"Evacuate, evacuate!" shouted the head doctor of the hospital, running down the hallway. The flames were spreading down quickly from the upper floors. "Move everyone out, worst cases first!" Chaos reigned as the staff rushed patients out of their respective rooms from all directions.
"Doctor! What about this one?" called a nurse a few doors down. He came over and looked where she was pointing, towards a bed in the far corner of Room 213.
"Which—that one? How many times have I told you, he's too far gone! Just leave him."
"But Doctor," the nurse protested, "the man who brought him here said to keep him around, that he was…"
" '…worth it' . I know, you've told me. But all he's done since he got here is taken up bed-space," the doctor said impatiently. "We sure could have used it during the geostigma scare. Who was that bum that dropped him off anyway?"
"He didn't say. After he handed him over to us he just sort of…disappeared."
"Crazy," muttered the doctor. "Well anyway, let's get out the ones that are going to make it before worrying about Sleeping Beauty over there."
"Come on, go!" he said. The nurse threw a last glance over her shoulder at the motionless heap of jet-black hair on the pillow as she reluctantly hurried off.
A little later, however, the overall atmosphere of utter panic began to stimulate the abandoned patient's long-dormant brain. He started to cough as the room filled with smoke.
Before getting out of the burning building the head doctor was making one last set of rounds by himself, frantically rushing through the hallways again, scanning the rooms to make sure every salvageable patient was out. Suddenly he heard an almighty crash coming from Room 213. He ran in to have a look. The window on the far wall was shattered, with glass shards all over the floor. He tried to look outside, but could only see the blackness of the smoke that was billowing out the window. He coughed, then turned and saw something even more strange; the bed in the corner was empty. All that remained on it was a red rag, which he had no idea from where it could have come; it matched nothing from that room, nor any of the clothing of the staff or the patient. There was no sign of 'Sleeping Beauty'. He shook his head in bewilderment as he hurried out. "Crazy," muttered the doctor.
* * *
"Wh-where am I…?"
"Not in a burning hospital, is that enough for you?"
The eyes of Zack Fair opened for the first time in over a thousand mornings. He saw a dim room swimming before him, with a tall man standing on the opposite side of it. The man had a long red cloak draped over his shoulders, and was facing the wall.
"H-hospital?" Zack stuttered, trying to get his bearings.
"Yes. I removed you. I knew no one was going to bother with a patient that was unconscious for three years."
"Three years! Damn…that long?"
"It's not that long, in the grand scheme of things," said the man, still with his back to Zack.
"Who are you? And what's with the cape?"
The man turned towards him. "Vincent," he said, "that's all you need to know."
"Oookaay…" Zack replied, confusedly. "But, wait a minute, I don't remember any hospital. In fact the last thing I remember was…was…the Lifestream!" Zack's eyes widened; he looked down and scratched his head. "I was going into the Lifestream! How could I—"
"You fell out of it," said Vincent.
"You fell out, and right through my roof."
"Whoa…is that even possible?"
"When a body first enters the Lifestream, it becomes very unstable," Vincent explained. Sometimes it can take even a couple of years for it to be permanently absorbed."
"So you're saying I just fell out of the sky?"
"Even the Lifestream has its glitches. It's very rare, and no one talks about it because the person is still dead when they fall out, but it has happened."
"That's insane," muttered Zack. "But, it doesn't explain how I'm alive. Was it you who saved me?"
"I had a Phoenix Down kicking around, and I used it on you. Unfortunately with the extent of your injuries it only elevated you to a comatose state, so I just dropped you off at the hospital."
"Wow…Thanks, man!" exclaimed Zack. "But, I've got to ask…why bother? I mean, I wasn't exactly a high-ranking government official. I was just a dumb rebel as far as most people were concerned."
"Exactly," said Vincent. "I'd heard of you. My spies told me that you had a lot of potential. You were very skilled, you had pride, confidence. But you had enough heart to be more than a brainless Shinra puppet." He spoke as if reading from a scouting report.
"But somebody said all that about me? Wow," marveled Zack. "Okay, so where am I really?"
"You're in a house outside Midgar. You'll recuperate here until we figure out what to do with you."
" 'Midgar'? " Zack hadn't yet remembered everything leading up to his death. But the name did sound familiar. "'Midgar'…Midgar, right! Hey, do you know if a girl named Aeris Gainsborough still lives there?"
"Unfortunately, no…she's dead. Killed two years ago."
"What? No!" cried Zack, sitting bolt upright. The news hit his heart harder than any bullet had. "You can't be serio—you are, aren't you," he said, reading Vincent's face. Zack hung his head, grimacing. "And she was the only reason I was on my way here in the first place. Ugh…" he laid back on the thin pillow, his hands behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. "How?...Who?...Why?"
Vincent needed only one word. "Sephiroth," he said.
"Naturally," grumbled Zack. "That crazy son of a…of a…" he trailed off, starting to choke up. He sniffed and cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said, rubbing his nose with his finger, somewhat embarrassed.
Vincent sat down near the foot of the bed. "Your grief is understandable," he said. He stared into space, straight ahead, as if his head or his heart was somewhere else. He shook off his little trance and tried to change the subject. "So," he said, "what is the last thing you remember before the Lifestream?"
Zack furrowed his brow, squinted his eyes shut, put his arm over his face and tried to think. "Last thing I remember…hm," he said slowly. "Oh, I was talking to this…kid…Cloud I think his name was—yeah ." He took his arm off his face and looked up. "D'you know if he made it, at least?" His eyes almost pleaded with Vincent, like a scared little boy asking about a lost puppy. Vincent gave a nod, drawing a small exhale from Zack. "Is he still around here?" Zack asked out of curiosity.
"Yes. He delivers packages for a living now."
Zack choked on his words again, this time in laughter. "A delivery boy? Ha! Who'd have thought. Well I'm sure he wouldn't remember me…"
"To the contrary," Vincent replied calmly, "he remembers you well. He still feels guilty about what happened to you—and Aeris."
"Aw hell, it wasn't his faul—Aeris? What about her? Did he see her die too? Why didn't he do anything to sto—"
"He couldn't. The situation was entirely out of his control." Vincent could read the frustration on Zack's face. "Don't be too hard on him…he's recently been trying to forgive himself."
"Wait, how do you know about the situation? Were you there too?" Zack said, sitting up again and looking at him quizzically.
Vincent shook his head. "Cloud told me," he said. "I visited him one time. He got a little drunk, started telling me a couple of things. If a man pours enough alcohol down his throat he's likely to pour his heart out a little bit too."
"Hmph. Well put. So…if he felt guilty about me, and you knew I was alive, why didn't you just tell him?"
"He probably wouldn't have believed me. And it's not like he could have done anything to change your condition," Vincent answered.
"And if word got out, Shin-Ra probably would have sent someone—"
"—to finish me off," Zack finished. "Of course, that makes sense. I wouldn't put anything past them."
"Besides, I figured, why mess with Cloud's head any further?"
Zack once again leaned back with his hands behind his head, and said "Well, that's the difference between you and me, Vincent—"
"There's only one?"
"—I think messing with Cloud's head a bit would be fun." Zack smiled. "I think I've got an idea as to how we can let him in on our little secret, real subtle-like. Well, for the most part. But I'll need a little help from you…"
* * *
Tifa heard Cloud come in the bar door. "I'm back," he said. He flopped onto a stool. "Last delivery of the day."
"Hey, Cloud, somebody left this message for you," Tifa said, leaning over the bar and handing him a small envelope. "The kid said something about a special order. I was supposed to give it to you as soon as I saw you. Funny, people usually just call them in."
"Well here's why," said Cloud, waving the piece of paper. "It's an order for a phone. Apparently the guy who sent the kid placed the order in person at the store but when it's due to come in at the end of the week he's not going to be available to pick it up."
"Weird," said Tifa.
"Whatever. As long as they pay us," said Cloud. His eyes reached the bottom of the note. "Hey, it's from Vincent."
"Also weird," said Tifa. "I guess he never did get himself one—till now."
"I guess," Cloud echoed.
On the morning of the following Saturday, Cloud picked up the small package from the phone store and headed for Vincent's out-of-the-way dwelling on his motorcycle as planned. The rest of that day, Cloud Strife could never have planned at all.
* * *
Cloud pulled up in front of the house, dismounted and banged on the door.
"Just put it on the doorstep," called a voice from within. Cloud was puzzled, but did so, then stood next to his bike, waiting for the tip as usual. Then the door opened a crack, but all that he could see was a single hand reaching out and taking the phone into the house. He could hear the sound of the package being opened, then a few keys being pushed. This was all very strange. Not only was this an odd way for someone to receive a package—that voice most certainly did not belong to Vincent. It did sound familiar though. Cloud shook his head and tried to put the thought out of his mind. He sighed impatiently and continued waiting, arms folded.
Suddenly, Zack flung the door open so hard that it smashed into the outside wall and nearly fell off its hinges. "Cloud!" he cried joyfully. "Just the delivery boy I wanted to see! I wasn't gonna believe it till I saw it. Good to see ya, man." Cloud's jaw nearly hit the ground. He stumbled backward and slumped against his bike. He blinked, and blinked again. "Hold still, I gotta snap this," said Zack, holding up the phone. Almost triumphantly, he hit a button and took a photo, preserving Cloud's stunned, nearly terrified expression. He looked at the screen to admire the picture. "Oh, priceless! Ha ha ha!" He turned his head back towards the inside of the house. "Vincent, you gotta see this! No? Okay, well, um…permission to invite the delivery boy in?" He got a nod in reply, and turned back to Cloud. "Come on in, pal," Zack said.
Cloud wandered through the doorway, dazed. Zack closed the door behind him, and put the cell phone down on a nearby table. "I believe this is yours," he said to Vincent.
Vincent examined the phone. "Yes, this is what I ordered," he said. Cloud shook his head rapidly, trying to clear it.
"Okay, good…you got a tip for me, Vincent?"
"Right here," the customer replied, handing Cloud some cash.
Zack watched the exchange, smirking. "So businesslike," he said. Cloud looked up at him. "I'm proud of you, man. That phone is nice too," Zack added, picking it up and studying it. "Sleek-looking, and I already know the camera feature works pretty well. I might get one of these little babies mysel—what the hell are you doing?" He suddenly noticed Cloud pacing around the room, repeatedly smacking himself in the forehead.
"Hallucinating again," Cloud muttered to himself. "Tifa's gonna kill me. She was right—I am gonna get distracted and drive myself off a cliff one of these days."
"Yeah," said Cloud, stopping and looking up at Zack again. "she and I run the delivery service out of this bar called—why am I even talking to you? You're a figment of my imagination! Gaaah!" He clutched his head with both hands and tore at his hair.
"Funny name for a bar," Zack cracked. He looked Cloud in the eye with genuine concern. "Dude, is that mako poisoning still hitting you or what? Come on, it's me!"
Cloud shook his head again as he wandered toward the door. "See you later Vincent," he said. "I gotta go, I've got more deliveries to make..." But before he could leave, Zack side-stepped in front of him, blocking his path and filling the doorframe.
"And just where do you think you are going? You gotta say hello before you say goodbye, don't you?"
"Out of my way you crazy ghost," grumbled Cloud, trying to duck under Zack's arm that blocked the door.
"Ghost? Aw, that hurts, man," said Zack, folding his arms.
"I said I have more deliveries—" said Cloud, reaching for the door handle. Zack grabbed it first.
"Deliveries, huh? How 'bout I 'deliver' my fists to your stomach to show you I ain't no ghost?" He gave Cloud some friendly punches. "Am I real now? Huh? Huh?"
"Ow!" Cloud doubled over.
"Just don't return the favor, alright?" said Zack, patting his own abs. "You might remember, some guys made Swiss cheese out of my gut a while back—it's still a little tender."
Cloud staggered backward, still doubled over, wide-eyed, shaking his head. "Y-you—crazy son of a—" he stammered. Zack grinned. Cloud had backed all the way to the other side of the room; he slumped against the wall, letting his arms droop to his sides. "By Gaia," he said, staring. "It really is you, isn't it?"
"Finally!" cried Zack, raising his arms in mock celebration. He rushed over to Cloud, clamped his hand on top of his friend's head and shook it around hard, dizzying him. "We have penetrated the blond, spiky exterior and entered the brain!"
Zack let go of Cloud. "I just…can't believe it," said the frazzled delivery boy.
"Believe it, my man," his friend replied, putting his hands on his hips. "Zack Fair, former SOLDIER First Class, reporting for non-duty. Hey," he said, putting an arm over Cloud's shoulders, "Vincent here tells me you've got a lot of guilt going on the last couple years. Blaming yourself for what happened to me, Aeris, the works. And you're only now starting to forgive yourself? I thought you were going to live out my life as well as yours. Seems to me like you haven't been doing either one."
"I'm sorry if I failed you," Cloud said slowly.
"Aw hell, that's not the point! You've got to learn how to live, man! One guy can only take so much. Being alive is a good thing. I know—I've tried the alternative!"
Vincent rolled his eyes. "Are you finished?" he asked.
Zack turned to him. "To the contrary," he said mischievously, "I'm far from it."
"But, I still don't understand!" Cloud sputtered. "I mean, I—I watched you d-"
"Cloud?" Zack interrupted.
"Shut up." Zack was smiling. "Now, why don't you 'deliver' your butt to that chair." He gestured towards Vincent's beat-up furniture as he spoke. "We've got a lot of catching up to do." But before Cloud could move, an almighty crash was heard in the other room. The three men rushed in to investigate.
What they found was a huge hole in the ceiling, with pieces of the roof all over the floor. They surveyed the wreckage, slightly stunned. As the dust settled, they could see that there was a body lying on top of the debris. "What the…?" Zack turned to Vincent and said, "I thought you said this was rare!" Vincent shrugged a shoulder. Cloud shot a questioning look at Zack, who read his friend's face like a book. Of course Cloud did not yet know the details of Zack's grand re-entrance into the world. Zack smirked. "Later, pal," he said.
They all moved in for a closer look at the body. A board had fallen in such a way that it covered the person's face, so Zack kicked it aside. Then suddenly he froze, as did Cloud. They blinked, and blinked again. They stared at the body, then at each other.
It was the body of Aeris Gainsborough.