Shera called Sephiroth away from the window for yet another application of healing lotion, which Sephiroth was grateful for - nothing else but relief from itching could have torn him away from Cloud's eyes. They were every bit as bright as he remembered, leaving streaks across his vision even after he turned away - not the natural brightness of a young man with the world open to him, but the unsettling shine that spoke of the Mako in his blood. Cloud Strife was a SOLDIER in all but name, his strength and senses pushed beyond normal limits by the very blood of the Planet.
Sephiroth removed his shirt at Shera's urging and sat, allowing her to spread the cooling cream over his back. His hair was pulled back in a braid, keeping it out of the way, and Sephiroth held it between his hands as she worked. He closed his eyes against Gleipnir's inevitable disappointed warble, but all he heard was a contented, heavy croon. He slitted open one eye to see Gleipnir happily submitting to Cloud's petting. Disloyal beast, Sephiroth thought, amused.
Apparently Shera was watching too; her hands paused and she sighed. "You could come in like a normal person, Cloud." Her fingers swept over Sephiroth's shoulderblades, brisk and cool. "You're going to spoil that bird if you keep on like that."
"He's a good bird," Cloud said, which didn't sound like a response to Shera's objection, so Sephiroth lifted his head. Cloud was studiously not looking at him, appearing to concentrate wholly on ruffling Gleipnir's feathers for him.
"Gleipnir is a very good bird," he offered quietly, and saw Cloud's eyes flicker. Encouraged, he added, "He was with me all through the northern mountains."
"Strong," Cloud mused, and Gleipnir fluffed his feathers and cooed, knowing he was being praised. Sephiroth hid a smile behind his hair as Shera rubbed cream into his shoulders.
"Are you all right with the rest yourself?" Shera asked, as she always did; as he always did, Sephiroth nodded and accepted the bottle of cream. As she hopped off the bed and exited the room, Gleipnir warbled sadly. Startled, Sephiroth looked up to see his bird alone at the window. Cloud had gone.
He could hear them talking about him.
He lay motionless in the bed, eyes closed, breath slow and steady as if he were asleep - how many times had he waited for dawn like this, pretending to sleep in his spare quarters at Shinra Tower, knowing his blood and breath were being monitored even through the night? Except it was early afternoon in a town far away from Midgar, and the room belonged to Captain Highwind and his - wife or lover or companion, whichever Shera was, and none of them had the capability to monitor his vitals that Shinra had. The people in the house had every right to distrust him, even if the death they threatened was better than being referred back to the labs. But not yet, he pleaded silently. Not until I have a chance to apologize, at least. Did you send me back only to have me slain again, Aeris?
"Do you think he's..."
"I don't know..."
"...kill us all in our sleep..."
"...looks miserable, poor thing..."
"...really chocobo pox?"
That last was Cloud's voice - he knew it as well as his own. Watch him. Sephiroth allowed himself a small smile. Cloud could be counted on, couldn't he? He'd proven that, over and over again. Yes, Sephiroth remembered.
Glancing down at his arms, Sephiroth was gratified to see that his spots were beginning to scab over. His fever and headache had eased, leaving him restless and impatient in the nice little room he'd been unofficially confined to. Shera brought him tea and skin cream and food (now that he was getting better, he thought he'd shocked her a little over how much he could eat), and a few of the other people in the house - the young lady Yuffie, mostly, sometimes Cid - could sometimes be engaged in a few words when their curiosity got the best of them and they peeked into his room, but for the most part he was left alone. His mind and body had been idle for the better part of a week, and now a new itch was blooming in him: he itched to be active again.
Patience, he counseled himself. It will do no good to dwell.
Still, when Shera came in bearing his lunch, Sephiroth found himself asking politely if there might be such a thing as a book he could borrow. Shera flushed and twittered a moment before running out, leaving the door ajar. Sephiroth had almost finished his soup when Shera returned, accompanied by Cid and a big stack of books. "I didn't know what you might like," Shera said apologetically, and Cid commiserated with him on the Nature of Woman with a goodnatured grimace as he plunked the stack down on the nightstand. Sephiroth thanked them both politely and settled in with the first book on the stack.
He was nearly halfway finished with it when Shera returned later that afternoon. "What do you think so far?" she asked.
Sephiroth turned a page thoughtfully. "I think Zidane reminds me of someone I knew."
"Cloud said the same thing."
She'd said it as gently as she could, but the name still made Sephiroth's throat tighten a little. He lifted his head and saw that Shera was empty-handed, not bearing the bitter tea he'd expected. At his questioning look, she twisted her hands embarrassedly. "We've been talking about... your situation," she said.
"I know," Sephiroth answered calmly, and tried not to be gratified when the woman startled. "What have you decided?"
Shera hesitated, her gaze slipping aside to avoid meeting his. "Nothing, yet. I came to see if you feel like talking to the others."
Sephiroth bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Tell them I am at their disposal."
"I'll tell them you're feeling better," Shera replied with a hint of her old tartness. "Cloud's out until this evening, so we'll probably talk after dinner."
Sephiroth nodded, and when he refused to say anything more Shera left him alone. He waited until her footsteps receded, then got up and paced to the window. Gleipnir, faithful bird, came trotting over with a cheery whistle as soon as he spotted his rider, and Sephiroth accepted his preening affection with relief, even letting his face rest in the soft feathers at the top of the big green's head.
"Thank you," he murmured. "I still don't know what I'm doing here. I don't know what I expect. Forgiveness? Understanding? I barely understand myself. I certainly don't deserve to be forgiven."
Gleipnir grumbled and took a beakful of Sephiroth's bangs, tugging it gently in what Sephiroth took to be reproval. "I'm sorry," he said, smoothing the green's crest. "I won't turn away from my path, not now. Aeris would scold me," he added on impulse. The green chuckled and nudged Sephiroth's forehead with his own. Smiling, Sephiroth kept finger-grooming his feathers; Gleipnir's eyes closed to slits and he crooned at the top of his lungs. Sephiroth allowed the sound to calm him until he all but forgot about the judgment facing him that evening.
On impulse, he reached out and picked up the book he'd been reading and opened it to the bookmark. "Where was I," he murmured, idly stroking Gleipnir's crest. "Ah, here. 'Zidane leaped to Dagger's defense...' "
The doorknob rattled, startling Sephiroth from his absorption in the plight of the black mage constructs in the book. Quickly, almost guiltily, he marked his place and set the book aside, and twisted a corner of the sheet over his tattooed hand as the door opened.
Cloud stepped defiantly through, as if daring Sephiroth to challenge his invasion. Sephiroth looked away, fingers tightening in the sheet, but Cloud didn't move again until someone poked him from behind. "Hey, hurry it up! Some of us got places to be!" Cloud stepped aside, moving to the window as a big dark-skinned man with a cybernetic arm shouldered into the room. The back of Sephiroth's neck prickled at the hostile aura he projected - a man looking for a fight.
Shera entered next, her small hand wrapped firmly around Cid's wrist; the man appeared relaxed, in sharp contrast to Cloud and his larger companion. The catlike construct followed, and Yuffie came in after. Last of all came a huge red-furred lionlike being - Sephiroth thought at first that he was the girl's pet or guardian animal, but the creature crossed the room and sat near the foot of Sephiroth's bed with the prepossessed dignity of a sentient. It was all very crowded.
Sephiroth closed his eyes and willed his treacherous heart to still, before Cloud noticed it beating so fast. He was sure they were waiting for him to speak his peace - somehow justify himself - but the sheer magnitude of his past froze his tongue and throat, and an awkward silence settled over the room.
Yuffie was the one to break it, typically. "Gawd, that book?" she demanded with a roll of her eyes. "Number six is way better."
"Is it?" the leonine being rumbled with a twitch of his tail. "I found it rather prosaic, myself." Sephiroth tried not to wonder how a creature with no thumbs read a book, but it seemed impolite to ask.
"'Prosaic?' What does that even mean?" Yuffie wrinkled her nose. "Can't you talk like a normal person just once?"
The dark red mane bristled. "There's nothing wrong with how I talk. If you opened a book once in a while-"
"I just said I read books nine and six, how are you even-"
"Knock it off!" the mechanical-armed man snapped at them both. "Play book club later. We got us a mass-murdering General to see to!" Sephiroth's shoulders stiffened.
"It pains me to say it, but Barret's right." The cat-construct hopped up on the bed, leaning rakishly against Sephiroth's knee. "I, the Right Honorable Cait Sith, now call this meeting to order. General?" Cait Sith turned, offering him a broad, sharp-toothed grin. "The floor - er, the bed - is yours."
This, at least, was familiar territory. "What do you want to hear first?" Sephiroth forced himself to sit up straight. "You all obviously know what happened before. Should I start there, or with the circumstances surrounding my resurrection?"
"How you came back!" Barret demanded. "So we can plug up the hole you came outta."
"I'd be interested to hear that myself," Cait Sith admitted, and both man and cat-construct looked embarrassed at agreeing for the second time.
"I want to hear," Cloud began quietly, and Barret fell silent as all eyes turned to him. "I want to hear what happened at Nibelheim." He found Sephiroth's gaze and held it, as sharp as blue crystal. "When you killed my mother. My town."
Sephiroth took a deep breath, held it to a count of four, and let it out. "I thought you might ask that," he murmured. "My manipulation of your memories of that time... How much do you remember, Cloud? Truly remember."
That made Cloud hesitate. "Some. Not all," he admitted.
Sephiroth nodded. "It started at the reactor," he began, keeping his eyes on Cloud so that the visuals couldn't overwhelm him. "My nearness to Jenova must have... awakened her cells in me, somehow. At first I thought I was just angry." He paused. "I was angry. The - the creatures in the reactor, that were once humans... did you see them?" Cloud nodded reluctantly. "I had to know more. I had to know if I was really no different from them. That led me to the library, and from there..." Sephiroth trailed off, unable to find words to explain how the journals led him deeper and deeper into his spiral of anger and doubt, until Cloud nodded for him to go on. "In the end, I... learned what she wanted me to learn, I suppose. My irresolute mind was easy for her to take over."
"Aw, hell no." Barret swept a hand in a violent gesture of dismissal, forcing Yuffie to duck. "You don't get to claim mind control. Not after all the shit you pulled-!"
Sephiroth didn't look at him, focusing instead on Cloud. "You know what it's like," he whispered, "don't you? You remember. What it is to have her in your head, twisting your thoughts and memories to her purposes. You don't even realize it until she's gone, how insidious her hold is."
Cloud stared at him for a long moment. "That doesn't," he said evenly, "make it better."
"I know." Sephiroth swung his legs off the bed, dumping Cait Sith on his rump, and stood. "Maybe nothing can. Cloud... I can't change what I've done. I only want to... to try to heal the wounds I've made. I have to try, Cloud."
"Tell that to the people of Nibelheim." Cloud threw the words in his face; Sephiroth flinched. "They died horribly for your 'irresolute mind.' Or tell that to the interns in Shinra Tower, or the sailors in Junon. Can you heal their wounds, Sephiroth?" The blond's fists curled. "Can you bring Aeris back?"
Sephiroth lowered his head, unable to say any more. "I thought not," Cloud said, grimly satisfied. "You should have stayed a memory - ow!"
Sephiroth jolted upright. Gleipnir, feathers on end and angrier than he'd ever seen him, was trying to climb through the window, and Cloud was backing away with a hand to his head. "What the hell!" Cloud exclaimed.
"Gleipnir, stop!" Sephiroth ran to him, pushed him back with both hands on the bird's chest. "Gleipnir, no. Stop it." Gleipnir opened his beak and squawked angrily at Cloud, then subsided with a grumble to preen Sephiroth's bangs. So much for dignity, Sephiroth thought, letting the bird do as he pleased with his hair until he was mostly calm again.
"I'll be damned," he heard Cid breathe behind him.
"Evil damn Jenovabird," Barret muttered. Gleipnir growled over his beakful of Sephiroth's hair.
Nanaki roused himself, shaking his mane. "No," he said thoughtfully, "I believe that was a protective display. I've seen it in the wild - though the female chocobo has a reputation for fierceness in defense of her chicks, the father is often just as fierce." He offered the explanation as dry of emotion as a bored professor, though his tail swished the air in an amused fashion.
Sephiroth's cheeks burned, and he hid his face in Gleipnir's feathers. "Gleipnir," he muttered, "I am not a chick."
"Kweh," said Gleipnir contentedly. Behind him, Sephiroth could hear muffled splorfles and outright giggling; the latter he thought was Yuffie, but it sounded as though most of the others were at least amused. I'm so glad you're getting some benefit from this, he thought at them, though he knew his resentment was unfair. Gleipnir had preened his hair before and he hadn't felt the need to complain.
The others cruelly let him marinate in embarrassment a moment longer until Cloud began again, this time out of pecking range. "Where did you get that bird, anyway?" he grumbled.
Sephiroth tousled Gleipnir's feathers and thought about the grave in the mountains. "His... previous owner had died," he admitted haltingly. "The Sage was kind to me, the least I could do was look after his bird."
"The Chocobo Sage?" Cloud demanded.
"Vincent went back there after hearing the story," Shera volunteered quietly. "He found the cairn Sephiroth built for him. And he said he didn't smell any blood or magic," she added firmly, as if to forestall anyone accusing Sephiroth of murdering the old man - as if not killing one person could make up for all the rest.
Barret seemed to reach the same conclusion. "Damn it all," he cursed, thumping his flesh-and-bone arm against the wall. "What the hell are we supposed to do with him? Pat him on the head and send him back to the Shinra?"
Sephiroth kept his face turned away, thinking I'd rather you killed me, but he didn't say it aloud. "What about Vincent?" Cait Sith asked from the bed. "What does he think?"
"Dunno. He won't talk about it," Cid answered in a low voice. "He's been doing that broody thing all week."
"It's not really about Seph," Shera murmured, and Sephiroth tensed at the nickname just a fraction. "He'd be here if he thought there was a threat."
"I think Cloud should decide," Nanaki said firmly. "He's the closest one to this issue."
"I don't want to decide!" Cloud burst out. "Why am I his keeper? I only -" He took a deep breath. "Only killed him twice. Gods." He stalked to the window, ignoring Gleipnir's warning growl, and stared at Sephiroth like he expected the man to dissolve into the ether under the force of it. Sephiroth stubbornly remained solid, half his face buried in Gleipnir's neck feathers. Sephiroth thought about apologizing, but then Cloud would get mad again, which would set Gleipnir off, and it wasn't the right time for that sort of thing.
Still, it seemed Cloud could out-stubborn even Sephiroth, and he found himself speaking without meaning to. "She isn't cruel," he murmured, mostly to himself. "She wouldn't have helped me come back if she didn't think I could redeem myself somehow."
"Who?" Cloud asked.
It was a surprise when Cloud jerked back, and an even greater one when he didn't react beyond that. Slowly, as if afraid of the answer, he ventured, "Aeris? Not Jenova?"
Sephiroth suppressed a shudder at the name. "Aeris said Jenova was dead." He sighed and bent his head almost to the sill. "I have to believe her. Faith in her is all I have."
"Wark," Gleipnir protested around his mouthful of hair, and Sephiroth caressed his feathers in mute apology. Cloud shifted from foot to foot, looking like he wanted to pace but had too much pride to.
"I'm going out," the blond said abruptly, and no one blocked his way as he left.
A bribe of food had made the bird forgive Cloud his transgressions of the day before, apparently; he was perfectly happy to let Cloud lean against the fence and watch him, even approach him for scratches from time to time. Sephiroth allowed himself a smile at this - even if he had a temper, Gleipnir was a good and faithful bird, and deserved more than his mad rider could give. If Cloud liked him, all the better.
After Cloud's retreat, the meeting had been more or less over. Barret had quit his company, muttering in frustration, and Cid had wandered off. The rest had attempted to help Sephiroth fill in the gaps in his memory from his time of madness, and even told him of Professor Hojo's death and the fall of Shinra Company. He received the news with a strange numb/hollow feeling; Hojo, with Shinra's backing, had belittled him and hurt him and used him - but he'd also been one of the few constants in Sephiroth's life, and he couldn't decide whether he felt relieved, guilty, bereaved, or nothing at all.
These thoughts were still swirling around in his head the following morning, making him feel faintly edgy. He turned away from the window restlessly, flipping the pages of the book in his hand without really reading them. Zidane had just announced his plan to split his group up to conquer the four shrines scattered about the world; he made it sound so easy. Or perhaps it only sounded easy to Sephiroth, who - it occurred to him - had no concrete goal before him for what had to be the first time in his life.
There have always been missions, he thought. Before that, there were tests. Now he wished he knew what he was - afraid of - complaining about, so that he could tell himself sternly to knock it off.
"Sephiroth, are you there?"
Cloud's voice was coming from some distance - he hadn't moved from the fence, Sephiroth thought. "Yes," he answered, sinking down on the bed and closing his eyes.
A pause, an inward hiss of breath. "Will you be fit to travel at dawn tomorrow?"
"I believe so," Sephiroth answered slowly. His marks from the chocobo pox were all but healed, only the odd scab hanging on here and there, and he hadn't needed Shera's medicinal tea at all since the night before. "Depending on the pace," he added, just to be safe.
This time Cloud's answer was a bit dry. "We'll go slow. I'm not in a hurry."
We, he'd said. Sephiroth found himself relaxing. "Where are we going?"
"What's left of Midgar after Meteor." Cloud's voice went from dry to utterly flat. Sephiroth's mouth went dry, and he wondered if he was still sick after all. "Don't worry," Cloud added into the former General's silence. "That one was both our faults. I won't hold it against you."
His footfalls receded, heading out away from the house. Sephiroth waited until they blended with the background hum of the town before succumbing to his weakness and curling up on the bed. Oddly, part of him felt better: Cloud had given him a goal to accomplish, even if it was a short-term one. Go to Edge. Await further orders.
If we're to leave at dawn, I'd best make it an early night, he excused himself, but he was still awake when night fell and Shera came in to spread a blanket over his shoulders. He pretended to be asleep, even when Shera reached out to brush his bangs away from his face.
Cloud had a chocobo too, a magnificent gold he hadn't bothered to pen, but who came at a whistle. "Tyr," he grunted by way of introduction. Tyr flicked a glance at Sephiroth and Gleipnir as his rider saddled him, but otherwise paid them no acknowledgement; for his part, Gleipnir smoothed his crest around the gold and kept his head submissively down. Amused, Sephiroth scratched his mount at the back of his skull and went back to securing his single saddlebag: mostly containing a few borrowed clothes, but Shera had insisted he take a few books with him too. Sephiroth hadn't had the heart to say no.
He paused with his hands on Gleipnir's saddle when Cid emerged, squinting against the gray morning and clutching his cup of black tea. "You're sure you don't wanna take the airship," he stated to Cloud, as if he didn't quite believe it.
Cloud shrugged. "We'll be fine."
"Sure." Cid took a swig of his tea and coughed. "Well, try not to kill each other."
"Cid," Cloud protested. Sephiroth, for his part, very quietly thumped his forehead against Gleipnir's saddle. The green took that as his cue and nibbled Sephiroth's hair, warking under his breath.
Cid laughed and clapped Cloud's shoulder. "Go on, before Shera takes it in her head to feed you. ...See you later, General," he added after a breath's pause. "Good luck."
"'Good luck?' For what?" Sephiroth asked, worried, but Cid didn't answer. On impulse he turned his head to follow Cid's retreating footsteps as best he could with his bangs in Gleipnir's beak. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ragged dark shape on the roof of the Captain's house. As he watched, Vincent lifted a hand, a faint ghost of a gesture, then turned away and leaped off the roof and out of sight.