It’s well past midnight when the shadow darkens the doorway of Seventh Heaven.
The streets are quiet at this hour but it’s late summer, the nights almost as hot as the days, and the air conditioning, what little of it they have rigged up, is uncertain and unreliable at the best of times. Cloud sits at the bar, an empty bottle of beer in his hand, turning it so that the light catches the gold foil embellishments on the label and makes them gleam. His thoughts are far away, lost somewhere amidst all the plans his friends have for the future, and the all the things he wants to do for them, and for this town, and for the people that are carving out their homes here. Tifa is out, somewhere across town visiting with a friend and Cloud doesn’t expect her back till morning. The bar itself, although the door stands open to let in a sluggish breeze, is closed. Cloud has no skill with customers and although the children may love him their parents, grateful and a little awestruck by the abilities of a SOLDIER, are nonetheless still wary of him. He’s long stopped trying to tell them that isn’t what he is.
It’s been a month since the rain, since the curing of Geostigma, since- and here he pauses because although he can still remember the crease of laughter lines at the corner of her eyes, and see the fond exasperation on the face of the man beside her, he cannot, not even to himself, say their names. If he does, if he names them, then perhaps the memory of them will be tarnished, the magic lost, and it’s stupid but he’s never told anyone, not even Tifa who has done so much for him over the years, who it was that saved him, that gave him back to himself. He can’t, he won’t, and he closes his eyes against the thought of it, keeping tight, selfish hold of the memory.
It’s been a month, and Tifa sleeps easier now. She tells him that it’s because she’s glad he’s back, and Cloud doesn’t fully understand what she means, but he’s learned to trust her insight into matters like these. After all, in a way she had been right, he’d been living somewhere else, some when else, even if he had been physically present. He knows now that he’s been doing it for years, and there’s a part of him that fears he’ll never truly break himself of the habit.
Lost in his musing, he nonetheless knows it the moment he is no longer alone. He feels the presence without needing to look, the weight of another person on the air, and a tired part of him thinks really, at this hour? He doesn’t turn, just calls back over his shoulder, “Sorry, we’re closed. Come back tomorrow.”
There’s a pause, but the presence doesn’t leave, and Cloud thinks of all the things he could be doing right now that are not dealing with persistent drunks. The road calls, the rumbling power of Fenrir and the stars above, cool air in the sweltering heat, the open plains to either side and the freedom of being alone. No, he’d made a promise. If not to himself, if not to Tifa, then to them-
“They told me I would find you here.”
That accent, that upper plate drawl, low and smooth, is unmistakable. It hits him like the spark from a thunder materia, freezing his muscles and snapping him out of his lazy reverie like ice cold lightning. The voice, it’s been barely a month since he last heard it, but that tone is one that he hasn’t heard in a very long time.
Cloud may be a courier, may have left the past behind him, in the same way they all have, pushed to the background and plastered over with paper and tape to keep it hidden, but beneath it all he is still the man he was forced to become. There’s a sword behind the bar and if he’s fast enough he’ll be able to make the twisting leap, land, unhook it and be ready in one fluid movement. He knows from past experience that he won’t be.
He goes for the bottle next to him instead, bringing it up and round, flinging it as hard as he can across the room at the other man’s face. Even as the bottle is leaving his fingers he’s already kicked the bar stool away behind him, and before the anger has even had time to fully ignite inside his chest, he charges.
He remembers the smoke. Had anyone asked him he could not have said what was burning, but even now, eight days travel from the waters of his rebirth, he can still taste it in the back of his mouth. Sometimes, when he turns his body in a certain way he thinks he can smell it rising up from his skin or drifting from his clothes, caught between the folds of his coat.
He doesn’t know why he thinks of his awakening as a rebirth, but there’s something in the back of his mind, hiding behind the sluggish tangle of his thoughts, that tells him it’s so. He’s spent eight days trying to pin that thought down, trying to make sense of the gap in his head, of the way reality became confused, as indistinct as the smoke that haunts him, and just as hard to pin down. He remembers snow, and the sensation of height, memories beginning to snarl together in uncertain order, and then reality had cut out with the finality of a blind being drawn. It had snapped back suddenly, with no warning, choking the air from his lungs and tasting of a bitter salt.
The waters from which he’d clawed his way free had been cold enough to kill a lesser man, and he’d dragged himself shivering and half-dead from them to lie on his back in the bright gloom of that unknown place, staring painfully up at the dark sky above. A cavern, the boom of waves somewhere in the near-distance, high walls of devastated rock and- he’d fainted. For the first time in years, in as long as he can remember, he’d just blacked out.
Six days it had taken him. He’d intended to head straight back to headquarters of course, or find an outpost and call for a sitrep; they’d be looking for him, surely. If he’s been out for long enough an alarm will have been raised, and he must have been blacked out, knocked out, something , then- Genesis . It had to have been him. The cold dread of his old friend’s madness had twisted his stomach and made him clench his fists. Some trick, some...treachery. Who else has the raw power and will for such mischief?
He remembers...fire. And smoke, and-? He can’t remember. He cannot remember.
It took him six days to get to the ruins of Midgar, but he’d known from the start that something was wrong. Six days of travel, half a day in to start noticing the signs, and then- the ruins of Midgar can be seen for miles. He’d knelt in the middle of fallen dust and the fractured remains of a city and felt nothing, and for a moment he’d wondered if he’d gone insane. He’d wandered then, in and out of the ruins, pausing to watch the dust of his footsteps settle and to read the tale of destruction in the twisted girders of ruined buildings. He’s not entirely sure when the scavenging crew had found him, but the fear in them at the sight of him had shaken him out of his devastated reverie. He’d frightened them, he knows that, but he’d had to know, he’d had to have some explanation.
Edge, they’d said. And a name he- he feels like he hasn’t heard in a long time.
“Cloud,” he says, standing there in the doorway of a bar he doesn’t recognise. The bottle hits the wall of the building behind him, instincts making him turn his head to avoid the incoming projectile. Cloud Strife, he thinks, and when he meets the boy’s, no, the man’s eyes he knows that everything the scavenging crew told him had been true.
Sephiroth doesn’t dodge. Cloud’s fist takes him square in the face, snapping his head back and flinging him out into the street to land on his ass. Cloud follows him out and already there’s a cold dread in him, a fluttering of alarm that has nothing to do with the presence of an old enemy back so soon and everything to do with the softness of his voice, the hesitance of the way he’d stood there, and the expression in those strange green eyes.
Cloud hasn’t seen that emotion in Sephiroth’s mako-bright gaze for a very long time.
Sephiroth sprawls on his back in the dirt, long silver hair flung out around him, head tilted back and the part of Cloud that’s fought this bastard before knows that he has to capitalise on his advantage, has to hammer home the strike and make use of the weakness in his guard. It will take Sephiroth a fraction of a second to recover he knows that, and he knows too that if he wants to live he must not give him the chance. Something in him is thinking clearly enough to remember - there are children living in the building across from the bar. Rage blossoms, the sheer audacity of this bastard to come here now, to bring further ruin to everything they’ve worked so hard to rebuild.
Cloud lands knee first in Sephiroth’s gut, driving the breath from him in a groan, then, in a move learned from Tifa, hammers home a quick one-two pair of stunning blows to his face, enough to keep him off balance until he can wrap his hand in black leather and silver hair, drag him to his feet and get them both back inside the bar. If they’re going to ruin something then it’s going to be contained. Tifa will understand. Hell, Tifa will probably approve. With a snarl, Cloud hauls the other man roughly to his feet.
Sephiroth ends up against the bar, leaning over the polished expanse of it to catch both his breath and his balance from where Cloud has flung him across the room. Cloud himself steps back inside the restaurant and closes the door quietly behind him. He can feel the rage in him making his feet feel light, his muscles humming with the anticipation of a fight. He’ll end this here, now, for good, because this can’t be allowed to carry on, it cannot keep happening no matter that he’s promised he’ll always be there to deal with it. He’ll deal with it permanently, right here, right now, damn the past and protect the future they’re trying to build.
And then he stops, because Sephiroth is laughing. No, wheezing more like, painful and choked and there’s something awfully vulnerable in the sound, a kind of a disbelieving hysteria that Cloud’s not heard from him before.
“It’s true then, it’s true.”
He doesn’t appear to have his sword. Cloud knows that through some trick of magic and physics, Sephiroth can draw the great blade seemingly from thin air, but he hasn’t. Not yet. Instead he’s leaning with one hand on the bar, the other wrapped around his stomach where Cloud’s knee had pinned him to the ground. His silver hair falls in tangles around his shoulders, matted and unkempt, and nothing like the silver waterfall he wore it as so recently.
“Stop babbling,” Cloud says, voice cold. He should have gone for his sword first, but rage had taken hold too quickly and now Sephiroth is between him and the bar and the hooks the blade hangs from. No matter. He’ll beat him down with his bare hands if he has to. Sephiroth turns awkwardly and looks at him from between the strands of his hair, his breathing harsh in the quiet. There’s blood at the corner of his mouth.
Cloud is already moving. He launches himself across the room, slams into the other man hard enough it would have broken the bones of an ordinary person, and bends him backwards over the bar. His left hand is fisted in the leather straps that cross his chest, tangling with the strands of his hair, his other fist drawn back to strike. Sephiroth, through training or instinct, wraps his fingers around the wrist that’s pinning him down, but he doesn’t try to tip Cloud off or wrench free of his grip. Instead he simply lets the other man hold him in place, and stares up at him with something awfully close to acceptance.
They lock gazes, and for one terrible moment, the green of Sephiroth’s eyes reminds Cloud of someone else. Shock spasms his muscles and he pauses, fist hanging, staring downwards. Sephiroth’s eyes are bright, but it’s not the fever of madness or the thrill of cruelty he sees there. It’s something worse, something far more fractured and brittle.
Somehow, from somewhere, he thinks he can smell flowers.
“Do it,” Sephiroth rasps.
It’s not him. The understanding comes over Cloud all at once, and as suddenly as the rage had ignited within him it drains away, quenched like the remnants of embers in rain. It’s not him, and yet- it wears his shape. Memories come to him then, unbidden and unwanted, of times he can no longer be sure are really his own. Images and voices, the tilt of a head and a glance that plucks at something tender in him, something that wants so badly to be seen, to be honoured, to be accepted. Some nervous kid standing at attention in a cold courtyard, watching the older men pass by-
“Who the hell are you?” he asks.
There’s a crack in Sephiroth’s voice as he replies, and Cloud can feel the man’s body shiver once, almost convulsively, beneath his own. “I don’t know,” he replies, and there’s a deep horror in his voice that makes Cloud’s skin crawl.
For a long, tense moment, there is nothing but the overstressed clatter of the air-conditioning unit and the faint tick of the clock on the wall. Sephiroth is a solid mass of mako-enhanced muscle and bone beneath his weight, the feel of him as real and mundane as any other man. No ghost this, no cruel remnant laughing gleefully about Reunion, no ruined SOLDIER with the light of insanity gleaming in his eyes. Just...a man that Cloud thinks he remembers from a time so long before, when everything had been simple, when he had still been someone to look up to.
The scent of flowers is strong on the air. Cloud lowers his fist.
The hours wallow, hot and sticky, endless in the way of sleepless nights. Cloud locks the door to the outside world, draws down the last of the shutters to block out the street and then they sit, backs to the bar, legs outstretched against the cool of the floor. He offers beer, because it seems like the right thing to do, and Sephiroth looks at it as though he’s never seen the stuff before, then sits there with the bottle held unopened in his hand.
Sephiroth shakes his head, and Cloud looks sideways at him. His skin is stained by the dust of the road, and something else, something that looks a lot like ash. The scent of flowers is gone, replaced by- he’s not sure. The normal scent of a man - leather and sweat and the peculiar, unmistakable metal and stone tang of mako. It’s in his skin, just as it’s in Cloud’s, in his body and his blood, a part of him in a way that neither of them will ever be rid of. He stares straight ahead at the metal shutters and for the first time, real or imagined, Cloud sees exhaustion in him. Shinra’s SOLDIER first class, the hero of Midgar, or something supposedly just like it, looks terrible.
“Why are you back?” Cloud asks again, forcing the words to come out steady.
For a moment he thinks the other man won’t reply, and then Sephiroth breathes out once, half laugh, half sigh, and says, “I didn’t know I’d left.”
Cloud is silent. “You did,” he says quietly.
“I don’t remember. I don’t remember....anything.”
“Nothing at all?” Cloud narrows his eyes, disbelief and anger stirring and mingling inside him. To remember nothing, it’s- well. It’s believable, isn’t it? He’d be a hypocrite to claim otherwise. Sephiroth’s brows have drawn down into a frown and Cloud can see the difficulty of the thoughts tumbling behind the man’s eyes. He remembers that look, has seen it enough times in the mirror for the sight of it to send a chill right through him. This is madness, pure insanity. He remembers the way everyone had looked at him after- when the truth had finally come out.
Cloud’s eyes fall closed, just briefly. Intolerable, this is all intolerable. He draws in a breath, and then says, “Tell me what the last thing you remember is.”
And he does. Once Sephiroth starts to talk, he doesn’t stop, the words falling over themselves in places, his story taking tangents Cloud’s never heard before - and some he has. The name Genesis Rhapsodos comes up again and again, with such pain that Cloud shivers, reminded of another friend, another shared bond, and for a moment he has to force himself to get a grip and focus on what he’s being told.
“Genesis, yes,” he says softly. “I remember.” And the look Sephiroth gives him has such gratitude in it, such relief at finding confirmation of a truth that it makes Cloud want to shift away from the intensity and strangeness of it. He doesn’t, holding his nerve and forcing himself to sit still.
“You were there,” Sephiroth says suddenly. “I remember that. But you were younger, so much younger then.”
Cloud feels a spike of ice in his chest, his breathing stops, and he has to fight not to gasp like a man drowning. Dread, like icy cold water, rises in him. “Where?” he manages.
“Nibelheim,” Sephiroth says. He looks at Cloud, sitting frozen in horrified anticipation, and then frowns. “They told me I burnt it to the ground.”
There is silence, and through the tightness in his throat Cloud manages to ask, “Who told you?”
Sephiroth tilts his head and there’s something unbelievably like concern in his eyes. Cloud knows the other man can see the tension in him and hopes that it’s not reading as fear. “The scavenging gang that came upon me in Midgar.” His smile is thin, unhappy, and has nothing of humour in it. “I believe I frightened them. I didn’t mean to. Do you believe that?”
Cloud blinks, narrows his eyes, but before he can reply Sephiroth is already shaking his head. “No, don’t answer that. It’s- not the right question. It’s-” He pauses, draws in his breath and then shakes his head and Cloud looks for cruelty, for violence in the other man’s eyes, and finds none.
“Tell me what happened please, Cloud,” Sephiroth says quietly. And then, at the look in Cloud’s eyes, more gently, “I put myself in your hands.”
Cloud isn’t sure what he believes. He’s not sure what’s going to happen when he does tell this man the truth, but he knows that whatever he says it’ll probably be better than what the scavengers might have told him. Or maybe they skipped the details out of fear, worried this walking ghost might still have the strength to tear them apart, and they’d have been right. Except for all that he is, tyrant or hero, fool or pawn, Sephiroth has never been unintelligent. He will have read the dread in those unlucky souls and, standing there amidst the wreckage of a city, have known it to be something more than the casual wariness of mortal men for SOLDIERs.
“You have to promise,” Cloud says slowly. “Not to do anything without thinking, without- not to make the same mistake.”
It’s neutral enough, he hopes. And it’s clear, or at least it should be from the remnants of the city and the scars on the land, that great mistakes have been made. Sephiroth looks sideways at him, evaluating his meaning and his intention. Clearly, whatever he sees in Cloud’s grim expression, he thinks honest enough to be trusted. “I give you my word.”
Cloud nods, and begins.
Dawn finds them still sitting, their backs to the bar, silence finally fallen. Sephiroth still holds the bottle of beer unopened in one hand, and the look in his eyes is distant, heavy with exhaustion.
“What will you do?”
Cloud’s legs are stiff, the chill of the floor finally winning out over the mugginess of the night. He asks the question carefully, dropping it into the silence like a pebble into a still pool of water. He watches as the ripples make Sephiroth blink out of his reverie, and turn to look at him. He looks young, Cloud thinks in surprise. No, not young, vulnerable. The realisation is unsettling, and it makes the corners of Cloud’s mouth turn down in alarm. Sephiroth either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, for he shakes his head, before letting it fall back against the bar with a soft thump. It’s a very long time before he replies.
“Will you help me?” he asks.
Cloud blinks. Of all the things he’d expected, this is not it. Denial, anger, maybe even a breakdown into the same madness that had claimed him all those years before. But not this quiet exhaustion, or this world weary stare off into the middle distance. “Help you do what?”
Sephiroth shakes his head slowly, his lips parted as though to speak. “I don’t know,” he says finally, so softly Cloud almost doesn’t hear it.
There’s so much wrong with the world because of this man, so many dead, so many wounded beyond healing, so much of the Planet that has suffered. And yet here he is again, given a second chance, another opportunity to mess it up, after all they’ve done, all they’ve fought for- Cloud closes his eyes and in his mind’s eye he sees the curve of her lips as she smiles at him, feels the bittersweet swelling of affection for the fond wave from the man at her side. They really do have the same green eyes.
“The past is the past,” he says, letting his eyes fall closed. If he concentrates he thinks he can smell the flowers again. “But sometimes it comes back to haunt us. Even so, the present belongs to us, and-” he opens his eyes and finds Sephiroth watching him intently, some glimmer of resolution in those brilliant eyes of his. A strength Cloud both recognises and knows, finally, that he too possesses. “-the future is whatever we make of it.”
The barest hint of a smile touches Sephiroth’s mouth and he dips his chin, tilting his head in towards Cloud. “Poetic,” he replies. “But true nonetheless.”
The proximity of his oldest and most deadly enemy and the unlikeliness of the situation is not lost on Cloud. He sees the flicker of understanding cross Sephiroth’s features and the man draws back with a thin smile, dipping his head again in acknowledgement of a boundary pushed too far.
Cloud shakes his head slowly and lets a careful breath out. This, this is going to be a trial for the both of them.
“I-” he starts, but doesn’t get chance to finish. The lock on the door rattles, a key being inserted and turned, and Sephiroth stiffens at Cloud’s sharply indrawn breath.
“Who?” he asks, already moving to rise to his feet.
Through the glass, Cloud hears the jingle of the little chocobo charm Tifa keeps on her keyring, and alarm seizes him. This is not how this should be happening, and if he doesn’t do something right now this is going to turn into a disaster. He scrambles to his feet, Sephiroth a lean presence behind him. “Get behind the bar and hide,” he says. “Just stay down.”
“ Tifa,” he hisses, and Sephiroth’s eyes widen. In the next instant he’s gone, a flash of silver hair and a ripple of black leather and Cloud is left facing the entrance to the bar just as Tifa opens the door to step inside, juggling her overnight bag and a box between hands and shoulder.
“Cloud!” she exclaims on seeing him. “You’re up early!”
Cloud dives forward to take the box from her hands, and she draws in close, laughing at his eagerness. “What’s this?” she asks.
“Tifa- I,” he glances around but the room is empty save for the two of them. If it were not for the ache in his thighs from sitting for hours and the unopened bottle of beer placed squarely in the middle of the bar, he might think he had imagined last night.
He looks down at her, and remembers Nibelheim, and her father, and the terrible green rush of the lifestream. The past, always there, lurking below the surface, ready to rise up and swallow them all if only they let it. But no, time to stop running, he’s already made that promise. He owes her that. He owes himself that.
“We need to talk,” he says.
“Oh?” she says, leaning back a little. Tifa knows him well enough that she can hear the sincerity in his voice and guess that this will not be just any talk. “When? Right now?”
For just a moment he hesitates, and then something in him relaxes. He’d made a promise to himself, to them all, to keep on living, to move forward and not spend the rest of his life looking back. Aerith, he thinks. Zack. This will not be easy.
Drawing in a deep breath Cloud nods once.
“No time like the present,” he replies.