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Welcome to the Circus

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“You can let go of my hand, you know.”

“No,” Zack says, clinging even tighter in defiance. “I’m never gonna let you gooooooo~”

“Zack!” Cloud hisses, feeling his cheeks warm as Zack’s singing draws strange looks from the other students in the hall.

“Aw, you know you love me!” Zack laughs and drags Cloud close to ruffle his hair.

Cloud huffs.

“See, you’re not denying it! Okay, so your locker is right over there.” Zack points somewhere over the mass of students milling about. Cloud cranes his neck to see, but Zack is already tugging him along past the rows and rows of blue metal lockers. “Our first class is drama, though, so you won’t need anything from it. Just kidding, you won’t need anything from it at all, ever, because we’re seniors now! Goodbye, days of lugging stacks of textbooks around! Woohoo!”

Behind them, a voice scoffs, “That’s just you, Zack. You remembered to bring your lit essay, right?”

“Kunsel!” Zack raises his free hand to his chest in mock-offense. “You wound me! Of course I did—I was even the one who reminded Cloud to do his essay! Isn’t that right, Cloudy?”

“That’s… technically right, yeah,” Cloud says.

Kunsel, a somewhat lanky brunet with a dark blue beanie pulled low over his ears, gives Cloud a brief smile. “‘Sup, Cloud. So… is this a thing now?” His gaze drops down to their linked hands.

“Zack was feeling clingy today,” Cloud informs him.

Zack looks back between Kunsel and Cloud, some sort of realization dawning on his face. “Oh! Wait, no, Kunsel, it’s not—”

Right above them, a bell blares, nearly rattling Cloud’s teeth out of his skull as his hair stands on end. Cloud covers his ears with a hiss, jerking his hand out of Zack’s grasp in the process.

“Right,” Kunsel says, watching Zack flail a bit at the loss of Cloud’s hand before quickly trapping it in another tight grip. He clasps Zack’s shoulder briefly. “Tell me all about it later, ‘kay? I gotta get to class, or else Heidegger’ll have my ass.”

“Well,” Zack says, looking rather resigned as Kunsel leaves, weaving skillfully through the crowd. “There goes that.”

“What?”

“Hm… actually…” Zack mulls something over, then nods decisively. “This is good. I can work with this. Yup.”

“Zack?”

“Never mind me, Cloudy!” Zack ruffles Cloud’s hair again. “Let’s go, yeah?”

-

Zack refuses to let go of Cloud’s hand until they get to class, which they spend in a small side room going over Cloud’s job under the guise of Cloud giving Zack advice on how to act less unrepentantly heroic. Genesis had dropped a thick packet into Cloud’s hand the moment they’d walked in, then rushed off to yell at two repentant-looking sophomores who had dropped a supposedly very fragile set piece. He hasn’t reappeared since.

“Okay,” Zack says, leaning back in his chair, arms behind his head. “So it looks like you’ve already written out all the blocking and runtimes and stuff for the lighting and music. And you hashed out all the important details for props and costumes weeks ago. That’s the hard part, right? Now you just gotta relearn it so you can yell about it at other people. Easy.”

“Right,” Cloud says dubiously. “Easy.”

“I mean, you’ve learned it all before. Is it ringing any bells at all?”

“Not really.” Cloud flips through the packet, stopping on a page with each actor and their required costume changes organized in a neat chart. Scrawled underneath in his own handwriting says, talk to aerith abt sephiroth’s costume, change in scene 4 not enough time.

Zack peers over his shoulder at the note. “Aerith does a ton of the costume and set design on top of playing one of the two female leads. She’s very multi-talented.” He smiles fondly.

Cloud pauses, hope welling in his chest. He hadn’t really taken the time to realize the implications of Genesis’s statement the puppy’s flower girl until now. “Aerith is here—are you and her still—?”

“Nah, not yet,” Zack says. “I’m pretty sure she’s into me, though! I mean, who could resist this prime piece of meat?” He flexes his biceps exaggeratedly with a wink.

A startled laugh sputters from Cloud’s lips. “Oh my gods—Zack—!”

“Made ya laugh!” Zack tugs Cloud close for a noogie. As Cloud twists and turns in his grasp, the noogie turns into tickling. “Nope, you’re not escaping. Now take your punishment like a man!”

Cloud ends up in a heap on Zack’s lap, recovering from his fit of helpless laughter. “ … Thanks, Zack. I haven’t laughed like that in… a really long time.”

“No need for thanks. That’s what I’m for, right, buddy?”

Cloud sits up, pressing his forehead up against Zack’s, and opens his mouth to tell him in no uncertain terms that Zack is so much more than that, but the door to their tiny room opens with a loud screech, startling them both and nearly sending Cloud sliding off Zack’s lap.

“Whoa, Spiky!” Zack grabs Cloud’s back, straightening him out before he hits the floor. “Careful, there.”

Cloud peers over Zack’s shoulder at the person standing in the doorway. “ … Sephiroth,” he says, half in shock, half in warning.

Zack jolts and turns to face Sephiroth, eyes narrowed, grin practically plastered onto his face. “Seph,” he says brightly. Too brightly. Cloud kicks him, and thankfully, the grin loses a few painful watts. “What’s up?”

“I had a question for Strife about my costume change,” Sephiroth answers, stoic as ever, “but I suppose it can wait.” His gaze flickers down to Zack’s arm wrapped around Cloud’s waist.

Said arm tightens possessively. “Yeah, we’re kinda busy here, sorry,” Zack says, sounding supremely unapologetic. “Cloudy’s been helpin’ me out a ton.”

“Zack, chill,” Cloud hisses into his ear. “He’s just a kid. Let me help him, okay?” To Sephiroth, he says, “I was, uh, planning on talking to Aerith about that, actually. Why don’t you come with me?”

Part of him balks at the very thought of bringing Aerith’s killer straight to her, but he quashes it with ruthless determination. How can they expect Sephiroth to act differently if he ever gets his memories back if they treat him as the enemy he was before?

“Cloud,” Zack says in protest.

“It’ll be okay,” Cloud reassures in a low murmur. He slips out of Zack’s unresisting arms and turns to Sephiroth with what he hopes is a smile and not a nervous grimace. “Let’s go?”

Sephiroth nods, puzzled gaze still darting between him and Zack. He holds the door open for Cloud as he passes. “I hope… I didn’t interrupt anything important?” He sounds uncharacteristically uncertain.

Cloud sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Nah. Zack’s just… having a bad day. Don’t worry about it.” He pauses. “Actually, I dragged you with me and I don’t even know where Aerith is. Sorry.”

“I believe she is backstage, working with Tifa on her costume.”

Cloud blinks at the use of Tifa’s first name. It would certainly be quite the cosmic irony if Tifa and Sephiroth were close friends in this life.

Sephiroth leads them through a narrow passage into the large space behind the stage curtains. A group of people painting landscapes on large pieces of wood glance up briefly, then turn back to their work. Several boys playfully swipe at each other with thick foam swords. On the other side of the room stands a large rack of colorful clothing next to a box filled with equally colorful fabric. Cloud’s heart leaps when he sees two very familiar brunette women chatting as they dig through the clothing.

“Tifa! Aerith!” Cloud wouldn’t be able to restrain his smile, even if he’d wanted to.

Aerith smiles brightly and waves. “Cloud! Seph! What’s up?”

“Hey guys,” Tifa says, a particular look in her eyes. Years of living with her has made Cloud very well acquainted with her expressions, and this one, he knows, means that she isn’t very happy, and usually the one who suffers is him. But business things first.

“Aerith, Sephiroth has a question about his costume change during scene 4,” he says, glad now that he’d turned to that particular page. “I timed it, and it takes too long to change out before he has to reappear back on stage. I was hoping we could modify it so it would be easier to switch. Like…” A bolt of inspiration suddenly strikes him. “Well, he’s shirtless underneath the longcoat anyways, so he can just take that off before putting on the wing, like practiced. But maybe we can let him keep the leather pants on, and just pull the fluffy bits on directly, instead of having them be an entirely different set of pants. Like an add-on skirt.”

A childish part of Cloud is vindictively satisfied by referring to anything Sephiroth has to wear as an add-on skirt with fluffy bits. Even if it is a terrifying allusion to the form he’d taken on towards the end of the battle with AVALANCHE.

Aerith hums thoughtfully. “That’s doable. Seph, why don’t you come with me and we can figure it out?”

Cloud starts—he hadn’t thought she’d want to talk to Sephiroth one-on-one, of all things, and his heart definitely isn’t ready for this yet—but she ushers the much taller man out before he can say anything.

Tifa turns to him. “Cloud… can we talk? Privately.” When Cloud frowns, she adds, “It’s about Zack.”

She tugs him back through the passage and out of the theater entirely, then scowls and folds her arms confrontationally. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Cloud takes a brief moment to close his eyes and wish people would stop asking him questions he doesn’t understand. It’s obviously an effort in futility, though.

Tifa sighs and shakes her head. “Of course you can’t just be straightforward and answer me. How long has this even been going on for? You know Aerith has a thing for him. How could you do this to her? And Zack! He knows that Se—”

“Tifa,” Cloud says. “What are you talking about?”

“You and Zack, of course!” Tifa throws her hands up in the air. “Don’t play dumb, everyone knows you guys are a thing now! Did you think that wouldn’t happen when you waltzed in holding hands in front of Kunsel of all people? What’s up with that, anyways? You hate PDA, I know you do. Is it because—”

“Wait, wait, Tifa, what? Did you say Zack and I were a thing?”

“I—” Tifa lowers her hands, suddenly looking very lost. “You guys aren’t? Oh gods, wait, you guys aren’t?”

“Uh,” Cloud says, for lack of anything better to say. His expression probably says it all, anyways.

“Oh,” Tifa says. “ … I see. I guess that’s why Aerith didn’t seem bothered. That girl just knows these things sometimes.” Abashed, she adds, “Sorry. For yelling at you.”

“It’s fine,” Cloud says, still bewildered, “but why would you think—?”

“You’ve been holding hands,” Tifa reminds him. “ Constantly. You didn’t even hold my hand when we were dating. And you’ve both been giving each other looks. You know, like oh, darling, I will surely wither away and die if I spend any time apart from you, my truest, dearest love—”

“Okay, that’s enough, I get the idea,” Cloud says hastily, willing away the blush threatening to creep up on his cheeks. Had they really looked like that? Well, Tifa’s pantomime is half-right, considering how a visceral fear tends to creep up in Zack’s eyes when apart from Cloud for too long, but… had they really—?

Also, had he really dated Tifa?

“But really, what’s been up with you, lately?” Tifa gives him a skeptical look. “You’re acting all weird, looking around at everything like you’re lost or something. You made Zack super worried on Saturday, and you must have told him something, because now he’s somehow being even clingier than usual.”

Cloud sighs, chewing his bottom lip uncertainly. Zack may be his best friend, but Tifa is his childhood friend, and she’s always been scarily good at deciphering his moods. At this rate, Genesis is going to lambast him with a rusty spoon for being such a bad liar. Where have the days where Reno used to curse him out for being a “gods-damned stoic unreadable bastard” gone?

“I know that look,” Tifa says. “That’s the look that says ‘how much of the truth am I going to tell Tifa this time?’ Come on, Cloud. I’ve stuck by you for eighteen years now. Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, okay?”

“I’ve… been having trouble remembering some things,” Cloud decides to say. Tifa is levelheaded and practical, both qualities that make her a great friend—until you need to tell her a wild, farfetched story that is more likely to prompt her to seek medical help rather than actually help. “Zack’s just being extra overprotective.”

“What?!” Tifa says, alarmed. Her hands fly up to grasp Cloud’s face, tugging it back and forth, as if she could determine his mental state just from that. “I thought the hospital cleared you! Do you need to go back? Should we get a doctor? I know you hate doctors, but—”

“Relax,” Cloud says. “Memory loss isn’t unusual after unconsciousness.”

“But—you haven’t forgotten anything important, have you? Oh gods, what if—”

“Tifa.”

Tifa huffs. “I’m seriously worried about you, Cloud Strife—”

“Excuse me,” a familiar deep voice says.

They spring apart, Tifa’s hands falling away from Cloud’s face as if burned. “Sephiroth!” Tifa exclaims. “We were just—uh—ah—well, I mean—”

“We were just talking,” Cloud says over Tifa’s stuttering. He feels the heat of another embarrassed blush stain his cheeks at the thought of what they’d discussed. Had even Sephiroth thought that he and Zack—that they were—

“Don’t stop on my account,” Sephiroth says. “I am simply here to deliver the message that Aerith would like to speak with you further about costume changes, Strife.” He sweeps back into the theater.

“Shit,” Tifa says. “Angeal’s going to kill me. Politely, of course. While giving a speech about how it’s for the greater good.” When Cloud gives her a quizzical look, though, she just says, “Never mind me. Go talk to Aerith. I’m going to go contemplate my impending well-intentioned death.”

-

“Oh, there you are!” Aerith says when Cloud trails back into the theater. “I was wondering where you’d gone. I need to go over some costume changes with you. So…” She grins mischievously. “How did your talk with Seph go?”

Cloud blinks. “Uh—what?”

Aerith’s face falls. “You didn’t talk at all, did you? That hopeless man… I suppose he went off and disappeared somewhere to sulk without telling me.”

“I did no such thing.” Cloud jumps when Sephiroth ducks out from the other side of the curtain and folds his arms confrontationally. He doesn’t like it when Sephiroth gets confrontational; it usually results in lots of dead people. Even if this Sephiroth probably doesn’t kill people, it still makes him nervous.

Aerith claps her hands excitedly. “I know! Why don’t you chat with Seph right now, Cloud? You and I just need to figure things out before the period’s over. Have a nice long talk, you two, okay? Just take deep breaths and remember what I told you, Seph!”

“Wait, wait, no,” Cloud says before she can glide off and leave him alone with an inquisitive Sephiroth and even more questions he can’t answer. If Sephiroth asks him more things about the musical that he decidedly will not remember, he’s fucked six ways to Sunday. Aerith is far, far safer. “Aerith, let’s get this done first.”

Sephiroth frowns.

“I—need to get back to Zack soon,” Cloud says, trying to appeal to Sephiroth’s responsible side. He’s got to have one; he was the General, right? Someone who managed entire platoons of soldiers with paperwork must have an innate love for deadlines and organization. “He’s probably slacking off right now.”

Sephiroth, though, only frowns deeper. “Right,” he says. “ Zack. My apologies, Aerith; I’ll be leaving now. Thank you for your help, regardless.”

“No, Seph, wait—!” Aerith sighs sadly as he leaves. “Poor, poor man. And you poor, oblivious child…”

Cloud wrinkles his nose. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, Cloud…” She shakes her head. “It’s better if you figure it out for yourself. Well, let’s get to work, I suppose.”

“Actually, I don’t know if I’ll be of much help to you,” Cloud says uncertainly. “I…”

Aerith smiles at him warmly. “Don’t worry about it, Cloud. I know you remember.”

“I—what?”

“After all, I remember too.”

-

“Zack!” Cloud throws the door open.

Zack nearly topples backwards off his chair, which wobbles precariously on its hind legs. “Wha—Cloud? What’s wrong?”

Cloud looks at Aerith, who peeks into the room from behind him.

Zack jolts up from his seat. “Aerith? What’s wrong, babe?” He pauses. “Wait, shit, uh, I mean—”

Aerith giggles. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for you to call me that again, Zack.”

“Wait, what?” Realization dawns on Zack’s face. “Oh! Oh shit! Cloud, she really—?”

Cloud gives him a tiny grin and nod.

Zack whoops and tackles the both of them, wrapping his arms around them and lifting them clear off their feet. “This is great! My best friend in one arm, my girlfriend in the other—like this, I could take on the world!”

“Okay, let’s calm down, hot stuff,” Aerith says, but doesn’t refrain from patting Zack’s bicep with visible appreciation. “We’ve got some business things to discuss.”

“That’s right!” Zack says, setting them both carefully down. “So how’d you remember? Did Cloud zap you with his mind powers, like he did me?” Zack wiggles his fingers mischievously.

“What—? No, don’t listen to him, Aerith, there was no mind zapping,” Cloud says. “None at all.”

“You sure about that, buddy? You really, really sure?” Zack ruffles Cloud’s hair with gusto. “How do I know you didn’t? How do you know you didn’t? How do you know I know—”

“Zack!” Cloud bats his hands away indignantly.

Aerith laughs. “It’s good to see you like this, Cloud. Happier. Lighter. I’m guessing it’s the work of this one here.” She pats Zack’s arm again with a wink, adding, “It’s all right, I don’t mind sharing.”

Cloud chokes on his own spit. “Aerith!”

She sobers slightly. “As for how I remember… well, it seems like I always have. I think it has something to do with my heritage. I even… well, Zack, do you remember anything from after you died?”

“Uh, no?” Zack scratches his head. “I thought that was kind of how death works.”

Aerith nods. “I remember things from after I died. I don’t think Zack ever will, though. You might have to catch him up on some things. Ease him into it,” she says, giving Cloud a significant look.

Cloud shrugs. “I’m missing a lot, too, though. We’ll have to go to Genesis for everything.”

“Oh, right. Sorry about that,” Aerith says. “Unenhanced human brains aren’t really meant to handle that much information. Now that your brain is, though, you’ll get it all back eventually, I think.”

“That’s a question I have, actually,” Zack says, raising a hand as if he were in class. “Our eyes are all glowy again and I definitely feel a lot stronger than I used to. How’d Cloudy and I get our enhancements back?”

“Well, mako is Lifestream. Your souls remember. Your bodies just needed a little bit of prompting.”

Alarmed, Cloud asks, “Do I—is JENOVA—”

“Oh, no,” Aerith says hastily. “She doesn’t belong in the Lifestream, after all. So I guess you might find your enhancements a bit… less than before. Though…” She cocks her head. “Cloud, your power came from the Planet rather than her, by the end. And the J-cells never took, for Zack. So there shouldn’t be much difference.”

“Is that so…” Cloud’s gaze falls to his hands. “That’s good.”

“Aerith,” Zack says seriously, and asks perhaps the most important question of them all. “Do you know why we were all brought back?”

Aerith sighs and shakes her head. “I’m sorry. Until the Planet called me back before she sent us all here, I wasn't aware of much past the first thousand years or so after I died. I couldn’t maintain my sense of self any longer than that. And I couldn’t decipher much of what the Planet said about it. Genesis doesn’t know either, right? So the only one who might is Cloud.”

“And I forgot,” Cloud says grimly. “Great. How long will it take for me to remember?”

“I really don’t know,” Aerith says. “It could be anywhere from days to months to years. It’s not like this has ever happened before—there’s never been a need to reincarnate people with their memories intact at all, much less someone who should have been for all intents and purposes immortal. Cloud, how did you even manage to die when you were immortal?”

Zack sputters. “Wait what Cloud you were immortal how come you never told me?!”

“‘Ease him into it’, someone said?” Cloud raises his eyebrows at Aerith.

Aerith covers her face with her hands and groans. “I’m sorry, I got frustrated…”

“Dude, everything you guys were saying makes so much more sense now!”

-

“So, Cloudy, how old were you?” Zack prods Cloud’s wrung-out form laying prone on the table.

“Don’t remember. Old.” Cloud buries his face deeper into his arms. He hates talking about his life story. Even if most of it had been told by Aerith.

“And how many times did you kill Sephiroth?”

“Do clones count?” Cloud pauses. “Doesn’t matter. Lost count. He gave up or something eventually anyways.”

“And how many pieces of your sword are there?”

“Six. And no, you can’t borrow it. I lost it.”

“Dude, how could you lose such an awesome sword? Well then, what about your—”

“Not my motorcycle either.”

Zack whines. “Whaaaaaaaat? Why not?”

“No one drives Fenrir except me.”

“Not even your best friend? Cloooooouuu—”

No. Also he’s probably gone by now.” Cloud takes a moment to mourn.

“Your motorcycle was a guy?” Cloud can tell Zack is waggling his eyebrows just from his tone of voice. “You know what that says about—”

Cloud emerges from the safety of his arms to glare balefully. “Whatever joke you’re going to crack about my sexual preferences, trust me, Reno’s already said it and more.”

Zack sighs and pats Cloud’s head. “Such a grumpy li’l kitty. I sure didn’t leave him like this. Aerith, who did this to my Cloudy?”

Aerith hums. “Well… do you want the long story, or the short one?”

“Please, no more,” Cloud groans, flopping back down. “Storytime is over. We spent half an hour in storytime. Have mercy.”

“But I wanna know! Who hurt you, Spike?”

“Okay, then, super-short story,” Cloud says. “ShinRa sucks. Hojo sucks. Sephiroth sucks. My life fucking sucks. The end.”

“No, what, Cloud, that doesn’t count—”

The bell rings. Cloud mentally thanks whatever deity it is that still actually listens to his prayers; he’d honestly thought they’d all gone MIA until now.

Zack wags a finger in Cloud’s face. “All right, Cloudy, you may have escaped this time, but you aren’t getting off so easily next time! Big Brother Zack is gonna find out all about who hurt his Spiky, and then he’s gonna bust some heads. Now, let’s go. We have TA together. See ya later, Aerith!”

“Zack, I’m literally older than you—”

Aerith laughs and waves. “Have fun, boys!”

Zack grabs Cloud’s hand and drags him out for the rest of their school day.

-

The rest of the day, surprisingly, goes off without a hitch, despite Zack still refusing to let go of his hand. Cloud’s pretty sure Zack is ditching his own class to sit in on Cloud’s, but no one seems to bat an eye, so he supposes it must be a frequent enough occurrence—completely possible, considering Zack.

Lunch is spent with Tifa, Barret, and Yuffie, who are fortunately all talkative enough to carry a conversation without Cloud needing to contribute much. Zack and Aerith also smoothly divert away from any topics that Cloud might be expected to participate more in, so the period passes by with only a few concerned looks from Tifa.

Cloud takes the time to study the students sitting around the cafeteria. He catches sight of Reno’s distinctive red ponytail next to Rufus’s slicked-back blond hair and Rude’s bald head, shiny under the stark lighting. He also sees Sephiroth and Angeal alongside Kunsel and some other tall, athletic-looking boys, standing out among the adoring girls clustered around their table. Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge wave as they pass by their table. At some point, he thinks he sees Reeve and Cid, clearly teachers, pick their way through the throng of students, gesturing fervently as they discuss something most likely engineering-oriented.

Seeing so many of his old friends gathered in one place makes him wonder about Vincent and Nanaki. Nanaki, of course, wouldn’t quite fit in with the rest of the students here. The thought of him maybe being reincarnated as a human makes Cloud snicker slightly. Vincent, on the other hand, is most likely asleep somewhere—perhaps in the Forgotten Capital? The last Cloud can remember, which is admittedly a very long time ago, humans still hadn’t quite figured out how to get through the Sleeping Forest, so perhaps it’s still a bastion of the past, untouched by modern civilization. He can’t help but hope that maybe Vincent might know more about their situation than they do.

They only have one more class after lunch, which is common for seniors, according to Zack, so they decide to collect Aerith and head to Genesis’s office for the fourth and last period of the day.

“Aerith’s aiding at the library right now,” Zack says, “but I’ll see if I can beg the librarian to let her off duty. And if I can’t, well… you’ll know.” He gives Cloud a cocky grin as they enter the spacious room, filled with shelves stacked high with all assortments of books. “Stay right here, okay? I don’t wanna get you in trouble if I have to resort to… desperate measures, heh.” He gives Cloud one last head pat, then vanishes between the many shelves.

Cloud waits five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. No raucous uproar ensues, so he assumes Zack has been distracted by something. Sighing, he begins to wander among the shelves, hoping to stumble upon Zack to pull him back on track. As he passes the science section, though, he catches a glimpse of familiar silver hair. A jolt of panic runs through him at the reminder of the last time Sephiroth had been surrounded by a pile of science-related books, and before he can stop himself, he blurts, “Sephiroth? What are you doing here?”

Sephiroth’s head slowly raises from its bent position over a thick hardcover book with tiny print.  “ … Oh,” he says, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. “It’s you.”

Cloud blinks. A tired-looking Sephiroth honestly doesn’t quite compute; this is the most perturbed he’s ever seen the usually impassive man, including the small glimpses he’d caught of him as an actual General and not an insane megalomaniac with a god complex.

“That should be my question for you, Strife,” Sephiroth continues. “Don’t you have an open period?”

Cloud shrugs. “I’m waiting on Zack and Aerith.”

“Oh. I see.” Sephiroth’s head droops again.

“Uh… how about you?” Cloud asks awkwardly. Something about his dejected posture doesn’t sit right with Cloud’s stomach.

“I’m usually here at the library during fourth period,” Sephiroth says. “I prefer to wait for my mother to finish with her classes before heading home with her.”

Cloud flinches. “Your—mother?”

“Yes. Lucrecia Crescent. The biology teacher.” Sephiroth glances sharply back up at Cloud. “Another gap in your faulty memory?”

“Oh.” Cloud opts to stare down at his toes instead of meeting Sephiroth’s piercing gaze. “Yeah… I guess. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize. It’s the result of no fault of yours.”

Cloud doesn’t know how to answer. There’s an awkward pause. Finally, Cloud can’t resist the urge to ask, “Is everything… all right?”

“ … Why do you ask?”

“Well… you seem a little down, that’s all.”

Sephiroth tilts his head and examines Cloud again. “Is that so.”

“Do you… want to talk about it?” When Sephiroth blinks at Cloud, probably his version of nonplussed, Cloud hastens to add, “Well, not with me specifically, but someone you’re close to? Uh, I mean, you can talk to me, but only if you want to, I don’t want to push you or anything, and you might be more comfortable discussing it with someone you—”

Sephiroth actually chuckles— it’s brief, and quiet, but it’s there. Cloud balks. “You know what,” he says, leaning his chin on his hand, “I think I will seek your advice. Tell me, Strife, what do I do if there’s a certain person I’d like to get closer to, but whenever I try, he seems… otherwise occupied by people he is already intimate with?”

This is surreal. Is Sephiroth having friend problems? Cloud is so not prepared for this. “I guess,” Cloud says slowly, “you could just tell him you want to be friends? It’s okay to be a bit selfish and ask to spend more time together. I mean, it’s not like there’s a limit on how many close friends someone can have.”

“Oh, no,” Sephiroth corrects. “I mean on a romantic level.”

“ … Oh,” Cloud says, feeling like his brain has broken. He is definitely not prepared for this. He hadn’t known Sephiroth had swung that way. He hadn’t even known Sephiroth had swung any way—other than maybe getting intense battle boners or something. “Um. I’m, uh, definitely not the person to ask for romantic advice, but if you aren’t that close… being friends would probably still be a good start? Like, personally, I don’t think I’d really even see anyone I don’t know pretty well as a potential partner, but that's just me, so…” He trails off, shaking his head. “Sorry. That wasn’t very good advice at all.”

Sephiroth hums. “No, that was very helpful. Thank you, Strife.”

“ … You can just call me Cloud,” Cloud offers, despite the frankly terrifying memory of the way Sephiroth’s deep voice had practically molested his name whenever he’d purred, good to see you, Cloud . He has to get over his compulsive paranoia sometime, right? Repeated exposure is supposed to be an effective method or something.

Cloud, then.” Sephiroth smiles, small but sincere, and it helps Cloud manage to suppress the violent twitch at the way his name had fallen from the man’s lips. “Thank you, Cloud. This…” He hesitates. “You most likely do not think the same of me, so this may be a bit forward of me, but would it be all right if I considered you to be one of my friends?”

Cloud blinks, startled, but smiles back as reassuringly as he can. “Of course. I’d be honored. You’re my friend, too, you know.”

Sephiroth opens his mouth to say something else, but a loud cry of “Clooooooouuud!” has him snapping it back shut with a grimace.

“Whoa—Zack!” Cloud stumbles as Zack barrels into him with all the force of a very panicked behemoth. Aerith trails behind him with a half-amused, half-resigned look on her face.

“We were looking everywhere for you! Whatcha two talkin’ about?” Zack says, slinging an arm over Cloud’s shoulder.

“I was just seeking some advice from Cloud here,” Sephiroth says. If Cloud didn’t know any better, he’d say he looked defensive. And a bit surly.

Zack raises a brow. “From Cloud, is it?”

Cloud frowns. “No need to sound so skeptical. I give good advice. Sometimes.”

“Yes, Zack, Cloud gave me some very good advice,” Sephiroth says.

“Okay, cool, very nice,” Zack says. “Sorry about this, Seph, but we’re running late for an appointment with Mr. Rhapsodos. Gotta dash!”

Cloud throws Sephiroth a wave but otherwise doesn’t resist as Zack tows him away. He’s preoccupied with other thoughts. If Sephiroth has a crush on someone…

Huh. Cloud never thought he’d ever play the role of matchmaker, but he won’t deny that a great way to keep Sephiroth from losing faith in all of humanity is if his significant other actually is one of them.

Cloud smiles. Maybe things are finally looking up.