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Cloud’s arms wind around Sephiroth’s neck on instinct as his tongue darts across Cloud’s slightly parted lips, not probing, not entering, just teasing. Cloud shudders; no kiss he’s had has ever felt like this, all heat and electricity and overwhelming, undeniable passion—

Cloud can’t hold back the tiny, wrecked noise that escapes his throat when Sephiroth draws back. His lips feel raw and tingly as his breath comes in sharp pants, and something in Sephiroth’s eyes darkens in a very new—but decidedly good—way. Sephiroth looks like he’s debating whether to pull Cloud into another kiss or not when Zack’s voice cheerfully says, “Okay, let’s keep this PG, yeah? I’ve been entrusted with chaperoning, here, and Seph, buddy, your designs on Cloudy’s chastity ain’t lookin’ great for your future. That’s right, I’m talkin’ about those hands on his ass. Hands off.”

Through his cheer, Cloud can see Zack’s worry as he carefully examines Sephiroth’s face for any trace of his old memories. Sephiroth, though, only hastily lets go of Cloud’s ass—and when had his hands moved down there?—as he sets him back on the ground.

“My apologies,” he says, gaze darting to the ground, and is that an embarrassed blush on his face? By the gods, Sephiroth, blushing. “That was too forward of me. But it was the only way I could think of to convey my own feelings without any further miscommunications.”

“ … It’s fine,” Cloud says dumbly, his brain still short-circuiting. Hastily, he corrects himself, “It’s more than fine.” And Odin, he can feel himself blushing, now, too.

Sephiroth stares at him for a heartbeat, two, but now Cloud realizes he’s simply running his eyes over Cloud’s features, no doubt trying to memorize the way he looks in this very moment. Then he smiles, small and quiet but genuine, happier than Cloud’s ever seen him before, and Cloud wants to take this scene and compress it into a tiny, bright, precious jewel, clutch it close to his chest and never let go.

There’s a hesitant cough. Cloud’s coworker, a tall, lanky college student with a mess of brown curls, stands awkwardly to the side as he gestures to the clock. “Uh, Cloud… your break was over five minutes ago.”

Cloud jumps. “Shit! I’m sorry, Sephiroth. I have to go.” He looks up at him, chewing his lip uncertainly. There’s so much he wants to talk about, so much he needs to ask.

Sephiroth’s smile doesn’t fall, though. “I’ll wait for you,” he promises.

-

"I'm driving you home," Sephiroth says when Cloud clocks out, no room for argument left in his tone.

Cloud blinks. "What about Zack?"

"He is aware." He doesn't elaborate further.

" … Okay," Cloud says.

Sephiroth leads them out to a sleek silver car. Cloud gasps when part of him recognizes it to be a very new, very nice, and very expensive Mercedes S-Class, and gently runs his fingers over the shining finish. “She’s beautiful,” he says.

“Yes, beautiful,” Sephiroth agrees, eyes soft and most definitely not looking at his car.

Cloud stutters a bit, not sure how to respond, but Sephiroth rescues him by simply smiling and unlocking his car, ushering him into the passenger’s side. He shuts his eyes, taking a moment to appreciate the feeling of the leather seat against his back and the smoothness of the suspension as Sephiroth pulls out of the parking space. Then Cloud says, “So, I wanted to ask. What exactly were you talking about when you said misunderstanding? We were definitely thinking about different things.”

Sephiroth hums. “Well, as you know, recently Zack has seemed somewhat… opposed to any sort of romantic relationship between us. I asked Angeal why, and he told me, ‘He found out some things about you and Cloud he needs some time to process. Don’t worry about it too much.’ Those words exactly. Of course…”

“You started worrying right away,” Cloud finishes. It is a pretty worrying statement. Honestly, though, he has to applaud Angeal on his massive but still very truthful prevarication.

Sephiroth nods. “After some soul searching, as they say, the only thing that really came to mind was my avoidance of you during freshman and sophomore year. After all, if Zack thought it was out of malicious intent, I’m sure he’d revoke his approval immediately. It made me wonder… if you resented me for constantly ignoring your extensions of kindness. Your actions certainly showed that you felt nervous and uncomfortable in my presence. But then I realized if you’d resented me, there would be no way you’d have continued to reach out as you did. As such, I could only arrive to the conclusion that you believed I disliked you, when I have recently been trying to convey anything but. When I approached you yesterday, it was with the intent to explain myself fully and the barest hope that you might accept my affections. When you said you did not want a relationship at all, though, I discarded the latter objective. I honestly did not intend to mention my feelings today at all, but… I’m glad it didn’t end up that way.” He pauses. “Speaking of which, why exactly was Zack there?”

Cloud coughs. “I actually, uh, planned on confessing today? So he was… backup, I guess.”

“Backup for what?” Sephiroth sounds honestly puzzled.

“In case I lost my nerve, or I screwed up, or you freaked out… lots of reasons, really.”

“Not very valid reasons,” Sephiroth says. Cloud frowns, but then he adds, “It might take some time, but my hope is that you will come to not worry about those things when it concerns me. I’d… like you to feel safe, be it emotionally or physically.” Sephiroth’s fingers are tight and trembling against the steering wheel, and if he hadn’t been blushing after their kiss, he most definitely is now.

Cloud smiles as he lays a hand over Sephiroth’s, causing him to jolt. “Thanks. It means a lot.”

Sephiroth’s fingers hesitate, then abandon their grip on the wheel to twine against Cloud’s own. The rest of the drive passes by in a comfortable silence, the reassuring press of Sephiroth’s fingers enough for a small, fragile hope to grow in Cloud’s chest. Maybe things will be all right, after all.

Sephiroth walks Cloud up to his apartment, even though it’s only one flight of stairs. He maintains his intense gaze on Cloud the entire while, even as he fishes in his pocket for his keys. “Just ask,” Cloud says, suddenly feeling bold under the yellow, flickering lamplight and dark, star-speckled sky. “I know you’re dying to.”

“Is this—are we… boyfriends?”

The word sounds so foreign coming from Sephiroth, of all people, that Cloud can’t help but laugh. “Only if you want to be.”

“I do,” Sephiroth says quickly. “But you said you didn’t want…?”

“I didn’t want a relationship with anyone except you,” Cloud says. “At the time, I thought you weren’t an option. But now, if the offer’s open…”

“It is,” Sephiroth says, even faster than before. Then he chuckles, shaking his head. “All this time…” he says, quiet and a bit rueful.

“All this time,” Cloud agrees. And more.

For a moment, they simply stand there, staring at each other, before Cloud suddenly realizes—

It’s almost dinnertime; what’s the etiquette for this kind of situation? Should I invite him in? Wait, but isn’t that, like, a bad pick-up line in all those terrible romance movies? What do I do? How—

His thoughts are interrupted when Sephiroth presses a gentle kiss to his forehead. For a brief second, Cloud catches Sephiroth’s gaze drop to his lips, but all he says is, “I’ve got to get home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye,” Cloud says, and if he’s a bit disappointed that Sephiroth didn’t follow through with his urge, well, no one needs to know.

“Cloud,” says a familiar voice from behind him, and Cloud jumps a good foot into the air.

“Holy—Vincent! How long have you been there?”

Vincent studies him, long and hard. “Long enough. Are you sure about this, Cloud?”

Cloud huffs a tired breath. “Of course not,” he says. “Just like with most things in life. But… I think it might be worth it, no matter what happens.” He remembers Sephiroth saying I’d like you to feel safe, and he smiles and tucks it away into a safe, precious corner of his memory.

Vincent takes another moment to read his face, then nods, and the topic is closed. Cloud has always appreciated that about Vincent’s nature.

Cloud opens his door and waves Vincent in. “So what did you drop by for?” He drops onto the couch and pats the cushion beside him, but isn’t surprised when Vincent declines to sit.

“There are some things I would like to discuss with you individually,” Vincent says. “I may have… withheld some information previously.”

Cloud raises a brow and waits for Vincent to elaborate.

“I found the cave over five hundred years ago,” he says bluntly.

“ … Genesis is going to kill—no, he’s gonna fucking eviscerate you.”

“I would prefer it wait until after this entire matter is resolved. Then he can throw fire at me as much as he likes. But for now, telling him this will only be an unnecessary distraction.”

“That’s true,” Cloud says. “That’s also not all you wanted to tell me.”

Vincent nods. “What concerns me is that despite these five hundred years, I did not detect the darkness in the water until now. It’s a safe enough assumption that you were there to combat it since the beginning—the next logical conclusion is that it has finally begun to break past your defenses. Now, the only uncertainty is a matter of time. Perhaps it will be another five hundred years, perhaps it will be a thousand. Perhaps it will be next month. But the darkness is coming; the crystal is no longer enough to hold it back.”

Cloud shivers, suddenly remembering his dream from last night. Too late echoes in his mind, over and over and over again. “I… had a dream about it last night. A nightmare.”

Vincent’s gaze sharpens. “What happened in it? You know your dreams are rarely ever meaningless.”

“It started out fairly normal,” Cloud says. “Old memories. But then it changed to—the crystal. I was trapped. I couldn’t move or breathe or anything. There was this voice, it kept laughing and laughing, and even though I couldn’t see it, I could tell the darkness was getting close—too close, and…” Cloud shivers again, harder, wrapping his arms around himself.

“And?” Vincent prompts, gently but firmly. His eyes are sympathetic and unyielding all at once.

“Too late,” Cloud murmurs. “Soon. It’ll be too late.”

Vincent nods. “It’s as I feared. We don’t have time to wait for Genesis’s musical. I will go back to investigate the cave on my own.”

“Are you sure? What if—what if…” He doesn’t want to think of what might happen if the shadows become solid, if they come in contact with anyone.

“I will be fine. It’s my specialty to go undetected, after all.”

Cloud sighs. “ … Be careful.”

Vincent nods. “I will.”

-

Despite the ominous conversation he has with Vincent, Cloud feels like he might be walking on air for the rest of the week. As each day passes, the seedling of hope tucked in his heart blossoms larger and brighter until it flourishes into a full-on flower. Cloud works with Cid in his shop on Monday and Tuesday, fiddling with old bikes and rattling cars, and then on Wednesday, they hang up the battered CLOSED sign and go on their merry way. Preparations for their upcoming series of performances, finalized with their open dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening, go by as smoothly as they possibly could for something dubbed hell week. They're so busy that he and Sephiroth don't have much time to themselves, but each morning, Sephiroth greets him at the school gate with a sweet smile, and they take turns walking each other to their classes throughout the day. Neither of them are expressive people in general, and they both enjoy their privacy, so their shows of affection are limited to the quick brush of hands as they walk side-by-side, or a soft look here or there, or even a chaste, quick press of lips to the cheek or forehead, but neither of them attempt to hide it, either.

After the dress rehearsal, Sephiroth’s friends outside of drama who came to watch surprise him with a bouquet of flowers, and he sweeps Cloud into a breathless hug and murmurs in his ear, "Thank you for making our last performance the best out of all my years here," and Cloud thinks he could cry. Which each successive performance, Sephiroth's hugs get more and more fervent, until Friday night, when Cloud growls, "Screw it," and tugs him down for a heated kiss.

"That's much better," Cloud whispers to Sephiroth over the cast's catcalling and mock cries of disgust, and he can feel Sephiroth's smile curve up against his lips.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. This is a concept Cloud is intimately familiar with. He’s never dared to let himself be happy; the more elaborate the illusion, the worse it is to come down to reality. But if this is what happiness feels like, Cloud thinks, then he never wants this shining dream to end.

This is, of course, when things begin to go awry.

It starts with Vincent melting out of the shadows of the performance-dark theater, half-startling the crap out of the lighting crew as Cloud fusses with the equipment in the booth. While the noon performance had gone off without a hitch, half an hour into their final show, Wedge had notified Cloud that one of the lights had stopped working.

“I don’t understand,” Cloud says, tugging on his hair worriedly. “We just replaced all the bulbs recently. The wires are all connected, none of the switches got flipped—”

“Cloud.”

“Holy crap, dude, where the hell’d you come from?” Jessie whisper-screeches, mindful of disrupting the show even in the face of a pale, vampiric man.

“Vincent,” Cloud says, not looking up, “what did we say about not scaring the shit out of people?”

“Cloud,” Vincent repeats. “We need to talk. You all are in grave danger—”

All the lights in the theater flicker, then cut out, plunging everything into pitch-black darkness. Confused murmurs rise up from the audience; onstage, Zack falters, but then determinedly pushes on with his interrupted line.

“Cloud, what’d you do?” Wedge hisses.

“Nothing!” Cloud hisses back. “I didn’t press anything just now. They cut out on their own. Vincent, what’s wrong?”

“They’re here,” Vincent growls, low and not quite human. “I’ll hold them off. Cloud, you need to get everyone out.”

At his tone, Cloud nods firmly, knowing that even in the darkness, Vincent will be able to see it. He switches on his headset with a crackle. “Stop the show,” he says urgently. “Get the cast to evac through the back.”

“Boss?” Bigg’s voice answers, perplexed. “What’s wrong?”

“Get them out, now. I’ll be down there soon. Tell them I said it’s an emergency.” He switches the channel of his microphone, then announces over the loudspeaker in his best official voice, “Attention, everyone. The show has been canceled due to an emergency. The theater is no longer safe. Please evacuate in a calm, orderly manner through the double-doors at the bottom of each set of stairs, marked by the glowing green ‘exit’ sign. Attention, everyone…” He repeats his message several times as the muttering in the theater grows louder, and people begin to slowly, confusedly make their way down the stairs.

Suddenly, a thin scream erupts from the back left entrance at the top of the stairs, followed by animalistic snarls and the eerie snap-snap-crunch of broken bones. More cries rise from the crowd, and the people begin to panic and shove, trampling over each other in their haste to get away.

Cloud scowls, and quickly scans the small booth for something, anything to use. He spots a camera tripod leaning against the wall. Good enough. He snatches it up, then turns to Wedge and Jessie. “You guys need to get out. We’re too close.”

“What about you?” Jessie says, frowning.

“I’ll be right behind you,” he promises, twirling his makeshift weapon in his hands to test its weight. “Go.”

The moment they step out of the room, a large, formless mass with glowing yellow eyes lunges toward them. Cloud’s tripod collides into it with a grotesque crunching noise, sending it sailing somewhere into the seats. Something thick and oily splatters across his arms, and he flicks it off with a noise of disgust.

“Cloud?” Jessie’s alarmed voice says from behind him. “What happened? It’s so dark in here, I can’t see anything…”

“Everything’s fine,” Cloud says, much calmer than he feels. “Keep going. You can see the exit sign, right?”

He can’t hear her affirmation as he bats away the next series of assaulters, but their hurried footsteps are indication enough. Once he’s sure they’ve gotten far enough from the danger zone, he makes his way in the opposite direction, toward the screaming, making sure to bash in the skulls of any of the strange creatures he passes with extreme prejudice.

A swirl of red announces Vincent’s presence. “My apologies,” he says, firing off a few rounds from his gun. “Their numbers were too great.”

“Don’t worry about it. You—” Cloud grunts as a monster clamps its jaws around his tripod. It lets go and slumps to the ground with a screech when a bullet drives through its throat. “Thanks. You bought us time.”

What Vincent says is true, though. There are far too many; already, at least a dozen have managed to get past their guard, and they can’t pursue—they're barely holding on from being overwhelmed as it is. The screaming’s died down, though, so at least most of the people are out. Either that, or they’re all dead, Cloud thinks grimly.

“Cloudy!” A thick plank of wood crashes through several of the monsters to Cloud’s right, and suddenly Zack is standing at his back. “Got your back!” He grins and twirls the plank with a showy flourish.

“Zack!” Cloud says.

“Not just Zack.” Despite her lack of enhanced vision, Tifa manages to send a monster flying a good twenty feet back with a sweeping kick. “Don’t forget about me, Cloud!”

Cloud could almost grin at the nostalgia. “Hey, Tifa.”

A large explosion of fire announces Genesis’s presence, conveniently illuminating their surroundings and providing him with a suitably dramatic backdrop. “You’re compensating me for this absolute disaster, Cloud Strife,” he announces, pushing his hair back out of his face. Beside him, Angeal shakes his head with an amused smile, clutching what looks like a former piece of their costume rack in his hand.

“Why is it always my fault?” Cloud groans, only to be ignored.

“Whoa!” Zack says. “When’d you pick up that Fire?!”

Genesis raises a brow and fries another monster with a flick of his wrist. “Bold of you to assume I don’t carry it with me at all times.”

Behind them, a booming crash sounds, and familiar voice screams, “Barret!”

Cloud’s head snaps up. “Yuffie!”

“We’ve got this, buddy,” Zack says. “Go!”

-

Cloud finds Barret and Yuffie in the pit. Part of the curtains have collapsed, smashing a hole in the stage and exposing the empty space underneath; they must have fallen in when the floor had given in beneath their feet. Barret is slumped on the ground, leg splayed at an awkward angle. Yuffie tugs frantically at his arm with all her strength as one of the shadowed beasts lurks above, crouching in preparation to lunge.

Cloud grabs both Barret and Yuffie by the wrist, pulling them out of the way before one of them finds themselves a limb short, courtesy of the snarling, drooling monster that lands in front of them. Now that Genesis’s liberal use of fire has considerably brightened the area, it’s much easier to make out its features.

Cloud doesn’t know if that’s a curse or a blessing.

It’s a grotesque amalgamation of limbs, vaguely canine-shaped, with a maw full of jagged fangs and a pushed-in snout. A whiplike tentacle wriggles through the air like a prehensile tail, and its legs mark an uneven clicking rhythm on the floor as it stalks closer, a single talon-like limb scraping against the floor as the three others pad silently. With each movement, slick black liquid oozes from its body and splatters onto the ground.

When it lurches forward again, Cloud swings.

“Ow,” Yuffie says belatedly from behind him. “My head…”

“Yuffie,” Cloud says, dropping to his knee by the pair. “How’s Barret?”

“Broke mah leg,” the man in question grunts, struggling to sit up. “Shit. What the hell’s goin’ on, Spikey?”

“Yeah, Cloudster,” Yuffie says, and Cloud winces at the very old moniker. “What the fuck? Am I… sixteen again? Oh my gods, I’ve missed this body! Take that, arthritis and cataracts! Yuffie’s back, baby!” She whoops and leaps to her feet, twirling with her arms wrapped around herself.

Barret just groans and stares down at his right arm. “Havin’ an arm again… s’fuckin’ weird.”

“Ah,” Cloud says.

“Cloud!” Aerith waves from above as she picks her way over to their hole in the floor. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you!”

A shadow surges up from beneath the debris with a yowl, but before Cloud can call a warning, Aerith cracks her staff over its head and it rolls away, yelping.

Cloud’s jaw drops.

Aerith smiles and winks. “I made my prop extra sturdy on purpose. Now, how can I help?”

-

After placating Barret and Yuffie with promises to explain everything later, Yuffie, when we aren’t overrun with monsters, for gods’ sake, Cloud dismisses himself to go look for more survivors among the by now very destroyed theater while Aerith treats Barret’s leg.

When he passes by a microphone stand to stage left, miraculously still standing, he pauses and looks down at his very battered camera tripod.

Screw it, he thinks, and takes it.

By now the majority of the shadow monsters have been dealt with, but having a second, longer “sword” of sorts does wonders for Cloud’s efficiency. He covers the distance from the front of the theater to the back in half the time it’d taken him to reach Barret and Yuffie, but finds only corpses littering the ground. He pauses and closes his eyes, sending a brief prayer for their souls in the Lifestream, when he hears faint cursing to his right.

“—stay still, I’m going to try levering its weight off of you,” a much calmer voice says as Cloud edges closer.

“Stay fuckin’ still my ass, it ain’t like I’m goin’ anywhere like this! Ow, motherfuckin’ shit, be careful!”

“I told you to stay still…”

“Need some help?” Cloud asks Reeve as he tries to fit what Cloud thinks might have been part of the flooring once under the heavy mass of metal and wiring collapsed over Cid’s right leg.

“Oh!” Reeve jumps and puts a hand over his chest. “You startled me, Cloud.”

“Sorry.” Cloud crouches and inspects the mess. “I don’t think you’re gonna get enough leverage with this.”

Reeve sighs. “I know, but at this point, we’re running out of options. Those creatures will be back any minute.”

Cloud hums. “Not quite. Stand back.”

Reeve steps back, watching Cloud curiously as he sets down his makeshift set of weapons. Cloud takes a moment to stare down at his hands, hopes for the best, then reaches under the metal and heaves. It’s actually a bit easier than he’d expected. Thank Gaia—he hadn’t been totally sure that it would have worked, with his slightly-scrawnier body.

Behind him, Reeve makes a tiny choking noise.

Cid rolls out from underneath. “Fuckin’ shit, Strife, where the hell’d you pick that up? You sure didn’t pull anythin’ like that off in my shop!”

Cloud puts the metal down and shrugs. “Your leg okay?”

Cid grimaces. “Goddamn sore as all hell, but it’ll be fine.”

“If it bothers you too much, go find Aerith,” Cloud says. “She’s in the pit right now. Barret’s got a broken leg.”

Reeve studies him. “You’re awfully calm.”

“Hell, I ain’t complaining,” Cid says, clapping a hand on Cloud’s shoulder in thanks. “I need a goddamn smoke.”

“Cid, not around the students—”

“Shit,” Cid says emphatically, jerking his hand away and raising it up to his forehead. “I really do need a goddamn smoke. The fuck’s goin’ on, Cloud?”

Cloud groans. Though if there ever was a time for everyone to remember, then this would be it, he supposes. “Just—go talk to Aerith. She’ll explain.”

Cid looks at him for a moment, then nods. “Don’t be a numbskull and go off and die without the rest of us, Cloud.”

The corners of Cloud’s mouth tilt up. “I would never.”

Cid scoffs. “Doubt it. You’re a fuckin’ natural. Now move your ass, Tuesti. We got a flower girl to harass.”

“I—what? All right?” Reeve glances a few times over his shoulder back at Cloud as Cid drags him off, clearly still confused.

Cloud watches them leave, feeling fond. A skittering noise from behind him prompts him to sigh and turn around, but before he can do anything, someone cries, “Cloud!” and pushes him out of the way.

“Sephiroth!” Cloud says in turn, surprised at the sight of his boyfriend fiercely clutching a long metal pipe, clothes and face stained with sticky black fluid.

Sephiroth quickly takes care of the monster with a few skilled swings, then drops his pipe in favor of clutching Cloud’s equally dirty face in his hands. “Are you all right?”

Cloud nods. “I’m fine.” Sephiroth scans Cloud’s face, as if trying to make sure, and Cloud brushes a gentle hand against Sephiroth’s cheek, glad for his presence. Even in this disaster, at least Sephiroth is here, Cloud thinks. “Really. Thank you.” He pauses. “Where’d you come out from, anyways?”

“I followed your evacuation orders,” Sephiroth says. “We got outside before anything happened, but you weren’t there. I was so worried—I had to go back and make sure you were safe. Outside and in here… they’re like two different worlds.”

Cloud shuts his eyes and heaves a relieved breath. “That’s good. That means that the people who made it outside are safe. But…” He frowns up at Sephiroth. “You came back in? That’s dangerous.”

“And you staying here isn’t?” Sephiroth challenges. “Cloud, why didn’t you leave? When I saw all those bodies… I feared the worst.”

“You didn’t find any survivors?”

“No. Cloud, don’t avoid the question.”

Cloud’s mouth presses into a firm line and he draws back. “We should get back to the others, then. It sounds like they’ve cleaned everything up.” He walks over to where he abandoned his tripod and mic stand and picks them back up, hefting their weight in one hand.

“I just want to keep you safe,” Sephiroth says. “Please…”

“I know,” Cloud says, sad and soft, facing away so Sephiroth can’t see his expression. “But you don’t need to worry about me, okay? Let’s go.”

-

Everyone gathers on the stage, carefully avoiding the gaping holes in the floor. They’re all grimy and bloodstained to at least some degree, splattered with monster gore. Cloud takes one look at their gloomy faces and asks, “What happened?”

“Cloud,” Aerith says quietly, “look at this.” She gently grasps Zack’s arm and turns it over, displaying it to everyone. At first, Cloud thinks the dark splotch is simply monster fluid, but then he realizes it blooms like a bruise, from within. “Genesis and Angeal both have it too, from where the black liquid touched their skin.”

Cloud breathes in sharply. “Anyone else?”

Aerith shakes her head. “Just them. Just people who…”

People who’d been in SOLDIER. Who’d been exposed to JENOVA. Who’d had their very genetic makeup toyed with.

Your souls remember, Aerith had said. Your bodies just needed a little bit of prompting.

Of course that would be true for this, as well.

Cloud hastily rubs at his arms, smearing away the thick, oily liquid just enough to see the darkness blooming under his own skin. Cloud huffs a weak, ironic laugh at the painfully familiar sight, feeling tears prick at the corners of his eyes. He’d thought he’d escaped this. “So that’s how it is.”

“Check Sephiroth,” Yuffie says suddenly, prompting everyone’s gaze to fall on the teen standing just behind Cloud’s shoulder, watching everything with sharp green eyes.

Aerith approaches, carrying a gray-stained rag. “May I?” she asks.

Slowly, Sephiroth nods and offers his arm, bewilderment carefully hidden on his face.

“Thank you,” Aerith says, and wipes away the fluid splattered across his arm, revealing the pale flesh beneath.

Clean.

“What’s that mean?” Barret asks. “It’s a good thing, ain’t it? It means he don’t got… you know.”

“Or it means he’s in cahoots with that damn bitch,” Cid spits. “She wouldn’t hurt her precious—”

“Cid,” Cloud says sharply. Cid snaps his mouth shut with a furious scowl.

“Well, what do we do now?” Zack asks to no one in particular.

Cloud looks at the sea of familiar faces, all looking up at him questioningly, and pushes aside his own doubts and worries. He straightens his shoulders as he steps into his old role like a set of worn, well-fitting clothes. “We’ll split into two groups,” he decides. “I want to check out the cave, see what caused this. Vincent, you’ll take us there. Aerith, we’ll need your insight. Zack, Tifa I couldn’t keep you guys from coming if I tried.”

Zack laughs and salutes. “You got that right!”

“Genesis, Reeve, Cid, you guys are our only adults. You’re the only people the city officials might listen to. The news’ll be out within the day; they’re not used to this sort of monster attack and they won’t know how to deal with it. Keep them from panicking. Make sure there are protocols in place for when there’s another attack. Angeal, Barret, you guys’ll help. You’re familiar with this kind of planning. You too, Yuffie—you’re experienced with politics. Is everyone clear with their roles?”

There’s a chorus of affirmatives, and everyone quickly splits into their groups to plan. However, Sephiroth pulls Cloud aside before he can join his.

“Cloud,” he says. He looks uncertain. Hesitant. “What would you like me to do?”

Cloud looks up at him. To be honest, he’s already decided where Sephiroth will go—there’s no way Cloud is letting him out of his sight, not with everything that’s happened. He just hadn’t wanted to bring it up with everyone else, not with them all watching Sephiroth as if he were a mako-crazed dragon. The debate it’d spark wouldn’t be worth their time. “You’ll be coming with my group. Is that all right with—”

One of the bodies on the ground suddenly spasms once, twice, then rises in jerking, stilted motions, oily black fluid dripping from its eyes, its nose, its mouth. Its skin bubbles and shifts and deforms before their very eyes as it stretches a mangled arm out, bits of its shirt sleeve still hanging off of it. Mouth gaping, it wheezes, "Sephi… roth. My s- on… re… u… nion…"

Sephiroth freezes.

"Get back!" Cloud herds Sephiroth back, bashing in the creature's head with the microphone stand. No longer human. Oh gods, it's no longer human… "Sephiroth," he says urgently, gripping the still-stunned man's hand. "Sephiroth, are you okay?"

Cloud had never noticed how different this Sephiroth had been from the old Sephiroth, too caught up agonizing over their similarities. But as acid-green eyes turn to look down at him, slowly, oh so slowly, their pupils contracted to tiny slits, the new alien cast to Sephiroth's features has never been more obvious.

"Cloud," Sephiroth says, somewhere between a purr and a growl, sending a shiver running up Cloud's spine for all the best and worst reasons. A terrifyingly familiar smirk twists its way across Sephiroth's face, and the last pieces of Cloud's happiness, as bright and shining it had been mere hours before, shatters into tiny shards around his feet.