Disclaimer: See Chapter One.
A/N: Slightly quicker update this time ;; I made my personal before-uni deadline! Woohoo!
Part One - Chapter 14
By Knowing Shadows
There was sweat dripping down the side of Cloud's nose, and down his temple. He could feel it against his hairline. He shook his head, trying to clear the irritating feel, but it didn't really help. His hands were tied, but his palms were sweaty too and it didn't help his grip around the sword hilt.
It made him feel a little better that Reno was in an even worse state, but not much. Reno was heaving for breath, pushed to his limits, and Cloud was rapidly approaching his. They circled each other warily on the mats, trying to catch their breath. This fight was over, Cloud thought as he tried to breathe through his nose to spare his parched throat. Neither of them wanted to carry on, but it depended on how much more the man standing to the side thought they could take - or how much more he wanted to see.
Tseng wasn't stupid, which was a relief as much as a worry. "Good, good," he called out, and they both let out massive sighs of relief. "That's enough. Well done. You can put your things away now."
Cloud rolled his eyes and straightened, wincing at the ache starting up in his lower back. Tseng had pushed them hard for much, much longer than Cloud had ever thought he'd want to watch them for. And Cloud had been taking it easy. He was surprised Reno hadn't collapsed by now. If Cloud wasn't in the shape he was, he was sure he would have been flat out on the floor.
Reno trudged along with him to put their swords away, and they were both quiet as their pulses began to slow back to normal. Cloud was pretty sure he couldn't talk anyway since his throat was so dry. They put their weapons back on the rack, out of Tseng's sight, and Cloud then raised his arms above his head to stretch out his lower back, making a satisfied groan as he did so. Reno ran a hand through his hair, found it damp with sweat, and scowled to himself, wiping his palm disgustedly on his thigh.
"He's such a bitch!" Reno said quietly, his admiration for Tseng apparently destroyed. "Prissy, stuck-up -"
"Ssh." Cloud nodded his head in the Turk's direction. "Save it for after he leaves."
"We'd better go back and see what oh-mighty-Lord-on-High has to say," Reno said with a roll of his eyes, and Cloud bit back a smile as they trudged reluctantly back into Tseng's sight. The Turk was obviously waiting for them, watching them with the same dark, detached interest that had been in his eyes all evening. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, broad-shouldered and impassive, and it would have been intimidating for anyone except Cloud. He kept his own attention on Reno because he wasn't sure that he could even pretend to be awed.
"You're both impressive," Tseng said after a moment, and Cloud met his eyes blankly. "And, from what I've seen, pretty well-matched. I'd like to see you two practice again. Reno, you at least know what's at stake. I'm sure you can explain it to Strife if he doesn't know already." He nodded in Cloud's direction whilst watching Reno. "I'll let you know when we shall meet again. You should go shower and get to bed." They watched him go a bit resentfully, Reno in particular, until he'd gone through the door.
Reno threw up his hands and made a loud noise of exasperation. "Again?" he cried. "What's he trying to do? Kill us? At this rate we'll fail the exams through exhaustion!"
Cloud shook his head, scratching the back of his neck. He swallowed to wet his throat. "I don't even want the place he's offering. He hasn't even asked!"
"I never got asked either," Reno said, sounding indignant where he'd been excited before. "I don't know if I want to work with that pompous bastard."
"Well, I don't want to." Cloud snorted, and then a thought hit him. He turned to Reno, and said, "You do know that, don't you? I don't want to join the Turks. It's your place -"
Reno waved his hands, cutting the blond off. "Yeah, yeah, I know that. You've only got eyes for SOLDIER. A blind man would know that. But..." The redhead sighed, kicking the practice mat idly. "You are better than I am, and I think Tseng knows it. I can't...there's no way I can match you physically. He must know about that fight you had with Sephiroth, and that's going to bump you up about 3 hundred gazillion points in the talent department."
"But I don't want to join the Turks," Cloud reiterated, knowing that Reno's desire for that place was almost as strong as Cloud's desire to enter SOLDIER. There was something about Reno that just didn't suit SOLDIER, and he wasn't sure what it was but it was there. "I could talk to Tseng..."
"You could try," Reno said with a bitter laugh. "I expect he'll be all like -" He adopted a deep, pompous voice that sounded nothing like Tseng, " - 'Oh, you don't want to join the Turks? Why ever not? The Turks are the best thing there is! No, no, silly boy, you're just a bit confused. Of course you want to join us!'"
Cloud bit back a laugh, shaking his head, but still, Reno had a point. The Turks were the President's favourites, and got what they wanted, including their pick of the cadets. That was the problem once you gave your soul to ShinRa - they tended to take advantage of it.
"I'll try Tseng," he said, though he didn't really expect anything to come of it, except that Tseng might become more curious as he tried to work out why Cloud didn't want the place that most other boys his age would dream of having. And if, somehow, he worked out that Cloud knew more about them than he should, then he was in trouble. The Turks might have been ShinRa's worst kept secret, but their notoriety didn't discourage them from carrying out their dirty work. Silencing a sixteen year old boy from Nibelheim wouldn't give any of them nightmares.
Reno shrugged. "If not, you could always ask the General to interfere for you."
Something in Reno's voice didn't sit right. Cloud laughed disbelievingly, but it sounded more strained than it should have. "I don't have any right to ask him to do anything for me," he said.
Reno raised his eyebrows, looking entirely unconvinced and not bothering to hide it. "I would have thought you did," he said. "He seems to be taking enough of an interest..."
"If this is about what you told me before," Cloud said, feeling his mood drop and his voice ice over slightly, "then you've got nothing to worry about. Really. I am not involved with him." He wanted to be, but Reno didn't need to know otherwise. "And I'm not likely to ever be."
"I still don't like it," Reno said stubbornly, frowning. "Like I said, I've seen what he does to people. I don't want to see him do it to you, okay? You deserve better than that."
"It depends what you want from him," Cloud found himself saying. "If all those others, if all they wanted was the same as what he wanted, then it's no problem, is it? Was your friend looking for a relationship?"
Reno stared at him, blinking slowly, and his face clearly said that he couldn't believe Cloud was defending the man. Why Reno had such a grudge, he didn't know. "I don't know," Reno replied slowly, measuring his words. "But, still, I've heard about the way he treats people he's slept with...and it's unacceptable whether someone was looking for a relationship or not."
"Why? What does he do?" When sane, Sephiroth had never treated him with anything less than his due, even as a mere ShinRa grunt. He'd known his name on the Nibelheim mission, knew that that was Cloud's hometown, let him see his family...
Reno shrugged, uncomfortable, leaning back against the low partition between the mats and the seats. He slid his hands into the pockets on his trousers. "He just...doesn't acknowledge them at all. Pretends they don't exist, that nothing ever happened. He uses them. And once he's fucked them, he just tosses them aside. He's so...so cold."
That's not true at all, Cloud thought, but kept the indignant statement at bay. He looked away, crossing his arms over his chest. The only time he's ever been cold to me at all was when he'd lost his mind...when it wasn't even him. Tifa said she thought he was cold when he came to Nibelheim, and yes, he's aloof, but not...it's not his fault, with the way others treat him...
He knew, better than anyone except perhaps Zack, that Sephiroth was human, despite his Jenova genes. The distance he put between himself and others was something Cloud understood, and something he did himself - keeping others away meant less chance of being hurt. And who could hurt you worse than someone who knew you as intimately as a lover might? Of course he was unlikely to ever continue a steady relationship. His poor experiences of the human race were hardly going to inspire any confidence in them.
He also knew that keeping yourself apart from others still hurt, because it was human nature to want to be close to others. So if Sephiroth cracked every so often and sought out human comfort, who could blame him? Cloud couldn't - he understood too much about Sephiroth to be able to.
"Look," Reno said, breaking the silence, "I'm not looking to argue over him, I just want you to be careful. And if it does happen, then it's your choice, not mine. That's all, okay?"
"It won't," Cloud replied firmly. Where on earth had Reno got the idea that it was a certainty he was going to sleep with the General just because the man was taking an interest in a skilled cadet? It was ridiculous. Feeling defensive on Sephiroth's behalf, he turned away, making to go towards the showers, as Reno held up his hands to indicate an end to the argument, obviously sensing Cloud's drop in mood over the discussion.
Reno doesn't understand yet that Sephiroth will always come first, Cloud mused as the redhead trailed along behind him. He always has, ever since I came to Midgar, but now... Now, this is all for him. Everything is for him. He is what I'm here for - to change things for him. Because he never deserved what happened to him. Never.
The silence continued all the way until they were both under hot spray in their individual cubicles. Cloud was rubbing a soapy flannel along the underside of his arm when Reno's voice floated over the steam, "Hey, Cloud?"
"What is it?"
"Are you mad at me?"
Cloud had moved the cloth to his left flank, and scrubbed a bit harder than necessary at Reno's question, wincing. It was a long while before he answered, "...Not really. I just think you're too hard on him. I think there are circumstances that you aren't taking into account."
"I don't really know. And neither do you. So I think you're making an unfair judgement, that's all." Cloud shrugged, even though he was the only one who was aware of the gesture.
"No offence, Cloud, but I think you romanticise him too much."
"Probably," Cloud replied honestly, rolling a stiffening shoulder before pressing his wet palm briefly to his chest uncomfortably, as if that pressure might detract from the ache inside. But I also know more than you do, and I can't mention any of it to anyone. I have to stand here and listen to you badmouth him when I know...I know that it's not fair...
He heard Reno sigh even over the combined sound of both their showers running, but he didn't say anything. Cloud continued with his shower, tilting his head back into the spray and letting the noise of the water block out any hints of Reno's presence for a little while. The conversation meant that thoughts of Sephiroth weren't far away - but when were they not? For a moment he allowed the ridiculous fantasy to surface again, of what it might be like if the older man were with him then. It made his face burn with both shame and something altogether different, which writhed in his belly all the same. Cloud had always had a vivid imagination, after all, so it wasn't particularly difficult to imagine pale wet skin beneath his fingers or pressed against his mouth, even though it was Sephiroth. And older as he was, the sexual desire was easier to accept than it had ever been in his teenage years.
I am not involved with him. And I'm not likely to ever be.
And every word of it was true. Cloud grit his teeth, and hit his balled fist soundlessly against the tiled wall.
Damnit, Reno! Why couldn't you just leave it alone!
"Cloud? You okay in there?"
Cloud shook his head, stretching his hand out flat against the tiles. "Fine," he managed eventually, surprised at how off his voice sounded even though he knew the ache in his chest would affect it. He took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm fine," and it came out calmer.
"I think...we should arrange some more practicing on our own," Reno continued, sounding a little humbled. "Because Tseng seems so interested. What do you think?"
Cloud almost laughed, but managed to stop it at a pained, self-mocking smile, head bowed until his forehead was almost leaning against the cool tiles. Reno was a fool if he thought Cloud couldn't see through that - if talking wasn't going to turn Cloud away from the General, then that obviously wasn't going to stop him from trying something else to keep the blond out of the other man's way.
But still, it would make no sense to alienate Reno, not even if he was being so stubborn about the issue. He could still arrange the extra practice sessions that Sephiroth had suggested around whatever Reno wanted, as long as he was careful, and used it to keep him in shape for the field exam. His instructor, after all, had said that Sephiroth wouldn't be very pleased if he failed to pass.
"Sure," he said over the showers. "It wouldn't hurt."
Zack sat on the edge of Cloud's bed, his face set in a scowl as he stared at the blond's shoulders, watching them shift slightly as he breathed. To be honest, his scowl was not directed at Cloud except that he was annoyed that the younger man was still asleep, and he was not. Anyone could tell you that Zack liked to sleep, and that waking him up was a task no-one relished. Waking up naturally only happened after about eleven o'clock. Yet, at that moment, it was still dark, and Zack was not only awake, but had showered and dressed and packed his bag.
No, Zack's unhappy expression could be applied any number of people: anyone in the world who was, in fact, still asleep; Sephiroth, because he was the one who wanted to travel at this Godforsaken hour of the morning; himself, for agreeing to accompany the General in the first place.
Cloud was on his side, facing the wall, so his back was to Zack. The blankets were drawn up high to just below his shoulders, so Zack could see bare, pale skin where the material didn't cover him. He didn't snore, so the only noise he made was the soft, low sound of slow, regular breathing. Zack found it soothing to listen to him sometimes, when he lay awake and couldn't sleep, or something was playing on his mind. Many times he'd eventually drifted off, listening to the blond. Despite the problems surrounding Cloud, Zack often found his presence calm and soothing.
Interrupting that thought, the blond made a soft noise of protest and shifted, legs drawing up slightly under the blankets. He made another sound, more insistent, and Zack reached out, laying his hand lightly on Cloud's shoulder.
"Hn," Cloud murmured, and Zack squeezed gently, smiling a little as the tension seemed to pass. The blond stretched out again, the way he'd been before. Zack stared at his hand, and even in the dark he could make out a clear contrast between his own skin and Cloud's. He admired it for a moment, rubbing his thumb comfortingly across Cloud's shoulder blade.
He heard the door to the room open very quietly, and then click shut again a moment later. He took his hand away and left it on the blanket between himself and Cloud's sleeping figure, turning his head to where Sephiroth detached himself from the shadows.
"I half-expected you to be still asleep," Sephiroth said quietly, his normally chilly voice warmed by amusement. "In fact, I take that back. I more than half-expected you to be asleep."
"Yeah, yeah, rub it in, why don't you?" Zack replied, rolling his eyes. "Just because some of us have decent sleeping hours, doesn't mean you have a right to inflict your inhumane schedule on everyone else, you know...god, some people are just so inconsiderate..."
At one time, Sephiroth would have taken that statement seriously, but now he just smirked a little, amused by the banter. Before Zack, no-one had really taken the time to joke with him, either too afraid or not expecting the General to be the kind of man to appreciate someone else's sense of humour. Zack was too confident in himself to even entertain that kind of thought, which had benefited his older friend greatly. Zack was proud to be able to say that he had helped Sephiroth in some way.
"Well, I warned you when I asked you to accompany me," Sephiroth said, "and one would expect that to have allayed any...grumpiness...but I see some people are just never satisfied..."
Zack grinned at him. "Oh-ho, is that teasing I hear from your good self, oh Mighty General? That simply won't do."
Sephiroth held a finger to his lips then, looking past Zack meaningfully and nodding his head. Zack looked over as he heard a rustle, watched as Cloud shifted beneath the blankets, half onto his back, eyelashes fluttering as he stirred. They waited with bated breath, but Cloud's eyes did not open. Zack breathed a sigh of relief, and then silently cursed himself for it when Cloud's sleepy voice murmured, "Zack...?"
Zack leaned over the blond, and he could just about see the wet sliver of iris beneath barely lifted lashes. "Yeah?"
"Mm..." Cloud hummed, luckily not very awake at all, it seemed. "Thought I heard...thought I..." He trailed off for a moment, moving languidly until he was properly on his back, and for a moment Zack wondered if he might have just drifted back off again, but then he said, "Is Seph...Sephiroth..."
Zack smiled, a little painfully, willing Cloud not to say anything incriminating. "Yeah, he's here. He's come to pick me up. We're going on a date to the mountains," he added in a stage whisper, and heard Sephiroth snort loudly.
"Ah..." Cloud's eyes had fallen closed. "'kay..."
"Go back to sleep, Cloud." Without the chill, Sephiroth's deep voice was pleasant to listen to, and Zack watched as Cloud's mouth pulled into a small, pleased smile at the sound of the other man's soft command. He hummed a sleepy affirmative, and out of the corner of his eye Zack could see the answering curve of the General's mouth in the dark.
Zack watched Cloud until he heard the blond's breathing even out again. He'd fallen asleep on his back, face turned in their direction, and Zack knew that Sephiroth's eyes were on the blond's shadowed features. He wondered what Sephiroth was thinking; if he was looking at Cloud and imagining what it might be like to have that sleepy, unguarded figure dozing in his own bed, or if he was staring at the blond's face and could only see the huge gulf of age between them.
He turned his head just a little, enough to see Sephiroth more clearly out of the corner of his eye. Sephiroth's expression was carefully neutral, as it normally was, but there was the hint of a frown in his eyes and mouth, and Zack silently cursed him, because that could be read either way.
Sephiroth's gaze shifted to Zack after a moment, aware that he was being observed. "We should move before we wake him again."
"Yeah, he's a light sleeper like you." Zack eased himself up off the mattress so as not to jostle the blond too much. "I don't know if he learnt that here or its natural."
"It's a useful habit," Sephiroth murmured, and he was watching Cloud again as he said it. His face had that odd, closed, pensive look, the pale jade of his eyes gleaming gently in the dark.
Cloud fascinates him, Zack realised. There's something about Cloud that's caught his attention, but he just has no idea what to do with it. I doubt he even knows what it is he really wants. And he doesn't know what to do with himself.
"Come on then," he said eventually, taking Sephiroth's attention back. "Let's go inspect these mountains. Wouldn't want our poor SOLDIER candidates getting killed off because they moved in extra forces while our backs were turned. You'd actually have to get your hands dirty."
Sephiroth made a slight face that made Zack grin. The black-haired man picked up his bag and cheerfully hoisted the strap up over his shoulder. "Lead the way, oh mighty General. You'd better have me back in time for tea."
"We'll see. And if you're lucky, I'll even walk your delicate self home."
"Really! Kick-ass! You're the best boyfriend ever."
It felt like years had passed since Cloud had gone, though it wasn't. Exactly how long, Vincent wasn't sure, and he didn't really like to think about it, so he thought about other things instead.
Cloud lay on the guestroom bed like he had done ever since they'd moved him there from Nibelheim. It seemed fundamentally wrong to walk into the room every day and find him unchanged and unmoving, only alive. Even worse was bathing him, keeping the lolling head propped up on his chest to wash lank blond hair and pale, pale skin that seemed paler every day. It wasn't that he begrudged the task, because after everything Cloud had done and suffered it was no hardship to at least keep him clean when he couldn't do it himself, but it was the worst reminder of Cloud's condition. When he was lain out on the bed, it was at least possible to pretend that he was sleeping.
Vincent was close to sleeping himself. He was sitting in the comfortable armchair he'd moved into the room next to Cloud's bed, on another unofficial vigil. It was getting late, but he didn't really feel like moving, and the chair was fine enough - he'd slept in it other nights like this, with the excuse of letting Tifa have the time to see to her own family rather than concentrating on the man she'd originally wanted one with.
He watched Cloud's face in profile wearily beneath lowered lashes, the wan moonlight coming through the open curtains lending his skin a healthier glow, highlighting the elegant lines of the blond's fine-featured face; the narrow nose and jaw that some found more effeminate than they liked in their heroes, and others found alluring.
It took him a long time before he became aware that he was no longer watching Cloud, but another fine-boned face in the same vein as his own, and that he no longer seemed to be in Tifa's guestroom, but an office. Sephiroth was bent over his desk, tapping the end of a pen against a stack of papers that he seemed to be reading through. After a moment, he reached the end and quickly placed what looked like a signature there. That done, he placed the pen on the desk and stood, wincing slightly, before brushing his hair behind his ears.
Vincent stared at his son with a mix of awe and horror, heart thumping beneath his ribs.
"Don't worry, you're only asleep."
And abruptly Aeris was standing by the office window, hands clasped behind her back and a gentle smile on her face, dressed the same as he remembered her. Sephiroth, apparently completely unaware of either of their presences, picked up the papers and walked with them around the desk towards the door. Vincent turned to watch the SOLDIER leave, the awe still sharp in his chest.
My son...The son I never saw before he lost his mind.
"He would have been a magnificent man, had Hojo not factored in his life after his birth," Aeris said thoughtfully from behind him. "As fragile as he is, there's no way Nibelheim could have turned out any differently."
"'Is'?" Vincent queried, voice miraculously clear of the guilt throbbing in his chest. "Where is this?"
"A more appropriate question would be 'when'," Aeris replied. "Although, being honest, 'where' is equally valid, I suppose."
"And 'when' is this?"
"Before Nibelheim," Aeris said, her voice surprisingly light. "This is where Cloud is."
Vincent turned back to her, and she brought her gaze away from the door to him. Her expression was still gentle, but the smile had gone. Then she cocked her head. "Well, this isn't literally where he is, of course, not yet - but I'm guessing he will be soon. But you know what I mean."
"This is where his mind is?" Vincent looked around the room. "If this is Sephiroth's office, then I'm guessing Midgar...pre-Nibelheim Midgar. This is where he's gone?"
She smiled again, indulgently, but said nothing.
"Are you the one keeping him alive?" Vincent asked. "Cloud's body, I mean. He's not taking in any food, yet he's not wasting away. We had a doctor try and fit a drip a few weeks back and it just wouldn't work."
"Of course we're keeping him alive." Aeris' laugh was a soothing, much missed sound, light and airy and calm. "His mind is still connected to his body. The death of one is the death of the other, and Cloud still has work to do here."
The door to the office opened again and Sephiroth reappeared, minus the papers he'd walked out with, but loaded down with manila folders. Vincent had known that any son of Lucrecia's would grow up handsome, and looking at the man now, he could see that there was nothing of Hojo in him. The pale complexion was Vincent's, as was the queer, exotic quality about the green eyes that made them seem so unfriendly.
"You can't fault Cloud's taste, really, can you?" Aeris said teasingly as Sephiroth piled the folders on his desk, before pulling out his chair and sinking into it, fiddling absently with his gloves.
"Why did you bring Cloud here? What purpose is there in this?"
"I can't tell you that." Aeris sighed softly.
"Then why am I here?"
"We wanted to assure you that Cloud is alright." Aeris smiled again, eyes crinkling at the edges. "Time flows differently here than it does where you are. More time has passed here than has for you. Cloud has settled here. I just wanted to ease your mind a little, and allow you a chance to see your son, even if he can't see you."
He did not question her knowledge of their relationship, but gave her a long, flat look. He wondered, though, how long she had known. "Who knows?"
"That Hojo is not his father?" She cocked her head a little, thoughtful. "The Cetra, because it's quite difficult to keep things hidden in a collective consciousness." She smiled, sweet and joking and meaning to ease his discomfort. That kind of smile on her rarely failed. "Yourself, of course, and anyone you have told. That is all."
Vincent nodded, satisfied, and allowed himself to watch Sephiroth work for a moment longer. It was a guilty pleasure, knowing that this was the man who had caused so much pain for the entire world, and almost destroyed Cloud Strife, but at the same time knowing that that hadn't really been Sephiroth's fault - and the overwhelming emotion in his chest at seeing his only son sane for the first time was almost too much for him.
"How old is he?" he asked quietly, as Sephiroth pulled several finely-detailed maps out of his desk drawer and spread them out over the space on his desk not occupied by folders.
"Sephiroth? Twenty five, if I remember correctly. Cloud is sixteen here."
"Sixteen?" He tore his eyes from Sephiroth to watch Aeris' face. "Then...Nibelheim..?"
"Not far away, no." Her face gave away nothing, and Vincent became suddenly acutely aware of how much she was a stranger to him like this - she was no longer the Aeris he had known. No, she was - but now she was more, and it made him wary.
"Then that is what he's here for? To change...prevent Nibelheim?"
"I cannot say."
"Cannot or will not?"
She smiled again, and in her eyes there was the whole of the Lifestream looking back at him. A thousand different shades of green, and in her smile a thousand other smiles, and her single voice carrying the weight of the Cetra with it.
As Sephiroth traced a fingertip along one of the lines on a map, following it along, there was a knock on the door that disturbed all three of them. The silver-haired man looked up, expression impervious and chilly. "Come in." His voice was strong and deep and smooth and so very different than the voice in Vincent's memories - it was disconcerting to be faced with such a different man, disconcerting to be faced with just how much change insanity could wring in a person.
Aeris' smile had changed, wider and brighter than before, and it was more her own again. The door opened enough to let a head poke around it, and Vincent found himself staring at a sixteen-year-old Cloud Strife. It was almost as shocking to see how much Cloud had changed under such suffering over the years - here, he was fresh-faced and held the almost arrogant handsomeness of youth, with startling blue eyes even before the Mako, and the clean lines of a narrow jaw and chin; it was the healthiest Vincent had ever seen him.
"Sir? Is it okay to come in?" Cloud's voice was untainted by anything but a very faint tremor of nerves. He seemed very young, but at the same time his eyes were not - like Aeris', they spoke of more, and Vincent knew why. He could see the Cloud that he knew in there, a more sombre personality than must usually inhabit that body.
He looked to Sephiroth then, to gauge the other man's reaction to Cloud, and was glad he had, because for a man who knew what to look for, the change in the General was startling. Taut muscles across the silver-haired man's broad shoulders and back eased just a little, signalling that this was a welcome interruption rather than another burdensome task. More than that, the chill in Sephiroth's expression thawed as if it had never been, leaving him neutral but not unfriendly. Cloud, apparently as adept at reading these signs as Vincent, visibly brightened, and was daringly stepping inside the office even as Sephiroth was saying, "Of course..."
It was as if someone had volume control on the scene then, and abruptly set it on mute, because Cloud's mouth was working as he approached the General's desk, but Vincent couldn't hear him. And when Sephiroth replied, Vincent wished that he could hear it, as much to hear his son's voice as because he knew that Sephiroth generally wasn't really given to speaking more than he had to, yet here he seemed quite happy to converse with the younger man.
"It's a wonder no-one realised before," Aeris said softly, and it was sad. Vincent listened to her as he watched the pair before him, the first time he had seen them interact without madness and hatred to divide them. "Cloud hid it all this time, fought with it, but it never left him. He gave his heart away and never got it back."
"It would have killed him if he had," Vincent said firmly, not knowing how he knew it, but knowing he did. "That seems to be all that drove him at times...without that, he would have had nothing, because Sephiroth would have been lost to him completely. He would have died."
"And your son...He never had anyone in his life who loved him for who he was, not really. Everyone deserves to be loved, and to know they were loved. And Cloud loves him...so much." Vincent looked at Aeris then, and her expression was pained, twisted. "For nine years he lived believing that he had failed the man he loved, like it was somehow his fault...and I could feel it. It was eating him inside because that was all he had left. I couldn't...leave him like that." She gazed a him pleadingly, as if somehow this sudden, desperate explanation could excuse what she'd done. "And Sephiroth...It was just so unfair."
"You plead the case of the man who killed you?" Vincent asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I've spoken to him, you know," Aeris said. "In the Lifestream. Before...this." She gestured around the room, the dream, where Sephiroth and Cloud were still talking, more seriously. "It...hurts to talk to him, sometimes." She seemed uncomfortable even saying it, and Vincent was reminded of just how sensitive Aeris was when it came to the emotions of others. "Without Jenova to drive him, he's nothing like he was before. He's not...completely sane, but I wouldn't say 'mad'. Just...just a little unbalanced. Most of the time he's so lucid that it's almost like he's completely normal again, but as he's part of the Lifestream, it's impossible to hide his mind from us." Her smile tightened, saddened once more. "It's...painful. His mind. And I can't find it in myself to hold what he did against him when I can see for myself that he's not truly to blame."
"A fair answer." Vincent nodded, relieved, and glanced over in time to see Sephiroth's expression tighten, something like a frown settling over his face for a split second before he controlled himself. Cloud faltered slightly at the sight of it, but picked himself back up again a little hesitantly when Sephiroth continued to watch him blankly.
"This is progress, if you'd believe it," Aeris said lightly, and out of the corner of his eye, Vincent saw her wave in Sephiroth and Cloud's direction. "It's both wonderful and frustrating to watch them. But!" She clapped her hands so suddenly that it startled him. "I think you've seen enough for tonight, so I think it's time for you to go on back to your own dreams, and not mine."
"Wait - !" But it was too late, and the office scene faded from around them, until it was only Aeris standing in the dark before him. "Wait, Aeris - will he succeed? Will Cloud do what he's got to do?"
That enigmatic smile again that wasn't just Aeris', and then she faded just like everything else, and there was only silence left to answer him.
The door to Sephiroth's office was a strange thing, both frightening and exciting all at once. Higher ups in the company liked their doors to be intimidating affairs to make them seem more frightening, that much Cloud knew. Sephiroth's was made of a dark, panelled wood and a gold plate was nailed to it, into which was engraved 'SOLDIER General Sephiroth.' That was all he needed to have most men quaking in their boots. Cloud traced the fine letters with his eyes for a moment, and swallowed against the mix of apprehension and anticipation rising from his belly.
Eventually, after the secretary asked him in a slightly scathing voice if something was the matter, he raised his hand and knocked on the door. The woman had seemed slightly disbelieving of him when he'd asked to see Sephiroth, but hadn't even asked the General personally if he wanted to see Cloud - she was obviously hoping to see the blond getting his head kicked in for disturbing the older man.
Sephiroth's hard voice drifted through the wood. "Come in." With that tone of voice, Cloud was sure the secretary must be smirking behind him. He refused to turn and look, but squared his shoulders and pushed open the door enough to look around inside. Sephiroth was seated at his desk, hands resting on what looked like detailed maps. His eyes were sharp, almost reproachful, but any thought that that look was directed at him dissipated as he watched it fade from Sephiroth's face when their eyes met.
"Sir? Is it okay to come in?" Cloud knew he sounded a little uncertain, but he couldn't help it - and the tremor was as much from the sharp surge of emotion in his chest as it was from any real nervousness.
"Of course..." The harsh quality in Sephiroth's voice had gone, and Cloud mentally stomped all over the irritating secretary in triumph, resisting the urge to look back at her and see her expression. He closed the office door behind him, and Sephiroth clasped his hands together on top of the desk, watching him curiously. "Is there something I can do for you, Cloud?" He seemed to be trying the name out, as if that kind of familiarity might be too much, but all it did was make Cloud's heart soar.
Standing by the door made him look like a coward, so Cloud made his way closer even as he said, "I wanted to ask about the practice sessions."
"Ah." That evidently pleased Sephiroth, because he sat back slightly in his chair, shoulders relaxing a little bit more. "Yes, I was hoping that might be it. Did you arrange your other ones with your friend?"
"Reno?" Cloud questioned, coming to a stop a few feet from the desk. "Yeah...we already had one session but he wants a couple more before the exams, too. But I do have some free evenings, so I wondered if you might be free then, too..."
Sephiroth regarded him coolly, thoughtful, and Cloud shifted a little, but unable to look away from the other man's face. His heart beat an uncomfortable rhythm behind his ribs, like it always did whenever Sephiroth was involved. "The exams aren't very far away at all," the silver-haired man said eventually, still giving him that calculating look. "Asking you for more practice sessions might run the risk of injury, or at least be detrimental to your performance -"
"No," Cloud started, interrupting at the sudden fear that Sephiroth might call it off and he'd lose his chance. His chest went tight and cold with it. "No, it wouldn't - I know it's a lot but I see it as training and I'd cancel the ones with Reno if I could but they're ones Tseng scheduled -"
"Tseng?" Sephiroth's expression tightened into a frown, his deep voice cutting off Cloud's tumbling words sharply, but then the older man‘s features smoothed out again, going blank. In the brief silence that followed it, Cloud wondered if he'd made a mistake or not. "Why is Tseng scheduling practice sessions between yourself and Reno?"
Cloud went very still, unsure of what to do. He hadn't really wanted Sephiroth to know about Tseng, especially after what Reno had said about getting the General to step in (because Reno had the wrong end of the stick anyway and he'd rather discourage that any way possible). But he knew from experience that Sephiroth was a man who despised dishonesty, and if he caught Cloud out in a lie then the blond was sure he'd never be forgiven, and all of this would have been for nothing.
Sephiroth was watching him expectantly, pale green eyes never leaving his face, head tilted slightly to one side. God, but he was so beautiful - everything about him made Cloud ache. That deep, overwhelming longing was the one thing about love with which Cloud was really familiar, and over the years it had only grown stronger.
"I think Tseng wants to choose between either Reno or myself for a position in the Turks," Cloud said quietly, "and is trying to compare our skills by pitting us against each other. At least, that is my guess." He shrugged uncomfortably.
Sephiroth continued to watch him coolly for a long moment, before eventually saying, "I see." It was amazing how uncomfortable he could make a man, just by sitting there with his hands clasped. Something about him screamed 'I am most displeased' and it made Cloud's chest tight with worry at the thought that it was him that had done that.
"You are an unusual target for the Turks," Sephiroth commented when Cloud didn't say anything. "But I can see why they would be interested."
Cloud searched the General's face desperately for something to contradict what he was hearing, because it sounded almost like the older man was accepting it. "Sir, please, I don't want to join the Turks!"
His voice did not hide any of his desperation, and Cloud couldn't even begin to guess what was showing on his face, but Sephiroth's expression thawed again, the older man allowing a puzzled frown to pull at his fine features.
Cloud met that look as bravely as he could, squaring his shoulders. "I want to join SOLDIER."
"Most cadets would jump at the chance to join the Turks," Sephiroth said evenly, but his frown did not ease.
"I...came to Midgar to join SOLDIER, not the Turks," Cloud replied, lowering his gaze a little so that it rested on Sephiroth's right shoulder guard. I came to join SOLDIER, but then I found you and found a reason to stay...I was never sure where my desire to join SOLDIER ended and the desire for you began, even though I knew they were two separate things...
"The Turks hold no appeal for you at all?"
He raised his eyes then because Sephiroth sounded a little surprised, and the older man was watching him with a neutral expression that only his voice had betrayed. His tone had been one of pleasant surprise, as well, and the heaviness in Cloud's heart began to ease. His mouth pulled into a small, hesitant smile. "I'm aware that the image is not the reality," he said, and shrugged. "Besides, it seems silly coming all this way to Midgar to join SOLDIER, only to change my mind at the last minute."
His answer seemed to be the right one, because Sephiroth said, "It does, indeed," and seemed to relax a little. The tension emanating from him eased, but did not entirely disappear, which still left Cloud on edge. As Cloud was contemplating that, the silver-haired man suddenly said, "You're from Nibelheim, aren't you?"
"Uh - yes!" His heart lightened considerably with the knowledge that Sephiroth knew that about him, and even more from the suspicion that Sephiroth was attempting conversation with him. Excitement filled his belly as he met Sephiroth's bright, interested gaze.
"That is a long way to come to join SOLDIER." Sephiroth looked down at the map on his desk, and Cloud followed his gaze, seeing that it was of the mountain ranges near Corel. On one side, where Sephiroth's gaze had come to rest, was a small dot labelled Nibelheim. "Do you miss it?"
"What, Nibelheim?" Cloud scratched the back of his head nervously, keeping his eyes on the desk even when he knew that Sephiroth had returned to watching him once more. "I...I guess I miss my mother a little. But no...there's not much there that I miss."
"Prefer the city?"
"No!" Cloud laughed, and it sounded a little strained. "No, I don't. I prefer it quieter, but I just..." He shrugged uneasily, and wondered why on earth he was telling Sephiroth this - it was the last thing the older man would want to hear.
"Ah..." Sephiroth murmured, and Cloud looked up again, wondering what that meant, but there was knowledge and understanding there, that told him he didn't need to carry on because Sephiroth understood that there was pain there. "I imagine there's not much I would miss about Midgar, either, if I was ever to leave."
Cloud nodded, knowing the kind of memories Midgar would hold for Sephiroth. Though the man had been born in Nibelheim, as far as Cloud knew, he must have transferred to Midgar not long afterwards to have no real recollection of the town except a vague recognition upon seeing it again. Everything that had ever been done to him in the name of science must have taken place in this city. He would forever associate Midgar with Professor Hojo, just as Cloud associated him with five years of torture in Nibelheim.
Sephiroth sighed after a moment, and changed the subject, which was probably for the best, Cloud thought. "As for the Turks, it's difficult to refuse them considering that they are so in favour with the President, and they generally get what they want. Tseng is a difficult man to dissuade. However, if you would like, I could speak with him about it."
Cloud thought of Reno, who would never let the subject go if he heard that Sephiroth had interfered on Cloud's behalf. It was more likely that Tseng would listen to the General, if he was inclined to listen to anyone at all, but not only that, it might look like favouritism. Cloud knew that even Sephiroth could get in trouble for that, and rumours would fly as to why - Ratchett and Reno would just be the beginning. Even though they were now on conversational terms, Cloud couldn't understand why Sephiroth would risk so much for him -
"No..." Cloud heard himself say dully. "No, it's alright. Reno and I will sort it out."
"Yourself...and Reno." It might have been a question, but Sephiroth's voice fell flat. Cloud suppressed a wince as the older man's voice began to grow cold again.
"Yes...sir." Cloud bowed his head, knowing that he was going to leave the office feeling absolutely miserable. "It's our problem, sir. And...do you still want to spar?" His question was undeniably hopeful, and Cloud mentally kicked himself for the embarrassing tone of voice.
Sephiroth let out a low sigh, tapping his fingers gently on the map. "Yes, of course. When are you free?"
"I can come by your dorm when I'm finished in the office, since I don't know exactly when I'll be done."
Cloud tried for a smile again, but knew he fell hopelessly short, heart pounding and hating how easily the tension reappeared between them again. "That would be great."
Sephiroth nodded stiffly, making Cloud ache all over with misery at the dismissive gesture. He lowered his gaze, hoping to hide the disappointment on his face. "Thank you very much, sir." He saluted, guessing that Sephiroth was done with him for the evening, and made his way out. Not even the thought of duelling the General again made him feel any better after what felt like a massive backwards leap in the progression of their so-called relationship. He couldn't understand why Sephiroth had suddenly gone so cold, and it hurt. When he closed the door to the office behind him, he tried for a neutral expression so that the irritating secretary couldn't smirk at him. She just gave him a curious look as he left.
Inside the office, Sephiroth stared at the military maps. The detailed lines swam before his eyes as he took a low breath, trying to dispel the hot rush of anger. Why was he so angry? It wasn't even at Cloud - no, that was a lie, but it wasn't just the blond that emotion was targeted at. But he was confused at why Cloud had refused his offer of help, pushing him away, once again in favour of someone else -
Shut up, shut up, shut up, what is wrong with you? Why are you losing control over this?
I don't know, I don't! It doesn't make any sense
He knew the name of the emotion, because he wasn't immune to it like so many thought he was immune to everything, but he refused to believe he was feeling such a bitter and raging thing about something so little. There was no reason why...
And that wasn't even everything, because there was also guilt, knowing that he had acted entirely inappropriately to the blond cadet; and then there was fear, cold and solid and still there even though he tried to ignore it, because he did not like feeling this way about anything or anyone...
Is this what other people take for granted as a part of life? Something they have to deal with every day? All these bitter thoughts that fester and eat you alive?
I don't want it. I don't want to feel because feeling hurts, and I thought I'd managed to push that all away...
For a long time, Sephiroth had considered himself above human emotion, because he knew first hand how much feeling could damage a person in certain situations. If he hadn't managed to shut that part of himself away as much as he had, he knew that he would have gone mad before the age of twelve, unable to cope with Hojo and his laboratory. He scoffed at all the clichés, and had taken no real interest in Zack's love life because he viewed ‘love' as as dangerous a thing as any other emotion, and didn't believe that so pure a thing existed in the first place. Were blue eyes, a gentle mouth and a similar mind all it took to undo so much hard work?
He was horrified to find that he'd been screwing up the map of Corel in his fists without even realising it, hands shaking they were clenched so tight.
Zack was whistling merrily to himself as he entered the dorm that evening, bag swung up over his shoulder. The first part of his day had been rather boring - their scouting mission had revealed nothing spectacular at all, and Zack spent the time lamenting his lost sleep and mentally cursing Sephiroth for dragging him out of bed for nothing. Afterwards, Sephiroth had agreed to make it up to him by letting him have the afternoon off to go and visit Aeris, so he'd been in a better mood when Sephiroth had left him in Sector Six. Aeris had been pleased to see him, her smile gentle and soothing, but he couldn't help but be reminded of Cloud's strange reaction to her again. But then Aeris had mentioned that her mother would be out until dinner, and Zack had grinned and forgotten all about Cloud for a few hours.
It was dark when he got back, but the dorm was quiet, and empty except for Cloud, who was lying down facing the wall, knees curled up into his chest. Zack didn't know if Cloud was asleep, but even if he was, it was far too early. He flounced over, swung his bag up onto the top bunk, and then plonked down on Cloud's, making sure that he jostled the blond hard. "Oi, Spike," he greeted, poking one finger against Cloud's shoulder. "Wake up, Mr. Party Pooper. You haven't seen me all day and I expect to be properly welcomed!"
"Zack, I'm tired..."
The older man withdrew his hand, because Cloud sounded exhausted, but it wasn't just that - it didn't sound like just tiredness. There was something else in his voice. He reached out again, but lay his hand warily on Cloud's shoulder, like he had earlier that morning when Cloud had been sleeping. "Something wrong?"
Cloud stiffened, and Zack could see it as well as feel it beneath his palm. "Nothing..." he murmured, and his voice was barely above a whisper, the way people spoke when they were afraid their voices would break on them.
Zack let out a noiseless sigh, just a rush of air past his lips and a slight sag in his shoulders, and squeezed his hand. "You're a terrible liar," he said into the quiet. "Come on, look at me."
There was a long pause before Cloud said, "...No."
"Oh, Cloud..." Zack crawled onto the bed, and wasn't entirely surprised when Cloud willingly came up into his arms, burying his head beneath Zack's chin and hiding his face. Zack lay his cheek against the crown of Cloud's head and held the blond as tight as he himself was suddenly being held. He said nothing for a moment, letting Cloud take what he needed.
This was the difference between Cloud and Sephiroth. Cloud could only keep everything inside for so long before he needed to take comfort from someone, and Zack was honoured that Cloud trusted him enough to reveal this more vulnerable side. Sephiroth, on the other hand, did not and would not ever trust anyone enough to do the same, and kept everything to himself, which was almost as painful to watch as seeing Cloud like this was.
Speaking of Sephiroth... "What did he do, Spike?"
Cloud shook a little in his arms, but did not cry. Zack had never seen him cry, and wasn't sure what he'd do if he ever did see it.
Eventually, Cloud murmured against his shirt, "N-Nothing...I don't know why I'm...s-so upset..."
Zack ran a hand soothingly through the blond's hair. "He must have done something to make you like this. I know it was him. No-one else would bother you so much."
Cloud's fingers, digging into Zack's back, tightened painfully. "I don't..." He made a slight, almost sniffling sound. "I think I made him angry at me..."
"Angry? At you?" Zack couldn't contain his surprise. "What did you do? Pull his hair or something?"
"I don't know..." Cloud moaned miserably. "I don't...he just got so c-cold..." He took a deep, shuddering breath to calm himself, but it didn't seem to work, and Zack felt the blond shake again.
They stayed like that for a while, Zack couldn't say how long, and it didn't occur to him to check. He found his own comfort there, in the closeness they shared. Cloud had always struck him as the kind of person who would be alone through circumstance, not really through choice. He hoped that, even for this brief moment, holding nothing back like this made the blond feel less lonely.
Sometime later, Cloud's voice emerged from the folds of Zack's shirt, "Shiva, this is stupid."
Zack snorted. "No, it's not. So don't say that."
Cloud still wouldn't show his face. "He didn't even do anything..."
"He did," Zack insisted quietly, running his fingers gently through the shorter hairs at the back of Cloud's head, a move he knew from experience rarely failed in getting the blond's resistance to melt away. "You and he were getting on extraordinarily well, I know you were. And for him to suddenly turn his back on that, for whatever reason, would be upsetting because you love him. I understand, and there's no shame in it. Don't be embarrassed about that, Cloud - not in front of me."
Cloud didn't say anything, but seemed to mull it over. In any case, he seemed in no hurry to pull away from Zack's massaging fingers. He knew that was so, because the next thing Cloud said, murmured and sleepy, was, "The head massage might technically be called cheating..."
Zack grinned. "You say that about everyone. You don't mean it."
"Mm, this time I do. I can't think properly." Cloud had gone boneless in his arms, as if he might fall asleep right there. "You're too good to me."
"Oh, please tell me that's going to followed up with an offer of sexual favours -"
"Zack!" Cloud pulled away and thumped him soundly in the chest, but the older man was already laughing, eyes sparkling with mirth, and it worked to help alleviate the blond's mood. When he was satisfied that Cloud felt a little better, he ordered the cadet to sleep. Cloud smiled, and Zack left him to it.
He crawled into his own bed, listening to Cloud settling down as commanded. The other boys who slept in the dorm returned, raucous, and for a little while as they themselves quieted he could no longer hear Cloud. He lay on his side in his bed, arm bent beneath his head, and watched the boys move about the room in the dark with Mako eyes until it was quiet and he could hear the blond again. And long after he heard the breathing across the room slow down in sleep, he did not hear the same thing below him. It made his belly clench with worry and he frowned, staring at the curve of his elbow. He'd made a mistake in forgetting that Cloud wasn't the open book he used to be, and he'd let the smile fool him.
End Chapter 14.
1. Randy!Sephiroth-muse took over this chapter. In the office scene, I didn't realise for ages that what I'd first typed was "Is there someone I can do for you, Cloud?" instead of "something." If that had been entirely deliberate, the tension would have been damn easy to get rid of forever, because Cloud's answer would have been, "Yeah, me!" and they'd have defiled Sephiroth's poor, innocent desk right there and then. But, alas, it was a mistake .
2. Sephiroth and Zack - I can imagine Sephiroth having a rather dark, dry sense of humour in comparison to Zack, and I imagine that Zack is pretty much the only person he'd feel comfortable showing it around, so I apologise if it goes against some people's idea of Sephiroth. But, seriously, he can't be a robot all the time, or I imagine he'd have gone mad years before the game :)
3. The choral music on the AC website is amazing, and perfect for getting into the mood for Seph/Cloud angst, so that's what I've been listening to for most of this chapter - and lo and behold! I wrote (mild) angst! Don't kill me.
Return to Archive | next | previous