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the fight goes on in this the babylon

Chapter Text

 

When Sephiroth is discovered in the heart of Aeris' church, floating naked on his back in the shallow pool of rainwater, time stands still. It stands still like every cliché in which Cloud's heart stops, fear and hatred and his heart clawing at his throat like rats. It stands still and for a moment Cloud exists as a hollow shell, a rain of bullets on a lonely cliff, a sword through the back and the slow fall of a little marble into a still lake. He breathes.

There's panic around him.  He can smell the ozone of charged materia and hear the cries, too much chaos that blurs into slow-motion white noise while a body lies unmoving in the water. Cloud takes a step forward even though it feels like his legs have been rooted in the earth and he has to drag feet made of stone. His sword is heavy against his back. His hands are empty as he takes another step, walking forward into the water until it rises to his waist and he can see every one of Sephiroth's pale eyelashes, sliding his arms under Sephiroth's knees and shoulders.

Cloud almost expects to be lifting nothing but air, but it's heavy and real. He feels the slow rise and fall of breathing, a steady pulse where his arms bear the brunt of Sephiroth's weight and their skin is pressed together. The heaviness of long, wet hair pulls Sephiroth's head back, exposing the lean white line of his throat, and his hair threatens to tangle around Cloud's legs as he steps out of the water towards the door of the church. The others part to each side to let him pass, sunlight glittering eloquently off a variety of weapons.

"Why, Cloud?" Tifa asks, and Cloud says, "I won't kill him when he can't look me in the eye."

The flat above Seventh Heaven is just large enough for Tifa, Cloud, and the kids collectively to have their own bedrooms alongside a small office and bathroom, the kitchen and storeroom downstairs behind the bar. Cloud lays Sephiroth out on his own bed, which hasn't been used in weeks, and covers him with a worn but clean blanket. He's moving on autopilot: straighten the body as naturally as possible, keep it warm, clear the room of weapons even though the person inhabiting the body doesn't need them to be dangerous anyway. It's the thought that counts. Practicality, even when he's watching himself do these things from the outside as weak afternoon sunlight cuts in through the window and slices the room into long shadows.

Downstairs, Tifa's waiting with Cid, Vincent, and Nanaki. Cloud tries to remember when they'd gotten into town as he pours himself a glass of water behind the bar.

"What are you doing?" Tifa finally asks. Cloud watches the bubbles left from the faucet rise to the surface of the glass and doesn't answer.

"You do realize who the fuck you brought home, don't you?" says Cid.

"Yes." He knows better than anyone.

"What about the kids?" Tifa asks softly, and, well. Cloud hadn't thought that far, and he's momentarily overwhelmed with shame at his thoughtlessness of bringing Sephiroth to the refuge of children orphaned by the man's actions in the first place.

"I don't know," he replies honestly. The rats in his throat have made his voice hoarse.

"It doesn't make sense," says Nanaki. "The rain should have destroyed the remaining traces of Jenova."

"Sephiroth was not always her avatar," Vincent reminds them quietly, and it's that, the suggestion that maybe it hadn't all been Sephiroth's choice, that in some ways he's as much a victim as the poor clone bastards, that strikes Cloud hard in the chest like the Masamune.

"Then what the hell do we do?" Cid demands. There's a long silence before Cloud murmurs, "I don't know."

Calls requesting package delivery continue to ring in the empty office. There's a dead man sleeping in Cloud's bed but the world goes on like it never balanced on the edge of a cliff, so close to tipping over that one more misstep would've sent it tumbling into nonexistence.  Some days Cloud wants to grab someone by the shoulders and shake them and demand, How can you just keep going like none of this ever happened? How could you even dare?

So the calls ring themselves into silence. Once or twice they go on for several stubborn minutes at a time, but no one really wants to think about the Turks right now and they, too, eventually give up. Instead Cloud sits in a chair at the bedside, eyes half-lidded, his mind wandering aimlessly all over the world while his body sits nearly motionless and the shadows move with the shifting of the sun. At night he dozes on a pallet by the door, First Tsurugi never out of reach.

It's a warm but overcast day when Sephiroth wakes up.

Cloud almost misses it. He's sitting in his chair with an engineering book – Denzel's been making noise about learning how Fenrir works – and the sensation of being watched from inside himself is familiar enough that it takes Cloud a moment to actually recognize it. Cloud doesn't move, just lifts his eyes and meets Sephiroth's.

After a long silence, Sephiroth whispers hoarsely, "Where am I?"

"Edge," Cloud replies neutrally. "Outside Midgar.  Neo-Midgar."

He watches Sephiroth's eyes move around the room: a desk cluttered with the diagrams Cloud had needed to repair Tsurugi's various parts after the Remnants, white walls that have a couple crayon drawings tacked on crookedly at a child's height. A window. The chair in which Cloud sits and the bed in which Sephiroth lies. A tiny bedside table. Tsurugi itself, propped nearby. Sephiroth looks lost even though he's trying to pretend otherwise, obviously has questions but isn't ready to admit it. But the weirdest thing, the most terrifying but validating thing, is how all the bewilderment is utterly human.

Marking his place with a shop receipt, Cloud sets the book on his desk and stands up, casually slinging Tsurugi into its harness across his back. "Are you hungry?"

"I…don't know. Yes."

Tifa is downstairs behind the bar, wiping down the already spotless counter with a rag. Cloud stands in the doorway until she tosses the rag into a bin and starts washing her hands before he asks, "Is there enough rice left for another bowl?"

The elegant curve of her back stiffens. "Yes, there should be," she says.

Cloud wants to put a hand on her shoulder, but he's too afraid that she'd shrug him off, so he silently turns away into the kitchen.

Sephiroth is sitting on the edge of the bed when Cloud returns, blanket tucked modestly around his hips so that only his calves and everything above his waist are bare. His hands are folded neatly on his lap, head slightly bowed, and he doesn't meet Cloud's eyes as he hesitantly accepts the bowl of rice.

Cloud sits down again, adjusting a bit for Tsurugi on his back. For a while the only sound in the room is the quiet clink of the spoon against ceramic as Sephiroth pokes at the food listlessly. Eventually he asks lowly, "Why haven't you killed me?"

There's no arrogance in Sephiroth's voice, no cruelty. He's obviously attempting the same neutrality but just ends up sounding exhausted.  "Should I?"

Sephiroth finally looks at him. "After everything I've done, you still ask that?"

"How much do you remember?"

"Enough," he says softly.

Cloud can't help tilting his head as he stares hard at Sephiroth, wondering how he's supposed to figure out what Sephiroth's thinking when Cloud doesn't even understand his own. Three days of a bedside vigil and it still hasn't sunk in that he's sitting quietly in the same room as the man who had tried to possess and destroy him so completely more than once, who nearly succeeded a third time, who would have succeeded if Tifa were a little less unforgiving and the kids hadn't needed him. "Do you want me to kill you?"

The answering silence winds up the knots and uncertainty in his shoulders, and it isn't until he hears Sephiroth's tentative, "Cl – Strife?" that Cloud realizes he's on the verge of hyperventilating. He consciously makes himself count backwards from twenty.

"There's a bathroom just down the hall," Cloud finally tells him. "You can take a shower, if you like. Clean clothes are in the cabinet."

Sephiroth pauses, looking at the bowl of rice he's hardly touched, then sets it on the bedside table and stands up. The blanket falls away and Cloud carefully keeps his eyes averted as Sephiroth, moving warily as though expecting an attack, leaves for the bathroom. When he's alone in the bedroom, Cloud put a hand over his face and wonders what the hell he's doing.

Sephiroth clears a circle on the fogged mirror with a damp towel and finds an unfamiliar reflection staring back. He wonders if the mirror is cracked somehow or if the paint on its back is flaking.  (It's not.)

The clothes he finds are a pair of casual black slacks and boxer-briefs, a white button-down shirt, and socks. The slacks still have a sticker on them saying TALL, the shirt still folded along crisp lines, all newly purchased. The shirt's a little tight across the shoulders but otherwise everything fits as though he'd picked it all out himself, and that –

He has to sit down on the toilet lid with his hands on his knees, fingertips digging hard into points of bone. There's no voice telling him what to do anymore, no one saying that he's in the right and that all this time he's been so much more than an experiment, no one even telling him to conquer a nation and then smile handsome for the cameras. The time in front of him now is a yawning stretch of uncertainty and he doesn't know what to do.

By the time he's able to stand up again, the mirror is completely clear. His reflection is still off and he cuts his eyes away uncomfortably so he can think, decide to do…what? Chop his hair short, dye it dark, go find a flat and a job out in the city? ShinRa is all but gone, he remembers that much, at least. The last seven, eight years are a surreal haze of violence and pain and hubris smeared bloody across his memory and he has nothing left. Not even the clothes are his.

Sephiroth finds a comb in the medicine cabinet and brushes out the worst of the tangles in his hair. His reflection watches him the whole time. He wishes irrationally it would go away.

Cloud – Strife – is still in the bedroom by the time Sephiroth pads back in. Sephiroth has been waiting for something, maybe a hand around his throat or a sword through his chest (again) and he honestly can't say if he'd fight back, but Strife has been unexpectedly calm. Cautious, of course, the sword constantly in Strife's reach is proof enough of that, but Sephiroth hasn't seen any signs of anger, hate, fear, the things he deserves. Just this calm watchfulness.

"You were found in Aeris' church," Strife tells him. "The Lifestream must have brought you back."

Possibly. Sephiroth can't imagine what else could have happened. He wonders if the body he's currently inhabiting is the same body that was tossed into the Nibelheim mako reactor (and better not to think too deeply on that, not when he can almost smell the stench of burning flesh and hear the screams of villagers) or something else, maybe a clone, maybe an entirely new model courtesy of the Planet.

"Sephiroth?"

Strife's tensed, eyes narrowing, and Sephiroth realizes that his own hands have curled into such tight fists his nails have nearly broken skin. He sucks in a breath, and when he lets it go he forces his hands to relax and allows the direction his thoughts had started to take to dissipate.

"I'm sorry," he says. He'd meant it as an apology for startling Strife, but the words come out with far too much weight and Sephiroth immediately wants to take them back. I'm sorry doesn't do anything but cheapen what actually happened, like he'd just forgotten a birthday. How can you even stand to look at me after what I've done to you? It hits him that even though this calm is all Strife, the way his head tilts in thought is all Zack. Jaw tightening, sudden anger straightening his spine, Sephiroth demands, "What do you plan to do with me?"

"I don't know," says Strife warily.

"Don't lie to me," he says, the words coming out in a wintry snap. Don't lie to me. Don't try to make me trust you. Just tell me what to expect.

"I'm not," Strife replies with the first stirring of anger Sephiroth's seen in him, and some small part of him wants to feel satisfied at having finally broken through that infuriating calm. He isn't. "I'm not lying, Sephiroth. You want me to kill you? I won't. I should, everyone else thinks I should, but I won't. You want me to forgive you? I don't think I can. The things that you…" Strife stops and takes a long breath, but he holds Sephiroth's gaze resolutely. Sephiroth is the one that looks away first.

The only sound in the room is the quiet ticking of a small clock on the bedside table. The dampness in Sephiroth's hair has seeped into the back of his shirt, making it stick uncomfortably to his skin, and the bare floorboards are leeching warmth from his soles. His palms are stinging. It hasn't even been an hour since he woke up.

"Zack used to tell me about the kind of person he thought you were," Strife says unexpectedly, and even if his tone is dispassionate, the words themselves slice deep. "He said that you never left a man behind if you could help it and that you were one of the most honorable people in ShinRa."

Sephiroth wonders what he ever did to earn such praise, especially when he'd thought Zack had been too distracted worshiping the ground on which Angeal walked to notice anyone else.

"Maybe it was true, maybe not, but I – I'm not going to be anyone's conscience. It's up to you to decide if you're going to take advantage of what the Planet's given you and live up to what Zack thought of you, or if I'm going to have to kill you. Again." His grip eases off the handle of his sword and it's a sign of Sephiroth's imbalance that he hadn't even noticed that particular danger in the first place. He's in a place he doesn't know, a time he doesn't remember, with the man he'd tormented far beyond the limits of human madness. Maybe this is Strife's revenge.

"I'm going out to get some newspapers," Strife says. "Tifa's downstairs. Don't leave this room."

The last sentence is unmistakably an order. Sephiroth jerks his head in a single nod and holds himself very still as Strife looks him over with close scrutiny, then nods back and leaves without another word.

Sephiroth sits on the edge of the bed again and realizes that his hands are shaking. He fists them again, nails fitting neatly back into the marks they'd already made.

Cloud stops at the nearest stall on his way back from an errand and grabs the two most recent copies of The Edge Sentinel. He pays with an awkward handful of coins, earning a scowl from the shopkeeper, and breaks the speed limit getting back to Seventh Heaven. Tifa's still behind the bar keeping an eye on the single patron hunched over the end of the counter and a closer eye on the stairs leading up to their shared flat. Her lips tighten into a thin line when Cloud returns, but she doesn't say anything, and Cloud is able to take the stairs two at a time. He thanks the gods that Marlene and Denzel are both staying with Elmyra for a while.

Sephiroth is standing at Cloud's desk, barefoot and shirt untucked as he flips through the engineering book without really seeing it. Cloud holds out one of the Sentinels with a quiet, "Here," and Sephiroth gives him an inscrutable look as he sets down the book and accepts the paper. Their hands very carefully don't touch. "I thought you might want to get a better idea of what's going on now. How…how much do you remember?"

"I don't know," says Sephiroth, and Cloud suddenly feels a burst of frustration that isn't his own. The sensation dissipates as suddenly as it'd appeared, leaving behind the distinct thought of oh, shit, not again. Sephiroth doesn't seem to notice, his face still mostly expressionless save for the furrow on his brow as he stares down at the paper. "Brief remnants, not unlike a nightmare."

Well, he's not wrong.

Cloud lets Sephiroth have the desk chair and sits on the bed instead with the book, back against the wall, watching from the corner of his eye as Sephiroth spreads the paper across the desktop. He's moving cautiously as though he isn't quite sure what's allowed. Time passes quietly, occasionally broken up by the crackle of paper or Cloud shifting around to find a pencil so he can make notes in the book margins as he pretends not to think about the implications of feeling Sephiroth inside of him, however faint. He's crossing out a paragraph in a chapter on fuel alternatives because the writer obviously has no fucking clue what he's talking about when he realizes that there's been no sound from Sephiroth's corner for a while. Cloud looks up and finds Sephiroth staring at Cloud's pencil, lips pressed into a thin line.

"What?"

Sephiroth blinks, visibly startled for a moment before he gets himself back under control. "Nothing, just an errant thought. My apologies."

"I promise I won't kill you with a pencil," Cloud says solemnly. "Or a pen."

"And here I believed the pen to be mightier than the sword," Sephiroth replies. The words come out so deadpan that it takes Cloud a moment to realize it was an honest-to-gods joke, but by then Sephiroth's already turned back to his newspaper with unconvincing singlemindedness.

"Maybe that's why Tifa never lets me write my own letters to WRO," he says lightly, thinking everything feels somewhat surreal when that is definitely the beginning of a smile on Sephiroth's face, however quickly it disappears.

A few days pass. Sephiroth stays in Strife's room, reading every article, advertisement, opinion, and obituary in the newspapers that Strife brings back. Strife has nearly eight years' worth of material to try collecting, which Sephiroth assumes isn't exactly easy when there's been a minor apocalypse and several additional disasters to put a damper on both literary and digital archives. The picture he's reconstructing still has gaping holes but he doesn't want to ask. Strife always looks so somber and Sephiroth isn't stupid enough to venture downstairs into Tifa Lockhart's domain, both of which sound like much better excuses than the simple fact that he isn't sure he wants to know. It's one thing to know he's a monster, another to see more irrefutable evidence of it, and he comes back to the question of a priori and post hoc knowledge. He's good at the a priori, he can run logic circles around anyone, including Hojo – not that he was ever actually stupid enough to do so aloud more than once – but he knows that a seemingly concrete conclusion can be rendered obsolete with the introduction of a single new variable and he…doesn't exactly have a good record with that sort of thing. He's tried it before and look what happened.

So, Sephiroth forces himself to be satisfied with his mostly self-imposed restriction to Strife's room plus the intellectual challenges of reconstructing a coherent chronology using incomplete sources, simultaneously attempting to understand Strife's current role in everything because Strife appears to be exactly the kind of variable that throws everything off.

Occasionally they talk, although they're less 'conversations' than the exchange of a few bare sentences. Strife refuses to let Sephiroth sleep anywhere other than the bed and takes the pallet of blankets on the floor himself, against which Sephiroth would argue heatedly if he didn't already know how precarious his own position is.  Hedoesn't seem to sleep more than a few hours at a time, but whether it's because Sephiroth is in the same room or not, Sephiroth doesn't know, and he adds it to the growing pile of unanswered questions.

What he can see and hear of the city outside Strife's bedroom window is somewhere between the strange and familiar, like he's in the middle of a second Midgar built to a smaller scale with a few tweaks – which is, it seems, a fair assessment. The back of the building opposite the bedroom window is the same grey sheet-metal, but for almost an hour everyday it's lit up by actual sunshine; there's still electricity and running trains and vehicles, but the underlying scent of ozone that always lingered around mako has been replaced by what seems to be burning wood and coal; people still crowd the streets, but the bustling activity is noticeably quieter with the smaller population. In the evenings he can hear the patrons downstairs in the bar, the clink of glasses, the susurrus of conversation and, occasionally, some yelling before Lockhart soundly kicks out some troublemakers.

He's sitting by the window in the desk chair late one afternoon, watching the shadows cast over the alley and not thinking about much at all, when he hears footsteps stop in front of the open door. It's Lockhart, and of course Strife is off on some errand or other, so Sephiroth remains seated and says nothing, waiting for some cue on how he's supposed to act. She has a warrior's muscled leanness under her practical clothes and there's tension in her shoulders, pulling her spine straight as a soldier's, her gloved hands fisted but not overtly threatening. Wary, then, obviously unhappy with his presence and ready to get straight to the point the way Strife isn't, but not yet looking for an actual fight. He estimates a relatively low chance of physical combat.

"What are you planning to do?" she asks in a tone like steel.

"I don't know," he answers honestly.

"Why are you here?"

"I assume because Ms. Gainsborough chose it to happen." Her eyes narrow and Sephiroth immediately makes a mental note to avoid any mention of the Cetra girl.

"Why would she do that?"

And that's the big question, isn't it? Why Sephiroth, when he'd been an integral part in all the events resulting in an astronomical number of deaths and loss? Why Sephiroth, when better men and women had died trying to stop him in the first place, including Ms. Gainsborough herself?

"I don't know," he repeats. "I know nothing more than any of you."

"How can I believe that?"

"I can't offer you anything more than my word, untrustworthy as it is, that I don't know why I am here nor even how I got here. All I can tell you is that I have no desire to cause harm to anyone."

"Was it Jenova, or was it all you?"

The question surprises Sephiroth since it gives him an out, could grant him some measure of forgiveness if he blames it all on Jenova. "I'm…not certain. It was, however, my own weakness that allowed Jenova to take control in the first place."

Tifa crosses her arms, attempting to look stern but falling closer to defensive, and she stares at him like she's picking him apart piece by piece on the other side of a pane of glass. "What're you going to do with Cloud?"

"I don't understand."

"Are you going to treat him like some kind of - of doll again?  A toy?"

It's like someone flipping a switch and Sephiroth remembers bright blue eyes wide with horror, skin bruising dark under his hands, screams echoing weirdly in the Lifestream or maybe the Crater. He can almost taste that morbid fascination for something he could not break no matter how cruelly and viciously he pushed on all the cracks.

It's such a visceral memory that bile clogs his throat and Sephiroth chokes, claps a hand over his mouth until the urge to vomit fades. "No," he manages roughly, "no. I won't."

Lockhart's expression tells him he didn't hide his reaction very well and she's not sure how to interpret it, but she just says, "If you do anything to hurt him or anyone else, I'll find a way to kill you. We've done it before and we'll do it again."

Lockhart's giving him something concrete to fall back to in the midst of all the not-knowing, something he can understand and rely on, and the relief is so unexpected that Sephiroth doesn't know how to react at first. "Thank you," he says quietly as he hears boots thumping up the stairs.

Strife appears behind Lockhart's shoulder. He looks between her and Sephiroth. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," replies Lockhart. Sephiroth sits still and lets Strife scrutinize them both for any sign of broken bones, shattered teeth, or terminal bleeding. "How did the delivery go?"

"Fine. Rude sends his regards."

Lockhart actually rolls her eyes.

"Sephiroth, I picked something up for you, why don't you go take a shower," Strife tells him absently, obviously too distracted by Lockhart's presence to pay attention to what he's saying, but Sephiroth is already standing and holding out a hand without thinking. He and Strife both pause, but as soon as Strife hands him a small shopping bag he escapes to the bathroom as quickly as possible, not wanting to hear whatever they're going to say about him.

There are a few new shirts in the bag that fit and don't stretch across his shoulders, plus a pair of basic work boots. Strife must have noticed.  Sephiroth doesn't think he's ever felt so small in his life.

It's been two weeks since Cloud brought home a dead man and he's been learning to watch closely. Sephiroth never leaves the upstairs flat, just roams between Cloud's bedroom and the bathroom like a ghost. He devours whatever reading Cloud brings to him, newspapers and official reports Cloud nags out of Reeve, the occasional book on mechanics and mechanical engineering that are lying around.  Cloud figures out pretty quickly to avoid the pop science magazines unless he wants to see Sephiroth grit his teeth and quietly scribble angry corrections in the margins of articles that he then tries to hide, but Sephiroth never actually asks for anything and otherwise seems content to just passively accept whatever Cloud gives him. It's not what Cloud expected, although to be fair he never expected any of this, and he doesn't know what to think.

Marlene and Denzel come back from their stay with Elmyra. He and Tifa sit them down at the bar in the middle of the afternoon when it's closed for business.

"But isn't he the bad man that killed Sister?" Marlene asks.

"Yes," Tifa says tightly. She's unconsciously rubbing her arm where they all used to wear thin red ribbons.

"But then why is he here?" she demands, eyes wide, fists clenched in her lap.

Cloud pretends not to see Tifa's glance. "He has nowhere else to go right now. He's…done things, yes, but not all of it was his fault. He was, uh…possessed."

"That makes it okay?" says Denzel.

"No. Yes. No, not really, but I…I know what that's like, and it wasn't all his fault. For now, we're just watching and waiting."

"I want you two to stay away from him," Tifa breaks in firmly. "He won't be here much longer."

Cloud doesn't think that's true, but he stays silent, and later slips back upstairs to his bedroom. It doesn't escape him that this is the longest stretch of time he's spent at Seventh Heaven in months, and he leans against the doorway, arms crossed, watching and waiting.

It takes a few minutes for Sephiroth for put down the book he's reading in the chair by the window. He holds Cloud's gaze and also waits, watches for Cloud to make the first move. It's bizarre, like he doesn't quite understand how to interact with people without studying them first, but it's only something Cloud's recently noticed and he wonders whether or not Sephiroth was always that way.

"I have a package to run to the Chocobo Ranch," Cloud tells him. "Do you want to come with me?"

The only sign of Sephiroth's surprise is the subtle twitch of muscle in his jaw. "You think that's a good idea?"

"You're not my prisoner," he says, thinking of the way Sephiroth has been keeping himself so tightly contained, "and the area is rural enough that the few people around are unlikely to recognize you."

He has no idea what Sephiroth is thinking. Well, that's not entirely true: he's probably questioning Cloud's intentions, trying to find the catch and coming up short, but beyond that is anyone's guess.  "All right," Sephiroth says after a long pause, standing up in a single graceful movement that makes Cloud inhale sharply. He's already dressed in the clothes Cloud has given him and he pulls on the long, black woolen coat and boots that Cloud, unused to having to actually think about these things except when stuff got too many holes to be useful, had finally remembered to grab the other day.

Cloud takes a bangle from his pocket equipped with basic materia and hands it over. "I don't know where the Masamune is or how it works," and knowing if Sephiroth is able to summon the damn thing would probably be a good idea, come to think of it, shit, "but you should at least have these."

Sephiroth accepts it with an unsettling amount of solemnity that Cloud pretends not to see. Tifa watches them leave but doesn't stop sweeping behind the bar, so Cloud takes it as a win.

It's another matter when it comes to Fenrir. The bike is enormous and more than capable of carrying two full-grown men, but it means Sephiroth will be sitting behind Cloud's back, close enough to touch, even wrap his arms around Cloud's waist if he chooses. The last few times they were so close they were trying to kill each other, and before that, Cloud had held out the Black Materia while his mind was being slowly, ruthlessly shredded to pieces. Cloud admits to himself that he didn't exactly think this part through, but the damage is done and he isn't quite so naïve as to allow Sephiroth his own vehicle, just in case, so he straps the package to the rear of the bike like this isn't any different from any other errand and swings his leg over the front seat.

"Come on," he tells Sephiroth, who's staring at him like he's lost his mind, which, okay, fair enough.

The bike dips as Sephiroth's weight settles behind him. It takes a superhuman effort not to tense or jerk his elbows back when broad hands settle hesitantly on his hips, but Cloud breathes carefully through the moment, reminds himself that if Sephiroth had wanted to kill him then he's had plenty of time to do so already, and revs the bike. It peals out of the alley with a satisfying roar, and when Sephiroth's grip tightens with surprise Cloud can't help a surge of pride – this is his freedom, this is something that's all his own and not borrowed from Zack or Sephiroth or anyone else at all, doesn't matter if it's feathers or steel between his legs carrying him wherever he wants to go.

Cloud Strife is quite likely insane but Sephiroth thinks he might, might, be getting used to it, or maybe that's just the thrill of being outside and away from the oppressiveness of four square walls and the looming of cold steel skyscrapers. The rules are simpler outside, the easy physics of movement, the order that underlies the natural world, the relative predictability of weather and animal behavior versus the manic, almost desperate interaction of human society. His hair is going to be a nightmare to brush out later but it's worth it to feel the wind and dust tangling through it.

Strife maneuvers the bike like it's an extension of his body, not unlike his sword, leaning smoothly into turns and automatically compensating for changes in angles and speed. Body heat leeches through the black knit shirt under Sephiroth's hands. Sephiroth can't remember the last time he touched another person without the intention to hurt; it's another one of those inexplicable gifts with which Strife surprises him.

They stop for lunch in the afternoon, not speaking much as they pass a military canteen back and forth and eat their respective sandwiches. Sephiroth, unused to long bike rides, takes the chance to stretch out his sore legs and lower back, and then they start moving again. The plains of the eastern continent are warm with summer and the few monsters they encounter are just a reason to work up a light sweat and test out Sephiroth's materia.

They pick a place to camp an hour after darkness falls. "Will you start the fire?" asks Strife, and Sephiroth, who always had an entire army under his command to do the menial tasks, promptly does so with a low-level spell as Strife lays out two thin bedrolls, one on either side of the fire, and two MREs. Sephiroth could've happily lived out the rest of this bizarre second life without ever seeing another MRE, but he isn't about to complain.

Except Sephiroth is his own sort of scientist, second only to his being a soldier.  He can't help it, and he hasn't been able to reconcile himself to – to all of this, doesn't understand. Logic and experience dictate that the safest thing for Strife to do is to kill him, but instead he's letting Sephiroth live in his flat, is sitting opposite the campfire and leaning casually back with his hand behind him while scrolling through something on his phone as though his only concern in the world is missing someone's call.

"You shouldn't be doing this," he says without thinking. Strife glances at him through his bangs without lifting his head.

"What should I be doing?"

"Enacting justice." That came out a little more dramatically than he'd intended.

"Revenge, you mean."

"No, I don't."

"What, you want to be punished for everything?"

Sephiroth can't decipher Strife's tone. It's edged, but not harsh, not even really judgmental. "It's only right."

"Well, at least Zack was right about your overdeveloped sense of honor," Strife mutters, which is…weirdly hurtful, and Sephiroth says stiffly, "This isn't a joking matter."

Strife actually snorts. "Of course it isn't, but you're not listening to me. I'm not going to kill you, or punish you, or whatever it is you think you deserve. You should've known better than to believe that the mission to Nibelheim was anything but a set-up, but that's exactly what it was and Hojo had everyone except the sociopaths in ShinRa's boardroom completely fooled. I…I killed you in the reactor, but the Sephiroth that came after was a clone. Or some part of Jenova, I'm still not sure. Yes, I still have trouble looking at you sometimes, but there's no point punishing you for crimes that you arguably didn't do and especially ones that you don't even fucking remember. "

Strife's voice rises slightly near the end, and he takes a few breaths until he can speak calmly again.  "So just stop. I told you that you're going to have to decide for yourself what's going to happen now. I'll kill you if I have to, but only if I have to. If it makes you feel better," he goes on, a little cruelly, "pretend that this is my revenge."

But Sephiroth has never really been able to make those choices. Either it was Hojo, shaping him to be his perfect creation, or ShinRa, sending him to lead a war in which he didn't believe, or Jenova, breaking him to her will. By now he isn't sure there's a part of himself that hasn't been defined by someone or something else. "How?" Sephiroth asks quietly, simultaneously shamed, furious, and grateful at the understanding he can see in Strife's face.

"I'm still figuring that out myself," he says wryly.  "You just…keep going."

"That's hardly helpful," Sephiroth replies, tart, and when Strife grins he adds sourly, "You're a practical man, aren't you."

Strife shrugs. "I guess. Someone has to be," which only proves Sephiroth's point.

He does notice that Strife seems to sleep easier out here than he does in Seventh Heaven.

The package turns out to be a shipment of greens for the birds at the Ranch. Billy takes the large box with a heartfelt, "Thank you," while Priscilla hands over the gil. They don't know that Cloud cut his fee in half and he'll never tell them.

Things had gotten rather interesting when Priscilla and Billy realized who exactly was walking two steps behind Cloud's shoulder. Billy stammered and half-ran, half-walked to the stable with the box of greens while Priscilla scowled and crossed her arms and generally acted fiercer than Cloud would've ever expected from her. "I don't know what you're thinking, Cloud, but I hope it isn't crazy."

Sephiroth doesn't say anything, thank the gods. They should probably be getting back to Edge, no reason to keep hanging around, but the familiar snuffles and chirps of chocobos in the stable has him casting longing glances without even realizing it.

"Do you have any other pressing matters?" Sephiroth murmurs, close enough that Priscilla can't hear, his breath warm near Cloud's ear. Cloud shakes his head and Sephiroth points out, "Extra transportation can't hurt in a business that relies on it."

"Where on earth would I keep a chocobo in Edge?" Cloud asks, exasperated, because seriously.

"There's no Plate to block the sunlight and the outskirts of the city are sparsely populated. There's more than enough room to build a stable and plenty of plains around for the bird to run. If nothing else, consider it an investment."

Damn the man's reasonableness. Damn it. Naturally, Cloud ends up ambling down the aisle in the stable, Billy hovering nervously near the door while Sephiroth watches. The air is musty with the smell of bird and greens, warm and earthy, enormous claws tapping randomly over worn flooring and hay. The chocobos stretch out their necks to bump their huge beaks against Cloud's shoulders and nibble at his clothes, nearly taking off chunks of skin in the process, and he ends up with a nose full of feathers and a grin he can't quite keep off his face.

In the end, he chooses a male golden – probably the offspring of one of his own goldens, sent to the Ranch between the final events at the Northern Crater and Tifa's settling in Edge – and names him Forseti. "Just a Nibelheim thing," he says when Sephiroth asks, and pays for basic equipment and a handful of the greens he'd just delivered.

"Take care of him," Priscilla says as Cloud guides the chocobo out of the stable, and he honestly isn't sure if she's talking about the bird or the man at his side.

It's a little strange that Strife won't let him touch the bike unless they're riding it but he's allowed to run his hands all over the chocobo's feathers anytime he likes. Not that Sephiroth actually does, he's not entirely convinced he won't accidentally snap the thing's neck, but nevertheless he pretends that the implied bit of trust doesn't give him what Zack would've called a warm, fuzzy feeling.

After crossing wide-open land to visit the Chocobo Ranch, Strife's bedroom begins to feel stifling. Strife still brings him newspapers, but Sephiroth doesn't read them with quite the same thoroughness. He spends more and more time sitting in the desk chair and staring out the window at the faceless back of the next building, listening to the echoes of the city and idly calculating the angle of sunlight as the sun crawls across the sky.

Strife's been keeping the chocobo somewhere outside the limits of Edge, Sephiroth doesn't know where exactly, but when it's been twenty-one days since he woke up and the morning sunlight is roughly at a forty-degree angle Strife appears at the bedroom doorway and asks, "Do you want to help me?"

Strife's arms are crossed but he doesn't look defensive. His sword is still strapped to his back, but his body is mostly relaxed and he isn't looking through the long strands of his hair like he does when he's withdrawn. There isn't even any stiffness in his voice that Sephiroth can hear, just curiosity. Completely nonthreatening.

"With what?" he finally replies.

"A stable. Found a place not too far from here, no construction going on, looks like it used to be one of ShinRa's. I've got the plans drawn up already, but it's always faster with another set of hands."

Sephiroth's saying, "All right," before Strife even finishes talking, and Strife's mouth lifts in half a smile.

"Oh," he says suddenly, "I almost forgot, figured you might need something else to wear."

He tosses yet another bag at Sephiroth.  Sephiroth opens it to find a pair of jeans, a thick scarf, and a plain black t-shirt to take the place of his slacks and button-downs. Without preamble he starts to change, used to the lack of privacy in the military, and when he finishes pulling on the work boots he finds Cloud looking at him with a pensive expression. Odd, considering the man's years as a specimen in Hojo's laboratory; one would think he'd have been cured of any embarrassment. Lockhart purses her lips when they leave the bar together and clangs the cash register a little more loudly.

They walk instead of drive, in no apparent hurry. Forty-five degree angle of sunlight, approximately ten-hundred in the morning, no outstanding orders to carry out or station to which he needs to report. The new boots rub a little painfully against his heels, but a couple days of proper use will break them in. A few people greet Strife as they pass on the street and Sephiroth warrants a few sidelong glances, but the rather ridiculous scarf wrapped around his head and neck hides the bright silver of his ponytail and shadows his distinctive eyes.

Strife takes him beyond the line of the city to an area that looks like it was intended to be turned into storage warehouses before being abandoned. One of the smaller, half-finished warehouses has visible signs of tinkering: new sheets of metal in the walls, bright against the oxidized aging of the originals, and a circuit breaker tucked on the leeside of the building under the roof overhang with a few wires trailing out. The interior is bare and cool, the floor made of poured concrete.

"I'll keep the cement since Forseti's claws would just fuck up wood flooring and throw down some straw," Strife's saying as he paces the perimeter inside. "I want to insulate the walls, though. I got some fiberglass stuff to start with that."  Sephiroth has never built anything in his life outside a campfire and some experimental mechanics in Hojo's lab, so he listens carefully, trying to picture how everything Strife is saying will fit together as a whole.  "Had to cut pieces out of the walls, there was some weather damage that perforated the siding and left rusting edges."

Strife keeps going, points out the structural flaws in the roof and the lack of electricity, and whoever built this place must've never heard of construction codes, Reeve would be absolutely horrified. Apparently he wants to put in electric lighting as well, which explains the circuit breaker outside, and he theorizes about running water sometime in the future, although he's willing to wait on that. Sephiroth listens and wonders where Strife picked all this up, where he learned to build a bike from the ground up and how to insulate walls and what kind of ventilation is best to keep the little metal warehouse from heating up too much inside. "We get a lot of sun out here, I don't want to come and find Forseti dead from heat exhaustion."

"A reasonable concern," Sephiroth says inanely, dry as a desert since he doesn't have anything else to add, but it still makes Strife huff a laugh.

"So, still want to help?" Strife asks too casually, still pacing around, nudging at corners with the toe of his boot.

"I said I would, didn't I?"

Sephiroth didn't mean anything deep or philosophical by it, but his answer makes Strife halt mid-stride and blink at him bemusedly. He says slowly, "Yeah, I guess you did," and then the moment's over and he's pointing at the materials stacked outside. "I'll show you how to start laying the insulation.  While you're doing that I'll work on the wiring."

The fiberglass insulation comes in long rolls like bolts of cloth that's half an inch thick. Starting is as easy as laying it out in long strips and cutting everything to fit the walls' dimensions, so it isn't long before Strife heads outside and leaves him to it. It should be boring, just constant repetition of stretch/measure/cut/tack in place, then repeat, and in a way it is, for a brain more accustomed to things like military tactics and biology and physics. But at the same time he's doing something, making something, giving his mind just enough material to hum along quietly as his body falls into a comfortable routine. This is something he can do.

Sephiroth's about three walls in, nearly ready to start on the wall with the door, when he stops, thinks for a moment, then calls out, "Strife!"

A second later Strife pokes his head around the doorway, confused and a little wary. "Yeah?"

"There's insufficient insulation," Sephiroth tells him, gesturing vaguely at the remaining roll and the bare fourth wall.

Strife curses under his breath. "I'll get some more tomorrow."

"You don't need to." Sephiroth points out the leftover scraps of insulation, explains how adding them to the remaining roll in such a way that maximizes available surface area would be enough to finish if Strife doesn't mind the somewhat haphazard nature of the job, and he doesn't notice Strife looking at him strangely again until he winds down. "What?"

"Nothing, that sounds like a great idea." Strife adds quietly, "Thank you."

This is one of those times Sephiroth senses that he's catching the words but missing their meanings. Hopeless, Genesis used to sigh.

"You're welcome," Sephiroth replies, and Strife ducks back outside.

There isn't anything so obvious as moaning or sobbing, just a faint tightness in his chest that gets worse and worse until Cloud wakes up feeling like he's going to either choke or vomit. He slides onto his knees from his nest of blankets on the floor, shifting slowly, hand hovering near Tsurugi as his eyes adjust to the dim light of the bedroom. Sephiroth is a long, angular line of geometry under the bedcovers, unmoving except for the occasional harsh twitch. He makes a small noise in his throat.

"Sephiroth," Cloud murmurs. "Sephiroth, wake up."

He doesn't. Cloud inches toward the bed, keeping well out of arms' reach, and raises his voice a little. "Sephiroth. Sephiroth."

Sephiroth suddenly jerks awake and his gaze flies to all the corners of the room, calculating exits and distances and Cloud's position. Cloud keeps his palms turned outward and his body relaxed while determinedly ignoring the ball of tension that isn't his own sitting in his ribcage. "Want to talk about it?" he asks.

"There was a fire, and I couldn't…" Sephiroth stops himself. "I apologize for waking you."

Cloud shrugs a shoulder. He'd only been dozing, but he knows that now he won't be able to manage even that for the rest of the night. "Come with me."

"…Where?"

"Does it matter?"

Cloud fully expects Sephiroth to refuse, but instead he just sits up and swings his legs out of bed, apparently unconcerned that he's only wearing sleeping pants that are slightly too short for his ridiculously long legs, and looks at Cloud. Waiting for directions.

"The kitchen," Cloud says, and Sephiroth follows him down the stairs without a word. The kitchen is large with an industrial-grade refrigerator and dishwasher half-full of dirty dishes, and the bar, closed down just an hour or two ago in the small morning hours, feels unnaturally empty. Cloud starts pulling down a pan and a mixing bowl, pointing at the cupboards with a wooden spoon. "Hand me the flour and baking soda, please."

Sephiroth sits on a bar stool as Cloud starts tossing stuff into the bowl, working on autopilot, and Sephiroth doesn't ask, just watches with the unblinking focus of a statue. Cloud feels something under his skin and asks suddenly, "Do you trust me?"

Sephiroth doesn't answer immediately. Cloud consciously doesn't look at him as he starts pouring batter onto the hot pan. Finally Sephiroth says, "I don't know."

The pancakes sizzle a little as they brown.

"Why are you making pancakes?"

Because he half-remembers his mum doing the same thing when he was little and had his own nightmares. Because Zack had had a weird palate and didn't believe that breakfast foods should be eaten as breakfast. "The alternative is to drive aimlessly through the desert for several hours. I figure this is easier on my fuel bill."

Sephiroth doesn't smile, but his shoulders lose some of their strain. They don't talk about it as Cloud slides pancakes onto battered plastic plates and sits on the stool beside Sephiroth, their shoulders nearly touching. It isn't awkward, exactly, but not quite comfortable either; it's somewhere in-between, sharp edges worn smooth to an imperfect fit, two strangers home from a distant war to end up in the same run-down bar.

It's a little fascinating, the way Sephiroth cuts his pancakes into precise one-eighth wedges like he's going to be tested on his accuracy. "I'm making a delivery up near Kalm," Cloud tells him. "Want to come?"

"Is that a good idea?"

"You came with me to the Ranch and didn't try to destroy the world," Cloud replies, and, no, it really isn't funny, and it makes Sephiroth flinch slightly, but it's true, and it's getting to the point that Cloud is starting to feel like Sephiroth's jailer. He knows what it's like to be a prisoner trapped in one place for too long. "Besides, I'm going to need someone to come with me if I want to give Forseti a good run."

Sephiroth takes a bite of pancake, takes his time chewing and swallowing before saying softly, "Yes."

"I'm leaving at nine, we'll work it out."

"All right."

Sephiroth finishes his plate while Cloud is still poking pieces of syrup-drowned pancake around. He gets to his feet, puts the dirty dishes in the sink and pulls out the soap.

"Do you still have the Masamune?"

Sephiroth pauses. "I…don't know."

Personally, the first thing Cloud would've done when waking up in a world that wanted him dead – again – would be figuring out whether or not he still had access to his primary weapon. "Since the reactors went down there've been fewer monsters out there, but they still happen. We were lucky getting to the Ranch. Do I need to find another sword?"

"No. No, you don't, I'll be able to get it."

Cloud's head tilts. "You are talking about that damned ability of yours to pull it from thin air, aren't you?"

Sephiroth's surprised laugh might be weak, but it's still a laugh.

It's been almost two months now, the days blurring into one another in a long streak of grey paint over a blank canvas, and this is the first time Sephiroth's ventured out of the bar alone. He's covered his hair again with the ridiculous scarf, and his coat is a black, modest wool one, knee-length and vaguely military-style and a far cry from his old sweeping leather. It's unfamiliar, makes him think about how much a person's identity can be tied up in the image they project to the world, makes him wonder if he feels more or less like himself. Not General Sephiroth, SOLDIER First Class, but like Sephiroth, no last name, in borrowed clothes and sleeping in a bed that isn't his. You think too much, Genesis had once accused him, I can't imagine Hojo likes that, and Sephiroth had answered, But my mind is the only thing that's mine. (Except it wasn't, was it?)

The light is tentatively getting brighter as he weaves his way through the crowds towards the old Sector Five, early morning sun glaring off the half-salvaged scrap metal still lining the roads. The church stands proud and mostly whole in the hills of wreckage, the sounds of the city a distant murmur, cicadas humming in the warm air that smells like sun-heated metal and green plants. It's cooler in the church, slants of sunlight filtering in through the ruined roof onto broken pews and the still water of the pool dominating the floor. He resists the urge to pull his coat tighter around himself under the weight of the atmosphere. Instead he straightens his spine and lifts his chin, refusing to feel embarrassed as he says into the empty space, "Ms. Gainsborough?"

There's no response, of course, and he firmly tells himself that he shouldn't have expected any less, except the very fact that he's even able to stand there and speak pretty much throws all conventionally-reasonable expectations straight out the window. "Why did you do it?"

A cicada chirps somewhere near the entrance. Sephiroth paces a slow circle around the pool, seeing nothing more than interesting than the reflections of the roof, some columns, and himself. "You wouldn't have brought me back without a reason, not after everything I've done. Why did you?"

He lets the silence stretch out, listening for something, anything, which might give him some kind of understanding of how and what now and that fucking why, nothing good ever came from asking why but he's never been able to keep from beating his head against that particular brick wall. He's almost hoping for some kind of divine revelation, but there's nothing. Just the distant cicadas.

"Why?" he demands again more loudly. "What are you trying to achieve with this charade?"

Silence.

"Why?" he finally yells, grabbing what was once part of a pew and throwing it so hard it clears the water and shatters one of the far windows. "Why are you doing this?"

The anger isn't new, but it's never poured so hotly molten down his veins. All those years of carefully perfecting the appearance of composure and occasional dry humor are gone, ripped off like a scab and leaving enough scraped flesh to turn the smallest touch into a bloodied wound. He doesn't even know how much of that anger is his and how much is almost eight years of cruel, vicious habits, doesn't know how much of 'him' is left except maybe just this wet, exposed mess of nerves

But the anger cools.  He's just exhausted and looking at a broken window. "What am I supposed to do?" he pleads softly, and can't even bring himself to feel disappointed anymore when no one answers.