us.

"And you?"

Cloud gave a helpless shrug. ". . . I want to say I wouldn't doubt at all. I mean, thinking of Zack being suicidal . . . it just wouldn't happen. But that's the same way I feel about you, and I still wondered."

He hesitated. ". . . I guess what really bothers me is thinking that maybe we aren't as good of friends as I thought," he said at last. "That we don't even know each other like we know Zack. . . ."

". . . It took a long time for me to come to know Zack." Sephiroth raised up slightly as he shifted position. "Did you become close to him in only a few months?"

"No. . . ."

"We've known each other for years, Cloud, but hardly ever as friends. However . . ." He looked the blond firmly in the eyes. "We aren't lesser friends because of it. It took so much heartache to get to this point. Don't you think our bond may have been strengthened because of what we went through first?"

Cloud mulled over it in his mind. "Yeah," he said then. "It makes sense, anyway."

Sephiroth gave a satisfied nod. "Do you still feel like you betrayed me?" he asked.

"I don't know. . . ." Cloud crossed his arms. "I can't really get over it just like that." His eyes became determined. "But I can try," he said.

"Good." Sephiroth relaxed further into the bed.

Cloud sank into a chair by the bed. "That Koseki guy . . . was he really always as crazy as he acted last night?" he frowned. "Zack said he burned down an orphanage."

"He did." Sephiroth's voice was weary. "He was one of the main leaders behind the anti-Shinra terrorists in Wutai. But no, he didn't always act as openly insane as he did this time."

"I still don't get how people get like that. . . ."

"Who does." Sephiroth sounded even more weary, if that was possible. "I've been through it and I still don't understand how it happened."

Cloud did not know anything to do except to nod. Sometimes it was hard to comprehend how different Sephiroth was from the insane wretch whom Cloud and the others had battled. This Sephiroth was different, too, from the General whom Cloud had idolized. He was so tired, and not just when he needed sleep. His weariness seemed to be a permanent state of mind, right along with his unwavering determination.

Sephiroth hesitated. ". . . I wasn't expecting that Barret and Cid would help look for me," he said. Not that he had thought Vincent would, either, but Vincent had always been more calm and detached. Barret and Cid were very vocal about their dislike of Sephiroth.

"Yeah. . . ." Cloud crossed his arms. "I knew they'd come, even if they'd gripe about it at first. Maybe they'll even warm up to you sooner or later."

"I doubt it. I wouldn't think they even should."

Cloud looked over at him. Sephiroth's expression was completely serious, a trace of sadness passing through his eyes. For some reason that made Cloud sad too.

". . . I ended up liking you again. Who knows," he said.

Sephiroth made a grunting sound in his throat. "I don't particularly care whether they like me or not," he said.

Cloud gave a slow nod. Sephiroth was telling the truth about at least that much. Sephiroth did not care because he was quite indifferent to Barret and Cid, unlike when he had not wanted to admit to caring about Cloud because he had been certain that Cloud hated him. The sadness Cloud had seen now was born more of Sephiroth's regret over knowing that he had brought about the loathing of himself and that, in his mind, he deserved every bit of it. He would never forgive himself for the past.

A shadow in the doorway caused them both to look over. Angeal was standing there, studying the scene with an impassive expression.

Cloud blinked in surprise. He reached for the edge of the nightstand to pull himself up.

But Angeal shook his head. "Stay there," he said. "I was just coming to check on Sephiroth." He looked to his old friend.

Sephiroth gave a vague nod. "I'm fine," he grunted.

"I knew you were going to say that." Angeal looked him up and down. "We can talk later." He was glad to see that Cloud had come to talk with Sephiroth. He did not want to interrupt that, knowing that their friendship was still new and being explored. And after Cloud had been so upset the past day, this was good for him as well as for Sephiroth.

"It's okay," Cloud said. "I could go . . ."

Angeal shook his head again, waving a hand dismissively as he turned to leave. He pulled the door half-shut behind him.

Cloud placed his hands on his knees, looking to Sephiroth. The older man had moved further onto his back, and he seemed fairly relaxed. There was a far-off look in his eyes, as if he was remembering other times. Sephiroth had likely been happier before Nibelheim had happened. Was that what he was thinking of? Cloud shifted. In some way he wanted to ask, yet he did not know that he should. Still, it would not hurt, he supposed. The worst that could happen would be that Sephiroth would tell him it was not his business.

". . . Are you thinking of better times?" he asked.

Sephiroth came back to the present. "What would be your definition of 'better times'?" he returned.

Cloud looked at the floor. "Before . . ." he mumbled. "When you were in SOLDIER."

"There were both good and bad times then," Sephiroth said.

"Yeah. . . . But you hadn't . . . well . . . gone nuts yet. . . ." Cloud shifted.

Sephiroth gave him a long look. "No," he said at last. "My definition of 'better times' would be during this period."

Cloud stared at him. "Now?" he said in disbelief.

"Yes." The old days had been enjoyable. He had been happy then. But he had also been unaware of so many evils. He was wiser now. And he had been reunited with most of his friends from those times. They were still his friends, and he had gained a new one, as well. If the one remaining friend from the past would ever return, then all would be complete. Yet even if such a time never came, he would not wish to return to those days. He would continue to miss that friend, but he would not give up what he had gained since the time of their friendship.

Cloud was suddenly overwhelmed. From Sephiroth's eyes, he understood that he himself was part of the reason why Sephiroth considered this time to be the best.

". . . Sephiroth?"

"What."

"I'm glad you're back."

Sephiroth blinked in surprise. But then a vague smile came over his features.

Cloud leaned back in the chair, smiling a bit as well. For now he was just enjoying this time with his friend.

When he thought of it, he did not know if he would consider any period in the past to be better than now. He still missed his mother deeply and longed more than anything for her to be there. But she was thrilled that he had found so many wonderful, loyal friends, and that even Sephiroth was among them. He was not the same lonely kid who had been rejected by the majority of the townspeople. He had grown up.

The burdens of his past had been lifted. He was truly happy.