He didn't know what he was doing here.
Sephiroth knelt on the stone floor of the pavilion where he had killed the last Cetra, Gleipnir warbling worriedly from the shore of the surrounding lake. The bird had carried him all the way here without so much as a misstep - a mountain bird to the core, just as his previous owner had said - but the City of the Ancients was another matter entirely as far as the oversize green was concerned, and the way his rider was acting did nothing to settle his nerves.
"We'll leave soon," Sephiroth assured his mount, though that was a promise he wasn't convinced he could keep. Who knew how long he'd have to stay when he didn't even know what he was looking for.
Perhaps he was meant to settle here, Sephiroth found himself thinking. It had a sort of twisted symmetry to it - to be the sole inhabitant and custodian of the Lost City, when it was he who had cut off the noble bloodline. If that was the case, he'd have to release Gleipnir eventually - he'd be much happier on his own in the mountains than in this eerie, haunted city.
Shaking his head at himself, Sephiroth straightened, gazing out over the lake. The water was achingly clear, but deep enough that Sephiroth couldn't see the bottom, and reflected the crystal pavilion on which he stood like glass. On impulse, Sephiroth made his way down to the shoreline and knelt to gaze at his own reflection.
He looked much as he remembered himself: too tall, too pale, an exaggerated parody of a human, but well-developed and healthy. The long hair that had been his pride was pulled back in a braid against the hardships of travel, making the planes of his face seem even sharper without it to soften them. In the dimness, the glow of his eyes was clearly visible, but -
Exhaling sharply, Sephiroth bent to peer at his reflection more closely. It wasn't his imagination - his eyes had changed. The cat-slit pupils he'd been born with, that had been Jenova's first gift to him were round now, just like a normal human's. Further, the bright green glow of Mako enhancement had faded somewhat, leaving Sephiroth with eyes that shifted from green to amber as he tilted his head, and hints of gold around the edges of his irises. He looked almost normal, or at least like any other SOLDIER, with his own natural eye color hinted at beneath the Mako glow. He hadn't known he had a natural eye color.
"Remarkable," Sephiroth murmured.
Even with his entire attention caught on the surface of the water, Sephiroth heard the rasp of talons on stone behind him. He held still and allowed Gleipnir to bump him insistently on the shoulder with his beak, allowed a soft breath of a laugh to escape as he stood and appeased the sturdy green with feather scratches and a handful of seeds. "All right," he said, "let's at least scout the area, for lack of any better occupation."
After all, the shape and color of his eyes may have changed, but they were still as sharp as ever.
But apparently his brain had suffered; not five steps away from the outskirts of the silent city Sephiroth found himself hopelessly lost. He should have known better, really, but the last time he'd been in the Sleeping Forest he'd had Jenova to guide him. Bereft of her, he was just as vulnerable as a normal human to the many tricks the forest could play. He wandered aimlessly through the white trees, cursing his thoughtlessness and growing increasingly certain he was riding in circles.
At length, he gave up and let Gleipnir have his head. The Sleeping Forest was working its magic on him, its silence and deep stillness making him sleepy, but perhaps Gleipnir wouldn't be affected by it. The stories said that the first chocobos were partners to the Cetra, after all -
-brief, searing flash of white, a sound like a scream just on the edge of hearing-
-trying to remember where he'd learned that hurt, but after a moment he grasped it: his first riding instructor, making an offhanded comment that had made as little sense to a young Sephiroth as the tasks he was asked to perform back then. It was only a scrap of memory, but just the fact that he'd recalled it was encouraging given the threadbare state of his mind. As Gleipnir picked his way patiently through the forest, Sephiroth sat back in the saddle and applied himself to sorting through the jumble of his own memories.
He'd only wanted to figure out a rough timeline in his head - this happened, then this, which caused that - but events and the disjointed, broken images associated with them refused to be separated. Nibelheim was full of fire and relentless screaming, both Jenova's and the natives'; Midgar, five years later was all sick delight and bloody vengeance and people in Shinra uniforms dying so easily on his sword. The space in between was utterly blank. He tried to direct his brain onwards, but the images kept snapping back, like rubber bands - fire, steel, blood, fear, pain, screaming-
If nothing else, the effort kept him awake.
The Forgotten City rose abruptly into view, accompanied by Gleipnir's disappointed trill. Sephiroth slammed the door on his own memories and managed a wan smile - all right, perhaps chocobos weren't immune to the Sleeping Forest's magic after all. "It's all right," he told his mount, pulling his braid back behind his shoulder. "At least you managed to go in a straight line. That's more than I can say for myself." Gleipnir eyed him sidelong as he climbed the last few feet of shale cliffs that led into the city proper, not at all comforted.
Sephiroth's weariness didn't abate when they reached the city, already drenched in shadows from the dying day. He'd thought it was just the effects of the Sleeping Forest, and that it would abate once they reached the city, but now he wasn't sure even the worst of his memories would be enough to keep him awake. He freed Gleipnir of his tack - if the green chocobo took it into his head to run, Sephiroth would be the last to stop him - and stowed it in one of the empty houses that surrounded what his mind labeled "Aeris's shrine." Gleipnir followed him, head lowered and cooing softly, and Sephiroth let him in with a wan smile. The cold wasn't as fierce as it had been at the top of the world, but nights could still be bitter, and there was a reason the Chocobo Sage had kept Gleipnir inside.
"This won't be nearly as comfortable as a stable," Sephiroth felt compelled to warn him. Gleipnir only chuckled and fluffed his feathers, butting his head gently against Sephiroth's shoulder. It was an order, however gently given, and though his limbs were heavy with weariness, Sephiroth obeyed gladly. Grooming the big green - doing anything for him - made him feel useful, wanted. Like he was a real person.
He kept his eyes averted from the glowing blue crystal set on a stand in the hallway as he worked - natural materia, and during her last days of life Aeris's direct line to the spirits of the Cetra that still lingered here. They'd even tried to talk to Cloud, though at the time Cloud didn't have the tools to understand, but the last time Sephiroth himself had been here they'd given him only a hostile silence. He didn't want to know whether he could understand them now, or what they would say to him if he could.
He woke up shivering and disoriented, his head aching as if squeezed by an iron band. The dark didn't bother him, never had, but the unfamiliar shapes of the room drank up the shadows and threw them back at him in menacing shapes. He curled up, his blanket tight around his shoulders, but it wasn't enough - he was so cold, and his borrowed bed only made him nervous. The Cetras' dwellings had seemed so eerie even in daylight - calmly waiting, as if their masters had only stepped out for a moment. If they returned - what then?
He couldn't stay here. Sephiroth flung the blanket away from him and stumbled for the door.
Not two steps away he was stopped by Gleipnir - nearly fell over his sleeping bulk, really - and the chocobo lifted his head to regard him with groggy ire. "I'm sorry," Sephiroth said reflexively, then "Stop that," when Gleipnir fastened his beak in the thick material of his shirt. The chocobo tugged him down, and rather than let his garment rip Sephiroth acquiesced. He settled on his knees, still shaking with the night terrors that hadn't plagued him since he was a boy, and Gleipnir draped a wing over his back with a sleepy, satisfied croon.
Sephiroth curled up against him, closing his eyes and burying his face in the soft feathers over the chocobo's breast. The floor was hard and cold, and his head still throbbed, but somehow he was more comfortable like this.
Daylight brought clarity. His fears dissipated like morning mist, allowing him to take solace in the emptiness of the Forgotten City again, but his head felt even worse, and during the night he'd gone from chills to sweating. Groaning, Sephiroth rolled to his back, one arm over his face, and allowed a half-awake Gleipnir to chew on his sleeve. "I'll feed you in a minute, I promise," he mumbled, and closed his eyes just for a moment.
When he opened them again, the light had changed and Gleipnir was gone. Sephiroth sat up quickly and instantly regretted it as worlds exploded in white-edged pain behind his eyes. Clutching his temples, he somehow groped his way to the bed and pulled himself up on it, not so much lying down as collapsing in a very controlled manner. His head hurt, he was damp with sweat and hot when he ought to be cool. The Cetra have their revenge after all, he thought, with no frame of reference for what was happening to him. I will die again here.
The light changed again, and at first Sephiroth thought he'd dozed off again until the shadow across his face called his name. "Sephiroth."
Sephiroth struggled up obediently, leaning on his elbow. With the sun at his back, the figure was little more than a ragged silhouette, black hair flowing smoothly into a dark cloak like a wing. As the apparition approached, Sephiroth saw he was not faceless as he'd first thought, but half his face was covered by the cloak - above which his eyes glittered like rubies, like new blood. The black-haired one reached out, placed the pale skin of his wrist across Sephiroth's forehead.
"The angel of death," Sephiroth murmured, and closed his eyes.
"Chocobo pox? Are you serious?"
Sephiroth grumbled and batted at the air, trying to banish the loud voice. Let him die in peace, for pity's sake...
"I'm fairly sure." That was the voice that had called him in the Forgotten City. "He's got a fever, and he's starting to show lesions on his chest."
That was alarming. Sephiroth sat up, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be at death's door, and lifted up his shirt to peer at himself. His pale skin was scattered with livid violet spots across his chest and meandering down his stomach. "Oh - damn," he said aloud. The conversation outside the cramped room halted abruptly, leaving only a low thrum - an engine of some sort - to fill the silence. Sephiroth shifted back against the gently-vibrating wall, watching the door until the loud report of a lock being released made him blink.
It wasn't his angel of death, but a grizzled blond man in a pilot's leather jacket who poked his head into the room - a crewmember's berth, Sephiroth thought, which along with the engine noise meant he was either on a ship or an airship. "Hey! You gonna go all kill-everything-that-moves on us again?"
Sephiroth pulled his shirt down quickly. "If I say yes, will you put me out of my misery?"
The pilot guffawed and leaned on the doorjamb. "Hey, Vince. Is it a good sign if he's got a sense of humor?"
A pause, then, "How would I know."
"All right, goddamn! You don't gotta get all bristly at me." The pilot shot a wry smirk at Sephiroth, as if expecting commiseration. "That guy. Just like a cat, right?"
Past the hot, damp bleariness of his illness, Sephiroth felt his shoulders tighten. "Excuse me," he said stiffly, "but should I know you?"
"Huh?" The pilot's jaw dropped. "Did you get knocked on the head?"
"Among other things," Seph managed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Would I be correct in assuming I ought to know you from when I was mad?"
"Uh." The pilot nearly dropped his cigarette before he recovered. "Well, I guess. But I don't think we had a chance to get formally introduced, what with - anyway, I'm Captain Cid Highwind."
"Highwind." Sephiroth closed his eyes. "I... had heard of you, I think. A long time ago."
"Oughta heard of me later." Cid puffed out his chest. "First man in space! Well, with Cloud. And Shera," he added grudgingly.
Sephiroth shot upright quickly - too quickly, introducing his head to the low-slanted ceiling in the process - and grunted past the urge to curse as his host guffawed. "Cloud? Cloud Strife?" he demanded. When Cid nodded, still snickering, Sephiroth sighed and sat back against the wall again. "You were in Cloud's band, then. That makes much more sense."
Cid's laughter faded. "You really are sane, huh?" he said quietly.
Sephiroth sighed, gaze drifting down into nothing. "I think so," he admitted. "There is much I can't remember, but Jenova's voice stands out. I have not heard her since I awoke in the Crater." He tilted his head at the Captain, feeling a wry, crooked smile just touch his face. "Then again, why trust the word of a madman when he says he is not mad?"
Cid chuckled again, but there was a note of hardness in his voice. "That's why you're in here," he said, knocking on the doorjamb. "Nine inches of cold steel. Even you would have trouble punching through that in a hurry."
Not if I was motivated, Sephiroth thought blackly. "Thank you for your precaution. May I ask three more questions?"
"Uh - sure, go ahead."
Sephiroth closed his eyes, forcing his thoughts into some sort of order. "First, where am I being taken?"
"To my place in Rocket Town. It's pretty remote, but there's still people who can keep an eye on you." Sephiroth heard Cid shift uncertainly. "Some of the others are gonna meet us there. Probably Cloud, too, so you know."
Sephiroth nodded heavily, drawing his knees up to his chest. "I'll have to face him sooner or later," he murmured. "My second question: where is Gleipnir? My chocobo," he added. "A large green."
"He's with us," the Captain assured him. "I don't think we could've left him behind. Damn bird really likes you."
"No accounting for taste." Sephiroth offered a wan smile, and was rewarded by another of Cid's guffaws even as he dreaded the answer he might get for his third and final question - whether it turned out to be what it sounded like.
"Captain, what is chocobo pox?"
He had, quite literally, never been sick as a child. He'd been immune to sickness the same way he was immune to poison or sleep spells. It was part of his design - who would want a General who was vulnerable to a simple spell or a common virus?
Sephiroth could only theorize that his immunity to sickness had come from Jenova, and stripped of her influence, his body would fall prey to any number of ailments. I'm becoming more human, he thought without humor, lifting up his shirt again to peer at the purple spots. The virus hadn't come from Gleipnir, as he'd feared; it was such a common virus that nearly every human in the world experienced its effects, usually during childhood, or so an amused Cid had told him. In another day or so they would turn reddish and begin to itch, and in a week they would scab over as the disease ran its course. In the meantime he would experience fever, aches and getting fussed over by someone named Shera, which Cid seemed to regard a fate worse than death itself. Sighing, Sephiroth let his shirt fall and lay back down. Rest was all he needed, he remembered from his studies; rest, and fluid intake, and the human body took care of the rest on its own. Though his thoughts spun with the events of the past few days, Sephiroth was prepared to force himself to sleep.
Something dark flickered at the slit window in the door. Sephiroth looked up, and met a pair of ruby eyes that smoldered for a moment before their owner turned away and disappeared.
The airship landed with a bump; Sephiroth was instantly alert. He lay motionless, hands folded over his chest, until Cid threw the lock back and cracked the door open. "Hey, we're here," he called, as if Sephiroth hadn't deduced that on his own. "You're gonna have to hang out here a while longer though."
"Yes, Captain," Sephiroth murmured. Cid made a soft, blustery noise, as if not quite sure how to respond to that, and shut the door again.
Sephiroth had almost fallen asleep again when a woman's voice dragged him to full alertness. "-really, Captain, this just isn't how we treat guests. You couldn't even offer him a cup of tea?" The bolt was thrown back and the door opened, revealing a sheepish Cid and a small, birdlike woman wearing wire-rimmed glasses. "Well! You must be Sephiroth," she said briskly.
Sephiroth flicked his gaze to Cid, who shrugged. "Yes, ma'am," he answered cautiously.
"Shera," the woman introduced herself. "Come on, up you go. Inside."
Sephiroth flicked his gaze to Cid. "I'm not sure that's advisable, ma'am," he hedged. "The Captain's order-"
"-Is unacceptable," Shera interrupted firmly. "It still gets cold out here during the night, and you're ill." When Sephiroth hesitated still, Shera relaxed and offered a smile. "I have two strong men here to protect me," she said, quiet but sincere. "I'm not afraid."
"Now wait a minute-" Cid spluttered.
The look Shera gave him then reminded Sephiroth so much of Aeris - equally stubborn and kind - that he couldn't help but obey her. Sitting up and wrapping his blanket tight around his shoulders, he nodded his readiness. "Thank you," he said quietly.
The look faded, replaced with a brisk straightforwardness as she beckoned him. "This way. I have a room made up for you."
It was a nice room, as far as rooms went. The bed was softer than he was used to, but the sheets smelled fresh and crisp, and there were flowers in a vase at the windowsill. ...At least, there were until Gleipnir poked his head in.
"You seem more at ease," Sephiroth observed as the green munched on his thoughtfully-provided snack. "That's good." Gleipnir cooed at him in reply, ruffling his feathers. Sephiroth couldn't help but smile at his companion. "I'm sorry I cannot groom you for the next few days," he offered, "but Miss Shera made it clear I'm not to leave the room until I'm well again. I'm not sure the Captain would like it either," he added as an afterthought. Gleipnir tilted his head, eyes bright with curiosity and intelligence, but before Sephiroth could go on, Cid and Shera's voices from beyond the closed door cautioned him to silence.
"Look, I don't think he's crackers either," Cid was saying, in the low hoarse tone of someone trying to keep his voice down. His voice was distant enough that he had to be on the other side of the house, or even outside; no doubt he thought Sephiroth couldn't hear him. "But that doesn't mean he's fixed. Spike said-"
"I know," Shera interrupted patiently, her voice just as low. "Cloud also said not to do anything until he got here. I think we should trust his judgment."
Cloud. Sephiroth fisted his hands in his sheet.
Cid's voice dropped to a sulky mutter. "Vincent doesn't trust him."
On the edge of hearing, Sephiroth picked up a soft rustle of cloth. "Do you blame him?" Shera asked.
Sephiroth turned his face away from the voices and lay his head back down. His head hurt again, and he didn't want to hear any more.
It was light again when Sephiroth woke up, and Shera was endeavoring to set a cup of something hot and sharp-smelling down on the nightstand without rattling it. "Sorry," she whispered when she noticed him looking at her. "Go back to sleep."
"What time is it?" Sephiroth asked.
"Almost seven. How are you feeling?"
Sephiroth blinked blearily. "My head hurts. And -" he peeked under his covers - "and I itch." The spots had turned red and stinging overnight, and had spread down his torso to his legs and arms. "I itch everywhere," he said mournfully.
"There's spots on your face, too," Shera said, in that peculiar giddy tone that - Sephiroth thought - meant she was trying not to laugh. "I'll get you some anti-itch cream. And some painkillers."
"Don't bother with the painkillers," Sephiroth grumbled, forcing himself to sit up. "I metabolize them too fast to be of any use."
"Drink the tea, then. It tastes terrible, but I promise it'll help." Shera left him with a final, sympathetic smile. Sephiroth lay still a moment after she'd gone, then sat up and drank the tea all at once. She was right - it did taste terrible. And he still itched.
Don't scratch, Sephiroth reminded himself, remembering how a researcher had admonished him when a lethal poison spread on his skin had given him a rash. Slap or rub. Scratching risks breaking the skin. While well-meant, Sephiroth had thought at the time that it was rather useless advice - even if he did break his skin, he was invulnerable to infection and didn't scar, so why did it matter?
Now, of course, his invulnerability was none so assured, or he wouldn't have fallen sick in the first place. Sephiroth slapped at his stomach, his chest, his arms, even his face trying to soothe the stinging itch. His vision blurred with the urgency of it, making the spots dance over his skin like red biting bugs. His fingers twitched, longing to scratch - even taking off the top layer of skin would be worth it if it brought relief.
And none of it helped the crawling itch on his back. Groaning aloud, Sephiroth lay down and rubbed his shoulders against the sheets. The cloth was too smooth by far to make any difference, but the motion and the effort made him feel a little better, if nothing else.
"Oh, you poor thing."
Sephiroth craned his head up to look at Shera, too aware that the look he was giving her probably resembled a flea-bitten, suffering chocobo begging for relief too closely to be entirely dignified. "This is unpleasant," he blurted, and was slightly heartened when Shera's face crinkled in a genuine smile that shared little in common with the comforting expressions she'd offered before. It was worth reaching that far back, for the subtle variation of understatement that he'd been taught was humorous by -
Sephiroth ripped his mind viciously back to the present before he could think the name. "Thank you again, ma'am," he offered instead, sheepishly sitting up and brushing his braid back over his shoulder. "I can't speak as to the advisability of your hospitality, but I do appreciate it."
Shera shook her head. "I told you already, I'm not afraid." Palming the white bottle in her hands, she added, "I'll let you apply this yourself, but you should at least let me do your back."
"Please," Sephiroth said, not caring what he sounded like. At a gesture from his hostess he obediently turned, allowing her to sit down beside him and cover his back with cooling ointment.
Applied liberally, the anti-itch medicine did help. Applied liberally, it ran out quickly, especially considering the extensive surface area it had to cover. Sephiroth went through three bottles in two days, before the first of the Avalanche members began to arrive.
"Holy-!" A girl's shriek woke Sephiroth out of a sound slumber, but he wasn't able to peel his eyes open quickly enough to spot the source. "It really is him!" Then, in a mutter, "He looks awful."
"Yuffie, he's resting," he heard Shera admonish.
He managed to get back to sleep again after that, but only just. The next thing he was aware of was a small weight on his chest, and he pried his eyes open to find a black-and-white cat with a shiny gold crown perched on him. The crown had a number hand-painted on it: 3. "Mzuh," he said intelligently.
"Geez, Yuffie's right," the cat said. "You do look awful."
"I told you!" someone - presumably Yuffie - called. The cat rolled his eyes.
"Well," he said, standing up on his hind legs, "get some rest, all right?"
I was trying to, Sephiroth wanted to say. "Who, or what, are you?"
"That can wait for later." The cat hopped off the side of the bed and trotted out, still on two legs. Sephiroth watched him go for a moment before groping for the anti-itch cream.
The next time Sephiroth was woken from his blurry slumber, it was not due to any particular voice, but the presence of too many strangers in a small space. There was a new cup of tea on his nightstand, but it was lukewarm when he picked it up; he forced himself to swallow it all anyway, making a face at its bitterness. It makes you feel better, Sephiroth reminded himself. That doesn't change just because of the temperature.
A familiar warble drew him to the window. He peeked out to see Gleipnir standing by the fence, all his feathers fluffed out in ecstasy, receiving head scratches from someone short and blond and wiry-tough.
Before Sephiroth could duck away again, Gleipnir spotted him. The bird raced to the window with a wark of joy and shoved his head against Sephiroth's shoulder, crooning when Sephiroth buried his fingers in the feathers at the base of Gleipnir's neck. "I've missed you too," he murmured, but his gaze was locked with the bright, intense stare of Cloud Strife.