I have a long list of reasons why this chapter took so long. ::cough:: Between one friend becoming homeless and another having a death in the family, being overworked and then getting the flu ... but honestly, I'd just like to blame Cloud for being difficult. (Yes. Totally his fault I had so much trouble with certain scenes. Bleh.)

Enjoy...?

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Chapter Four

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He would have liked to ask Tseng about Tifa – whether the Turks knew she was in Midgar before or after Zack had run into her in the slums, and why they were leaving her alone – but that would mean acknowledging her presence openly and he wasn't sure that was a wise idea. But the thought kept turning in his head; Tseng had said no survivors, and while Zangan might have been able to smuggle Tifa from Nibelheim to Midgar without being spotted, the Turks had been watching the town and Tifa had been in the reactor.

He found it damn hard to believe that the Turks hadn't seen her being taken away. And maybe Tseng had turned a blind eye because he'd decided she wasn't a threat and too much killing had happened already, but …

You're the only survivor.

It was a lie, wasn't it? Tifa was alive.

Sort of.

Tseng would have his reasons. Chief among them was that Tifa was a complication, and talking about her with Zack in any of the places he'd been with Tseng since he returned – all highly public places within Shinra itself – wasn't really the brightest of ideas. And it wasn't rational to think that just because Tseng had lied about Tifa, he might also have lied about Cloud. What would be the point? Zack had seen Cloud's injuries for himself – worse than Tifa's, worse than his own, and he had real trouble believing Cloud would have staggered off the mountain on his own two feet.

But the thought was there, bouncing around in his mind and driving him half insane, half angry with himself because he knew it was a stupid thing to be thinking and Cloud had been dead for months, now. It was high time Zack dealt with that and got on with his life.

Knowing that didn't stop the dreams from returning. Nibelheim and Sephiroth and Cloud confronting a madman because Zack had told him to, and he woke up at night shivering with the vaguest of thoughts that maybe this was just how things were going to be from now on, and maybe he deserved the nightmares anyway. In the light of the day, it irritated him; self pity never solved anything.

Three and a half months after his return from Nibelheim, the staff counsellor smiled prettily at him and gave him the all clear to return to work for Shinra, pending a briefing with Heidegger when next the big man returned from Junon. Zack might have been a poor liar, but no one had ever accused him of lacking in the charm department.

The night after that, he dreamed of Hojo.

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The archive and administration facility of the Shinra Electric Power Company was located on the fifth floor, and in the hours before sunrise was shrouded in total darkness. The only light source was the soft glow of the overheads by the elevator bank, and even that didn't carry far.

He'd taken the stairs. Probably someone might check the cameras in the stairwell periodically, but given everything and everyone important was much higher up, he was pretty sure that the only security cameras actively manned were the ones in the elevators. It wasn't like he wasn't allowed to be here - hell, Zack lived in the damn building and had to deal with paperwork all the time – but coming down here at four in the morning was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows and he didn't really feel like answering questions about what he was doing right now.

And what am I doing, exactly?

He let himself into the filing rooms. Didn't bother with the overhead lights; he didn't really need them. The bank of computers on the far wall was still on, monitors a soft blue in the darkness, and there was more than enough light for his mako-heightened senses to pick up the lettered signs at the edge of each section. Shinra's administration department was vast – every shred of information from business deals to media clippings to project notes and invoicing, creditors, debtors, reactor reports …

Employees. Prospective, current, retired.

Deceased.

Making a total fool of myself, duh.

For the smaller print, he'd brought a penlight. Really, he didn't need to be here long; find a file, confirm its details, beat his head against the metal shelving for coming down here based on a dream of all things. Nightmares were nightmares, and the Nibelheim ones always ended badly for everyone involved. But Hojo had never been in them before. And he hadn't given a thought to the greasy scientist since long before Angeal's death, but …

"This boy here, hmm? How interesting."

He couldn't let it go. He wouldn't. Dream or otherwise. He had to make sure. Zack slipped into the employee records section, running his hands along the thin metal edge of the cabinets until he found what he was looking for in the dark: the archived records for those who no longer worked for Shinra. He fished the penlight out of his pocket and switched it on, and pulled the heavy metal drawer out as quietly as he could, light playing across the neatly labelled file tabs within.

After a few seconds, he frowned. Straker, Strick, Stride … Strohm. Zack yanked the drawer out fully, ignoring the screeching protest of the cabinet, and flicked through the files one by one. Then again. Then he shoved it shut and crossed the aisle to the C cabinet, searching it thoroughly just in case.

You're kidding me.

Frustration grew. He checked in current employee files just in case some idiot secretary had misfiled Cloud's records, and blinked as he came up empty again.

The hell…?

This was stupid. He'd come down here to check for himself that Cloud was actually dead - KIA, the file would say, and he had no idea what it would actually say if Cloud wasn't dead, but at least the finality of it would have maybe given him some closure and shaken off the uneasy feeling the dream had left him with. Finding the entire employee record was missing was something else. What was that meant to mean?

Nothing. It means nothing. Or …it means Cloud's file is sitting on a desk somewhere with mine and Seph's on top of it while Nibelheim is being investigated.

That made sense. Only Nibelheim had been nearly four months ago now, and if Zack had been given the all clear to return to work then didn't that mean that their investigations were over? He scowled in the darkness and slammed the last file drawer shut. He could check to see if his own records were filed, but it would be hard to confirm now - SOLDIER files were all up in the Director's office.

Then he jumped as the overhead lights flared to life and nearly blinded him, and he fought the urge to duck down behind the filing drawers. Instead, Zack lifted his head and blinked owlishly at the person standing in the doorway until his vision adjusted to the brightness.

Dark suit, ponytail …check. He relaxed. "Hey, Tseng."

Tseng raised an eyebrow. "It's four thirty, Zack."

"Really?" Zack smiled cheerfully. "Aren't you here a little early, then?"

"What are you doing here?"

Apparently, Tseng wasn't in the mood to joke around. He shrugged, the picture of innocence. "Catching up on my filing."

"At four thirty in the morning."

"You said that already."

"I'll say it again. Zack…" Tseng frowned at him, arms folding. "Don't you think coming down here on your first day back to skulk around in the dark is a little suspicious?"

"I was not skulking."

"You certainly weren't," the Turk agreed blandly. "For someone who tried so hard to sneak in here, I might recommend you don't slam the drawers next time."

Ouch. Fail. Zack gave him a sheepish look. "Well, I'm not breaking any rules being here. Kinda live a few floors up, an' all."

"More than a few."

Tseng stared at him, long enough that Zack shifted on his feet. He wondered, suddenly, what Tseng was doing here this early, and leaned against a cabinet, drumming his fingers on the top of the metal. The answer was pretty obvious.

"You guys still following me?"

Tseng's stare turned amused. "I'm surprised you think I would tell you."

"Huh."

"Go home, Zack."

Zack sucked in a breath. The easiest way was to just ask, wasn't it? "Hey… Tseng?"

Tseng sighed, turning to leave. "Not now, Zack. Go--"

"Was Hojo in Nibelheim?"

The small hitch in Tseng's step was enough that his breath caught. Zack's fingers stilled on the cabinet, eyes narrowed as the Turk stepped back into the room and let the door slide shut behind him. It was the only answer he needed. He swallowed; recalled Hojo staring at him. And then at Cloud, and what he'd said, and—

Cloud had been on a stretcher.

Not a dream.

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There were brighter places in the darkness, now. He clung to them. Too many days wrapped in fog that left him dizzy and weak and lost, but the pain would always pull him back. When it did, they'd hurt him again; cold, pricking needles that made him flinch before he sank back into the dark, and while the searing along his nerves and the endless white lights terrified him, the thought that they wouldn't let him wake up – no control at all – was more terrifying by far.

He had no idea how long he'd been here.

For now, he was cold. There was a thin blanket tucked loosely over his shoulders and it wasn't enough, but he didn't dare reach out to gather it close. Cloud lay there exactly as they'd left him, eyes closed against the light, and took what comfort he could from the fact that he was aware for the first time without Hojo being there. Waking up to Hojo meant the table, and straps that bruised his skin with their tightness and more tests, and his memory always ended on the hypodermics that slid into his arm and sent a river of fire through his veins. He remembered being very sick for a while – waking on the sensation of his stomach heaving and cool hands gripping his chin, and the fire going through him too fast, pulse hammering in his ears as calm voices issued instructions he never could make sense of…

Vague recollections. Maybe it hadn't happened. He was sick now, though. At least, he thought he was. The pain had faded to a prickling ache in his joints, but he shivered under the blanket and his face felt too hot, and he heard more than he thought he should. Footsteps echoing somewhere; the hum of the machinery in the lab. A tap dripping. Other sounds more distant and blurring together enough that he felt dizzy just trying to distinguish between them. He tried to shut them out – focused on the sound of his own breathing. Soft and steady enough.

Cloud drifted back to sleep.

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He woke up again to the sound of voices. The darkness tried to pull him straight back down, but one of the voices was Hojo so he fought, stubbornly clinging to awareness. There were no restraints this time; he could barely move anyway, limbs leaden and useless and his senses packed in cotton, so maybe he'd been drugged again. It took him a long time to realise a hand was supporting his arm, cold fingers pressed to his wrist. Even longer for the words to make any sense.

"--still in Midgar. It's a pity. He's adapting beyond my expectations. Recovery this time is nearly a third again what it was for session eight. The fever has receded entirely."

"Is that normal?"

"Hn. It's not unheard of. Merely ahead of schedule. Contact Doctor Grey and tell her to cut her visit short. Her assistance is required. Once she arrives, we'll proceed with the comparison testing."

"Yes, Professor."

Cold made a damp trail along his arm that tickled softly into the crease of his elbow, and Cloud struggled to remember why that was important. Then something tightened on his arm and he felt the prick of a needle. Hazy and far away, he felt a small flare of fear - but there was no pain that followed. He barely registered Hojo withdrawing the needle long moments later, or the muttering afterward.

"Have this tested for compatibility. The sedative shouldn't interfere with that, at least. We'll do the rest before session ten." A pause. "Therapeutic blood levels, also. If his recovery rate is accelerating, it may interfere with the sedative. We will need to adjust accordingly."

"Is it really necessary?"

The other voice sounded sympathetic. The faint warmth brought him strangely close to tears. He fought those back, too. Always fighting it. He couldn't cry now. Not when Hojo was in the room.

"He's just a kid. How dangerous can--"

"Don't be an imbecile," Hojo said mildly, a bony hand drifting across Cloud's hair to smooth it back from his face. There was nothing comforting about it at all; nothing like Zack's friendly ruffling or even the rougher, playful mussing from his earlier days at Shinra. Hojo's touch was a mark of ownership. "The mako brings certain changes, as you are no doubt fully aware. If you are not, you have no place here."

"Yes, Professor." Dutiful and immediate.

"Very good."

They were gone, then – between one breath and the next, and he hadn't heard them leave, but he knew they weren't in the room any more. He wondered how he hadn't noticed. It didn't matter. Hojo was no longer staring at him, and the faint sense of urgency that had clung to him since hearing his voice was starting to fade. The darkness was back, pushing him down with a persistence he couldn't fight.

Don't fall asleep.

Don't—

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"What does mako feel like?"

Natural as air; the question was out before he could stop to think why he'd asked, and Zack gave him a funny look as he picked a sliver of glass out of his hair.

"Why you wanna know something like that?"

Cloud shrugged. "Well … if I make it, I'll have to have the shots."

"Huh. Good point." His friend considered, then gave him a cheerful smile. "Green."

"It feels green?"

"Would I lie to you?"

He frowned. There was something off about the way Zack was staring at him, head tilted to the side as he fished another piece of glass out of that spiky black hair. Cloud shifted on the metal stairs and reached out to grip the rail, then nearly lost his balance as his hand slid along slick dampness. Zack reached out to steady him. Cold hands. He shivered.

"Don't trip," Zack said, ruffling his hair. "There's blood on the stairs."

He shied away from that. His hands were cold now, icy against the guard rail. He wiped them on his uniform and looked at Zack awkwardly. "You did lie."

"When?"

"You went home." Without me. He pushed Zack away from him and made his way down the stairs – carefully, because Zack was right about the blood and his feet kept threatening to slide out from under him, but it didn't matter because the blood was Zack's. Cloud was fine. There was a huddle at the foot of the stairs, hidden in the shadow of the pods, and that was where he was meant to go, wasn't it?

"Technically speaking, Cloud, that's not a lie," Zack said from behind him. He heard the sound of glass striking metal, setting off a fragile, strange sound that echoed through the reactor. "People tend to go home. It's natural, you know?"

But that isn't what you lied about. He hesitated on the bottom step, because something wasn't right. The girl on the ground was familiar, but she was just like Zack; blood-streaked limbs splayed on the ground with the sword through her chest pinning her in place. The rich brown tangle of her hair was matted against her face. Cloud's eyes widened, and he took the last step down to sink to his knees and smooth her hair away. He'd done that before. Only—

"This isn't right," he muttered. "Why is she dead?"

"That one's easy," a voice said lightly on the stairs above him. "Too late, weren't you?"

He flinched, twisting to stare at Zack. "I wasn't! She was fine!"

"Was she?" Zack lifted an eyebrow. "You're the one who thinks she's dead."

Cloud was mesmerised by the darkness seeping along his hairline; knew what it was even in the dim light, because Zack had glass in his hair and the stairs were already stained red. Which didn't make any sense, because it was backwards. Why was there so much blood here? He didn't remember it before. The rails have it too, he thought, and looked down at his hands, expecting to see crimson smeared along the palms and down the sides of his uniform.

But his hands weren't red. They were black.

"Best to wipe that off," Zack advised. "You don't want an infection. Oh, too late."

He shivered and wiped his hands again, eyes flicking to the rails. Like grease, only thinner; dripping to mingle with the blood that seeped off the stairs and splashing softly below. His hands were freezing. Cloud bit his lip, edging back toward the girl (Tifa, his mind finally supplied, and he wondered how he could ever forget) when he caught sight of the sword. Black ice dribbled down the sharp edge from the hilt. He reached out before he thought and took hold of it, cringing at the sound it made when he pulled it free. He wouldn't let it touch her. She'd get cold.

But she's dead. And Zack was meant to be too, only he was famous now. Maybe you weren't allowed to be dead and famous at the same time. He was pretty sure you couldn't be dead and cold at the same time—

"Should you really be touching his sword?"

Cloud glanced up. Zack was frowning at him, and he had to look away from the sight of the darker blood trickling down the side of his face. "He doesn't need it," he said flatly.

"So sure about that?"

There was a loud, echoing bang at the top of the stairs, something hard striking the metal of the door, and Cloud jumped, swinging the sword around to guard. Twice as long as the practice swords, and infantrymen weren't trained to use a blade – a rifle, a baton, basic self defence, but never that. Sharp edges were reserved for SOLDIERs. All the better to cut themselves with. His fingers stung on the hilt, but he didn't dare look down at them.

Zack had helped him practice. Late in the training hall after his shifts were over, readjusting Cloud's grip and stance over and over until he got it right, until it was natural. Cloud swallowed. Looked at his friend as the noise sounded again, the metal door buckling under the force of whatever was behind it.

"I trust you, Zack," he said softly.

Zack grinned. "You shouldn't. I have glass in my hair."

The door swung open.

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He was screaming.

Blinding light. Warmth that scratched at him, hands pushing against restraint as fine and flimsy as wool, but it still held him down and tangled around his limbs and he fought it, skin frozen and hair clinging to his cheeks and the back of his neck. His fingers burned. So did his face, and he scrubbed at it in panic, fingers dragging down the pain as he tried to get it off him—

Then there were hands, and the light went away, flickering between patches of shadow. His wrists were dragged away from his face and weight settled on his legs with bruising force, and he wailed, thrashing in their grip. There was a cry of surprise as he yanked his right arm away, and then his wrist was snatched back again. More hands on his arms pinning him down.

"—was he trying to do?"

"Probably hallucinating. It's nothing."

"But his—"

"It's expected. Leave it, and make yourself useful. Hand me that—"

Pain, pinprick, ice in his veins. Something glittered in the shadow, a curve of glass, and he sobbed as he tried to free himself. Glass wasn't safe, was it?Then the curve of light shifted and he caught sight of a smile, thin-lipped and cold, and he shut his eyes.

Then the sound went away, so he followed it.

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--trust you, Zack.

Warmth of a different kind, and it felt …nice. The hot water soaked through his hair and splashed down across his shoulders – much warmer than the blanket, and Cloud drifted comfortably under the sensation of fingers carding through his wet spikes. The light wasn't bright anymore, and the only sounds he could hear were the echo of water in his ears and a tuneless whistling. Nothing overwhelming. He relaxed, sinking down into a light doze.

It was only when the water began to sting, sliding down his cheek with a faint burning sensation, that he came fully awake.

For a moment, he just held himself still under the spray as he tried to get his bearings. He still felt too heavy, and more than a little lightheaded. Not lying down, not strapped to a table; sitting, propped up against smooth tiles. A shower, maybe. It finally occurred to him someone was washing his hair. It didn't make any sense at all.

Maybe Hojo was done with him, and he was in a hospital somewhere.

His breath hitched. Maybe he'd been rescued. Zack had come back for him, or maybe someone from Shinra had come down and said there'd been a huge mistake, or Hojo had been arrested for – for kidnapping. Which nearly made him laugh, and he stopped himself just in time– there was someone else here with him, he was sure it was no one he knew, and new instincts told him to keep as still and quiet as possible, because he had a feeling he wasn't meant to be awake.

Maybe he'd had plenty of these in the past and had just slept through them. The idea of it made him shiver under the hot water. Made sense, and he didn't want it to. How long had he been here? Weeks? Months? Barely awake, unless Hojo had him on the table. It had never occurred to him to wonder what else was going on while he slept. And he slept so much...

On the other hand, he was surprisingly awake now.

The water tapered off suddenly, and he nearly jumped as a towel draped over his shoulders, and the tuneless whistling stopped. Then strong arms caught hold of him and hoisted him efficiently out of the alcove. He risked opening his eyes a fraction, hidden behind a curtain of wet hair, and caught a blur of stained white tile whirling past before he was deposited on a chair, where Cloud found himself staring hazily at a pair of white shoes before they turned and walked away from him. Surreal.

"I'm sure that feels better, kiddo." The man's voice seemed vaguely familiar, though he couldn't place it. Friendly enough, even if the tone was condescending, and for a moment Cloud panicked as he realised that had been addressed to him. "I'll dry you off in a minute, but I'm just getting something for your face. Don't want that getting infected."

Oh, too late.

He fought down the laughter that threatened to bubble up again – more than a little hysterical – and tried to relax. The man was walking away from him, opening a cupboard in the room. Talking to himself, apparently, and Cloud relaxed. His gaze slid to the back of the man's knees – pants also white – and then further up to the baton hooked at his waist.

Cloud blinked. Watched through his hair and kept entirely still as the shoes turned and approached him again. But he wasn't prepared for the gloved hand that caught his chin and lifted his face to the light, the other hand brushing hair away from his face, and then he was staring into the surprised face of the guard. Cloud froze. For just a moment.

Then he moved.

Grey eyes widened as they met his, and the guard jerked back from him, his face more curious than shocked. "You're–"

Cloud's hands closed around the baton.

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I'll try not to have such a delay this time. And I got some really lovely reviews for the last chapter! Just wanted to say thank you. I tend to grin like an idiot every time I get one. (This is not a pretty sight...)