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Welcome to the Circus

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"Cloud Strife,"  Tifa says with all the righteous fury of a thousand suns. “Why have you been avoiding me?”

“Ah,” Cloud says. Shit. Full name.

“I was so surprised and pleased when you told me what was up so easily the other day. I should have guessed that you weren’t telling the full truth. Why do you do this every time? I thought we were over this cycle already. Wasn’t the Geostigma enough?”

This lecture is so similar to basically every lecture he’s gotten from Tifa ever that it takes a moment for what she says to register. “ … Geostigma?”

“That’s right, you numbskull, Geostigma. I don’t know what you did on Monday, but I woke up on Tuesday with a splitting headache and way too many memories and a best friend who wouldn’t talk to me.” Tifa puts her hands on her hips. “So? I know you remember too, what with the weird way you’ve been acting and the way you’ve been having secretive rendezvous with the others. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Sorry?” Cloud offers weakly.

Tifa raises her right fist.

“I didn’t know you’d remember, too,” Cloud says hastily. “I just thought you wanted to drag me to the hospital for memory loss. You don’t think this is crazy or anything?”

Tifa sighs and lowers her fist. “To be fair, that’s probably what I would have done if I didn’t actually get my memories back. But now I’ve seen much stranger things happen, all revolving around you, Cloud. At this point I’m used to rolling with the punches, no matter how insane they are. So?” She raises a brow. “What’s going on this time?”

“It’s… kind of a long story. Let’s talk inside.”

-

“Tifa,” Cloud says, looking up at his bedroom ceiling from his position laying down on the bed. “You said I could talk to you about anything.”

The mattress squeaks as Tifa rolls over to face him. “I did. I don’t care if you think it’s stupid, or silly, or pointless. I want you to talk about it, okay? I’m your friend. You can trust me with anything.”

Cloud tugs idly on a loose string hanging from his bedsheets. “Honestly, I think you’re the only one I can talk to about this. Everyone else seems to have their own agenda.” He pauses. “Except Vincent. But…”

“He’s Vincent,” Tifa finishes. “I get it. What did you want to talk about?”

“It’s about Sephiroth.” Cloud sighs. “How do you feel about him being… here? No one else seems to really bat an eye, but you were there when he…” When he’d burnt Nibelheim to the ground. When he’d slain everyone they’d grown up with. Out of them all, Tifa may have been the one Sephiroth had hurt the most.

“Sephiroth…” Tifa sounds troubled. “He’s dangerous. But this version of him… he’s not a bad person. This whole people getting their memories back thing, it seems almost inevitable now that it’s started. All we can do is hope that when he does, he doesn’t…” Kill everyone. Burn the world to the ground. Summon Meteor. The possibilities are as endless as they are terrifying. “But we’ve stopped him before. We will again, if we have to. I just hope we won’t have to.”

“The General wasn’t a bad person, either,” Cloud says, and they both spend a moment in silence to think about that.

“But he didn’t know love,” Tifa finally says. “Not the way this one does, I think. He’s got his real mom, now, and he’s got his friends, and he… well. Your plan to, hm, get him together with his crush? I think even if it doesn’t work out the way you hope it will, he’ll remember those feelings. Your idea isn’t bad.”

“I forgave him a long time ago. I couldn’t hate someone who turned to the only thing that gave him love, as false as it was. But he still chose to do all those things. Do you think you could still have any sort of positive feelings for someone like that?”

Tifa hums thoughtfully. “Seph is my friend. He’s been my friend for four years. If he chooses a different path from his previous incarnation, then that won’t change.”

“But what about the original Sephiroth,” Cloud persists.

“Why does it matter? He’s dead.” Tifa’s voice hardens.

“I don’t know,” Cloud says. “Maybe it’s because I don’t remember my life from now, but I don’t feel like a different person than I was before. None of the others seem to either. We’ll have to deal with original Sephiroth sooner or later.”

“Cloud.” Tifa rises up onto her elbows. “I’m sure you’ve thought this all over on your own. You even seem to be getting on better with Seph than you ever have before, so that’s clearly not the problem. What’s the real reason you’re asking me this?”

Cloud’s gaze drifts away, but Tifa gently smacks his cheek, snapping it back to her. “Don’t do the avoidance thing. That’s an old trick by now. Why are you asking me this, Cloud?”

“ … I had a crush on Sephiroth. A long time ago. Before any of all… this.” Cloud waves a hand.

“Yes, I know,” Tifa says. At Cloud’s confused look, she says, “You weren’t exactly subtle about your hero worship, you know. And your current self had a crush on him, too, before you went and forgot everything, so really, that made everything very clear.”

“ … Oh,” Cloud says in a small voice, feeling red creep up on his cheeks.

Tifa takes one look at his face and swears, flopping back onto the mattress. “Oh, Hel. Are you serious?”

Cloud rolls over and buries his head into his pillow.

“And let me guess, you’re beating yourself up about it because you think you’re not allowed to feel this way towards the guy you’ve centered the majority of your existence around killing.” A pause. “Never mind, you’ve centered your entire existence around him in general. And now that the hatred is gone… You know, this makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it.”

“You’re not mad?” Cloud turns his head very slightly, catching sight of Tifa’s expression out of the corner of his eye. She looks more amused and exasperated than angry.

She shakes her head. “You can’t control these kinds of things. It might be good for him, actually. You’ll be able to show him that he’s not only capable of loving, but of being loved, too, even by someone he seriously hurt. That’s important for him to acknowledge his second chance, I think. And at least it’s also Seph, now, and not just actual Sephiroth. That’s not too bad. As long as he makes you happy.” She pauses, then flexes her arm in a motion that clearly conveys extreme violence. “You tell me if he doesn’t, got it?”

“Tifa, don’t talk like we’re already a—a thing…”

She rolls her eyes. “Aren’t you basically, though?”

“What, no, he likes someone else, and I already accidentally told him I wasn’t interested in dating anyone anyways, and—”

“Let me get this straight.” Tifa presses her lips together, stifling a strange expression. “You agreed to help Sephiroth get together with his longtime crush, who is a guy, but who you believe is most definitely not you. Then you show up here in a gay panic because you’ve finally realized your feelings for him. And you’ve told him you don’t want to date, period, because that was before you actually knew you liked him.”

“ … Yes?”

“Cloud… how is this your life?”

“Believe me, I’ve been asking myself that for a very long time.”

“You should just tell him.”

“What?” Cloud rises fully from his pillow to stare at Tifa disbelievingly. “No way. He’s already been nice enough to ignore it, but if I tell him outright, then he’ll be disgusted, and he won’t want to speak with me anymore, and then I won’t be able to help him—”

“Cloud.” Tifa places her hands on his shoulders. “He’s literally gay too, he won’t be disgusted—at worst he’ll be awkward about it because he’s too polite to bring the topic up at all. And even if he hypothetically doesn’t want to speak to you anymore, he’s got Zack and Aerith and Angeal to play matchmaker for him, like they already have been for the past few years.”

Cloud bites his lip. “But…”

“Oh my gods, you really think that he doesn’t—ugh!” Tifa shakes Cloud a little. “Listen to me, you silly man. The only person I know who’s as emotionally dense as you is him. I doubt he noticed anything of your feelings, which is a real pity, otherwise we could have avoided this entire song and dance. He never actually said who his crush was, for all your overthinking, so it could be anyone. And you have a literal date with him on Sunday. Do you know anyone else who’s gone on a date with Seph? That’s right, no one, and that’s not for lack of trying on their part. Just tell him. I think you’ll find that your feelings aren’t as unrequited as you think they are, okay?”

Cloud sighs, shoulders slumping. He could never say no to Tifa. “ … Okay.”

-

Cloud pants as he stumbles into the classroom. He can’t believe it. Late on his first day.

The teacher, a tall, elegant-looking redhead, gives him a long, scrutinizing look. Cloud stares back, wide-eyed, before he’s dismissed with a wave. “Find a partner. We’re doing an activity in pairs.”

“Cloudy! Hey, Cloudy!” Zack waves at him enthusiastically from where he’s seated next to Tifa. “Where were you, dude?”

Cloud frowns. “Got lost. Sorry…”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. But… Tifa and I already partnered up. D’ya wanna try asking Mr. Rhapsodos if we can do a three-way?”

Cloud shakes his head. The redheaded teacher, Mr. Rhapsodos apparently, seems like he’s in a snappish sort of mood. He’d rather not annoy him further and risk being on his bad side for the rest of his high school career. “It’s okay. I’ll partner up with…” Cloud quickly scans the room, a glint of silver catching his eye. Seated in the back left corner is a thin, lanky boy with short silver hair framing his face. He’s alone. “ … that boy there. He doesn’t look like he has a partner.”

As he approaches, the other boy’s eyes snap up to meet his. A shiver tracks down Cloud’s spine; they’re an eerie green, bright and oddly familiar. He offers him a hesitant smile. “Hey, I’m Cloud. Wanna partner up?”

The boy blinks at him slowly, his eyelids cutting off the glow of his eyes in an almost hypnotizing manner. “ … All right,” he says, his voice low and quiet. Belatedly, he adds, “I’m Sephiroth.”

“Nice to meet you, Sephiroth,” Cloud says. “That’s an interesting name.”

Sephiroth inclines his head. “Why did you approach me?”

Cloud frowns. “What do you mean? We both needed a partner, right?”

“There are already multiple groups of three,” Sephiroth says. “You could have simply joined your friends’ group.”

Cloud juts his chin out stubbornly. “Well, maybe I just wanted to be your friend.”

Cloud watches with fascination as Sephiroth blinks again. “People… don’t usually want to be my friend,” he says, surprisingly bluntly. “They think my hair and eyes are strange.” He tugs at a silver lock hanging by his face.

“I think your eyes are cool,” Cloud says. “Like a cat’s. And your hair is nice. It’d look really good if you grew it out, I think.”

“ … Thank you. People don’t usually say that, because—”

-

“—because we’re monsters, Cloud, you and I,” Sephiroth says, a crazed glint in his eyes as his lips stretch wide into a maniacal smirk. “And this world has no place for monsters. Why shouldn’t it deserve to burn? You’ll thank me for it eventually. You are, as we both know, incomplete without me.”

Behind him, Nibelheim crackles and burns in a raging inferno, soot and ash mixing with the snow in the air. Sephiroth’s long hair twists and swirls in the wind like a silver banner. Even here, now, Cloud gets the urge to tangle his fingers in its strands, smooth them back out of Sephiroth’s handsome, lovely, terrible face.

He wants to rip his traitorous hands off.

Cloud opens his mouth to scream Sephiroth’s name in rage, in love, in heartbreak, but his voice catches in his throat, as trapped as the heart fluttering wildly in his ribcage. His pulse hammers in his ears, drowning out Sephiroth’s words as Nibelheim continues to burn to the ground.

Realizing his words have gone unheard, Sephiroth shakes his head condescendingly, then turns and begins to walk away.

Cloud reaches out, tries to run, tries to catch him, runrunrun you have to catch him before—

before he hurts anyone else, before he’s out of reach (before you can’t save him anymore)

but his feet are frozen in place by an immovable force. Shadows wind around his limbs, crawl up his outstretched arms in a sick parody of a reciprocating embrace, enveloping his eyes, his ears, his nose, and suddenly he can’t see, can’t hear, can’t breathe—

-

—he can’t breathe, trapped in the crystal as he is, everything is cold and blue and so, so still, he’s so numb, so tired and he can’t so much as twitch as high-pitched laughter slithers in and out of his consciousness, the darkness creeping closer and closer and closer, always closer, and he knows that soon it will be

too late

-

Cloud wakes up in a cold sweat.

Sitting up, he rubs his forehead tiredly. It’s not the first time he’s had nightmares since remembering, but that first part of the dream hadn’t been a nightmare—it’d been a memory. As for the latter half…

Well.

He reaches over to grab his phone from his nightstand. It takes a few seconds for the blurry numbers on its screen to resolve into something legible. 4:27 am.

Good enough. He dials.

It takes seven rings. Cloud is almost about to cancel the call and resign himself to staring up at his ceiling until a more humane hour, because he sure as hell isn’t going back to sleep after that, but then the ringing cuts short with a click.

“Cloud?” Zack yawns, wide and sleepy, and the warmth in his voice is enough to relax the harsh line of tension in Cloud’s shoulders. “Whassup?”

“Zack.”

There must be something in Cloud’s voice, because Zack sounds much more alert when he asks, “What’s wrong?”

“I—” Cloud shuts his eyes and breathes, long and measured, in through the nose, out through the mouth. “I had a bad dream, that’s all. Just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“ … No,” Cloud decides, shuddering. “Not yet.” Not when the eerie half-light of this in-between hour so acutely mirrors the interior of the crystal he’d been trapped in, as helpless as a fly in amber while the darkness had coiled ever closer.

“Okay.”

For a few minutes, they simply sit there listening to each other’s breathing, the silence stretching into something ethereal and timeless.

When Cloud feels less like an overfull glass of water, its contents beading and quivering about its edges, ready to fall apart at the most minute of touches, he breathes out heavily and loosens his death grip on his phone. “Thanks, Zack. Sorry for calling so late.”

“No problem, bud. You let me cling to your hand like a big baby for the past few days—I can lose a few hours of sleep for you.” Well acquainted with the reluctance to sleep that comes with these kinds of nightmares, Zack says, “So, talk to me, Cloudy. What’s new?”

“Well… I remembered something. Our first day in high school.”

“Oh, did you?” Zack’s voice isn’t completely forcing its light note, now. “Weren’t you late to first period? You ended up having to partner with…” He trails off hesitantly, questioningly. Is this okay?

“With Sephiroth, yeah,” Cloud says, reassuring, It’s fine. “He was kind of a social disaster back then, wasn’t he? Tell me, how did someone like that end up becoming one of the most popular kids in school?”

Zack laughs. “How else? Our awkward, gangly Seph shot up somewhere between sophomore and junior year and got hot. The girls wouldn’t’ve left him alone even if he’d had the personality of a cactuar. Oh, and I guess he’s, like, some hotshot actor in school or something,” he says jokingly.

Cloud huffs a gentle laugh. They sit in comfortable silence for a few more minutes, then Cloud says, “So Tifa cornered me earlier today.” He pauses. “Yesterday? Whatever—after rehearsal.”

“Oh? So how angry was she about you avoiding her?”

“Pretty angry,” Cloud admits. “She remembers, by the way.”

“ … Oh,” Zack says. “But how? I didn’t think she caught us talking about anything.”

“She didn’t. She said she remembered on Tuesday, the day after talking to me. But I didn’t tell her anything.”

“Ah! I told you you had some sort of mind-zapping powers!” Zack says.

“Zack…”

“But… I guess it means we really don’t know what causes people to remember at all, huh,” Zack says quietly. “It’s almost like you’re the catalyst. Kinda scary, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Cloud agrees. “Which is why I wanted to ask you… well. Tifa convinced me to speak to Sephiroth. About… my feelings.”

Zack’s sharp inhale is audible over the receiver.

“You knew,” Cloud says, unsurprised. Cloud, high school Cloud, must have told him long ago.

“ … Yeah.” He sounds conflicted.

“Does it… bother you? That’s why you were acting so strangely, right?”

“I’m happy for you two,” Zack says after a moment. “I just… don’t want you to get hurt by him. Not anymore.”

“Don’t worry,” Cloud says. “I’m not expecting anything; I won’t be hurt when he rejects me. I just need to tell him before I can try to get over it.”

Zack laughs, rough and hard. “That’s not what I’m worried about.” Before Cloud can ask him what he means, though, he continues, “But you told me because you want backup, right? You’re worried that you might trigger his memories.”

“ … Yeah. If things go wrong…”

“I know,” Zack says, quiet and sad. “I know.”

-

Sunday morning dawns bright and cheerful, the exact opposite of Cloud’s mood. His mother takes one look at his tired eyes and rumpled hair and smiles knowingly. “Tifa finally convinced you, I see.”

Cloud jolts, nearly upsetting his plate of eggs. “I—what?”

She pats his head, mussing his hair even further. “Don’t worry about it, liebling. I’m off to work. Good luck!”

After his mother leaves, Cloud tries to avoid thinking about the next few hours by running through sword forms. It gets old quickly without an actual sword, though, so he ends up pacing back and forth around the apartment, and this is how Zack finds him half an hour before they have to leave.

“Dude, what are you wearing?” Zack says, eyeing Cloud’s baggy t-shirt and pajama pants. “You’re about to confess to the crush of both of your lifetimes and then some, and you’re in this? What happened to the cliche ‘oh gods Zack I don’t know what to wear, please help me’?” He plasters on an appropriately piteous expression, batting his eyelashes as he clutches his hands to his chest.

Cloud gives him a very flat look as he continues pacing. “Zack, I’m going to be in my work uniform.”

Zack deflates. “Aw, I was looking forward to seeing you being all cute and freaking out over your first date…” Then he brightens. “But it’s okay! I have it on good authority that Seph likes pretty boys in aprons.”

“I… don’t want to know how you know that.”

Zack grins. “Oh, I can tell you all about his preferences, Cloudy, if you ever want to… y’know, service him properly.”

“Zack.”

Zack throws an arm over Cloud’s shoulders, dragging his pacing to a halt. “Just tryin’ to help you out! Not that you need any, I’m sure Seph’ll be very happy to see you no matter what you’re in. Including nothing. Now, stop pacing, all right? You’re gonna wear a hole in your floor at this point.”

Cloud tries to smile. Zack is doing his best to cheer him up even though he himself is uncertain about their situation, after all, so the least Cloud can do is show his appreciation for his friend’s efforts. Even if those efforts are bad innuendo.

“Go get changed, okay? I’ll drive us over when you’re ready.”

Cloud doesn’t think he’ll ever be ready. But he’ll try.

-

Shera shakes her head exasperatedly when she sees Cloud enter the back room to grab his apron, but she simply says, “Don’t work yourself too hard,” which is already better than the last time he’d tried to show up.

The rest of his shift passes by both too quickly and too slowly. Cloud finds himself staring at the clock as the time crawls by at a snail-like pace, the events in between a hazy blur. Occasionally, he watches Zack, who sits on the couch by the door with a mug of quickly cooling tea, trying to look absolutely fascinated by his laptop. At 3:30 exactly, a cheery jingle of bells announces Sephiroth’s presence.

“I’m gonna take my break now,” Cloud announces to no one in particular, and distantly, he hears one of his coworkers say something in assent. Suddenly remembering Zack’s words about Sephiroth’s opinion on pretty boys in aprons, he hastily tugs off his own apron and stows it back away in the back room, fighting back the warmth threatening to spread across his cheeks. When he steps back out, Sephiroth catches his gaze from his position in line, gesturing towards a small two-person table tucked in the back of the shop.

Cloud chooses the seat that faces the counter, keeping an eye on Sephiroth as he moves further up in line. A few minutes later, he returns with his drink. Cloud nods towards it and says, “Black coffee?”

Sephiroth nods as he takes a seat. “I prefer coffee over tea.”

“Sorry for making you come here, then,” Cloud says. “We could have met some other time if you wanted to go to a coffee shop…”

He shakes his head. “It’s no problem.”

An awkward silence ensues. Cloud stares down at the hem of his shirt. A few strings are fraying, he notes idly.

Finally, Sephiroth sighs. “I understand this is most likely unwelcome after what you said the other day, but I know I’ll regret it if I continue to say nothing.” He runs a finger over the rim up his mug.

“ … Okay,” Cloud says. He hadn’t expected Sephiroth to confront him about this of all things before he could even confess, but… Here it comes. Tifa was wrong. He’s going to tell me straight out that he’s sorry, but he can’t keep politely ignoring my feelings, and he really doesn’t want to be my friend if I can’t stop being weird about things. It’s fine. I’ll be fine, he tells himself, and he almost believes it.

“I wanted to apologize,” Sephiroth says, and Cloud feels his heart sink. “In freshman year, even though we didn’t share many classes, and thus very rarely crossed paths, you always took the time to gift me with a kind word or a smile. I… didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know how to deal with…” He trails off uncomfortably, and Cloud sinks lower in his seat.

Way to go. You’ve been creeping him out with your obvious crush since freshman year.

Sephiroth shakes his head and continues, “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. I avoided you. I was afraid. It was childish and cowardly of me, I know now; I’ve recently become aware that it was my own actions that induced this misunderstanding. So, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Cloud says. “It’s not your fault—I was just being stupid. I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable. But I… I like you a lot. And I know you made it clear you’ll never like me back like that, but please, give me another chance. I don’t want to lose our friendship over this. I’ll get over my crush on you, I promise.”

It’s a lie, he knows. It’s been thousands of years; this can’t be labelled a simple crush that can simply be gotten over. But now that he’s known Sephiroth’s friendship, he doesn’t think he can go back to the way things were before, an aching emptiness in his chest that only echoes of thrill and destiny and the fierce excitement of battle, two blazing stars colliding with each clash of their blades.

But Sephiroth doesn’t say anything, just stares and stares, and Cloud feels a blush of shame creep hotly across his face.

“I—I’m sorry,” Cloud says, gaze falling to the floor. He can’t bring himself to meet Sephiroth’s eyes. The chair screeches loudly against the floor as he stands to leave, and he flinches. “I told myself it was too much to hope for, but I—”

Sephiroth’s hand lashes out, catching Cloud’s wrist, but Cloud still doesn’t dare look up. “Your crush,” he murmurs, deathly quiet. “On me?”

Cloud nods slowly, miserably, tugging against Sephiroth’s grasp. “Just—let me go, I—”

“And I here I thought it was obvious,” Sephiroth says. “ … What a pair of fools we make.”

Suddenly, Sephiroth’s other hand presses up against Cloud’s back, warm and strong, and he’s spun around to face burning green eyes that are too close, much too close—

“Don’t get over me, Cloud,” Sephiroth breathes, heat spreading from where his lips just barely brush against Cloud’s own. “I do believe I’d be rather heartbroken if you did.”

And he pulls Cloud into a bruising kiss.