A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
"That's where I want to live the rest of my life.
A warm place, with no memory."
- Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption
"You have /got/ to be shitting me..."
Cid shifted positions slightly where he stood, slowly moving for a better view of the ground, and watching in something approaching awe as his two newest passengers moved toward the Highwind. The pilot was sure he should have been coming up with a plan, deciding how to approach Cloud, what he should say when... when...
Right now the only thing in his mind was shock, violently jumping up and down on top of a screaming surprise.
Cloud still looked like hell, pale, worn out, especially when compared with Sephiroth, the two men walking side by side...
/side by side... I don't fucking /believe/ this.../
Zack could have told him anything... /nothing/ could seem more impossible than his sudden revelation.
//Cid, there's something I need to tell you. Reeve... Reeve's going to ask for a special request, but I'd like to explain it a bit further...//
The dark-haired soldier was, from what the pilot could figure, the only one in charge of smoothing things over, of telling them all of what had happened... No doubt, Cid thought, he had also been the one to tell Tifa, a job the blonde man didn't envy him for in the least...
//I can't /imagine/ that she took it well...//
Cid considered himself well beyond thick-headed when it came to love and romance, and even /he/ had seen the way the brunette fighter had acted around Cloud, how much she wanted to be his girlfriend, and more... what on Earth could this have done to her?
On the surface, it looked as if nothing was wrong, almost as if nothing had changed. If he hadn't been looking for it... a pause, a glance between them, just for a moment, glowing eyes meeting... and holding... No anger, but an emotion even stronger, that the pilot recognized instantly, no matter how improbable it seemed...
//You have /got/ to be /shitting me/!!!//
He'd be damned, though, if he couldn't see the change in the blonde even from where he stood, if only in the way Cloud /moved/, relaxed, somehow calmer, that obviously, some great burden had been lifted from him... and Cid had the feeling the Cloud Strife he had known was gone forever... and that it might not be such a bad thing he had done so.
The pilot watched them board, saw people backing away as the Highwind lifted into the air, could easily feel the pull, the massive airship's engines whining as it ascended.
The crew didn't need him to take off, his intervention would be completely unnecessary all the way to Wutai, if he needed to settle matters.
//Settle... good /God/, I don't want to do this...//
Cid knew he just couldn't go down to where Cloud and Sephiroth were, couldn't just welcome them. It wasn't out of any sense of ill will, he hated ShinRa as a whole far more than he had ever held any personal anger towards Sephiroth himself... but the pilot knew, /absolutely/, that if he went down to them without a perfect strategy, the first words out of his mouth would be something unimaginably stupid, and almost certainly insulting.
He had an uncanny way with making the most of an awkward situation, usually by shoving both feet halfway down his throat with his initial greetings. Cid had made it his life's goal not to let it happen more than he could help, tended to stay on the quiet side in these sorts of situations... but /this/ time, he knew, he would have to remain all but silent, permanently, if he was to avoid making an ass out of himself.
At least in public.
"I just /don't/ goddamned believe it! It makes absolutely /no/ fucking sense! I mean... you weren't there, but you know..."
Cid gestured wildly at Shera, the only other person in the room. The woman had been asked by Melissa to stay on board, to make sure Cloud had no further medical emergencies, and was now doing all of her research via the airwaves, ready to send reports back to North Corel as soon as she discovered anything new. A small lab had been set up inside the room, just a floor away from the main bridge, and Cid had been spending most of his time there after Zack's call, simply trying to digest what he had been told.
"I mean... yeah, we all /heard/ about the Gen- I mean, about Sephiroth, back at ShinRa, of course there were rumors... but it wasn't like it was any of our damn business either way. I mean, what the hell do I care who he's shtupping on his time off?"
Of course, he cared now.
"There's nothing you can say, to anyone, if you have real concerns?"
Shera's voice was mild, always the counter to his raging bluster as she quietly, steadily continued her work, mixing solutions in test tubes, making measurements off instruments he couldn't begin to understand, certainly not ignoring the pilot but gently placing him second on her list of priorities.
Cid laughed, shaking his head sharply.
"Do you know who /called/ me? Who told me about this from the beginning? Zack. Zack knows him best, so who am I to..."
The blonde pilot rubbed his fist into his eyes, still only half able to believe it was real.
"He was so matter-of-fact about it... which means Tifa /must/ know, and if we're going to Wutai, then that means Yuffie-and-Vincent - he said the words together these days, /still/ embarrassed by accidentally opening the door on them - that means /they/ know. I don't know if anyone's told Barret or Nanaki, and of course Reeve knows..."
The pilot sighed deeply as he trailed off, feeling well out of his league. Of course this didn't /seem/ right, but the more he tried to explain why, the more he realized he didn't really understand, and that if it was anyone's decision to make, it certainly wasn't /his/, and that the people who best knew what was going on... well, those were the people who had brought him to this point, weren't they? The people who had allowed all of this to happen?
Cid hadn't even begun to think about the reality of the situation, what it meant if Cloud and Sephiroth really /were/... and how long this might have been going on in silence, unknown... how long Cloud really might have...
"My God, no wonder he was so quiet."
The pilot muttered, absently patting his jacket, searching for a cigarette, less because he wanted one, than just to give his hands something to do, give his mind something less troubling to dwell on. Shera cocked an eyebrow, pausing in her research - and he realized that he hadn't ever really talked about any of his teammates, not when he had come to visit, before they had fought Sephiroth in the Crater, too busy being penitent to worry... or later, when it had all been over. He just wasn't one for introspection... found those skills irritatingly rusty as he tried to employ them now.
"Well, shit... it sounded like Zack knew what was going on... and when he and Cloud were friends back at Midgar, that was what, ten, fifteen years ago? Before everything that happened with Jenova and all of that shit?" Cid shook his head. "There's a good chance he just never told us, never told any of us. I don't know what Tifa knows, but..."
The pilot wished his memory were better, because he could remember no details, no actual conversations from that time... but he knew that Cloud had never said a thing, never even implied - hell, there was a good chance the blonde fighter had even done some covering up, to keep from revealing the truth.
"I always wondered... why he seemed so sad."
"Eh?" Cid turned sharply at his wife's murmur.
Shera smiled, as if slightly embarrassed, letting her eyes drop out of habit, before she remembered she didn't have to.
"Couldn't you tell?"
Cid's blank expression was an eloquent response. Shera shrugged, kept working behind the table, all her gestures calm and collected... but there was a strange, tense brittleness in her voice.
"I thought, from the first time I met him, I'd always wanted to ask, but I never had the courage..." The pilot noticed that his wife would not look at him, and that her voice was just slightly too high, as if a string had been tightened a quarter-turn too far. Shera chuckled softly, though it sounded forced, hollow. "I suppose it's easier when you know, to see it..."
"Know? See what?"
Cid swallowed hard, as her eyes turned to him, and he realized she had never really shown him, what it had cost her when he had been cruel, how much pain still lingered, even now....
"... to know what it's like, to feel that way, that the person you love could n-never... love you in return."
Cid didn't know what to say, could only step forward and embrace her, as tightly as he could, hoping she could feel the heaviness of her wedding band against her skin, as much as he suddenly noticed his, nearly burning on his finger, a promise, a holy vow. He wanted to apologize, every day, for how he had treated her, but now the pilot remained silent, knowing she wouldn't accept... she didn't want his remorse, only his love.
"I love you, Shera... you know that."
The woman nodded against his shoulder, and after a few moments, looked up with a more steady smile.
"You should go talk to him, to make sure Cloud knows you're not angry. It will be important, that he knows you understand."
Cid nodded, though quietly he reminded himself that no, he didn't really understand, and probably never would. He finally broke away, left his wife to her work, and started the long walk to meet his friend.
//Too few of those in your life, you stubborn ass... don't you dare let any more of them go.//
The pilot knew where the two men had been assigned aboard the ship, he was still much too skittish around Sephiroth to ignore even the tiniest of details... including the fact that he and Cloud had adjoining rooms, with only a door between them...
//Too fast... whatever the circumstances, aren't things moving just a little too fast?//
The pilot ground his teeth together, his bad habit when he wasn't smoking, and sighed to himself again as he walked through the Highwind's narrow halls.
//... but for once in your life, you old goat, because your opinion /doesn't/ count /at all/, you /will/ be supportive. Right from the start.//
Cid clenched his jaw in determination, knew half of that sudden, strong urge came because he still wasn't sure what he was about to say, a problem when improvisation equaled disaster.
If it were truly up to him, the pilot thought, he would have been given at least a week to handle this, and he could have written down his lines, studied through them again and again, or better yet, just handed a blank card to Cloud and asked him to fill it in with whatever made him the happiest.
It wasn't that he really had anything against the idea of Cloud with another man, though that realization had certainly come as a surprise. Truth be told, Cid knew he just wasn't all that interested in relationships in general, irregardless of the participants... though this was most definitely a special case, and given the blonde's choice...
//Yes, we all knew about Sephiroth at ShinRa, but everyone just kind of assumed... and I thought for sure, that he and /Zack/...//
Cid was grateful that, in the end, none of it was his problem in any way. All he had to do was track the blonde down and say his peace as a concerned yet supportive friend...
//Concerned yet supportive... that sounds professional enough. Short, to the point. Short, to the point... I just say "Cloud"...//
/I just say "Cloud, I..."/
Cid slapped a hand over his eyes in frustration.
//I'm so screwed.//
The pilot paused for quite a while at the door to Cloud's room, making absolutely sure there was no sound from within, and no sign of anyone nearby. He didn't want to take the chance of interrupting /anything/ again, images of Vincent and Yuffie still all too clear in his mind's eye.
Cautiously, the blonde pilot knocked... and knocked harder when he received no reply. The third time he rapped against the door, it was with the full flat of his palm, well above the constant burr of the engines, and still there was no sound from inside. Cid carefully slid his hand around the door handle, and very very cautiously pushed it open, prepared at any moment to slam it shut again.
Cid noticed the adjoining door was also closed. Fighting another moment of hesitant embarrassment, he shut Cloud's door, and moved to Sephiroth's, rehashing the entire saga of waiting for a sound from inside, hearing none, and gradually pounding on the door harder and harder, waiting for a reply that, of course, didn't come.
"Hello? Cloud? I'm... here?"
Bracing himself, Cid slowly opened the door. Nothing, the room was bare save for two bags side-by-side on the floor next to the bed, a fact that didn't escape his mind, already preoccupied by that very thought, or more accurately, preoccupied by trying /not/ to think about it.
The pilot was not, by nature, a very patient or understanding man, and had already done his best to tamp down his temper and emotions... but it was impossible for him to stay reserved for long, he could only handle being quiet and mild-mannered for a few minutes at best. It would have taken the patience of a saint now, and if Cid had been a saint, well then, this problem wouldn't have existed in the first place.
//I'm doing my best here, Cloud, but if you don't show up soon, I /know/ I'm going to say something truly stupid.//
It became more and more a statement of fact as Cid walked quickly down the hallway only to come to a sudden, short stop as he reached a split in the hallway, with no idea where he was going or why. The pilot stood completely still for a moment, looking up and down, back the way he came, forward toward the main cabin - surely, they wouldn't be /there/, would they? - and finally down at his still motionless feet. The thought that came was both adamant and unchallenged, completely expected.
//I /need a cigarette/!//
Cid stormed down the hallway towards the stairs leading to the outer deck, slammed open the door leading up -
- and nearly walked right into Sephiroth, catching himself just before he fell forward onto the man's shoulder.
The pilot immediately stepped back into the doorway... and goggled, jaw dropping.
Sephiroth had only leaned back a bit to see him, still had one hand planted against the stairway wall, right next to Cloud Strife, very nearly caressing his cheek. The blonde was blushing furiously, wide-eyed, and though Cid knew he couldn't have possibly interrupted anything beyond a little kissing, certainly much less than when he had walked in on Yuffie and Vincent, he still turned red so quickly he skirted simply bursting into flames.
The pilot got the distinct impression that behind his cool, aquamarine eyes, Sephiroth was laughing at both of them, as he and Cloud both spluttered, hastily averting their eyes, searching for something else in the bare hallway to focus on as they scrambled for any helpful words.
Cid's mind waxed eloquently through the start of several sentences... "It's all right, I already know," "I'm happy that you're happy," and his personal favorite thus far, "Me and Shera like the engine room best," but all of these were now vying for space with the growing infuriation that he was in this position to begin with. Hadn't he opened the doors carefully? Hadn't he been as polite as possible? Hadn't he tried not to intrude?
The pilot opened his mouth, ready to give voice to whatever well-worded explanation his mind had finally chosen...
"Stairwell! My ship! Public...! ... this is /not my fault/!"
Refusing to think twice about what had just come out of his mouth, Cid turned on his heel and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Left with little to do but stare at each other in the wake of the pilot's departure, Cloud quickly collapsed into helpless laughter, and soon they were both nearly wiping away tears, gasping for air between spurts of giggles, the pilot's words hanging in the air like a permanent echo, causing a new round of laughter to swell at the ebb of each of the old.
"Do... do you think he's angry with us?" Cloud finally murmured, letting out a deep sigh as he wiped his face dry.
"I don't think /he/ knows..." Sephiroth murmured back, and moved in again, catching Cloud's lips with his own before the blonde could completely draw a breath, the pliant softness hinting of salt. "Now... where were we?"
Cloud had wanted to spend some time on the deck, in the fresh air, but somehow they hadn't quite managed to make it there, stopping for a short break on the stairs when they noticed that, with the blonde standing a stair or so above Sephiroth, they were nearly level with one another, making it very easy to reach anywhere he wanted to...
//... not that he's hard to kiss anytime, really.//
Yes, it was a terribly poor excuse, but Sephiroth didn't care, was completely out of reasons not to enjoy himself to the fullest.
//... and besides, this is all supposed to be for Cloud's benefit, and /he's/ certainly not complaining.//
Sephiroth pulled away from another deep kiss, watching blue eyes, half-lidded in pleasure follow his every move. Cloud was flushed, though no longer with the fever - that had vanished with the dawn - and the white-haired man smiled, running a hand gently through the blonde spikes as the other man closed his eyes with a contented murmur, leaning in...
The answer was immediate, amazingly powerful, Cloud's brilliant smile glowing even more brightly than his eyes... and getting past his defenses had been difficult, the white-haired man thought, but certainly well worth his time.
"Everything... is perfect..."
Sephiroth smiled back, watched an impossible new joy spark to life in the blonde's blue eyes as he did so... he brushed his fingers slowly across Cloud's cheek, and paused -
"When I touch you." Sephiroth drew a finger slowly across Cloud's cheek, provoking another slight shiver. He had noticed it before, but hadn't considered it important, and really didn't now... it was just curious...
"Every time... you flinch. Why do you do that?"
The blonde froze, eyes falling away from his face, filling with fear so fast it was shocking.
A finger against those lips, teasing, stopped the hurried words.
"No, don't. You don't have to apologize."
Sephiroth smiled, gently tipping up the other man's chin, until he could look in those eyes once more - as always never reaching the bottom, losing himself comfortably, somewhere in the middle of the endless blue. If his gaze kept Cloud as startled as he seemed to be now, that was only a bonus... the blonde, he had quickly learned, was more relaxed when he was a little bit breathless.
//What a puzzle you are, Strife...//
He had done his best, after that discovery, to keep the man slightly off his guard, hadn't let up his affectionate nips and nuzzles for just that reason, because it got him closer to the real Cloud Strife... It was still beyond him, though, beyond reason, that Cloud could continue to be so fearful, so wary, when it was obvious they were close enough, that he didn't have to be anymore...
"I just wondered. It's not that important, I was just curious." He spoke to ease the growing panic he saw there... amazing, the absolute reverence in those eyes, penitence and worship both, as Cloud looked at him.
"I... Sephiroth... I, I mean..."
The blonde sighed, closing his eyes and slowly leaning forward, until his head was nestled against the other man's shoulder, hesitant but willing to answer, doing his best to put emotions long protected into words.
"I can't explain... how many years, that I used to watch you, surrounded by all those people... you were - you were so much /more/ than any of them could ever be... /ever/." Cloud looped a strand of white hair around his finger, slowly, carefully. "... and you were so strong, and so beautiful - the /most/ beautiful person in the world, that there would /ever/ be... and so completely /untouchable/, and I knew I was crazy, but it didn't change... it never changed... and I..."
He looked up, blue eyes completely open, and so in love.
"I can't... there aren't the words, for what it means to be here, what it means for you, to be here with... me."
Sephiroth brought his hand up, drawing the blonde into another kiss, reveling in the smooth, cool softness of the skin beneath his hand, and the warmth of those lips... god, he was gorgeous.
"... then don't try. You don't have to explain. I know-"
A bittersweet moment, remembering all the times he had been here before, in this moment, with people who hadn't loved him at all, hadn't seen more than the beauty, if that. All the times he had fumbled with false intimacy, making love from behind walls that never fell, living and loving with veiled eyes that hid more than they ever looked for.
"Believe me, Cloud... I /know/."
Of course, Sephiroth realized the blonde didn't believe him, understood more with every careful kiss, every halting caress he was almost given, the unsteady hands always withdrawing at the last moment, before they could go farther, just what Zack had been talking about, why he had been so protective.
//A pariah in his town... no friends, no father, and a distant, indifferent mother, from the little he's said of her.//
Sephiroth had asked few questions of the blonde, and guessing at what he didn't know, sure they were fairly safe assumptions...
//Any relationships he'd had at ShinRa weren't probably very healthy, though I don't think he had any. I'm sure Zack would have known, and he would have told me, if there had been others...//
/No others... not when he only wanted you./
Had Cloud been a virgin then, when he and Elicia...?
//... and when he and I, just as Zack said, that I was his first... and then I threw him away.// Sephiroth resisted a strong urge to just pull the other man into an tight embrace and never let him go. // I'm so sorry, Cloud... I'm so very sorry...//
"... Seph?" The nickname was cut with incredible hesitation, the blonde obviously daring himself to use it, watching the white-haired man carefully, concern deep in his eyes, resting atop the ever-present wariness, a cautious kind of love. "What is it? I didn't... did I...?"
Sephiroth found he choked slightly on the word, nearly overwhelmed by a sudden rush of memories, guilt from the past, both recent and fading, catching him off guard. The white-haired man pushed it all back, if only to assuage the fear and anxiety in the eyes still fixed on his. He would probably deal with much of this, his own shame and worry, and anything the other man would share in the days to come, but it was nothing, a shadow of a problem, not if it meant that he and Cloud might be together... that this could be the start of something more...
//He is like me, and just like I was, even then, all those years ago. At ShinRa, we were the same, and searching... searching for anyone, never realizing...//
/No, /he/ realized... and it was I who was blind./
Sephiroth drew his face close to Cloud's, lifted his head, to rest his chin amidst the blonde spikes, stroking the other man's back with an absent hand.
"I should have known you years ago, Strife... I should have known... I have been nothing but a fool."
Cloud, not surprisingly, said nothing. An admittance of weakness, of some sort of failure in the other man was, of course, impossible for the blonde man to believe. If Sephiroth had any problems at all, they could not be his fault, but instead, the failings of a world that could not live up to his expectations...
//... which of course, are never too high, and I never make mistakes, and I'm never wrong...//
It was all so delicious, and undeserved, this gift - all he had ever asked for, could ever ask for - dropped right into his lap, from the most unexpected of places, the joy in Cloud so sweet Sephiroth could feel it, his own wonder nearly cutting him in two, painful bliss taking his breath away...
//... mine. You're all mine, Cloud Strife, and now that I've found you, I'll /never/ let you go.//
Sephiroth lifted his head, slowly drew both his hands through the silky blonde strands, grinning as the other man shivered in obvious enjoyment, murmuring softly to himself... and the white-haired man dropped his arms down into a loose hug, slid them across the finely muscled back - still too thin, but stronger now - that he could feel beneath the uniform, and that he could still remember, a bare and perfect landscape arching in the night -
- and Sephiroth felt the moment he went a little too far, his touch just slightly too urgent, too intimate, and he paused as Cloud just seized up - never moving away, not daring that, no - but Sephiroth was more than close enough to feel that the other man was holding his breath, and shaking, ever so slightly...
Any other person might have thought the blonde's skittishness was coy, almost flirtatious... but Sephiroth knew it was no act.
//... and if I kept going, if I pushed myself on him despite his feelings, he would not stop me. He /didn't/ stop me, even though he was afraid, because so few have ever touched him gently... he doesn't know what it is to get what he desires, and so he only knows fear.//
Sephiroth leaned back down, cheek pressed against Cloud's, his lips in the perfect position to murmur in the blonde's ear.
"No more tiptoeing around my feelings, Cloud, all right? No more hurting yourself to put me on a pedestal. I'll find my own... right next to yours, if you'll have me."
He /wasn't/ this easygoing by nature, wasn't this - good lord, it almost felt as if he were channeling /Zack/, so willing to say such things, and ready let the world work itself out, to offer his heart without any guarantees - but it felt so damned /comfortable/, so good just to be here with a warm body pressed against his own, knowing he was /loved/. Cloud was doing nothing, and somehow changing everything, daring him to be the person he'd always been too chickenshit to risk trying for.
The white-haired man paused in his murmur, to take an experimental nip at the blonde's ear, was rewarded with a shock like lightning, a shudder from the blonde so powerful he felt his own body humming in response, and not a tremor of fear - no, not by the slight moan of pleasure Cloud was only partially able to hold back.
//... have to remember that for later...//
"We'll take this at your speed, Cloud. As slow as you like, with as much time as you need. I promise."
Sephiroth wouldn't risk making the same mistakes again... and there was a unique pleasure in this, in the unhurried nature of this connection, Cloud not just another lover who only wanted in and out of his bed as quickly as possible, another person who wanted to fuck his title and nothing more... this was different.
//So much better... already, it's so much better.//
"All right, Cloud?"
"A-a.. all right..."
... and hesitantly, Sephiroth felt a pair of arms wrap carefully around his waist, thin but steady fingertips tracing the slight ridge of his spine.
Lord Godo had never thought to vow that Sephiroth would die before setting foot in Wutai again. At first, it had been impossible to uphold such a declaration, and after the despised General's death, such a statement seemed only silly. Now, though, the man was regretting the omission immensely, hatred flooding through every cell in his body as he stood on the top floor of his pagoda, staring across Wutai, to where the Highwind had landed. The man's sharp eyes could easily make out the one white dot amidst the mottled background of trees, grass and other figures - Sephiroth walking back into the nation he had destroyed, not that long ago.
Godo swore softly, stringing expletives together in a way the Wutai language lended itself well to, though this particular strand was in danger of stripping the paint off the banister under his tightly-clenched hands, as caustic as any barrage he had ever let loose with before.
"I know this took everything you had... but thank you... father."
He didn't need to turn, to know Yuffie was approaching him, her feet whisper-quiet on the tatami mats, as Vincent watched them both silently from the doorway. On top of his current problem, Godo found himself having to deal with his daughter and her strange new suitor, though Yuffie being Yuffie, there hadn't been much for him to do but stew in silence as she told him all that was happening, not asking nor requiring his permission to interfere in her life.
Godo could barely remember a time things had been otherwise.
"I'm not doing this for /that man/..."
It went without saying, of course, but Godo needed to rage at something.
"I know that."
Yuffie moved to the railing beside him, following his gaze. It was a calm day in Wutai, there had been no fanfare to mark the Highwind's approach, only a quiet announcement that quickly spread through town, that The General was here, to recover from injuries received in the war. The entire town immediately responded, ready and willing to keep a quiet, respectful distance. Cloud Strife was their hero just as much as ShinRa's, if not more so... he /had/ been responsible, after all, for bringing the entire corporation to its knees.
Sephiroth's accompaniment was met with some scorn by the older Wutai soldiers, but many of the younger ones were already talking of his battle prowess and skill... and that, combined with Cloud's immediate need silenced any remaining argument, had quickly brought both men to Wutai.
"I'm putting them in our old home... they'll have privacy, peace, and everything they might need right with them... and it's the best defended place in town as well."
Yuffie had long since moved to her own home, a few houses down from the estate of her childhood, smaller, and more suited to a ruler's daughter who was usually out of town.
Godo had commanded, lived and worked in the top of the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods since the war had started, with neither need nor inclination to visit his solitary home. He had finally found it just too big for one man alone, and unnecessary, when the homes of colleagues and soldiers were much more /alive/ than his empty house, the noise and conversation much more comfortable than silence when he needed a break.
Godo grimaced anyway, fighting a moment of overwhelming, blood-red rage at the thought of /that man/ in /his wife's bed/... but the fury dissipated just as quickly as it came. He had to admit, it had been a relief to leave the house behind him, to be able to remember the wonderful times from a distance, but not be surrounded by the whispers of all he'd rather /not/ remember... It was just a house, and if offering it would help Cloud recover...
"He's not doing well, is he?"
Yuffie Kisaragi did not worry easily, and the definite dread her eyes turned his stomach, threatening to twist it in half.
"If we're lucky... if we're lucky, this will be enough."
Anjele reached out, tracing with his fingertips along the smooth round peaks of the curves in the wall, the only guide he had in these otherwise pitch black caverns. Despite the necessity, he was still hesitant to touch them, running just the bare edges of his fingertips across the slimy surface. He kept telling himself they were carved, that they were stone... but the slick surface felt almost /alive/, smooth and slightly pliant, too much like skin, as if he were inside the belly of some gargantuan beast... If it moved beneath his touch, the man knew he would scream, and even now he had to fight to keep from gagging.
The former bureaucrat knew he was walking in circles, staggering around through the same loops over and over again, perhaps gaining one step forward into a new passage every hour, for every thousand steps he wandered in vain... but there was nothing else he could do, with no map to guide him, no way to trace his steps back... and this endless corridor was still preferable to finding Hojo again, the only other place he knew existed...
Anjele froze, strangling a shriek of horror as two lights appeared in the darkness, burning white with Mako, illuminating enough for him to suddenly see a hard, gleaming carapace, razor sharp claws beneath a clicking mouth, and he froze, expecting sudden death -
- but the creature passed by him as if he wasn't there, and the blonde man locked his knees, gasping as the adrenaline drained away, still not trusting the walls enough to lean against them, though he wobbled on his feet.
It hadn't killed him... why hadn't...
The blonde could feel it very clearly now, a cold, almost burning sensation hovering behind his eyes, tingling... perhaps there was even a message there, some murmur of thought greater than the sensation alone, but Anjele knew he wouldn't ever be able to concentrate enough to hear it... would understand nothing beyond what was moving his feet slowly along - the call, the pull...
Jenova was calling him, drawing him to her. He remembered, of course, reading over the specifics of the First War for the Planet... remembered the reports, on the failed Sephiroth Clones...
//I gave myself up for this... to become Hojo's waste, his scraps. I leapt at the chance to be /nothing/...//
The blonde couldn't keep from moving forward, from going on, though he hadn't tried to stop, even once he realized what was happening. What else was he going to do /but/ go? He couldn't leave, and apparently couldn't die, though he had yet to feel hungry or thirsty when it felt as if he had been down here at least a day. He no longer felt even the cold, though he knew it must have been utterly freezing in this icy darkness, could feel that the air was bitterly cold around him...
Anjele kept walking forward through black nothingness, well aware that it might be his only task, that with no part in the final plans, he could simply be doomed to wander in the darkness forever. He wondered if he would go mad, if he wasn't already, wondered if Hojo might find him, and if whatever death he might be walking to could be that much worse than this silent, pitch-black labyrinth.
The man wasn't sure when he first noticed the light, halfway convinced, for a long time that it wasn't even real, simply his mind playing tricks on him, the very first pangs of dementia... but no, things /were/ getting brighter, a soft glow slowly growing brighter from the path ahead.
At first, he was afraid. Had he gotten confused somehow, returned to one of Hojo's rooms? These were /all/ Hojo's rooms, Anjele reminded himself, and sucked in a quick breath. It had only taken a few minutes in the scientist's presence to inspire fear in him. Hojo's moods slipped without reason, provocation or warning, and the blonde knew that the scientist could decide at any moment to kill him, for any reason, or none at all...
Anjele only wanted to be in an empty room, an /uninspiring/ room, if the scientist ever decided to act on the impulse.
After a few moments of hovering on the edge of the growing brightness, with no sign of danger, no sound or movement, Anjele carefully approached. As he moved closer, it burned, like a tiny sun, but in the darkness the point of origin remained frustratingly unknown, dwarfed by the cavernous hall, the inky void that seemed to swallow most of the glow.
The former bureaucrat realized his theories had been confirmed, as light finally caught and held against the slimy, soft curves of the wrinkled walls, and he quickly pulled his hand away in disgust, trying not to look too hard, to determine whether the seeming movement of the cavern around him was a trick of the light, or something much worse.
Anjele lifted his gaze as the light finally illuminated most of his surroundings, providing him all at once with a disturbingly normal reference point.
//Amazing... there must have been /something/ of ShinRa's here once, something secret, not even a single filed report...//
Anjele had not yet grown accustomed to the architecture of the Crater, a strange amalgam of semi-organic construction inelegantly welded to steel and plastic fabrications. Hojo had been busy, it seemed, adapting the remnants of whatever building this had once been to fit his own needs. The blonde marveled at the way the distorted walls came together around an otherwise normal looking staircase, gray metal grating almost stunning with its perfect lines, leading up to an open doorway, fluorescent lights shining from inside, a brighter exterior bulb the source of the light he had followed for so long.
//It looks... /normal/. What on earth...?//
Of course he moved closer, curiosity mixing with a strange desperation to leave the bizarre hallway for something familiar, if only for a moment. Halfway up the stairs, though, the blonde realized he was bracing himself for something, unsure of exactly what... It was still silent, both in the cavern and inside the disturbingly average looking room, and Anjele quickly abandoned any pretense of bravery or pride that might have remained, as he carefully crept inside.
The room was stunningly odd, if only in terms of its complete normality. The blonde couldn't get past the incongruence, staring down one side of the hallway, the half-open door at the end revealing what looked like a bedroom, with another door at his direct left leading to a small study, and the open hallway to his direct right opening on a bathroom. Anjele stepped inside the small space, staring at the toothpaste tube, the toothbrush tossed on the counter as if he had never seen such things before, before cautiously reaching out...
//Wet. the bristles are still wet... that means...//
Anjele turned his head, taking in the larger room once more. He couldn't imagine Hojo needing any of this, the light, the small space, any of the half-used toiletries scattered around the porcelain -
- someone /else/ was here, someone human.
//... but... who? Who could possibly live-//
/I need.... I /need/... come now... /come to me/./
Anjele rocked back on his heels, reeling, though he recognized the deep, somewhat papery voice in his mind as easily as if he himself had spoken, nearly toppling backwards as that pull on his mind suddenly increased. It was as if all the other calls, the constant stream of whispers had been searching for him, and now he had been found.
//... to me... come... to me... to /me/...//
He doubted he could resist that pull for long, Jenova's silent command speaking through his body, drawing at his essence, blood and bone, and really, why bother to stay stay? What difference would it make? If this room did still belong to the living, whomever it was who slept and ate there would have no use for him, not anymore...
//Come... I want... I /need/...//
Anjele silently retreated from the room, moving slowly back down the stairs, and once more into the darkness.
It was different now, though, maneuvering through those endless catacombs, the voice louder, the sense of another presence weighing down the air more and more with each step he took, as if a light breeze were pushing him along. Anjele didn't quite feel as if he was being directed, the cold pressure and almost inaudible murmurs still too vague to be a true guide, but the blonde knew he was no longer wandering aimlessly, that sooner or later, he would find what he was seeking.
//... to me... need... to me... to me...//
/Where are you?/
Anjele kept trying to reach back to that voice - though he could not seem to reach it, as she had reached him - and was amazed at his own bravery - or stupidity - in not being at least a little bit afraid, when he probably should have been gibbering in terror long ago.
//Either way, though, I think I'd end up in the same place... I might as well go out with some dignity.//
It gave the man some satisfaction, to imagine that he might be doing better than his father would have done under the circumstances... though it also gave him perhaps a little too much satisfaction, to imagine the other man in his place.
Light again, illuminating the path in front of him, but this time it was much less direct, hazy and undetermined, a soft blue glow that lightened in shades so subtle that Anjele realized he had been walking along inside of it for some time, and simply hadn't noticed the change.
He was lost in distant memories for a moment, the light striking him as somewhat similar to the reptile house in the Midgar Zoo, dimly lit for the comfort of the animals... the reminiscence quickly turning into a disturbing thought, that something, almost without a doubt Jenova, was at the end of this tunnel, waiting for him.
Anjele jumped as an icy cold tendril of thought suddenly slid across his mind, the feeling vanishing before he could think to scream. It was the intensity of the touch that truly shocked him... as strangely, it hadn't seemed to be searching for anything in particular, imbued with a vague sense of curiosity at the very most.
//Curiosity... what?// He had expected Jenova to rip his mind apart at the first opportunity... felt a sudden slip of hope, that he immediately tried to destroy.
//You're still doomed, fool... you're going to die.//
/... here... to me, here./
It beckoned, almost gently, and Anjele swallowed, moving forward even more cautiously than before. It didn't really matter, though, he couldn't stop himself now, found that it took all his effort to keep from /running/ forward through the pitch black nothing, pulled from the inside out, all of his body and an alarming portion of his mind stretching toward the light, reaching ahead to find the voice that was murmuring louder and louder in his mind...
It was simple, a handful of steps around a narrow curve, and the blonde man found himself face to face with the creature that had drawn him all this way, torn him out of everything he had known - his life, his humanity - to be at her side.
Vincent had valued his privacy, in his youth, as a Turk, and now, and had always assumed that others felt the same, that they did not want or need his help, or if they did, he would be asked explicitly. Any inquiry on his part, he thought, would be seen as an impolite intrusion.
//... but maybe, maybe if I hadn't felt that way, I would have known about Lucrecia sooner, soon enough to change-//
The dark-haired man let the thought trail off, didn't bother to continue it. It was the past, dead and gone... and he apparently hadn't learned much from it, even now just hovering at the edge, standing in the doorway, hesitant to take even a single step inside.
Sephiroth and Yuffie had gone out of Wutai after a rumor of monsters along the northern peninsula had been confirmed, the threat much too close to the civilian population to be allowed to take even the slightest hold on the peninsula.
It had been clear then, though Vincent hadn't ever doubted it, that Sephiroth truly cared for Cloud, as the white-haired man had spent the better part of the hour saying what was in effect a very temporary goodbye, and had left only because he absolutely had to, with The General currently out of the fight, he was the strongest weapon they had.
//... and the second-strongest, is left to guard Cloud.//
The dark-haired man didn't protest being left behind, though of course he was always worried about Yuffie, though telling the ninja girl such things, he had learned, only resulted in an earful of Wutai scolding, as she made it perfectly clear - quite loudly, too - that she could handle anything they could encounter, and that she didn't want him to "protect her from the big, bad world, Mr. Valentine-senile-old-man-thank-you-very-much."
//... not that I'm awfully good at protecting anyone I care for, if the harsh truth be told.//
Vincent's mind could grasp the fact that Yuffie was capable, fierce and indomitable, that he would always be known as the consort to the Lady of Wutai, and that she really /didn't/ need his protection... his heart, however, still refused to cave, and his thoughts were still worrying at her absence, eating at the edge of his concentration, even though his mind should have been focused on other things.
//... like doing a bit more than simply watching and waiting for Sephiroth to return.//
"... hello? May I come in?"
Cloud was sitting in the sun, nestled on a rock against the far side of the enclosed garden, wrapped in a blanket to protect against the very slight chill in the late morning air. It was easy to see how drained, how faded he still was compared to his surroundings, just why Yuffie had been so adamant about giving him as much space and time as he needed to recover, why Sephiroth had been so unwilling to leave. As Vincent finally stepped out into the small garden, he realized the blonde had been napping soundly, glowing blue eyes slowly opening, blinking sleepily as they focused on him.
"Cloud? I'm sorry... I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's all right. Hello, Vincent."
Cloud smiled, like the sun moving from behind a cloud, a brilliant, breathless expression that stopped Vincent short... his mind immediately racing, searching back, to compare it to a memory he quickly realized he just didn't have.
//No, it's the truth. I've /never/ seen him smile, not in all the time we fought together, or after... Of course, now that I know... it wasn't as if he had anything to smile about...//
The red-clad man was sure he wasn't the only one still wondering how they had all managed to miss something that now seemed all but blindingly obvious.
The smile, so open, blue eyes watching him with an almost childlike happiness, quietly curious... the feeling of friendship all of a sudden caught up with him, making him strangely shy, almost bashful, and Vincent quickly brought up the books in his human hand, as if trying to justify receiving such a welcome.
"I... brought you some books. Yuffie had a few that I remembered, classics..."
Another one of Yuffie's unexpected qualities, he had discovered - she was surprisingly well-read.
Cloud nodded politely, gaze slowly shifting towards the fish pond in the center of the small space. He seemed distant, somewhere beyond his physical shell, as if his soul were almost unanchored. Vincent was sure all was well, but he couldn't help wanting to stay, hoping he might add something more to the fragile moment... to even make the blonde smile again would be enough of a victory.
"Would you like it... if I read to you?"
Blue eyes flicked back up to him, and Cloud did smile again - so /innocent/, and hopeful, not like the man Vincent knew at all, or at least, the man he thought he'd known...
//... so, this is why Sephiroth loves him.//
It was perfectly clear.
"I'd like that, Vincent... very much."
The dark-haired man sat down on the rock beside the blonde, as Cloud shifted to give him room, and opened a chapter of an old novel that had always been one of his favorites, a story of romance and adventure set around a small fishing village far in the north. Trees, ice, snow and mountains, it had been quite exotic at the time, to a Turk surrounded on all sides by metal, glass and smoke.
//... another world, another life. I wonder if we all feel that way.//
He shifted his gaze down for a moment, but looked away when Cloud looked back up, completely unable to ask the questions he wanted to, what it had been like for the blonde, what it had been, to hide so much of himself for so long.
At the end of the first chapter, Cloud had his head on Vincent's shoulder, the move hesitant at first, but the blonde quickly relaxing as the dark-haired man didn't protest, didn't even pause in his reading. The sudden contact reminded the former Turk of a younger soldier he had known, the name lost over so many years, but the gesture remembered, how it had been to fight with him, against a band of vigilantes who had launched an attack against the President... and how it had felt to gently rub that same soldier's back, as he had thrown up to dry heaves in the alley, shaking over his first real kill, stunned that the power to take a life had truly been in his reach.
//... and maybe, that it was just a little too easy. It was what bothered me... that it always seemed frighteningly /simple/.//
It felt good, to offer that comfort now, to listen to Cloud's steady, even breathing as he made himself comfortable against a red Vincent pillow, the sunlight splashing diamonds across the fish pond at their feet, the bright sun warming the wind just enough to take the edge off, to make the cool breeze refreshing... all of it lulled Vincent into a sense of peace and contentment that had been rare in his life, and that, until recently, he hadn't even thought himself capable of feeling again.
//I keep forgetting... life never stops changing...//
Vincent paused in his reading for a moment, closing his eyes and taking a deep, steady breath, centered and completely calm for a brief moment, surrounded by flowers and birdsong... He could hear the slight slap of the smaller fish in the water, jumping every now and again out of the pond - what a beautiful day, how lucky, how lucky he was to be here...
Belatedly, the dark-haired man realized that Cloud hadn't said a word when he had stopped reading, shifted his shoulder just a little, carefully looking down to see that he had apparently been telling a bedtime story all this time.
"Do you want me to stop?"
He only half expected Cloud to answer, the blonde's eyes were closed, and at best he was barely awake, but he immediately murmured a bit, pressed back against Vincent without hesitation, nestling even more snugly against the other man's side.
"... 'm fine." The voice was a thick, soft mutter. "Please, keep going... 'like it... 'lets me know I'm not alone..."
Alone, Vincent by choice, Cloud by circumstance, for such a long time...
The dark feelings that word stirred barely rose to the surface, and could not begin to break the mood of contentment the glorious day had given him.
//... but I have Yuffie now, and he has a love of his own, as unexpected as that might be. No matter how bad it gets, at least we're not alone. Not anymore.//
No... and for a while, they were nothing more than two friends who had seen all the world and then some, and who had gotten through it all to finally relax in the warm sun, and for a while all was peace and calm and quiet contentment.
Vincent wasn't exactly sure how much time passed, only that, eventually, he finished the book, slowly letting it fall closed against his metal arm, Cloud long since drifting off into dreams. The dark-haired man looked up, yawning slightly... and nearly started, as he found Sephiroth watching them.
Neither man moved for a moment, before Sephiroth silently crossed the distance between them, easily lifting Cloud into his arms in a single, graceful motion even Vincent would have found hard to copy. The blonde woke up just enough to drape a languid arm around Sephiroth's neck, murmured something the red-clad man couldn't hear. Vincent watched as Sephiroth smiled, dipped his head into a slow, easy kiss.
The red-clad man blushed slightly, averting his eyes... something just too personal, too private there for him to see. Red-hazel eyes lifted up just in time to see the edge of Sephiroth's coat vanish back through the door into the house.
Vincent pulled himself off the rock, stretching out a few muscles in his legs as he followed the other man's path out of the garden. He had just put the book on an inside table, blinking his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, focusing them on Sephiroth, as he walked back into the room.
He stared, Sephiroth stared, the silence between them neither hostile nor friendly, but, at least from Vincent's stance, horribly awkward. It was true, he had spent much of his time trying not to think about certain things.... while trying just as hard to look for a gesture, an expression... something of Lucrecia in the man standing before him. He had found them, subtle, but present, a slight gesture, a dramatic turn, the slight curve in a raised hand...
Jade eyes fixed on his, and Vincent started, realized he'd been staring. One pale eyebrow arched, Sephiroth expecting an explanation.
"You... you have her smile. Rare... hers was rare, but worth waiting for."
Sephiroth nodded slightly, leaning against the wall, and though he wasn't at all tense, Vincent got the sudden, sinking feeling he wouldn't just be allowed to leave... that for the first time, the white-haired man felt he had cornered someone who could provide answers.
One dark glove gestured back toward the inner rooms, where the man had taken the slumbering blonde. "He'll sleep the rest of the day... he's still exhausted."
Vincent could see the struggle, in every line of Sephiroth's body, the subtle but all-consuming mix of worry, for Cloud, for the future...
"We never knew, you do know that? Cloud never told any of us."
Vincent wasn't exactly sure why he spoke, what peace he was trying to reach with the other man, especially when...
The dark-haired man bit slightly at his lower lip. Just how much had ShinRa told him? What did they know? What did Sephiroth think?
"I know that..." Those burning eyes glanced up at him again, fixing him to the spot, and Vincent tried very hard not to look away too soon, not to act as nervous as he felt, to keep from proving that yes, there were many reasons he didn't want to be where he was now.
"I overheard a conversation when I was very young, between two other scientists. It was how I discovered Hojo was my father. He never knew I knew."
Vincent nodded slowly, but flinched inside. The words were too calm, the subject too carefully chosen... Sephiroth /knew/. The next words confirmed the suspicion.
"You and my mother... you were with her, at the same time she was working with Hojo."
"Yes." Vincent could feel it coming, all that he had just abandoned to the seas of memory, dead and gone, washing right back up to his feet.
"I don't look /anything/ like Hojo, Valentine."
A statement, not a question, or perhaps this was as close as Sephiroth ever got to questions. Vincent met his eyes, and this time did not flinch, was sure even before he spoke that his gaze said all, and knew, even as he looked at the other man - fine-boned features, elegant but never quite delicate, perfect for a Turk... or a Turk's son...
"By the time I realized... by the time I ever /thought/... it was too late, much too late to ever do anything."
So many sins, when he had finally discovered the misstep, had realized just what Hojo had done, what Lucrecia had kept from him... but both then and now, what would it change? It was too removed by time and circumstance from anything normal, anything sane for him to feel more than sorrow, always that sorrow, for what might have been...
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry I didn't say any-"
"I don't know her."
Sephiroth's voice was uncharacteristically soft, as if, unable to hide the emotions within, it sought to make them as quiet as possible.
"I don't know my mother."
Vincent's eyes narrowed. "ShinRa didn't..?"
"Height, weight, useless facts..." Sephiroth dismissed all with a slight wave of his hand. "Hojo... all that he had, all the salvaged files from that time, it's the same, and there's no love in it."
The dark-clad man paused, reached inside his coat, and withdrew a small piece of folded paper. Vincent didn't know what to expect as he took it, carefully unfolded it...
Lucrecia, leaning against the window, face tilted toward the sun. It was a fragile line drawing, by no means perfect... but Vincent could see that the artist had truly captured at least some small part of her essence, her poise and grace and inner strength, with a master's talent.
"Gast. I found it, as I was going through some old documents, scrapbooks, a few of his possessions that had been overlooked, left behind. The person there..." Sephiroth murmured, "I don't know her, this person, that he cared about... that you cared about. You loved her. Please... tell me why."
Vincent raised an eyebrow at the unguarded tone, jade eyes watching him in quiet trepidation, the expression in such a man almost shocking.
"It... could take some time."
Sephiroth shrugged, and Vincent nodded, and, haltingly at first, but then with a growing ease, finally found himself talking, of all that he had ever loved in the woman who meant so much to both of them.
Cloud came awake all at once, sitting bolt upright in a moment of blind, shrieking panic, panting as he blinked against the soft darkness of the room, clutching at the blanket almost desperately beneath one hand while he ran the other over his face, both actions an anchor, reminding him of what was real.
It took a few moments, for anything to reach through the terror, the memories of pain.
//A nightmare, stupid... it was just another nightmare. It's over... all of that...// He fought another shudder, almost choking. //It's /over/.//
A tattered remembrance, time in the lab, of course, only one of so many chaotic dreams, a silent scream of agony and despair... this dream had dropped him inside of three years time, maybe the very beginning of his fourth, though it had been long after he still had the choice to consciously keep track of time or let it go, long after he had the choice of /anything/...
The dream had first been nothing but sickening, vile relief, as Hojo had once chosen Zack to torture, Cloud weeping in fury at his own weakness, that a part of him was /glad/ to hear his friend's screams and not his own, disgusted that he would rather hear someone else take the pain... or perhaps, maybe, he had been screaming after all, not himself entirely, but that new person, all he had taken from Zack, pieces of the other man as armor for himself...
Safe, for only a moment, until the dream had slid down further, memories on top of memories, a long, dark slaughter, a tunnel of blood...
Hojo had broken his back, just after carving out the muscles from his left arm, all the way down to the bone, to see if he could heal from more than one kind of deep trauma at once. Cloud assumed that had been the experiment, though he knew there was no reason Hojo might not have done it simply because he could.
The blonde shuddered again at even the thought of that agony, even now more horrifying than he wanted to face, but he would not cry out, pressing his thumb harder against his right temple, forcing himself to calm down, breathing slowly around the sodden lump in his chest that he knew meant tears.
Cloud wasn't completely surprised when a warm hand drew itself up against his bare back, though he had done his best to be as quiet as possible.
//... not a chance, not with reflexes like /his/.//
After years of these dreams, seeking solace in nothing but his own desperate negation, alone in his bed struggling not to break down, the gentle concern in that voice very nearly made him lose it, and the blonde took a sharp, shallow breath, fighting with everything he had against his tears.
"... just a dream. It's nothing."
Cloud blinked, looking up after another moment, as he realized what seemed different, unexpected in the room. He turned to Sephiroth, the glow from both their eyes making it easy to see each other in the darkness.
"It was daylight... a little while ago, wasn't it?"
The hand against his back slid around his waist, and Cloud didn't protest as he was pulled against the other man's chest, his head resting against the inside curve of Sephiroth's shoulder.
"Hours ago. You fell asleep earlier, while I was away."
"Oh yeah... with Vincent, I remember..."
Cloud felt the contentment of that afternoon, and the soft security of the blankets around him, Sephiroth's fingers carefully stroking his hair, banish the remnants of his nightmare completely. No darkness could touch him, not while he was protected by /this/ angel.
Slowly, the touch lulling him back into contentment, Cloud relaxed into a boneless heap, smiling as a fingertip drew its way along his jaw, gently tracing the bone beneath. Sephiroth chuckled, and the blonde slowly turned his head, surprised.
"I am not." Cloud felt more than heard Sephiroth stifle another laugh, his slight irritation quickly blunted by the continued attentions of those elegant hands.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Cloud shook his head slightly, almost amused at the question, and that, in such a short time, the horror of the dream had vanished completely.
"It's not important, nothing new... it's - mmmmmm..." Cloud trailed off, as Sephiroth found a rather sensitive spot between his shoulder blades, and he felt himself melting into the touch.
"... ah, do you like that?"
Cloud didn't have to answer, only shifted slightly, arching forward as the other man pressed just a little harder, until he murmured again, always amused to find new ways to catch the blonde off guard, very willing to do what it took to make him happy.
"How did it go, then..." Cloud murmured, as soon as he had caught his breath "Did you find any monsters?"
He felt almost weightless, and at the same time wonderfully weighed down, amazed he got the question through at all, mind and body both almost dizzy with bliss. He could sense Sephiroth's weariness on some subtle level, knew the man was tired though he showed no outward signs... no doubt there had been fighting.
"It went fine... we didn't lose a single man, though we did spend a lot of time tracking the bastards down."
Cloud nodded, soon found he had nothing more to say, not that words were necessary, Sephiroth still gently caressing him, as they sat in a wonderful, easy silence, together.
"I wish it could be like this forever..." the blonde murmured softly, and felt the hand pause its restless motion.
"... I... will make that true, if you really want me to."
"What..?" Cloud turned, surprised by the seriousness in Sephiroth's gaze, in his soft tone. "Fight the war all by yourself?"
"If it would keep you safe. If it would make you happy."
The blonde hugged him, always putting just a little more effort into the gesture than he knew was absolutely necessary... knowing he would never forget the time when this hadn't been possible at all, all the time he had been sure his dreams had been lost forever.
"I'd never let you..." he murmured, making sure it sounded as serious as he felt. "I'd /never/ let you do that alone."
It sounded ineloquent, somehow not enough, but Sephiroth's arms still tightened around him, barely shifting as they both lay back down, Cloud just now really paying attention - his heart skipping slightly as he tried to decide whether or not to be nervous - to just how close they were... only nude to the waist, yes, but still...
Sephiroth was unaware of any problems, his exhaustion showing just for a moment, as he drew his hand to his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose before throwing his arm carelessly back around the blonde's waist.
"When did you know, Cloud...?"
The blonde was utterly enraptured by Sephiroth's gaze, though he knew the white-haired man wasn't even putting any special effort into it. This close to him, though, and with only darkness as a background, the cool aquamarine was depthless, shifting from crystal clear ocean to milky jade to green bottle glass, as if nature herself were still trying to define perfection, unable to choose between such perfect beauties.
"When did you know that you loved me?"
He thought the word, didn't say it aloud, knew the other man wanted a true answer, not poetry, and though it was the absolute truth that he had been lost, taken, had his entire world upended from the first time he saw Sephiroth on a recruiting poster, saw his image on the nightly news... he knew the moment the man really meant, another memory that remained forever crystallized, tucked away beside so many others in his heart...
"I was walking down the south-east corridor, toward the eastern training room, just after I'd arrived in Midgar. You were there, practicing with Zack... I must have watched you for an hour, at least..."
He smiled, the bittersweet yearning of that past moment made brilliant, beautiful by its realization, that he was here, with all he had ever wanted... Cloud paused, as the white-haired man slid one hand against his cheek, sensing his still-hesitant hopes, determined to finally drive those fears away.
//... it's real... it's real it's real it's real...//
"You were taking a break, and there were some people, not soldiers, but friends, who came in to talk to Zack... and I watched him move off with them... and you stepped away. I saw... just for a moment, the look in your eyes. I didn't believe it, until it stayed... that you seemed to be... lonely... and that somehow, you might be, even a very little bit... like me."
He never would have said it, had not Sephiroth already mentioned all he had, and even now, Cloud was hesitant, only able to go on because those eyes told him he was telling the truth.
"I wanted to be there for you. I thought if you knew, if there was some way I could ever help you, or let you know... even though I wasn't anything special, that if I could ever do /anything/... I just loved you so much."
"... I love you too, Cloud."
The blonde blinked, staring. Yes, he had heard it before, when he shouldn't have been listening, and again, the words only half given... and now...
A kiss against the top of his head, one hand ruffling the blonde spikes almost playfully...
"I love you."
//I wanted to be there for you... I wanted you to know, you weren't alone.//
Cloud turned, doing his best to keep the motion fluid, disturbing as little of the world around him as possible. He had woken once more, not out of a nightmare this time, but simply because he was rested, feeling somewhat lucid for a change, after days of near total unconsciousness. He could still feel the aches in his body, and knew he'd sleep like a rock for at least the next few nights, if things remained this calm... but of course, he also felt better than he had in years... than he /ever/ had before.
//He loves me... he... really...//
The blonde was grateful he had woken up again, reveling in the chance to simply lay there and watch Sephiroth sleep. A sliver of moonlight had flooded the room, deepening the softness of every curve of fabric past possibility, alighting on the shining, sleek muscles that seemed ready, prepared for any danger, even in this still silence, the deepest part of the night.
Sephiroth's beauty was unreal, the moonlight turning his hair the color of burnished, liquid silver, that radiant glow giving him the slight edge the blonde had thought it would always take, to bridge the gap between man and god, easily drawing him into the sublime.
//So... what happens now?//
Cloud blinked in the darkness, let his eyes fall past the broad expanse of bare chest, down to one large, graceful hand, fingertips curled slightly into the air...
/I want him to touch me... I want him... like that, with me./
//It was a disaster, last time.//
/I want to try again. It wasn't all bad... and he thought he was doing the right thing, he didn't mean to hurt me, he didn't know... of /course/, he didn't mean to hurt me./
//What if you're still no good at it?//
God only knew what brought on these nighttime moods, how Cloud could let his gaze drift down, lower than the bare chest, to think about exactly what was covered beneath the slip of black silk and somehow not be embarrassed, to know he was afraid and yet feel somehow ready, and /wanting/...
//What if you're god awful? What if you say the wrong thing? Do the wrong thing? What if... what if... what if...//
/I think, I think he could forgive me. I think, he's so much like I wanted, but I still didn't expect him to be... he's /everything/ I could have hoped for... and I think, he could be patient with me... I think... he really would./
It was still so strange, to think that Sephiroth was really a person, with vulnerabilities, fears, and a past where people hadn't treat him with the reverence that Cloud took as nothing more than his due, his birthright. Strange... to think Sephiroth didn't will the world to be as he wanted it, that he suffered from small slights as well as great tragedies... nearly impossible, to think that he might need, and want things that he couldn't just /have/, that he wasn't always perfectly in control.
//Who hurt you, Seph? It wasn't just Hojo, though he holds the greatest share of the blame. I wasn't watching, for much of the time, and I couldn't know all of it... who hurt you, that you could have these fears with /me/?//
The blonde fighter had listened to every word, with a sharpness of a lifetime's worth of dedicated study, well past obsession, he knew, with the man he loved... and though the white-haired man hadn't said all that much, and Cloud had never thought to push him, he had learned some startling truths, starting with that vulnerability.
//I'll never let it happen again. I'll kill anyone who dares hurt you... /anyone/.//
The blonde tucked the feeling deep into his heart, a stubborn singular goal. He would win this war for Sephiroth, if for no other reason...
//... and that's what you want, then?//
Full circle, back to where he began...
//I want him to touch me, I want to touch him. I want to make love to him, and be happy and /believe/, believe that it's real, that there's a future, for both of us... I love him /so much/.//
The blonde heard the white-haired man's breathing shift, the slightest murmur upsetting the still calm of the night, and though Cloud knew it would wake him, he moved anyway, reacting to the sleeping man's nightmare, drawing a hand slowly along Sephiroth's arm. Astonishingly, the other man didn't wake up... and Cloud remembered what Zack had said, that The General was the lightest sleeper he had ever known...
//Maybe... he knows it's me, and he... trusts me?//
"Seph, it's all right... it's just a dream... it's not real."
... and without ever waking up, the white-haired man slid through the troubled moment, back into a dreamless sleep. Cloud smiled, turning away just long enough to lift his eyes to the sky, one of his oldest prayers, no words, not even a real thought, just emotion, sent up in supplication toward the beauty of the night, hope for the future, joy and thankfulness for now, for this moment...
... because Sephiroth was beautiful beyond words, perfect beyond compare...
//...and he loves me.//
Anjele didn't know what he had been expecting - a monster perhaps, something like the inhuman thing Hojo had transformed himself into, or perhaps something even more hideous, obviously inhuman - she wasn't really a she, had never been human...
//... but she's... beautiful...//
Jenova was watching him just as he was staring at her, dark blue eyes glowing even more luminously than a SOLDIER's, an unblinking gaze without pupils, irises, just the lanternlike blue... and he could see the way her skin /glittered/, a galaxy of spiraling arms and shifting galaxies dipped into the curve of her back, some of that shine dimmed by her long hair, knives of deepest midnight, obsidian broken to a killing edge... but the glittering sheen reappeared, almost twisting with the blue-black strands, a night sky scattered across her entire dark body, the half-opaque span of her form nothing but a gleaming drop drawn directly from the cosmos, full of stars and moons, burning light and the infinite void...
//My God, she's... beautiful.//
He stepped forward, though the word was a much softer murmur than it had been before, less of a command, touched with something like longing... and she held her hand out to him with fingers curved, as if asking, almost like a lover...
//she will devour me she will devour me she /isn't/ human - she is /beautiful/- she isn't /human/ and as soon as I touch her she will devour me whole...//
Anjele no longer cared, didn't have the will to even try to impart fear into the words, could feel the Jenova cells in his body reaching out to her just as she had extended an arm to him... and something /else/ reaching out...
/He/ was reaching out, his soul moving forward, to her, even as his instincts recoiled... a part of him wanted to be consumed by that blue-black darkness, to be devoured slowly by the chalky, cool breath of the eternal... he could taste it, her power, and all he had ever wanted, longed for, was to be special, to be noticed, and drawn into the plans of true power, no matter what his place, and it seemed, no matter what the sacrifices...
//... perhaps, this is to be... my destiny.//
It wasn't much, really, but Anjele found he held no regrets, that he wasn't even frightened, though he had every right to be.
Jenova's touch was bitter cold, stunningly strong, and before he knew it, without any seeming effort on her part, he was laying down beside her, and she had curled herself tightly against him... she was wearing nothing, smooth skin pressing against his body, but he felt nothing like attraction, could see that the curves of her body were only that, curves, undefined... she was actually sexless, though still so beautiful...
Icy fingers brushed against his throat, he was confused by the touch, the fact that those deep eyes seemed completely without intent, or malice... what did she want from him?
Anjele didn't dare move, though he felt as if he were being pressed under a plain of snow, a glacier slowly grinding into his bones... but it faded somewhat, submerging him completely but at the same time becoming bearable - and Jenova moved back into his mind, completely this time... he would be lost, he would be lost forever within her...
//Show me... show me this measure... of a human life.//
Sephiroth woke at a light brush against his cheek, instincts realizing it was Cloud many moments before his sleepy mind snapped to attention. The blonde had bent down, lightly kissing his cheek, and drew away even as the white-haired man sought to deepen the exchange.
//Too slow... damn.//
Sephiroth frowned, thinking of ways to get his chance back as his eyes followed Cloud around the edge of the bed. The blonde was wearing a dark blue kimono - Yuffie had fully stocked the entire house for their use, including the silk robes - and the contrast between the dark shade and his pale skin and hair made him look like nothing less than a porcelain china doll.
//Fragile... he's still so fragile.//
He and Cloud hadn't actually discussed much, what was going on between the two of them, even though they were now sharing a bed. The blonde was content to follow his lead, take whatever liberties the white-haired man wouldn't protest... but there was still the matter of all that had happened between them, the recent past, and Sephiroth was loathe to push the issue, unsure what waited on the other side. The blonde had returned his kisses without hesitation, and Sephiroth had tested his limits... but were those walls permanent? Had what they shared gone so horribly wrong, that it had wrecked anything more?
//I can live with that.//
Sephiroth knew that much was true, he'd been all but celibate through the entire Wutai war, actually used the fighting as a shield, the war as an excuse for not finding anyone, not looking for a relationship... he just couldn't /stand/ sex after a while, didn't want to look into the eyes of his lovers and see the same emotions there, the blank desire, possessive lust, or worse, nothing at all... and what he had with Cloud was already so much better, so much more complete than anything he'd ever had before...
He ignored the sudden surge of pressure and excitement through his groin, turned his eyes up to see Cloud turned away, looking in the mirror, hips swiveled provocatively, though the blonde didn't even know it - yes, he wanted Cloud, wanted him for that careless, innocent grace, wanted to feel those slender hips against his once more, caressing that supple frame, knowing he was giving pleasure where, for so long, there had only been pain, and that this time it would be truly /sharing/ something...
//If he doesn't want to, though, I won't. I meant it, I /won't/ hurt him again...//
"I'm going to go take a shower... if you'd like to join me... and then we can go to the hot springs?"
Cloud didn't mean to put the words in that order, Sephiroth could tell by the tone in his voice, but still... the white-haired man discreetly squeezed his legs together slightly against the sudden pull at his groin, doing his best to imagine Palmer in a bikini...
//Palmer in a bikini... Palmer in a bikini...//
Things did not improve, temptation wise, as he followed the blonde along the hallways to the shower room that led out to the private springs. Cloud was walking in front of him, the kimono smooth and silken against his narrow frame, outlining the slight curves and angles of his figure with impressive detail.
//Shower... shower and hot springs, it's /no big deal/. You've had no problem /kissing/ him until this morning - with /tongue/, I might add - so you can damn well stop acting like a horny chocobo and /walk/ down a /bloody hallway/!//
He was grateful Cloud hadn't turned, wasn't watching his continued struggle, though Sephiroth was sure he was fine outwardly, showing no sign of any problems, the several waves of heat and nervous excitement sweeping through him in growing succession.
//How old are you again?//
/Oh, shut /up/./
Sephiroth would have given anything to find the calm center that had unexpectedly tumbled from his grasp - damn these fickle moods, /damn/ these unexpected, unpredictable emotions... and damn Cloud for wearing /that/ silk robe!!!
The white-haired man averted his eyes slightly as the blonde half-turned, trying very hard not to see the shadows in the slightly curved neck, the muscles in his shoulders, even as thin as he was, there were so many soft curves begging him to touch.
"Is something wrong, Seph?" the nickname tripped from those lips like a jewel, "You're so quiet."
"I'm fine... I just..." The white-haired man had no idea what compelled him to speak, what impulse, that it would be easier to confess at least /something/...
"You're very beautiful, Cloud."
The smile brought him back to his senses, not seductive in the least, but innocent, and utterly /brilliant/ - it was heartrending, to see him so happy over such a trifle, such an easy thing to say, so /obvious/...
Gentle aftershocks calmed that first strong surge of emotion, and Sephiroth found it easier to follow Cloud into the bath, showers lined up in a row, each behind their own opaque partition, a door along the far wall leading out to the hot springs. He turned his attention back to the blonde just in time to watch the other man turn away, robe slipping down, falling off of his shoulders... Cloud looked back, watching the other man watch him, and Sephiroth smiled at his slight blush.
A moment later, the white-haired man felt a disturbing touch of heat rising in his own face, and quickly stepped back into his own shower, drawing the curtain and throwing his robe out after, determined to give Cloud his privacy...
//He's seen you naked. You've seen him naked. You've /slept/ together, no matter how awkward it was...//
Why did it seem now as if it had never happened at all? Why did everything seem so different?
/... it didn't mean what it does now. I didn't want him then... not in the same way. I want him... to know me - to /really/ know me, and still want to be with me... I just, I mean.../
//You don't know /what/ you want...//
He wanted Cloud... but as comfortable as they were together, he doubted it was going to happen anytime soon, and /he/ certainly wasn't going to press the issue... Sephiroth sighed, leaning his head against the front of the shower, turning the water on and refusing to move as it slowly heated up, though the long dousing of cold water did little to change his mood.
//Jerk off then, Mr. Pragmatist. It's not that hard to fix the problem, /God/ you got whiny all of a sudden.//
Sephiroth looked down, and slowly clenched his fist, punched it in a futile gesture lightly against the tile in front of him. He couldn't even bring himself to try that - knew it would only be desperate, pointless, a moment of physical release that wouldn't really make him feel better, and would only leave him with the same damn -
Cloud sighed in contentment, Sephiroth could easily hear it over the sound of the hot water... but he only shivered at the sound, and all at once found himself taking a few steps back, opening his curtain, moving without a sound...
//...oookay. Just what do you think /you're/ doing?//
Sephiroth didn't bother to think about it, knew that logically he must have looked like a fool, creeping naked and dripping wet toward the other shower, holding himself in an awkward, frozen position as he watched Cloud through the ripple at the edge of the curtain, warm air breathing out at him as the fabric moved - god only knew how a flash of bared skin, the curve of the thigh, chest, arm could be so captivating, but Sephiroth was fixated, lost watching the dance of skin and water...
//Watching him... as he once watched me, in silence, in secrecy...//
The white-haired man swallowed past a heavy lump in his throat, wondered how his mouth could be so dry when everything else, the floor, the walls, the air were saturated with liquid... and heat...
... and how Cloud could have gone from a man, to a beauty past words, a water nymph of legendary beauty and unspeakable charm, a creature utterly beyond his reach. Sephiroth closed his eyes for a moment against another powerful thrill, his entire body throbbing, needing, wanting, something so far past the simple physical that, though he knew it was a part of it, he could not separate it... and perhaps the strongest emotion, the one that nearly sent him to his knees, was relief... that the other man was here, that he didn't have to feel as if he were lost in an unknown world, with no one who would ever care.
//You're not alone... you're /not/ alone anymore.//
Jade eyes shot open, the white-haired man almost stumbling backward in sudden surprise, though the blue eyes that were watching him seemed not to notice - when in the world had Cloud gotten so close? - and the white-haired man felt the rising wave of steam add to his already flushed face, as Cloud drew back the curtain...
"C-cloud... I... I just-" The white-haired man put up a hand, to feign some sort of safe distance between them, anything that might dispel the blonde's sudden fears or worries, until he could bring his thoughts out of the senseless babble they had /never/ been in before... "I wasn't... I didn't, I didn't mean-"
The words cut off sharply, as the blonde reached out, and gently took his hand, teasing the larger fingers slightly with his own, before drawing the palm against his warm, wet chest. Sephiroth was breathless, silent, able to do nothing more than feel the beat of Cloud's heart beneath his hand.
"It's warmer in here... with me."
"Cloud..." He fought for calm, lost it, couldn't look up, knowing he would be lost - but looked anyway, losing his words again, in those sparkling blue vistas, endless - he could be lost, could be reborn in those seas, maybe even... forgiven...?
"I... I can't... you don't..."
"Touch me, Sephiroth. I /want/ you to..." The two smaller hands pulled his spread fingers down, across the finely compact muscles in his chest, stomach, helping them curl around his waist, and the white-haired man drew him closer almost without thinking, it was almost painful to hesitate, to keep any distance between them...
"Why are you afraid?"
Absolution, in the strength of that glowing gaze, the softness of the mouth that whispered to him... God, how did he get here, how did the moment get so serious... and he couldn't... he just couldn't...
"I don't know, Cloud... I..."
Sephiroth sucked in a sharp breath, as Cloud's hand moved down, lower than the hand on his own body, /much/ lower... and a spike of pleasure, sharper and sweeter than anything he had ever felt left the white-haired man trembling. He pressed forward, needing to catch himself against something solid, almost falling, until he was braced with his hands stretched out above both of them, the tile cool against his palms, where the water didn't hit, the shower pattering droplets softly against his back... and Cloud was still watching him, wary eyes somehow wise, something /eternal/ within, not questioning, simply accepting... accepting everything he was, all that he had done...
"I don't deserve this, Cloud... not you, not any of this... I don't know... I can't..."
Wet fingertips were sliding against the side of his face, beneath the now sodden pale hair, and as Cloud kissed him, the white-haired man could feel himself weakening, some final, vital resolve failing... he wasn't in control of this... but it didn't matter. He didn't have to be.
"Your heart... it's safe with me." The voice was a soft murmur, like a psalm, like the voice inside his own mind that had comforted him when no one else would. "I will never stop loving you, no matter what has happened, no matter /what/..."
The slick, warm body pressed closer, and Sephiroth moaned slightly against the side of Cloud's neck... relief, joy, /joy/... he didn't have to hide, he could finally let that last protection... fall away...
"Make love to me, Seph... let me feel you inside of me. You don't have to be afraid... not ever again."
Transcendent. Sephiroth had always scoffed at the word, at the idea that anything from the outside world could touch him, could reach the part of himself he /had/ to keep separate, to save himself, to keep from losing all that was safe...
Being with Cloud, this time, was transcendent, past anything he thought he knew, past imagining.
No need for words, they found a rhythm beneath the rivulets of water as natural as breathing, all around them warm and wet and broken only by sounds of pleasure, Cloud's hands finding sensitive spots no other had ever bothered to find, surprising him, driving his own desire to hear the blonde respond...
"You are so beautiful..."
No need, but he couldn't keep the words inside, breathless, as his hand slid along Cloud's arm, following the fingertips twined in his hair, thumb nuzzling the nape of his neck as those careful lips pulled his into another kiss. Sephiroth closed his eyes, felt Cloud twist against him in delight as their tongues met, testing, teasing... the hands drew away, lifting as far above his head as the blonde could get, rising up to his toes as he turned in a slow, easy pirouette, leaving Sephiroth all the room in the world to explore, hands sweeping down against the blonde's hips as he left small nips along the fighter's neck, nuzzling his way into curves that left Cloud shaking... and as Sephiroth felt Cloud arch against him, he felt the familiar tightening... paused, as he realized the other man must have felt him tense... and waited... he could still let go, would do /anything/ to keep from hurting...
"... don't stop."
Cloud turned, arching his back slightly as he looked into Sephiroth's eyes, flushed, the blue glow hazy with pleasure... and... anticipation?
"... please... Seph... it's all right... please..."
Ecstasy in its purest form, to find his way inside the blonde again... and each surge, each thrust was a promise this time... this would be forever, forever and always, a string of these tender moments moving to eternity... and when they ascended past this world, they would rise up to make love among the stars.
The blonde cried out beneath him, fingers tightening against his hand, and Sephiroth drew the back of his hand around the other man's tense, muscular thigh, slowly curled it around the shaft, already hard, waiting for him -
The word was breathless, but surprised, and even now the white-haired man could feel the rhythm breaking slightly, Cloud tensing not in rapture but fear...
//Afraid of feeling it, afraid of taking any pleasure for yourself, even now...//
"... with me, Cloud, I want you with me... don't be afraid..." He smiled, sending those words back to one who needed to hear them just as badly, murmuring in the blonde's ear. "... you need to feel what I do... I don't want this alone..."
//So good... god, you feel so /good/...//
He let the moment take him, losing himself in that rhythm, in the sound of the blonde's breathing, and his own... letting everything fall away beyond the feeling of Cloud... warm... safe...
//... all I need, all I want... yes... oh please... oh yes... yes... /yes/.//
He felt Cloud shudder, heard him cry out as he came, and followed almost instantly, though his release was so much more than the physical, a long, deep breath that shook him to his core, pleasure and contentment and relief and exhaustion sliding around inside of him unbound... and as he pulled out he did not step away, still leaning against the blonde's hot, smooth body, both hands pressed against the tile... and he could feel something slipping away, that great weight, all that hate and sorrow and fear, the very kernel of madness that had made him Jenova's easy target disintegrating, as if it had never been...
He didn't want to ever lose the calm that spun inside of him now, waves of still-dissolving pleasure rippling over his skin... but the memory came anyway, immediately, and defenseless as he was, he could not choose to ignore it, not to feel the pain...
//... and after it was over, after they'd fucked me, there was nothing in their eyes, not happiness, not excitement, not even victory. I was nothing to them then... less than nothing...//
"Look at me...?" Sephiroth swallowed hard, telling himself he was an idiot, even as his heart was suddenly pounding... "Please..."
//Yes,// his mind murmured a moment later, //you /are/ an idiot.//
Cloud had turned immediately beneath him, staring up with deep concern shadowing the blue depths... but when Sephiroth smiled, it vanished, replaced with love, nothing but love, and the blonde embraced him with a surprising laugh, turned those eyes back up as Sephiroth finally turned off the water, started coaxing the drooping blonde spikes back to life.
"I'll never... I'll always... I love you, Sephiroth, I'll love you forever."
Elegant fingers moved a few of the spikes out of the way, before the white-haired man leaned forward to kiss his brow.
"Always," he murmured, letting himself stay close, breathing in Cloud's scent, just a hint of it hovering beneath the smell of water. "I love you, Cloud. I'll never let you go."
He kept the promise immediately, finding a way to keep the blonde within reach, well within the distance of more than one kiss, as their soft footsteps slowly made the short journey to the hot springs.
//It still hurts... I... Mother?//
A hand against her hair, comforting, soothing.
//Jenova's touch burns deep... all you can do now is heal, and grow strong.//
Aeris shifted, all around her still yielding, comfortable... but her mother's touch was unnerving now, different, though it took her a few moments to realize why. The fingertips /flowed/ through her hair, the gesture more that of currents of water, slightly channeled, than anything resembling a human hand... and it wasn't Ifalna, or rather, wasn't /only/ her mother.
//What...?! Mother?!// Aeris opened her eyes, but all she could see were flowing ribbons of green light... the Lifestream...
/In the old days, when the Planet suffered... sometimes... sometimes, there would need to be a sacrifice./
//Oh mother, no.// Aqua eyes, the mirror of their surroundings, blinked away tears, though she had never understood how she could cry here... perhaps they were only the memory of tears, trailing a phantom path down her cheeks...
//Mother... what have you done?//
Author's notes - The month delay was spent eating at Denny's. Blame the Grand Slam Slugger.
1. Forgive me a bit for the lack of clarity or minor errors in the Vincent/Sephiroth scene, but I wasn't about to play the game through /again/ just to get all the particulars right.
2. Yes, I know Yuffie's house doesn't have a shower room. I'm still maintaining hack writer status... and the hot springs are right behind the house, all private-like, and no, those aren't in the game either... and right now it's 1:32 in the morning. Ask me if I give a shit : )
3. Well, apologies if the lemon scene sucks. I'm not very good at them. I especially don't like writing ones where the sex suddenly takes on some great meaning... but it just kind of happened like that in this one and I'm too tired to try and argue with it. If you thought it was too fluffy, well... this is my fantasy world, and I like WAFF, so you're just going to have to go write your own : ) .
4. For what it's worth, as another warning, there might be one more quick crap C/S lemon somewhere further on, although anyone who hated the whole romance part of the story probably stopped reading at chapter 26 anyway.
5. The soundtrack for the Escaflowne movie is really, /really/ good.
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