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Continued from first post.


---

Cloud woke up in the middle of the night sick to his stomach. He managed to get into the bathroom before vomiting. His throat burned as his body expelled more than the food consumed some hours earlier. His ears rang with the angry cries of his inner voice. He continued to retch as the screams clawed their way through his body, tearing through his veins and ripping him apart from the inside out.

Distantly he heard Zack's familiar voice. Cloud opened his eyes but the bathroom light had been turned on and pierced his eyes. He still felt horribly queasy though his dry-heaving had reduced to harsh, panting breaths. The screams began to retreat, freeing his ears to listen to the rough pounding of his blood.

"Shit! What the hell is going on?" Zack's words started to clear as Cloud became more aware of his surroundings. His roommate had leaned him back and cradled him against a strong chest. As Cloud's pulse steadied he could feel the worried beat of his friend's heart against his back.

Sorry. Sorry... didn't mean to scare you. I don't know what's happening.

"Fuck. Fuck, are you alright?" Zack wiped a wet cloth over Cloud's face, focusing in particular around the blonde's mouth and chin.

Cloud grimaced. Disgusting. What was that? I didn't even eat much. I had the same things you did, you're not sick. What's wrong with me? He hated that a whimper escaped into the air.

Zack made a comforting noise and gently stroked Cloud's hair. After a few minutes he tried opening his eyes again. Zack met his gaze worriedly, concern etched in tension lines.

"Shit, man, you're scaring the hell out of me! Do you have any idea what brought this on?" His fingers continued to stroke Cloud's hair in a comforting gesture.

The blond groaned pitifully. I don't know! I wish I knew, I wish I could tell you.

"Doing a little better yet? I don't know what to do for you... We'd better get you to the infirmary."

Cloud tensed as he stared pleadingly at his friend. No! They'll know! Hojo will know and he'll keep me away! I don't want to go back! Please, Zack. Please, just let me stay here...

Zack's eyes widened, shock overcoming his concern. "Cloud...?" he whispered. "Did you just— Wait. Why don't you want to see the medic?"

Frustrated, Cloud tightened his fingers into fists. Why did Zack have to ask when he couldn't explain? I like it here. Can't you tell I never had anything like this? Don't give him an excuse to take me away.

"Cloud." Zack helped the blond into a more upright position and gripped his shoulders. Keeping their gazes locked, he said, "Whatever you're doing, I can hear you." Stunned, the blond stared numbly at his friend. "Try saying... whatever the hell you did, try it again!"

I... I can't talk, I know I can't. How can you hear me? Hojo can't fix it, he's trying, but She says it won't work. She won't let me. I can't talk to you! I can't say anything or She'll— We can't tell. Don't tell.

Zack opened and closed his mouth noiselessly. He shook his head, confusion, astonishment, and worry running across his face in quick succession. "Holy crap. I can hear you, man!" He burst into a grin. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but we'll figure it out."

---

Sephiroth sat in the shower after he'd finished vomiting. His body ached and his ears still echoed back the angry cries of his inner demons. He closed his eyes and let the hot water plaster his long hair to his body. Hojo must be fucking with something again. His gut twisted with a fear he rarely could bring himself to admit. What amount of control did the scientist wield over his "creations?" Something lurked within him, sharing his skin, and he wondered if that thing would one day take control.

---

They had to have eye contact for it to work. Distance didn't matter, really, but they had to maintain the eye contact. Blinking didn't affect the connection, pausing Cloud's words only as a breath would. When alone, they rarely broke gazes, the novelty of actually communicating sans technology not even close to wearing off.

"Have you tried seeing if this works with anyone else?" Zack asked one morning.

Cloud sighed. With some of the Turks, but no one reacted.

Zack pondered that during the day. When they met up again after dinner, he suggested, "Maybe you should try with someone who's had to go through some of Hojo's procedures." Startled, Cloud cast him a questioning look. "Well... SOLDIERs are specially-enhanced. We don't exactly have to go into the labs all the time, but unfortunately I have been under the Creep's needle. Maybe there's some connection that helps this, er, whatever it is."

Who are you thinking about? Cloud asked suspiciously.

Barely holding back a smirk, Zack said, "Sephiroth."

Cloud looked down at his hands, fingers twisting together as he gathered his thoughts before answering his friend. He had the feeling that Zack was digging for information; he must know that Cloud felt something for the General.

"Whaddya say, man?" Zack touched his shoulder and Cloud met his stare.

If you think so. I can try. Would he want to? Hell, he was nervous. He wasn't convinced this would be a good idea. Zack looked hopeful, though, and clearly wanted to help. Taking a deep breath, Cloud nodded his agreement.

"Great! Want me to talk to him first?"

And say what?

Zack shrugged, a good-natured grin in place. "Who knows? Don't worry about it, I'll think of something when I see him."

Cloud told himself to leave Zack to it and trust him. After all, he didn't have many other options.

---

"Shit. You can't be the same twerp that I pulled out of the lab." Reno scowled at the shock-stick casually held at Cloud's side.

From the doorway Tseng chuckled. "I never figured you for a teacher, Reno, but it appears you have some ability to pass on your knowledge."

The redhead rolled his eyes. "Ain't all me. That fuck Hojo pumped Spike full of crap, I'm sure of it."

Cloud shrugged agreeably. Beneath the bluster he could tell Reno felt some pride that his student could nearly beat him with his own weapon of choice. The redhead's frequent references to Hojo and experiments were uncomfortable, but after weeks of exposure to such, it bothered Cloud less and less.

Tseng walked into the room and nodded in approval at Cloud. "I'm impressed by the improved skills of you both. I hadn't thought we'd come to a point where my team would find themselves challenged." He ignored Reno's snort of annoyance. "I'd like to see you in the field against non-domesticated monsters."

Eyebrows raised, Cloud stared at Tseng in disbelief. Outside? Can you really get me out? But Hojo would never allow it.

Tseng's eyes narrowed momentarily, a flicker of something passing too quickly in his gaze for Cloud to understand. "I am currently working on the details," he said. His gaze ran over Cloud for a few moments before he turned away.

"Another two hours. Elena will be joining you as well."

After his boss had left, Reno made a face. "That kid 's worse than you," he confided. "At least you don't chatter on and forget how to shut up." He crooked an almost apologetic smile. "Then again it wouldn't be a bad thing to not have to read your damn mind." Cloud fully agreed. "Right. We're goin' again and I'll be damned if I let you win."

---

Zack met him at the elevator, pushing the blonde back in and hitting the button for another floor. "How'd it go?" He bounced on the balls of his feet, excitement clearly rushing through his system.

Knowing that the question was hardly what Zack cared about at the moment, Cloud answered briefly; I almost beat Reno a couple times, and I disarmed him once. Tseng wants to get me out to fight monsters in the area.

"Great!" Zack clapped the blonde's shoulder. "If we get you outta here, I'm coming with to watch your back. The Turks might seem to actually like you, but I still don't trust ‘em."

Zack. Where are we going? Cloud smiled at his friend's energy.

With a grin and a glance at the elevator panel Zack announced, "Here we are!" The car came to a stop right on cue and the doors opened. Zack slung an arm around Cloud's shoulders and led him down the hall. "We're here to visit Mister Anti-Social and see if you have a… ah, special connection." Cloud glared at him sidelong. Zack happily ignored it and kept up a brisk pace.

---

The apartment was decorated sparsely but personalized. ShinRa's standardized furniture made no appearance, from what Cloud could see. He looked anywhere and at anything other than Sephiroth as Zack attempted to explain their intrusion.

"...So I'm thinking it might have something to do with infusion of mako, you know? Could you try and see if you can hear him, too? It's gotta suck not being able to tell anyone straight out what you want to. And maybe you could help us figure out a way to help him out?" Zack glanced over at Cloud with a small smile. "Please, Seph? We could so use your input about now."

The white-haired General looked Cloud over with a calculating gaze. The blonde swallowed hard and forced himself not to lower his eyes. It took a moment, but Sephiroth eventually met his stare. For long seconds the blond couldn't think of anything at all. Then in a rush everything spilled over, a cacophony of sound in his own mind— and apparently to the SOLDIER as well; Sephiroth winced and took half a step back.

Eyes wide in amazement, Cloud scrambled to temper his thoughts and attempt coherency. I'm sorry.

Sephiroth frowned and exchanged a glance with Zack.

"Do you know why you can't speak?"

Cloud licked his lips nervously. My... vocal cords are damaged. He could feel Her lurking inside, ready to strike if he attempted to say too much.

"But you weren't always mute."

No, the blond responded.

"Hojo," Sephiroth sneered, disgust twisting his features.

Zack broke in. "Yeah. That's kind of why I'm wondering if you might be able to figure this out, find a way to reverse it. Materia wouldn't cut it, right?"

Sephiroth shook his head, eyes still locked on Cloud. "No, it's just as likely that could worsen the situation, especially when we don't know exactly what procedure did this." He paused, a flicker of suspicion passing through his eyes. "What happened prior losing your voice?"

Heart beating wildly, Cloud looked away, nervously wondering what he could say. I can't say anything, he thought. He didn't know what She would decide to punish.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Zack gripped the blonde's shoulders. "Look at me, huh?"

Reluctantly Cloud obeyed. I don't know what I can say, he admitted.

Zack frowned and glanced back at Sephiroth to relay the message. The General thought it over for a few moments, narrowed eyes studying Cloud for some other evidence of Hojo's manipulations.

"It's possible the bastard attempted a ‘failsafe' procedure." His moue of distaste stated what he thought of that. "In such a process it's possible that's how the ability to speak was lost."

"Shit. You're talking some sort of programming? Fuck him." Zack's horrified gaze switched between his two friends. His fingers tightened at Cloud's shoulder. "Cloud, we're going to take care of this, okay?"

The blond was glad that his friend didn't see Sephiroth's grim expression.

---

Sephiroth appeared at least once a day during Cloud's training in the following week. At first the blond was unnerved and his nervousness affected his performance, much to Tseng's annoyance and Reno's amusement. When they were alone, or close enough for Reno to whisper, the redhead teased Cloud mercilessly with some rather accurate accusations.

No word came about venturing outside the ShinRa Tower.

---

Sephiroth led him without a word to the elevator. He scanned his card and pressed the button for an upper level floor. Cloud glanced at his companion curiously but only received the smallest smile in return. His heart fluttered at the small acknowledgement.

"Come," Sephiroth beckoned when they'd arrived. He passed through a door marked "restricted" on the right side of the hall. Cloud hurried to catch up as the taller man's pace increased.

The hall ended with a set of frosted glass doors. The blond entered but wasn't prepared for the long strips of plastic that hit him in the face. Blinking in surprise, he held up his arms to ward off the other strips as he pressed forward. He bumped into Sephiroth's back as he cleared the entrance. The General huffed a quiet laugh, much to the blonde's surprise, and turned to help steady Cloud.

"Well?"

What? Cloud moved his gaze to take in the... was it really a room? A brilliant palette of color greeted him. Bushes, trees, flowers... some varieties he recognized from research lay before him as well as an endless number of plants he couldn't have imagined. Stunned, he looked up at Sephiroth and shook his head. What is this place? We're not outside, right? We're too high!

"This is one of the greenhouses. Few plants can survive at Midgar's ground level due to lack of sun and the extent of pollution." Sephiroth stared at the garden before them. "Even the technologically obsessed need an escape to some semblance of nature on occasion. Seeing as you've yet to be cleared for off-site training..." he trailed off with a frown. Slightly narrowed green eyes focused on the blonde. "It's unclear why getting you clearance is proving so difficult."

The blonde shrugged, honestly unaware of possible complications. The large flower of a hibiscus plant caught his eye and he dashed forward in excitement. With a wide grin he leaned forward to pick out its scent from all the others permeating the air around him.


Sephiroth placed a broad hand at the small of Cloud's back and gently guided him off the paved path. He shook his head at the question in the blonde's gaze and led the way through a tree's low-hanging branches. Sephiroth paused to let Cloud take the first step into a section of the garden tucked away from view. Half of the space was bordered by the rock formation used for the waterfall in the main area. Tucked away between the greenery a service door was barely noticeable. A cabinet stood nearby to cover the various control panels used to monitor the greenhouse.

Even though the area hadn't been cultivated for display along the public paths, flowers found their way through the lush leaves and lent the clearing a more natural beauty. Cloud happily examined the species he hadn't already seen and delighted when a small butterfly flew from the flower he'd lifted up to expect. Sephiroth watched the blond with a mix of awe and unease. In many ways Cloud reminded him of a child with the intensity of wonder he approached many simple things.

---

Sephiroth's musings broke off as Cloud turned around to look up at him with a smile. I've wanted to meet you a long time, he admitted, struggling not to lower his gaze.

"I expect I seem more interesting from a distance," Sephiroth said with a smirk.

No, it wasn't like that. You were so close and I just... I never had the opportunity. Not until recently. Too late Cloud realized he'd backed himself into a corner. He looked away quickly so the general couldn't read his thoughts.

"You were watching me." The flat tone made Cloud wince. "Where?"

In the lab, Cloud said, bracing himself for whatever reaction followed.

"You worked for Hojo."

Cloud gasped as Sephiroth's lip drew up in a sneer and his eyes froze. Desperately Cloud reached out a hand to keep Sephiroth from physically turning away. No, I could never work for him. I wasn't there because I wanted to be. He squeezed his eyes shut, cutting off their connection so that he didn't reveal his origins. Not only did he doubt She would let him say anything about his life "before," he feared the reactions from his new friends.

Warm fingertips brushed across Cloud's cheek. The blond leaned into the touch but refused to open his eyes, too many thoughts still going through his mind.

"You didn't have a choice. I understand," Sephiroth said quietly. "I'm sorry. This wouldn't have been the first time the bastard tried to get to me through— Nevermind."

The blond opened his eyes at that and was startled to find the green gaze evading his. He waited, wondering at the change of expression he had seen before but never so clearly.

Look at me. It's in his eyes, I could figure it out if he just—

Cloud had only an instant to stare into Sephiroth's intense gaze, a moment to glimpse something he'd lost hope of finding. Then lips pressed against his mouth and hands on his back guided him forward to press against the General's body. A kiss. A kiss? Stunned, the blonde tried to remember how the characters in Zack's shows acted when this happened. It was so much more awkward in real life than what it had looked like on-screen. He didn't know where to put his hands and wasn't sure how much pressure he should offer in return to the mouth pressing his.

He panicked when he felt Sephiroth pulling back. Cloud wrapped his arms around the other man and earnestly parted his lips in a sound of distress; he didn't dare pull back to meet gazes and attempt words. Apparently he'd done the right thing. One of Sephiroth's hands moved to cup the back of his head and he tilted his head, changing the angle of their kiss. Between the blonde's lips passed the slick length of Sephiroth's tongue. Cloud groaned as the tongue stroked the roof of his mouth and tangled with his own.

Their bodies pressed close enough that he couldn't ignore the definite changes at groin level. Reality invaded rapidly, its progress marked by the tensing of his body. Sephiroth's hand stroked the blonde's back and he gentled the kiss, tongue stroking lightly over Cloud's lips. The blonde whimpered, scared and exhilarated by the overwhelming sensations.



"This is all new to you," Sephiroth said, surprise affecting his tone. He propped himself up on his forearms. He searched the blonde's eyes staring up at him. "I..." The General frowned slightly, the apology clear in his eyes but the words uncertainly locked in his throat.

Cloud touched Sephiroth's cheek with his fingertips. His body continued to thrum even in the aftermath of his pleasure. I wanted to be with you. I didn't know what—but it would be you, I knew it. Disliking the frown still marking the other's expression, Cloud bravely levered himself up to wrap his arms around Sephiroth's neck and pressed their lips together. He mimicked Sephiroth's earlier actions by nibbling the other man's lips and received an approving hum in return.

You. Always you. Cloud closed his eyes and tried to move closer. He could feel Her lurking in the back of his mind, her cold fingers crawling down his spine and pricking his senses in warning.

"You're running out of time, Little Bird. I wonder if he would like you so much were I to take you? I doubt he would even recognize you."

Her cruel laughter made him shiver. Sephiroth made a small questioning noise. Cloud shook his head, refusing to pull back. The General relented and wrapped the blonde closer in his embrace, thinking that perhaps Cloud had merely felt chill for a moment.

---

"Cloud... Is it alright I come along?" Zack's frown made the blond nervous.

I don't mind. Cloud watched his friend as they entered the hall together. What's going on?

Zack looked away, expression tight. "I don't know. There's just... You ever get the feeling something's wrong? Well, that's what I've got going. I feel like I'm going to flip out if you disappear for more than a minute or two." He gripped Cloud's shoulder and pulled him to a stop. The blond stared into the worried gaze. "I wish I could get you out of here. I'm sorry I haven't been able to help you."

I never imagined the help you've already given me. Zack, I don't think there's any way I could return all you've given me.

A small smile followed the huff of disbelief. "If you want to try and pay me back, start by sticking around. And as soon as we get out of this gods-forsaken Tower, you gotta meet my girl." His smile turned into a full-blown grin. Cloud found it easier to breathe as his friend's expression transformed with joy. "I think I want to marry her, y'know? I'd take her near the ocean, someplace with sunlight and nature and a garden. You know she somehow managed a garden under the Plate? She's got a gift."

Cloud grinned and let Zack ramble, it provided good distraction for them both as they approached the laboratory level.

---

Zack couldn't get past the second security checkpoint. For a long moment they stared at each other in silence. Cloud could see the tension in Zack's shoulders. If even his friend could sense something, Cloud couldn't ignore his own anxieties.

Scowling at the guards blocking his path and the lab technician tapping his foot impatiently, Zack said, "I'll be out here waiting for you."

"It's an overnight observation, sir," the technician told Zack calmly. "He'll see you when we're finished. We don't need you getting in the way."

Cloud's nervousness went up another notch. He turned wide eyes on Zack pleadingly, praying his friend actually had a plan worked out – maybe something desperate, but useable all the same. The gaze that stared back at him was dark with apology and worry. Cloud swallowed a groan of disappointment.

I'll be alright, he said, lacking any modicum of conviction. As he turned away he saw Zack flinch at the falsehood. I'm sorry I couldn't lie, he thought. As soon as the tech saw him moving, he'd started a quick pace down the hall. Right. Hurry up, let's finish and get out of here.

Before he passed through a door leading to the hallway branching off into the special exam rooms, Cloud looked back. Zack's stare followed him. At the base of his skull Cloud felt the icy prick of Her. He shuddered as his vision blurred.

Moments later he found himself stumbling down the hall, led by the lab tech's solid grip on his wrist. He could see the discoloration of his skin from the tight hold but couldn't feel it. The ache of his head consumed all sensation. The sounds of the lab were muffled by the vibrating thu-thump of his heart pounding loudly.

"Specimen (C), running late again, I see. This won't do at all. We have a strict schedule to keep today." Cloud's gaze caught the shine of bright lamplight reflecting off of highly polished and sterilized equipment set out in trays on the room's countertop. Dread curled tightly in his gut. He barely managed to hold back a whimper. The lab tech had to yank on his arm with both hands to get him fully into the room. "Lay him down and give the paralysis injection," Hojo muttered, waving a careless hand at the applicator closest to the countertop's edge. "Remember, not the neck this time. I need the ability to hear when we're making progress."

"Yes, sir." The technician managed to push Cloud into the mechanical chair mostly due to the fact that the blond had gone numb with fear at the scientist's words. The sharp sting of the injections dispersed quickly along his limbs, leaving him no option but to track the men's movements and await whatever nightmare was about to begin.

---

Sephiroth opened the door with a nasty scowl, a headache doing nothing to improve his stressed mood. When he saw Zack fidgeting in the hall, the scowl dropped and his anxiety skyrocketed.

"What happened? How is he?" The General yanked his friend into the apartment and demanded, "Did you leave him alone?"

Grimacing, Zack said, "I went down with him yesterday. They cut me off pretty quick and then dropped the news that it was a damn overnight observation." His fists clenched tightly at his sides, and Sephiroth thought he was imagining squeezing the necks of Hojo and the other scientists. "I've been there all day, man! No one's saying anything except that I need to leave and not concern myself with their business."

Sephiroth turned and walked toward the windows, pensively staring down at the city below brightening with lights as the sun set. Trips to Hojo's labs were never good, but prolonged stays or overnight studies were rare and often the worst. What did he do to Cloud? Why is this a special case?

All too familiar with Hojo's horrific repertoire of procedures, Sephiroth's mind filled with any number of nightmarish scenarios. Despite the seeming absence of reason in Hojo's actions, Sephiroth knew the scientist followed meticulous plans and his own set of twisted logic. To an extent he'd pieced together the whys of his own treatment, but he had no clues for Cloud's connection to the madman.

"Seph," Zack broke into his thoughts. "Cloud was trying to tell me things were going to be all right but it was really obvious how scared he was. I don't think he had a clue what was going to happen, but we both could sense it. The longest he's ever been gone – even in the beginning – was maybe a little over eight hours."

"Has he told you anything about the labs?"

Zack shook his head. "I don't even like talking about my time down there and I'm guessing it's nothing compared to the shit he goes through." He looked at Sephiroth hopefully. "Please tell me you can figure out a way in there to find him and get him out."

Sephiroth considered his friend for long, silent moments.

"You realize," he finally said, "that getting out of the labs is merely a first step. If you—if we want this to end, we have to leave Midgar. Avoid ShinRa... possibly for the rest of our lives."

A small smile crept across Zack's expression. "You could have said all that just about Cloud. Y'know, he'd have to keep running. Sounds like you've already made up your mind. Do you really believe I haven't thought about this before? Damn, Seph, getting out of here's been in the back of my mind since the first time I saw you so sick after twelve hours with that bastard. Leaving's the best idea for any of us."

"It's not so simple," the General reminded. He felt a little thrown how easily Zack accepted the idea of leaving. "There are few places we could hope to lie low; even less for me. And what about... Aerith, is it?"

Zack's smile faltered a little as he shrugged. "Maybe she'll want to come, too," he muttered.

At least you hope so. Sephiroth bit back a sigh. "Find out. I'll try the lab in a few hours; Hojo will have to be at a meeting with the President." He frowned thoughtfully at the darkening sky. "Depending on what I find, we might have to leave as soon as tomorrow night."

"I'll be ready, no matter what," Zack answered.

Meaning you'd give up Aerith for your friend. He studied the SOLDIER's determined pose. No, for both of us. As much as he wanted to try and talk Zack out of that possible sacrifice, he knew he had little hope of making any headway. And on a more selfish note, he wanted his friend's company and help.

---

He had surprisingly little trouble in getting into the lab. Sephiroth could intimidate the guards on duty, they asked no questions and he imagined they much preferred looking the other way than meet his currently blazing glare.

Navigating the inner labs was a challenge, even though he had seen almost every nook and cranny in his life. He stopped in the doorway of each exam room along an eerily silent hallway with no success. The double doors at the end opened into one of the larger labs Hojo used for many of Sephiroth's "treatments." The lab was outfitted with a veritable jungle of machinery used in relation to Mako experiments and technology related to the Jenova Project. Sephiroth didn't stop the sneer of disgust as he walked past the treatment chair he'd all too often occupied.

To one side of the room, the machines were interspersed with transparent cages that housed a rotating menagerie of animals and monsters. Sephiroth noted that currently the locking mechanisms were activated on three of the cages. He decided to check the computer in hopes of accessing recent experimental data. Cloud wouldn't be referred to by name, he knew, but it shouldn't be a problem to determine which report concerned the blonde.

"It's you!"

The voice caught Sephiroth completely off-guard. He whirled around, the Masamune in his hand and slipped from his back in an instant. No one else stood in the room, and he hadn't heard the doors. His eyes narrowed in confusion.

"Sir, you can help."

This time he could follow the sound and found himself staring into one of the cages at a large cat-like creature. The fire-colored animal stood facing him with tension radiating from his taunt muscles. Its flame-tipped tail flicked the air anxiously.

"Please. Something's gone horribly wrong."

Sephiroth resettled the Masamune and slowly approached the cage. "You're one of Hojo's experiments. Why should I listen to anything you say?"

The cat growled. "Because he is an experiment, too."

"Who?" Sephiroth asked, already knowing the answer.

The anger in the golden eyes dimmed quickly, replaced by worry. The cat turned toward the cage next to his and walked over to paw at the wall. "Cloud," he murmured sadly.

Shocked, Sephiroth approached the next cage and stared at the huddled figure inside. In the corner he could see the familiar shock of yellow hair, but it was different. He pressed a hand against the glass as he leaned forward. Feathers? Feathers covered the blonde head... Cloud was naked, but his familiar muscled body looked frighteningly thin and strangely sallow.

What the hell happened to you?

He didn't allow himself to ask any more questions as he went to deactivate the lock. He paused, then looked at the cat in the next cage. "Do you know the code?" It did.

"Be careful!" the cat admonished as Sephiroth stepped into the cage. "Everything is hurting him."

Sephiroth knelt by the blonde and hesitantly rested his fingertips on his lover's shoulder. Cloud moaned quietly and curled up further.

"Cloud," he said. "Please look at me. I want to know what happened. Cloud?"

The blonde's eyes remained closed though Sephiroth could see movement beneath the eyelids. Even the blonde's face looked different – more narrow and with a sharply shaped, beaklike nose. A cold sense of dread flooded the General's veins. He stared at the cat watching intently from the other cage.

"What do you know about this?"

"Hojo rarely brings him in here since the initial procedure." The cat shook his head. "He was unconscious when they brought him in last night. When he woke up he was in pain but he was aware. He recognized me. I could even—" he paused, looking surprised. "We could talk again, if he stared at me. But this morning he got sick and Hojo took him away. He crawled into the corner after they brought him back this afternoon and keeps getting worse. He stopped responding to me a couple hours ago."

Sephiroth shook his head, at a complete loss for what he could do. He tried latching on to a different piece of information. "You knew him when he could speak?"

"Yes, before the procedure," the cat said. "I believe I was his first friend." He glanced back at his hind quarters where Sephiroth noticed a large tattoo of the number XIII. "I came from the outside, unlike him. I don't think he's ever been outside before."

"He still hasn't," Sephiroth murmured, staring down at his lover. Quietly, wondering if he should ask or even if it mattered, he said, "He's not quite human, is he?"

The cat remained silent for a long while.

Eventually he replied, "Is that so important? How human do you consider yourself to be after all Hojo's done? He's not so different." He waited for Sephiroth to think about that. "The strange thing is, despite all the horrors we associate with these rooms, something here made the unimaginable possible. Cloud was granted a chance at freedom. I don't want him to lose that."

Sephiroth met the cat's gaze. "Neither do I. We're leaving."

The cat nodded, a spark of hope flashing through his gaze. Sephiroth nodded.

"What's your name?"

The cat tilted his head to the side. "You can call me Red."

Sephiroth stroked the side of Cloud's face; he winced at the whimper his touch caused. Reluctantly he stood and backed away. He stood in front of the cage door for a long while, unable to make himself reactivate the lock.

"I'll be back tomorrow. As soon as I can," Sephiroth murmured. He watched Red from the corner of his eye, unable to take his gaze from Cloud. "Be ready."

Red bowed his head. "Will that be soon enough?"

Sephiroth clenched his jaw. "I don't know," he said, frustrated that he wasn't willing to risk an impromptu mission and remove his lover from this nightmare right away. "But it might be more dangerous not to have a plan."

"Alright," Red agreed quietly. "Please hurry."

Sephiroth didn't answer as he hit the lock. He turned away and strode from the lab, certain he'd be unable to leave if he waited any longer.

---

Zack found him late the next morning in his office, ostensibly doing paperwork. Sephiroth didn't look up until he heard the door shut and lock. ShinRa had learned long ago to stop attempts at bugging his office, Sephiroth found every device and smashed it before sending it back to security. With the privacy granted in the small office, the General felt comfortable enough to relax his guard as he met Zack's gaze and let his worry show.

"Jeez," Zack hissed, slumping into a chair. "What'd you find?"

"I'm not entirely sure I can explain it." Sephiroth held up a hand to keep the other's protest at bay. "He's sick. Very, very sick. I met a… friend of his." He frowned, considering how he wanted to phrase the rest and what he ought to reveal. Finally he said, "Zack, I don't think Cloud's quite… human. He's caged." He grimaced as Zack snarled and jumped to his feet, more than ready to storm into the labs. "Sit down."

When the soldier reluctantly sank back into his chair, Sephiroth continued. "His friend's a large ‘cat.' I'm not sure whether it spoke or not prior Hojo's manipulations, but he knew Cloud when he could still speak."

"You said he's sick. How is… What does he need?" Zack asked, expression mostly shuttered to mask his anxiety and anger.

Sephiroth shook his head in frustration. "I don't know."


[found in notebook]

The escape from the lab would be more difficult than he'd first assumed. While Sephiroth waited for Zack to return he did his best to shove aside his emotions and personal involvement. For a successful plan he needed to think clearly, dispassionately. He could trust Zack completely, he knew, which would prove useful. Although he primarily preferred to work solo, this task required two fronts. He needed a distraction to detain at least some of the forces likely to be sent in pursuit. They would at least be fortunate in that Scarlet had insisted on a thorough debriefing of current Mako experimentation for weapons use the next night.

That will take care of Hojo as long as we move quickly, he determined. But the escape from the lab needed to be kept as quiet as possible for as long as possible. Any problems from the lab would alert Hojo. Unless it could be something considered minor or menial enough for lab flunkies to take care of on their own.
….

Zack said, "I heard a rumor that the terrorist group is gearing up for something big… One of the men even grabbed a few suspected AVALANCHE members today. Maybe if we…" He looked skeptically at Sephiroth. "Okay, maybe if I help them out, they'll be willing to return the favor."

"You'd better be ready to prove yourself. If they have any brains, they wouldn't trust a SOLDIER."

Zack scowled. "Look, they would provide a major distraction – probably even something that would have long-lasting effects and lessens the amount of crap piled on us as we pull out."

"Where and when is Aerith meeting us?"

"We've gone a time or two to this cliff outside of Kalm. It's fairly secluded. She'll get there shortly after dark to wait. She said she'll check into a hotel first and then slip out." Zack looked at Sephiroth with a serious expression. "She's good with instinctive magic. I think she can really help with Cloud."

Sephiroth didn't say anything. He turned to consider the clock, running down a timeline in his mind. "All right," he said and laid out the plan.

---

He couldn't see very well – only large blurs of colors floating without definition. He guessed his location by scent. The smell of chemicals coated his nostrils and throat, sharpening his breath into painful hisses. His body ached – feeling too tight in places and far too large in others. Curling up helped a little, made the pain uniform rather than a confusing mix of sensation.

TBC?


So.....? What do you think? What do I dooooooo? Was it getting rushed at the end? Timing was starting to bug me near the end, though my recent read has made me a little more comfortable. But I'm still hesitant in continuing. I mean, Zack and Sephiroth are going to get Cloud and Nanaki out... Aerith will rendezvous with them and probably will be the one to help sort out the Choco-Cloud thing.

As you can tell, I'm torn between suspending disbelief and analyzing the technicalities - how the hell would you react to being in a totally foreign body??

Questions about changes/additions: 1 Does the Sephiroth/Cloud thing really work? Are there alterations to make to help it better? 2 I need a clear way (preferably without getting too cliche) to have Cloud not tell anyone about the Chocobo thing. 3 I'm no longer convinced that I want Cloud to have never been "free." Even if I don't include full details of his origins in the story.... Ideas? 4 The issue of Lucretia and Jenova in terms of Sephiroth's "mother".... idek. I had a note to myself that maybe Sephiroth actually knows about Lucretia - possibly through Tseng. Given that my focus is on Cloud, though, I'm not sure how important it is.


Now I AM OFF TO SEE RESIDENT EVIL!