-PG13ish for minor violence and slash
-Cloud/Sephiroth, some Zack/Aeris maybe
-9930 words, set post-Advent Children
Notes: If this had stayed as vaguely cracky as it started out, I could have blamed it on chibirisuchan for putting the idea in my head. It sort of went serious on me, though. *facepalm*
The sound of the door crashing open would have been enough to startle her, once. Tifa swallowed a sigh and abandoned the glass she'd been cleaning, halfway around the bar before she even looked up.
"I'm sorry, we're –" She broke off in surprise, halting in the middle of the floor. "Cloud?" It couldn't be what it looked like, because it looked like he was slumped against and being all but carried by – it was Reno, and while he was definitely the type to prop up a bar all night, Cloud had never been.
"A little help here, yo." Reno waved an urgent hand in her direction, then swore as Cloud threatened to slide right onto the floor. Tifa blinked, eyes suddenly caught by the slow drip of red onto her clean floor, from what she'd assumed to be rain-soaked clothes.
The world seemed to fade into silence for a single too-long moment before crashing back through her; Tifa vaulted the table between them without even thinking, ducking under Cloud's other arm to help support his weight.
"What happened? How bad is it?"
"He'll be fine, yo." Reno lifted one hand, shaking back his sleeve to expose a battered-looking silver bracer. Something green glinted in the dim light of the bar. "Just needs a whole lotta sleep."
"You healed him?" Tifa twisted, trying to get a good look into Cloud's face without dropping him; his skin was pale and clammy, and the fabric of his shirt was drenched and more than half sticky with drying blood. The fact that he was breathing normally, if slowly, was intensely reassuring. The fact that something had put Cloud – Cloud! – into this condition was definitely not. "What happened?" she demanded again, pressing a finger to his neck to get a pulse – just as slow as his breathing, but strong. "If this is your fault, Reno, so help me…"
"Hey, hey, I'm the one with the Restore, remember?" Reno shook his arm in the air again as a dark shadow filled the still-open door; Tifa glanced up to see Rude blocking the light, arms folded behind his back.
"Whatever." She hoisted Cloud's arm further over her shoulder; he was heavier than he looked, and she often forgot it. "Help me get him onto the table, and then one of you is going to tell me what happened."
"…we found him this way." Rude stepped forward, picking Cloud off them like he weighed nothing and laying him out on the nearest table. His head hit wood with an audible thunk, and Tifa winced; Rude looked studiously away from her, but Reno's smirk only widened.
"Didn't touch a hair on his precious little head," and he patted her back in a blatant and patronising attempt to cop a feel. Rude hmphed at the same moment as Tifa drove her elbow backwards, missing sinking it into Reno's stomach by milliseconds as he danced away.
"Take care of him, yo." Reno nodded at the too-still figure of Cloud, turning to leave. Rude was already halfway out of the door, Tifa realised with a frown, but Reno stopped on the threshold, shaking his head and twisting back to smirk at her. "Here." And he tossed – something-, something that glittered as she snatched it reflexively out of the air.
The moment it touched her fingers, a spark of discomfort shot through her hand, a strangely familiar ache that spoke of wrongness. Wincing, Tifa forced her fingers to let go and drop the thing – it was a materia, chiming like a bell against the floor before it rolled under the table. She looked up, about to pin Reno's ears back for whatever he was playing at now, but he'd already vanished, the door swinging slowly shut on empty space.
Setting her jaw, Tifa turned back to Cloud, wiping the rusty smear of half-dried blood from his forehead. His skin was cool, not quite clammy but not normal either; that probably meant he'd lost quite a lot of blood, and she bit her lip. There were at least three rents in his shirt that she could count, their edges stiff with dried blood but still fine enough that they could only have been made by some kind of blade. Taken all together, it threatened to add up to something that she didn't want to think about.
Shaking her head, Tifa smoothed the fine hair back from Cloud's forehead, examining the pallor of skin that had already been fair. Even though she knew that he could recover from this easily and quickly, that he'd had far worse in the past and gone longer without a Cure, she couldn't help but worry. He needed to be in bed, not sprawled out across a bar table with blood drying into his clothes and skin, but she wouldn't be able to lift him alone, not to mention negotiate the stairs, and she didn't want to leave him either.
With a sigh, Tifa turned towards the stairs, cupping her hands around her mouth to yell for Barret. Her voice came out strained and almost desperate, and she winced, hearing the sharp crack of a door hitting the wall and the thunder of heavy boots on the stairs.
Barret burst through the door and into the bar with his metal hand outstretched, stumbling to a perplexed halt when whatever enemy he'd been expecting failed to materialise. Tifa saw the exact moment when his eyes fixed on Cloud, widening with alarm.
"Shit!" He was across the room in two heavy strides, staring down at Cloud's inert body as though fearing the worst. "Dammit Spiky, what the hell happened to ya?!"
"The Turks brought him." Tifa sagged against the table, squeezing her eyes shut. "He's been Cured, he just needs rest now. Can you carry –" Light footsteps interrupted her; she turned with half a mind to try and hide Cloud from view, but it was too late; Marlene was peeking out of the stairwell, face gone bone-white.
"Cloud!" She clapped a hand to her mouth, tears starting in her eyes. Tifa wiped her hands hastily clean of blood, hurrying across the room to kneel in front of the child.
"It's okay, sweetie. He's only sleeping – he'll be just fine when he wakes up." She tried to pull Marlene into a comforting hug, but the girl twisted away.
"Not any more." Tifa tried to smile reassuringly, but it was difficult when she was still so close to panic herself. "Mr Reno – you remember him, right? Well, he healed Cloud with his materia before he brought him back. So he just needs to sleep for a little."
"That little…" Barret trailed off into half-muffled invective behind her, grunting as he heaved Cloud off the table. "Man, he's covered in it – like hell I'm givin' him a bath too!"
"Just get him upstairs; we can deal with that later." Tifa pulled Marlene gently back out of the way, looking down at her. "Marlene, can you go fetch a pitcher of water, please? And some cleaning rags too."
Marlene regarded her stubbornly. "Promise Cloud will be okay?"
"I promise." Tifa smiled. "He's Cloud, isn't he?"
"Yeah." Marlene smiled, a little shakily, but she wasn't crying any more. Tifa nodded, watching her run across the bar to the kitchen. Barret was grumbling his way up the stairs, muttering uncomplimentary things about Reno, Rufus, and everything else associated with Shinra. Somehow, Tifa couldn't bring herself to disagree.
He could tell that something was wrong even before he opened his eyes. There was a too-familiar weakness weighing him down, and the air around him was scented with blood and faint traces of Mako. Cloud shuddered, eyes snapping open; the raftered ceiling of his own room was a relief, and he blinked, wondering how he'd got here. The heavy exhaustion of his body spoke of injury and blood loss, but he couldn't remember…
"Cloud?" Denzel's voice was quiet and hopeful; he twisted his head on the pillow, wincing at the ache in his bones. Definitely blood loss; he could almost feel the Mako in his system working in overdrive.
Denzel was sitting in a chair that someone had pulled up to the bed, watching him hopefully. Cloud nodded, then tried to push himself upright; it was more effort than he'd have liked, and he tried to remember how long it had been since he'd been seriously injured.
Denzel bounded to his feet, relief plain on his face as he leaned out of the door, calling down the stairs. "Tifa! Tifa, he woke up!"
There was an exclamation somewhere below, and Cloud could hear three distinct sets of footsteps starting up the stairs. "How –" he began, and had to cough to clear his throat, his voice coming out rusty. His mouth tasted tinny, as though he'd swallowed blood. "How long was I out?"
"Since this morning." Denzel gave him a slow smile, climbing back onto his chair. "You're okay now, right?"
"…Yeah." Cloud nodded, staring down at the blood-stiffened rents in his shirt. His head felt fuzzy, and he pushed himself to remember what had happened. The Turks had called about another job, and he'd been wary, but money was money; in the end he'd agreed to a meeting, because Rufus still owed him for… that last…
Cloud felt his breath catch as memory returned, finally; he froze where he sat, eyes widening with horror as the night replayed itself with merciless clarity in his mind's eye. It – he –
"Cloud?" There was a commotion on the landing and Tifa burst through the door, Marlene on her heels and Barret crowding in behind them. "Are you all right? What happened?"
He couldn't look at her, all his attention fixed in memory. "Sephiroth." It came out half-whispered, like a prayer or a curse; he remembered the incredulous taste of it on his tongue last night, the moment before he'd convinced himself – been convinced – that it had been real. So very real, and familiar, and painful.
"Shit!" Barret swore explosively, metal hand clinking into a fist, and Cloud heard Tifa's breath leave her in a rush as she groped for the back of the chair. When he glanced to the side, the children were staring at him with frightened, trusting eyes; he tried to remember what they knew, what they'd been told about Avalanche's journey and last year's debacle. Sephiroth…
"The hell did that bastard come back this time?" Barret demanded, gesticulating angrily. Tifa was looking at him like she knew how hard it had been to draw the sword, eyes sad and worried but supportive. It just made Cloud hunch his shoulders, wincing against their ache.
"I don't know…" He'd just been there, between one blink and the next, black and silver stark and gleaming in Fenrir's headlights. Like a dream, or a nightmare, and Cloud hadn't been sure which until he'd smiled, mad and predatory and intent, the bright blur of Masamune cutting through air. And then everything had happened at once, and he hadn't had time to draw breath before he'd had to kick Fenrir aside and block, had to swing that sword with everything he had.
"Are there more of those silver men?" Marlene was huddled up against Denzel's side, eyes huge and frightened; Cloud flinched, remembering the way she'd clung to him in the Ancients' city. He'd been too late to save her from that nightmare.
"No." Cloud shook his head quickly, though… for all he knew there might still be Clones running around somewhere. But without Jenova – Kadaj had used her head for his Reunion, and taken it with him to the grave; there was nothing of her left now, only the dead cells in his own body. "Jenova's gone."
Tifa heaved a sigh. "And so's Sephiroth, right? So you two can go back to your homework, okay?" She set her hands on Marlene and Denzel's shoulders, shooing them gently out of the room. "Cloud won't be going anywhere for a while."
"Yes Tifa," Denzel mumbled reluctantly; Marlene went quietly, but she looked back over her shoulder at Cloud the whole way.
He waited until he could hear them reach the floor below before he spoke, cutting off whatever Barret had been about to say. "He's not."
"Not what?" Tifa asked encouragingly. Cloud ducked his head, staring down at his hands.
"Not gone. I think… I can't remember." It had been so strange; he flinched, remembering the way Sephiroth's eyes had tracked his movements, the way they'd changed, sometimes, flickers of confusion stirring behind glowing green. The way he'd watched so avidly, like a cat with a mouse, like he'd known that he was playing with Cloud. And Cloud had made mistakes, had been unable to keep from checking himself slightly every time Sephiroth paused, those flickers of confusion overtaking his madness. He'd been bleeding from a dozen vicious slashes by the time Sephiroth had pinned him up against a cliff; gasping for breath and wondering why he wasn't already dead. He should have been; any one of those cuts could have been fatal, if Sephiroth had chosen.
"I don't remember." He winced from the knowledge of his own weakness, the memory of the helpless, desperate way he'd stared into his enemy's face – the way he hadn't been able to stop wanting, even with the madness and cruelty so plain. Even after all these years. "I think I passed out – I don't remember killing him." And it was nothing but weakness, the way he was so pathetically grateful for it. He'd borne that on his conscience enough times already.
"Remember?" Barret waved a hand in the air. "Shit, you're here ain't ya? He sure as hell ain't, so ya must have got 'im!"
"…yeah." Cloud flexed his fingers slowly, still more than half feeling the sickening way First Tsurugi's hilt had slid from his hand, his gloves too slick with blood to keep a grip. Sephiroth's hand at his throat, green eyes staring down at him almost curiously, and he'd tried to struggle but known he was all but done for. And then Sephiroth had bent toward him, and the madness had been in his eyes but his fingers had traced the line of Cloud's jaw gently, almost curiously. The last thing he remembered was his knees giving out on him as everything had gone black, and he still wasn't certain whether it had been blood loss alone.
"Barret." Tifa had a steely, determined tone in her voice, and Cloud kept his eyes down, certain he was flushing. At least with a mad and violent Sephiroth, intent on killing him, he'd been able to – not ignore, but set aside the way his breath had always caught at a glance from those impossible eyes.
"-all Cid, and Yuffie," Tifa was saying. Cloud dragged his attention away from his own thoughts, listening to the sharp, quick sound of their voices as they discussed searching the area, letting people know to keep watch. It was all just a little too much like three years ago, but now instead of panic and confusion, there was… mostly just confusion, and no small amount of dread. If Sephiroth could come back without Jenova once – and he wouldn't put it past the man to pull his way out of the Lifestream by sheer force of will – then he could do it again.
"How many times?" he murmured, surprised when Barret and Tifa turned instantly towards him. How many times would he have to face Sephiroth, chase and kill that madness with his sword until he could drive it back into memory, let it rest along with the Sephiroth he remembered, before the flames. Before Jenova.
"We can do it, Cloud." Tifa sat down on the edge of the bed, patting his shoulder. "No matter how many times he comes back – we're going to fight, all of us."
"…thanks," Cloud muttered, because there didn't seem anything else to say. He knew, and she had to as well, that it would always come down to just him and Sephiroth; no one else could come close to standing against him. It didn't even matter whether or not he wanted to fight, because he was the only one who could. He plucked at his ruined shirt, watching rusty flakes of dried blood cascade into his lap. "I think I need to get a shower."
"Right." Tifa made a face. "You might as well throw those clothes out – they won't even make rags." She rose from the bed, nodding to Barret and smoothing her hands down her skirt. "We'll get everything organised."
It was considered something close to heresy, these days, to think it, but sometimes Cloud missed the old Mako power systems. Life in the Shinra barracks had been primitive enough, by Plate standards, but there had always been clean, hot water available, with no waiting around for boilers to heat or water pressure to rise. Still, Tifa hadn't had any shortage of skilled help when 7th Heaven mark two had been built; it only took a few minutes for the shower temperature to rise to a comfortable warmth.
Keeping a careful hand on the wall to steady his legs, Cloud shucked gratefully out of the filthy remnants of his clothes, dumping them into a trash bag Tifa had brought from the bar. Stepping into the shower with a sigh of relief, he tilted his head back into the spray, closing his eyes and letting the water run over his face and chest. Pushing the confusion and lingering weakness to the back of his mind as best he could, he listened to the sound of the water filling the silence, whispering under his breath: "Aeris?"
Cloud, and just the sound of her voice was like being embraced; he could feel the energy of the Lifestream washing over him like the water, adding an extra healing touch to smooth away aches and speed his recovery.
You think of us when you're wet and naked? Zack chimed in, teasing; for a moment Cloud felt the familiar, ghostly sensation of a hand ruffling his hair. I'm flattered, Spike.
"Shut up," he muttered, feeling himself flush despite the fact that neither of them were physically present. "Was… that really…?"
'fraid so, kid. Something like a sigh. This whole thing is really messing with your head, huh?
"That's probably what he wants." Cloud leaned against the cool tiled wall, reaching for the soap. Without Jenova, without his Clones or the Black Materia, there seemed to be no reason for Sephiroth to return, except to kill him. But he'd had the opportunity – "He'll be back for more, won't he."
Probably. Aeris' voice was sober, but gentle as ever. Stop blaming yourself, Cloud; none of this is your fault.
"I should have killed him," he whispered, pressing his forehead against tile. "I shouldn't have…"
Oh, should-should-should. You fought, Cloud; it's enough. No one could expect more.
That eased the gnawing feeling of guilt within him, a little, but he still… "He touched me," he found himself murmuring, ducking his head and half-blinded by steam. Just the memory of it was enough to make his skin burn and his mind swim with confusion.
You're still not past that, huh? Zack's voice was sympathetic. Well, it's Seph, after all.
It's not like you had a chance to get over him, Aeris reassured. Too much has happened.
"Yeah." Cloud set his shoulders, pushing himself upright. "It's just – he kept –" looking like he'd used to, he finished silently, like he had in the days when Cloud had watched from an awed distance as Zack had teased the Great General, getting nothing but confused looks for all his efforts.
There was a long, long silence, but it felt sympathetic rather than awkward. Well, Zack said eventually; for a moment it was almost as though he'd given Cloud an encouraging pat on the back. You'll do what you have to, after all. We'll be with you, whatever.
Two days later, nothing at all had happened. Cloud was half convinced that he might go mad himself from the itchy certainty of eyes on his back; he kept his shoulders to the wall as much as he could, but it didn't seem to help. Barret had reported that no one had noticed anything at all out of the ordinary, and neither Rufus nor Reno would answer his calls. Even indoors, he felt worse than naked without a weapon, bad enough that he'd seriously considered making the trek up to the bluff to retrieve Zack's Buster Sword, at least for a while.
It was both a surprise and relief to walk back into the bar, Marlene's hand clutched in his, and find Cid slumped in a chair with his feet on the table and a beer in hand. Vincent was leaning against the wall, looking about as inconspicuous as anyone could in a blood-red cloak, and First Tsurugi was propped beside him, gleaming clean and undamaged in the dim light.
"Finally." Cid waved an annoyed arm at him, obviously not suffering the latest crisis with any kind of good humour. "Brought your damn bike back too, but you're gonna need to take a panel-beater to it; it's a fucking mess."
"Language!" Tifa admonished, emerging from behind the bar to pointedly set an ashtray in front of Cid. "Marlene, sweetie, go upstairs and play for a bit, okay? Your Papa wants you to read to him later, but we need to talk to the grumpy Captain first."
"Oi!" Cid accepted the ashtray with bad grace, but he did keep his mouth shut until Marlene had vanished up the stairs, settling for glaring at Tifa.
"Thanks." Cloud lifted his sword gratefully, examining the interlocking blades. Nothing seemed damaged; he suppressed a sigh of relief, not quite willing to relinquish the hilt as he sat down beside Cid.
"Vin cleaned it up for you." Cid gestured with his cigarette, wreathing smoke in the air. "Wasn't exactly hard to find the place – looked like an explosion in a fucking blood bank. That better not all have been yours."
Cloud shrugged uncomfortably, recalling how few hits he'd managed to land on the General – on Sephiroth this time. Even now, it was too easy to be distracted; he still wasn't sure he hadn't imagined those flashes of uncertainty showing through the madness of Jenova's child. If he was honest with himself, he didn't want to think that it might have been real. "I'm fine now."
"Shyeah right." Cid made a face. "The hell am I supposed to tell? You're always fucking pale, almost as bad as that guy." It was anyone's guess, Cloud thought, whether he meant Vincent or Sephiroth.
"Maybe you should tell us exactly what happened." Vincent flicked his cloak aside, stalking forward to take his place at the table in eerie silence. Cloud nodded slowly, looking down at his hand on the tabletop.
"Reno called about a delivery job for Rufus." He shrugged ruefully. "Neither of them are picking up the phone now."
"I wouldn't either." Cid sucked on his cigarette, grumbling. "Fucking Shinra. Serve 'em all right if we strung 'em up by the balls."
The thought had crossed Cloud's mind, too, if in less graphic terms; this made twice, and that really wasn't good odds on another repeat performance. Maybe some stains just didn't come out. "I was nearly to Kalm – it was almost midnight." He stopped, looking back into memory yet again. "He was just – there. In front of me." Smiling that terrible, cruel smile, and he'd kicked off of Fenrir with his sword already half-drawn, and it had all blurred into a horribly familiar nightmare of effort and pain.
"Fucking Sephiroth." Cid eyed him askance. "Shoulda driven right into the bastard."
He hadn't even considered that; Sephiroth was too fast. "We fought." It was the wrong word; he'd held his own for the first few minutes, barely, until Sephiroth had looked at him with those horribly confused eyes, blade swinging wide as though he suddenly had no idea who or why he was fighting. And Cloud hadn't been able to keep himself from checking his own swing, stumbling with uncertainty and knowing that it had to be a fake, that Sephiroth would pounce on any weakness he could. "I lost."
"Fuck!" Cid stared at him in disbelief, then shook his head, stubbing his cigarette out and shaking another out of the packet. "The hell are you sitting here, if you lost?" Cloud shrugged uncomfortably.
"We found no trace of him," Vincent said quietly. "No one in Kalm encountered him."
"Hah." Cid rolled his eyes. "Some bastard by the inn was goin' on about people asking after men in black years ago, though. Fuckin' time-wasters."
Vincent inclined his head. "Nonetheless, the word has been put out."
Cid snorted. "That damn Wutain brat'll probably be here within the week, bugging you for materia. Like hell I'm letting her puke all over my ship again."
"Materia!" There was a sharp tinkle of glass from behind the bar, and Tifa vaulted over it, dropping to her hands and knees to peer around the floor. Cloud blinked.
"The fuck?" Cid demanded, yanking his feet back sharply and staring as though she'd grown a second head.
"I forgot – Cloud was dripping blood everywhere, and Marlene was crying." Tifa stretched out her arm, feeling around underneath the bench in the corner. "Reno threw me a materia – where did it go?"
"He did?" Cloud blinked; he was certain he hadn't been missing any, and Reno of all people… "What was it?"
"I don't know – it was weird." Tifa shoved herself to her feet, pacing over to the bottom of the stairs and calling up. "Marlene! Can you come down here a minute, honey?"
"Weird how?" What would the Turks be doing with materia, anyway, now that the reactors were shut down? Cloud frowned, not liking this at all.
Light feet on the stairs, and Marlene peered through the door curiously. "Tifa? Is Papa back?"
"Not yet." Tifa crouched down, smiling reassuringly. "Marlene, the other day when Cloud… when he was sick, did you find anything on the floor down here?"
"Uh-huh." Marlene bit her lip, looking a little tremulous. "One of the shiny magic stones. I put it with the others."
Cloud pushed himself to his feet, about to head up to the office, but Tifa waved him off.
"You touched it? It didn't hurt you?"
"It bit me." Marlene's lip trembled for a moment, but she lifted her head. "So I used a cloth!"
"…bit you?" Frowning, Cloud tried to fit that into his mental picture, without much success.
"Clever girl." Tifa gave Marlene a little hug. "If something hurts you, you need to tell someone though, okay?"
"Uh-huh." Marlene scooted back out of the way, eyes big. Cloud tried for a smile, but wasn't too sure whether it made it to his face; he took the stairs up to the office two at a time, Tifa's footsteps lighter and quicker behind him.
The moment he unlatched the materia chest, he saw what Tifa had meant about it being weird. Marlene had left the new orb carefully on top of the others, and it sat there looking strangely malevolent, magic-green with an ominous hint of red burning at its heart, unlike any materia he'd ever seen. Cloud sat back on his heels, staring at it for a long moment before reaching carefully out, mindful of his fingers.
Despite Marlene's words, and Tifa's blurted warning behind him, it rolled into his hand as though it belonged there, warm as blood. The red centre of the orb flared for a moment before it was eclipsed again by the green, the two colours swirling together in a way that was almost nauseating. Cloud stared down at the thing, strangely fascinated until Tifa smacked at his hand, forcing him to drop it back into the chest.
"What?" Cloud blinked at her, wondering why she was wearing that mother-chocobo look again.
Tifa stared at him. "Doesn't it hurt?"
"…hurt?" Cloud reached out, picking the materia back up. It really did feel – not comfortable; there was still that strange sickening feeling at the edge of his mind, but like it fit in his hand. Familiar, he realised, trying to put a finger on a sensation that was more a memory than anything – sharp, stunning power overlaid with something distorted and… "It doesn't hurt."
"Really?" Tifa reached out with one finger, recoiling almost instantly with a wince. "Ouch. Well, so much for that, I guess."
Cloud stared down into the glowing heart of the orb, trying to unpick the too-tangled threads of his memory, separate the old from the new. It felt like a summon, despite the green, and a powerful one – more powerful than anything he'd ever touched, with one exception. One…
It felt as though everything stopped for a single, too-long moment, the world going very still around him.
"It really doesn't sting at all?" Tifa was asking; her voice sounded thin and far away. Cloud had to force himself to breathe, fingers tightening convulsively around the materia. He remembered now: the stark, chilling awe of watching Shinra's legendary General dispatch monsters with a single flick of Masamune's blade; the sickening taint of Jenova crawling across his skin. Power and blood and fire, and red madness in Mako-green eyes.
"Sephiroth," he whispered, hearing her startled exclamation with only a fraction of his mind.
"That's it – it felt the way his sword did, that time…"
An image was forming in Cloud's mind; he stared into the red core of the materia, remembering. Meteor cold and powerful in his hand as he'd drifted toward the roof of the cavern, toward his master – Sephiroth, imprisoned in the crystallised shell of the Mako a much younger Cloud had thrown him into… Shinra, a quiet voice murmured in the back of his head; neither Zack nor Aeris this time. They found Jenova's head, there. And this, too.
"Cloud?" Tifa's hands on his shoulders startled him back into awareness of the world around him, and he blinked down at the materia. A summon…
"So he got his wish after all," he muttered, hearing Zack echo the words grimly inside his head. Sephiroth really had become a god, or the next best thing, and Cloud had put him there.
"What?" Tifa shook him, worry in her voice. "Cloud, what is it?"
"Sephiroth," Cloud said again, unable to keep the conflict out of his voice as he stared down at the materia, wondering how to explain. "The materia – it's Sephiroth." All that was left of him, most likely, and Cloud was holding it in the palm of his hand.
"We have to destroy it." Tifa looked like she couldn't decide whether to panic or prepare for a fight, Cloud thought, but she was sticking to her guns. Cid had almost fallen out of his chair when she'd dragged Cloud back down and made him explain the situation, and he was staring at the materia in the Cloud's hand as though it might sprout wings and attack him. Only Vincent seemed entirely unruffled, as if he'd already considered the possibility.
"Damn right." Cid muttered, taking a long drag at his cigarette. "How the fuck do you destroy materia, anyway?"
"You don't." Vincent extended his metal hand, eyes flicking to Cloud for permission. "They cannot be destroyed, although in theory it might be possible to dissolve them in Mako. May I?"
Reluctantly, Cloud tipped the Sephiroth materia into his hand; it chimed softly against the metal and Cid and Tifa shivered as one.
"What, so you'd have the bastard in a fucking puddle of Mako instead?" Cid snorted, waving his cigarette. "Like anyone's got enough of the damn stuff lying around these days."
"What about the Lifestream?" Tifa asked suddenly, glancing around the table. "If you took it to Mideel and dropped it in…"
"Possibly." Vincent was examining the orb carefully; turning it from side to side. "However, the taint of Jenova…"
"Her too?" Cid choked on smoke, and stubbed his cigarette out angrily. "Shit, like we didn't go through enough fucking trouble getting rid of the bitch."
"Can't Aeris… clean it?" Tifa looked at Cloud, eyes wide and troubled; he had to fight the urge to duck away. "After last year…"
"I'm not risking it." He shook his head, fingers reaching out automatically to take the materia back from Vincent. Every so often, it was as though the crawling sensation that was Jenova would ebb a little, leaving the materia warm and comfortable in his hand before she surged nauseatingly back to the surface.
"The best option may simply be to put it away, somewhere out of sight." Vincent was watching him as though seeing more than Cloud would like; he shrugged uncomfortably, staring down at the materia. "If things remain as they are, there is no difficulty."
"Hide it?" Tifa bit her lip. "What if someone finds it, though, and summons…" she trailed off, looking slightly ill.
"It's too powerful," Cloud murmured, turning the crystal gently with one finger, unable to escape the idea that he was touching Sephiroth. "The amount of energy it would take to summon him would be huge – no one could do it by accident."
"Accidents aren't what I'm worried about," Tifa insisted. "It's too much of a risk – and the Turks know you have it now. They must be planning something."
They always were, Cloud thought. It was obvious, now, that Reno's call and Rufus' job had been nothing more than a ruse; he supposed he should be grateful that they hadn't unleashed Sephiroth on a populated area. Still, he'd already decided that he was going to make them regret ever going near the Crater, and he suspected he'd hear no arguments on that score.
He closed his fingers gently around the materia, settling it carefully into his breast pocket. "I'll keep it safe."
Days later, despite his best intentions, Cloud hadn't been able to bring himself to give up the materia. It stayed where he'd put it, in the top pocket of his shirt, and somehow having it there felt strangely comforting, as though some part of his lost memories had caught up with him. A good part, and though he kept telling himself that tomorrow he'd make the trip out to the ruins of Sector Five, set this piece of the past to rest with all the others, he kept putting it off.
Instead, he worked on Fenrir, taking the bike apart piece by piece and repairing the damage he'd done to it. Sometimes he had Cid's help, Vincent leaning against the garage wall and cleaning his guns until Cid lost patience with Cloud's slow work and chased them both out with swearwords and thrown rags. No one had mentioned a thing, but Cloud suspected they were just waiting around for the next shoe to drop.
If he was honest with himself, then so was he. It wasn't just the nagging feeling that he'd left something unfinished by letting himself lose to Sephiroth; the whole encounter kept replaying itself in his head, vivid and guilty and humiliating. He couldn't stop thinking about the strange, lost look that had flickered through Sephiroth's eyes, and when he lay down to sleep he could still feel the shivery ghosts of gloved fingers tracing his jaw.
That, in the end, was what had him out on the road as soon as Fenrir was back in commission, the materia zipped snugly into his pocket and First Tsurugi – all six pieces of it – strapped across his back. It had taken him a few days to get back into shape, after the strain of the blood loss, but Cloud had managed to reassure himself that he was fully recovered. Vincent had given him a thoughtful look when he'd asked to spar, but he hadn't objected; if he'd guessed what Cloud was planning, then he hadn't said a word. As far as Tifa and the others were concerned, he was making a pickup for a client.
The sun was just coming up over the mountains by the time he reached what he considered a suitable place – up in the foothills, near the edge of the slowly-receding blight that circled the ruins of Midgar, and as far as he could realistically get from human habitation. Veering off what passed for the road, he coasted to a slow stop behind a dusty outcropping, angling into a narrow gully that should keep Fenrir from taking too much damage this time round.
Standing very still in the shadow of the low cliff, he listened hard, giving the dead one last chance to object. There was only silence in his head, though, and at last he took a deep breath, unzipping his pocket. The materia glinted dull and deadly in the dawn light, greenish one minute and red the next; Cloud watched it for a long moment before lifting his left arm decisively and pressing the materia into the one empty slot he'd left in his Mystile.
It was like an explosion inside his head; he reeled at the sensation of magic suddenly coursing through him, augmenting the power at his disposal by a factor far greater than any materia he'd yet encountered. He could taste blood and bile in the back of his throat, the familiar dark whisper of Jenova crawling across his skin until he pushed her hissing presence back by main force. What shocked him, even as he braced himself against the cliff, was the way that he could feel Sephiroth's presence, mingled yet distinct from the nightmare of Jenova. It reminded him forcefully of Nibelheim – not the reactor, but standing in the library with the empty tanks at his back, Sephiroth ahead, materia flung hard enough to bruise.
Stepping out of the shadows, Cloud circled the cliff, the memory of being cornered too vivid in his mind. With empty space at his back and in front, he set one hand on First Tsurugi's hilt, extending the other before him. It had been a long time since he'd used his materia at all, longer still since he'd needed to summon; he closed his eyes, pouring power into the orb until he could feel it burning even through the armour.
The power drain would have been enough to make him stagger, if he hadn't already been braced for it. There was a rushing sound in his ears, a sense of unimaginable pressure, and then silence, except for the soft, familiar creak of leather.
When he opened his eyes, Sephiroth was smiling at him, as vicious and mesmerising as a snake.
"Hello, Cloud." His voice was deep and satisfied, almost a purr; Cloud felt himself shiver even as he pulled First Tsurugi from his back, his hands settling automatically into position.
"Sephiroth," and it was hard to keep so much conflicting emotion from his voice; this had been easier when the Planet was at stake. "What is it that you want this time?"
"Oh?" Masamune hissed into existence in a long deadly arc. Sephiroth was watching him with amusement; it was a relief to see nothing but madness, nothing but Jenova in his eyes. "You were the one who called me forth; have you chosen to join Mother and I in a true Reunion at last?"
"Never." Cloud braced himself, trying to clear his mind of everything but the presence of his enemy. "I won't be your puppet again."
"So vehement." Sephiroth smirked at him, far too knowing, and lifted Masamune, poising himself in a perfect attack stance. "You will never escape me, Cloud." And he blurred into motion, blade sweeping round in an arc designed to push Cloud backwards, set him off-balance.
The clash of metal as their swords met echoed and vibrated through his entire body; Cloud threw his weight forward, ignoring the blue-white trails of sparks cut from the metal as he pushed Sephiroth back, tensed to leap forward in a strike of his own. Sephiroth was there to meet him, face intent and almost pleased as he slewed the blow aside with a screech and hiss of metal on metal, kicking out with one booted foot as Cloud was pulled off balance. Unable to avoid the kick, Cloud gasped into the momentum of it, tucking and turning into a flip that put him back on his feet just long enough to propel himself forward again, aiming to duck beneath the long sweep of Sephiroth's sword.
The world narrowed to the sound of his breath echoing in his ears, the avid Mako glow of Sephiroth's eyes, the silver hiss and blur of Masamune. Facing Sephiroth had never been less than the hardest fight Cloud had ever undertaken; there was no time to think or plan, only to react, Mako speed and instincts letting him block those flash-quick strikes, halt and push back his enemy's relentless advance. It might have been exhilarating, if there had been anything in his mind but the need to protect himself, to find a gap in Sephiroth's legendary skill.
He never knew what it was that did it, whether the materia's drain on his energy had stretched him too far, or whether it was his own mind and heart betraying him again. As he twisted to block a heavy strike to his side, time seemed to slow; all he could see for an agonisingly long instant was the slow sweep of silver lashes against high cheekbones, his sword dead weight in his hands as his world contracted again to Sephiroth's face. And then he was crashing back to earth, stumbling blindly to get out of range as the pain hit, hot and sharp along his ribs and inner arm.
It took him a moment to realise that his sudden hiss of indrawn breath had been echoed. Forcing himself past the shock of the pain, Cloud tightened his grip on First Tsurugi's hilt, bracing for the next attack.
It didn't come; Sephiroth's eyes had widened, fixed on Masamune's red-stained blade. Something in his face had changed, leaving him looking defenceless and uncertain rather than vengeful or confident. In the clear light of day, Cloud could see what night had hidden from eyes blurred with pain and fatigue: there was no trace in Sephiroth's face or posture of the arrogant, predatory madness that Nibelheim and Jenova had brought to him. Only confusion, as though the shadow of the General Cloud had watched from afar was struggling to understand what had happened to him.
"…Sephiroth?" The sudden, helpless flood of hope within him twisted his stomach into knots for a few giddy moments before it was stamped out as swiftly as it had grown. The sound of his name seemed to go through Sephiroth like a Bolt Three; he stiffened, shoulders flexing slowly as he lifted his head, nothing even close to sanity in the eyes that pinned Cloud where he stood. A heartbeat, two; and Masamune was flashing past his face, slicing so close that it was all Cloud could do to lift his sword in time to keep from being skewered.
"You will never be anything but a puppet." Sephiroth's mouth formed the words, but Cloud could hear Jenova's voice hissing threat through them. It felt like everything in him was aching as he brought First Tsurugi around again, too slow to halt Sephiroth's attack and only barely managing to deflect it; Sephiroth barely slowed, eyes vicious and exultant as he rained blows down with inhuman speed.
It was enough; Cloud tightened his grip, all too aware that at this rate he was heading for a repeat of last time. It would have to be enough, because he couldn't hold out against this rage. Sucking in a ragged breath, he focused as much of his attention, as much of his energy as he dared spare on the summon materia, trying to get enough of a grip on the maelstrom of power to call back the spell.
It seemed to take forever, Sephiroth's advance not slowing an inch as Cloud gritted his teeth, desperately blocking strike after strike. The magic moved so slowly, and for a long, tense moment it seemed that nothing would happen at all. Then, suddenly, a wash of warm, familiar green energy settled over his awareness, Aeris' presence mending the ache and burn in his side even as her power joined with his, forcing Sephiroth back –
– and back into the materia, his form wavering like heat haze over the road before fading out into nothing. The bracer on Cloud's arm burned painfully hot for a moment, then cooled.
His legs gave out on him all at once, depositing him on his knees in the dust with only his grip on First Tsurugi's hilt keeping him upright. Breath coming in painful gasps, Cloud tilted his face back to the sky, feeling the brief, soft touch of phantom hands before Aeris' presence faded away. Zack lingered a moment longer, voice curiously gentle.
Did you find what you needed to, Spike?
"…I don't know." Cloud let his eyes fall shut, the watchful face of his best friend drawn on the back of his eyelids. "Maybe." He had the knowledge now, or the suspicion. It was deciding what to do with it that was going to be the difficult part.
The sun was dropping towards the horizon by the time he made it back to Midgar, bypassing Edge completely. The ruins of the Plate and Shinra HQ cast long shadows, chilling the air; Cloud wove his way through the wreckage of Sector Five, heading slowly in towards the church. Everything in him ached, and he couldn't tell what was exhaustion and what – regret? Sorrow? He didn't have a word for it; the painful disconnect between what had to be done and what he wanted.
Where the rest of the dead city wrapped itself in darkness, the church had always been bright and calm; Cloud stood in the doorway for a long moment, watching the evening light reflect and ripple in the water. It was quiet and peaceful, and he closed his eyes, breathing out slowly before moving slowly into the building. There was a sense of presence, familiar but waiting, as though neither of them was willing to push him. Nodding to his ghosts, Cloud settled himself on the ground with his back against an ancient pew, staring at the shimmer of the light on the water.
"I don't know what to do," he admitted at last, heavily, leaning his head back against the wood. The sky above was dimming through shades of blue towards night, and the moon was just visible above the western wall. He wasn't sure, now, whether he'd even seen it at all – it seemed too much like something he'd want to believe, and that was dangerous.
You don't want to lock him away, huh? That was Zack, and Cloud decided he was probably imagining the faint thread of laughter behind the voiceless words.
Of course he doesn't. Aeris sounded as though she'd expected nothing less; Cloud blinked, watching the moon creep a little higher over the shell of the church. He's in love, silly.
"I don't…" Cloud started to protest, hunching his shoulders, but he had no idea what to say.
It's okay, Spike. Reassurance, then quiet laughter. We know.
He could feel his face heat. "It was a long time ago." What he'd lost in Nibelheim couldn't be regained, and he knew it. "Can you deal with Jenova the way you did the Geostigma?" he asked abruptly, looking back down into the water. It reflected the darkening sky, depthless and dizzying, though he knew the bottom went down only a few feet.
It's the same thing, you know. Aeris sounded curious; it felt like a soft touch on his arm. What are you planning?
There's not all that much left of her, Zack chipped in with a mental hair-ruffle. It wouldn't take much.
"That must be why," Cloud murmured, remembering the strange sensation of Jenova's presence fading in and out when he'd touched the materia. If Sephiroth was able to resist her influence, now, even for a little, then maybe Cloud could tell himself that he was doing this for the General's benefit. It would be easier, that way, to make himself let go. He gathered his legs under him, starting to get to his feet. "I'll leave for Mideel in the morning."
Startlement. Mideel? Zack echoed; the sensation of Aeris' hand on his arm turned urgent.
Cloud, wait. You don't need to –
He shrugged uncomfortably, turning away. "He deserves…" To rest, he finished silently. To return to the Lifestream, without the indignity of being chained to a materia, locked in with Jenova's poison.
And what about you, Spike? Zack asked silently; for a moment, Cloud thought he could see his friend leaning arms-crossed against a pillar, watching him with concern. What do you deserve?
"That doesn't matter." Cloud unzipped his pocket, fumbling half-consciously for the materia. It glittered when he brought it out, tingling nausea slipping away to leave only warmth for a long moment; if he closed his eyes the air seemed to taste of leather and spice, Mako and steel.
Of course it matters, silly. The sensation of a smile, soft hands framing his shoulders. You're allowed to be happy, Cloud.
What did I always tell you about not wasting chances? And Zack's grin, warm and wry.
"But…" To keep Sephiroth by his side always – oh, he wanted it, Cloud admitted to himself defeatedly, but he couldn't imagine doing that to the General. Hojo had created Sephiroth to be a weapon, and first Shinra then Jenova had used him ruthlessly. It was enough, enough for a lifetime. And even allowing for the stupidity of his heart, he wasn't fool enough to believe that Jenova had been responsible for everything Sephiroth had done. He had no idea, really, how much was even left of his General. "It's not my choice," he muttered, ducking his head.
So, ask him. There was a little stir in the air, the surface of the water rippling as though someone had trailed fingers through it.
Let Seph decide what he wants, Zack murmured encouragingly at the back of his mind. We'll take care of Jenova.
We? Aeris laughed, and Cloud stared into the pool. Night was falling fast, and the surface of the water was flecked with stars and a pale, wavering moon. It was too familiar, and he shuddered, remembering the long fall, and what had come after. Immediately, warmth wrapped around him, catching him in a comforting embrace. Go on, Aeris urged; Zack ruffled his hair again.
You're allowed to want something for yourself, Spike.
The green glow that surrounded the materia when Cloud lowered it into the water was very familiar; he remembered the cool, startling sensation of the Geostigma washing away, but what he hadn't expected was that Jenova would fight back, this time. The orb heated in his hand, steam hissing from the water and his fingers burning even through the leather of his glove. The green intensified, building to a slow pulse that surrounded his whole hand before ebbing, taking the fiery pain with it. Somewhere, from a great distance, Cloud was sure he could hear a long, fading scream.
There. Aeris' satisfied voice seemed to echo for a moment. Cloud blinked, and between one breath and the next found himself standing knee-deep in a field of flowers, beneath a white sky.
"So this is the Promised Land." The voice was as familiar as the flowers, but Cloud had never expected to hear it here. Swallowing, he turned slowly, staring helplessly at Sephiroth. His Sephiroth, something in the back of his mind murmured; his eyes were as Mako-bright and slitted as ever, but there was no sign of Jenova in them.
"It seems that Mother is finally gone." Sephiroth spoke slowly, as though tasting the words; his expression was blank, and Cloud wasn't certain whether he was imagining the uncertainty in the General's stance.
"Yeah." He nodded, unable to look away. Sephiroth was still wearing his uniform leathers and coat, but Masamune was nowhere to be seen, and Cloud belatedly realised that he didn't have First Tsurugi with him either. It was both strange and intensely relieving to find that the lack of a weapon didn't matter to him. "She won't be coming back."
"Ah." Sephiroth looked at him curiously, eyes narrowing a little as though he was trying to remember something. "…Cloud. Why are you here?"
"Jenova's gone." Cloud shrugged, turning his head to one side, uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
"Do you think that makes a difference?" Sephiroth sounded genuinely curious, his voice growing a little smoother, as though he were only now becoming used to speaking again. "The past is past. Easy though it might be to absolve myself of blame, I cannot lay all my actions at Mother's door."
Cloud shrugged again, looking down at his boots. "I know that." He'd spent enough time thinking about it, after all. "There was… a part of me that liked being your puppet," he admitted very, very quietly, hoping in vain that Aeris and Zack wouldn't hear. "That – wanted to give you the Black Materia." That hadn't been the worst of the things he'd had to face up to, trapped in his own mind after Mideel, but it had come close.
Sephiroth was silent for a long moment, studying his face. Cloud swallowed, trying not to blush, then started when Aeris' voice floated across the field from somewhere unseen, gently teasing.
"Well, go on then, silly. Ask him."
"Aeris?" Cloud looked around, startled, but she was nowhere in sight. Sephiroth cocked his head.
"You wish to ask me something?"
Shrugging uncomfortably, Cloud ducked his head. "Is… You're in the materia now," he managed at last, forcing the words out thickly. "There's nothing I can do about that, unless –" He swallowed. "Do… you want me to return you to the Lifestream? …For good?"
"Considering that I am already effectively dead…" Sephiroth shook his head slowly. "I can understand your wish to be done with the past, after all." He was silent for so long that Cloud looked up hesitantly, meeting his eyes and almost gasping with the shock of it. "If that is what you desire, I will not attempt to dissuade you."
"Attempt –" Cloud stared, helplessly caught in Sephiroth's gaze. "You don't… want to leave?"
"I told you so," Aeris' voice rang out again, and Cloud flinched.
"Babe, give them some time." Zack was laughing, though, and Cloud saw Sephiroth's eyes widen at the sound of his voice. They stared at each other, Cloud trying to chase down the words to explain the situation as he saw it – the willpower to step back, away from temptation.
"I don't want to use you," he muttered eventually, closing his eyes and turning his head. "You shouldn't – a summon materia isn't…"
"I will admit," and Sephiroth's voice was nearer, suddenly, "that I would not object to remaining… close to you." Cloud jerked his head up, eyes widening helplessly. He could take a step forward right now, reach up, and… The thought stole his breath, and he stared up into Sephiroth's eyes with no words at all left in his head. This, of all things, he had not expected.
"You know the principles of summoning," Sephiroth told him quietly. "Far greater power is required to subvert and control a summons than simply to call it forth; without that drain on the caster, the spell is open-ended."
"…what are you saying?" Cloud caught his breath, taking a small, uncertain step forward.
"I am aware of your presence, even confined within the materia." Sephiroth lifted a hand, looking for a moment as though he were about to reach out. "I know you as you know me – and I cannot say that have any desire to return to the Lifestream without you."
"You –" Cloud began, stunned half-witless and afraid to hope despite himself; Aeris' sudden, exasperated voice cut him off before he could stumble through the incoherent question on his tongue.
"Oh, for goodness' sake, stop being such men, the pair of you! We don't have all year – just tell him you love him already!"
Cloud choked on air, staring up into Sephiroth's suddenly-startled eyes. It felt like he'd been kicked in the chest, the only thought in his head that this couldn't be real; he had to be dreaming, or imagining it, because the world didn't work this way.
"Hey, let him work around to it." Zack was definitely laughing, and Cloud felt himself blush furiously. "You know what they're like – as bad as each other."
Sephiroth sighed audibly, in that familiar way that meant he was going to ignore Zack's irreverence, whatever it cost him. Despite himself, Cloud felt his mouth twitch up into a shaky smile; Sephiroth tilted his head, gazing down at him seriously for a moment before he lifted his hand again, like an offering.
"If you call me, I will come to you." His voice was a deep, smooth promise, and Cloud shivered despite himself. Slowly, he reached up to touch his own gloved fingers to Sephiroth's, startled when the world swirled around him and he was suddenly sitting by the pool in the dark, staring down at the now pure-green materia in his hands.
Well? Aeris' voice was gentle and amused. Go on, then.
"…Yeah." Cloud stared into the heart of the materia, wondering whether it was really pulsing in time to his heartbeat – fast and unsteady with hope. The mirror of the moon was long since gone from the pool, and the church was as dark as the sky above, clear and flecked with stars. The green glow of the materia was the only light in the place.
Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet, stepping back into the clearer space of the aisle. If you call me, Sephiroth had said. Cloud stripped off his gloves, cradling the materia in his bare hands and gasping at the suddenly-intimate surge of power. He could feel Zack and Aeris at his back, watchful and approving; that alone seemed like more than he could ever have hoped for.
Taking a deep breath, Cloud gathered his power, feeding it carefully into the materia; an invitation, rather than a command. I want this. He shuddered at the sudden, dizzying touch of Sephiroth's strength against his mind, then gasped as, with a rush, the magic he'd expended was returned to him, the space in front of him shimmering and warping. The materia pulsed hot in his hands as Sephiroth stepped forward into existence; it felt about to melt into his skin, and Cloud almost dropped it, fingers gone nerveless.
"Cloud." In the darkness, Sephiroth seemed almost to glow, ghostlike and pale beneath his blacks; his eyes glowed bright enough that Cloud could see nothing beyond him. His hands seemed to be working without him, settling the materia carefully back into his pocket as he stepped forward, eyes fixed on the slow curve of Sephiroth's mouth.
"Seph," he heard himself saying, and then his fingers were catching at leather as he stretched up, pulling Sephiroth down into a kiss that was far, far more than he'd ever imagined. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the heat of Sephiroth's mouth on his and the shivering need of hands on his back, Cloud thought he could hear Aeris laughing in delight.
Silly omake goes here.