A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
Roman thought he'd fallen asleep. He was rather surprised, then, to find himself walking along a hilltop, the fingers of his left hand entwined with another hand, swinging gently and tugging just a little - rounded fingertips, where Jilly's were square. Short fingernails just had never looked right on this hand, though.
He gaped, head jerking up, and Annie was smiling at his baffled stare, the smile growing ever wider as she watched him trace her features with his eyes.
"You do remember me right? Short, dark... you used to say I had cute toes." He was thrown enough by that to glance down, and she flexed them in the grass. He could do nothing but stare. Annie - no. Impossible. How?
"You're dead... and I'm dreaming." It felt very real, and Roman couldn't remember the last time he actually had dreamed, certainly not enough to ever realize it was a dream. "I didn't... I'm not dead, am I?"
He doubted it. Roman thought he remembered the end of the battle, and the long slog back to North Corel. The day or so he spent awake after it all was over, reorganizing and taking account before finally dropping into... some bed, somewhere, with Jilly already asleep next to him.
Annie shook her head. "You're alive. It's all right. The Lifestream, this is... it was held back for so long, so this is a sort-of overflow. It should calm soon. I guess, if you want to think about it, it's a reward."
They reached the top of the slight incline, and Roman looked across a bright, sunny field - somewhere near Costa Del Sol, and the real place would look this beautiful again, very soon. He could see groups of people sitting here and there on the grass, all the way down to the sea. Families and friends and many others just enjoying the beautiful day. He even recognized a face, here and there, those who had been lost returning - and it didn't seem sad, not even bittersweet.
Roman grinned. He didn't really give a damn /how/ it was all happening, it was more than fair after all the hell they had been through. Annie was still looking at him, reached up to press against the space just above his nose. He knew what was there, in the real world, even if it didn't hurt now.
"I got attacked, and Nanaki - one of the lions from Cosmo Canyon - he saved me, but he scratched me too, trying to get the spawn to let go of me. Nothing bad, but the Materia weren't working so well yet, and... I dunno, I thought the scars looked kind of cool." Three cuts, near precisely spaced - and Annie nodded.
"I'm sure she will too."
"You'd like her. Everyone does."
"I've seen. I do, she'll be good to you."
She didn't have to say anything more, neither of them did. It was good to be here with Annie now, and it would be all right when she was gone, when he woke up next to the woman he knew he was going to marry. It would be good to raise a family in a peaceful, quiet world, good to live on a healthy Planet he could only barely remember from dreams like this.
Everything was going to be fine.
Zack was surprised by slim, delicate hands over his eyes, and he knew who they belonged to even as he pulled them away, keeping his hand around her slender wrist, fingers between the bangles, as he kissed her.
"I thought you might come." Zack murmured, and smiled. "Saved the Planet for you, hoped you'd notice. So hard to impress an Ancient these days."
Aeris giggled and kissed him again, tasting like mint and spring. He opened his eyes slowly as she pulled back, could feel a breeze stirring cool and clear deep in his chest, draining him of anything but peace as he watched her smile.
"I'm convinced, mighty Mr. Soldier. Besides, I'm not the one you have to worry about impressing anymore."
"Speaking of..." He glanced around lazily, but no one else was in sight, the pleasant grove bordered by trees and flowering bushes, a little corner of paradise marked out just for him.
"Tifa is with her father, and her mother... discussing bridal gowns."
"Oi." Zack grinned, tipping his head with a bedraggled sigh. He'd been expecting as much, really, and had every intention of proposing, really. Eventually.
"So... Hojo's really gone?"
He hated to even say the name here, to bring up any suggestion of the man in the midst of all this peace, but it wasn't a magic spell, couldn't call back the dead. Nothing changed, save that Aeris' gaze went distant, and she crouched down, one hand against the ground.
"He... yes. It was what he wanted, the Planet felt it, to undo himself. It made him... happy." She glanced up at him. "Do you think that was wrong?"
Two days ago, Zack was certain he would have said yes, would have wanted to make an intercontinental tour of pain and punishment out of the man who had dared to cause so much pain. Now, though, the sun was shining, everything seemed fresh and new, and this was as much the waking world as his dream. The dream of the Lifestream, the Planet returning to normal. Better than normal, better than anything he'd ever known, now that Jenova was truly gone. Everything would change, everything would get better, there was nothing left in him that wanted to focus on the past.
Nothing, except that someone had been left behind. The most important someone.
"Aeris, I need you to tell me-"
He didn't have the chance to turn before he was tackled from the side, hard enough that he could barely regain his balance. His chin immediately knocked against a field of tall blonde spikes, and he grabbed up as much of Cloud as he could hold as something clenched and released the whole of his chest.
"Cloud..." He could hear his breath tremble a bit, any other words just not coming past the relief.
"Aeris said you were fine, but I wanted to see it. She told me what you did, what everyone... you did a great job, Zack. You did it. You won."
"Ah, kid, we won. You won, I just tied up the loose ends." Zack held on, just for the feel of a strong, healthy body in his arms. Cloud hadn't looked that good when they'd brought him back, it would take him a while to recuperate to this point in the real world, but it would happen, he was sure of that now.
"I was so worried about you. We all were, when you wouldn't wake up. Seph was beside himself, you scared the hell out of him. He'll be so glad when..."
Zack trailed off, staring down worriedly at the silence, and the blankness in Cloud's eyes. Polite confusion, as if none of what Zack had said meant anything at all. He pulled back, putting his friend at arm's length, hands on his shoulders.
"Cloud what's... you're not dead. You know that, don't you?"
Zack resisted the urge to shake him, force him to admit the obvious because the silence was scaring him, carving jagged holes in his necessary relief.
"Spike, talk to me. What's going on?"
The confusion turned into a worried frown, Cloud's eyes fixed on some distant point, refusing to look him in the eye. "Aeris..." He murmured weakly, a soft, frightened plea. Zack turned toward her, feeling a sudden spike of uncomfortable anger, tempered it down with his own confusion, because the Aeris he knew was kind, gentle, would never have done anything to Cloud.
The Aeris he knew would have been giving him the same apologetic look, the same pained half-smile as this girl before him now. Would have had a resolute, unwavering determination in her eyes, just like now.
It was the Aeris he knew, but he didn't understand it at all.
"I'm sorry, Zack."
He whirled back around, at the sudden feeling of cool air against his palms - Cloud had vanished.
Zack snapped awake, just as the sun was rising, the unexpected sound of some brave bird, one of the first to return, trilling in the air. He barely heard it, shocked and hurt and confused, that seeing Aeris and Cloud again had only made things worse.
Sephiroth did not dream at all.
The shouting echoed through three floors, even with the doors shut. Zack had been on his way to see Reeve, nothing more than routine, and it was ShinRa tradition that made him stop instead in the lobby, watching along with the curious receptionist and three bewildered pages as shadows lurched behind a closed, frosted door. Reeve was probably seated, which meant Rufus was the one pacing back and forth. Both appeared to be doing equal amounts of the yelling.
//Business as usual.//
Mostly, it was President ShinRa who had been like this, sometimes Heidigger, but Zack could only imagine the sort of head-butting that was happening now, with Rufus back and Reeve unwilling to give up his position. He couldn't really be worried, just looking at Rufus it was easy enough to see the changes. Fleshed out and healthy, Zack was certain they would still be there. A little older, a little wiser, Rufus probably wasn't even going to kill Reeve to get his position back.
The door opened with a grace that didn't match the screaming - another traditional ShinRa moment, the things that happened behind closed doors never talked about, no matter who heard them. Rufus strode out, Scarlet at his side, with the Turks trailing a few paces behind. It was so much like what he remembered, Zack had to keep from rubbing his eyes.
The former president looked equal parts likely to celebrate with a drink or tear the head off the first person to cross his path, possibly both. The Turks were showing their happiness through a total lack of expression, save that Reno was swaggering enough for three people.
Business as usual, except this time Zack didn't bother trying to hide his grin.
"... top of the morning, el presidente."
"Not quite yet. Reeve wants to set up a board, something a little more formal and time-consuming than just giving me back /my company/." It would have been more foreboding, if not for the wide, manic grin on his face. "Tell you the truth, Zack, I think we should have just stayed in Junon. The Sister Ray would have made a hell of a supporting point, I think."
He grinned at Scarlet, she smiled back. Rufus's good cheer was a little strange, but her transformation was almost more than Zack could take. A glacial woman, melted because she could, because Rufus was back and everything had changed - and who knew, maybe she'd been visited by some relative as he had, as everyone he saw seemed to have. Take down a few guilty burdens, long-held regrets, and maybe even Scarlet was a relatively normal person.
//... or would be, without that dress.// Zack kept from rolling his eyes, and stepped to the side to let them pass. Halfway down the hall, Rufus turned back.
"How is he?"
Of course, Zack had gone there the first thing in the morning. Of course, it was where he was going after the check-in with Reeve, and Rufus knew it was the only thing on his mind.
"No change, there's been no change."
Rufus nodded, the smile falling away. Zack was astonished at the quiet, careful look on his face - definitely a different Rufus than the one he remembered.
"You let me know when - if... there'll be a memorial. Wherever, whatever. I'll make it happen."
Zack tried to say 'thank you' but it stuck in his throat, and Rufus had already turned away.
"Zack." Reeve was waiting for him, looking just as pale and haggard as the rest of them, a little more ashen than Zack was expecting. Maybe Rufus wouldn't have to wait so long to take back the company after all.
"I can see that look on your face. I'm not dead yet, you know, and if Rufus thinks he can just waltz in here resurrected and take back the company." He tried to play it straight but his eyes were twinkling and before long he was choking back laughter and Zack was chuckling too.
"... this was /way/ weirder than the Wutai war." Zack sighed, a deep breath getting him back under control. Reeve nodded, wiping tiny tears of laughter out of his eyes.
"So, I haven't had a chance to check yet. Cloud is..." He frowned when Zack did. "Hell, Zack. Is Sephiroth...?"
"Hasn't said two words to me, not since we found him."
The call had gotten to him when he'd been on the edge of running out on all of them, and finding his friends himself. Sephiroth, carrying Cloud, and at first Zack had thought that he had died, bare skin so pale and his chest just barely moving. Sephiroth had refused help, reacted so fiercely when anyone had tried to get close no one had dared. It had even taken Zack a long time to break through, just enough to convince Sephiroth to wrap Cloud in a few blankets, but not enough to get him to let go, to let anyone try to help him.
"The doctors can't do anything, not anymore."
It was the only thing Sephiroth had said, and the look in his eyes... Zack tried not to think about it, so cold and desolate it still made him uncomfortable to remember. Sephiroth had held Cloud all the way back to the medical quarters, silent and never taking his eyes off the near-motionless blonde. Zack hadn't been able to come up with a plan by the time they had arrived, how to get Cloud from his friend's unwilling hands without hurting either of them. Sephiroth had surprised him, though, placing Cloud carefully on the nearest bed, brushing a few strands of blonde hair back, and Zack had to look away, the despair in his eyes breaking into something even worse. He looked back just in time to catch Sephiroth, as he slid silently to the ground.
Two days later, and he still wasn't talking, wouldn't move, almost as bad off as Cloud was. Zack nearly had to force-feed him to make him eat. In a way, it was almost a mercy, Zack wasn't sure he /wanted/ to know what Sephiroth knew, just what the hell had happened to him and Cloud.
"How's everyone else doing?" He needed a respite, needed a few moments of good news before going back to try and stare down the silent room. Breaking through had always come so easy, but now Zack was starting to doubt it would happen at all. He needed a break, but only realized how caught up in his own thoughts he was when the words 'shotgun wedding' broke through.
"Yuffie's expecting, it looks like. Godo's... Godo didn't take it too well."
"Big surprise there. Ex-Turk the future father of the heir to Wutai. So they're coming out of this war-"
"Straight into a bridal shower, yes. They'll be having the ceremonies while they're scraping the blood off the walls, it looks like."
"Lovely. So should we send wedding gifts or baby shower-" The teasing smile vanished in a heartbeat. "God, wait. Wait, Vincent..."
Vincent had been through the Hojo-o-matic, just like Sephiroth, and Cloud... and Elicia, the last unfortunate victim of all that experimental terror. God willing, the last.
Reeve nodded. "I know, that was what frightened Godo most too, but the midwives there say nothing's wrong with the baby. Yuffie's too stubborn to have tests in Midgar, ultrasounds. Doesn't trust ShinRa technology. She says Aeris told her the baby was healthy. Told her in a dream. Vincent's wearing holes in the floorboards, pacing, even though he says he had a similar dream. Godo as well, come to think of it."
"I dreamed of Aeris too." //- and Cloud.// Zack thought, but didn't say, with no desire to discuss it with Reeve or anyone else.
"I dreamed of my family, and Tseng, oddly enough. We used to get coffee together, you know?" Reeve looked up at him with a strange expression Zack had never seen on his face. "I think he's making the moves on Aeris, actually. At least that's what he said."
Zack blinked. Now /there/ was something he'd never... Wow.
"Just when you think you've heard it all..."
"Or seen it all." Reeve was chuckling again. "Cid's declaring his ship a 'pants-on' zone from this point on."
"Oh no... Rufus and Scarlet?"
"Apparently. I can't say I blame them but... does that ship actually /have/ any door locks?" Reeve chuckled, and as it died Zack took a few steps back toward the door.
"I should go." As if it made a difference. As if anything had changed. As if Cloud even knew he was there. He couldn't face the pity on Reeve's face, hated hovering in doorways and wondered why he felt he had to wait to be excused.
//No, that's not it. I don't really want to go. I don't want to face them. Him.//
"It's good to see you, Zack, as always. Take care."
Whatever teasing remark he was going to make dissolved in his mouth, and Zack just raised a hand.
"I'll stop by later."
He tried not to hurry, but North Corel wasn't big enough for him to stall forever, and all too soon he found himself in a small, quiet wing of the hospital, set aside mostly for - well, mostly for Cloud. It was the most they could think to do for him.
The room was too white. Zack hated rooms this white, most of them were morgues and even in the ones that weren't, nothing good ever happened inside of them.
Nothing was happening now, everything was still as he had left it, breakfast untouched by the table near the window. Sephiroth, long hair adding an unnecessary extra paleness to the room, looking out the window, though probably seeing none of it. Cloud on the bed, an I.V. in his arm but the other machines had been turned off. Sephiroth must have done it, but Zack didn't blame him. No point in monitoring what didn't change.
Cloud was gone, and Zack didn't want to think it, that the body had been left behind alive merely to torture Sephiroth with. A slight rise and fall of the chest now and again, Melissa suggested brain damage, something during the fight or the fall or god-knew-what had happened to him inside the WEAPON. Plausible as it sounded, Zack didn't think it was right.
Of course, the only person who had the answers was as unresponsive as Cloud.
Zack sighed, dropped the paper next to the untouched breakfast, though he doubted Sephiroth would bother to read it. It was difficult enough just considering what would happen from here, having to read about other people living it was enough to break a man.
"You should eat something."
Sephiroth looked indescribably wrong, out of his usual black-on-black, pale pants and cotton top lending a sickly cast to his skin. He hadn't left the room, Zack wondered if he'd even shifted positions on the low ledge. He never moved away, but never closer, either, and Zack knew that the halting, intentional distance he kept between himself and Cloud meant something very bad.
He didn't want to be right. He didn't want to know.
"Can I bring you anything?"
Silence. Sephiroth could do this for days if he wanted, Zack knew, closing himself off. A small spark of frustrated fury rose up inside, and Zack tossed subtlety away.
"Are you going to tell me what happened or do I have to beat it out of you?"
He meant it as a joke, honestly, but it came out very flat. It did get Sephiroth to look at him, though, and he couldn't really stay angry. The green eyes had lost nearly all their usual sharpness, unguarded and devastated. A warrior with nothing left to fight, no reason to do any of the things that had once defined him, defined everything.
He still didn't answer, just looked back, as if expecting him to provide a solution when Zack couldn't even imagine the problem.
"Talk to me, Seph. We can't help Cloud if we don't know what happened.
"You can't help Cloud at all. No one can." Green eyes turned to the motionless body, Zack was stunned to see them shine, a thin film of tears making them glow even more brightly than usual. "He's not even there."
Of course he hadn't forgotten the dream - more than a dream. Hadn't forgotten seeing Aeris or Cloud and the strange look in his eyes when he vanished... but Sephiroth knew what made it all make sense, Zack knew he did, and had to hear it from him.
"So where is he?"
"Aeris took him." Sephiroth's voice was steady, quiet, but he didn't once look at Zack, or Cloud's body on the bed.
"Why would she do that?"
Zack could keep a running tally of the times he'd seen Sephiroth smile, and two-thirds of them were smiles like these, the kind that were brought out because the worst parts of despair didn't come with any expression strong enough.
"Oh, because I am the worst kind of monster. You save people like him from monsters like me. That's what Aeris did... it's what's done."
"Seph, whatever Hojo did to you in there..."
"Hojo didn't do anything to me, Zack."
The feeling he'd been trying to avoid, the one he knew would come eventually, when they'd all survived and got to this place - yes, there it was. It hurt as bad as Zack had known it would, and he felt very, very cold.
"How did you... you got the access codes. It's the reason you went. How..."
Silent green eyes met his, watching as he figured out what, in a way, should have been obvious. Sephiroth was logical, after all, calculating and precise - and cold.
... and he had never tried, before Nibelheim, before all of this. Never tried to introduce them because that sort of a man would tear Cloud apart without even trying.
"... oh, Seph, what the hell did you do?"
"I didn't know what else to try. He was dying, Zack. Cloud was going to die no matter what happened, and I couldn't... Hojo would have known - he was a stupid bastard, but he knew pain, knew how to use it to get what he wanted. If I had told Cloud, Hojo would have..." He smirked slightly. "It almost worked. I took the risk and it was almost... it should have been all right."
"You... you made Cloud think that- you gave him back to-"
It made sense, it really did make perfect sense what Sephiroth had done, but Zack was having a very hard time not lunging for the man's throat, not helped at all by knowing that Sephiroth wouldn't have stopped him, that he fully believed he deserved it.
"Do you hate me now, Zack?" There was an undertone to the question, that said it didn't really matter either way. Sephiroth could not go any further down.
Deep breath, and another deep breath, third time was not the charm but he hadn't yet punched Sephiroth in the face so Zack figured he was doing all right. He had to have known, a part of him had to have known that Sephiroth could have done this and would have thought... but when he closed his eyes all he could see was Cloud.
"No." He could hear his voice shake, but there wasn't much he could do about it. "No, I don't hate - I just... I have to go."
He was fleeing, because he didn't know how to handle it if he stayed, didn't know how to handle Sephiroth watching him go without saying a word, believing that he deserved it and damn, damn but right now Zack couldn't say he was wrong.
Sephiroth watched his friend storm out of the room, only barely controlled, pain and anger in every line of his body. He wouldn't be back until at least tomorrow, and the first words out of his mouth would be an apology Sephiroth knew he didn't deserve.
... and then, then time would stretch, without words or anything left to do.
//How much longer can it take?//
It wouldn't be so many more days, he thought, before Melissa or one of the other doctors would approach, and explain what they would have to do, with the body Cloud had left behind.
//It's too much trouble to even support him, after all he's done for you? You can't even keep him alive?// It was a stupid, selfish thought, but he clung to it tightly, needing the hate and the hurt to keep himself together.
No doubt Melissa would bring along something to instantly, quietly bring things to an end. After all, the savior of the world deserved a nobler death than dying by starvation.
He would have to watch. He would have to watch them kill what was left, and then he would have to stand up, and leave the room...
After that, he would have to do something, but he had no idea what it would be.
Sephiroth turned, allowing himself to look at Cloud, his former lover's body looking startlingly healthy in the sun. It shouldn't have been that way, or perhaps he should have just stopped looking in the daylight. At least in the nighttime, the shadows would fall in and he could convince himself Cloud was more dead than alive, losing whatever part of him Sephiroth needed him to lose, so he could let him go.
"No. No, even now... you're beautiful."
A bitter grin twisted his mouth. It wasn't any sort of stoic power that kept his eyes so dry now, he simply wasn't prone to crying. It would have been better if he could have. Instead, the pain just kept building in his chest, until he wondered how he was breathing, how his heart continued to beat when someone was so obviously packing ice and concrete in between his ribs.
He wasn't going to live long, once Cloud was gone. He would find a way out, or allow one to happen to him. What was the point? Another long procession of years alone, without even a battle to lose himself in? Cloud's love was what had made life beautiful, now that he knew that, he couldn't go back to the way things had been before. For all Sephiroth was and all he could do, he couldn't make life worth living on his own.
His stomach grumbled, and Sephiroth finally stood, shifting a few mild aches out of his body. It was stupid to think skipping breakfast was any sort of atonement, so he didn't bother not eating. It wouldn't stop the real gnawing sensation, but he ate anyway, mechanically swallowing cold eggs and colder toast.
Eating, not eating, breathing, standing, tossing himself out a window, all of it had the same meaning now. Aeris stared out from his memories, calm and steady and sure, and he didn't even bother trying to push her away.
Sephiroth glanced down at the paper Zack had left behind, a full-page story with only the vaguest explanations of what had happened, how the war had been won, alongside pictures of the Mideel crater, where the real victory had taken place. The Lifestream never really looked right on film, never with the same shifting glow that it had in real life.
His finger tapped against the picture once, twice, and paused, hovering over the edge.
Zack knocked on the door. Of course, no one answered. He only stopped for a moment when he saw the rumpled, empty bed and the bare space at the window where Sephiroth usually sat. The paper was bent in an upside-down V, waiting for him on the floor, though it was quite obvious where they had gone. Funny he hadn't thought of it himself, before now.
He checked the bathroom anyway, even though the lights were off and no one could have hidden in such a small space. Just going through those motions, keeping his mind occupied so he wouldn't start hacking things to bits with his sword.
He stepped on the paper as he passed, even the crinkling seemed too loud, and sat down on the bed. Closed his eyes, because a quiet moment was still too strange to face head-on.
The breeze was cool against the back of his neck, and he could hear a bird singing somewhere, through the half-open window. Birds. God, he'd notice them forever after they'd been absent for so long.
He took a bite of the sandwich he'd put in the bag. Cold. Damn, Sephiroth would have hated that.
"Zack?" Tifa's voice, soft and unintrusive. "Zack, I just-"
It took her two steps into the room to realize what was wrong, and she froze, staring behind him, and at the window, and back to him, finally to the sandwich in his hand. His nonchalance was throwing her, so it took her a few more breathless moments to be properly upset.
"Sephiroth took him."
"Took him?! Where?"
"He left before I arrived, probably out a back exit. No one's guarding this place, not with him here."
"Where did he, why would, where-" Tifa turned to leave, spinning on her heel and reeling the panic in, waiting for an answer. Her face was so expressive, brows drawn up at just the right angle for exasperated confusion, that he didn't seem concerned. "Where did they go?"
He thought the better of just pointing at the paper with his foot, and leaned over to retrieve it instead. "Mideel." It was a useless visual reference, she never even looked, eyes fixed with his.
"Mideel? Why would they go there?"
"He wants to bring Cloud back. The Lifestream's still there, right at the surface."
"I don't understand."
Zack sighed. "I don't either, not really. Seph is rarely wrong, though. He can be wrong, and he's not even wrong." Heel of his hand against his eyes, and Zack brought a knee up just to try and balance himself out. Shapes the body took, when the pain was a dull mental ache and he was too tired to do more than accept it. Tifa bit her lip, and moved to him, and when he reached for her she wasn't any more tense than he was. The Planet was safe, the war was over, and even if they had wanted to their bodies had just burnt out to it, unable to handle any more.
"He'll come back, they'll both come back. Otherwise we'll never see them again." He kissed her cheek, her lips, her cheek, and nuzzled his way under her chin. "No. He'll come back, they both will."
It was easier, now, to believe.
It would have been a beautiful day for a picnic. The sky was an intense, brilliant blue, and hovered above the edges of the trees as if it might come down at any moment, drowning everything.
Sephiroth looked down, not expecting to see it reflected in Cloud's eyes but feeling the ache anyway when they stayed closed. He shifted his grip, leaning over the edge of the cliff, watching a few tiny pebbles slip away beneath his foot, dropping and disappearing without a ripple in the Lifestream below.
Zack must have stopped anyone from following them, no doubt they had noticed the missing truck. He hadn't bothered with trying to hide himself boarding the ship, knew no one would dare to question him, even now. Zack was smart enough to figure it out, and maybe still angry enough to let him go. There was a good chance he'd even called ahead, because there wasn't anyone at the site when he finally reached Mideel, nothing but a bit of empty scaffolding half-engulfed by Lifestream now, the monitoring station on the other side resting empty for the moment, quite possibly for good.
Sephiroth ignored it, he'd brought all he'd needed with him, and quietly set Cloud down, pulling the rope out of the pack he'd brought, methodically tying it to a nearby tree. He didn't bother tying it to himself, or Cloud, or trying to keep them together. Aeris would likely take care of that first, no matter what he did.
Once more, it was going to be all or nothing. He wasn't so sure this wouldn't just kill them both - but he would bring Cloud back or he would die with him, and either of those fates was better than what would come if he did nothing.
"Come on." It was quiet, and not at all dramatic, as he lifted Cloud into his arms, easily maneuvering his way down the cliff face with one hand on the rope, the other bracing the limp body against his chest. It didn't take long for the heat of the jungle to fade to the strange, burning cool of Mako, vapors rising like menthol, cold and burning when he breathed them in. He could hear it whispering, or maybe it was singing, the same quiet sounds that had always buzzed at him whenever he was near too much raw Mako. He ignored it, not important when he was already fairly certain he was going to his death.
Sephiroth hugged Cloud's body closer to him, glancing back up one last time into the brilliant blue sky.
So be it. He dipped his head down, placing a careful kiss among the blonde spikes. Maybe the last.
"I love you, Cloud."
He let go of the rope.
"I was afraid you'd do something like this."
Sephiroth jerked back, hand closing around the end of a rope that was no longer in his hand. Cloud was nowhere to be seen. He realized then that he was standing up, that he remembered feeling the Lifestream come up and...
He turned. Gast lifted a hand in greeting. His eyes seemed tired, but then, they always had.
"You know why I'm here?"
"Of course. It's collective consciousness, to a point. I would hypothesize that I would go mad, from so many different stimulus... but no. It's fascinating, really. I didn't think it would work this way." He put his hands in his pockets, leaning back a bit on his heels. "We are, after all, defined almost entirely by our relationships with those around us."
It was one of the last things Gast had said to him, after Sephiroth had done something or the other that had been painfully anti-social, and hadn't understood why the one scientist would be upset when Hojo wasn't.
He understood now, at least he hoped he did, and Sephiroth also hoped it wasn't true. He didn't want to think about what sacrificing Cloud defined in himself.
"You're being too hard on yourself. It isn't as if the rest of the world would have done so much differently, in your position. It might not be the best thing, to fail, but it does happen."
"Voice of experience?" It was mild, and came with a grin, and Gast smiled back, sighing.
"You can still leave, Sephiroth. I'm here... to tell you that. Whether you've been forgiven or not, whether you deserve it, or it was justified..."
"Aeris hasn't forgiven me."
"She'll destroy you. The Cetra will make her do it. I know why you're here, and if it's his happiness - he's happy here. It's rather impossible not to be happy here. If you love him, it might be for the best to let him go."
"I can't. If you know... then you know I can't."
He didn't have his sword, didn't expect he would have been allowed to bring it here, but it was still strange to walk into danger without it. Sephiroth tried to ignore the empty space, where the weight of it should have been, stepping forward as Gast moved to the side. A path had appeared behind the man, vaguely familiar though he wasn't sure yet why.
"Good luck to you, boy, for whatever it might help."
It took him a good five or six steps down the road to realize he was in Nibelheim.
//The Promised Land.//
Sephiroth turned back, just slightly, not surprised to see that Gast had vanished. He would be alone in this, which was fine. His hand flexed, nerves keyed enough just by the lack of a weapon, something he had always carried in peacetime, let alone war.
The sound of children laughing greeted him, they were playing in the back of a pickup truck parked along the wall of the first house he walked past. He heard them grow silent as he passed, but when he turned to look they giggled and hid behind the side, playing a game, not really afraid.
No need to fear, not him and not here. A cool, gentle breeze blew across his face, of course the day was even more perfect here than it had been back in the real world. The view was clear all the way to Mt. Nibel, not dark or foreboding but merely a mountain now, gleaming brightly with snow.
He had been worried Aeris might be waiting with an army to attack him, but as he moved further inside the village only a few people even gave him a second glance. A woman, carrying an infant - he recognized her instantly from Cloud's description. Elicia, and she looked at him for a moment before a man took her gently by the elbow, leading her inside. Not quickly, though, no one was overly troubled by his presence, though they all must have known... and even those who didn't... they had all been corpses slashed and pinned by his sword, innocent and dying as the town burned around them.
The first person to speak to him stepped toward him immediately, and as Sephiroth looked at her he could pick out the parts of himself he hadn't seen in Vincent Valentine, the shape of her eyes and the sharpness at the corners of her mouth.
Lucrecia looked behind her even as she walked forward, taking him by the arm, pulling him down an alley between two of the smaller buildings. He reached up to touch her face as soon as they stopped, and for a moment she let him, before cupping his hand in both of hers.
"I know why you're here. You can't stay. You /can't/, she already knows you're here." Her eyes never strayed from his face, and the frightened mask of her face shattered into something like joy, and disbelief, reaching up just to touch him, as he had done to her.
"My god, it's really you. It's really... I knew you'd grow up handsome." She laughed, and he realized she was standing on tiptoe to reach him better. "Tall too."
"Mother... I have to go. You know - you know what I've done, and what I have to do."
He probably inherited his stubbornness from her, she refused to let sorrow overwhelm a steely anger. Hands fisted in the material of his jacket, and she braced herself against the ground as if she could anchor him to the spot.
"She doesn't care /why/! I know, we all know, we saw it all but she doesn't care. The Cetra never forgave you for the first time, for /existing/... you can't go. They'll kill you, she'll kill you, and you won't get him back."
"You knew what loving Vincent Valentine would cost you, what it would do to you and to him." She stilled, his hands on her shoulders, gazing towards the ground, and did not answer. Sephiroth tipped forward, and down, brushing the hair away from her face, planting a kiss on her brow. Breathing in a scent so familiar it seemed impossible he had forgotten it, some distant, primal memory of warmth and connection.
"I'll go with you. I don't care what she does to me." She already knew he would say no, he could hear the resignation in her voice.
"You've suffered enough in my name." He pulled away, and smiled until she did too, wiping away the small drops that beaded in her eyelashes. He turned back, still not ready to reach his destination.
"You fight her, don't you dare give up without a fight." Lucrecia's voice was hard, cold, and if he died here today she would be very angry with him. He knew he inherited this from her too.
Sephiroth nodded, without turning around, moving out of the alley and around the shadow of the water tower in the center of town. He wasn't certain where Cloud might be, but had a fair guess it was not the ShinRa mansion, certainly not the Nibel reactor, if those places even existed as they had in the real world.
The town was so small, it took him no time at all to walk across the grass-studded stone in what stood for a plaza here. The home - the person he was looking for, he saw her in more than enough time to feel nervousness settle heavy in the heels of his boots and the palms of his hands.
She wasn't even facing him, kneeling as she pressed a flower bulb into the earth - and this already seemed an infinitely more daunting task than meeting Aeris. He cleared his throat, a few paces behind her, though she had to know he was here, that he had been coming even before he realized he would have to face her.
"Hello... Miss Strife."
Cloud had spoken a bit of his mother, only when Sephiroth had asked. A strong woman, not so affectionate or kind - having Cloud had forced her from Midgar, sent her off to face the world alone, the kind of thing even a mother would be bitter for. Still, Cloud had said, she was the one who had come to his aid, when Tifa's father had been about to go too far. Held him at gunpoint - she would have shot him, Cloud was sure of it.
Sephiroth wasn't so sure the woman standing in front of him now wouldn't shoot. She stood up, wiping her brow and hair turned to gold twisted wire, burnished with dirt and sweat, gently slapping the rest of the grit from her dress and hands.
"Hello." The word held no infliction, but he knew there was no need to offer much in the way of explanations.
"I need to speak with your son."
"He won't want to see you."
"I know. I need to, even so."
Quietly, she studied him. Sephiroth thought it would be no real challenge to get past her, just a woman, after all. If she hadn't been Cloud's mother, the woman he'd already killed once - she deserved no further indignities. If he was here to atone, it was to her as well as Cloud.
"He's in the back. Fixing a bad patch on the roof with Mr. Lockheart, but you can tell him I need to see him for a moment. Tell him to come up front."
The woman tipped her head to the side, brushing a few strands of hair behind her ear as the kerchief holding it back slipped a bit. The sunlight glinted, just so, off eyes and hair, and she was history's prism. Cloud's mother, and there was a terrible strength in her, even now. Old wounds and old pain were distant because this world was beautiful, but she hadn't forgotten. The set of her shoulders, the wariness, he could see how she passed it along to Cloud, all that knowledge that the world was a dangerous, unforgiving place. The strength too, surviving beyond help or ability or even the reason to do so.
"No one would have come for me, you know. Not this far."
It was her blessing and her forgiveness, when he had thought it would be a grievous crime to even ask. Sephiroth didn't know what to say, and she turned back toward her flowers, expecting nothing from him. The distance to the back of the house couldn't have been more than a handful of yards, he could hear the sound of hammers and voices muttering from here, but it was easily the longest walk of his life.
Aeris hadn't stopped him yet, and he dreaded finding out why.
"Hey, look out!"
He glanced up just in time to see the board falling down, the better half of a two-by-four, and thought that of all the ways Aeris could think to kill him it was certainly one of the stupidest. His reflexes didn't need his help to react in time, reaching up and grabbing the beam out of the air. He could see two pair of feet at the edge of the steeply sloping roof, though the sun was brilliant enough to keep the rest from view.
"You all right?"
The man who came down first ignored the ladder completely, jumping down to hit the ground with a solid thud. He was a mountain of a man, shoulders broad to take on the responsibility of home and family and even greater, an entire town. Lockheart, Tifa's father.
//You're playing with me, aren't you?// He didn't know if Aeris could hear him but didn't doubt it. //Trying to see if one of /them/ will kill me, so you don't have to?//
"Hey, sorry about-"
If it was her plan, it didn't seem to be working very well. The apology trailed off, as the elder Lockheart realized who he was looking at, and regarded him quietly for a moment. No anger in his eyes, not really, just a careful, studying gaze.
"Who is it?!" Sephiroth's eyes snapped up to the edge of the roof. Cloud's voice, and little else mattered except seeing him again, whatever might happen next.
"Visitor for you." Lockheart's eyes never strayed from his. "You need me to stick around?"
A laugh. Bright and clear, the kind that Cloud didn't toss away like this, over so little. "Why? No, no go on. I've taken enough of your day as is. I can finish it up on my own."
The man nodded, and with one last look at him, walked around the corner. The world was silent, and very still, and there was nothing left in his way.
"Hold on a minute, okay? And look out, I don't /usually/ like dropping stuff on people's heads."
The voice was friendly, and louder than Cloud's usual tone, more like Zack than anything. If Sephiroth wasn't convinced things had changed, the lazy swing off the edge of the roof, the grin as Cloud dropped to earth convinced him. A Cloud with friends for neighbors, who had never seen his town burn, never knew of Midgar or Hojo...
//A Cloud who could be happy here, having never heard the name Sephiroth.//
"Hey there. Are you here about the mansion job? My mother's roof sprung a leak and Lockheart was around, said he could give me a hand first off. It isn't..." He glanced down at his watch, as if all of this, the easy explanation, not paying attention to what Sephiroth may have been doing or thinking, as if it was the way things should be. "Ah, it isn't /so/ late. If you want me to get started on it after lunch, I'm sure we can have it finished for you before-"
"I'm not here about the mansion."
"Oh?" Cloud had turned away, reaching for a water bottle set near the wall. Had Cloud ever turned away from him? Ever acted as if his attention wasn't vitally important, simply because it came from him?
//You have no right to do this.// His own admonition, and he knew it was true. Aeris didn't need to send an army, didn't need to convince others to kill him, or even show up herself. All she needed to do was show him, let him see and speak with this Cloud and then decide which he preferred. The kind of life Cloud deserved for such a hard-won victory.
It was her own fault, he thought with a strange, quiet sorrow, not to realize how selfish he could be.
"You're friends with the head of the town, then?"
Just to twist the knife a little deeper. Cloud was so much like Zack now, so carefree, and Sephiroth couldn't tell whether it had been in his nature all along, or all that Aeris had to work from in his memories, to give him this new life.
Cloud nodded. "He's a good man. So what can I do for ya?"
He couldn't answer. He didn't have an answer, nothing to go along with this conversation, so he said the only thing that was necessary.
"Hm?" Cloud took a step closer, bright eyes clouding a bit with worry. "Hey, you all right?"
Sephiroth couldn't stop, even if it didn't make sense, even if Cloud didn't understand.
"I'm sorry for everything, I didn't- I didn't know what to do. I did what I thought - I didn't think there was another choice, I didn't /think/. Maybe... maybe I could have... I'm sorry." Not just for Cloud, but for all of it, and that the sinning and making up for it seemed forever hand-in-hand. "I'm sorry for Midgar, and everything afterward."
Did Aeris really think he was proud of what he had done under ShinRa? Did she really think his life had ever really been about doing what he wanted to?
"Hey." The hand against his shoulder nearly made his heart stop, Cloud staring up at him even more worriedly now. "Hey, it's ok. I don't... I don't think I'm who you should be apologizing to. I've never even been to Midgar."
Sephiroth gently put his hands on Cloud's shoulders, ignoring the way the blonde stiffened against his touch, watching him with the nervous, wary gaze of a stranger.
"Cloud, look at me."
It was the most difficult thing, just to stare down into those blue eyes and see nothing, Cloud looking back up at him with blank confusion, searching his face carefully but obviously not recognizing -
Cloud gasped, eyes widening as he scrambled back, though Sephiroth had let him go even before he jerked away. He had felt the shock, the recognition, had feared and known what would come next. Cloud scrambled away from him, making soft little sounds that would have been screams if he hadn't been so panicked, memory piling down like a landslide.
"No... /no/, you're not supposed to... you're not. You can't. Go away! You're not... I don't want you here! You can't be here! Aeris!"
The moment Cloud screamed the Ancient's name, Sephiroth could feel something shift in the air, a definite change. Aeris had been watching all of this, of course, to see if maybe Sephiroth would understand with Cloud standing in front of him now, pale and trembling with a line of tears beading the corners of his eyes. He could only hope the thing holding him back from just fleeing was the memory of what had been. The thought that Sephiroth abandoning him to Hojo, betraying him, that it just didn't make sense.
"Cloud? Cloud... please." He reached out, taking a step forward. Sephiroth couldn't help himself, and knew the minute he did it that it was a mistake.
"No, no - stay away. Stay away from me!" Cloud's voice tightened painfully, enough to make him wince - and Sephiroth held that wince, as a familiar face finally appeared from around the other side of the house, walking as steadily toward him as any warrior he had ever faced in combat.
"Cloud, I'm here. It's all right now."
It hurt, she had known it would and she had known just how badly, to watch Cloud lunge for her, cower from him and seek protection in her arms. Two smiles passed back and forth across her face, quicksilver fast, one gentle and kind and meant to soothe the terrified blonde - and another, proud and victorious and mocking, meant just for him.
"No... no no no." Cloud was clinging to her desperately, pressing his head against her shoulder like a child. "Aeris, no... I don't want to remember, don't let him, please don't... /please/."
"Ssh... don't be afraid, there's no need."
Aeris gently stroked his hair, kissed his forehead, soothing him with soft words even as her eyes were locked with Sephiroth's, rage turning them hard and dark and loaded with the power of a rising storm.
"It's all right now, Cloud. You don't have to go back. I won't let him hurt you, not ever again."
He calmed in her arms, looking up at Sephiroth from their shelter and protection. Sephiroth winced, watching the sharp, terrified gaze blur, a shadow falling behind the blue, no doubt stealing him from Cloud's mind. Aeris smiled, slowly letting go, kissing him gently, benevolently on the brow one final time before turning him towards the house.
"Go inside, all right? Get some rest. I'll only be a moment, I promise."
Cloud nodded, slowly making his way around the corner, one hand tracing the edge of the wall like a blind man. He never hesitated, never turned back. Sephiroth reached out a hand, the words coming because he couldn't let him leave, couldn't lose him - "Cloud, please, st-"
Whatever Aeris did, she never needed to raise a finger. Nibelheim vanished, and he was thrown back through the air by an invisible, crushing blow, landing flat on his back. Sephiroth grimaced slightly, but felt it twist into something that was almost a grin.
So now, she was finally ready to end it.
Slowly, he got to his feet. Aeris had dropped her arms down, he could see the large tangles of thrumming green energy rising, tinting all the space in this void a vivid green, winding around her fingertips with a ready, waiting power.
"You should not have come here."
The voice of the Planet was Aeris's voice, and she was calling on its strength... and this brilliant force - once again thrumming with the pure power of life - hated him most of all. He could hear more than one voice, whispering in the silence. Ghostly flickers coalesced, light green spirits with smiling lips murmuring lovingly into Aeris' ear. The people he had killed, and the Ancients, and he was the last part of this. The very last vestige of Jenova now that she had gone and Hojo was undone. Send him down the path of his creator, and the Planet would be as it had always should have been.
"If Cloud doesn't go back, he'll die."
"He's already dead." Aeris ground the words out, forcing her voice past the fury. "He died when you left him with Hojo, when you /gave/ him..." she couldn't finish the sentence, tears like chips of glass sparkling on her cheeks. It didn't matter if she believed his death was necessary. He was forcing her to play her hand, because he couldn't watch Cloud die.
"If I let you kill me, will you send him back?"
"If he /wanted/ to go back, I'd send him back!!! Are you that blind, you arrogant bastard?! There's nothing there for him. /Nothing/ but the threat of pain and hurt. Nothing but a world where people can be cold and cruel and unkind. I can protect him from all of that, forever. If you really loved him, you wouldn't even think of coming here. You'd let me keep him safe."
"Would you do it for Zack?"
The strike this time was only the slightest tinge of pale green and searing white rippling through the air and he was slammed back again. Sephiroth thought he could recover but he was hit in midair once, and again, and fell hard to the ground, sliding painfully along on the bones in his shoulder and his knees.
"Don't you ever use his name against me. You have no right. No right! Zack understood, he always understood! Zack would want him to be happy!"
Aeris advanced on him, and lifted a hand again, sending another strike sizzling through the air. Sephiroth rolled out of the way, the arc of power skittering to the side. He lunged at her, even without the sword he was the most dangerous thing alive and maybe his speed could catch her off guard and maybe...
He was frozen in the air, fingers barely an inch away from where they could wrap around her throat, snap her neck. Aeris stared fearlessly into his eyes, and as she dropped her hand he fell, pinned to the ground under a strong and growing pressure. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her hand, all muscle and tendon and blazing white, as if crushing the life - well, yes - crushing the life out of him. The searing pain only grew and grew, where his jaw was digging into the ground and then dropping down through his chest, ribcage being pushed down until he could barely breathe. She could snap his back at this rate, easily, and when the power twisted into a sharper pain and seemed to puncture his side he did cry out, couldn't help it.
It eased. Sephiroth breathed raggedly into the silence and realized that maybe even if she wanted to, wanted to do it for Cloud and for the Planet, that maybe Aeris just wasn't the kind of person who could murder in cold blood.
"You won't go, will you? You can't just let him be happy."
Sephiroth swallowed around the ache in his entire body, breathing raggedly as he tried to make the words come. He fought to stand, forcing power into trembling muscles.
"I can... only make it right... if he's alive."
"Or if I kill you." Aeris tipped her wrist up, fingers extended, and they closed around the staff that condensed in the air, brought together with a sudden, green flash. "I swore I'd protect him, not just to him, but to the Planet. He fought for it, for all of us. We will defend his peace at any cost."
Sephiroth turned sharply at a sudden sound, the Masamune wavering just slightly, stuck in the ground behind him. He hadn't seen it fall, hadn't heard... just in case he had forgotten she could kill him at any time.
"Draw your sword, Sephiroth."
"If you really don't have a death wish, I suggest you draw."
"You won't let me live. You won't let him leave."
"I'm allowing you to die like a man. It's more than you deserve."
"Or you're doing it to convince yourself... that it's self-defense. That this is right, when you know... you know why I did it."
If Sephiroth had to choose the greatest treasure in the world, the thing that people fought hardest and longest for above anything else, it was self-deception. ShinRa was founded on the beauty of that lesson, the grand designs and power of hubris, the absolutely lethal nature of telling people things they knew, deep down, but didn't want to hear.
It was the reason he had gone insane in Nibelheim. It was the reason Aeris seemed every moment less and less the flower girl and more the raging voice of the Lifestream, wanting to eliminate him so badly she no longer really cared if she believed in the reasons why.
"Oh, you really are her son, aren't you... the prince of lies."
Useless or not, when she lunged he dove for his sword, a part of him stepping back and laughing a bit at it all - she was so small, he could only think of a handful of fights in Wutai with women her size, and how quickly all of those had ended.
The quiet chuckle of disbelief ended when her first blow landed. The impact reverberated all the way across the blade, leaving his entire arm numb. If he hadn't already been in perfect form, he knew she could have broken it. Fast, so fast, and it took an effort to bring the sword up in time to block the second strike, the screech of metal nearly deafening before the staff held, just for a moment, braced near the hilt of the Masamune.
"So are you ready to take things seriously, now?"
He couldn't back down, even if it meant losing, and so Sephiroth responded by letting her staff drag down the edge of his sword, and punching her in the face.
Aeris staggered back, bringing up a hand though there wasn't any blood that he could see. She was smiling over the edge of her palm, eyes crinkling and likely glowing although it seemed everything was glowing now. No longer the dark, flat plane of oblivion but the burning green of the Lifestream he knew he was suspended in.
"Lucky shot." He wasn't fighting Aeris anymore, that much was obvious. He was fighting all of them. All the Cetra, all their fury and power and skill.
He braced himself, and lifted the blade.
Aeris lunged forward again, turning this into a duel of single blows and it was everything he had to block the edge of the staff, trying to twist it out of her grasp - but realized too late he'd given her an opening, and she would take it. He heard the snap, the sharp glint of light as the staff shattered, and grimaced as a searing pain shot through his arm.
Aeris turned sharply, the remains of her staff in her arms. A pair of very sharp skewers now, judging by the piece that had lodged itself up under his shoulder armor. Sephiroth pulled it out slowly, feeling his blood mix and mingle with the burning cool of the Lifestream. He would have to switch positions, to fight like this - but Aeris was smiling too broadly for that, there was something new in her eyes.
"So... we didn't even think... the Mako in you belongs to us as well."
He realized what she meant just long enough to know it was coming, but it came down like lightning and he could not block it, could not stop it, could not even scream.
When Sephiroth could blink the darkness from his vision, he was on the ground, hands curling into nothing but more Lifestream as he tried to breathe, tried to sense his heartbeat among the pattering fall of rain in his chest. She hit him again and he screamed, there was no way to stop it. The Cetra were laughing, gathering around and murmuring in appreciation as he jerked and writhed and tried to gather enough energy just to stop from crying out.
He collapsed when she stopped, curling against himself to try and make the pain ease. It didn't really work.
"Does it hurt? I thought SOLDIERs didn't care. Didn't feel pain, didn't remember lesser men who ached for them or burned for them or cared about how foolish, how arrogant they were to catch and hold and try to rule over what they could never understand."
So many voices. So much hatred and he really didn't care, didn't care what they claimed he had done or he was. Idiots, all of them. He could believe Hojo had been half right and it didn't mean he was condemned, right? Right?
No. He would follow Hojo down into oblivion, erased from existence. Sephiroth wanted to get to his feet, to face it standing and defiant but his fingers could not find a place to grasp and his arms would not hold him up for more than a moment anyway, let alone his legs. Sephiroth collapsed to the ground, surprised by the small, quiet voice, a soft chiming in the back of his thoughts.
//You saved him. You did. I'll take care of him. Remember that.//
Sephiroth grinned, at least in his mind, for Aeris, for a girl who couldn't even let an enemy die without a prayer. If it was going to be his last memory, the very last trace of who he was or had been... there were worse things to leave as his legacy. But damn it all, he wanted to be around to see it.
Sephiroth somehow found the strength to lift his head, as all the Cetra fell into an unexpected silence. Cloud was standing in front of him, one hand over Aeris's, containing the power that still flared, here and there around her fingers.
"Cloud?" Aeris turned, lifting her other hand to his face. "Cloud, you don't have to be here, you don't have to see-"
"Let him go, Aeris... please. Just... all of you. No more, no more of this. Tell the Lifestream to let him go."
Aeris frowned, and blinked away the stunned chorus of voices from behind her eyes. "Cloud, I thought..."
Sephiroth couldn't stand, could barely move, but it was only right to lose the last of his pride. He deserved to crawl, to bow with his forehead resting against the tops of Cloud's feet, hands curled with his fingers wrapped against the backs of the other man's ankles. He didn't dare look up, couldn't spare the effort, and tried to memorize the feel of Cloud's smooth, pale skin, the softness just past the tendon near his heel, the last time he would touch...
"No. If you won't come back, you let her kill me now. You let her kill me and live happy. If that's what you want then that's fine, but I won't come back without you, Cloud. I can't live like that."
A long, long pause, and he felt the jerking sob, the shudder, tightening his grip even as the thought of the pain he was causing ate into him.
"Why can't you..." Wetness at the edges of Cloud's voice, tight and strangled and that despair was because of him. His fault. Sephiroth could do nothing without hurting the one he loved most. "Why can't you just let me be? I'm happy here. Why won't you just let me rest?"
He smiled. It hurt, where his face was pressed against the metal eyelets, laces, and there was too much air in his chest, too much to breathe and this could not be the final moment. Not when he didn't know what to say or how to say it and he could feel the words tripping across his tongue. Maybe they would make sense. He could hope.
"You always wanted to be important to me, Cloud. Over anything else, always and forever you wanted me to love you and this is what it means. It means I betray you to Hojo to try and save you, and I hurt you so much because I can't let you go. I love you so I can't let you be happy. I'm sorry... I'm sorry I'm too weak to let go and I need... I can't put you first and lose you, I can't live without you, and I can't even make it sound worth the effort."
Sephiroth laughed slightly. It should have sounded romantic, but it didn't. Not at all. Just pathetic and true. Strip away the SOLDIER and the General and all the things he'd always known to be lies, all the things that didn't /really/ make him who he was, and all that was left...
"I just... now you have to see that I'm not worth it. You did so much and I'm not... I'm just another stupid selfish bastard who won't do what's right."
It wasn't what he wanted to say. All of it wrong, not good and not enough. After all this time to sit in silence and think and feel and hold himself back because he thought it kept something sacred, kept him untouched and truer to himself... no.
So quiet. Everything was so quiet. Sephiroth wanted to let go, when the time came and he had to. Wanted to be dignified about it all but he wasn't sure what was going to happen.
It was so quiet.
"I'm sorry. I can't."
Cloud's voice was a gentle murder, as kind as the words could be, and Sephiroth closed his eyes. At least death would be quick. Maybe Aeris would do it here and now, just touch him once and let it all fall away.
A hand did touch the top of his head, fingers coming down through until the palm rested flat against his crown. Sephiroth looked up, feeling trembly and newborn and utterly helpless when Cloud tipped his head, and smiled. Weary, and not wholly done with sorrow and regret, but it was a smile, just for him.
He had been speaking to Aeris, apologizing because he wouldn't be able to stay.
Sephiroth didn't know how he got to his feet, only that it was Cloud's strength that kept him there and not his own, the hand that had been in his hair now nestled against his, fingers twined with his own.
Cloud laughed softly, rueful and even a little sad, and pulled him down, kissed him deeply before resting his forehead against Sephiroth's, eyes cast down, looking up - a blue like no other.
"... because I love you."
Sephiroth was willing to rest there forever, but Cloud pulled away, looked away, and Sephiroth followed his gaze. Aeris did not look pleased, or angry either, all weapons gone, just watching.
"He is the Planet's champion, and we abide by his wishes... even if we do not agree."
The layered look faded from her eyes, shifting, and he could see the moment when it was only Aeris standing there, reaching out her arms for one last embrace, kissing Cloud gently on the cheek. Smiling when she released him, but he saw what was there besides the joy, watching him until he nodded slightly in recognition - this was a chance she hadn't wanted to give him. He'd been spared because Cloud loved him, and she wanted him to remember it.
"I'll always be here, if you need me."
Sephiroth knew there was an extra warning in there, meant just for him, but he ignored it, didn't even look as Aeris faded away. One speech was nothing like the apology he would need to give, but what he had done - it could be explained. If it took the rest of his life he would make Cloud understand.
"No, you have..."
"... but Cloud..."
He felt a shudder run through Cloud, and the rest of the words choked off in his mind. Too much, too fast, thinking he could begin to apologize, or even - Sephiroth stopped that anger, stopped thinking altogether as Cloud smiled up at him. The slight tremble had come from laughter.
"We can keep doing this for a while, if you want, or you can just let me kiss you."
He tipped his head down, catching Cloud's lips eagerly, hands longing to stray all over the lithe - healthy - body, as much as they didn't dare stray from his face. He only glanced away once, in surprise, as the world seemed to grow blurrier, smaller, and there was a roar in the distance, low yet growing quickly. He would have been worried, but Cloud was still grinning, something expectant and wild in the back of his eyes, as if he was looking forward to this most of all.
"It's all right. You found me. Just keep breathing."
Good advice. The roar grew. The world brightened, everything rushing and fading until all he could feel was Cloud's hand in his own, and then not even that. He kept his hand closed tight, shut his eyes against the brilliant light, but it seemed to make little difference.
Distantly, he thought he heard a splash, something breaking the surface of the water. He realized the roaring had stopped, and the darkness that remained was flat and warm and peaceful.
"... tell you about the time I convinced him... Costa Del Sol. Let me... two girls... told them we were in a rock band..."
Sephiroth frowned. Why did Zack always have to tell /that/ story when he wasn't around to stop him. He tried to look around for something to throw, but realized he couldn't actually open his eyes. It only bothered him for a minute, if Zack was here things couldn't be that bad. Now it was just a matter of taking a moment to figure out where he was and just /why/ it was that he felt so damned exhausted.
A laugh, not Zack's - and the moment Sephiroth realized who it was, he threw all his strength into opening his eyes, a desperate lunge that must have had some impact on a world that still slipped, just out of his grasp.
"... think he's waking up?"
"Got... in a bucket down the hall. I could put some ice in it..."
"... don't even think about it, Zack." He got the mutter out mostly because he knew Zack wasn't entirely joking, and was rewarded with more laughter. Laughter, and a warm body that leaned against his arm, half-splayed over his chest. A pair of lips that pressed tightly against his own. It was more than enough incentive to finally pry his eyes open.
"Just like in a fairy tale." Cloud. It was real, Cloud was sitting next to him, bending over him to steal another kiss, and he realized he had the strength to reach up and keep him from moving away.
"Hoo boy. Well, I know when to take my leave..."
"No, you don't."
They said it in unison, though Cloud was the one who got hit in the back of the head by the pillow Zack tossed from across the room. If there was anything left to explain to Zack, any apologies, Sephiroth knew they would be done quietly, in the spaces between words. Cloud was back, there was little else that couldn't be forgiven.
Zack laughed and muttered something lewd and walked out the door. Outside, in the distance, Sephiroth heard a cheer, and a cry, and more loud laughter. Cloud moved away just long enough to close the window before returning to his side.
"They're still getting some of their men back down here. Soldiers coming home... for good."
"Where are we?"
"Just outside Fort Condor. We washed up on the beach close to town, two days ago. I woke up last night."
Emerald eyes widened, as everything was remembered. Cloud was there to guide him out of the shock, grinning just slightly as he studied his face.
"It's okay. I'm back. You brought me back."
"I... I did, I..." He turned away, that happiness too fragile to put any weight on. "I didn't have the right."
"No... but it's better this way, I think. I'm glad you did." Cloud lay down against his chest, snuggling tight, lifting his head for another kiss as Sephiroth pulled him closer. "If there's something I wanted more than happiness, I think it's this."
He kissed Cloud, and kissed him again, pressing hard against the numbness of his skin, exposed to too much Lifestream. The kisses slid away like water, all sensation but no real substance. Sephiroth pulled his lover closer, determinedly, and Cloud followed with a soft laugh and no real protest.
... and the past was finally, finally over, and the future broke over them like a wave, nestled together, sweet and fine.
Sweet and fine.
Author's Notes -
1. I like romantic fluffy endings. Bite me.
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