Whew, the Muse has finally decided to return from her mental vacation after a long hiatus. Many thanks to all who have read 'I Let Them Go' and given positive and constructive feedback on it. For those of you returning for the sequel, welcome back. If you haven't read it yet and are just tuning in, I recommend that you do (that's entirely up to you though so you know what's happening in this fic) and I welcome you to the story. :) Not that it really needs said again, but this is a continuation of a "What-if" mentality, so who knows where it will end up. (The Muse doesn't even know that yet, which makes for interesting, or at least I hope it's interesting, believable writing.) Anyway, ranting aside, I hope you all enjoy this chapter (and hope that it doesn't disappoint anyone's expectations...) folks and remember to let me know what you think of it. I don't bite. Promise. ;)

Chapter One - A Prisoner Of Fate

How long have I been here?

The silken curtain of darkness continues to rest across my vision in a sinister, yet welcoming barrier between myself and whatever resides beyond its merciful protection. I've lost track of all time, my only window to the outside world now whatever I manage to hear in the brief moments of lucid thought I seem to have been allotted by someone who either does not want me to hear certain things, or just doesn't care anymore.

That feeling of helplessness, a heavy weight pressing my eyes closed and my entire body against this odd feeling surface I seem to have been sentenced to spend whatever miserable life I've managed to carve out for myself in. A hospital bed. I've gathered that much from what little I managed to see in those precious few seconds of consciousness. I'm in a hospital. Somewhere.

Note to self. Next time the Lifestream offers you a spot in it, make damn sure to appreciate it a little bit more, not matter how much it sucks. What comes with escape afterwards is much worse.

A sharp stab of pain from somewhere in the vast oblivion, vanishing just as quickly as it appears. That's become a lot more frequent lately. I want to draw away from it, but a strong force holds me in place, preventing any and all movement, no matter how horrible the pain gets. This is Hades. It has to be. There's no way I survived any of whatever the hell happened to me.

What happened to me…What did happen in those seconds when the stars fell and I awoke on the Lifestream's less than elaborate doorstep?

The click of leather-soled footsteps across what appears to be linoleum, jumbled voices I can't quite completely understand creeping through the dull, steady drone of the void. Like another form of ocean. Yes. A dull, labored echo like some sort of beacon calling to lost ships and the hiss of waves rolling back and forth in the distance, somewhere. A gentle, albeit rather chilly ocean, submerging me beneath its obsidian waves and I don't have the strength to fight back this time.

I don't remember being anywhere near any oceans though. And sand. The odd substance sifts through my fingers, the flicker of cerulean moonlight drifting over the waves forming through the obsidian curtains of stagnant darkness painted across the world around me. How did I get here? A few seconds ago, I was - it's happening again. Damn it.

This is really starting to get old. I'm either trapped in the grasp of the darkness, restricted by some powerful force that prevents even the faintest inkling of motion, or cast out to a location I can vaguely recall being to over my lifetime. A dream world. Fate has a fickle sense of humor.

The light of the moon cascades across the bluffs in a steady stream of continuous brilliance, making me flinch with the sting of discomfort to my eyes. It hurts to even think about trying to see much of anything through that light. Just like the light of the Lifestream.

Zack. I tried to fight Zack on these shores. That tide pool over there, by the towering bluffs. Rekka landed there when he struck it down with the Buster Sword. But that's impossible. Nibelheim. How did I get to Nibelheim when I am supposed to be in the hospital?

I'm sure I was in the hospital. I saw it. Reno and Tseng. They were talking. Something about having done 'all that they could' for me.

All that they could…

What exactly did they mean by that? A quiver of fear whisks across my shoulders, making me cower closer to the bluffs. I'm still wearing this dingy midnight blazer and dusty tie, just like that night. Something happened to me. Something horrible. I can feel it in the wind rushing through the crags in the stone off the waves of the ocean and the ferocious tides beneath the moon's violent grace.

I'm dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

The darkness rushes across the sands with the sudden waves of imposing water, at least I think that it is water. For all I know it could be something a lot like the Lifestream's waters, only much worse. Those waters didn't hurt half as much. A painful spasm grasps my muscles and sends me plummeting back into the blanket of the endless darkness.

I'm beginning to feel like some sort of mistreated chocobo, allowed a brief walk of freedom every so often on a very short tether, but crowded into a far-too-small stall to suffer for the remainder of whatever time I have left of this miserable life just when I'm starting to enjoy being able to move under my own free will. This is a punishment, isn't it?

A screech of metal being dragged somewhere off to the side, someone lowering themselves onto it with the soft creak of tired muscles. That sound. I've heard it before, many times before. I know this person, just by the way they move, that gentle caressing warmth enveloping my hand through the darkness and the confident warble of distant words across the abysmal darkness reaching towards me.

"Morning, Cissnei. Thought I'd stop by and see how you are doing."

It's morning?

Feels later in the day than that. At least to me anyway. Then again, time does not pass wherever the hell I am. At least, not for me. Maybe out there it can be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, and so on. But here, only the intermittent darkness serves as any form of clock, one without second hands or even numbers. At one point, I might have known what time felt like to pass, but for some reason, I can barely make even the simplest connections between this world and the one out there.

"Heh, still sleeping yo? Well, that's all right."

Sleeping? I'm asleep? But, I can hear him perfectly clearly. Okay, so not completely clear through some of the muffled syllables, but my mind is trying to fill those in as he speaks with those long, slightly drawled words. Reno. You sound something like him. I think, though I'm not really sure of myself on that.

"Rude's been by I see. Brought you some flowers. Not your favorite kind, but he tried. You like sunflowers? Yeah. Sunflowers. Ugliest flowers on the planet yo, next to roses of course. You never did like roses though. Too many thorns."

Yeah, I was never very fond of roses. Or daffodils. Too many bad memories with those. Sunflowers are all right I suppose. The voice continues with a somber sigh, his hand clutching my own with a harsher hint of tension. As though he is worried about something.

"Funny. I've known you for years and I still don't know what flower you like the best. There's a lot of stuff I don't know about you yo. Things I'd like to ask, to know more about ya know. I've been wanting to ask what your favorite colors were for years, what animals you like, what that goddamn real name of yours is, but, guess I never got around to it. Looks like I'll never get the chance to either."

He sounds so sad, like someone has beaten him into submission and kicked him around a good bit before finally allowing him to admit defeat in the presence of his foe. I don't recall him ever sounding this stressed and worried over something. He's always been so upbeat and cheerful. But now, he's upset.

"Fate's a bitch. I didn't mean for it to end up this way ya know. Please don't hate me for it. I-I was following orders. You know I had to do it. If I didn't, someone else would have. You know how this whole mission thing works."

Reno…My mind flinches at the invisible hint of rage corralled behind those words. I can almost see his eyes, those gentle emerald eyes, narrowed at something only he sees in the distance, disjointed from reality in his own little world. He blames himself for this. For something he couldn't help but do.

"Please 'Nei. You gotta wake up yo."

Wake up? The thought sounds so foreign, the concept impossible. I can't even move any part of my body, let alone my eyelids to prove that I can indeed hear every word you're saying.

"You can't stop fighting yet." The pressure on my hand increases, his fingernails carving into my flesh. "Don't let those jackasses for doctors tell you what to do. I know you're in there, somewhere."

I wish I could respond. Oh how I wish I could respond and let that person know that I appreciate it more than anything. To not be left alone here. To know that someone out there gives enough of a damn to spend some time trying to get me out of this hell I've created for myself. But I can't. I'm sentenced to be stuck like this, somewhere in limbo between life and death - again.

The sliding shift of a door being opened - a second presence entering the void with a sterner, stronger step about their gait. Confident in nature, yet prideful all around. I should know this person fairly well.

"You are supposed to be home, resting."

Reno shifts in his seat but does not venture from his place beside me, that arrogant presence about him as the smoothed, flat tone fills the air with long awaited words or reprimanding frustration. "I'm fine yo."

The presence draws to a halt, the light brush of his jacket telling me that he's standing somewhere off to Reno's side, probably by the foot of the bed. "Any changes to report?"

"Nope. Still asleep."

"Reno. You know what the doctor said. With the injuries she sustained-"

"She'll wake up yo. Just give her some time yet."

"Time is something we do not have. She does not have. The doctors were more than clear that with her injuries her odds were not good."

"Screw them. They've been wrong before."

"Not this time. The latest tests were not good."

"'Nei's different yo. She'll be okay."

I think I preferred being able to move freely, albeit clumsily, rather than this. This is just cruel. A prisoner. That's what I have become. I'm a prisoner in my own body, unable to even accomplish the simplest of instinctive, natural movements required to survive on my own. It's as though someone took my entire mind and just wiped everything from it, and threw away the backup disk, leaving me in this hell.

They talk about me as though I don't exist. As though I cannot hear them. Maybe I don't exist anymore. Maybe this is all one big product of my overactive imagination. Reno. Tseng. Neither one of them are here. I'm not here.

What happened to bring me to this point? Why can't I recall even the simplest of commands to make anything work to my advantage?

"I'll be back later, 'Nei. Got to deal with those jackasses in the white coats. Stay strong okay."

The presence rises from his perch beside me with a soft word of what appears to be encouragement, only to be replaced by a harsher series of inaudible words and that familiar pinch of icy needles into veins that make me want to scream out in agony, to do anything humanly possible to get them to stop torturing me as whatever scalding substance being injected seizes body as if it were a high stakes hostage. But the stagnant darkness prevents my cry of protest, driving me deeper into its embrace the worse the pain becomes.

It'll be over soon, I try to remind myself. Sooner or later, the pain will fade, leaving me floating in this dark ocean once again, alone.

Please…I try to will my thoughts to whomever is out there on the opposite curtain of darkness, a part of me knowing it will be in vain. Please don't leave me here.

I'm not even sure if I exist anymore as a human, or a shadow at this stage of the game. I can feel the caring touch, but no longer react to it. Like some sort of strange puppet, my mind distanced from my actual body, the strings in someone else's hands. Or is it the other way around? I'm not terribly certain myself.

Every so often, there is a speck of residual light in the distance, faint, but there, calling, beckoning me towards its warm, enveloping grasp. Damnedest thing is though, that no matter how much I strain to even put forth one fraction of effort towards lifting these weary hands to actually reach out and grab it, nothing moves. Absolutely nothing.

Gods that beeping sound is starting to drive me crazy. Even, pulsing drones that resonate from invisible walls, collecting and bounding back with the same monotonous echo. That eerie swishing sound is even worse, grating with some minute semblance of discomfort that comes and goes but never fully materializes into something I can use to get me the hell out of here.

That little, fractional part of my mind still intact warns me that something horrific will happen if I don't hear those sounds occurring like they are. I am, or was, alive. That much I do know. But as for how much so, or where in the hell I even am at this point, I really cannot say. All I know, is that I have the faithful insanity-causing beeping occurring every so often, that warmth of someone holding my hand from time to time, and this annoying sense of foreboding discomfort to keep me company.

I don't like this one bit.

Lifestream…I was in the Lifestream. That eerie, yet awkward green glow, snaking and spiraling around everything with the warmth of a tropical summer climate not too unlike Gongaga. So warm and comfortable, far from the frigid embrace of this darkness now.

A quiver of fear manifests in the back of my mind like a frightening winter wind.

I ended up in the Lifestream. For a certain amount of time, everything stopped, and, I died.

"Don't fight it, Child…" Those words, gentle and soft, telling me exactly what not to do and yet, I somehow managed to screw that one up royally. And this is my punishment, sentenced to the darkness for eternity, or what feels like it in a body that doesn't seem to want to play willing host to my soul anymore.

A punishment for a Turk. I wish I could go back and change everything.

What if I cannot leave this place, ever? What if - the chill rakes through my mind and over what I assume is still a distanced part of my body, I cannot wake up?