By Lena ban Obsidian


It seems like he is always waking up. Never in the same place. Perhaps this is what happens to transfer your mind from one dream to another. But everything is fragmented; there is no immediately-before-going-to-sleep that explains how he has arrived where he is; there is no memory to speak of, that could point him to where ever he is going.

When he wakes in the hot sand of a great arena for battle and brawling, he is face-down in it, and blinks once or twice before he realizes that he is getting sand in his eyes. Or maybe he is crying. Or maybe both. He hurts. Aches. In many places.

There is a solemn-faced man standing over him with his face split in two by an old scar, and a frown on his perfect lips. The man is holding out a leather gloved hand to him, but Cloud doesn't know if he should take it. He foresees several different situations; being helped to his feet and hugged, and kneed in the stomach, and shoved away to fall again, and clouted across the shoulders for clumsiness, and dusted off--

His eyes glaze over and he doesn't have the strength to reach for that black-gloved hand.

He wakes up. It's wet and dark. He is nearly completely naked, this terrifies him. Someone else is in the room, but only one someone else. He is on a bed. He is under sheets, they are linen. His shoulder hurts; something that shouldn't exists feels trapped and burning with the need for blood under his weight. He rolls over.

"...don't move too much. You're hurt." Gravel voice. He doesn't recognize it, and yet, it feels like he should or does, even though he can't figure out how or why. There is a dark-haired figure silhouetted before him; it comes closer and resolves into a man whose eyes are turbulence and quicksilver. "...idiot."

Cloud is not one to contradict the obvious. He blinks slowly and sighs. "...something...it hurts..." He tries to explain. His voice is thin, barely a whisper, weak and quaking and it dies off before he can really say anything of import. He feels the sting of individual grains of sand on his face.

His lip must have split at some point, there's a scab in the center of it now, clotted with blood and grit. It tastes like copper, salt, and the earth under his tongue.

"...Let me help," the man concedes, because apparently Cloud doesn't have to communicate too much. Strong hands help him to turn on his side, letting...something free, and with a sound like clothing snapping in the wind, it stretches out up into the air, too dark for him to see what it is over his shoulder, straining, waiting for the blood to flow again before it curls, as if he told it to, over his naked body, a feeble defense against whatever this person in this room might represent to him.

He realizes belatedly that he is breathing too fast and too shallow.

"...lm dow...erven...ating," the voice wavers like static on a screen, in and out of focus, here and there, gravelly and then gone and buzzing in between.

He wakes up, and he is sitting on a bench, leaning over his knees, hunched close as if for warmth. He is wearing clothes now. Someone is sitting next to him, and that body breaks the wind, makes it a little easier for him to sit where he is. He feels lost and looks at his hands, and wonders where that clawed glove came from, wasn't it all golden, wasn't it on someone else's arm, only his arm does hurt, like there's something under his skin, wrapped like a wire around his wrist and up his forearm, so maybe he's glad he can't see what's underneath the brown leather...

"You're falling apart," says a voice that makes his head throb, his breath stutter as though he's been shot (he remembers vaguely that he's only been shot a couple of times, but someone got shot to death). Silence hangs between them, concern and frustration; the wind is blowing, some of it gets past the body that's protecting him from it, some of it rustles his unruly blond hair and makes him shiver, stirring the folds of the rust colored cape that he shouldn't have. Then, again, softer, as if it pains whoever it is to see him like this, "...please...you must let me help you...there must be a way--"

It's dawn. But it's dark out. Where is he? He's in a sewer. Only it's clean. The water's pure; he's thirsty, he takes a drink of it, peering down into his reflection in bewildered puzzlement.

I always thought I'd be taller. ...and why is my hair...?

He plays with it, distractedly, frowning, anxious when he can't seem to make sense of things. Was his hair always this color? His eyes look right. Not his hair. It's not supposed to be like this. Or is it? Or it isn't. He's sure it isn't. The water is knee deep, and he realizes that it's frigid; perhaps that's why he's shivering, body quivering, trying to make heat where there is none. His feet are numb under the water; it's soaking into his pant legs and creeping up his skin, turning purple-blue-gray into darkness, like smoke.

He has a seizure.

Someone catches him, two someones, three, and they say his name but he can't remember theirs, and he's clawing at them and trying to get away because they're too close, they're touching him, they're too close--

On the air is the soft smell of something sweet being baked. Bread, maybe. Pumpkin...no, banana? ...he isn't sure. It smells nice. Homey. He's only smelled things like that once maybe long, long ago...and it makes him think of a city with rusted gates, and a tiny apartment. Yes, and rain; iron and rain, everything slate gray, on the in and the outside. Mud under his feet. The memory wavers.

The rain was bad, though. It wasn't just rain. Why was it bad?

The walls in here are covered in peeling wallpaper. It's a peculiar mix of tan and black with yellow something-or-others printed on it. It looks old. This place is small; he thinks he might be lying on the only bed. Where are the facilities? His bladder is full. He can't get up. It's like being awake before your body comes awake; he's fully aware of the sounds of people whispering on the other side of the room; of the sensation of chill that seems to be seeping from what he can only guess is the direction of a door or a window; of the smell of that thing, baking, that is making his mouth water, he's so damned hungry.

He lets out a little moan and all the whispering (like demons and faeries flittering over his subconscious) stops. There's silence and a loud pop that makes him twitch. Fire? The floor creaks; booted footsteps approach him.

The face that looms in his vision is vaguely familiar, and cross. Dark bangs hang in eyes that are not the right color, not quite, not like his, but they are close enough. But the eyes should be jovial. And someone should be teasing him for sleeping late again. Right? And it's raining out. Right? And everything will just be normal here...

Where's...where's...oh, he remembers the name, he's got to remember...

He hears a weak sound that is maybe his own voice, croaking the name he was afraid he'd lost. (If he lost it, he'd be left with only one name that wasn't his own. Dangerous, dangerous territory). "Sephiroth..." He slurs the word, like his body is sick with something other than just tiredness, sleepiness; his throat closes and his eyes sting, and he has such trouble breathing.

And someone. Someone squeezes his hand. Not the one that throbs (burns) under that clawed glove, but the one that's been stripped bare, that's mostly normal as far as he can tell. His hand is cold and clammy; whoever is holding him, whoever it is has warm, dry skin and smells slightly of some acrid spice.

A voice, troubled, says to him from the nowhere above him, "Don't worry. I'm here."

Who? Who's here? But oh, he trusts that voice implicitly, even if it stirs hurt and confusion and rage in his heart, under all the forgettings and the repressings and the broken-apart and pieced-together feelings and thoughts that make up the mozaic that is Cloud.

"How can we help him? ...if he's...like this," someone's voice, low and rumbly, concerned but not familiar the way the other voice is. (should be familiar, but isn't because it isn't right.)

He wants to know too, but Cloud finds it very difficult to form words. So he listens, thinking maybe the person-holding-his-hand will know the answer. Whoever it is should know. Sounds so capable.

"We will have to feel our way through the process. There are no trained psychiatrists or physicians here." There is a pause that could be defined as wry. Cloud thinks idly that wry fits nicely into many sentences, especially concerning smiles and jokes and pranks on squad fifty-two, unit b, although he can't recall why he'd want to pull pranks on them or if he ever did, or what they were a squad of or who they worked for. "...I rather suspect that such professionals would only terrify him, given what I do know of his past history."

"How long could he have been missing? Honestly?"

"If you'll recall, Cid is an entire decade older than he should be by comparison to those who hail from our homeland."

"...how old do you think he is now?"

"Not much older."

Words fuzz and blur. Cloud thinks that if they were tangible they would be pleasant to touch. As it is, they make his ears itch, and sound the way that ticklishness feels. He moves restlessly, wanting the sensation to fade.

Maybe words are caterpillars.

When he wakes up this time, he doesn't feel sick. He hadn't realized that he was feeling sick until now, but the absence of the twisting, nauseous sensation is strangely liberating; he can breathe, and it feels good and normal. The air is clean and fresh; he can smell grass, wildlife here. His vision is a sworl of acid-trip colors, but he knows he cannot be high because Mako kills all the fun in life. Somebody said so once. At the time, Cloud couldn't understand why it was a bad thing. He just wanted to try it.

But there would have been no going back and somebody thought it was a bad idea and Cloud was so young and why couldn't he just have stayed at home it would have been safer dammit and then none of this would have happened they'd been through so much why did have to end there, why couldn't it have been me why.

His arm, under the clawed glove. It burns. It burns like fire. It doesn't stop; at first he grits his teeth and holds it to his chest, but it doesn't stop, and it hurts, and he curls up into a little ball, shuddering and begging please please, what do you want I'll do it make it stop because it's burning not just in his arm but up it, it's making his chest hurt and all of his senses go haywire, it's fucking with his brain--

And then he's just crying, miserably, and it's still burning and then

And then mercifully

They hold him still, there are two of them, and one of them is the right colors and sizes and the other is the right height but the wrong colors and the wrong shape and face and oh god, oh god it hurts until they've got him pinned, and then a she someone with a pretty smile, then a she, she steps up and puts her hand over the thing he can feel, coiled under his skin (not meant to be there) and she tears him open, just a little bit, and pulls out a writhing black worm.

Cloud feels his eyes go wide and roll back into his head, but he doesn't lose consciousness; he can't see it but he remembers it, in painful flashes as it fights her, trying to stay under his skin as surely as she tries to pull it out. He remembers that it was held in front of his face.

And He taunted Cloud, laughing in that awful voice, holding the worm right before his nose, so close that it could almost touch him. He remembers that he couldn't get away and he wanted to so badly; and it was the color of toxic waste, black and oily, sludge, roiling with sin and hedonism and wrongness, all things malicious reflected in its color, in its glowing yellow eyes and its soiled, slimy skin.

Yes, Cloud remembers...that He told Cloud how the worm would punish him whenever he inconveniently remembered things, so it'd be best not to even try. He remembers in bright, vivid flashes of orange yellow red that he spent weeks learning the hard way not to try to remember, and he remembers how it hurt, how it scrambled his head even more, he remembers that he couldn't do things anymore, like talking, for a while.

And it HURTS and he remembers begging, whimpering, spouting gibberish, anything and everything, just please, if he'd only not have to become a thing like that, and Cloud remembers that He said, smugly, "You can't deny what's in your heart forever, can you?"

The pain was bad enough, surely, but the worm comes out and one of them lets him go to hold a hand out at the little monster; there's a bright flash that he's dimly aware of, looking on now in dazzled mistrust of his own sight. The flash and its afterimages fade from his eyes, but the worm is gone now. He doesn't know where. Someone is casting a cure spell on his bleeding arm.

Cloud thinks about what He said and starts to cry.

This time he wakes up and it makes sense. He's still in the place where everything smells fresh and clean. He's aware of things he wasn't before. There is dewy grass nearby and someone is cooing to something, probably an animal. Someone else is sitting close to the makeshift bed where he is being kept, and quietly, perhaps while no one is looking, this person is stroking a line down Cloud's face, and Cloud finds this comforting, so he does not open his eyes, not yet.

"...you're awake again," says a bassy voice that he remembers loving; he loved it even more when it was saying his name, and when the arms that belong to this voice were holding him. Perhaps those days are long, long gone, whole lifetimes and worlds ago. Perhaps there are daisies mixed in with the grass he smells. It feels warm here, even though he suspects they are in the shade. "Are you feeling better?"

He opens his eyes slowly and sees a face that is Right. The hair is the right color and length. The bangs in the front. The eyes, it. It's right. This is someone he knows. He feels confusion and hope and fear playing out on his face, and then tries hurriedly to hide them, but the smooth, gloved fingers stroking his face never slow, and he calms as quickly as he'd made himself tense.

After some time of just looking, bewildered, into green-glow eyes, he blinks, startled, realizing that, indeed, he was asked a question, wasn't he? "...I think so?" he says softly, his voice rasping and weak, but not...broken, not lost the way he felt however many ages ago it was when he last tried to speak.

The stern expression on the face regarding him (familiar, as it should be) softens into something just a little too personal for anyone else to ever see. "I'm glad." He blinks, and then, eyes slowly lidding until they're half-shut, he turns his face drowsily into the stroke of those gloved fingers, sighing a bit. "...get better, Cloud." He remembers going to sleep this time. Vaguely, he recalls fantastic dreams about beaches located near jungles where small golden birds build pyramids with the assistance of a demon that has purple fur. The pyramid tours cost sixty gil per person, but they're worth the minor fee. He has a pet kitten in the dream. The kitten wears boots and a cape.

And a crown.

"Cloud?" He's shaken awake by the She that he remembers, on the vaguest, most whisper thin, uncertain of levels, from before. She is very gentle with him. Her eyes are a different shade of green than the man with silver hair who he Knows. It's a pretty color, like jade. He likes her smile. "Cloud, I wanted to give you this before we do anything tomorrow, all right?"

"Do anything?" he mumbles weakly, puzzled. What will they do? What is so important that she needed to wake him? Has he ever seen her with her hair down before? He wants to tell her it looks beautiful, but his mind is scattered all to the four corners of the world.

She doesn't answer right away, opening the palm of one of his hands and putting something smooth and cool there. Then she curls his fingers around it. "There. I thought...well, I think it will help you."

"...what'z't?" he wonders faintly, already slipping downhill to the dreams of chocobo pyramid fantasy tours. He thinks he will try riding the tonberry train when he gets there.

"It was yours. I don't know how it got left with me, but it's yours." She doesn't explain, but kisses him on the cheek fleetingly and leaves him there, where he lies in comfort and shade and cool wet darkness, wondering. He squeezes the solid, green, glass-smooth orb in his hand and tries to think of what it does, what it is, what it could possibly mean to him.

He slips back into sleep again and when he dreams this time, he remembers: Once upon a time they saved the world, and this is how...

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