Disclaimer: See Chapter One.
Part One - Chapter 7
By Knowing Shadows
He had an unobstructed view of the training hall from the gallery, and watched the rows of cadets from this point in heavy silence. The reinforced glass that separated the gallery from the larger dome beyond it reflected his pale, carefully blank expression back at him, but his attention lay elsewhere.
The cadets were going through warm-up kata on the floor, all moving in a less than perfect unison in varying degrees of fluidity. In the back of Sephiroth's mind he could imagine the sequence of moves, remembering his own time of ingraining these movements into his memory. The attentiveness and concentration of the cadets was impressive, despite its lack of help in some cases: he had spotted several figures that wouldn't make it past the exams and more than several who should not even be allowed to enter.
He hadn't even tried to convince himself that the reason he stood in the gallery was to pick out the cadets who didn't have what SOLDIER was looking for; his own trained mind had worked outside of the uneasy concern that filled his thoughts with his usual detached professionalism.
Despite the fact that he was watching them, he didn't think that anyone in the dome had ever actually realised he was there. No-one ever said anything; no-one ever looked up in his direction with the nervous apprehension that would have been in their faces had they known. He watched them all with a coldness in his chest, wondering if they really knew what they were letting themselves in for. Then his attention would wander to that one spot near the edge of the room to where it would always eventually wander to.
Zack would probably laugh himself silly if he saw him. Sometimes, Sephiroth could see the absurdity of it himself, hiding up in the shadows, but he had found the self-disgust was nothing compared to the pulling sensation he experienced to be where he now stood. Just watching, at least for the time being; he could feel himself momentarily stuck in some kind of limbo where there was no way forward, but neither was there any way back.
To confront or not to confront, that seemed to be the question. He had yet to come up with an answer to that, had yet to even consider it properly because he still hadn't worked out the scattered, confused thoughts in his head into a suitable enough order.
It wasn't often that Sephiroth found himself thrown, and he disliked the feeling intensely. All that Cloud Strife seemed to do was disorientate what he had once considered a comfortable order.
His dim memory of what had happened between Cloud and himself had caused the gnawing vexation to dull into a guilt that fired up whenever he spotted the boy, lining his lungs with lead that wouldn't shift for hours. He tried not to think about it, tried to occupy his time with menial tasks that bored him stupid just so that he could focus on something else, but it didn't work. Whenever he closed his eyes all he could see were the flashes of vision that remained so sharp despite the haziness of the rest of his remembrance; impossible, impossible images that he couldn't explain, though he knew where the key to understanding them lay.
I want to know what I'm feeling guilty for.
As he watched, Cloud moved with a grace and serenity that Sephiroth had only seen in adults twice the boy's age. Developing muscles moved sleekly under the pale skin with each controlled twist of his limbs and body. He was impressive now, but when he had fully developed and was a veteran of the 1st class, he would be a truly magnificent sight to behold.
He knew, in the melancholy that stole over him, that he would see the boy like that, and something inside of his chest ached.
You're a pathetic bastard, he thought to himself with a slight twist of his lips. So caught up over something that you could easily be misreading. Cloud could very well have been talking about something completely different to what you saw which is the more likely explanation since there is no possible way that you could remember the future. Stop looking for something that isn't there!
He stood for a moment longer, saw as Cloud brought the practice sword up over his head in an easy but powerful swing, and then turned away, closing his eyes briefly. He froze as he opened them again, seeing for the first time that he was being watched from the gallery doorway.
Zack regarded him intently, expression as controlled as Sephiroth knew his own to be. "So this is where you come," the younger man said, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the wooden doorframe. Sephiroth looked at him, lifting his chin at the silent challenge in the other man's tone. "I was just leaving," he replied coldly. It was none of Zack's business what he was doing anyway, even if he did seem to think that anything to do with Cloud Strife had to go through him first.
"Don't do your defensive thing on me." Zack shook his head, almost exasperated. However, when he looked back at the other man, the expression on his face was totally different pleading, defeated. "Please, Seph...tell me what's wrong."
Sephiroth pursed his lips, feeling himself bristle in defiance at the words. "There's nothing wrong."
"Seph, why do you insist on lying to me? You've come up here everyday for a week now, and we both damn well know who you're watching. He won't tell me what the fuck's going on either, and he's hardly slept or eaten since. So don't go telling me there's nothing wrong."
The older man set his jaw, glancing away. What did Zack want him to say when what he could say made no sense? When it sounded like madness? When it wasn't possible in a world that belonged to Hojo's fellow scientists, to the logic and reason that seemed to have bypassed him in those few moments?
"Seph..." He looked up at the sound of his own name, and found himself resenting the concern present in the other man's darker features. It was too much like pity, an emotion he despised, for his own liking. He turned back to the training dome again so that he wouldn't have to look at Zack's face anymore, his eye caught instantly by the low sweeping movement of Cloud's body, the boy's hair catching the wan light filtering through the windows and reflecting it as the sunlight it might once have been.
He's more wiry than most of the other boys I'd have thought that he'd be more suited to the lighter weapons to make use of the speed, but he moves easily enough with a practice sword, as if he's used to something heftier and with little penalty for the weight. Odd.
The part of him that constituted the working General of SOLDIER shut off again as he felt Zack come up beside him, following the silver-haired man's gaze to the unwitting cadet. He knew well enough that the dark-haired SOLDIER would not give up until he knew what had happened but, truthfully, Sephiroth was not sure that he was the one to ask for that.
"He's a strong kid," Zack said softly, features marred by a sudden frown. "Very focused. He'll do well if he's given the chance."
A strong kid, he says, and he is reduced to barely eating or sleeping because of what I said to him. Sephiroth shook his head, the strange unfocused guilt hammering in his chest again. Even if Cloud was thinking of something different, what was it that I've done to him? I didn't even know his name until a few weeks ago.
He found his gaze being drawn to the boy's throat and jaw, his sharp eyes easily able to pick out the faint sheen of sweat on his flushed skin, the muscles taught all over Cloud's body as he threw his entire concentration into the kata. So totally unaware of the scrutiny he was under. Perhaps not quite so unaware of the stir he was causing, but certainly ignorant of how much of one.
"I don't want to be angry at you, Seph. I just want to help. Neither of you are even letting me try."
"There's nothing you can do." Sephiroth had gone through this; every possible course of action had been analysed and thrown away over the week he had come up to the gallery. He was a proud man and loathed asking for help or advice because it constituted weakness, but he had longed for someone to turn to for advice with this. He had found no-one.
"Even so, it always feels better to talk." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Zack shrug helplessly, watching Cloud as Sephiroth was. "Perhaps you should talk to him." There was a vague movement of Zack's arm to indicate the oblivious cadet. "Apologise, or something. I don't know. Sort it out."
"I frightened him too much for him to talk to me." He remembered the look in Cloud's eyes when he had told the blond that he remembered' him, and it was far too similar to the look of distress he had seen in each of those visions. It was a discomfort like the guilt that he felt unfocused and slightly unreal because he couldn't work out what he was feeling them for.
Zack made an uncomfortable laughing sound, shaking his head so that the movement of his hair caused Sephiroth to turn his head towards him. "You'll never frighten him that much," Zack was saying, eyes still fixed to where his superior's no longer were.
He didn't respond to that didn't know how to but filed it away as his mind was wont to do with such unexplained notions. He watched the other man for a long moment, considering, but tossed it away to the back of his mind where a similar pile of wonderings lay. Most of them concerned the boy, which irritated him immensely.
Finally, he pulled away from the glass not sparing a glance back at that spot of brightness among the rest of the blurry mess and walked towards the door. "I'll speak to you later, Zack. I've got some work to do." He tossed the words over his shoulder as he moved, knowing and feeling the inevitable frustration it would cause. As far as he was concerned it was none of Zack's business what was going on between Cloud and himself, if it could even be put like that.
A part of him knew that his defensiveness against his friend's curiosity was unnecessary. There was no reason to feel inadequate for not having the explanation he needed, but the thought didn't stop the feelings from coming.
Since Meteor's near destruction of Midgar, Kalm had expanded to cope with the exodus of homeless city residents who had nowhere else to go when faced with their abandoned houses and a mountain range separating them from any other settlements. Some, mainly those wealthier persons who had lived on the upper plate and somehow survived, had made the trip to Junon, or even across the ocean to the western continent. Still, Kalm was now three times as big as before.
Tifa had opened up a bar in Kalm not long after she had moved there, desperate for some part of the old, quiet (well, in comparison to her recent adventures across the globe) life she had led before discovering Cloud at the Sector 7 train station five years after Nibelheim had gone up in flames. She had called it 7th Heaven because of that, and Barrett visited her often enough that it did almost feel as if she was back in Midgar.
She earned more money in Kalm than she had ever dreamed of earning in poverty-ridden Sector 7. Kalm hadn't really had a proper bar before Tifa's, and after the residents' initial suspicion had worn off she knew that seeing the old Midgar people frequenting had made them curious more than anything else, even knowing that she was one of the legendary AVALANCHE the business prospered, and 7th Heaven was always busy. Tifa had gotten to know most of the townsfolk through the bar, and became an accepted member of the town herself because of it. All in all, moving to Kalm had been one of the best things she had ever done.
Once, she had told herself that getting over Cloud Strife had also fallen into that category.
Kalm was predictably quiet, the morning that Tifa allowed Cloud Strife to be carried back into her life her new life. Vincent followed with the blond in his arms and he looked so small and ill against the taller man that she hadn't dared look back at him after the first time.
7th Heaven lay in the main square of town, quiet and mostly still. She knew exactly who would be in the bar right now Joe, Sam, a few of the other regulars and she knew for a fact that before nightfall the entire town would know that Cloud Strife was in town. For a moment, as she hesitated with her hand on the doorknob to the bar, Tifa cursed Cloud for having one of the most recognisable faces, and hair, in the world, and for there not being quite enough blanket to cover it.
Tifa pushed open the door and held it to allow Vincent to angle himself through. He winced as he banged Cloud's feet against the doorframe. A second after Vincent, Cid Highwind entered, giving the bar an appraising look. Drying one of the glasses from behind the counter, a tall brown-haired man gaped at them in complete surprise.
"I'll have the strongest thing you've got," Cid said around his cigarette. "God, Shera'll kill me, but being around bloody Strife does have its side effects."
Tifa couldn't help but smile as she let the door close. She ignored the sudden stunned silence that had fallen over the six or seven patrons who had just had four of the most famous people on the entire Planet just walk in on them.
Vincent gave the pilot a sharp look, to which Cid shrugged and started off towards the counter, saying, "And one for the uptight man in red over there."
"We should head upstairs," Tifa said, leading Vincent past the counter and behind it to where a door led to the living areas. "We've got a guest room that we'll put it in. It'll be easy to keep an eye on him, and a lot warmer and more comfortable than anything he could build on the side of a mountain." She waved her hands at the apparent absurdity of the notion, and leaned across to give the man at the bar a quick kiss on the cheek. "Hey, Richard."
"Hey, Teef." He smiled, and cast Vincent's silent form a way look. "I'll be up in a sec."
"We'll be up in the spare room." Tifa motioned to the door and opened it for Vincent again. The dark-haired man nodded in thanks and went through carefully, heading up the flight of stairs presented to him, which meant that he had to edge up the passage sideways to keep from braining Cloud on the wall. The blond was all awkward limbs and trying to manoeuvre him was surprisingly difficult.
Vincent had actually only been here once before, when he'd come to inform Tifa that he had found Cloud. It was the first time that he had properly spoken to Richard, the young bartender whom Tifa had fallen in love with. She'd hired him to help her out soon after opening the bar, and Vincent hadn't been surprised to know that it had taken Richard and Tifa a long time to actually get together.
Tifa had gone to pack a few things to accompany Vincent back to Nibelheim, and he'd been left in the living room in uncomfortable silence with the fighter's husband. He'd watched Richard wring his hands, face pale and dark eyes bitter. When he'd spoken, his voice had matched that look.
"I must be the only man alive who can actually truly say that they've lived in Cloud Strife's shadow since Meteor."
He hadn't known what to say to that, and had settled for "I'm sorry." It had sounded more damning when he voiced it than it had in his own head. Richard had continued to wring his hands, only it seemed a more violent gesture after that.
"Carry on down the hall," Tifa said when they reached the top of the stairs. "It's the third door on your left. Put him on the bed."
The spare room was actually about the same size as the entirety of Cloud's home on the mountain, decorated sparingly. The bed was the main feature, in the middle of the room with the headboard against the back wall. Beside it was a small table. A dresser and wardrobe sat against the adjacent wall. It felt like a guest room, and smelt strongly of air freshener as guest rooms usually do.
He arranged Cloud's limp form on top of the covers in what he hoped with a comfortable position. He had tried to make it look more like the swordsman was sleeping than dead, but even the affected sprawl looked fake. It would have been easier to just cross the blond's arms over his chest and place a bouquet of white flowers there, he thought to himself darkly.
Tifa entered, footsteps muffled on the plush carpet, and Vincent glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She came up beside him, and he gave the little girl attached to her hip a long look, meeting her solemn eyes until she hid her fact behind her mother's arm. Tifa's daughter. The daughter they had all expected to come from Cloud, before the blond had disappeared. Looking back, Vincent wondered how they could all have been so blind. They had known it hurt Cloud to go against his former superior; it would have taken only a little more effort to dig a bit deeper to understand why.
"Squirt," Tifa said eventually, prying the three-year-old off of her waist and up into her arms. "See that guy? That's Cloud Strife. He saved the world once, only now he's sick, so you gotta help your momma and be very good, okay?" The girl, long dark hair pulled into twin pigtails, nodded sombrely, silent, at her mother. "That's a good girl. Can you go play for a bit, while your dad and I sort this out?" Another silent nod, and Tifa set the girl down, who scampered out of the doorway. When Tifa had turned away, Vincent saw her poke her head back around the frame, brown eyes bright with curiosity. Behind the red of his mantle, his lips quirked.
There was a moment of perfect stillness, and then: "I thought I asked you to go play."
The little girl's head disappeared again. Vincent felt the quirk again, and was glad Tifa couldn't actually see it. Instead, he kept to his usual silence, and as the brunette sat on the edge of the bed at Cloud's side, he considered whether he should remind her that she had a family of her own now, even if the blond would have been interested in her to begin with.
Tifa...please. Give up. He couldn't give his heart to you even if he wanted to.
"Where do you think the Cetra took him?" Tifa asked softly, reaching out to hesitantly push a stray strand of blond from Cloud's pale forehead. Her fingers lingered, just slightly. She sounded sad, the way she had sounded sad during Meteor when she had been watching Cloud and Aeris together.
"I suspect that Aeris will have seen that he's comfortable, wherever he is," he answered. Tifa nodded, accepting the answer to the unspoken question with a slight drop of her shoulders. He couldn't see her face and didn't need to to know that she disliked Aeris' probable intervention. An unfounded jealousy, and one that he wasn't allowed to ease without having to explain difficult, unexpected developments. He would not betray Cloud in that.
"She can't...take him like that. He can't sleep forever." She twined her fingers with Cloud's, her hands shaking. Vincent moved, boots silent against the carpet, so that he could see her face. She was biting her lip, steadfastly ignoring him in favour of Strife's calm, still features. Perhaps she feared his reproach, but he had none that could be aired. "She can't take him away from us."
"And if he wants to be taken?" She flinched, and Vincent tried to make his tone a little warmer than it must have been. "What then, Tifa?"
She closed her eyes, stuck in a room with two people she couldn't bear to look at, even as she tightened her hold on Cloud's limp hand. Vincent waited, as quiet as the figure on the bed, as the fighter fought against a concept she obviously did not want to consider. In his position of knowledge and what knowledge, to have so much suddenly fall into place it was difficult to keep his irritation tempered. Even the image of Tifa, so torn in her ignorance, failed to chip the coldness he felt, and he stared at her with a detachment that didn't startle him so much in its intensity as in how much it reminded him of Sephiroth.
He would have to speak about that with Cloud, if Cloud ever woke up again. He owed it to the younger man, somehow.
"I can't I can't accept that Cloud would want to just die." Tifa sighed, and shook her head. "He's too strong...too strong..."
Had she listened to nothing that he'd told her? "I spoke to you of what the Cetra told me. I, for one, have no reason to doubt them, and enough respect to know that they mean what they say. If they say they will break him, they will break him."
She was silent in the wake of his words, unable to counter, and he knew it hurt her to hear such things. He crossed his arms over his chest, feeling the cloth pull tighter against his chin. The heavy silence only seemed to lend weight to his convictions, only broken when two new figures appeared in the doorway to the bedroom.
"Did we interrupt anything?" At the sound of Richard's voice, Tifa slipped her hand out of Cloud's. "No, nothing," she said, and smiled at the other man. Glancing quickly at Vincent first, face sober, Richard then offered a tentative curve of his lips back to his wife. The focus of his attention shifted slightly then, the line of his gaze lifting just enough for them to notice and follow it out of curiosity. Vincent realised, his stomach tightening, that this was the first time Richard had ever actually seen Cloud Strife in person.
"He looks smaller than I expected," he said eventually, helplessly. What else to say in the face of such a figure, not only the saviour of the Planet but his wife's former love? Vincent didn't envy him, and caught Cid, who was standing behind Richard with a drink in one hand, sending him a look that told him he wasn't the only one feeling sorry for the bartender. "I keep expecting to see a huge sword lying about somewhere." The laugh which followed was strained, and Vincent caught a slight gleam of panic in the man's eyes.
"Nah, Ultima Weapons on the Highwind. Fucking piece o' metal's so big it needs its own room." Cid rolled his eyes. "He'd better be bloody well happy we brought it with us, when he wakes up."
Vincent felt his mouth twitch again. AVALANCHE, he had decided a long time ago, had been a bad idea when it came to his self-control.
Richard looked vaguely startled. He always looked like that, though. Just seemed to have the face for it the wide eyes and mouth. Perhaps it came with having Tifa Lockhart as a wife (Vincent wouldn't be surprised at all if that actually turned out to be the reason). He didn't know the younger man well none of them did, really and so the awkward quiet that fell was all the more tense, no-one knowing what to say and Tifa volunteering nothing. Vincent watched Richard's sharp gaze fall from Cloud to Tifa and back again, as if asking for an explanation. He had already been told it all Cid had come to pick them up from Nibelheim, and Tifa had insisted that they take Cloud to her house so that she could look after him because, after all, she was his best friend...
"He will wake up, won't he?" Richard asked. "No-one really said much about what was wrong with him..."
"We're not entirely sure, but he will wake up," Tifa said, not looking at Vincent, who frowned. His arms tightened across his chest, but he kept silent. "He should, yes." Cid sent Vincent another look, but the dark-haired man ignored it he'd only caught it out of the corner of his eye, the pilot's eyebrows drawn together questioningly, so it was easy enough to pretend he'd never seen it at all rather than be bugged for a response. Tifa must have her own reasons, whatever they might be.
"It's just..." Richard trailed off, lips going tight as he glanced around the room, cheeks darkened slightly. He shifted his weight awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. "I'll talk to you about it later."
Then, Vincent did allow himself to meet Cid's eyes, glaring meaningfully. Cid scowled at him, lips pursed around his rapidly disappearing cigarette, before understanding dawned. He raised his glass of alcohol, catching Tifa's eye. "Well, me and coffin-boy over there had better head downstairs anyway. You've not got anyone watching the bar, have you? So I'll help out for a bit, you know, being charitable and all..." He sidled out of the doorway, motioning for Vincent to follow with his arm, making his drink slosh over the side. "You just...have a nice chat and we'll see you downstairs a bit later." Vincent followed him, noticing that neither Tifa nor Richard paid them any attention at all. He spared a glance over his shoulder as he left, and his last impression of the scene was how Richard's hands were balled and his knuckles seemed very white against his tanned skin. After that he turned his attention to Cid.
"Subtle, Highwind," he said scathingly. "Very subtle."
Sephiroth knew the timetable of the cadet timetable as well as he knew the back of his hand, and with almost the same amount of distaste. He had worked to it once, endured being so much younger than the others and never really understanding why he should be the only one. It hadn't been until he'd entered SOLDIER 1st class that he'd been given high enough clearance and had enough experience with the ShinRa computer system to go the extra mile to hack into Hojo's files to find out the reasons.
And to think that his fellow cadets had thought his tattoo was cool'. It was after that that he'd taken to wearing gloves, to hide from the one constant reminder of what, some days, he wished he'd never discovered.
He remembered, recalling his own days as a trainee, that right about now the cadets would be showering to refresh from the training class. Any minute now they would exit on their way to lunch, most likely complaining over Old Master Johannson, who Zack had whined about endlessly when they had both been leaving the showers those few years ago. And so he found himself waiting by the exit of the shower block for the boy he had decided he needed to confront after all.
He leant against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. He could hear the vague sound of chatter over the water from the room on the other side of that wall, and wondered if Cloud was one of those talking away merrily as if everything was right with the world. He doubted it couldn't imagine someone as quiet and serious as the blond chatting much anyway and hoped that what had happened was eating away at the younger man as much as it was with him.
He would put an order to the tumbling images he had seen behind his eyelids, though it irked him that he couldn't do it alone.
The chatter grew louder, closer, and he pushed himself up off of the wall.
He easily spotted Cloud among the cadets that filed out of the side door, the steam from the showers curling out of the doorway above their heads in rushing tendrils, pushing against a door that was no longer there. He was actually talking with one of the others, a tall gangling boy with dark red hair whom Sephiroth suspected was far too cunning and independent-minded to ever make it far in SOLDIER. Like the blond he spoke to, he was far more suited to one of the President's side outfits, the ones who used the darker talents or the ones whose strengths just didn't fit anywhere else and turned them to ShinRa's advantage anyway.
He saw, from his position, Cloud's eyes flicker in his direction, holding his for a fleeting second before they darted away once more. He didn't stop, but his shoulders tightened and Sephiroth hated that he had done nothing to cause that response.
Well, after what you said to him about running him through with a seven foot sword, I'm sure he has a perfectly good reason this time to tense up when he sees you.
"Strife." It was so easy to fall into the role, using last names instead. Several of the cadets stopped to look at Sephiroth, and shot nervous or wondering glances at Cloud, who had turned in an instant to face him. He seemed very out of place with all the younger boys, even though anyone who didn't look closely enough wouldn't notice. He had old eyes, this boy, perhaps even older than his own. He felt the inexplicable urge to find out what the boy had endured to gain that look, to find out if there was any of that pain common between them that he feared hoped was there.
After a still moment, where no-one moved, the blond began to wind his way between the other people towards him. No longer looking at him, of course, but Sephiroth had expected no less. He felt himself begin to sneer in irritation, but schooled his expression quickly. There was no need to lead any of the other observant boys to believe that Cloud had done any wrong he understood from Zack that Cloud had few close friends, and anything as such would cause trouble that the boy didn't deserve. Perhaps an unfamiliar feeling of concern had moved him to do so more than anything else, but he disliked the thought that it had.
"Sir?" Cloud stopped a little way away, eyes apparently on his left shoulder plate. His voice was underlined with a faint tremor of something almost like fear. From this close, he could see that the blond's skin was still slightly damp just below his right ear and then down across the side of his throat, a few lone hairs sticking to the wet skin.
He knew, that if he let himself, he'd follow his gaze downward and keep staring at the line of the boy's collarbone that disappeared beneath the loose shirt he wore, and felt disgusted with the thought.
"I'd like a word." His self-anger came out as coldness, and it sounded harsh to his own ears; he could feel as well as see Cloud cringing. There were a few nervously mocking twitters from the group and he saw Cloud lower his head, lower lip caught between his teeth. In a spurt of anger, he looked up at the other boys. They fell silent under his scowl. He could feel his lips twisting again, let it happen as he snapped out, "I don't tolerate immaturity. I expect that in a classroom, not a military program. You're dismissed."
It was slightly uncharacteristic for him, but a little voice in the back of his head kept telling him that he would be doing Cloud a great disservice if he turned a blind eye to something that could be so easily stopped. The boy had suffered enough, he knew, even though he didn't know the details.
"Do we have to talk here?" Cloud's voice was very small, weary but still trembling with anticipation. Sephiroth regarded him for a moment - why wouldn't the damn boy look at him? and wondered at the tone.
"No," he said slowly, keeping one eye on the dispersing cadets, most of whom were trying to linger inconspicuously to listen in. "My office would be more suited. I'll try not to take up much of your time." He turned, deciding that eventually he would realise that trying to understand Cloud Strife was an impossible task. "Follow me." He didn't look to see if Cloud would knew he would and found himself pulling anxiously on a lock of hair that had fallen over his shoulder. No reason to be afraid, of course, or even apprehensive in the slightest, but the coiling instinctive nausea in his stomach didn't listen. Not much of him listened to reason anymore.
"Thank you," Cloud murmured softly from behind him, head lowered as his cheeks burned.
"Hi, Mrs. Gainsborough. Is your daughter there?"
Elmyra Gainsborough stood just inside the doorway to her Sector 6 house, an apron tied around her waist and her hair drawn up above her shoulders into a hasty bun to keep it out of the way. She gave Zack a wan smile, stepping aside to allow him room to come in. "She'll be upstairs. But she's got to go out soon, so you can't stay for long."
Zack tried his best to smile warmly at her, but this routine was wearing thin on him now. He knew she didn't like his profession though whether she liked him as a person he didn't know and she knew that he knew, yet she still kept that irritatingly thin veneer of politeness to her tone that rubbed him just that much the wrong way. He knew his smile was slightly chilly, but as far as he was concerned, two could play at that game. "Thank you," he said, offering a low respectful bow, and headed past her to the stairs against the back wall. He could feel Elmyra watching him all the way until he disappeared to the first floor.
"Aeris?" he called, stepping over the squeaky floorboard to Aeris' door. He knocked once and entered, and she was sitting on her bed, turned towards the door, breaking into a smile as she saw him.
"You said you'd be working!" She rose off of the bed with her usual grace, arms held out to him. He grinned at her, gathered her slim frame to him tightly. She smelled of the flowers she tended. He pressed a quick kiss to the crown of her head before tipping her head up by the chin and kissing her properly. He could feel her smiling at him still, and that made him smile too and he drew back, unable to continue because he couldn't take it seriously anymore.
"Work," Aeris reminded him, straightening her hair with one hand as she stood within the circle of his arms.
"What, and miss this?" Zack snorted. "You must be joking." She frowned at him, trying to look stern though her eyes were twinkling. "Nah, I didn't have anything to do. It's lunch anyway. Seph's being all prissy about my friend and I was getting angry so I decided what better therapy was there than coming to see you? So I did."
"'Prissy'?" Aeris repeated, eyebrow raised, and even when she was mocking him the word sounded strange coming from her mouth.
His grin widened. "Yup. You have no idea. I think I'll just bump their heads together and leave them both to it."
"And who's your friend?" She cocked her head, and as he searched her eyes he found nothing but genuine curiosity.
"Cloud. Cloud Strife," he said carefully, and watched for any sign of recognition at the name. He found none, and couldn't help the frown that settled across his features.
Her smile faltered a little at his expression, and she began to stroke his arms lightly where they rested on his biceps in a somewhat soothing manner. "What's wrong?" Her eyebrows drew together in the delicate way that she seemed to do everything. "Did they fight?"
"Sephiroth and Cloud."
The laugh came before he could stop himself. He found himself grinning, more than a little unpleasantly, shaking his head. "No, they won't actually get close enough to each other to do something like that. Lunkheads, the both of them. Honestly." He rubbed his thumbs gently over the thin fabric of her dress. "No, I just wondered if you knew Cloud."
"Cloud?" Aeris' nose wrinkled a little. "No, I don't know anyone called Cloud, I don't think. It's a nice name though. I bet he's nice."
"He's only a year younger than you are. You'd probably get along real well, actually. It's just...he acted funny." He smiled, though his mind was working overtime to conceal the frustration he was feeling at the dead end Aeris now presented as far as Cloud was concerned. So why had Cloud reacted so strongly to the mention of her? "Hey, your mother said that you had to go out soon? You actually going or is she just playing me around again?"
"No, not today she's not." She drew away from him and turned, motioned to the basket sitting unnoticed on her pillow. "Gonna go sell some flowers."
"I don't see why you bother. They don't appreciate flowers around here, these city types." Zack's eyes danced a little after living in Midgar for so long, he now considered himself a city type, though he didn't consider himself one of them in this respect as he watched her fuss with the flowers already sitting in the basket. No doubt she'd spent a good two hours or more at the church that day, just enjoying the beauty there. Such were the ways of women, he supposed. Or, such were the ways of Aeris, at the very least.
"I know, but I'd like to try and make them appreciate it." She sat on the duvet next to the basket and smiled up at him. "Eventually they will."
"I know." He sat with her, held her hand for a while in his own and watched the muscles move over her knuckle as she gently rubbed her thumb against his skin. She was so strange a thing to find in a city ruled by misery, and sometimes he found himself more grateful for that spot of bright cheerfulness than for anything else.
"Your friend, Cloud..." She sounded suddenly purposeful, voice firmer. "Perhaps if he's acting strange, it would be a good idea for you to just let him be."
Zack felt his muscles tighten, and sat up so that he could look at Aeris' face. She was watching him intently, and quite abruptly he got the feeling that he didn't know her at all. Her gaze held the same heavy weight to it that Cloud's sometimes did, or Sephiroth's when he thought no-one was looking. "That's not like you to just tell me to leave him be," he said, cautious.
"Sometimes, though, prying can do more damage than good." She shrugged, an elegant movement of her thin shoulders that caught his eyes because he couldn't actually remember her doing it before. Maybe the whole world was going mad these days, or he was just getting paranoid. He wasn't sure which one was the more likely option.
"Aeris?" he asked, and her eyes lightened once more, losing the odd darkness that had filled them. "Yes?" she said.
Zack thought for a long moment, regarding the curves of her face and the way she held herself. "Nothing," he replied, and kissed her with a feeling of desperation settling deep in his stomach.
Sephiroth's office was exactly as Cloud had known it would be. He stood, somewhat fearfully, just inside the closed door, looking around at the spacious area and feeling rather like clutter the room wouldn't have wanted had it known what clutter was. Everything was so neat, so organised. The office held no more than it seemed it could bear. There was a wide mahogany desk in the centre of the floor, behind which lay a long window. It wasn't even a real window, just one of those fake screens which showed the Midgar outside as it would have looked had it lost the smog and pollution it now carried. The walls were covered in bookcases and filing cabinets, but there wasn't a single paper out of place. Even on the desk, where Sephiroth had evidently been working, the reports were piled up perfectly. It was almost painfully neat, in a way that Cloud wouldn't have been able to replicate had he tried.
Sephiroth had walked ahead of him, and had been silent the entire way. Cloud honestly didn't know what he'd have said to Sephiroth had the man tried to instil conversation of some sort, even though he knew there was no way any conversation would have been had. He could feel the tension rolling off of the older man; it was like ice in the air. Had he been able to think properly, he still wouldn't have known how to break it either.
What am I going to do? What can I say that he'll believe when he asks me to explain?
If he'd been clever, he would have hidden for a long time until he thought Sephiroth might have forgotten about it. Unfortunately, he wasn't. So now he was standing in the doorway to the General's office, about to be grilled by a probably very angry man. It was not top of his list of things to do that day.
Oh God, what am I going to do?
He watched, back against the door, as Sephiroth walked to the wide desk lifting his hands as if to remove his gloves. He hesitated, the fingers of one hand against the wrist of the other, before stopping and letting his arms fall. Cloud had the feeling that Sephiroth hadn't even meant to go that far, and disliking the thought of taking off the gloves was some kind of admission of discomfort he wouldn't tell Sephiroth that he knew why that he hadn't wanted to make. Cloud also had the feeling that Sephiroth knew he had noticed.
"I'd like an explanation, if you please." Sephiroth still had his back turned, wouldn't look at him. Cloud watched the light on Sephiroth's hair, how it shifted from the almost imperceptible movement his body made. His mind had gone totally blank from when Sephiroth had spoken, and when the other man actually turned to look because he didn't answer, he was still staring at the spot where the light had been playing moments ago.
He couldn't answer it, couldn't give the explanation Sephiroth wanted. But to keep his silence would not only aggravate both the General and Zack, but distance them as well.
No, I can't do that! I won't lose them! I came here to make things right they won't listen to me if I lie and refuse to answer them. But...I can't tell them either...
Cloud turned his head, staring at a point on the floor to his right, anywhere so he couldn't see the older man's eyes and the coldness in them. Even so, he could feel the slow burn across his skin where he was being watched. How much he pined for that attention as much as he wanted to hide from it.
"Cloud. Please." He winced, even as he marvelled at the sound of his name on Sephiroth's tongue. God, he'd longed and dreamed for it to be said that way, with no undertone of smug confidence or insanity. "I'm not asking you this as a SOLDIER."
He would have to say something, anything. He fumbled for words his mouth opened once without sound and his cheeks grew hot from embarrassment. Sephiroth was still, patient, as silent as a statue and his expression was carefully blank when Cloud finally looked up at him. Cloud could see the shadows on Sephiroth's long face and it made him look less human, so much like the Jenova-manipulated puppet of years to come that Cloud felt a terrible sense of light-headedness.
So cold...I am always by your side.
Even here he could not escape the shadow that haunted him.
"I don't...know exactly what it is that you saw," he managed, eventually. Sephiroth kept watching him, eyes narrowing just slightly at the words. Cloud felt himself begin to cower inside, the way he always did no matter how much he tried. Though the Jenova cells were no longer inside him, he could not escape the urge to humble himself in his master's' presence. How could he think that he could ever change things here enough to save them?
"I saw you." Cloud regarded the older man's face, looking for something and not knowing what. Sephiroth's eyes had lost none of their suspicion, were just as distant and unfathomable to him as they had ever been. "Lying on the ground in a town that was on fire, outside of a house. And then we were somewhere else, and I had impaled you on the Masamune. And finally..." There, Sephiroth trailed off, shaking his head to himself. "What does it matter?"
So, he saw Nibelheim... "No, go on," Cloud urged, but he was almost scared of what he might hear. "Please, I...it's important."
Sephiroth leaned his hip against the side of the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. Cloud had not come away from the door, afraid to invade what seemed like a personal area. The idea of intruding unwanted was...an undesirable one. So he hadn't dared.
"I was dying," Sephiroth said, soft and so quiet that it sounded nearly intimate. "We were standing in a place full of stars. You looked...older. You killed me. I didn't even fight it." He paused, hesitated, as if considering. Cloud had gone suddenly cold all over, the ice statue that Sephiroth might have been. "And I...was glad. That it was you. I..." Sephiroth dropped his gaze again. "I don't remember why, though."
I was glad that it was you.
Cloud half-forgot that Sephiroth was standing there, concentrating on keeping himself upright as an intense wave of surprise swept through his entire body. Sephiroth...had wanted to die? He had wanted Cloud to kill him, that day in the Crater? It seemed too good to be true, that he had murdered a man who wanted to be murdered. A man who was tired.
No, I...I still killed him. Oh, I still killed him. Sephiroth can't remember that he wanted to die the whole thing is impossible...
He placed his head in his hands, digging the heels into his burning eyes as he grit his teeth against the heavy lump of emotion in his throat.
He wanted to die.
Goddamnit, why was this happening to him now? He wasn't like Sephiroth, wasn't able to hide his emotions like he could, and couldn't hide this any more than he had. It...shocked him, deep down, in a way that he couldn't even describe Sephiroth had wanted him to...
Perhaps the future Sephiroth, trapped in eternity in the Lifestream, looked on his killer with gratitude rather than the fury Cloud could so easily imagine, and had done for many years.
Wake up, Strife. It doesn't change the fact that you murdered him, and that is a stain across your already tainted soul that you will never be rid of, and you know it. This doesn't change things.
It did, though. More than he would have ever thought. But now wasn't the time to think about it, to get so lost in his thoughts. Later, later.
He lifted his head up, all too suddenly aware that his behaviour must seem very strange. Sephiroth's expression, however, had shifted, warming into something awfully close to concern, though he hadn't moved from his place at the desk other than to stand fully, waiting.
"I'm sorry." Cloud shrugged, because it seemed so little and fell flat in the silence that lay unbroken between them except for those two words. "I didn't mean to...do that."
"It means something to you." Not a question, though it asked something of him anyway. There was a quality in the way Sephiroth was holding himself as he said it that caught Cloud's attention, a kind of hope and a want to reach out that caught him off guard. Sephiroth stepped forward, once, his footfalls loud in the quiet around them, and there was something in the lines of his face that Cloud couldn't quite read. "It means something."
"I can't - !" He shook his head, half-frightened at the prospect of being pushed because he couldn't think of a suitable lie, a lie that would satisfy anyone in the room. "I can't say, I don't...know what to do..."
"Explain it to me," Sephiroth said, but he did not take another step. "Explain to me why I saw those things."
He bit his lip, unable to look away from the other man's face, at the emotion just below the struggling mask that seemed to be near desperation. Sephiroth was a master of hiding what he felt to be shown this much...
No, I can't tell him!!
"Please, just let me go," he said. "Let me go back. I can't tell you."
Coward. Stupid, unworthy coward. And you think that you could ever work your way up to his level, to earn his respect? To be worthy of him?
No, no, he could never, and he knew it.
The tension turned, twisted under Sephiroth's suddenly reverted expression and the frustration that turned the air between them bitter. The older man's shoulders drew up as the muscles tensed, leather moving against metal and skin as his stance changed.
"Sephiroth, please...please let me leave." Please, please, please, don't make me stay, I can't stand it any longer...
The General shook his head and his shoulders abruptly sagged, but Cloud wasn't sure whether the shake was directed at him or not. He waited, uncomfortably aware of how his heart was pounding erratically against his ribs. It seemed so loud in his own ears.
"I did not mean for this to happen," Sephiroth said, half to himself.
"Neither did I." He hadn't meant to say it, caught his lip once more between his teeth after the words became more than a half-wistful thought come unbidden to his mind. The older man stared at him for a moment, before he turned and placed his palms against the polished surface of the desk, leaning on them so that his hair fell over his shoulder and blocked most of his profile from view. He drummed his fingers absently on the wood, and Cloud caught himself watching the graceful movement of Sephiroth's hands.
He felt the words welling up before he could stop them anything, to stop him concentrating on the sudden flood of sorrow that watching Sephiroth always brought. "I didn't...make you see those things," Cloud said. "I don't know why...how...you saw them." Please don't blame me for that. It's not my fault. "But I'm sorry."
The drumming continued. "Then we appear to be in a similar situation." Sephiroth sighed softly. "At least, in that respect."
Cloud could feel the unexpected warmth surge through him, until it burned in his cheeks and embarrassment followed. "I suppose, yes." It was true, he mused, but a strange concept to comprehend, that he and Sephiroth were, in some way, in the same metaphorical boat.
"Zack told me that you aren't sleeping or eating properly. Because of this."
"I...I'm fine, sir." Cloud shrugged, though Sephiroth probably couldn't see it. The tapping of his fingers on the desk had ceased, and the silver-haired man was very still, face hidden behind a veil of hair. "I'll be better now that we've spoken."
Sephiroth nodded, and straightened, giving Cloud one last look in his impenetrable silence. His face gave away none of his thoughts, calm and as telling as a brick wall. The face of a warrior, no doubt. However, Cloud had known the warrior in Sephiroth too well; where was the man, that part of him rarely glimpsed, but whose glimpses had drawn Cloud in like a moth?
You don't...have to be afraid with me, Seph.
He had perfected that look himself, once, and knew what it meant, so perhaps the wall held more information than originally thought. He had become somewhat adept, over the years, at reading the signs and silences where others hadn't.
"You're dismissed." Sephiroth waved a hand vaguely, slid his gaze away and moved around the desk. Cloud stood, throat tight, for a moment before bowing his head and moving to open the door. He slipped outside, but paused just before closing the door and let himself indulge in one more glance at his superior's figure. Sephiroth sat down behind the desk, reaching for a stack of papers, and Cloud whispered a soft "I'm sorry" to the air before pulling the door closed with a quiet click.
The rustle of the papers in Sephiroth's hands stopped after the door closed. He stared blankly at the reports, the letters swimming into a grey mess against the stark white background before his eyes. Slowly, they were lowered back to the desk top, still neatly piled, and Sephiroth placed his head in his hands, elbows on the wood. He curled his fingertips into his scalp just past his hairline so hard that it hurt, and let out a long breath through his nose. There was only silence to meet him.
End Chapter 7.
1. Just for your information, I'm picturing Cloud as looking more like his Ehrgeiz artwork picture than anything (perhaps with Advent Children hair, though, cause it's shorter). That's because his facial structure seems quite youthful compared to his expression, which is how I picture Cloud looking in this fic. Maybe I'm the only one who sees that in the Ehrgeiz pic, I don't know O_o;;
2. A big thanks goes out to Dina, who regularly bugs me (and always has done) and also betas for me, even though I irritate her by querying the work she does ^^;;
3. Just a side note, but unless my beta has missed something, any spelling mistakes the Americans pick out aren't actually spelling mistakes you're picking on Americanisms of English words, and I didn't even know some of these existed until I did question Dina.
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