BAHAHAHAHA. YES! FINALLY FINISHED THIS GODDAMN CHAPTER! W00t. Oh my god this took FOREVER. I've been writing it almost since before I posted the last chapter. And I'd like to brain myself. I got about half of it written in the last twenty four hours, so WHY WAS THE FIRST HALF SO HARD?

Anyway I have three exams today, so I hope you all enjoy this. My grades might not.

Cloud sat for a long time after the dream of his best friend left him, silent and still as stone. But on the inside he felt he must be shaking apart. His thoughts were everywhere all at once, racing a mile a minute through his head and driving him to insanity. Where was he, when was he, who was he? Was any of this real? What did "real" even mean to begin with? He had probably never been the best judge; he'd been Puppet and Hero and Leader before, had believed them all equally. Every one of those delusions had seemed as real as the next. And this one seemed less possible—the dead still breathed, the mad spoke sanely… how could it possibly be real? Or perhaps this was truth and his life before had been a dream—perhaps his twisted past (or was it future?) and Jenova and Meteor and all that death had been nothing more than burning Mako twisting into the cells of his mind and tossing him into mad dreams.

Still… for this to be real… He wanted it to be, he didn't want it to be. He'd been running from his own mistakes so long that he'd killed himself just to escape them. How much strength would it take to keep standing, to go on living after he'd already given up on everything? He felt like crying and laughing all at once. If this were not a dream, not death, if he the life he'd lived were not a mad fantasy, then what did that mean? Real? Real. Not death and not a dream? His mind was reeling with the implications of it.

When Zack had promised that this was reality after his mad flight through the halls of Shinra, Cloud felt that he had to believe it. Zack—blood, rain, ashen dirt and so much pain. It should have been him. Not Zack, never—had been here in this very room, sleeping beside him, as real as anything he'd ever seen. No green lights, no blurred lines. Just a shaggy mess of dark hair and a boyish face. He wanted that. Needed it to be true. How long had he dragged himself through the dirt, mourning that man? –and the blood was burning against his cheek and the sword was ever heavy in his hand, but he could not stop. He would be Zack's legacy. He would be Zack's everything because—and now, faced with the thought, the mere idea that Zack was ok, that he might never have even died at all… It would take a stronger man than he not to grab on to that kind of hope with both hands. Here he was, standing at the beginning of everything, every horrible event and mistake he'd ever mourned, he could—could help them. Could save them.

Except that he couldn't. There was nothing left of him now; he'd been wasting away for years, waiting for death and hoping for some kind of forgiveness. But he'd never found either, and the blood on his hands had only increased. Was he really so arrogant as to believe he could help anyone after that? Deep Ground, Geo-stigma, Meteor, Nibelheim burning… He'd had a hand in all of them, had caused everyone around him pain. If it hadn't been for him… Zack and Aeris would probably still be alive. And Se—Sephiroth—Silver hair, green eyes, the tiniest hair's-breadth of a smile. It had to be wrong. How could anyone that beautiful be a monster?

Shit. He didn't want to think about it anymore, but thoughts of the man wouldn't leave him. Hearing his voice earlier had been pure torture. Even if it was distorted by the phone and muffled by Zack's cheek, his mako-enhanced senses picked up the sounds and relentlessly pounded his skull with memory. All the emotions he'd wanted to deny, all the feelings which had ultimately led to his downfall were suddenly rushing back again and it was all he could do to keep breathing. Sephiroth was the beginning and the end of everything. Sephiroth was an ideal and a dream and a horrible mistake and it seemed like even when he killed his heart he simply couldn't leave that angel behind. He was lost opportunity, guilt, sorrow, perfection… Back before Jenova had destroyed his life he'd loved Sephiroth, powerfully and senselessly and in a way he knew wasn't right for someone who could only watch from afar. After he'd been through Hojo and lost himself to the mess of insanity, Sephiroth became even more of an anchor for him—the only thing tying Cloud to his identity. He couldn't think of Sephiroth without feeling all those things; the gratefulness and the need and the unbearable remorse. To hear his voice again, clear of Jenova's clouding influence was just… He felt that his heart would burst. It was too much. And to sit here and mull over something like reality after that—to know what happened next and to know he had the power to change it…

The thought terrified him more than anything else he'd ever had to face. He wasn't conceited enough to think he could play god with the lives of those around him and fix everything. He knew he couldn't save anyone with so many mistakes already weighing him down, and Sephiroth had been one of the biggest mistakes of all. How could he possibly have missed the pain in those green eyes? How could he have fallen for the General's trick like all the rest, placed him on too high a pedestal to see that he was a man who wanted and craved and hurt just like any other? He'd been such an idiot then, so convinced that he knew what love was and so determined to hide it that he'd missed what was really important. And instead of helping, instead of realizing what had happened or even asking, he'd picked up the closest sharp object and lashed out like a complete child.

He'd killed Sephiroth that day in the reactor. The true Sephiroth, the one that only craved love and an end to loneliness. He might have saved the man, but he hadn't even tried. He hadn't even… Gaea, how could he pretend to be any kind of hero after a failure like that? He couldn't plan anything, couldn't change anything. He'd only screw it up in the end. What if the things he did only hurt those he loved even more? Or worse still, what if he did everything he could to save them and nothing happened at all, what if this was merely a second chance to watch his failures pass him by in a cruel shadow-puppetry of life. What if—

"Something could happen that could never unhappen, and you're terrified of that." Tifa's words echoed back to him from the recesses of memory, chiding him even after their utterance had long passed. It irked him, but she was right. She was usually right when it came to him; she'd loved him enough to understand him. He couldn't do anything because if he messed up somewhere along the line, it would be more than he could handle. At least if he didn't try, he could say it wasn't his fault when the ones he loved got hurt. When Cloud closed his eyes, he saw the blood of all those he'd ever loved dripping from his trembling fingers. He couldn't face himself knowing that, didn't trust himself to act. And yet, he couldn't sit back and do nothing. He didn't think he'd be able to stand still and watch everything happen again, even knowing his actions could only make it worse.

If he were completely honest with himself, he already knew the best possible way he could help the world. If it hadn't been for him… if he hadn't been there Zack would have been able to run fast enough to get away. Aeris would have kept away from the Ancient Forest and from the remnant of Sephiroth that killed her. And Sephiroth… Zack had been his friend. It had always made him a little mad with jealousy before, but Zack and the General were openly close once. If anyone could have talked Sephiroth out of his madness that day it was him. Jenova would have been defeated before any of that mess ever even began.

He was the main factor in all of it; so really, the best way to keep the world from ending was to end himself.

Odd. The thought was strangely unappealing. Cloud couldn't help it; he laughed, mirthless and aching. Even despite all that, after searching for death and trying to kill himself, even if he still hated himself more than anything, he could feel the will to live stirring in his chest. The idea that everyone was still alive had given him something to selfishly want again. He wanted to be here, to see his friends happy and whole and to live with them as he should always have been able to do. Sephiroth's voice echoed haunting through his mind, a little strained, a little worried, but most importantly it was sane. And if that were true—if that were true then he—maybe—

Cloud pressed a flat palm to his dully, sweetly aching chest and realized that this was what hope was like. It was not something he was used to feeling; he had abandoned it so many identities ago, deep within the Shinra mansion under the tender care of cruel madmen. Hope meant nothing—it was all light and love and fairytale and something he'd never been meant to have and yet, it pressed stupidly onward, singing through his very blood with every heartbeat. He wanted to trust it so badly. Wanted to fall into the warmth that believing entailed, but he could not fool himself. He'd lived enough fragmented lives to know that nothing he tried, no path he took to forgiveness would ever be enough. The ones he loved always died, dreams always faded, and his torments would ever return to haunt him until the end of days. There would be no hoping then to help him.

He couldn't help the bitter smirk that flashed quickly over his frozen visage. His thoughts sounded pathetic even by his skewed standards and yet he could not stop thinking in the same circles over and over again. He was confused and grieving and hoping and so sick of himself that he just wanted to crawl out of his own skin and fly as far away as he possibly could. But he'd already been running for what felt like forever, and that had turned out so wonderfully. Here he was, stuck at the starting line once again. Obviously he'd been running for so long that he'd come full circle.

That image pulled another hysterical chuckle from his throbbing chest and he knew he must be losing it if he could keep laughing at a time like this. He felt torn between braining himself and waiting to see what might happen next. He was on the edge of something high, something heavy and he didn't think he wanted to jump just yet; all promises aside, he had to get out of here. He needed solace, needed comfort and quiet and some piece of his fragile sanity back before he could figure out where to go from here. He wasn't going to figure anything out stuck alone in this gods-be-damned building with all his ghosts and mistakes staring him straight in the face. He wanted to be selfish. He wanted to rest. He wanted—White flowers and petals on water and sunshine where there once was none. If you stare long enough into the shimmering light, can you see her face? He wanted the church.

He felt the command to go course through him like a jolt of electricity as soon as he realized what he wanted—needed. The church was his sanctuary, in part because it had been hers. And maybe it was just another piece of his mistake-ridden history, maybe it should only have reminded him of all that he'd done wrong, but somehow he couldn't think of it that way. In a way that nothing else had ever been, the church was home.

Cloud tore the sheets off with a kind of desperateness he'd never admit to, shaking and sweating from the pain but determined all the same. His earlier adrenaline was completely gone, but he had enough will to keep moving. The harder he pushed himself, the easier it would be to fall into thoughtless oblivion in the end. He stumbled toward the bedroom door gracelessly, only barely conscious of his own two feet. He had to fix it, had to stop it, had to—Gaea he just wanted to not think! He threw the door open with a sudden burst of strength, heedless of any kind of ache because he just needed to get to her—to green and flowers and quiet and—

"Cadet Strife, I don't think you want to go anywhere just yet." Cloud took one step out of the doorway and was met immediately with a face-full of Turk. He shook, tried to lean on the doorframe just to stay upright. He was cursing the suit in front of him with every damning word he'd ever known. This was the last thing he needed.

"Babysitting, Rude?" He choked out, his words sounding more like a weak plea then the jibe it was intended to be. Something in the back of his mind told him he shouldn't know the name or the face just yet, and the raised eyebrow just visible above pitch-black sunglasses only confirmed the thought. He couldn't bring himself to care much. He wasn't sure when he'd met the man, only that he knew him, and that was enough. If that was too confusing for Rude, well… Cloud had far more important things to worry about.

The quietest of the Turks didn't respond, unsurprisingly. He merely gave Cloud a patented Look, as though he expected the half-maddened, mako-ridden cadet to be scorned into submission. Cloud granted him an annoyed scoff and tried to walk around this human obstacle. He had to keep moving or he was going to collapse, and he swore to Gaea and Minerva and every god who would listen that if he spent one more second in this room, he would blow it to pieces. Rude moved to block him again. Cloud seethed.

"Move, or I will make you." It was a stupid thing to say given the weakness and the agony thrumming through every inch of his body. Doubtless, Rude was equally aware of that if his expression were anything to go by. At the moment, and for the past few days, Cloud's muscles were breaking down and being rebuilt even as he breathed, over and over again until the Mako was all settled in—until he was a perfectly usable tool for the hand that wielded him. But whose would it be? The planet? Shinra? Sephi—A puppet, I am only ever his puppet, his toy to do as he pleases. Wasn't it that way from the start? He thinks to himself as he watches the black materia glitter in the strange, silver light. Ending the world never looked so pretty.

Shit. He was falling back into the Thoughts again. No, no, he had to get OUT! "Move." He growled, and for all his pathetic trembling, the sound was one to be feared. It was all the fury of a caged animal and a swirling tempest in one. But Rude did not move. He simply sighed.

"Haven't you done enough running yet, Cadet Strife?" Cloud jerked as if he'd been hit.

"Shut up!" He shouted childishly back, maybe because some part of him agreed. He didn't want to hear it. "You don't know what you're talking about, Rude." The door-frame was cracking under his grip. Behind dark shades, the Turk eyed his trembling hands with trepidation.

"Enlighten me," Rude goaded. He sounded as confident as ever, but Cloud could smell the beginnings of worry, hear the accelerating heartbeat. Mako was truly a godlike power at times. He wondered what he looked like from the Turk's point of view, swiftly going mad, shaking and sweating with exhaustion and ungodly strong all the same. Did he look more like a monster, or a petulant child?

"I can't," he sounded pathetic even to himself, and that only made him more angry, more ready to do something stupid. "I…" Everything he wanted to forget was flashing by in a haze of disjointed images and snatches of words. They were mere echoes he could hardly understand, but he remembered the pain of them all the same. How could he possibly explain any of it to anyone when he wasn't sure what had happened at all?

"Cadet, your friend will be back soon. Please, just go back to bed for now." It was more than he'd ever heard Rude say in a single breath, but Cloud didn't have the humor left to be impressed. He was too busy trying to put the memories away, to keep himself and Zack and Cadet Strife and Puppet from blurring together. It wasn't working. His thoughts were flying by before he could think them, reality phasing in and out. He wanted to be a hero he wanted to save the world he wanted to watch it burn.

"Rude, you have got to move. Now." He was swiftly tumbling into insanity and if he couldn't escape right. now. he didn't know what would happen. Rude just frowned and shook his head. Cloud choked as he tried to swallow, tried to use the pain to bring him back to reality. He stood and bore his degrading mental state for a few seconds until he could breathe again, fought his fragmenting mind down to a deafening roar and blinked until he could only see one set of images instead of three. He might even have been able to lock the madness away entirely if Rude hadn't tried to move him.

"Come on Cadet, back to bed." He coaxed. He might have seen the way Cloud's whole body was fighting not to break down, or the sweat coating the blond's brow from the simple effort of remaining upright and assumed the threat was over. He would have been very wrong. The moment he touched Cloud's shaking shoulder was the last thing he remembered before it all went black.

Zack eyed the General across the room warily from his position in Sephiroth's favorite chair. To any other observer it would seem that nothing was out of order. But Zack had been close to Sephiroth long enough to know what was a mask and what was not. And right now the General was trying his damndest to seem normal. He was blaming himself over and over again for Hojo's latest move. Zack might have been a little stupid when it came to politics but guilt was something he could understand. And for all his godliness, guilt was something Sephiroth was prone to in spades.

"I still think you did the right thing, Seph." He watched broad shoulders shake, ever so slightly, before Sephiroth went back to his paperwork. He didn't know why his friend felt the need to keep up the act; Reeve and Tseng and all their plotting had been over hours ago. Still, even now Sephiroth couldn't relax. Zack hated it. He wished his friends would stop being such emotional nutcases and just talk to him without a full-scale investigation.

"Don't you have that cadet to take care of, Lieutenant?" Sephiroth's voice was strained. Maybe to anyone else he would have sounded annoyed, but Zack caught that minute hitch for what it was.

"Spikey'll be ok for a bit. I've got a Turk babysitting for me." He gave Sephiroth his best Cheshire grin. It was wasted. The General never looked up. "Seriously, Seph it's not him I'm worried about right this second." That had unnatural green eyes flying up to meet his own. He stared back without fear, letting Sephiroth determine his honest intentions. I want to help you, he wanted to say, but he knew the independent, emotionally stunted man wouldn't take it well. I want my friends to be happy. I don't want to lose anyone else. Sephiroth looked away all too soon, his face shutting back down into his porcelain mask and Zack was reminded of Cloud. Those two were far too alike for their own good. He should probably avoid letting them meet—they'd might gang up on him with their emotional brick walls and force him to be a functioning member of society or something.

"No need to worry on my account Zackary. There is nothing wrong." Zack resisted the urge to scoff (barely) and looked out the window instead.

"Say Seph, how's about you and me get out of here a bit? Hit the town?" The only acknowledgement he got was a slight pause in the shuffle of Sephiroth's paperwork. He still took it as an ok to keep talking. "I know this one girl in sector six—"

"We have been over this already. We're not going to pretend to be drunk and pick up chicks, Zack." Ooh! Shortened first name! Man, he was really making progress! Zack grinned like a crazed man.

"Aww…. Sephiroth I wasn't even talking about a girl like that. Get your mind out of the gutter, man!" The poor General looked genuinely confused for a few seconds before he sighed and covered his face with his palm.

"Zack…" He drawled, and the dark-haired soldier swore he saw one silver eyebrow twitch. Good. Annoyed was a marked improvement on depressed.

"Yes?" He drew the word out obnoxiously and took a more preposterous position in the comfy chair. Yup. Definitely an eyebrow twitch going now.

"I've been trying to come up with the best way to kill someone with a single piece of paper. Would you like to be my test subject?" Zack had to blink a few times before the strange words registered. But as soon as they had he was laughing until he cried, sides aching with mirth. For his part, Sephiroth looked slightly shocked and a little embarrassed.

"Dude, was that your idea of a joke?" The general said nothing and turned back to his work, but Zack could just barely make out the hint of red on moon-white cheeks. A definite yes. "That's the best thing I've heard all day. You need to do that more often." Sephiroth grumbled something unintelligible, even to Zack's mako-hearing. It was probably another death threat. How odd, Sephiroth was usually never this talkative.

"Seriously though, you have got to get out of this office some time, Seph. What if we just went out for Wutaian or something?" The General looked over and frowned, but Zack could see that the heavy burden of his guilt had lightened at least a little. His eyes didn't seem quite so dead.

"Zack, I have work to do. For now at least, I am acting head of—" They were interrupted by Zack's ever-inappropriate cell phone.

"Again?" Zack groaned, even as he reached for the damn thing. He glared at it with enough force to send a man to his knees. He'd just been about to coax Seph into Wutaian food! Now the General would go back to his work and he'd never be able to get him to go… "Hello?" He grumbled to whoever was on the other line. Feminine giggles met his ill-tempered greeting and suddenly Zack wasn't so upset. "Aeris!" On the other side of the office he watched Seph roll his eyes. "Hey I saw that!" He teased. The General went back to pretending he didn't exist. "What's up babycakes?"

"Zack you have a friend with blond hair, right?" What an odd question. His eyes narrowed, suspicion beginning to roil in the pit of his stomach. Something about her voice sounded off.

"I have a few of those, dear, you'll have to be more specific."

"Oh, this one's different from the rest. His hair vaguely resembles a chocobo. I think we may have been about to talk about him once when our date came up." Zack's eyes went wide. She was being cryptic, but he realized now that she was talking about Cloud.

"Oh, that one. Yeah, what about him?" Her breath was shaky in the phone receiver. "Aeris, are you ok?"

"I… your friend came to visit me today." …wait, what? Cloud was supposed to be tucked safely away in his room, guarded by the best babysitter/protection detail Shinra had. How on Gaea… maybe she just meant meta-physically or something?

"He…did? That's odd. He usually doesn't get out a whole lot." He's not supposed to leave. Is what he was trying to say, but you never knew who was listening to your phone conversations around this place.

"I gathered as much." Aeris's laugh was choked, and Zack just wished he could be there to make it all better. Why did it seem like everyone he loved was swiftly falling apart at the seams? "Why don't you come pick him up? He's a little too indisposed to walk back on his own." Well shit. Was she being serious? Cloud had really found his way to her place? What the hell.

"Where are you?"

"Where am I always?" The church. Really? How the crap did Cloud get all the way to sector 6? The thought of him riding the train, slipping in and out of consciousness was more than a little ridiculous (and worrisome.)

"Right. I'm on my way." He started to close the phone but something stopped him. "Aeris?" No answer. She must have hung up already. Frowning, Zack inched toward the off button when—

"Yes dear." The phone was back to its place against his ear before he could blink.

"You know I love you, right?" He wished he could see her right now. He was certain her smile would be so beautiful that it hurt.

"Thanks Zack. I needed to hear that." He thought he could feel her warmth through the phone if he tried hard enough. "We'll see you soon?" Hurry, please. He could hear her real meaning. It set him to worrying.

"Hey! Where's my 'I love you too'?" His voice didn't match his facial expression. Zack sounded jovial but in reality his thoughts were frantically worried and racing a mile a minute. He'd been reduced to pacing. He never paced! Sephiroth was staring at him in askance from across the room.

"Maybe I'll give you one when you get here." Aeris's laugh was cut off when she hung up. Zack followed her example.

"Crap." He grumbled, his mind reeling from this new information. He had no idea how this happened, or why the supposed babysitters hadn't called him yet, or how Cloud had managed to get past the freaking Turks. They were elite bodyguards! Cloud was just a cadet!

"…I'm almost afraid to ask." Zack turned to the sound of his commanding officer's voice and stared him down. Those unusual eyes weren't quite so full of pain, but he could still see the tension flooding every chord of Sephiroth's body. What to do, what to do…. Sephiroth needed out of here even if he didn't admit it, and Cloud needed back in and Gaea knew what Aeris needed. Shit shit shit. This was too much to deal with right now. "Zack, you are beginning to frighten me. You have been silent for a whole…. Two minutes." He couldn't help it. In spite of everything, laughed.

"That's the second joke of the day, Seph! Better watch out or you might grow a sense of humor."

"You are evading the subject." Bless Sephiroth's emotionally stunted little heart, he was worried! Actually worried for Zack. The dark-haired hero didn't dare tease him for fear it might never happen again. He was strangely touched.

"So anyway about that girl in sector six. I think we should give her a visit!" It'd be good for Sephiroth to come along. It'd give him the chance to cheer up a little, and he'd be helping Cloud at the same time.

"Zackary, what…?"

"We should really go." He was grabbing his sword from against the wall and slinging it into its place on his back. With a flourish, he tossed the General the Masamune. Not really the sort of thing one usually tossed, but it was a testament to the super-human qualities of both that neither wound up sliced to ribbons in the process. "Now." The jovial tone was gone from his voice. Sephiroth seemed to think about it a moment more before he finally sighed, pushing his paperwork to one side and standing in one fluid motion.

"If I wind up stuck in a Wutaiese restaurant because of this, so help me I will end you." Zack grinned and slapped the butcher of Wutai on the back. As they made their way to the elevators.

"Don't worry, buddy. We'll go for burgers instead."