Actions

Work Header

Welcome to the Circus

Chapter Text

Cloud wakes up with a start.

Normally, this is not a cause for alarm. However, given that he doesn’t recognize the mattress springs jabbing into his back and the vaguely rabbit-shaped stain just above his head on the off-white popcorn ceiling, he thinks he has a reason to be wary.

With a faint groan, he rolls out of bed and staggers through a door he thinks might lead to the bathroom. Luckily, his suspicions are correct. There's a shower and a toilet and a small sink with a cracked mirror directly over it. Whoever dressed him gave him a pair of soft blue sweatpants but no shirt, so it’s easy to catalogue his physical wellbeing—no bandages, no dried blood, no new scars, just the same tired, pale face he's used to seeing in the mirror, although if he had to, he might say he looks almost… younger?

But that’s not right. He may not age, but he also doesn’t age backwards. He’s been stuck somewhere around twenty-ish for the past… the past…

Well, shit.

-

There doesn’t seem to be anyone home, so after pulling on a black shirt with faded, illegible lettering on the front, left—presumably for him—at the foot of the bed, Cloud paces back and forth across what is probably the living room. There’s a brown faux-leather couch sitting across from a boxy television set, its seats lumpy and well-loved. Scattered across a low-sitting coffee table are a messy pile of letters, a few thick textbooks, and an empty mug, a thin ring of coffee drying on its bottom. The room opens directly to a cramped kitchenette, to the left of which stands the front door.

Cloud is no stranger to memory loss; he’s carefully gone over what he seems to remember and what appears to be gaps. He remembers many things: Denzel’s eighteenth birthday party, running into Marlene and her not-so-secret boyfriend in the market and Barret’s consequent freak-out, butting heads with Genesis after the redheaded ex-SOLDIER had crawled out from the ruins of Midgar like a particularly poetic cockroach. His friends’ eventual passing. Meeting with Vincent and Genesis yearly. And much, much later, a string of natural disasters that had buried the last remnants of Midgar under a newly-formed sea. The only thing he knows he doesn’t remember for sure is how he got here, and how long ago these events were. He wouldn’t even be able to say what the most recent thing he remembers is.

Which means he’s probably forgetting a lot. Okay. I can deal with this. Probably.

His head jerks up when he hears a door slam open. Moments later, a dead man bounds into the room.

“I—whoa, Cloud, you’re awake! How ya feelin’, buddy?”

Cloud’s mouth falls open. “Z-Zack?!”

Said dead man crowds closer, holding a hand up to Cloud’s forehead. “Your mom called to ask me to come over and look after you while she was at work, but I didn’t think you’d wake up in the fifteen minutes it took for me to get here from my house! Talk about lucky!”

“My mom? Zack, am I…” Cloud works his mouth, throat dry. “Am I dead?”

“Uh, no? You were out cold for the whole night and then some after you were brained by a falling ladder during rehearsal yesterday, though. We had to ship you home and run through the rest without you—Rhapsodos is still pissed about that, by the way. So, how’s your head?”

“It’s perfectly fine, Zack, you know that,” Cloud says. The mako would have taken care of a mere head bump within minutes. “Wait, a ladder? Rehearsal for what? Rhapsodos?

Zack gives him a strange look. “Yeah, the old metal ladder Highwind’s been bitching about replacing since basically forever. Probably before we even started at Midgar High, to be honest. And rehearsal for the musical, remember? Directed by Mr. Genesis Rhapsodos, ‘drama queen first, drama teach second’? Ring any bells?”

Cloud shakes his head blankly. Has he fallen into some sort of alternate universe? Since when does he participate in musicals?

“Dude, that ladder really messed with your head, didn’t it?” Zack runs a hand through his hair. “Guess I’ll have to tell Rhapsodos you won’t be there for today’s rehearsal either. He’ll be even more pissed that you’ll have more to catch up on. Really, I already told him it’s not good for you to do anything right after getting seriously injured, but you know how he is…”

“There’s… rehearsal today?” Cloud asks tentatively. “Does that mean I can speak to Ge—uh, Mr. Rhapsodos?”

“Hm…” Zack rubs his chin. “Yeah, I think that’d be a good idea. He really does have a lot of set stuff he wants to go over with you, and any more delay’ll just make him bitchier with the rest of us. As long as you go back home right away and rest!” He wags his finger mock-threateningly.

Cloud bobs his head and hopes he does a decent enough job pretending he knows what this strange version of Zack is talking about. If anyone can tell Cloud what’s going on, it’ll be also-possibly-immortal Goddess-appointed “Guardian of Gaia” Genesis Rhapsodos.

Hopefully.

-

They enter the theater from the double-doors on the side. Everyone looks very busy and important, moving things and propping things up and fiddling with electronics. Part of the curtain collapses with a tired whump, spurring a round of muffled cursing. There’s about a dozen or so musicians lounging around in the pit, some tuning or practicing, others… not so much. Cloud thinks he sees a dark-haired girl blowing into her flute from the circular end rather than the correct part of the mouthpiece. Genesis, his bright auburn hair a flag in the chaos swirling around him, is dramatically waving his hands while speaking to a pair of weary-looking teenagers, their outfits a strange mix between the ragged, gray style that had been common in the post-Meteorfall era and odd, bright-colored clothing unlike Cloud’s ever seen before, despite all his years alive.

“Ah, looks like he’s busy,” Zack says. “That’s okay, they’re still setting up. I can sit here and wait with you for a while before they need me.”

A dark, bulky teen passes by, carrying a heavy, oddly-shaped piece of wood over his shoulder. He grins. “Yo, Cloud! Good to see ya doin’ better! That ladder got you real good, eh?”

Cloud blinks. A teenage version of… “Barret?”

“Well, I gotta go—plenty o’ things to do! Teach wants everything set up in ten. To be honest, though,” he says, leaning in close, “things are kinda fallin’ apart without ya here. Hope ya get back in on things soon, ‘cause hell week ain’t the same without ya bitchin’ and moanin’ over Rhapsodos’s anal tendencies with the rest o’ us!”

“Wallace!” Genesis’s familiar voice barks over the din of chattering voices and instrument noise. “Get back to work! And you, Strife, get over here!”

Cloud twitches. Genesis hasn’t called him by his last name in… in…

Well. In a long time. Probably.

Zack trails behind him as he makes his way towards Genesis. “Hey, Mr. Rhapsodos, you shouldn’t be too hard on Cloudy here. You know it wasn’t his fault.”

Genesis sniffs dismissively as he turns to face them. “You can tell me how hard I can or can’t be on my students when you’ve successfully run over a dozen high school productions, Fair—” He cuts himself off, staring.

Cloud feels his mouth press into a disappointed line. With his luck, Genesis probably doesn’t know anything either, like Zack—

“Cloud?” Genesis says, looking stunned. “Cloud Strife?”

Or maybe not. Cloud nods slowly, hope welling in his chest.

Zack looks back and forth between them. “Hey, since when did you call students by their first names—”

Genesis snatches Cloud’s arm before Zack can finish his sentence. “Come with me,” he says. “We need to talk.”

-

“All right, everyone out, I wanted you all ready to start five minutes ago!” Genesis bellows as he slams the door open, sending drama students scattering in all directions. “Tell Hewley I’m trusting him to direct things in my place for now!”

Cloud balks at the odd assortment of items left abandoned as everyone else files out in record time. Slung over the back of a chair is a pair of blue trousers made of a strange rough-textured fabric with a brown belt still left in the loops. There are several pairs of shoes clustered together next to the wall alongside a single lonely sock. On a table next to the whiteboard lies an open case of makeup, at least ten script packets in various states of distress, and a glittering gauzy fabric that droops sadly off the edge.

“ … Wow,” Cloud says. “You got… louder?”

Genesis gracefully pushes his bangs out of his face. “An entirely necessary evil, if I do say so myself. High schoolers are utterly incorrigible. You… less so, but I’m still quite glad you remember now. Here, sit.” He pulls out a gray plastic chair beside the table, then plops into another one himself. “I’m quite interested in hearing the story of how Gaia’s great Champion suddenly disappeared without a notice, Cloud. You can imagine my shock when you showed up in my very class, all tiny and wide-eyed.”

“That’s the problem,” Cloud says, sitting. “I can’t. Because I don’t remember. I woke up today and found out that apparently I go to high school. As someone over a thousand years old, I can testify that that was not fun.”

Genesis balks. “You don’t remember? How could you not remember?”

Cloud shrugs, staring down at his hands resting on the table.

“What is the last thing you remember, then?”

Cloud hums. “Probably… Nanaki having grandkids? Maybe. It’s all kinda fuzzy. I was hoping you’d be able to help.”

“Cloud,” Genesis says, “Nanaki’s grandchildren were born over two millennia ago. You disappeared about a thousand years after that.”

“Ah,” Cloud says. “Well shit.”

“As always, you have quite the way with words.”

“Thanks,” Cloud says. “So are you saying I… disappeared or died or something, and this is… what, reincarnation?”

Genesis shrugs. “That’s what I presume. You and many of the people we once knew have been appearing. It’s strange; you’ve all gathered in a single place, as if Gaia feels the need to call on your strength once again. I do believe it is quite the foreboding omen. We don’t even know what killed you, after all. It could not have been anything insignificant.”

“Sorry, can’t help you there.”

Genesis huffs a laugh. “I suppose it would have been too easy if a good bump on the head was all it took to get all of you to remember. I’ve been trying for the past four years, after all. To be frank, though, the way you don’t remember anything of your current life is not only unexpected, but… slightly alarming, if this method of remembering is to be shared by everyone else.”

“How so?”

“Well… Sephiroth is here, too.”

The table cracks underneath Cloud’s fingers.

-

“Are you absolutely certain about this?” Genesis asks, looking uncharacteristically nervous.

“I have to see him,” Cloud insists. “Now that I know he’s here… I know you said he’s not the same, but—”

Genesis sighs. “I understand. You won’t feel safe until you see for yourself. Very well, sit by me. We have much to discuss, regardless.”

Cloud stares as the plush red seat unfolds itself underneath Genesis as he sits down. He prods it gingerly with a finger, watching it swing back up as soon as he lets go. Genesis snorts. “Just sit down, you fool.”

Cloud sits, twitching when the seat wavers underneath him. Then pauses, shifting against its straight back. “These seats are less comfortable than they look.”

“Quite,” Genesis agrees. “Unfortunately, the large majority of high school theater seats are designed as such. But at least we don’t have to use bleachers.”

“ … Bleachers?”

“Never mind that.” Genesis settles comfortably back in his seat. “So as I said, I’ve been trying to trigger everyone’s memories as unobtrusively as possible. Who knows what kind of mental damage blatantly up and telling them would cause, after all—furthermore, I don’t much favor being imprisoned under allegations of delusions and insanity. No, this requires a much more subtle touch. Especially now that we’re unsure if they will retain memories of their new lives at all. This discretion must apply to you as well, mister bludgeon-problems-with-a-large-stick-until-they’re-dead."

Cloud shrugs. Honestly, the method hasn’t failed him yet, but Genesis’s glare just dares him to say anything contrary. Good thing he’s long mastered the art of keeping his mouth shut; otherwise his hair would have all been singed off long ago.

Genesis continues, “Of course, there is no precedent for anything like this. However, given that this is much too convenient to be anything other than the result of Gaia’s meddling, it was a reasonable enough conclusion that I should at least try to prompt some sort of world-saving instinct in you all. The result is this.” He makes a grand gesture with his arm.

“This…?” Cloud repeats.

“This musical,” Genesis says. “You’re aware that your tale of triumph over the One-Winged Angel and Meteor has long been a legend that transcends time, of course. What you may not be aware of is that shortly before your disappearance, a famous writer transformed this legend into an epic play of its own—wildly inaccurate, of course, but just as wildly popular. This year, you and your graduating class have the fortune of this being the musical for your senior year—and me its director. I may have… made a few modifications to the playwright’s original vision. For the better, of course. I doubt you would have appreciated some of its more… fanciful elements.”

“A musical,” Cloud says flatly. “Our fight against Sephiroth and Meteor, a fight for the literal survival of the Planet… was turned into a high school musical.”

“Indeed,” Genesis says, smirking like the smug bastard he is, “it was. And you’re its head theatrical technician.”

Cloud shakes his head. “Gods, what possessed me to do that?”

Genesis hums. “Your dear best friend Zackary Fair, from what I gathered of snippets of conversation. Conventional heroism as we used to know it isn’t quite as possible with modern society, so ever the optimistic, aspiring soul, he figured the next best thing to being a hero of old was playing those heroes of old. Of course, you wanted to support your best friend in any way possible. And it worked,” he says, giving Cloud a look. “The puppy is playing the lead role. Your role.”

“Is he?” Cloud smiles. It fits—Cloud’s involvement in the events of Meteorfall had long been replaced with the tale of someone brighter, more cheerful, optimistic and personable and a great leader. Just like Zack. He’d seen it as quite fitting at the time. And now, for once, Zack is finally getting the good things he deserves without Cloud ruining everything for him. Maybe this version of himself isn’t so bad after all. Even if he does participate in musicals. “That’s good…”

“No, Cloud, that is not good,” Genesis snaps. “Did you know that everyone we used to know is playing a part at least somewhat related to their original role in our past? Wallace, Miss Lockhart, the puppy’s flower girl, that idiotic thief Kisaragi—they are all in the musical’s equivalent of AVALANCHE. Every single one of them. Even Highwind, a teacher at this school, agreed to play the minor role of the pilot due to a lack of enough performers. That brat Rufus Shinra and all his irritating Turks are present and accounted for. And we actually managed to coax Sephiroth into playing the villain instead of the hero role that, as the department’s top senior performer, he should have gotten! And when I hand you, someone in the tech department, the very role Sephiroth himself was refused, what do you do? You give it up in some misplaced act of friendship! Do you know how many strings I had to pull to even get the other department heads to agree to even give you the chance to audition for the part?”

“ … Sorry?” Cloud says. “But it’s probably for the best. I wasn’t ever made out to be a hero. Not like Zack.”

“Are you talking about the past, or this play?”

Cloud shrugs. Both. Everything. It doesn’t matter.

Cloud Strife. Don’t you dare spout this self-sacrificial, self-deprecating nonsense! Are you questioning my judgment? Don’t forget all the people who chose to put their faith in you—”

“They didn’t choose, I was the only option—”

“Don’t be so full of yourself, do you really think there would have been no one else to turn to if you were truly inadequate—”

“All the actual SOLDIERs were dead, missing, or asleep, do you really think anyone would trust a failure if it wasn’t their last resort—”

“Hey guys!” a familiar voice says cheerfully. Both of them turn to stare at Yuffie standing in the aisle, who shudders under the piercing gaze of two sets of mako-bright eyes. “ Whoa that’s creepy. Anyways, I hate to break up this riveting argument, but you’re getting loud enough to interrupt the rehearsal.”

Genesis sniffs. “Now look at what you’ve gone and made me do, Cloud Strife. I’ve interrupted my own rehearsal. In all my years—”

Yuffie grins at Cloud. “He’ll be at it for a while. Wanna hang in the lighting booth with the crew and watch Zack and Seph hit each other with giant plastic sticks while the rest of the cast stands uselessly off to the side?”

“Don’t you dare walk away from this conversation, Cloud Strife—”

“ … Yeah, let’s go,” Cloud agrees.

“Cloud—!”

-

“Hey, Cloud!”

“Yo, boss!”

“ … Jessie? Wedge?”

“In the flesh!” Wedge grins and settles back in his chair. “Here to keep an eye on us lowly grunts? Or just here to watch the epic fight scene from the best seats in the house?”

“Oh, yeah, great view,” Jessie says sarcastically. “You see the way the top half of everything is cut off by the top of the window? My favorite part.”

Cloud peers through the narrow opening at the actors below. “So this is the last scene?”

Wedge snorts and presses several buttons on the complex console, plunging the stage into suitably dark and dramatic lighting as Zack and Sephiroth draw their very fake swords and engage in very fake battle. Somewhere from the pit, chimes echo ominously. “Oh, yeah. I can’t wait to see how Rhapsodos rips it apart this time.”

Jessie grins. “I asked Biggs to record his facial expressions from backstage. It’s gonna be gold. Poor Zack, though…”

Cloud hazards a guess. “No matter what he does, it doesn’t seem to satisfy Rhapsodos’s standards…?”

“He’s an intense son of a bitch with sky-high expectations, that’s for sure,” Wedge agrees. “Honestly, no one’s really sure what he even wants. Apparently, those last few lines are ones he added on his own—that’s why Zack’s having so much trouble. There aren’t any examples to study. And it seems so out of the blue, too, with everything that happens—why would the hero ever sympathize with the villain after all he’s done?” He begins counting off on his fingers. “Burning down his hometown, killing his mother, killing his best friend, killing his girlfriend, killing—”

“Hm,” Cloud says, simply for the sake of interrupting the laundry list of Bad Shit Sephiroth Has Done. He’s already quite familiar with exactly how much killing it contains, after all. For Genesis to change a play’s message so drastically is rather out of character for him, but he'd probably argue that it counts as changing it back to be more accurate to the truth, anyways.

“Is that what you were arguing over, by the way?” Jessie asks. “You’ve seemed pretty frustrated with how hard Rhapsodos has been on Zack lately. We also caught a few words… not on purpose, you guys were speaking pretty loudly,” she adds hastily.

Wedge nods. “We were all pretty surprised when you were offered the role of hero, too, you know, so no one really thought twice about you turning it down. Probably avoided a ton of bitching from the drama kids that way, too, since Zack would really be everyone’s first choice for any sort of hero part anyways. But looking at the way Rhapsodos is picking Zack apart… it seems like Rhapsodos’s interpretation of the Champion is someone much more introspective and conflicted. Kind of strange. Really breaks the mold of the traditional Champion most Meteorfall specialists believe in.”

They fall silent, watching as Zack lands a heavy “finishing blow”.

“Stay put in my memories—where you belong!”  Zack says it fiercely, angrily, resentfully. The perfect image of someone whose life was utterly destroyed by the hands of an incorrigible villain. Cloud mouths the lines alongside him, but solemnly, desperately, regretfully, his own words from millennia past as familiar to him as the back of his own hand.

Sephiroth, as always, smirks, perfect and beautiful and dangerous. “I will never… be a memory."  With a flourish, he unleashes a flurry of black feathers and slides through the curtains, vanishing backstage. Wedge flips a switch and the stage brightens, mirroring the parting of clouds.

“Oh, here it comes!” Jessie says. “Just listen to these lines, how stiff they are. Zack doesn’t believe what he’s saying—it doesn’t fit the character at all.”

“How can someone’s quest for love end up so misguided? Maybe if he’d… well. I hope he’s happy now, wherever he is in the Lifestream…. I wish… things didn’t have to end up this way.”

“It doesn’t fit the character he’s made, that’s why,” Wedge says. “I’ve read through the script on my own. Zack’s energy really changes the effect of some of the lines. That’s what makes him such a great actor, but for some reason Rhapsodos isn’t letting Zack’s interpretation slide at all, even at the cost of compromising the performance. It’s unusual for him, but he does have some pretty strong feelings about the legend of Meteorfall, I guess.” He turns to Cloud. “That’s where you should come in. It’s obviously too late to switch back, but maybe give Zack some pointers on how you might approach his role. It might help. Rhapsodos was pretty adamant you’d fit pretty damn perfectly as his hero, after all.”

“Trust him, he’s a lit nerd,” Jessie says.

“Aw, shuddup!”

But Cloud just stares at the stage. “That was—” He swallows. “I was drunk.”

“Oi, Cloud, you good, bro?”

“You drink?

“I gotta go talk to Genesis,” he mumbles, and staggers out of the tiny, cramped room.

-

Genesis, it turns out, is waiting for him right where he left him, arms crossed. “Well? Do you understand why, now?”

“I was angry, though,” Cloud says softly. “For the longest time. It took me centuries to stop hating him.”

Genesis shakes his head. “Even then, you were never quite so… bold with it. Was it really Sephiroth you hated, or was it ShinRa and JENOVA and Hojo? Was it ever true, encompassing hate, or was it regret and sorrow and—utterly misplaced, by the way—guilt? Guilt for failing to save your role model, guilt for killing him, guilt for not being able to resent the man who destroyed the lives of millions like how you believed a ‘true hero’ ought to?”

“I was drunk,” Cloud protests. “You can’t use what I said when I was drunk against me.”

“Quite the contrary,” Genesis says. “I find that people are often the most truthful when they are intoxicated. And what you said that night… it really prompted me to reevaluate my own perception of a hero. Now, I know you base quite a bit of your ideal of a hero on Zack, Cloud. But let me educate you on the kind of hero Zackary Fair makes.”

Cloud’s gaze shoots up to meet Genesis’s. “Don’t you dare—”

“Relax. I mean no ill. Zack is a kind, virtuous, brave, honorable, well-meaning, and optimistic individual who draws the best out of everyone he interacts with.” He pauses and shudders. “Never make me say so many pure compliments at once ever again, Cloud Strife. It will ruin my reputation if I start handing them out willy-nilly without some sort of concealed barb.

“Regardless. Zack is what we would call a paragon in literature. Perfect. Naturally talented. Uncompromising in his ideals. They have a very strict morality—and in this rigid goodness is where you find their fatal flaw. People like him see things in utter black and white, Cloud.

“For Zack, his friend and idol First Class Sephiroth died the moment he turned his blade on those Zack deemed innocents. He would have regretted not being able to prevent his fall, yes. He would have regretted not stopping him sooner. And if Sephiroth had turned right around and said it hadn’t been him, he’d been controlled, he was sorry for everything he’d done—Zack would have welcomed him with open arms. But he never would have been able to accept the Sephiroth who, albeit under JENOVA’s influence, had chosen to take those actions, had truly hated humanity and the Planet and everything and wanted to see it burn. He never would have been able to forgive him, much less wish him happiness.

“As such, he could never convey your struggle, your conflict, or self-doubt throughout your journey—unlike him, you could understand why Sephiroth fell, and that scared you, because you recognized yourself in him. You almost became him. But you took your weakness, your vulnerability, and turned it into strength. Zack doesn’t have the same iron spine of sheer willpower you forged for yourself under the fire of the most harrowing of troubles. He is bright, and kind, and selfless, even to those who don’t deserve it, yes. But for all his hardships, he’s still fortunate. He’s never faced public resentment. He’s never been scorned for the way he looks or the way he acts or his personal background. He’s never had to struggle in futility against a world that seems exclusively out to get him. He’s too perfect to have flaws to overcome.

“When you wished Sephiroth of all people happiness, it inspired me, Cloud. You know I haven’t… been the most honorable in the past. But you gave me hope for forgiveness— true forgiveness from someone who honestly understood the scale of my actions, not a mere platitude handed out from a saint atop his high horse. Moral ambiguity brings literature to life, Cloud. Without someone like you, this musical won’t feel relatable. It won’t feel real. And that’s what we need to wake everyone up.”

“You…” Cloud sighs, running a hand through his hair. “This is unlike you. Being so…”

“Open? Vulnerable?” Genesis says dryly. “I think… when you vanished, I realized that other than Vincent and I, no one remembered Gaia’s Champion anymore—not as you. I was too late once already. With this second chance… I refuse to allow you to be erased from history again, Cloud Strife." He adds quickly, “But don’t get used to it.”

“Believe me, I won’t,” Cloud says. “But… thanks.”

“No need to thank me. After all, I’m not letting you take the easy way out this time.”

-

After rehearsal is over, Zack walks Cloud back to his apartment, citing his general health and safety as a concern. It would be annoying, except Cloud isn’t sure he remembers how to get there himself, so he decides it’s probably fortunate instead. Also it’s Zack, and Cloud isn’t sure he would ever have the heart to say no to Zack .

The moment they step inside, though, Zack turns on him and demands, “Okay, spill.”

Cloud blinks, bewildered. “Spill… uh, what exactly?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Zack says. “You’ve been acting weird all day, and not just because of the bump on your head. And Rhapsodos didn’t look over at the rehearsal once . I know you’ve had beef with him ever since our first full rehearsal, and it’s real sweet of you to be offended on my behalf, but we both knew the risks when you gave me your part.”

“ … We did?”

“Okay, I did and I hoped you had at least enough self-esteem to realize them yourself. Probably wasn’t my best judgment,” Zack admits. “But… I’ve realized now, that’s not it, is it? But it’s still got to do with Mr. Rhapsodos.”

Cloud feels like all he’s done since waking up in this strange time and place is ask questions. Everything has been going way over his head. “What?”

“Cloud,” Zack says, very seriously, “what did he want to talk about with you?”

“Nothing… much.”

“I can tell when you’re lying, Cloud. Your eyes get all shifty.” When Cloud bites his lip and doesn’t answer, Zack says, “C’mon, man, you don’t have to hide anything from your best buddy. I know it’s been really bothering you, and I just wanna help. You don’t need to deal with everything alone. We’re friends, right?”

(“We’re friends… right?”)

The mirror of a time long past has Cloud flinching, hard, and he nearly folds right then and there.

“Cloud,” Zack pleads again. “Please. I’m worried. You’re acting strange, all jumpy and nervous, and you don’t seem to know things you should. I thought it was just your head at first, but your eyes are glowing and you move different. I’d say you look older but that’s not possible, and—”

Zack’s visible anguish is too much for Cloud to take. Sorry, Genesis, he apologizes in advance, and takes the plunge.

“Zack,” Cloud says, “do you believe in reincarnation?”

Chapter Text

Cloud has never been good with speaking; this hasn’t changed in the past millennia. With each fumbled word that drops like a stone from his lips, heavy and misshapen, Zack’s uncharacteristic frown grows deeper and deeper.

You’re losing him. Genesis was right. He doesn’t believe you.

“So, let me get this straight,” Zack says. “When you woke up after hitting your head, you had memories of your past life, but not this life. And you were talking to Mr. Rhapsodos because he knew you from your past life.”

“Yes,” Cloud confirms.

“How’d you know me and everyone else, then?” He cocks his head. “No, wait—how old is that dude anyways?!”

“I know you all from before,” Cloud says. “Well, a version of you, at least. And Genesis is, uh… pretty old. I guess you could call him immortal.”

Zack whistles. “Wow. Who were you in your past life to know some hotshot like that?”

Cloud shrugs dismissively, then peers up at Zack. “Do you… really believe me? Reincarnation and immortal people and everything?”

“I… guess so? I mean, I believe you believe what you’re saying,” Zack says. “Like I said, I’m pretty good at being able to tell when you’re lying, Cloudy. There really isn’t any other way to explain your physical changes. Plus it’s been proven that the Lifestream exists and stuff. Magic, too, even if it doesn’t work anymore. And you’re my best friend, after all. Isn’t that enough?” Zack grins at Cloud.

Cloud smiles back. “Thanks, Zack.”

“I just don’t really get the memory thing—aren’t people supposed to be just energy in the Lifestream? How would you be able to remember anything?”

“Well, we’re trying to figure that out. Generally people’s souls do retain consciousness for a bit after they die, but eventually everyone becomes one with the Lifestream. There are no cases of people remembering their past lives. There isn’t even any proof that people’s souls aren’t, I dunno, ripped to tiny bits and sewn back together with other people’s bits to make a whole different soul before being spat back out.”

“Whoa,” Zack says, wrinkling his nose. “That’s kinda… gross.”

“That was just a hypothetical. It doesn’t actually happen,” Cloud reassures. “ … Probably.”

“Probably?!”

“I mean, we’re all here, just the same as before, so… yeah. Probably.”

Zack laughs. “You’re being a bit too go-with-the-flow about this, man.”

“I’ve given up on trying to assume control of my own life a long time ago,” Cloud tells him, very seriously.

Zack only laughs again, which means he’s probably not taking it as seriously as Cloud is, but before Cloud can say anything else, a ringtone goes off.

Zack looks at him expectantly. When Cloud only looks blankly back, he says in realization, “Oh! Right, that’s your cell phone.”

Cloud stares at the slim black rectangle lying on the kitchen table, the screen lit up and buzzing.

“You should answer it,” Zack prompts.

“ … How?”

“Tap the green button.” Zack looks very amused.

Cloud answers. “Strife speaking,” he says automatically, a habit ingrained from years of running his own delivery service.

“Cloud, you really do need to work on a more personable method of greeting,” a familiar voice sighs over the line. “You’ll scare people away like this.”

“Genesis,” Cloud says. “ … How did you get my number?”

“Being a teacher does come with a few perks now and then.”

Zack balks. “Rhapsodos is calling you? What for?” He pauses, then adds, “He stalked you? Oi, immortal teacher or not, no one’s allowed to—”

Cloud shushes him hastily, but it’s too late. Genesis’s sensitive hearing picks up his voice right away. “Is that… Fair? What is he doing with you, Cloud?”

“He’s my best friend.”

“Aw, thanks, Cloudy, I love you too.”

“You told him, didn’t you.” Genesis sounds very unamused.

“ … He’s my best friend,” Cloud repeats.

Genesis sighs dramatically. “I do suppose asking you to avoid suspicion from your best friend of all people is a bit too much, considering how atrocious a liar you are.”

“And here you wanted me to act the main role in your musical,” Cloud says wryly.

“Are you insinuating that the fine art of theater is in any way related to something as scandalous as—”

“What did you call for?” Cloud interrupts.

“We haven’t finished discussing several important matters,” Genesis says. “Sephiroth, for one. Have you reached a decision? If you truly decide he isn’t worth keeping alive…”

Cloud sighs and rubs his temples. Watching the great General Sephiroth stub his toe on the stairs leading up to the stage and utter a vicious curse under his breath during rehearsal had been… very enlightening. “He’s just a regular teenager. Gaia brought him back; she must have had some reason. And if he never remembers anything… believe me, I’d be the first to wash my hands of this whole mess. After throwing a party, that is.”

“Who?” Zack says.

“Very well. Now, you’ve already gone and spilled everything to Fair, but do at least try not to tell your other friends; it would bode terribly for the musical if over half the cast forgot their parts. As for Sephiroth, you absolutely cannot tell him anything—you know why. However, I presume it will be much easier to keep secrets from your archnemesis.”

“I’m guessing we don’t talk at all, him and this other me,” Cloud says.

“Who?” Zack repeats. Cloud shushes him again.

“I believe so. You may have to consult Fair on the majority of your social life, however—I am not intimately familiar with it. So… I suppose you telling him isn’t the absolute worst thing that’s happened. And with this, we can monitor how your friends may react to the truth…”

“Thank you for telling me I didn’t screw up as much as I could have.”

“You’re very welcome,” Genesis says smoothly. “Now, on to other matters. I’m sure you’ve heard many people refer to this week as ‘hell week’ earlier today. This is because it is the final week to prepare before our musical’s proper showing. Wednesday—not this coming Wednesday, but the next—is our dress rehearsal. Then we’ll be performing Thursday through Saturday. You have eleven days to learn the entire show, Cloud.”

“Wait, what—”

“Oh, and do something about Fair’s atrocious performance, will you? That will be all for now.” He hangs up.

Cloud is left staring at the receiver in his hands as the dial tone drones.

“Just peachy, ain’t he?” Zack says cheerily. “Say, was he always like this?”

“Yes,” Cloud says. “Yes, he was.”

-

Zack leaves right as Cloud’s mother (his mother!) comes home, tossing a cheery, “Don’t forget to finish that lit assignment! Call me if you have any questions!” over his shoulder.

Thank you, Zack, Cloud thinks. Very helpful.

Cloud’s mother, a petite blonde woman with well-worn laugh lines about her mouth and eyes, tsks under her breath as she tugs Cloud’s head this way and that, trying to examine the nonexistent lump on the back of his skull. “That silly drama teacher, forcing you to go to practice when you’re hurt…. Oh, but I’m glad you’re feeling better, liebling. I was very worried.”

“He didn’t force me,” Cloud says awkwardly, overwhelmed by the strange foreign-familiarity of his mother’s lightly accented voice and warm, slender hands. He’d forgotten that his mother used to call him liebling—“little love” in the long-forgotten Nibel dialect, lost even before the town had burnt to the ground. “And I wasn’t hurt that bad.”

She pats his cheek, half-fond, half-scolding. “You were unconscious for an entire day. A mother is allowed to worry, you know. Now, what do you want to eat for dinner?”

Cloud frowns, scanning his mother’s face. Her exhaustion is carefully hidden, but not well enough. “You’ve been working the whole day. I can cook.”

“No, no,” she says. “You’re not allowed to do anything else strenuous today. I want you in bed and resting.” Jokingly, she adds, “Since when do you ever offer to cook?”

Cloud pauses. Does this version of him even know how to cook? He does, of course, but…

His mother takes his hesitation as a protest. “How about this,” she says. “I was planning on keeping you home all of tomorrow, too, but if you go relax for the rest of the day, tomorrow, you can still go to work.”

“ … What?”

“Now, liebling, this is for your own good,” she says, ushering him down the hall. “To your room you go. That’s right, I’m grounding you.”

Cloud ends up staring at the room he woke up in mere hours ago, his mother shutting the door gently behind her. So apparently he has work tomorrow.

He slides his strange new cell phone out of his back pocket and, after a few minutes of fiddling around with the touchscreen, pulls up his contacts and dials Zack’s number.

“Zack,” he says before Zack can say anything. “Where do I work?”

-

On Sunday, Zack picks Cloud up from his apartment at one o’clock pm, after Cloud finishes bullshitting through his paper that is on, ironically, the legend of the One-Winged Angel and Meteorfall.

“Thank the gods you have enough sense to let Zack drive you to work,” Cloud’s mother says, fussing with the collar of his shirt. “Odin forbid you walk all the way there.”

“Okay, okay—Ma, I’m going to be late,” Cloud says exasperatedly, but he doesn’t have the heart to bat her hands away. His mother —it’s still a mind-boggling concept, to him.

“Ready to go, Cloudy?” Zack says, laughing, when Cloud finally piles into his car.

“Stop that,” Cloud says, not very firmly. He doesn’t quite have the heart to scold Zack, either.

“Yessir,” Zack says, mock-saluting with one hand as he pulls out of the parking space. “In all seriousness, though, ya sure about this? I’m sure ol’ Cid and Ms. Shera would be glad to give you the day off.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think I’d want the day off,” Cloud says, thinking of his mother’s work-worn hands and tired smile, the way she’d struck a deal with him over doing chores, of all things. The way everything in their tiny apartment seems to be fraying about the edges. “Zack… what do I use the money for?”

Zack hesitates. “Well… you tell your ma you’re saving for college. She hasn’t said anything, but I’m pretty sure she knows you sneak most of it into her purse. And that you haven’t applied to any colleges this year.”

Cloud nods. He’d thought so. “ … Wait, doesn’t Cid teach at school? How do I work for him?”

“Well, he also runs a mechanic shop on the side. Fixin’ bikes and cars and such. You work for that side of the business on Mondays through Thursdays after school. Saturdays are your day off, because we usually do drama stuff the whole day. On Fridays and Sundays, though, you work at Ms. Shera’s tea shop. She’s his wife, by the way.”

Cloud snorts. “Shera runs a tea shop? Cid must love it.”

Zack grins. “Totally. I don’t know them as well as you do, but you always said—” His smile falters. “Ah, you, that version of you, uh… well, you always said that was the main reason he married her. The first day he walked into her shop, he fell in love, because she made the ‘best goddamn tea he’d ever tasted’. His words, not yours.”

Cloud smiles, nostalgic. “Sounds like Cid, all right.”

Zack gives him a strange look, but simply pulls the car to a halt and unlocks the door. “We’re here. If you ever feel overwhelmed, just give me a call and I’ll come pick ya right up, okay?”

Cloud peers out the tinted window at a small, homey building with SereniTea written in swirling calligraphy on top. It’s situated right next to a grimy-looking garage with a much plainer sign declaring Highwind’s Automechanics. “This is it, huh…” He opens the door and steps out. “Thanks, Zack. For everything.”

“No problem, bud,” Zack says with another grin. “We’re friends, right? I got your back.”

-

An hour into his shift, Cloud is supremely glad his shit wages during his time as an infantryman had led to him taking a job in the fast food industry. He doesn’t quite remember what the greasy chain had been called, but he’s fairly certain it’d had something to do with chocobos.

Either way, his experience as a cashier there has certainly eased his experience here. He’d fumbled throughout the first few orders or so, getting used to the very different register and entirely new menu, but it hadn’t been too difficult to fall into a rhythm afterwards. The customers have definitely been much kinder; one college student had brushed off Cloud’s mistakes with a cheerful, “Don’t worry about it, dude! We all have our off days!” and stuffed his change in the tip jar. A regular had even enquired about Cloud’s health, as apparently news of his incident with the ladder had spread—embarrassing, certainly, but not so much that Cloud is unable to appreciate the gesture.

So, Cloud feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth after he hands the last customer in the line her order and sets himself to rearranging the cake and pastry display. It must simply be a difference in industry; he’s heard some nasty stories from baristas, but he supposes people who favor tea aren’t as desperate for their caffeine fix as coffee addicts are.

He’s fiddling with the tie on his black apron when the bell hung on the door tinkles merrily. “Welcome to Sereni—”

He glances up. The words die on his lips.

Sephiroth’s piercing green gaze meets his as he strides up to the counter. “Strife,” he greets stoically.

Cloud manages to get his numb mouth to work. “A-ah, uh—Sephiroth. Hi.” Then he mentally smacks himself. The first time he speaks to destroyer-of-worlds Sephiroth in over two thousand years, and he says hi. He may have told Genesis that this Sephiroth was just a kid, but speaking to him one-on-one in the flesh, feeling the pressure of his unchanged, oppressive aura and laser-focused attention—

Well. Cloud may not be as over Sephiroth’s influence as he’d thought. He’d gotten over his hatred, yes—yet every inch of him is on edge, his hair-trigger instincts screaming about the enemydangerthreat standing a mere three feet away from him. Old habits sure are hard to kick, he thinks grimly.

Sephiroth doesn’t seem to mind or even notice his stuttering, though. “The usual, please.”

“Oh. Um.” Cloud’s mind goes roaringly blank. “Sorry, I… don’t know what that is.”

Sephiroth blinks impassively down at him. Cloud’s fingers twitch for his sword. Where is his sword, anyways? Genesis had better have saved it from whatever nasty demise it was that Cloud had met.

“I… forgot?” Cloud offers. “My head…”

Sephiroth’s brow furrows lightly. “Is your injury from Friday affecting your memory?” Cloud can just see the judgment flying through his mind: is it safe to have someone like this handling my drink?

“Just small things,” Cloud says hastily, not about to lose Shera a customer because of his verbal incompetence. “It won’t be a problem.”

“I certainly hope so,” Sephiroth says. “I would hate for our production’s most important technician to be unable to participate.” As Cloud’s brain trips over itself running in circles screeching is that a threat? oh gods is a teenage version of Sephiroth threatening me? holyshitholyshit— Sephiroth adds, “For future reference, my usual is simply black coffee. Hot, twelve ounces.”

“S-sorry, could you repeat that?” I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my brain having a nervous breakdown.

Sephiroth’s frown deepens. “Hot black coffee. Twelve ounces. Are you certain you are all right?”

“I’m fine!” Cloud says, perhaps a bit too loudly. “Right. That’ll be three sixty-nine.” He swipes the silver credit card Sephiroth hands him with shaking hands, nearly dropping it twice.

It’s only after Sephiroth takes his piping-hot drink and sits down at a two-person table in the corner, giving Cloud odd looks the entire way, that Cloud wonders, What kind of person has a usual of black coffee at a tea shop?

About ten minutes later, though, the answer becomes clear when Angeal Hewley steps into the shop. Tall and broad, even at eighteen, he looms over Cloud as he smiles kindly and orders, “Medium chamomile tea and a blueberry scone, please.”

Cloud smiles back, fondly remembering Zack’s near-adoration of his mentor. “Eight twenty-one. Coming right up.”

Unlike Sephiroth, Angeal pays in cash, slipping his one dollar and seventy-nine cents’ worth of change into the tip jar before heading over to sit next to his friend, pastry and drink in hand.

Business slows significantly afterwards, so Cloud is left watching the pair out of the corner of his eye as he clears and wipes down tables. It’s nice to see that even a lifetime later, they’ve still become close friends, but they look a little… empty without their usual redheaded companion. The proud man would never admit it, but Genesis must have been lonely the past thousand years, Cloud thinks. Unlike the two of them, who favor keeping up with the ever-changing world around them, Vincent has a penchant for sleeping the years away. Genesis would have been left all alone, wondering what had happened to Cloud, with no one to speak to, no one who understood him. And his two best friends are oblivious to his existence as anything other than their teacher.

This gloomy thought prompts Cloud to go over to the two teens in the corner, who are by now the only customers left. “Is everything all right over here? Can I help you with anything?”

Sephiroth simply stares back at him, causing Cloud to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. Angeal rescues him, though, saying, “We’re great here, thanks. Actually, my friend would like to pay compliments to whoever made the coffee. Apparently, it’s perfect—a high compliment coming from him, I’m sure you know.” He chuckles.

“Oh,” Cloud says, nonplussed. He hadn’t really done anything special while making it, but, well, if Sephiroth orders it every time, then it must be good, right? Maybe it’s the ingredients. “Thanks? We’re really a tea shop, so that’s… kind of a surprise, but—thanks. I guess.” Cloud winces internally. He’d probably have been fired from that chocobo fast food place if he’d ever given a customer such a lackluster response. “Um. Just let me know if you, y’know, need anything. Yeah.” With that, Cloud flees before he can embarrass himself any further.

As he leaves, his enhanced hearing picks up part of their conversation.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” Angeal says. Sephiroth’s answering murmur is too low to pick up over the ambient music, but Angeal replies, “That’s no excuse! You’ve got to man up sometime, right? What’s more important, the way he looks in—”

Cloud jumps as his cell phone buzzes. A quick glance at the caller ID tells him it’s Zack. He answers the call, worried. Zack wouldn’t interrupt his work unless it was important.

“Cloud?” The usually bombastic teen sounds uncharacteristically uncertain.

“Zack.” Cloud’s gut knots itself with anxiety. “What’s wrong?”

“I had… a strange dream. Vision. Thing. I… listen, Spike, can we talk? Like, right now? I know you have work, but—”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

-

Cloud runs.

He’d barged into the office connecting SereniTea and Highwind’s Automechanics, startling Shera and sending the paperwork she’d been filling out scattering to the floor. “I’ve—gotta go,” he’d said desperately. “It’s an emergency—please—”

Her eyes had softened at his distressed state. “Go,” she’d said. “I’ll take care of things.”

Cloud had hurtled straight out the door, Angeal and Sephiroth’s startled voices echoing strangely in his ears. He hadn’t looked back.

His feet take him where he needs to go; a part of him that whispers of course you know where to go, you’ve been going to Zack’s house since forever nudges him in the right direction and he doesn’t question it.

He ends up panting with his hands on his knees in front of a very typical white picket-fence house, well-groomed lawn and all. When he raises his hand to knock on the front door, it swings open before his knuckles even touch the wood, revealing Zack, face pale underneath his tanned skin.

“Cloud,” he says, grabbing Cloud’s arm and dragging him inside and up the stairs into his room. “I don’t really know what the hell’s goin’ on, but I know it’s got to do with you. You gotta help me, because my head’s all—my head’s all twisted up, and I don’t know what’s up from down anymore… I’m so confused.”

“Zack,” is the only thing Cloud can say, helpless.

Zack collapses on his bed, arm thrown over his eyes. “It’s all a blur,” he murmurs. “You were screaming, so much, and then you just stopped, and I knew I had to get you out. But no matter what I did, you just stared right through me, like you couldn’t even see me, and you couldn’t move and your eyes were blank and—I had to call you, I had to see you were safe, if you were really awake—I couldn’t—I couldn’t—”

“Zack,” Cloud says again. He gently grasps Zack’s arm and pulls it back, meeting his eyes. “I’m right here, okay?”

Cloud yelps as Zack pulls him down into a tight embrace, startlingly strong, burying his face in Cloud’s hair. “You’re right here,” he repeats, voice muffled by blond spikes. “Okay. You’re okay. Cloud… who were you? Who was I?”

Cloud bites his lip. He’s not sure how to answer the first question. The second, though… “You were a hero. You saved me.” More than once.

“That’s right… there were guns,” Zack says, dreamlike. “Soldiers. So many of them… the more I struck down, the more took their place. Their bullets… so you were okay, after? I was so worried, but I couldn’t hold on any longer… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Cloud says, desperately. “You held on more than long enough. You should have left me behind. You would have made it without—”

“No!” Zack’s grip tightens. “I had to—I had to get you out. You were—you were so shy, but so brave. So hopeful. I have to get you out. It’s a den—a den of monsters…”

“Zack?” Cloud squirms, trying to see Zack’s expression, but his arms are like steel bands around his back.

“But… you’re not like that anymore. What happened after I—? You’ve changed. You’re so sad, and tired, and lonely. You changed,” he repeats, voice quiet. “You woke up, and my best friend was gone , and sometimes you’re exactly the same, but sometimes, you look like a complete stranger. You—you replaced him. What did you do to him? What did you do to Cloud?”

“Zack—”

“Don’t call me that!” Zack flings Cloud off the bed and into the wall with an incoherent cry of rage. His eyes flicker between mako-bright and normal. Human. “Don’t say my name like that, like—like it’s a miracle, like it’s going to shatter, like I’m going to disappear the moment you trust that I’m here! Of course I’m here! We’re friends, right?”

Cloud’s mouth twists with regret. He hadn’t even considered how Zack might be feeling, of how Cloud, his best friend, had woken up and not known him, and yet he’d chosen to help Cloud unconditionally nonetheless. Selfish, as always, he berates himself.

"Yeah," he agrees quietly. "We're friends. We've always been friends. I'm sorry…"

" … That's right," Zack says, just as quiet. "Even if you don't remember, we've always… Oh, Cloud, I'm so sorry. I… I hurt you. I'm supposed to protect you, and I hurt you. I'm sorry." He gathers Cloud back up into his arms and rocks them back and forth, chanting I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please forgive me under his breath. Cloud murmurs back, There's nothing to forgive.

They fall asleep like that, entwined on the floor.

-

Cloud wakes to a loud cry of "Holy shit!"

He mumbles something incoherent into the carpet in reply. "Nngh whassit?"

"Spiky! Holy shit!”

“Yeah, you already said that,” Cloud says, more coherent but still mumbling.

“Holy shit!” Zack says, a third time. “Genesis Rhapsodos! How is that bastard still alive?”

“Oh, you remember everything now,” Cloud says dully. He feels like he’d be more enthusiastic if his brain didn’t feel like it was stuffed with wool from their earlier emotional confrontation. He smacks his lips lightly. His mouth also tastes wooly. Like carpet.

“I totally do, man! And—and holy fuck, Sephiroth!”

“Yeah, that’s my reaction to Sephiroth’s general existence, too.”

“He’s here! Is he—is he…?”

“He doesn’t remember anything, if that’s what you’re asking.” Cloud hums thoughtfully. “Whether he’s safe or not is a whole other problem—one that’s too emotionally and ethically complex to address right now, when I’m already all emotioned-out. Can we go back to cuddling? Maybe on the bed this time?”

“I feel like this is a pressing problem that should be addressed as soon as possible, though. Like, it would be the responsible thing to do,” Zack says, but climbs into the bed nonetheless. He pulls back the covers and pats the space beside him.

“Since when are you the responsible one?”

“You’re right. That’s why we’re gonna just ignore it for another day. How’s that sound, Spiky?”

“Fuckin’ great,” Cloud says, already half-asleep with his face buried in the pillow. “Good night.”

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

Genesis’s reaction upon opening his door is rather predictable. “Another one, Cloud?” He eyes the three of them disapprovingly.

“For the record, this time it wasn’t my fault,” Cloud says. “She’s known for a while now.”

“How rude,” Aerith tells Genesis. “Are you saying that you don’t want my help figuring out what’s going on?”

Genesis takes a moment to contemplate this. “No,” he admits. “Your presence is not… unwelcome.”

“That’s right, my girlfriend is awesome, and you’re lucky to even be graced with her presence, you red-haired bastard,” Zack says. “Now are you gonna let us in or not?”

Genesis heaves a very put-upon sigh, and holds his door open as they step into his office. It’s a small, cramped room with a single window, blinds pulled shut. Rows of filing cabinets line the walls. There’s a large bookshelf crammed with literature both new and old. Cloud thinks he catches a glimpse of the top shelf, entirely dedicated to different editions of LOVELESS. The single wooden desk groans under the weight of stacks and stacks of papers. Genesis falls back into a soft-looking, high-backed leather rolling chair. “So, what are you here to tell me?”

“Well, Aerith and Zack remember, of course,” Cloud says. “And—”

“And we remember everything,” Zack says, crossing his arms. “Like… everything.”

“I see,” Genesis says. “Then you truly are a special case, Cloud.”

Cloud scowls. It’s not like he asks for these things.

“Hey!” Zack sounds rather put out. “Are we just gonna ignore everything this asshole’s done? He killed hundreds of people! And turned them into clones! And probably drove Seph around the bend! At least say sorry, dude!”

“Very well,” Genesis says. “ Sorry. May we get back to actual business now?”

“You tried to eat our hair!”

“It’s okay,” Aerith says. “He’s not actually that mad. Just let him yell it out for a few minutes.”

Zack whines. “Aerith, you traitor—”

“Anyways,” Cloud says, “Aerith says I’m probably going to remember it all eventually. The bad news is, we don’t know when that eventually actually is.”

Aerith nods. “Cloud has already begun remembering some things from this life, so hopefully it’ll be sometime soon.”

“ … I have?” Cloud is unaware of this development. It’s not a new situation, but he feels like this, at least, he should have known.

“You remembered Seph’s costume,” Aerith points out. “Not the actual change itself—you wrote that down—but what it was. No one ever told you what it looked like, but you came up with a very good suggestion as to how I should modify it. And didn’t you run to Zack’s house on your own the other day?”

Genesis gives Cloud a considering look. “You have been acting rather strange—for your previous self, that is. Less jaded and more… uncertain. Panicked. Your younger consciousness must be leaking through.”

“ … Huh.” Cloud certainly doesn’t feel any different. This is his usual level of panic. “Is that bad?”

“No, I believe this is a good sign,” Genesis says. “If integrating all your memories goes just as smoothly, then we don’t have to worry about an identity crisis in the future. Zackary here seems fine, if a bit more hyperactive than usual, but I’m unsure if it says more about the actual process or just his mental simplicity.”

Zack looks up from his grumbled list of grievances to protest, “Hey, don’t call me Zackary!”

That’s what you got from his insult?” Cloud shakes his head. “Either way, I guess we’ll just have to wait it out. Unless… do you think Vincent might know anything?”

Genesis frowns. “Vincent… I have not seen him for quite a while. Over a century, at this point, I’d say. He’s most likely asleep somewhere. I suppose we could search, but I doubt it would be any more efficient than just simply waiting for your memories to return. Even after all these years, I’ve never been able to find where he disappears off to. I dare say he’s been avoiding me. After you disappeared… he took it awfully hard, for someone like him. Too many memories…”

“Vincent…” Zack taps his chin thoughtfully. “Oh! Seph’s broody vampire maybe-dad?”

Genesis looks pained. “An extreme oversimplification of his situation and Sephiroth’s lineage, and obviously not this time around, but… yes, I suppose.”

“You’d like him, I think,” Cloud tells Zack. “You like cracking the hard cases. He’d hate you, though.”

“Oh-ho.” Zack cackles and rubs his hands. “My favorite.”

“We should find him,” Cloud says. “He deserves to know that I’m not actually dead anymore.”

“True,” Genesis acknowledges. “Our brand of existence is of the lonely sort; I wouldn’t wish such extended periods of isolation without a true companion on anyone. Even if he has been avoiding me.”

“All right, summer field trip!” Zack cheers.

“Well, now that that’s settled, let’s move on to a bigger issue,” Aerith says brightly. “Seph, of course.”

-

Angeal finds Sephiroth in the library long after he should have left, face-down in his books. “Let me guess,” he says sympathetically. “Zack again.”

“I don’t understand,” Sephiroth says, voice muffled. “He was fine with it just a few days ago. He was even plotting about it with Aerith. Yet now, somehow I have become enemy number one in his eyes.”

“Maybe it’s finally hitting him that you want to destroy his best friend’s chastity.”

“I do not want to destroy Cloud’s chastity.” Sephiroth sounds supremely offended as he finally raises his head.

“Don’t you? Then what was that you were saying about how his hips look in that black apron the other day? And what, you finally got the guts to call him Cloud?”

“My feelings for Cloud are not defined by his physical appearance, no matter how attractive that appearance may be,” Sephiroth says. Then, almost guiltily, he adds, “It would be a process with much more finesse than simple destruction.”

Angeal coughs. That’s more than he ever wants to hear about his friend’s ambitions for his sex life.

“Would you… ask Aerith about it?” If Sephiroth were anyone else, he might have been begging. “According to school rumors, she and Zack are dating now. She may be able to determine what I’ve been doing wrong.”

“According to school rumor, Cloud and Zack have also been having a sordid love affair for the past four years, so I don’t think that’s a good assumption to make,” Angeal points out. “Besides, when have you ever cared for someone’s thoughts on what you’re doing wrong or right?”

“Cloud holds Zack’s opinion in very high esteem,” Sephiroth says, aggrieved. “And even if Zack were never to say anything outright negative about me, as Cloud’s best friend, he most definitely has the capacity to interrupt any sort of interaction between myself and Cloud. There’s no way around it. I have no choice but to gain his approval.”

“Zack isn’t the type to keep his friends from doing something they really want to. And I don’t think Cloud is the type to let someone else dictate his actions, best friend or not,” Angeal says. “Just be his friend. If he likes spending time with you, he will.”

Sephiroth cocks his head. “That’s funny,” he says. “Cloud said the same thing. More or less.”

Angeal’s eyes light up. “You spoke with Cloud? An actual conversation? How did that go?”

“It went… surprisingly well,” Sephiroth says, a tiny smile tugging at the edges of his lips. “Until Zack interrupted, that is.” His smile drops into a scowl. “You will ask Aerith about his sudden objections, right?”

Angeal sighs. “All right, I will. I don’t get why you can’t just ask her yourself, though.”

“She’s with Zack and Cloud right now. They’re speaking with Mr. Rhapsodos, most likely in his office.” Sephiroth glances at Angeal pointedly.

Angeal sighs again. “All right, all right, I’ll go now. I’ll text you later if I find anything out.”

Gods, he hopes Seph and Zack get over whatever issues they have soon. He hates being this sort of go-between, yet he always finds himself doing it. Why can’t people just get along?

-

“Sephiroth remains a headache, as always,” Genesis says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We can’t take any harmful preemptive actions—what if they fail, and then only serve to turn him against us? Not to mention it brings up the question of whether the sins of his previous self truly do fall on him. Yet, he is too dangerous to leave unchecked without any method of ensuring he does not snap and revert to his previous ways upon regaining his memories. But Sephiroth was a dear friend, once. Perhaps this is meant to be his chance for redemption. Perhaps if we can delay it for as long as possible, help him realize that humanity is worth saving beforehand, and hope his memories in this life are powerful enough…”

“Well,” Aerith says, “we do know a way to do that…”

“No! No, absolutely no, a hundred times no!” Zack says loudly, crossing his arms into the shape of an x. “Besides, how do we even know it’ll work? Wouldn’t it just make things even harder on Cloud if things go south?”

Genesis shakes his head. “If even the puppy is vetoing it, I doubt I want to know what you two are thinking of.”

“Actually,” Cloud says, “I was speaking with him earlier—Sephiroth, that is—and he mentioned something…” Hesitating when everyone’s eyes turn to him, he continues, “Apparently he has a crush? And it seems like it’s been going on for a while. High school relationships aren’t exactly the end-all-be-all, but if they’re happy together for at least a bit, it’d be a good reason for him to, y’know, not destroy the Planet and all life on it. Why don’t we try to help them get together? It might help him even if he doesn't ever remember.”

Zack gets a funny look on his face. “Cloud… do you know who he even has a crush on? How’re you gonna help them get together if you don’t know who it is? Aw, Aerith, stop laughing!”

“Oh, I can’t help it!” Aerith snickers some more, covering her mouth behind her hand. “Even Cloud agrees with me! Improving Seph’s love life is sure to improve his outlook on life in general. Besides, I thought you believed in the whole friendship and love breaks all bounds thing.”

“He wouldn’t if he knew what he was getting into! Cloud, the person Seph has a crush on is—urk!”

“It’s a great idea, Cloud,” Aerith says sweetly over Zack’s muffled protests, her hand firmly clamped over his mouth. “You should definitely help Seph get together with his crush. Even if you don’t know who it is yet, just giving him advice is plenty of help.”

“Actually, maybe he can just redeem himself by not remembering. Him not remembering would be nice,” Cloud says, a foreboding feeling creeping up in his chest at Aerith’s expression. The last time she’d looked at him like that, he’d ended up in a dress. “Never mind what I said. The boyfriend thing is a last resort and should not in any way be relied on for actually saving the world.”

“Cloud,” she says, “don’t you think this is a chance for you, too? Maybe if you take the chance to work things out with Sephiroth, the Sephiroth you knew, you can finally move on.”

“I’ve moved on,” Cloud protests. “I haven’t killed him yet. I literally said I’d help him. I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment already.”

Aerith shakes her head. “I don’t mean your resentment. You let go of that long ago. I’m talking about your other feelings.”

“ … I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Genesis rubs his temples. “This whole picture has suddenly become very clear. I’m not paid enough to deal with this,” he laments. “In fact, no amount of pay in the world is enough to deal with this. I have better things to do than listen to your petty drama—namely, preparing for our actual drama next week. Don’t forget you have work to do for that, you three, past lives or not. I’ll take no excuses. Now, all of you, out.”

They’re evicted with a forceful shove. The door slams shut behind them, nearly catching on Aerith’s long braid. From inside, they hear, “And I don’t want to hear from any of you unless it’s a real emergency this time!”

“Cloud,” Aerith says, hand still over Zack’s mouth, “do you mind leaving me and Zack for a few minutes? We need to talk.”

Zack makes a muffled whine, pleading with his eyes for Cloud not to leave.

“Sorry, Zack,” Cloud says. “You deal with your own relationship issues, okay? Aerith is scary when she’s mad. I’ll just wait, uh, over here.” He gestures vaguely around the corner of the hall, then makes himself scarce in that direction. Suddenly, he collides into something firm and wide, nearly hitting the floor before a large hand wraps around his forearm and tugs him back up. “Oh—Angeal. Hi. Sorry.”

Angeal looks rather pale and harried. “Oh, Cloud, it’s you,” he says distractedly. “I—no, it’s all right. It’s all right,” he repeats, almost to himself. “I… what was I here for? Oh, right, to speak with Aerith. Seph asked me to speak with Aerith… but she was inside the office… Mr. Rhapsodos’s office? No, Genesis’s office… but she never…?” He trails off confusedly.

“Are you okay?” Cloud asks, because he’s clearly not.

“Cloud,” he says, suddenly looking at Cloud very sharply, “who… no, never mind.” He shakes his head. “I—need to go. I need to go.”

“What?” Cloud says. Now he’s seriously worried. “Aerith is right around the corner. She’s speaking to Zack right now, but she should be done in a few—”

“No,” Angeal interrupts, rather out of character for the kind, considerate man. “I’ll be leaving now. … Dismissed, SOLDIER,” he adds belatedly, before staggering back the other way and out of sight.

Cloud stares. Then, very calmly, he walks back around the corner and opens Genesis’s door. Across the hall, Zack and Aerith freeze mid-conversation, mouths still open.

“By the Goddess, what is it now?” Genesis says, glaring up from his paperwork.

“Genesis,” he says, still very calmly, “I think we screwed up.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Angeal came by to speak to Aerith,” Cloud says. “He… might have overheard some of the things we said. When I spoke to him, he was all disoriented… he called me SOLDIER.”

Genesis drops his pen and bolts out of his office. “Angeal!” he says. “Angeal, wait!”

“Angeal…” Zack says, a worried frown creasing his brow. “He and Genesis were really close. But I should… I should be there. Genesis wasn’t there when he… when he…”

Aerith grasps his hand. “We’ll give them some time alone first, then find them later. How’s that sound?”

“Okay,” Zack says raggedly. “Yeah… okay. I can do that.” He nods, as if reassuring himself.

-

Fifteen minutes later, they find the two sitting on the back stairwell, which is empty of student presence, over halfway through the period as it is. Angeal sits with his head between his knees, Genesis’s arm wrapped around his shoulders. He looks up at Zack’s cry of “Angeal!” in time to find his arms full of a very emotional puppy.

“Zack,” Angeal says. He still looks a bit stunned from the memory rush.

“Angeal!” Zack says. “I’m so sorry—! I—I…” He buries his head in Angeal’s shoulder.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Angeal says, stroking his hair.

“No, it’s not all right!” Zack wails. “I killed you! I actually—I…”

“I asked you to,” Angeal says. “I’d gladly die over cause any innocents harm. And if the degradation had progressed any further… well, I’m glad it was you. If anyone was to inherit my honor and dreams, it would have been you. And you did far more with it than I ever did, as handicapped by my fear as I was. Though… I hear it was passed on to you, Cloud?” He gives Cloud a considering once-over.

Cloud shifts uneasily, remembering the harsh battering the Buster Sword had suffered under his care. “Yeah… sorry about that.”

“No, don’t be sorry,” Angeal says, looking a bit amused. “What is it with everyone apologizing for things they have no need to apologize for today? I hear it helped you out quite a bit, Mr. Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds.”

At the moniker, Cloud glares at Genesis accusingly. “This is your fault. I blame you.”

“He hates it when I call him that,” Genesis says conspiratorially. “It’s quite fun to watch him blush and splutter over it.”

“Because it’s not true,” Cloud protests. “LOVELESS is from the Prisoner’s point of view. He’s an unreliable narrator. ‘Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds’—that line’s an expression of jealousy from the Prisoner to the Hero before they even embark on their journey, and he ends up being the Wanderer, not the Hero. It doesn’t actually mean anything.”

“Why, Cloud,” Genesis says. “That’s quite an interesting interpretation. Have you been studying LOVELESS? Just for me? I’m flattered.”

“It is an interesting interpretation,” Angeal says. “Certainly not one I’ve heard before, and I’ve been listening to this one over here rave about it since childhood.”

Cloud shrugs. “I haven’t actually read it, but I memorized it after a while of listening to Genesis.” Like thousands of years a while.

Genesis gasps. “Cloud Strife! And you call yourself my friend!”

Cloud shrugs again.

Aerith, who has been silent since now, lays a gentle hand on Angeal’s shoulder. “Are you feeling all right, Angeal? Any nausea? Headaches? Blanks in your memory?”

“I feel fine, actually. In fact, physically, I feel much better, now that the degradation's gone. I might need to sleep on my mental state to know for sure, though.”

Aerith hums thoughtfully, her hands glowing green as she lays the other hand on his temple. “Scan looks fine, too.”

“Whoa, wait!” Zack says, finally moving out of his position clinging to Angeal. “I thought magic didn’t work anymore? Or are all the textbooks lying to us?”

“Well, only Cetra can cast without materia. The textbooks never mentioned materia, did they?”

“That’s right,” Cloud says, suddenly remembering. “When we stopped using mako, they stopped making artificial materia. Eventually, materia were so rare that people forgot about them. But the Lifestream’s still here, so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t work.”

“You know,” Zack says, “if Angeal feels fine after remembering, and I feel fine after remembering, what’s wrong with just telling everyone right now? Except for Seph, of course,” he adds hastily. “And maybe that brat Rufus Shinra. And his Turks, I guess, or else they’d just tell him. And—”

“Well, that’s why,” Genesis says, before he can escalate any further. “Furthermore, I still stand by my previous position. The more people who know, the more unsafe it is. Cloud’s behavior can be explained away by his head injury, but do you really think Sephiroth would not suspect a thing if all his friends started acting strangely? It’s bad enough as it is that you and Angeal will be, now. Not to mention—”

“It’s bad for the musical, yeah, we know,” Cloud says. “You know, we could just… not do it.”

“What? No!”

Cloud raises his hands in surrender at the chorus of indignant protests. “Okay, it was just a suggestion. We clearly don’t need it to help people remember anymore. At this rate, it’s just going to help Sephiroth get his memories back faster, and that’s the last thing we want. Him remembering at all is already a worst-case scenario. Right?”

Genesis looks at Angeal, who looks at Zack, who looks at Aerith. Then they all look at Cloud.

“Right…? Okay. What am I missing?”

Genesis crosses his arms. “I told you I wasn’t about to let you be forgotten again, Cloud Strife, and I am a man of my word. The show goes on.”

-

Vincent surfaces from sleep like a fish reeled in from the depths of a cold, still lake—slow, steady, with a gradually increasing awareness of his surroundings. He experiences no grogginess as he sits up; his body has long discarded such inconveniences of humanity. He doesn’t know how long it’s been since he was last awake; the cave he laid down in to sleep has not changed significantly, but that means nothing, as hidden from the elements as it is.

He rises to his feet and makes his way towards the back, passing rows and rows of dripping stalactites and their partnered stalagmites, rising from the ground like jagged fangs. The cave walls are slick and glow faintly with diluted mako, scattering blue-green light across the floor as it reflects off the glittering mineral deposits in the ceiling. The glow grows stronger the further back he goes, until he reaches a large, naturally-formed pool of mako, an enormous crystal resting in the deepest part.

Vincent wades through the pool, unperturbed by the thick green liquid swirling around his legs. Peering into the crystal’s depths, he sighs in both relief and disappointment as he makes out a familiar figure inside. Relief that he is still there, resting undisturbed by any curious spelunkers that may have miraculously made their way into the cave. Disappointment that he hadn’t somehow miraculously woken up during Vincent’s hibernation period, waited there to give Vincent the cocky smirk they both know is a front.

But both thoughts are irrational. Vincent stopped believing in miracles long ago.

Frozen in the very center, the figure’s arms are outstretched as if falling, dragged down by the weight of the heavy object strapped to its back. The features are hard to pick out, distorted by the crystalline barrier as they are, but Vincent knows them well enough to recognize the closed eyes, the slightly parted lips, the slack face, peaceful as their owner had never been in life. He almost could have been sleeping.

But Vincent knows better.

Resting his forehead against the crystal, he murmurs, “What happened to you? Cloud…”

It pains him to think that Cloud, his closest confidant and one of his only remaining companions, faces the same fate as Lucrecia, self-imposed or otherwise. She’d eventually passed on, but only after centuries of regret and suffering, her very spirit worn away to nothing bit by bit like a pebble under the crashing waves of the souls in the Lifestream. Once, when Vincent had asked her if such an existence trapped in the crystal brought her any physical pain, she’d laughed softly, bitterly, and said it was merely her due penance.

Straightening, he steps back out of the mako pool and scans the area for the tiny mountain spring that had bubbled out from the crags of the rock walls when he’d first found the cave. Spotting it out of the corner of his eye, half-hidden by a newly-formed pile of rocks and larger than before, he bends over it, carefully taking off his glove and gauntlet. Before he can dip his bare hands into the water, though, he freezes.

Something dark and smoky swirls in the shallow water, unheeding of the spring’s currents. As he watches, it seems to balloon hungrily outwards before meeting some invisible barrier, curling back into itself, but still larger than before. The last time he’d seen something like that had been…

Kadaj. The Remnants, taking control of Edge’s Geostigma-infected children with ink-colored water just like this.

Alarmed, Vincent traces the spring’s path, which leads to—

Cloud’s mako pool.

As if on cue, the crystal flickers, each pulse matching with the swell of the dark substance in the water, the glow repelling its advance.

But only briefly. Not enough. And if this has been going on since Cloud first disappeared—

Vincent sets his shoulders. Despite knowing Genesis for thousands of years, he hadn’t trusted the former SOLDIER with the knowledge of Cloud’s fate. Cloud had been what brought them together, yes, but Vincent is still unsure what ties Genesis’s loyalty.

After Cloud had disappeared, both Vincent and Genesis had been remiss in maintaining their reunions, too busy frantically scouring the Planet high and low for traces of their friend. Once he’d found him, Vincent had been unwilling to leave Cloud’s crystal alone for too long. Perhaps his presence now, after so many years, will be unwelcome. And Genesis will most definitely be livid at Vincent for keeping this a secret.

But this is no time for doubts. Vincent is no hero, no ambassador of Gaia. If Cloud has been fighting this alone for so long, the only one left to turn to now is Genesis.

He has nothing to pack. He’s gone within the hour.

Chapter Text

The rest of the week passes by surprisingly smoothly, for all its initial turbulence. Cloud goes to class, attends rehearsal, and dodges Tifa’s suspicions with success, and isn’t that just a novelty when it comes to describing his own life?

After getting kicked out of the garage on Monday by Cid with ample curses and the half-threat to “sit yer goddamn spiky ass down and rest or fuckin’ else!” and turned away from the tea shop with a smile and head shake from a much calmer Shera, he doesn’t try going to work anymore. Instead, he spends his free time learning the show. He memorizes the entire script and all its blocking by the end of Wednesday, unsure whether his efficiency is a result of over a thousand years of study habits or just because he’s supposed to know it already. He gets back his paper on Meteorfall with an 89% for “relying too heavily on assumptions rather than fact”, which he finds ironic to the highest degree. The rest of his classes don’t give any homework, which is their rightful due as seniors, according to Zack. And Sephiroth, for some reason, makes himself scarce outside of first period and their daily after-school rehearsals, which is hell on Cloud’s nerves, since without the J-cells, he can’t sense where he is anymore.

By after school on Thursday, he’s a high-strung bundle of frustration and bottled-up energy, unused to just sitting around on his ass and doing nothing. Genesis kicks him out of rehearsal for pacing too much, barking, “Cloud Strife! Get off my stage this instant! You’re infecting my actors with your nervous energy!”

Cloud gladly pulls his tiny headset out of his ear and escorts himself out of the theater. He spends the rest of the rehearsal wandering about the school.

“Zack,” Cloud says Friday afternoon when Zack is in one of his rare moments offstage, the students currently onstage perform a great rendition of ShinRa officials arguing uselessly. “Let’s spar or something.”

Zack barely looks up from his marked-up script, his messy scrawl covering nearly all the blank space on its pages. “Sure, later,” he says distractedly, voice muffled as he gnaws on his pen.

“Zack.” Cloud tugs the pen from his mouth. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I think you need to take a break.”

“Cloud,” Zack whines. “Give it back.”

“You know, I was fine with you guys doing the whole musical thing,” Cloud says, “but if it makes you act like this, I don’t think I’m fine with it anymore.”

“Oh, it makes me act like this?” Zack retorts. “How about you? You don’t even give a damn about it anymore. This is our senior performance, Cloud! You cared about it so much! But I guess cared is accurate, because you sure don’t seem to anymore! Who needs your permission, anyways?”

“I don’t know, it just seems weird to me that you all are focusing on a petty high school play instead of the impending destruction of the world.”

“And who was the one who was perfectly fine with sleeping it off the other day?!”

“Taking a break is different from ignoring the issue entirely!”

“Well, we don’t even know what the issue is! Maybe we aren’t doing anything about it because there’s nothing we can do because someone forgot!”

They stare at each other for one heartbeat, two, breath heavy. Zack droops.

Cloud sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Spar?”

“Spar,” Zack agrees.

-

“This is a terrible idea,” Genesis says, leading them down the hall. “I’m going down on record as saying that this is a truly terrible, awful idea, you hear me? Try to think of it from my point of view. As the one who will be held legally liable for your safety, this is truly—”

“Duly noted,” Cloud says.

“You don’t even have any swords!”

For all his loud verbal protests, Genesis leads them straight to the school garden, where they find Angeal crouched side-by-side with Aerith, knee-deep in dirt.

“Angeal is the co-president of the self-defense club alongside your friend Miss Lockhart,” Genesis explains to Cloud. “He’ll be able to set you up with anything you may need for hand-to-hand. Including mats,” he tells Angeal. “Lots and lots of mats, Angeal. These fools haven’t tested their physical capabilities at all yet.”

“Sure,” Angeal says. “Just give us about fifteen minutes to finish transplanting this, then I’ll join you. I may need a round or two myself.”

He carefully tugs a tiny tree from its pot and settles it into a hole in the ground, idly chatting with Genesis and Zack. Aerith fills in the soil with smooth, practiced motions. Cloud asks her, “Is there anything I can help with?”

“Hmm… oh, I know,” Aerith says, “Would you mind pulling out any plants that look like this?” She reaches behind her and holds up a green tuft of a plant with spiky green leaves and a fuzzy-looking stem. “Make sure you get all of their roots, and be careful of the barbs.”

Cloud tilts his head. “Why, is it sick or something?”

Aerith giggles. “Oh, no. These are weeds. Sometimes you have to pull out plants that don’t yield anything before they choke the life out of everything else, in order for the delicate, more useful plants to have a chance. Of course, what’s considered useful or not is arbitrarily defined by humans…”

“Seems like an apt metaphor for life in general,” Cloud says.

Aerith smiles. “I find that gardening usually is.”

-

“You’ve gotten slower, Cloud!” Genesis calls as Cloud and Zack collide in a flurry of blows.

“Shut up, Genesis!” he calls back, but has to duck hastily as Zack’s fist sails over his head.

“Don’t—worry about it, man,” Zack says, panting as Cloud begins moving more aggressively. “I sure—can’t tell, you’re—whoa, you’re hella fast!”

“He’s right, though,” Cloud says as he winds his foot around Zack’s ankle, lightning-quick, and shoves him harshly, toppling him over onto his back. He plops down on top of Zack with a huff, vexed. “I have gotten slower.”

Zack goes lax beneath him. “All right, all right, I yield. Shiva’s tits, Cloudy, how fast were you if that’s your version of slower?”

“Not fast enough,” Cloud says grimly. “Sephiroth takes no prisoners.”

Zack sighs. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that anyone could ever defeat him. He’s an icon, you know? The General. But you’ve really grown a lot, haven’t you, Cloud? I guess actually seeing it really made it click for me…”

Cloud shrugs. “He didn’t believe it either. His pride was his downfall more than anything.”

“That, and your absolutely badass sword skills,” Zack says. “Don’t sell yourself short, man.” At Cloud’s dubious look, he grins mischievously. “Uh-oh, looks like someone doesn’t believe me. Does the tickle monster need to persuade the stubborn little chocobo otherwise?”

“What the fuck, Zack, I’m not a little kid—”

“Nope, but you are little!”

Cloud definitely does not shriek. “Zack!”

“Well, aren’t we glad the great Sephiroth isn’t here to see this,” Genesis’s voice says wryly from above them. “The man who single-handedly killed him multiple times, defeated by the tickle monster.”

Angeal’s voice, barely audible, mutters, “Not to mention certain other reasons too.”

“I hate you,” Cloud says to the world at large, face-down on the mat.

“I’m absolutely quivering in my boots. Now get up. Angeal, Zack, why don’t you two have a turn?”

Genesis leads Cloud to sit on the bleachers to overlook the fight. As they watch Zack bounce on his toes, excited at the prospect of sparring against his mentor, Genesis says, “You know, I never gained much preeminence in the literary world in the past thousand years or so. In this case, our longevity is a curse; it would have been much too risky.”

Cloud cocks his head, listening.

He continues, “But I did manage to pull a few strings with some acquaintances in higher places, and they’ll be coming to see our performance. If it’s standout enough, our version of the play will be published in an anthology of significant interpretations of the legend of Meteorfall. It may seem small, but the first step to unveiling the truth is simply getting it published. If it resonates well, the audience will take care of the rest.”

“I’m sorry,” Cloud says, quiet. “I didn’t mean to downplay your efforts. I know how much time and effort you poured into this.”

“Do you?” Genesis raises an elegant brow. “The efforts come from not only me, but the dozens of students participating in this production, including you, even if you don’t remember. I’d dare say you were one of the students who put in the most time; I didn’t award you your position arbitrarily. Cancelling it now would not only ruin the year-long efforts of the other students, most of which are your close friends, but yourself as well. And I do believe Sephiroth would be quite displeased. Perhaps so much as to lose interest in pursuing any sort of romantic relationship.”

Cloud sighs. “All right, you win. The show must go on, and all that jazz.”

Genesis nods, satisfied, just as Zack topples over onto the mat with a loud grunt.

“Damn, I almost had you!”

Angeal laughs warmly. “That you did. You’ve gotten much stronger; I’m proud of you. I’d say we’re about even in terms of speed and strength, but you still fall for the same tricks, puppy.”

“Looks like it’s my turn,” Genesis says. “Wish me luck, dear.”

“You wish!” Cloud says to his back as he leaps off the bleachers in a single bound.

“Cloudy!” Zack calls, waving his arms. “Come with me to get some water?”

-

“You know, the musical will be done and over with in basically a week,” Zack says as they sit together next to the vending machine in the foyer of the gym. “And there’s only about a week of school after that. Then we’ll be graduated, and we originally planned on doing bum-fuck nothing over summer break. So only two more weeks, then we can stress over the end of the world all we want while we look for your buddy Vincent. How’s that sound, Cloudy?”

“Two weeks…” Cloud hums. “Seems kinda risky.”

“Dude, the end of the world’s been waiting since the beginning of time.” Zack waves a hand airily. “I mean, what could happen in two weeks?”

Before Cloud can tell him famous last words, a knock sounds at the gym’s double doors.

“I got it.” Zack bounces up from his seat and answers the door. “‘Sup, dude? How can I help ya?”

A familiar low voice, nearly a rumble, answers, “I’m looking for Genesis Rhapsodos. Is he here?”

“Oh! Yeah, Genesis is here,” Zack says, raising his voice so the two on the mats can hear over the sounds of their own fight and tone it down to regular human levels. “He’s just been supervising us while we spar.”

The foyer is structured so that the nook Cloud and Zack had been sitting in is just out of sight of the entrance and vice versa. Another set of doors leads into the gym proper. They’re propped open, but the walls still conceal much of the area inside. Because of this, Cloud can’t quite catch sight of the man entering before he disappears into the gym, saying, “Genesis Rhapsodos. You are not an easy man to find.”

There’s a pause. Then, confirming Cloud’s suspicions, Genesis says, “Well, well, well. Vincent Valentine. I could say the same about you. You’ve finally deigned to grace us with your presence, have you?”

“ … My apologies. But this is important.”

“Important enough to interrupt my work hours?”

A sigh. “It’s about Cloud.”

“Oh, so it’s about Cloud, is it?” Cloud can hear Genesis’s clothes rustle, most likely as he crosses his arms. “How would you react if I told you I have quite a bit of news about Cloud, as well, but was unable to share it with you due to your inexplicable absence for the past century or so?”

“Is this really the best place to discuss this? Your students are here.”

“I’ll be the judge of where and when is the best place to converse, Valentine, I’m not the one who’s disappeared without a trace for—”

“Okay,” Cloud says as he steps into the gym, finally unable to stand their pissing contest for much longer. “Vincent, it’s fine, these people all know pretty much everything. And Genesis, I know you’re dying to know what Vincent has to say, so just set your pride aside and stop being pretentious for like five minutes, it won’t kill you. Let’s just have a civil discussion like normal people, okay?”

Genesis rolls his eyes with a huff, but doesn’t say anything else. Vincent, on the other hand, looks like someone hit him with a brick—which, on anyone else, would be considered unfazed, but this is Vincent, so.

“A miracle,” he murmurs, so low Cloud almost misses it. “ … Cloud?”

“That’s me,” Cloud agrees, flashing him a cocky smirk from a time long past.

“ … That’s not possible,” Vincent says. “Cloud is currently in a cave in the Nibel mountain range.”

“What?” Zack says, unable to keep quiet any longer. “Vince, dude, not cool. Cloudy’s right here.” He prods Cloud’s cheek. “Or, wait, are you not real? Cloud?” He begins shaking Cloud’s shoulder.

“What, no, Zack, stop that,” Cloud says. “I’m… pretty sure I’m real?” It comes out as more of a question than he’d like, but it’s not like he hasn’t been wrong before.

Vincent pauses. “Perhaps I should correct myself. I am referring to a version of Cloud that has been frozen and most likely unconscious or even dead for approximately the past thousand years. Also, please do not call me Vince.”

“Gods, Vincent,” Cloud says. “Start with that first next time, why don’t you? —Wait, what do you mean, frozen?”

-

After the necessary how-dos and freak outs over each others’ mutual existences, they brief Vincent on their current situation. When it comes to his turn, though, he hesitates.

“I… found Cloud frozen in a crystal in a cave deep in the Nibel mountains. I do not know how long he has been crystallized for, but my guess is ever since he initially disappeared, or at least not long afterwards. Next to him, there was a spring. There was…” He pauses, contemplating his next words. “A darkness staining the water, much like… when the Remnants took over the Forgotten Capital.” At Cloud’s sharp frown, he nods in confirmation. “You remember.”

Cloud’s mind works furiously. Does this mean JENOVA is back? Or is the darkness merely an indication of her cells’ presence? Can it still infect people and bring them under her control? Or is there a third party manipulating the cells rather than JENOVA herself? How does this tie in with their reincarnation? How does this tie in with Sephiroth?

“The crystal’s presence appeared to be slowing the spread of the taint,” Vincent says. “However, it doesn’t seem to contain it completely.”

Genesis hums, bringing his hand to his mouth thoughtfully. “Understandable. If the reason Cloud disappeared was truly to fight this dark presence, then he’s been doing it for over a thousand years. Such a battle is simply unsustainable.”

A shiver tracks up Cloud’s spine. Zack, who is watching Cloud closely, asks, “You okay, Cloudy? Does any of this ring a bell?”

Cloud shakes his head slowly. “No. Not a thing. Did I—did I mention anything about this to you, Vincent, or do you think it was a spontaneous sort of thing?”

“You were acting strangely about a century before you disappeared,” Vincent says. “You were often distracted, nervous, or lost in thought, and disappeared at odd hours for long periods of time. Your motions frequently implied you had injuries, though you never disclosed them to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of it until it was too late. Otherwise, I know nothing else.”

“Goddess take your damned secretive nature, Cloud Strife,” Genesis says. “It’s come back to bite us in the ass.”

“Well, shit,” Zack says. “Back at square one.”

“Vincent, could you take us to the cave?” Cloud asks. “We might be able to learn something new there.”

Vincent inclines his head.

After the end of next week, that is,” Genesis inserts smoothly. “After all, the trip will take at least several days both ways.”

Vincent looks faintly bemused. “Very well, after your… musical.”

As they roll up the mats and clear out of the gym, Vincent approaches Cloud.

“Cloud,” he says.

Cloud looks up. “Hey, Vincent.”

“It is… good to see you alive and well,” he says, in a rare moment of forthrightness. “The past years have not been the same without you.”

“Aw, you missed me?”

Vincent lays a hand on his shoulder. “I… dislike the idea that you may have felt that you needed to deal with this problem on your own,” he says. “In the future, you may come to me if you ever feel you are in need.”

“ … Thanks,” Cloud says, touched by the normally reticent man’s care. “To be honest, I don’t know what the me of that time was thinking. I should’ve trusted you guys.” He smiles weakly. “Genesis was right. It’s come back to bite us all in the ass.”

-

On Saturday, Cloud kicks his feet from his perch on the railing of the stairs leading up to the stage, watching Zack and Sephiroth mock-fight once again. He’s on a rare break after hours of running around fixing broken props and torn costumes and strange feedback on their sound system. Thankfully, Aerith is right about his current memories returning, and most of the motions come back easily enough if he simply doesn’t think too much about it.

After their talk on Friday, Vincent had disappeared off to wherever people like him disappear to, saying in that mysterious way of his, “I’ll find you when you need me.” Genesis had rolled his eyes, but otherwise hadn’t commented, and the rest of them had gone on with their day. Now, Cloud finds himself worrying about the older man, despite knowing very well that he can take care of himself. The world’s changed quite a bit in the past few hundred years, after all.

This city, Neo Midgar, is a prime example. Built on the beaches of the submerged former Midgar, its skyscrapers are clean and shiny and full of windows in a way Midgar’s never had been. Neo Midgar has its own airport now, rather than forcing people to travel to Junon for public air transport. Airships have been replaced with airplanes. Public transit relies on subways and buses rather than a train, and there’s no plate system. Technology is wider, flatter, shinier, and faster than it’d ever been before, and the billboards are all digitized. Even the cars look different. And every once in a while, Cloud will be surprised by a simple but useful quality of life appliance. Like blenders. And remote car keys.

Cloud’s interrupted from his thoughts by a younger-looking girl with long, dark hair, maybe about sixteen or so. He’s pretty sure she’s also part of the tech department, but he can’t quite recall her name.

“H-hey, Cloud,” she says, pushing up her glasses nervously. “I heard that the rumor that you and Zack were dating was fake. Is that true?”

“Yeah,” Cloud says. When she fidgets some more, he gives her a small, reassuring smile, reminded a bit of orphans he’d take care of every once in a while. He’d always felt bad when he’d had to leave, lest someone figure out that he hadn’t aged in the past ten years or so. “How can I help you?”

She blushes bright crimson. “U-um, if you’re not dating anyone right now, I… I was wondering… if you wanted…” She covers her face in her hands. “Ahhh, I can’t do it… I’m sorry for wasting your time, Cloud. You’re graduating anyways, what was I thinking?”

Cloud blinks. Once, twice. Then it clicks. He opens his mouth, then shuts it.

Shit. He doesn’t remember her name.

“You don’t have to say anything!” she says quickly. “I know you don’t—you don’t, I mean, I’m just a sophomore, and—and…” She droops sadly. “I guess I just wanted to tell you before you left. You’ve always been so nice to me, even though I screw up all the time, and you taught me basically everything I know about theater tech, and…”

“I—” Cloud rubs the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, I don’t really know how to handle this kind of situation. But… I’m not really looking for any kind of…” He winces. “—romantic… relationship right now…”

She sighs. “I know. Otherwise you’d have gotten together with Seph a long time ago, right? Everyone knows that.” She gives him a wobbly smile, obviously trying to not look too disappointed, and wanders off.

Cloud frowns. What does she mean, getting together with Sephiroth?

-

Sephiroth unexpectedly corners him right after rehearsal. Cloud is still shell-shocked from his previous conversation.

“Cloud,” he says, “I was hoping we could talk about what we discussed the other day. Perhaps over coffee?” When Cloud doesn’t answer right away, he adds, “Tea is fine too, if that is what you prefer.”

“I—okay,” Cloud says after another pause. “Okay, sure. Yeah.”

Sephiroth tilts his head. “What’s wrong? Did Marina say something strange to you?”

So that’s her name, Cloud thinks. Strange is one word for their conversation, sure. “I think… I think she asked me out?”

Sephiroth’s eyes widen in shock. Cloud can sympathize.

“Wild, right? Who in their right mind would ever want to ask me out?”

“ … Then what did you say in reply?”

Cloud shrugs. “The truth. I’m not looking for a relationship right now.”

“ … I see,” Sephiroth says. “Then… I would still like you to know… I think there are plenty of reasons someone would want to ‘ask you out’, as you say. You are kind and lend a helping hand to those you see in need. You are non-judgmental and welcoming to all sorts of people. You are, of course, exceedingly competent at the work you do in our productions. Not to mention you are very physically attractive. And you’ve never…” He sighs and shakes his head. “Well, I will take my leave. We can cancel our discussion; it looks like you have a lot on your mind already.”

“No, it’s fine,” Cloud says. “I said I’d help you, right?”

Sephiroth pauses. “Then… we can postpone it. How about tomorrow afternoon, during your break?”

“My—” Oh, his work break, right. He has work on Sundays. “My break, yeah, okay, sure.”

“Very well.” A corner of Sephiroth’s mouth tilts up wryly. “It’s a date.”

“It’s a what?” Cloud says, but Sephiroth is already gone, leaving Cloud staring at an empty hallway with his mouth hanging half-open.

It’s still rattling around in his mind as he walks home.

Sephiroth had called it a date. Plenty of people have platonic dates, right? It doesn’t actually mean anything to call things dates. It’s just a hangout between two people, friendly or otherwise. He must have picked it up from Zack, Cloud decides. Zack calls everything a date. He didn’t actually mean anything when he’d said it; there’s no way someone like Sephiroth would ever be interested in someone like Cloud. It’d just been Cloud’s own hopeful thinking.

Wait. His own what?

Hopeful thinking, a voice in his head that sounds oddly like Aerith cheerfully answers. Cloud thinks back on the past few days: Zack’s odd looks and overprotectiveness, Angeal’s muttered comments, Genesis’s exasperation. Aerith saying, “I’m talking about your other feelings.” And now this girl, Marina, not one of his close friends, talking about him and Sephiroth, saying “everyone knows that”—

Cloud feels dizzy. And kind of sick. Had he been that obvious? How had he never realized? Is this some sort of remnant of the present Cloud’s feelings? Yeah, he’d had a bit of a hero worship crush on Sephiroth before everything had gone to shit, and this new Sephiroth acts quite a lot like the old Sephiroth had, but that was a long time ago, and he’s not the same wide-eyed, impressionable teenager stupid enough to think he could take on the world anymore—

Nope, they’re not just your other self’s feelings, Aerith’s voice chirps.

Oh gods, does Sephiroth know? Had their conversation in the library been his way of subtly telling Cloud that he was interested in someone else? Oh gods, he’d even specified that he’d considered Cloud to be a friend, and isn’t this just fucking embarrassing, Cloud getting all worked up over a few of Sephiroth’s words when Sephiroth had already clearly cemented their interactions as platonic, and—

His panic is interrupted by the sight of Tifa standing in front of his apartment door, arms crossed.

She looks pissed.

Chapter Text

"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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth takes one step closer, then another, and another, a new predatory grace to his stride, but despite every fiber in his body screaming move, get away, do something, Cloud can only stand frozen in place.

“Cloud,” Sephiroth purrs again, looming over Cloud’s trembling form. Long fingers grasp Cloud’s chin, tilting it up. “I must admit, seeing you fierce and assertive was rather appealing, if a bit of a surprise. But I think I prefer you like this.” He strokes Cloud’s bottom lip with his thumb. “Quivering. Vulnerable. Staring up at me with those large, terrified eyes…”

“Se—Sephiroth…”

Suddenly, a shudder ripples its way up Sephiroth’s body, and he drops to a knee, clutching his head with a groan. From a few feet away, Aerith steps closer in alarm. “Cloud! Is he—”

Cloud throws up an arm as he crouches down next to Sephiroth. “I’ll handle this. Tell everyone else to gather up the corpses.”

Aerith flinches. “The—the corpses?”

“Yes. Gather them up… and burn them.”

Aerith’s eyes widen, darting to the mutated mass of flesh crumpled on the floor, before turning impossibly sad. She nods determinedly. “Got it.”

“Sephiroth.” Cloud places a careful hand on his arm. “Sephiroth, talk to me.”

He only groans in response, long and low in his chest.

“Come on, Sephiroth,” Cloud says.

“I don’t…” Sephiroth uncurls slightly to look at Cloud’s face. “I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?” Cloud asks patiently.

“I’m not… angry anymore.” He uncurls his hands, staring down at them. “Ever since I saw her, I was always angry. No matter what I did, I just got angrier and angrier, a cold, raging fury building and building deep in my chest. Seeing humans scuttle around like cockroaches, ignorant, complacent, lounging in their own filth, trying to control things beyond their petty understanding… We had no place in the world, so I would make one, one where we could live together forever. The world, the Planet, it had no sympathy for someone like me or Mother, so why would I have sympathy for it? She agreed. She said she loved me. But…” His head falls. “She didn’t, really, did she?”

“No,” Cloud agrees. “She didn’t.”

“I was never happy,” he says. “She never wanted me to be happy. No one’s ever wanted me to be happy.”

“You have friends here,” Cloud says. “They want you to be happy.”

Sephiroth laughs, low and rough. “They won’t anymore. Not now that I’ve remembered.”

“I want you to be happy,” Cloud persists.

Sephiroth looks at him and muses, “Some of them treat me as only Seph, and desperately try to ignore who I was before. Others can only see me for who I used to be. But you… the way you say my name…”

“Sephiroth—”

“There. Just like that. You love me as both, don’t you? What a foolish little puppet.” He smirks, and Cloud’s breath catches in his throat as Sephiroth grasps his face hard enough to bruise, lightning-quick, and reels him in close. “I want to run you through, right here,” he growls. “I want to prolong your pain as long as possible, watch your pretty face twist in agony as I slice through your flesh, over and over and over again until you finally break. I want to throw you down and fuck you into the ground, force you to feel pleasure and pain so intense you can no longer differentiate between the two. But…” His grip softens into something closer to a caress. “I also want to see you smile at me, soft and open and beautiful. I want to feel the warmth of your hand against mine. I want to see you cry, not tears of sorrow or pain, but from pleasure, from joy. I… I don’t know what I want.

“But I do know one thing. No matter what… you’re mine, Cloud. And no one else is allowed to do those things to you but me.”

“ … Okay,” Cloud says.

Sephiroth raises a brow. “Okay? Just like that? One would think that Gaia’s Champion would fight more.”

“Okay,” Cloud affirms. “But if I’m yours, you’re mine, too. Which means I’m responsible for your actions. I don’t care what you do to me, but I won't let you harm anyone else.”

“You seek to control me with just a few words?”

“Sephiroth.” Cloud twists easily out of Sephiroth’s grasp, rising to his feet. “Don’t forget. My duty is to protect the Planet and all life on it. Should you threaten anything under my protection, I can and will strike you down where you stand. Even if it breaks my heart to do so.”

Sephiroth stares up at Cloud, then huffs an amused breath. “I suppose I do like this fierce side of you quite a bit, after all. Very well. I will comply… for now.”

-

Tifa shoots a suspicious look over her shoulder at Sephiroth as she hefts a body over her shoulder. “Are you sure he’s safe?” she hisses to Cloud.

Cloud shrugs, wiping away the fluids staining his skin with a scavenged cloth as he watches his friends carefully stack the dead in a neat pile. He and the former SOLDIERs have all been banned from handling the oozing corpses at all, lest it exacerbate the Geostigma, and no one seems comfortable with asking Sephiroth to help. Without their enhanced strength, the process is slow and arduous. “As safe as he can be. We had a talk.”

“A talk,” Tifa repeats dubiously.

“Yeah. We’ve reached an… understanding of sorts.”

“I never knew the great Sephiroth could be threatened into compliance by withholding sex.”

Cloud chokes. “I—what—Tifa!”

Tifa laughs. “I’m kidding, I know you’d never do that. If you say Sephiroth is safe… I can’t say I’m not still worried about him, but we’ll trust your judgement. Smile, Cloud. I know things look bad, but you’ve got to keep your chin up—not all hope’s lost yet.”

“ … Thanks, Tifa,” Cloud says, giving her the smile she’d asked for. It’s small and a bit weak, but she smiles brightly back anyways.

“Tifa!” Barret calls from across the theater. “C’mere, we got the last few in this corner!”

Tifa pats Cloud on the arm, then jogs off in Barret’s direction.

Half a second later, Sephiroth’s hand clamps down around the same arm. “What was that?” he snarls. “You and her, smiling and laughing at each other—”

“Sephiroth,” Cloud snarls right back, ripping his arm out of his iron grip. Then he sighs. “Is this what it’s gonna be like from now?”

“No, Cloud,” Sephiroth says. “It’s always been like this. Did you know that when you dated her in sophomore year, I wanted to wrap my hands around her slim, pretty throat and strangle her alive? That day I found you sitting on Zack’s lap in that tiny room, I was furious. And then not half an hour later, Tifa’s hands all over your face… I used to not understand, you know. Those feelings, they terrified me. After all, I thought I had no right, no claim to you—so I hid them. But now I understand. Why I’m so drawn to you. Why I have this need to utterly possess you. I told you, Cloud, you’re mine. And I’m sure you’ll find I am a very selfish man.”

“Sephiroth—” Cloud’s words are cut off with a surprised noise as Sephiroth’s mouth crashes down against his, teeth biting violently into his bottom lip. When Cloud pulls back, his lips are swollen, and he can taste blood. Sephiroth simply reaches down and grips Cloud’s hip hard enough to bruise and tries to tug him back in, but Cloud presses a hand against his chest firmly. “Stop it, Sephiroth.”

“Cloud,” Sephiroth growls back, pupils thin black slits against his fevered eyes. “You will not deny me.”

Cloud sighs. “I’m not going to leave you, okay? I’m in too deep.” He chuckles briefly, humorlessly, licking away the blood still staining his mouth. “Gods know why, but I really am.”

Sephiroth’s eyes track the movement of his tongue hungrily, then slide over to the dark streak across Cloud’s right cheek, bruise-bright against his pale skin. He brushes his fingertips over it in a gentle caress, a complete opposite of his brutal actions from less than a minute ago. “Every time I see this, part of me is proud. It’s my stigma marring your skin, marking you as mine. Another part of me wants to weep—it’s my stigma that marks you for death, that causes you such anguish. There’s nothing else I want to have more than you—just you, in your entirety. But another part of me knows that I can’t. I’ll hurt you, Cloud; I already have, irreparably. I couldn’t bear to see it happen again. You have to leave me, for your own good. Yet, that same part… is afraid of what I’ll do when you do leave me. I don’t know if the world would survive it.”

“And that part of you that worries for the world’s safety is why I’m not afraid of getting a little bit hurt,” Cloud says. “We’ll figure this out.”

Sephiroth laughs brokenly. “We both know it won’t be just a little bit.”

“Sephiroth, you told me that night you wanted me to feel safe around you,” Cloud says. “Right?”

“ … Yes.”

“I don’t think that’s changed, despite all that’s happened. So, we’ll work towards that. It’s a promise, okay?”

“A promise?” Sephiroth shuts his eyes and breathes in, breathes out. “ … Okay. It’s a promise.”

-

“Light it up,” Cloud says.

Genesis nods solemnly and casts Fire3 on the neat pile of bodies. There are nineteen in total—not a large fraction of the approximate three hundred that had come to view their last showing, but Cloud can’t help but feel like he failed them, somehow. If only he’d listened to Vincent earlier, been more firm in his instructions, somehow spurred the audience to move faster—

Aerith lays a gentle hand on his shoulder. She doesn’t say any of the usual platitudes, just, “Send them off with me?”

Cloud looks at her, then rubs his face wearily. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay.”

Together, they settle onto their knees. Aerith clasps her hands together over her chest in her usual pose, but Cloud spreads his arms out in supplication, begging for forgiveness—for letting them die, for not returning them to their families, for unceremoniously burning their corpses as if JENOVA had already twisted and corrupted their bodies to her will.

Cloud gasps as glittering green rises from the smoke. JENOVA-infected creatures don’t dissolve like that into the Lifestream, not unless they’re purified before they pass on, so why—?

“See that?” Aerith smiles at him. “They forgive you.”

-

“So I checked out the flight schedule for MAX,” Zack says, scrolling through his phone. “If we wanna leave ASAP, the best option we’ve got is a flight to Rocket Town at 6:00 am tomorrow morning, and then getting to the Nibel mountains by chocobo. Nibelheim doesn’t have an airport.”

It takes Cloud a moment to remember that MAX is Midgar’s international airport. " … Sounds good. It gives us enough time to head home and pack necessities."

"All righty then!" Zack taps a few times on the screen. "Let's book tickets. How many…?"

Cloud glances over at Vincent, who shakes his head. He turns back to Zack. "Five. Vincent will meet us there."

“Okay… five…” Zack frowns slightly. “We’ll only be able to get one pair of seats that are next to each other, ‘cause we’re ordering so late. Is that okay?”

Cloud grimaces at the thought of spending several hours in close proximity to a complete stranger. “It’s not like we have a choice.”

“Cloud and I will take the pair,” Sephiroth says from where he stands to the side with his arms crossed, ever so slightly aloof from everyone else.

Cloud frowns. “Sephiroth, you can’t just—”

“It’s fine, Cloud,” Tifa says. “It’s probably better for our own ease of mind.” It’ll help everyone feel safer, having you to keep an eye on him.

Cloud doesn’t like the train of thought, but it’s not like he doesn’t understand where Tifa is coming from, either. He just wishes it didn’t estrange Sephiroth even further; in the long run, it’s not good for Sephiroth or their safety.

“Yeah! I’d definitely worry about you if you were sitting all by yourself, Cloudy,” Zack says brightly as he ruffles Cloud’s hair, likely realizing the same thing. “We all know how shy you and Seph are around strangers. The rest of us’ll be much more comfortable with it than you two will, that’s for sure.”

Sephiroth makes a scoffing noise under his breath as he glares death at Zack’s hand, most likely taking extreme offense to being called shy. Cloud, though, isn’t going to refute Zack’s statement. He’s perfectly aware of how bad his own conversational skills are; shy is already one of the nicer words that can be used to describe him.

He’s also going to consider Sephiroth not ripping Zack’s offending hand off or anything equally drastic as improvement.

Before they can split up to go get ready, though, Genesis waves them all over to a large cabinet backstage.

“Oh my gods, is this the legendary do-not-touch-on-pain-of-death cabinet?” Zack says.

Genesis scoffs, but nods anyways. “This is where I keep the weapons I’ve managed to preserve throughout the ages. Of course I wouldn’t want you dunderheads touching it.”

“Genesis! Even locked up, keeping these weapons around high schoolers is dangerous,” Tifa scolds.

“I’d hoped to have them on hand for you all in the case of an emergency. Unfortunately, this time, the curtains managed to fall and block the doors off before I could access them, and there was no time to try to move them safely,” Genesis says. “I had to conscript Angeal’s help to clear the debris, earlier. Anyways.” He unlocks the door and swings it open with a flourish. “There aren’t many—preserving them over thousands of years is not exactly easy, and they simply don’t make them the same these days. But as you six are venturing into the heart of danger, I do believe at least some protection is better than none.”

Vincent hangs back, as he has no need for another weapon, but the rest of them crowd around the doors.

“Oh,” Tifa says in surprise, pulling out her Premium Heart gloves. “I didn’t expect you to keep these…”

“Cloud took very good care of them, after you passed on. After he disappeared, I felt obligated to continue to do so.”

Tifa looks sad for a moment, then smiles at both of them. “Thanks.”

Aerith peeks in, but Genesis says apologetically, “I have no staves—wood doesn’t preserve well.”

Cloud winces. They’d sent off the Princess Guard into the water along with Aerith at the Forgotten Capital; it’d seemed fitting at the time, but now he regrets it.

“That’s okay,” Aerith says, and backs away to make room. “I have this one, after all.” She pats her prop from the musical with a satisfied smile.

From behind them, Vincent suddenly says, “First Tsurugi is with your other self, Cloud.”

Cloud sighs. It’s not like he hadn’t been expecting it, but he’s a little disappointed nonetheless. It’s okay though—there are a number of broadswords from his collection neatly racked against the back wall of the cabinet.

“Dude,” Zack says, peering over Cloud’s shoulder, “these are all so cool.”

“You can pick whichever one you want,” Cloud says.

“Seriously?” Zack’s eyes light up and dart between each one. Then he spots the Buster Sword. “You kept it!”

“Of course I kept it.” Genesis looks insulted. “Don’t you dare use that one. Not after all the effort I went through to keep it in good condition.”

“It’s fine, isn’t it?” Angeal says, coming up from behind. “Swords are meant to be used, tested, strengthened—not left to tarnish on a rack. Your honor is as good as dead if it only serves as a decorative piece. I know that now.”

Zack shakes his head. “I wasn’t gonna take it, anyways. It’s yours, Angeal. Cloud, what’s that awesome jagged-looking one?”

“That’s Force Eater,” Cloud tells him.

“That’s such an awesome name! Then, what’s that one called?” He points at a tapered black blade with a spiked orange hilt.

“Ragnarok.”

“Zack,” Tifa says, pointing at Heaven’s Cloud. “Do you want to know what that one’s called?”

Cloud groans. “Tifa, no—”

“Heaven’s Cloud.”

Zack’s jaw drops, then he snorts loudly in laughter. “Dude, Cloud, you gotta bring that one! Cloud Strife, wielding Heaven’s Cloud, here to rain justice from the heavens on our foes! Get it, rain?”

“ … I think they’d take me more seriously with the nail bat.”

In the end, Zack gives Heaven’s Cloud an apologetic pat and picks Ragnarok, leaving the rest of the selection open to Cloud. Without hesitation, Cloud takes Apocalypse, and after a moment of deliberation, pulls out Yoshiyuki as well. He turns to Sephiroth and holds out the katana, hilt-first. “I don’t know if you can still summon Masamune or not, but just in case…”

Sephiroth stares down at him. “You would arm me, your mortal enemy?”

Cloud snorts and presses it against Sephiroth’s chest. “Quit it with the dramatics and just take it.”

“It’s too short,” Sephiroth says, testing it with a few swings, but he gently caresses it with the tips of his fingers when he thinks Cloud has turned away.

“So, quick question,” Zack says. “How are we gonna get past airport security with these?”

Everyone turns to stare at Vincent, whose careful non-expression, Cloud knows, says he’s internally rolling his eyes out of the fucking stratosphere. “Very well,” he says. “I will carry your oversized blades.”

“Oh,” Cloud says and pulls his cell phone out of his pocket. “Take this, too, will you? In case something goes wrong and we need to contact you.”

Vincent stares down at it, then at Cloud. “Then I’ll be expecting you to update me on your relationship status, this time.”

Cloud chokes.

-

Cloud runs his fingers carefully over the bandage concealing the dark splotch on his cheek, hefting his backpack higher on his shoulder. There isn’t much inside—a blanket, a pack of granola bars, an empty canteen, a lighter. He might be underpacking, but it’s better to travel light than be burdened with unnecessary weight, and he’s long used to roughing it out in the wild. Besides, it’s summer, so they don’t have to worry as much about the cold mountain climate. His enhancements will take care of anything else.

Zack waves from the driver’s seat of his car, beckoning Cloud in as he tosses his bag in the trunk. They’ve all agreed to take only one car to the airport, so Zack and Sephiroth take the front two seats while Cloud and the girls cram in the back. Even with their smaller collective bulk, it’s a tight fit.

Aerith yawns, staring out the window at the steadily lightening sky. “Man, it’s so late it’s early…”

In the middle seat, Tifa sighs, rubbing at the bags under her eyes. “You got that right. I was looking forward to actually sleeping after hell week… but here we are.” She slumps against Cloud’s shoulder. “Cloud, nice fashion statement with those bandages.”

“Like walking around with giant bruises on my face and arms would be any better,” Cloud says. “Getting filed for an abuse case is not my idea of a fun time.”

“That’s what makeup is for, man, makeup! I used makeup to cover up mine,” Zack says cheerfully from the front. Sure enough, there’s no sign of bruises or bandages anywhere on his visible skin. “Want some?”

“No!” Cloud says hastily when Aerith’s eyes light up, temporarily losing their sleepy glaze. “No thanks.”

“If you say so, buddy,” Zack says. “Offer’s always open.”

The ride lapses into silence, everyone too sleep-deprived to even try to converse. Cloud’s almost managed to doze off when the car jolts over a bumpy section of road, sending him and Tifa both tumbling in Aerith’s direction. He groans. “How long is this drive again?”

“Motion sickness?” Zack looks sympathetic. “Don’t worry, it’s only about twenty more minutes.”

Cloud just makes another miserable noise.

The rest of the ride passes in a nauseating daze. He doesn’t realize how tired he is until they reach the airport, and he’s only half-conscious as they straggle out of the car and through security. He’d been counting on his enhancements to keep him up after the adrenaline-filled all-nighter they’ve pulled, but he realizes that really, none of them have slept well for an entire week, as busy preparing for the musical as they’ve been. After they board, Cloud slumps against his seat, barely aware of Sephiroth carefully settling down next to him, and resolves to sleep the entire flight.

As long as there’s no turbulence, that is.

-

The last time Cloud ever battles Sephiroth, it’s on the cliffs overlooking where Midgar used to stand. Everything is different—it’s no longer arid, lifeless desert, but bursting with life, flowers and plants of all shapes and sizes. Below them, crystal-clear waves lap peacefully at the shore. It’s transformed into a beachside paradise, and yet, Cloud can still name the exact spot where Zack fell, where the Buster Sword used to rest, where a patch of bright yellow flowers had bloomed cheerily, against all odds.

Later, Cloud will think of how fitting it is, that things have finally come full circle here of all places in this last fateful clash between the two of them, the unstoppable force and the immovable object. But right now, all he can think of is ducking in time before Masamune takes his head straight off his neck.

Sephiroth is different. He’d played JENOVA as his puppet, the first time around. But over each encounter, he’s grown more manic, less strategic, all brute force and no grace in complete defiance of the efficient, beautiful killer he’d used to be. After too many dips in the Lifestream, it seems he’s become half-slave to the seductive voice that only he can hear; soon, his lucidity might be gone forever. And Cloud is so damned tired of doing the same song and dance, over and over and over again. He’s already spat all his hate and defiance and rage and more, and it’s never changed anything. So, he takes a chance.

“Why are you doing this?”

Sephiroth blinks, as if snapping back into consciousness, then raises a brow. “Why? We’ve been over this many times, Cloud. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten in your old age.” He launches into his usual spiel of taking over the Planet, destroying all life, sailing the cosmos with his mother, et cetera, et cetera, but that isn’t what Cloud is asking about.

“I mean, why are you doing things this way,” Cloud says.

Sephiroth frowns and responds by trying to turn Cloud into a shish kabob, which is honestly very rude, but Cloud is willing to let it slide to get his answer.

“This might seem a bit hypocritical coming from me, but stabbing things isn’t always the best way to solve your problems. Even I try something else after the first few times don’t work. Get a therapist,” Cloud suggests as he slides out of Masamune’s destructive path. “Or a cat. I hear those are helpful.”

“Oh?” Sephiroth sneers. “And I suppose if I just strolled off into the sunset after acquiring a domesticated feline and allowing myself to be micro-analyzed by a middle-aged woman with a notepad and glasses who quite frankly doesn’t understand shit, you’d leave me be?”

Cloud pauses and thinks. “ … Yeah,” he admits, a bit stunned himself. “I think I would. As long as you, y’know, retire the whole killing people and destroying the world thing.”

Sephiroth looks genuinely shocked by the audacity of Cloud’s words, before his eyes glaze over a bright acid-green, and their battle is reduced to the rain of sparks produced by the ferocious acquaintance of their swords. But Cloud has had several lifetimes’ worth and more of experience in defeating Sephiroth, even when he isn’t limited by JENOVA’s control, so it’s over in a matter of minutes.

As Cloud stands over Sephiroth with Tsurugi pressing into the exposed hollow of his throat, JENOVA’s influence falls away and Sephiroth suddenly looks very vulnerable as he swallows and asks, “Would you really?”

“Really,” Cloud says, closing his eyes. “I’m so tired. What’s the point in fighting more? Why can’t we just… stop?”

“Just… stop,” Sephiroth repeats. His whole body jerks as he laughs harshly, uncaring of how Tsurugi’s edge bites deeper into his neck from the motion, drawing a thin trickle of blood. “How simple. It never occurred to me… that it was a possibility.”

And Cloud realizes his answer.

Sephiroth as a child had been groomed into a weapon, knowing nothing other than to fight and to hurt and to kill. To destroy. He follows orders; he sees things through to the end or faces failure. If there is no victory, then there is only defeat. He’s never not been controlled by someone, forced fight battles he doesn’t want—Hojo, ShinRa, JENOVA. Even if he’d chosen to follow her in the beginning, now, backed into a corner, every bit as tired as Cloud is, he doesn’t know how to just stop. And he’d probably never imagined that, once defeated, the world would not wreak its vengeance upon him for all he’s done. Cloud himself is intimately familiar with how a lack of forgiveness, self-granted or otherwise, can wear on one’s soul. But forgiveness, for Sephiroth, is not an option.

So Cloud makes it one.

“Sephiroth,” he says. “I forgive you.”

Sephiroth’s eyes widen, pupils so dilated they look almost round. He clutches the blade of Cloud’s sword, not in an attempt to escape, but in sheer surprise. “What?”

“I forgive you,” Cloud repeats. “Let’s just stop, okay? Let’s go somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful, where we don’t have to fight anymore. Maybe… maybe you could be happy there. Maybe we both could be.”

“Cloud,” Sephiroth says, and for once his name is not full of spite, full of condescension, full of hatred. Instead, it falls soft and rounded from his lips, a thing of wonder. "Both of us?"

"Yeah, both of us." Cloud smiles at him, small and tremulous, and—

Sephiroth grips tight on Cloud’s sword and pulls

down

-

“Cloud.” Sephiroth’s voice rouses Cloud out of his sleep. “Cloud.”

“Sephiroth?” Cloud blinks his eyes open, feeling groggy. “Wha—?” He snaps to full awareness, realizing his head is resting against Sephiroth’s shoulder. He jolts, hastily trying to sit up, but Sephiroth wraps an arm around his shoulder and presses him firmly back against his side.

“You’re crying,” he says, voice a low rumble in his chest.

“I—I am?” Cloud brings a hand up to his face, and to his surprise, it comes away wet. He hasn’t cried since—since—

"Be happy, Cloud.” Despite his dream’s premature end, Sephiroth’s last words as he'd faded away echo in his mind, and Cloud hastily wipes away his tears.

“What were you dreaming about?”

Cloud shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. Not anymore.”

“You were crying."

Cloud sighs. “Sephiroth,” he says, tracing the blue pattern on the airplane seat in front of him with his eyes, “do you remember the last time we fought?”

A frown knits Sephiroth’s brow. “No,” he says. “Not distinctly. Why?”

“No reason.”

Sephiroth sighs deeply, but seems to recognize he won’t get any further despite how much he prods. “Get some more rest,” he says instead. “We’ll be there in about two hours.”

And in this moment, as Sephiroth watches Cloud settle back against his arm with a warm, soft gaze, Cloud feels like maybe they really could be happy, again.

Chapter Text

The next time Cloud wakes, it’s to loud screaming and crashing as the plane lurches dangerously. He keeps his eyes shut and counts to ten, hoping desperately, futilely, that he won’t open them to mayhem and disaster. Before he even reaches six, though, someone shakes him roughly and he’s met with a blurry but very frantic version of Tifa’s face.

“Cloud! The pilot’s been knocked out! Zack’s in the cockpit right now, but he’s barely keeping us up! You’ve driven things like this before—you’ve got to get in there and take the controls!”

“Submarines are not airplanes,” Cloud tells her, but she drags him up anyways.

As they dart through each cabin, Tifa smashes ruthlessly through the shadowed monsters that swarm towards them with a single free hand, still pulling Cloud behind her with the other, and Cloud says incredulously, “How’d they even get all the way up here? We’re at least thirty thousand feet in the air!”

Tifa’s gloves creak dangerously as she clenches her fist and sends another monster crashing through three rows of seats. The passengers, thankful but terrified, scatter out of her way like frightened mice. “Kill first, ask questions later!”

The plane lurches again, and Cloud clamps his mouth shut, feeling like he’s lost his stomach somewhere between his seat and their current location.

By the time they reach the entrance to the cockpit, Aerith looks very relieved, dropping her staff from its brandished position. “Get in, quick! Zack has no idea what he’s doing!”

“I won't either!” Cloud hisses, but Tifa pushes him in and slams the door shut behind him anyways.

“Cloudy!” Zack, on the other hand, looks like he’s having the time of his life as he lets go of the yoke to twirl in his seat. “This is awesome! There are so many buttons!”

Cloud decides that he actually might be a better choice to rely on than Zack after all. “Zack, what happened to autopilot?”

“Oh,” Zack says. “The monsters shorted something out when they showed up—kinda like they did with the lights in the theater, I guess? Autopilot’s not working, so we gotta drive this thing manual. And the pilot’s kinda unconscious right now, so I’ve just been winging it. I think it’s turning out pretty okay, though! Tifa and Aerith have the monster-killing part handled, so all we gotta do is not crash.”

Just as he says that, the plane lists to one side, turning the world sideways for a second before Zack casually reaches over and straightens the yoke, setting everything right-side-up again.

“Not crashing is fine and all,” Cloud says, feeling rather green about the edges, “but can we also not do that again?”

“Oh right, motion sickness! Sorry!” Zack says, looking genuinely apologetic. He quickly places both hands on the controls. “Good thing you missed the worst of it. Now, the part in between, when the pilot was unconscious and we were trying to figure out how to open the door to the cockpit—yeah, now that was pretty wild.”

Cloud blinks. “How did I not wake up for that?”

“Well, the screaming hadn’t started up yet,” Zack says. “Also, Seph was holding you like a teddy bear to keep you from feeling the worst of it, the big softie. Snarled real touchily when we tried to wake you up, so we let you guys be. Where’d he disappear off to, anyways?”

“He wasn’t there when I woke up. Maybe he went to help with the monsters.”

“Huh, guess so.”

Suddenly, a loud explosion sounds from somewhere in the back, and the plane jerks once, twice, then everything goes sideways again as it begins to spiral.

“Shit!” Zack says. “We’re losing altitude! How do we safely land this thing?”

“Uh—” Cloud thinks frantically. “Slow us down! How do we—the flaps, deploy the flaps—”

“Which button is that?!”

“Fuck, just—pull up! Pull up!”

“Oh gods, that mountain is way too fucking close, I’m sorry for ever making fun of you for crashing into that mountain at Modeoheim, Tseng, please don’t slander me after we die—”

“Zack! The water! Aim for the water—”

-

"Aww, you look like a wet kitten," Zack coos as Cloud tries to wring the water out of his soaking-wet hair, his bangs hanging limply in his eyes.

Cloud glares.

"A grumpy wet kitten," Aerith corrects, giggling.

Not far away, the other passengers gather by the water and murmur together worriedly. Fortunately, their impromptu landing in the lake hadn't caused any injuries worse than many bruises and a few broken bones. Less fortunately, while Aerith and Tifa had managed to grab their bags before the plane had gone down, Cloud’s and Zack's are lost to the bottom of the lake. Sephiroth, on the other hand—well, Cloud's not sure if Sephiroth even brought a bag. As such, it looks like half of them will be backpacking up Mt. Nibel without actual backpacks.

“Hey, Aerith,” Zack says. “The water washed my concealer away, d’ya think you could help me fix it up?”

“Of course, babe. But—why, Cloud, would you look at that,” Aerith says, bringing her hand up over her mouth in mock surprise. “It appears that your bandages are simply far too soggy to function properly. Why don’t I help you out with that, too?”

Cloud hastily brings his hand up to his bandage, which, sure enough, is sliding off his cheek, very wet and very sad. “I… don’t think that’s necessary—”

“Of course it’s necessary!” Zack says. “What will the other passengers think of us when you waltz around with a nasty bruise like that spreading across your cheek and such a cute, pitiful expression on your face?”

“Zack—”

“I’m sure you’ll perk right up with a bit of makeup on,” Aerith says. “Don’t you think so too, Seph?”

Sephiroth makes a disparaging noise in the back of his throat. “Don’t involve me in your harebrained schemes.”

“Wow, that’s practically permission coming from you, Seph,” Zack says, cackling. “You really do wanna see Cloudy all prettied up, don’t you?”

“I mean, he did miss out on Miss Cloud,” Aerith says, already tugging her apparently waterproof case of makeup out of her bag.

“Tifa,” Cloud says, shooting her as pathetic a look as he can muster. The memory of the kind of attention he’d gotten the last time he’d been dragged into something like this still makes him squirm uncomfortably.

Tifa, the traitor, only turns away and smothers her laughter in her fist.

Cloud sighs and resigns himself to his fate as Aerith and Zack crowd in over him, forcing him to sit down on the grass. For all his protests, it’s really not a bad solution to covering up the Geostigma markings. And if Aerith wants to have a bit of fun at the same time, well, Cloud doesn't have the heart to stop her, even if it does cost him a bit of his pride. At least this time he’s not aiming to look like a female hooker, so it shouldn’t be as unpleasant. Probably.

Most of the stuff she smears onto his face isn’t too bad, even the eye shadow, but the moment she reaches for the eyeliner—

“What are you doing with that,” Cloud says with poorly concealed alarm. Things that small and pointy shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near people’s eyes.

“Just relax and look down, Cloud,” Aerith scolds, brandishing the pen in a very worrying manner. “You’ve got to treat your new boyfriend somehow, right? You two never even had a proper dressed-up dinner date or anything. Now look up—yes, just like that. You should be grateful. You’re going to be so pretty after this, I’m going to be jealous.”

“Aw, babe, there’s no need to be jealous,” Zack says. “No one will ever be prettier than you in my eyes.” He pauses. “Cloudy will be very pretty, though, won’t he? Ah, I’m so proud…”

“I don’t need to be pretty,” Cloud says. “Sephiroth doesn’t care if I’m pretty or not.”

“What!” Zack stands in outrage. “Seph, how could you let poor Cloudy think—”

“Which is a good thing!” Cloud hastens to add.

Zack pouts. “Fine then. Be pretty for other people.”

“We’re going up an uninhabited mountain, into a cave probably crawling with shadow monsters. There are no other people, Zack.”

“Exactly!” Zack says. “Think of the terrible dangers we’ll face! Any of us could lose our lives at any moment! What if you die? Do you really want our last perception of you to be those terrible black marks on your face? No! We want to remember you as you lived, bright and full of—okay, not exactly happiness, but you get what I mean, don’t you?”

“So,” Cloud says dryly, “it’s fine if I die, as long as I’m pretty? Zack, I don’t think—holy shit Aerith what is that—”

“Mascara,” Aerith answers cheerfully. “Hold very still, okay? I don’t want to accidentally blind you or anything. I’ve never healed makeup-related injuries before.”

Cloud obeys.

Aerith steps back and holds up a small, circular mirror. “So, what do you think? I only brought some of my makeup, so I had to make do with a warmer pallet than I’d like, but—”

“I think you did a great job, babe,” Zack says enthusiastically, and Cloud… doesn’t disagree. It’s much less exaggerated than last time—he thinks his eyes might look bigger, and his lips shinier, and the eye shadow seems to do something, but otherwise, he’s not the kind of aesthetically-minded person who’d be able to pick out anything else. Honestly, he’s just glad he still looks like himself.

Aerith pats Zack’s arm indulgently. “Thanks, Zack. But your opinion, as kind as it is, doesn’t really count.” He wilts, and Cloud feels compelled to also pat his arm, but consolingly instead. However, he freezes when Aerith calls, “Seph! Come over here! We need your feedback!”

“What—no, Aerith, let’s not make a big deal of this, okay? Let’s just get going, we still have to find Vincent, and—”

Cloud clamps his mouth shut when Sephiroth steps in front of him, staring down with an unreadable expression. Suddenly, he’s a bit afraid of what that expression might mean. Is it approval? Disapproval? Contempt, even? He’s fought so hard for Sephiroth to see him as someone worthy of acknowledgment, an equal; if Sephiroth loses any respect for him just because of the way he looks—

“It is… acceptable,” Sephiroth says.

“Really?” Aerith huffs, placing her hands on her hips. “I go through all this trouble for you, Seph, and that’s all you say?”

“Your objective was to cover up the marks on his face, was it not?” Sephiroth says. “You accomplished your goal. There is nothing more to be said.”

Cloud darts a look up at Sephiroth through his much darker eyelashes, biting his lip uncertainly. Is he—is he being kind by casually brushing over the subject? Or maybe he really is less than impressed. Or maybe, like Cloud had said earlier, Sephiroth doesn’t actually care about what he looks like, and some part of him is less pleased by the thought that than he’d like to be.

Sephiroth frowns deeply as an angry-sounding noise punches out of his chest, and he stalks off.

Cloud’s shoulders slump. “Aerith, what was that for?”

“Well, this is very important,” Aerith says. “We have to remind Sephiroth of what he has to lose if he decides to turn against humanity. For now, it’s you, since that seems to be what he cares about most right now. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to his more, ah, carnal nature to accomplish that.”

“Well,” Cloud says, “it kinda looks like we drove him away instead.”

“Aw, no, Cloud, that’s not true, you did perfectly. Don’t be sad. Seph’s just being a dumb-dumb—you heard me right, a dumb-dumb. He panicked, that’s all.”

“That come-hither look you shot him, along with the lip-biting thing towards the end there?” Zack says. “Totally had him all hot and bothered. Trust me, I’d know that kind of look from a mile away. But wait, no, actually—that’s not a good thing, that’s a very, very bad thing!” He grasps Cloud by the shoulders and shakes him. “Cloudy, if he ever touches you in a no-no place while looking at you like that, you tell him to stop! And you’d better let me know! I’ll, I’ll—” He makes a loud, incomprehensible noise.

Cloud frowns. “What is this, sixth grade sex ed? Besides, he was angry, not horny. That’s his half-angry, half-confused, half-wants-to-stab-me kind of look. Wait, no, that’s three halves.” Cloud pauses to reconsider. “Never mind. Either way, that’s just how he looks when he wants to stab something. Namely me.”

“What? No! No way! Don’t tell me he’s been eye-raping you since day one! My poor Cloudy’s innocence…! Next thing we know, he’ll be taking your virginity like a—like a brute!”

“I wouldn’t mind being there for that kind of stabbing,” Aerith says a bit dreamily, and Zack looks scandalized.

Cloud rolls his eyes. Sometimes, Zack really does treat him like he’s still a sixteen-year-old trooper fresh out of the countryside. Most days, it’s a nice break from his life in general, but every once in a while, it leads to situations like this. “Whatever you say. Zack, give me your phone. I need to call Vincent to let him know what happened, and then we need to check up on the people back home.”

Zack fishes his still-wet phone from his pocket. “So, my waterproof case did come in handy after all! You made fun of me when I got it, you know.”

“I was mocking your clumsiness, not your foresight,” Cloud tells him. “Now hand it over.”

-

The first thing Vincent says to him is, “Your plane crashed.”

“ … How’d you know?”

Vincent sighs, long and loud. “Flight tracker. It’s also on the news. Though with your luck, I should have anticipated it regardless. However, we’re fortunate. Your location is less than half a day’s journey from our destination. I’ll be there shortly.” He hangs up.

“Nice talking to you too, Vincent,” Cloud says to the dial tone, and pulls up Angeal’s number next. The person who picks up, though, is definitely not Angeal.

“Why hello there, you’ve reached Madame Red’s hostess club,” purrs a lascivious voice. “We specialize in dances and massages of a… special interest. Of course, we also offer a special over-the-line deal, with a starting rate of seventy gil per hour. How may we service you today, Master?”

Cloud blinks. “ … Reno?”

“Oh! Oh shit! That you, Strife? What’re ya doin’ with Zack’s phone, yo? Ifrit’s balls, Zack’s gonna kill me—”

“What are you doing with Angeal’s phone?”

“Me’n the rest o’ the Turks are helpin’ yer buddies out with that special assignment ya gave ‘em, yo! Saw ‘em fumblin’ around hopelessly like a buncha blind hedgehog pies and felt real bad, they were so pathetic! So Boss was real magnanimous and offered—”

“Reno,” a different voice says, muffled by distance. “Who’s that you’re speaking with?”

“Angeal?” Cloud says. “You let the Turks help you out?”

“Cloud!” There’s a period of loud fumbling, then the static clears, and Angeal coughs, sounding a tad embarrassed. “Well, you see, they just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and—”

“Fuck you, we’re awesome!” Reno hollers. “You ain’t never figured out nothin’ about how we all remembered everythin’ while y’all were scramblin’ around with yer heads in yer asses, did ya? That’s right, yo, it’s ‘cause we—”

A door slams, cutting his voice off.

“Sorry about that.”

Cloud sighs. “Don’t worry about it. It’s Reno.”

“So, what did you call for?”

“The monsters attacked us on the airplane,” Cloud says, and Angeal inhales sharply. “Did you guys—?”

“No,” he says quickly. “Nothing’s happened. In fact, other than the anticipated political fuss, it’s almost too peaceful, here.”

“The monsters didn’t attack anyone outside the theater, either,” Cloud says in realization. “Which means…”

“She’s targeting someone in your group,” Angeal finishes.

And if JENOVA wants to get her slimy tentacles on anyone at all, it would be—

Sephiroth.

This is the same conclusion everyone else reaches, too, when Cloud tells them the news. Their gazes all instantly snap to Sephiroth. Before they can discuss the issue further, though, a tingling at the nape of Cloud’s neck prompts him to look up just in time to catch a glimpse of a dark silhouette swoop across the sky.

“Vincent’s here,” Cloud says. The corner of his mouth quirks up. “Let’s mosey.”

-

Upon catching sight of Cloud’s face, Vincent pauses, but only says, “ … I see things are going well.” With that ambiguous statement, he turns with a dramatic flair and leads them into the woods.

As they hike up the mountainside, Sephiroth hovers a few feet behind Cloud at all times, until he finally tugs him aside and says stiffly, “Aerith informed me that my actions earlier hurt your feelings. I apologize. It was not my intention. I was merely… surprised.”

Cloud raises a brow. “How long did you rehearse that for?”

Sephiroth ignores his comment in favor of stubbornly plowing on. “Zack also informed me that if I were to ever have any indecent thoughts about you and your virginity, he would not hesitate to eviscerate me slowly and painfully with a rusty spoon. Seeing as he is still incapable of defeating me with an actual weapon, I am unsure of how he plans to accomplish this, but he seemed very serious.”

Cloud snorts. “He’ll find a way.”

“I also wanted to let you know… that your makeup is very nice, and while it does happen to prompt many so-called… ‘indecent thoughts’ about you… I think you are very pretty just as yourself. And I am no more or less interested in you than I was before.” Sephiroth pauses. “Don’t tell Zack what I said about my thoughts.”

“Oh, that’s… very sweet of you,” Cloud says, surprised. It looks like teenage Sephiroth might have a larger influence on Sephiroth’s overall psyche than he’d thought. He smiles. “Thanks.”

“You forgive me?” Along with those words, Sephiroth’s look of raw hope so strongly mirrors his dream from earlier that Cloud’s breath hitches.

“I—yeah. Yeah, of course I do,” he says, trying to conceal the wobble in his voice, and hopes Sephiroth doesn’t notice the extra layer to his response. Sephiroth frowns, though, clearly picking up on something, so Cloud slides a hand into his and tugs gently. “C'mon, let’s catch up with the others.”

-

When they reach the cave, the sun has just begun to set, gilding the landscape in gold fire. Its entrance appears to be no more than a crevice in the stone face of the mountain—that is, until Vincent sweeps aside a curtain of crawling ivy, revealing a much larger hole.

The interior of the cave is eerily quiet, their footsteps echoing loudly off the damp walls. To the side, Cloud can see Zack slip his hand over Aerith’s, who squeezes reassuringly back. Tifa’s gaze darts around nervously, and even Sephiroth is frowning as he reaches up to rubs his temples. Only Vincent seems unperturbed as he scans the area and says, “The creatures appear to have all left. When I was here previously, the cave was swarming with them.”

“So… what do we do now?” Zack says. “It just looks like a normal super-creepy cave to me. How’re we gonna find any clues?”

“There is more,” Vincent says. “Follow me.”

He leads them to the very back of the cave, where a mako pool glows a sickly green. In the center of the pool lies a large crystal, its glow weak and fluctuating. Darkness spreads like veins beneath its surface, pulsing with some poisonous heartbeat. Cloud can vaguely make out a humanoid figure trapped within.

“Oh, no,” Aerith breathes, hands over her mouth. She looks sick. “Cloud…”

Beside Cloud, Sephiroth winces and raises a hand up to his forehead again. “Her voice… it’s getting louder…”

Someone else says something in response to that rather alarming statement, but the conversation blurs indistinctly. Suddenly, Cloud feels compelled to take a step forward, then another, and another, until he’s walking straight through the mako, uncaring of how its impurity causes it to burn like acid against his skin. Like a beacon, the crystal beckons, and before he knows it, he’s face to face with his own frozen self, not quite a mirror image, but near enough to send an eerie prickle down Cloud’s spine. He raises a hand and presses it gently against the crystal’s surface.

Clarity snaps back just in time for him to hear Tifa say, “Cloud! What are you doing? Get back from there, it’s dangerous—”

Something rumbles. With a deceptively delicate cracking noise, fissures lace through the crystal’s surface, until the first chunk cracks away and falls into the pool with a booming splash, spraying up mako in a fine green mist. Cloud recoils, protecting his face with his arms. As if following a cue, more and more shards rain into the liquid, shattering the cave’s deathly silence again and again until he can’t differentiate the ringing noise in his ears from the echoes resonating against the stone walls.

When the mako haze clears, the stillness somehow still ringing loudly, Cloud’s double hovers in the air, body slack, as if sleeping.

“Cloud,” Tifa calls again, alarmed—

The other Cloud’s eyes snap open, revealing a near-blinding white glow. His gaze falls to Cloud.

Two cannot coexist.

“Uh, what—ah!” Cloud yelps as his instincts scream, ducking just in time for Tsurugi to whistle over his head, cutting off a few strands of his hair. “Shit!”

“Crap!” Zack says, sounding panicked. “Crystal-Cloud’s gone crazy! JENOVA must’ve already gotten to him!”

“Seph’s collapsed!” Aerith says, equally as panicked. “I think she’s trying to control him, too!”

“Aerith!” Cloud calls, hissing sharply as he barely avoids a lethal blow, Tsurugi instead carving a deep scratch up his forearm. Crystal-Cloud, as Zack’s dubbed him, is pressing him so hard he doesn’t even have time to pull his sword from his back; the only reason he hasn’t been sliced in half yet is because he’s intimately familiar with his own style and can somewhat predict the other’s motions. “Get him out of the—agh, out of the way!”

Tifa strikes harshly from behind, sending crystal-Cloud stumbling and giving Cloud enough time to draw Apocalypse. Their opponent, however, retaliates by knocking Tifa away with the flat of his sword, too hard and too fast for her to recover, and she chokes back a scream as her hip smashes against a sharp stone with a disturbing crack.

“Tifa!” Aerith cries. Having settled Sephiroth safely against the wall, she scrambles to her friend’s side, hands quickly lighting up green.

“Cloud!” Vincent warns, and Cloud darts out of the way as he shoots thrice in crystal-Cloud’s direction. The bullets converge on him in a triangular whirlwind, but he simply splits Tsurugi in two and bats them away without blinking an eye. In the attempt to gain some breathing room, Cloud leaps back a few paces, but barely manages to say, “Zack—” before his opponent is suddenly right in front of him, somehow conveying the threat of imminent death with his completely expressionless face.

Cloud bring his sword up, but he already knows he’s too slow, much too slow. He flinches backwards, thinking, This is it, Zack, you were right, I’m going to die with makeup on, are you happy now—

“Cloud!!” Zack yells, Ragnarok colliding against the longer of the two blades and pushing it back.

Cloud hastily warns, “Zack, watch for the other sword—”

But crystal-Cloud simply tosses Zack back carelessly, skirting around to attack Cloud again with a vengeance.

Zack manages to land against the wall, feet-first, and doggedly intercepts once again. “Cloud!” he says again. “I know you’re in there somewhere! It’s Zack, your buddy! You gotta stop—”

“Don’t bother, Zack, there’s no one in there, he’s just being controlled—”

“You gotta believe, Cloudy!” Zack says. “I believe in you. Even if you’re not in there anymore, you used to be—there’s gotta be something of you left, right? Ughh—!” Zack grunts as he’s thrown into the wall again, much harsher this time, leaving him open and vulnerable as he slides to the floor, but crystal-Cloud merely fixes his eerie gaze back on Cloud again.

Their eyes meet.

Two cannot coexist, his own voice says again in his head, overlaid by a chorus of faint, familiar voices, and suddenly, Cloud understands. His strangely intent focus on Cloud, the way he avoids seriously hurting the others when he could kill them all in ten seconds flat—

The next time crystal-Cloud darts toward him, too fast for him to see, he lets his sword drop limply to the side, tip meeting the ground with a clatter, and Tsurugi plunges deep into his chest.

Crystal-Cloud stares down at him, then his eyes flutter shut, cutting off their brilliant glow.

It is as it should be.

Cloud coughs, blood spilling from his lips, thick and red and wet. He blinks, once, twice, each time slower than the next as black spots dance across his vision and his friends’ cries fade in and out of his hearing, making everything seem fuzzy and distant. His eyelids are heavy, dragging lower and lower, and with the last of his strength, he looks over his counterpart’s shoulder and catches sight of wide green eyes.

Cloud coughs wetly again. “S-Sephiroth…”

Sephiroth’s eyes grow wider. “Cloud—”

-

Cloud frowns as he wipes away the green-tinted blood staining his sword. The wildlife in the Nibel region hasn't been this aggressive for over a millennia, not since they'd shut down the reactors. There’s a large number of naturally-occurring mako springs in the area, but only tainted mako causes this intense of a reaction—and it's getting worse. The first few encounters had barely been challenging enough for Cloud to pull out his sword; now, the only reason he doesn't have a debilitating chunk of flesh missing from his right hip is his disturbingly fast healing rate.

It's going to be bothering him for the next few days, he knows it. Just another item on the long list of injuries Vincent is sure to notice and glare disapprovingly about in the hopes of pressuring Cloud into talking.

He won’t, though. Not until he’s sure of what’s going on. There’s no point in resurrecting age-old worries if his suspicions end up being wrong, and there’s no one who wants Cloud’s suspicions to be wrong more than Cloud himself.

Over the past few months, he’s managed to track the cases of mako-crazed animals and narrow down the cause to this area—specifically, this cave. It makes sense: it’s located only a few hundred feet lower in elevation than the Nibel reactor, possibly even directly beneath its mako reservoir, and has escaped their many inspections throughout the years because its entrance, concealed by a curtain of greenery, is on the opposite side of the mountain. Mako in that reactor had been filtered through JENOVA herself; if it’d managed to somehow seep into the soil, or worse, a water source in the cave throughout the years…

Even with all the times Sephiroth had returned, after the Geostigma outbreak, JENOVA had never done more than rely on using Sephiroth alone. Cloud had honestly thought that her influence on the Planet had been eradicated by Aerith’s healing rain. But now that Sephiroth is gone, has been for centuries, she may be resorting to different methods, a slow and insidious gathering of power rather than anything as showy or explosive as summoning Meteor.

The moment Cloud steps inside, he knows something is wrong. Over the past years, he's gotten used to feeling the Planet's presence humming beneath his feet, hearing the barely-distinguishable murmuring of the Lifestream in the space behind his brain, but now it's muffled, as if a curtain has been drawn, and he feels small and alone. Empty. The unceasing drip, drip, drip of water trickling down the cave’s walls only serves to further set his nerves on edge. Hesitantly, he edges in deeper, his unease growing steadily the entire way.

Cloud flinches as a sibilant whisper echoes throughout the cave, bouncing off the walls and sliding uncomfortably across his hearing. Every fiber in his body is screaming to get the fuck out, but if what he suspects really is true…

Well. The thought keeps him forging ahead.

When he reaches the back, though, there’s nothing there. Carefully, he presses a hand up against the cool, wet stone—

danger

Cloud stumbles backwards, clutching his head. It feels like the Planet’s ripped a hole through his mind in her desperation to contact him, smashing through the strange barrier keeping her out of the cave with reckless abandon. Suddenly, a flurry of shadows rush out of every corner, every crevice, stretching out towards him hungrily like a gaping maw—

dangerrungetawayDANGER

This time, Cloud can’t keep the cry of pain from bursting from his lips. Just as the first dark tendril wraps its way around his ankle, harshly tugging his feet out from underneath him, the Planet screams

DANGERCALAMITYCORRUPTIONMADNESS

A blinding light sears across Cloud’s vision, and the Lifestream roars in his ears. The last thing he hears, almost a whisper, is

protect

then he knows no more.

Chapter Text

Before Sephiroth can do more than utter that single shocked syllable, Cloud and his counterpart both shatter into shards of green light that twine together as they drift upwards, vanishing one by one.

“Cloud—” Sephiroth chokes out again, throwing himself up on wobbling legs and crossing the cave in half a heartbeat to grasp at the lights uselessly. They’re warm and soft as they kiss his fingers in a final farewell.

The Calamity’s goal is you, Sephiroth. Be careful. Cloud’s voice is quiet and gentle as it brushes against his mind, nearly inaudible, and for a moment he can almost feel fingers run soothingly through his hair. Everything depends on you. Your choice.

“No, Cloud, don’t leave me,” he says, helplessly, despairingly. “I can’t—without you, I can’t—”

I believe in you.

And the last light winks out, leaving nothing but a dark, empty cave and a bloody sword at Sephiroth’s feet.

-

“Seph.”

Sephiroth doesn’t look up from Tsurugi’s blade, his knuckles white against its hilt. He hadn’t been able to bear the thought of Cloud’s lifeblood staining his own beloved sword for any longer than it already had, so he’d wiped it off with his shirtsleeves. By now, the blood has dried and crusted, leaving the cloth stiff and rust-colored. He looks like a killer.

It’s fitting.

Aerith kneels by him. “Seph, we have to go.”

Sephiroth rises compliantly to his feet, but Aerith gently places a hand over his, where it still clutches at Tsurugi’s hilt. “You’ll have to give his sword to Vincent.”

Sephiroth stiffens. “No.” His voice is raspy.

“I understand how you feel,” Aerith says, and Sephiroth thinks, No, you don’t. How could anyone understand the maelstrom raging in his head, his heart, his entire soul? “But we can’t take it on the airplane with us. I promise it’ll only be for as long as it takes to get us back, and then he’ll give it right back to you.”

Sephiroth shakes his head. “No.”

“Seph,” Aerith says helplessly.

“Aerith,” Vincent says from where he stands at the cave entrance. “We must go. I fear what JENOVA has planned next, now that Cloud… now that Cloud is—”

Sephiroth calls on a power he’d thought long gone, and a single large, dark wing unfurls from his back, easy as breathing.

“Sephiroth—!” Aerith says, alarmed, but Sephiroth merely strides out of the cave and meets Vincent’s scarlet gaze steadily.

“I will take Cloud’s sword myself.”

Vincent stares back, face unreadable, then inclines his head. “Very well. Let us go.”

-

Only day two after the attack on the theater, and things are already not going according to plan. They’d commandeered a room in the city hall to hold their meetings and plan before their sessions with the city council, but now…

“Well,” Reeve says, tearing a few pages of notes in half, “it seems most of our original plan is void. The alert system, evacuation sites, designated routes—all useless. Since the monsters appear to be targeting either Cloud or Sephiroth, it’s unlikely they will go through the extra effort to harm humans who are not directly in their vicinity. Those two might be the best defense we have for nearby civilians, anyways. Furthermore, the news of a freak monster attack seems to have leaked and most of the city’s population has already left… We’ve really got a lot less to worry about now, I suppose.”

Yuffie groans. “I can’t believe we spent all that time arguing with those old fogeys for nothing!”

“Shut your goddamn yap!” Cid says. “You weren’t even the one who had to do it!”

“But Cid!” Yuffie says, eyes dramatically wide, “I was there in spirit!”

“In other news,” Reeve interjects, “school is still cancelled, as no one wants to step foot within a ten-mile radius of the theater. Robbery incidents of abandoned stores and homes are on the rise, so we'll have to do something about that. Am I missing anything else…?”

Angeal coughs. “How’s the, uh, parent situation?”

Genesis rubs his temples. “Fortunately, Zackary’s parents are still on their business trip and are probably blissfully unaware of how much money he just spent on plane fare for five people. Lucrecia is understandably concerned, but she seems to trust in her son’s ability to take care of himself. Ms. Gainsborough seems to know more about everything than we’d expect, though I suppose it isn’t out of the ordinary due to her daughter’s unique situation with her memories. Mr. Lockhart is wavering between outraged that his daughter would ever do such a thing and resigned that she’s finally reached the peak of her so-called ‘rebellious stage’. And Ms. Strife… is somehow more intimidating than her son is. I’m so getting fired for this,” he laments.

“And what about your writer friends?” Angeal asks. “Are they still refusing to leave?”

“Oh, no, I told them to stay!” Genesis says. “And they were quite glad to. Witnessing firsthand the battle for the Planet’s perilous fate—now, that is something not every artist can boast.”

Barret snorts. “That’s ‘cause you artist types ain’t ever the ones out there doin’ the actual fightin’.”

Before Genesis can do more than puff up in outrage, a knock sounds at the door before it swings open.

“Vincent and Sephiroth are back,” Elena says, face rather pale.

“Where are Zack and the others?” Angeal asks.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. Vincent just said that the others would be back in a few days before disappearing. No one knows where he is. And Sephiroth wouldn’t say anything, but he’s covered in blood, and he looks… he looks—” She shudders.

“Where did he go,” Genesis demands.

“He—he just… walked off in the direction of the theater, carrying Cloud’s sword—not the one he took with him, but his old one, the one with way too many parts,” Elena says. “Reno and Rude are following him right now.”

“The theater’s not structurally safe!” Reeve says, alarmed. “Did no one try to stop him?”

Elena laughs, a bit hysterically. “Do you think that matters to him? You try—you try stopping fucking Sephiroth on a warpath! Whose grand idea was it to give him a sword? Seven swords, now that he has all of Cloud’s, too?”

“I’m worried that something terrible has happened to Cloud," Angeal says. "The blood is an awful sign, and why else would Sephiroth come back on his own, rather than taking the plane along with everyone else? And carrying First Tsurugi, at that?”

“ … I agree,” Genesis murmurs. “But if that’s the case, I’m surprised he hasn’t done anything… drastic.”

Angeal frowns at him. “He needs time to process things, too, Genesis. He feels shock and sorrow like the rest of us. Besides, if something has truly happened to Cloud, Sephiroth knows returning to his old ways is the last thing Cloud wants.”

“No, Angeal,” Genesis says. “Sephiroth, for all his coolly logical exterior and seemingly ironclad self-control, is an impulse-driven man. What this can only mean is… whoever is responsible for whatever happened is someone he cannot do anything against. For now.”

-

Light filters through a few jagged holes in the ceiling as Sephiroth steps into the theater, illuminating the dust motes scattering up from the ground. In just a few days, it’s fallen into a shocking state of disrepair. The curtains have collapsed, half the stage has fallen into the pit, and large portions of the audience seating has been knocked over or obliterated entirely. Though the monsters’ bodies have long returned to the Lifestream, Sephiroth’s sensitive nose can still pick out the faint, metallic tang of blood and the sour, musky scent unique to their darkness.

At the sound of two sets of footsteps shadowing him at a wary distance, he pauses. “I am JENOVA’s next target,” he says to the air. “I am merely here to await her in a location where there will be no potential casualties. Is that satisfactory?”

The red-haired one balks and stutters, clearly debating whether to reveal himself or not.

“If you have nothing to say, then leave.”

The dark one with sunglasses grunts and nods at Sephiroth. “Reno,” he says, placing a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Now alone, Sephiroth makes his way backstage. It’s somewhat less distressed, with only a few props and tables knocked over. The costume rack is missing a metal bar, and there are several articles of clothing scattered across the wood flooring. Sephiroth dismisses them all quickly; none of them are what he is looking for.

He pauses by the steps leading up to the stage. Lying abandoned on the ground are a battered microphone stand and camera tripod, their metal limbs dented and even completely bent in some areas. The scent of tainted blood is strong about the area. He takes a moment to run his hands over the two items, but these aren’t what he’s looking for either.

The last place he enters is the lighting booth. It’s surprisingly intact, with only a few items scattered on the table, as if their owner might return at any moment.

(Sephiroth knows he won’t.)

Slung over the back of one of the chairs is a soft, well-loved black sweatshirt, Midgar High Theater Tech written on the left breast in matte black lettering. Lying on the table in front of the chair is an open packet of paper, a tiny headset resting on top.

Carefully, Sephiroth leans Tsurugi against the wall, then picks up the sweatshirt with trembling fingers and brings it up to his face. Even several days later, the achingly familiar scent of pine and motor oil lingers on the fabric. Settling into the chair, he gently slides the headset off the packet, revealing a page with a neatly typed chart and scrawling handwriting underneath: talk to aerith abt sephiroth’s costume, change in scene 4 not enough time.

Sephiroth clutches Cloud’s sweatshirt to his chest and cries.

-

True to Vincent’s word, Zack, Tifa, and Aerith arrive three days later, disheveled and clearly exhausted. They all have deep shadows under their eyes and fading, green-purple bruises littering their skin.

"Where's Cloud," Genesis demands.

Zack flinches, face pale. Aerith lowers her eyes. And Tifa grits her teeth, looking like she wants to punch something.

Genesis frowns. It’s as they feared.

“Let’s start at the beginning, then,” Angeal says, gentle and coaxing. “Did you find any clues about JENOVA and her creatures?”

“It was a fucking trap,” Zack growls. “We went all the way there, and Cloud—and Cloud…” He chokes, voice breaking, and shakes his head. “It was all for nothing. We didn’t find shit.”

“How’s Seph?” Aerith asks.

Genesis sighs. “He hasn’t left the theater since he came back. The only thing he told us is that he’s JENOVA’s next target, and he doesn’t want anyone else caught up in it. He hasn’t responded to anyone since. We’ve brought him food, but I don’t think he even touches it.”

“Poor man,” she says. "He's heartbroken."

“Remember, it could be worse,” Tifa says grimly. “We should be thankful for that, at least.”

“What exactly happened?” Angeal asks.

“We… we went into the cave,” Aerith says. “Vincent says he saw the monsters the last time he investigated on his own, but they were all gone by the time we got there. We only found Cloud’s crystal. It was terrible, all covered in black shadows…”

“Cloud went into some sort of trance,” Tifa says. “We were distracted, because Sephiroth said he was hearing JENOVA’s voice in his head, so we didn’t notice until he’d walked right up to the crystal and somehow woken his other self up.”

“And then things went to shit,” Zack says. “Cloud, crystal-Cloud, that is—he attacked us.”

“He attacked Cloud,” Aerith corrects. “When we tried to stop him… well, he could have easily killed any of us. But he didn’t. Only Cloud.”

“Only Cloud,” Zack agrees, quiet and sad. “Ran him right through with Tsurugi.”

“Was he under JENOVA’s control, then?” Genesis asks.

“That’s what we think,” Zack says, but Aerith shakes her head.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “Towards the end, he wasn’t too slow or anything; he let himself be run through. I saw him lower his sword. When they were staring at each other… I think they were speaking to each other. I could hear the voices of the souls in the Lifestream, very faintly. And if he was controlled by JENOVA, why wouldn’t he keep going and kill the rest of us after Cloud? Plus, when they returned to the Lifestream together, their essences were both pure—no sign of JENOVA at all. I think crystal-Cloud was being controlled by the Planet.”

“What?” Zack says. “The Planet?”

“I didn’t want to say anything while we were there, in case Seph heard. Right now, he thinks JENOVA is responsible for everything. If he ever finds out that he lost Cloud because of the Planet…” She shudders. “I don’t want to think about what he might do.”

“I see,” Genesis says. “But the question still remains—why would the Planet kill her own Champion? She’s always been almost overprotective of him.”

“I don’t know. I may hear more than the average person, but I can’t claim to understand the Planet’s plans any more than you do,” Aerith says. “But Cloud’s already done more than enough. He bought us time—a thousand years’ worth. He restored all our memories. He even convinced Sephiroth, JENOVA’s most useful pawn, to come to our side. Now that he’s in the Lifestream, he deserves to be at peace. We shouldn’t let him worry about us. JENOVA’s coming; it’s time to get our act together and do our part.”

-

“Where is my son,” Ms. Strife demands, standing as tall as her petite stature allows.

Genesis looks at her sorrowfully, for once out of smooth words to say.

"Zack and the others are all back safely," she says. "But where is my son?"

"I would also like to know where my own son is as well, Genesis," Lucrecia says, chin lifted regally. "I have always respected you as my coworker. I find it hard to believe that you simply lost track of several of your students during such a devastating emergency, and never bothered to follow through. And now that most of them have returned… Genesis, where is Sephiroth?"

Genesis sighs. "I suppose you ought to follow me, Lucrecia. I can take you to where Sephiroth is. As for you, Ms. Strife…" He hesitates. "You’d better come with us as well."

He leads the two women to the theater, where Sephiroth is, predictably, sitting on the ground with Tsurugi on his lap. He seems to have requisitioned a sword-cleaning kit from somewhere, and is busy buffing its blade to a bright shine.

Beside Genesis, Lucrecia inhales sharply, clearly shocked by her son’s state. Sephiroth’s appearance is, indeed, quite shocking to anyone who is familiar with his usual stoic and immaculate self. His face is pale and gaunt, his hair matted and greasy, and there’s a manic gleam in his otherwise dull eyes.

At least he’s changed out of his bloody shirt.

Genesis says, “Sephiroth—”

“I told you I am waiting,” Sephiroth snaps. “Can I not even await my vengeance in peace? No, I am not planning on burning, stabbing, or otherwise killing or permanently maiming anyone, nor am I sitting here to plot my insidious path towards world domination. If you have no news of JENOVA, then—” He cuts himself off as he stands and faces them, expression freezing into something vulnerable and almost hopeful as his gaze falls on Ms. Strife, who, Genesis suddenly realizes, resembles her son quite closely. Then he blinks, and the hope vanishes as if it were never there in the first place. “You are… Cloud’s mother?”

She studies him. “Yes. You… you’re Sephiroth, aren’t you?”

“I… yes.”

“Cloud’s mentioned you,” she says with a bittersweet smile. “That sword… it’s his, isn’t it? I see…” She sighs, then turns to Genesis. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, Mr. Rhapsodos. I’ll leave you be.”

Genesis opens his mouth, but nothing quite coherent falls out. “Ms. Strife—”

To his surprise, she bows, first to him, then to Sephiroth. “Thank you for looking after my son. I understand now. Somehow, I always knew…” She trails off, shaking her head, then turns and walks out, back straight and head held high.

For a moment, the remaining three of them watch her strong shoulders, until the door shuts with a gentle click, breaking the spell.

“Sephiroth,” Lucrecia murmurs sorrowfully.

Sephiroth turns to her, gaze roving hungrily over her features, and Genesis realizes this is the first time he’s seen his mother since he regained his memories. “Mother,” he says. “I’m sorry. I can’t go home yet.”

She examines him carefully, then nods. “I know. You’ve unfinished business to attend to. My only question is… are you planning on returning home at all, Sephiroth?”

His eyes widen. “Mother, I…”

For her, it’s answer enough. She closes her eyes and sighs. “I see. Then… take care, my son. Remember those who love you. And don’t ever lose sight of what you originally set out to do.” With those parting words, she beckons to Genesis. “It’s time we left.”

Genesis can’t resist turning back to his old friend. “Sephiroth…”

Sephiroth nods. “Genesis. Goodbye.”

And somehow, with just that exchange, Genesis feels both at peace and terribly, awfully sad as they leave Sephiroth behind in the shattered theater.

-

“You really do love him, don’t you?”

Sephiroth doesn’t look over, gaze fixed on the hole in the theater ceiling. From behind, he can hear Aerith sigh, then settle onto the ground beside him.

“It’s been almost two weeks,” she says. “You should take a break.”

Sephiroth says nothing. Even now, the memory of blood spilling slick and red from Cloud’s mouth as he coughs burns bright in his mind, and isn’t it strange that this particular instant doesn’t seem to ever fade when Sephiroth himself has done the same, worse, to Cloud over and over and over again, and even revelled in his suffering?

“At least sleep in a real bed. I know you don’t want to leave, but we can always just bring one over.”

His wide blue eyes, slowly turning glassy, then, as if a switch had been flipped, dull and lifeless before he’d dissolved into bright green light, Tsurugi clattering loudly to the ground—

Aerith sighs again. “You know Cloud would hate to see you like this.”

But Cloud isn’t here to see him like this, so why does it matter?

As if having heard his thoughts, Aerith puts her hand over his. “I know,” she murmurs understandingly. “But… what are you going to do after this whole mess with JENOVA is done and over with?”

Sephiroth shuts his eyes and finally says, “I will rejoin Cloud in the Lifestream. I can only hope that this time, it will accept me.”

“Seph—”

Pattering footsteps sound from outside, growing louder and louder until the door slams open. “Bad—bad news, yo!” Reno gasps, doubled over and panting. “The attack—it’s finally happened! The monsters are all headed here, like we thought, but they trampled through a lotta the city on their way, yo! We need your help with the wounded in the hospital, stat!”

Aerith jumps to her feet. “Take me there,” she demands. As they run out, Sephiroth catches her say, “Where’s Genesis? He’d better have healing materia—”

Sephiroth stares up at the ceiling some more, then stands, slow and stiff from lack of movement over the past two weeks.

Before everything, Cloud had gifted him a katana with a dry joke and inelegant snort. It feels like an eternity ago. He’d never even asked its name. Now, it’s planted bladefirst into the ground next to Tsurugi, both gleaming from Sephiroth’s painstaking care.

He retrieves his gift, then gently brushes a hand over Tsurugi’s hilt. “Cloud… I remember our final battle now. It’s a bit too late, I know.” He chuckles briefly. “But don’t worry, Cloud. We’ll be happy together again soon.”

Cloud had claimed the Planet’s people under his protection. For just this last fight against JENOVA, Sephiroth will take on his duties as his own.

And then he will rest.

-

Zack looks utterly delighted when he spots Sephiroth step out of the theater’s doors. “You came! I totally called it!” His eager demeanor completely belies the viciousness with which he beheads the nearest three monsters in a single swing.

Genesis scoffs as he calls fire down from the skies, his rapier glowing a brilliant red. “Finally gave up on moping, have you? The Cloud Strife I know would never let you live your ridiculous listlessness down.”

Angeal merely gives Sephiroth a considering look, then nods. “Good to have you back.”

Sephiroth nods back. “Thank you Zack, Angeal. You too, Genesis, for your… words of encouragement.”

From the sheer number of shadow creatures that swarm towards their position, Sephiroth knows that the others patrolling the city must be having a much slower battle. But that’s why four of their strongest fighters are positioned by the theater. They’d anticipated JENOVA targeting him, after all. Together, the four of them form a cohesive unit, standing back to back, and for a moment, it’s almost like the famed pride of SOLDIER is still alive.

However, they are not invulnerable to fatigue. No matter what they do, more and more keep coming, and soon the ground is slick and treacherous with the monsters’ blackened blood and innards. And with each splash of dark fluid that paints the others’ skin, Sephiroth knows they grow weaker as their Geostigma grows stronger.

“How—many—are there?!” Zack says, punctuating each swing of his sword with a frustrated grunt.

“There seems to be no end,” Genesis agrees. “Where has she managed to find all these beasts?”

“Do you think they’re—we had to burn the bodies in the theater…” Angeal trails off worriedly. The tip of the Buster Sword wavers, its owner clearly perturbed by the thought of slaughtering former humans.

Sephiroth studies the corpses littering the ground, the creatures crowding ever closer. While no two look exactly the same, they are all entirely animalistic in appearance, and bear no signs of any kind of former humanity such as clothing or similar bone structure. “No,” he says. “That human in the theater… was different. Furthermore, there have been no reports of mass deaths or missing persons cases. There haven’t even been any attacks since the airplane. These appear to be mere animals, most likely corrupted by coming in contact with tainted food or water.”

“Uh, hey,” Zack says. “I’m not sure about you guys, but I’ve never seen dead things do that after I’ve killed them.” He points at a black bubbling mass. As they watch, it engulfs a nearby dead creature in a swift movement, then another, and another.

“Get back!” Angeal barks, just as the corpses surge together, swirling larger and larger into some strange, dark form. It doesn’t take long for it to coalesce into a very distinct shape.

The lower half is a sickening mess of flailing tentacles and twisted limbs hanging haphazardly from its main body, as if many of the monsters had failed to be absorbed properly. Each splatter of dark fluid that drips down hisses like acid as it hits the ground. The top half, though—

JENOVA’s familiar face smirks down at them, her single red eye glowing with some strange satisfaction as she purrs, hello, My son.

Zack yelps and covers his ears as he crumples to the floor, the same dark fluid oozing out of the black marks on his skin. “Get out of my head!”

Beside him, Angeal and Genesis follow suit, dropping their swords and groaning in pain as they buckle from the piercing, staticky buzzing of JENOVA’s presence.

not you, JENOVA says disdainfully. tainted. impure. not Mine. no... Her gaze fixes on Sephiroth. sephiroth. My son.

Sephiroth narrows his eyes.

you have failed Me.

-

“Oh, gods,” Tifa breathes, watching the oozing black silhouette stretch upwards to the sky, blotting out the sun. “She really is back.”

Beside her, Vincent looks up. "JENOVA," he growls, a furious, animalistic rumble, and Tifa knows that his demons are close to the surface.

"Vincent," she says.

His gaze snaps to her.

She nods. "Go."

He's gone before her lips finish shaping the word, a scarlet-and-black blur against the cityscape.

-

failure, JENOVA croons again. coward. you gave up. but fear not, your Mother is benevolent and forgiving; I am willing to give you a second chance. She spreads her arms. come, sephiroth. join Me once again, and together We shall rule the heavens, as it should be.

Sephiroth shakes his head. “No,” he says.

For a moment, JENOVA’s limbs cease their endless writhing. … no?

“No,” he repeats. “You are mistaken. I did not give up.”

She stiffens in rage. you did. you gave up. you were weak and afraid and tired of defeat, so you forsook your Mother and hid away from Me. coward. failure.

Sephiroth inclines his head. “I was weak and afraid and tired of defeat, I admit it. But not for the reasons you believe. And I did not give up.”

oh? then what did you do?

“I was weak of heart because I did not know love. I was afraid of my fate because I thought it inevitable. I was tired of defeat because I was tired of fighting. So when I was given a choice,” Sephiroth says, “I took it. I chose to stop.”

JENOVA hisses. ridiculous. there is no distinction. who has been filling your head with such flights of fancy, My son?

Sephiroth grits his teeth. “A great man,” he says. “You would not understand.”

and where is this great man you speak of now? JENOVA scoffs. he is dead. his fanciful ideals led him nowhere.

“He is dead because you killed him!” Sephiroth is trembling now, not from fear, but from rage.

Me? oh, no, My son, it was not I who killed him. it was his beloved planet. the very thing the pitiful creature sought to protect.

“You lie!”

a Mother never lies to Her son. Her face twists in smug satisfaction. after all, if I had been the one to claim her precious champion’s shell, why stop at killing just him?

Sephiroth’s eyes widen. It’s true. In his rage and sorrow, he had overlooked the fact that the rest of their groups’ lives had been spared. Though crystal-Cloud had disappeared in tandem with Cloud, most likely dependent on his other self’s existence, he could have slaughtered their friends before killing Cloud without batting an eye. After all, with Sephiroth incapacitated, all their efforts combined had not been able to slow their opponent down.

“You are prideful,” he finally says. “You would not have seen them as a threat.”

petty thorns in My side they may be, but thorns they still are. it would have been pathetically easy and exceptionally tragic to kill them using their beloved leader as a puppet; I would not have spared Myself the pleasure. no, sephiroth, My son, it was not I who killed your love.

it was the planet.

Chapter Text

Cloud exists in the space between planes.

As he drifts between waking and sleeping, he can vaguely feel the Planet rummaging about, trying to fit together the lopsided puzzle pieces of his soul, his body, his memories into a cohesive whole. He doesn't know how long it's been, but here, in this immaterial plane, he can feel his connection to Sephiroth, stronger than it's ever been. It's not an oppressive, encroaching weight, like it used to be, but a warm, firm presence that presses up against his mind, reassuring in Cloud's haze of half-consciousness. Sometimes it’s the only thing holding him together when he feels like a slowly unwinding piece of thread, spread out so thin he could snap at any moment. But the few times he’s coherent, he can feel it—Sephiroth’s anguish, his loneliness and sorrow. And most of all, his rage, burning white-hot just below the surface.

So when he finally feels strong enough, he uncurls just a bit and sends a thought to the Planet. Sephiroth?

confusion

If he’d had the necessary body parts, Cloud would have sighed. Speaking to the Planet is always an endeavor in and of itself—she processes things much like a child, selfishly and simplistically, and only communicates in simple emotions and flashes of images. Patiently, he prods again, Sephiroth.

confusion

It wasn’t supposed to take this long. I’m worried about him.

the Calamity’s son? confusion. The bird does not concern itself with the matters of the fish.

Sephiroth is not a fish. It’s more like… Cloud pauses. If two animals are… mated, wouldn’t one worry about the other if they’ve been gone from the, uh, den for too long? They get lonely and stuff, right?

mates? the Calamity’s son? confusion

Sephiroth is lonely without me. I’ve been gone too long. I need to go back.

panicdanger— A fledgling leaving the nest too early, falling to its death.

Okay, that was kind of gruesome. But I still—

The Planet puts Cloud to sleep.

-

Sephiroth can feel his rage, simmering over these past two weeks, boiling higher and higher and higher, until everything just—snaps.

And suddenly, he feels very, very calm.

JENOVA’s eye gleams in triumph, as if she has already won. yes, sephiroth, very good. feel your rage at this cruel, unjust planet build and build. join Me again, My son, and you will regain all you desire. once We succeed, there is nothing the planet could deny her masters.

A vague part of him notes Vincent arriving, a silent shadow as always, darting around him and JENOVA as he retrieves the three fallen SOLDIERs, carefully helping them out of the way, but he’s too busy thinking—

What JENOVA says is true. How easy it would be to set everything aflame, turn the world to ash, devastate the Planet as easily as she had devastated him with a single stroke of a sword. And once he has gained control of the Lifestream, who could stop him from reaching in and plucking Cloud back out? Then they really could live together somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful. They wouldn’t have to fight. They’d be happy together.

(You know that’s not true, a tiny voice in the back of his head says. If you ever did that, he’d fight you to the end. But that voice is quickly quashed.)

Just a simple tweak in his mind here or there, and he’d be as agreeable as anything. Sephiroth’s own puppet. Cloud loves him, after all. Just the two of them, together forever, Cloud staring up at him with soft, adoring eyes, green and slit just like his own—

The disparity of that image has Sephiroth shaking his head, disoriented. The thing he’s always admired most about Cloud’s appearance are his eyes, after all, their enchanting size and shape, their vast range of emotion that belie his otherwise stoic face, the particular shade of fiery blue they turn when he feels stubborn. The way they soften into something more like the endless sky when he’s happy.

All of a sudden, he notices the endless buzzing in his own brain, the way it whites out his thoughts and fuels the dark feelings in his chest. And when he looks up at JENOVA, at her smug expression, the way she revels in his anguish, the dark feelings swell viciously, but this time of their own volition.

“Get out of my head,” Sephiroth mutters.

what did you say?

“Get out of my head!”

… very well. I see you have chosen. She laughs, high and grating. but what can you do against Me? I see that sword in your hand. do you aim to slice Me to pieces? it will accomplish nothing. I will live on in every cut-off limb, every splatter of blood, every cell—

“Sephiroth!” a voice calls from behind, and he turns in time to see something gold and green and glittering fly from Genesis’s hand, straight at him.

He catches it. It’s Genesis’s materia bracer. A mastered Fire gleams up at him from the only filled slot.

For once, JENOVA looks confused. Out of her depth. what are you doing, My son—

“If I destroy the Planet,” Sephiroth growls, “it will be of my own accord. Not yours.”

He casts.

-

Well? Are you going to put me to sleep again?

He’s really angry this time. You’re kind of asking for it.

worry

You’ve got to let me go eventually.

panic. The Calamity is a deadly parasite, ready to infect and consume any host it can, and Cloud is a recently-emerged butterfly, its wings fluttering weakly as blood fills them for the first time. A newly-born fawn, legs wobbling beneath it as it struggles to stand. Weak. Vulnerable.

He’s only going to get angrier at you the longer you keep me here, you know.

fear

Please. You have to let me go. Sephiroth needs me.

-

JENOVA shrieks.

Sephiroth casts again, and again, and again, shoving his frustration and hurt and anger, so much anger into the materia. Each spell creates a new fracture in the marble’s surface, running deeper and larger until—

The materia shatters into fine green dust in his hands. The fire burns unnaturally hot, consuming everything in its path as if it were straw. JENOVA wails, caught in her death throes, voice raking like claws against his mind, but Sephiroth doesn’t flinch. Even when her voice dwindles to nothing, the fire keeps spreading until it licks at the theater door, the next building over, Sephiroth’s feet.

He watches with satisfaction as the theater, a place of so many soft, warm, painful memories, is set ablaze. Soon there will be nothing left.

“That’s enough, Seph!” Zack calls. “She’s gone now, isn’t she? You can put the fire out now!”

Sephiroth just turns to them. “I said,” he says, quiet and deadly, “that I would not destroy the Planet for JENOVA. I never said I would not do it of my own accord.”

“No,” Zack says, horrified. Beside him, the others all tense and reach for their weapons, but Zack steps forward and throws out a protective arm. “N-no. Guys, stop! You wouldn’t, would you, Seph? You wouldn’t! Think of Cloud! Cloud would never want—”

Sephiroth shakes his head wearily. “I know. In my mind, I know Cloud does not want this. He is not that kind of person. But my heart… my heart hungers for vengeance in his stead. And it will not be sated until the Planet has atoned for her actions.”

Zack looks like he wants to cry. “Cloud only wanted you to be happy, Seph. Are you happy like this?”

“And therein lies my dilemma,” Sephiroth says. “He only wants me to be happy, but how could I ever be happy knowing that the one who killed him has gone unpunished? But if I turn against the Planet, how could I ever face him if I destroyed the very thing he fought to protect? In the end, without Cloud, I could never be happy. At best, this jagged, burning, all-consuming anguish might fade to mere emptiness instead. Which is why…”

“Which is why what?” Angeal says, watching Sephiroth with serious eyes. He’s relaxed from his tense position, hand falling away from the hilt of his sword.

“Cloud spoke of choices, before he passed. So,” Sephiroth says, gesturing at the burning scene about him, “this is my choice. You and I both know that this fire… is no normal fire. It will not cease any time soon. Even I have lost control of it; the materia has shattered to dust. Perhaps it will consume the whole block. Perhaps the whole city. Perhaps even the whole planet… I will not fight to stop it, I will not exacerbate it. Whatever happens, I will accept it as the Planet’s due.”

“Sephiroth,” Genesis says with dawning realization, “you are standing in the center of the flames.”

Sephiroth inclines his head. The fire, which has long been lapping at his booted feet, begins to climb up his legs.

-

Fuck this. I don’t care what you say. I can’t just sit here and watch this anymore. Cloud musters up all his mental willpower, prepares to fight his way out if he has to, but—

Finally, the Planet seems to relent. The Calamity’s son has passed the test. To decide, in the peak of his rage, to neither harm nor help—that is good enough.

Fire burns away impurities, rejuvenates the soil, clears the land for new growth. But when it gets out of hand, it’s up to the rain to quench its rage, soothe away the heat and the burn and cleanse the air.

bring the rain, my Champion

Cloud falls.

-

In the distance, thunder rumbles. Sephiroth looks up to see dark stormclouds blotting out the sun. A drop of water hits his face, then another, and another, until the heavens open up and drench his hair, his clothes, his face.

Distantly, he can hear the others making sounds of awe. “The fire—it’s going out!” Zack says.

“The Geostigma is disappearing as well…” Genesis says. “Aerith, is this your doing?”

But Sephiroth knows better. “I see,” he murmurs as the flames licking up his legs hiss and die out, the rain soothing the bite of its heat. He shuts his eyes, both relishing and hating the cleansing feel of the water as it forgives him, as it saves his life. “So this is your response… Cloud.”

-

The door to the hospital slams open. “Aerith!” Tifa says. “Aerith, the rain outside—the monster corpses are all—is this you—?”

Aerith looks up, confused. “What? I’ve been here for the past hour. What rain—?”

“You have to come see!” Tifa tugs her out by the wrist. As they stumble together down the stairs, Aerith sees a dark corpse lying on the street disappear in a swirl of green light.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh… thank Gaia.”

“Is it—is it over?” Tifa asks her.

Aerith smiles and nods, the tear slipping down her cheek hidden in the heavy rainfall. “It’s over. Thank you… Cloud.”

-

I’m proud of you.

Sephiroth scoffs. “You shouldn’t be so easily impressed.”

A gentle warmth presses against his hand, tangling between his fingers, and Sephiroth can hear a light, amused laugh. You should give yourself more credit.

Slowly, the rain begins to abate, petering out until only a few drops patter against his face.

You should open your eyes. There’s a rainbow. It’s nice.

Sephiroth shakes his head. Some part of him is afraid that if he opens his eyes, he’ll shatter this moment, and the comforting presence against his side will vanish.

The presence presses itself closer, leaning up. “Sephiroth,” a familiar voice breathes against his ear, sending shivers down Sephiroth’s spine, “open your eyes.”

Sephiroth’s eyes shoot open as he dares to hope— “Cloud—!”

Cloud smiles up at him. “Hey. Sorry it took me so long to—”

Sephiroth sweeps him up into a desperate kiss, and Cloud gladly cuts himself off to press up against him, mouth falling open with an enticing moan. When they separate for air, Cloud’s hair is mussed, and his eyes sparkle. “Some greeting,” he says, breathless.

“Cloud,” Sephiroth says again, just for the sake of saying his name. “Cloud, how—” He blinks. Something feels different. Cloud’s skin is warm and smooth against his hands, and all of a sudden, he realizes— “You’re naked.”

Cloud looks down at himself, then back up at Sephiroth. “I guess I am.” A corner of his mouth quirks up slyly. “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

A fission of heat shoots down to Sephiroth’s gut at thoughts of exactly what he wants to do race through his mind, but Zack’s voice calling from the distance, “Hey! Yooooo! Seph! Wait—is that Cloud?!” has him regretfully discarding them all and pulling back. He hastily tugs his shirt off and tosses it over Cloud’s head.

“Oh,” Cloud says, startled, then pulls it the rest of the way on, slipping his arms through the too-long sleeves. “That works too, I guess.”

Sephiroth decides it’s almost worse than him being completely naked. It’s still sopping wet, so it clings to every curve of his body. The collar hangs precariously off his right shoulder, exposing the pale skin underneath, and while the shirt is easily long enough to cover all the important bits, it reveals teasing glimpses of Cloud’s thighs with every motion. Furthermore, the way the sleeves extend far past his hands is disarmingly… adorable. Before he can do anything drastic like reclaim his shirt, though, a dark blur barrels into Cloud, nearly knocking him clean off his feet.

“Cloooooouuuud!” Zack says, clinging tightly. “I can’t believe it! You—you’re actually back! How—?”

Cloud huffs a soft laugh as he hugs Zack back. “Is it safe to say that rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated? Gaia’s learned a thing or two from JENOVA about reviving her favorite pawn.”

“Speaking of Gaia,” Genesis says, making his way towards them at a much more sedate pace with Angeal at his side, “what exactly was her intent with all… this?” He waves an all-encompassing hand.

Cloud hums consideringly as he tries to decide what to say.

His crystallized state had served the dual purpose of protecting him from being corrupted as well as acting as a channel for the Lifestream. Its power had held JENOVA back and bought time for Sephiroth to be reincarnated—if she’d ever regained her strength while Sephiroth had still been in the Lifestream, nothing would have been able to prevent her from taking over his very soul.

Once Sephiroth had safely been reborn, the Planet had also reincarnated Cloud to use him as a trigger for his friends’ memories, leaving only his body behind to maintain the crystal. Without his soul, it had weakened quickly, but it'd only needed to last for a few more years as they’d all grown up.

Delayed by nearly a thousand years, JENOVA’d had no choice but to seek to reclaim her son on the physical plane, where Sephiroth had been perfectly capable of resisting her with his sheer strength of will. As for Cloud’s messy case—

“I’m sure you know why I was in the crystal,” Cloud says. “But once I was also reincarnated, having two versions of a person exist at once isn’t great for the cosmic balance or whatever. And it was even more dangerous when JENOVA was back, because one of them was an easy-to-take-over empty, soulless, overpowered version of me. So the Planet took us…? Me…? Both of me…? Anyways, the Planet took me back and kinda… put me in time-out while she mucked around trying to fix me up. I originally thought she’d send me back right away, but she wouldn’t let me go until the whole mess with JENOVA was over.”

“She couldn’t have, like, given us a warning before very brutally and traumatizingly killing you off in front of all of us?” Zack says incredulously.

Cloud frowns. “I’m kinda pissed about that too. But… she doesn’t really understand humans. And she definitely didn’t anticipate… me and Sephiroth. Honestly, I don’t think she really thought about it. She tends to be self-centered like that. But I’m back now. And I think she gave me permission to be with Sephiroth? Which is weird. Weird but nice.”

“You’re too forgiving,” Sephiroth says with a sigh.

“You’d better be damn glad I’m forgiving, Sephiroth.”

Sephiroth pauses. “It is one of your more appealing factors, yes. Appealing, but frustrating.”

“If you two are done with your flirting,” Genesis says, “I’m sure there are plenty of other people who’d like to see Cloud alive and well.”

“That’s true,” Cloud says, wriggling out of Zack’s grasp. Sephiroth watches warily as the hem of his shirt rides up, but Cloud escapes in time and pats it smooth carefully. He turns to an alcove in the burnt-out husk of the theater. “Vincent.”

For a beat, nothing stirs, then Vincent melts out of the shadows. “Cloud,” he says.

Cloud walks up to him and slips Vincent’s hand into his. “Thanks for looking after the others,” he says quietly, almost too low for even Sephiroth’s ears to pick out.  “I know you must have wanted to confront JENOVA yourself, but you got them out of the danger zone first. It means a lot to me.”

Vincent stares down at Cloud, then nods. “Of course. They are my companions, as well.” His hand tightens briefly, then draws away. Louder, he says, “Your sword is in the theater.”

Cloud yelps. “My sword is in the theater and you set it on fire? Sephiroth!”

“Busted,” Zack says in a very audible whisper.

“You’re coming with me to get it,” Cloud tells Sephiroth. “We’ll meet up with the rest of you guys at the hospital. Let’s go.”

-

“You normally would not ask me to come with you just to retrieve your sword,” Sephiroth says as Cloud tugs him into the building by their joined hands.

“Maybe I just wanted to spend time with you,” Cloud says.

“Flattering, but not the whole truth,” Sephiroth says dryly. “I can feel your hand shaking, you know. And your legs too.”

Cloud halts, trying to stop his limbs’ trembling, but they simply quake harder. He huffs in frustration. “Sorry.”

“What’s wrong?”

Cloud gives him a weak smile. “I’m not used to having a body yet, I guess. And this one’s a bit different from before. It’ll pass in a few days.”

Sephiroth’s eyes narrow. “How is it different? What did the Planet do to you?”

“Calm down,” Cloud says. “I just asked for a favor.”

“A favor?”

“I couldn’t get her to agree to let me actually die or anything, unfortunately—”

Sephiroth chokes. “Unfortunately—?!”

“I don’t wanna hear that from someone who was so eager to die just half an hour ago,” Cloud says sternly. “But I mean like a normal person. She’s kinda clingy. The whole reason she kept me out of this battle was because she wants long-term insurance, in case an evil empire or a mad scientist or whatever pops up again. But I did get her to agree to leave us alone for this life. I’ll live my life and age normally, and after you pass on, I’ll return to my original duties. That was the compromise we agreed on.”

“I see,” Sephiroth says, a slight frown creasing his brow.

“What’s that long face for?”

He shakes his head. “Just a thought to save for later. If your body really is bothering you so much, Cloud, I will carry you.”

“What? No, no way, no—” Cloud yelps as Sephiroth slips one arm under his knees and the other under his shoulders and picks him up, easy as breathing. “Sephiroth!”

“The floor here is treacherous,” Sephiroth says, looking pointedly down at the shattered floorboards, the broken seats, the battered stairs. “I am not comfortable with allowing you to traverse it with impaired movement.”

“That’s nice,” Cloud says, “but it does not explain your hand on my ass.”

“ … Consider it payment for my services.”

Cloud hums and rests his cheek against Sephiroth’s bare chest, patting his firm abs with an appraising hand. This position really isn’t all too bad, all things considered. “I’ll be taking this as my payment for complying, then.”

The muscles twitch underneath Cloud’s fingers. “ … That is acceptable.”

As Sephiroth picks his way down towards the less-burnt part of the theater, Cloud catches sight of Tsurugi glinting up from its position wedged between the floorboards. Wrapped around it is a black lump of fabric. It’s not until they get closer that Cloud makes it out. “Is that… my sweatshirt?”

Cloud feels Sephiroth’s chin brush against his hair as he nods. “I found it in the lighting booth after…” He hesitates, sounding a bit embarrassed. “It smelled like you.”

Cloud wraps his arm around Sephiroth’s neck in as hug-like of a motion he can in his awkward position. “I’m sorry for leaving you alone.”

“I know.” Sephiroth sighs, then adds, “It might as well be repayment for the stunt I pulled after our last battle.”

Cloud blinks. “You remember. I’m touched.”

“Just look at me. Falling apart in mere days without you, while you were alone for centuries…”

“Well, I do have a bit more practice than you in watching my loved ones pass away. And I didn’t even know I loved you at that point,” Cloud says. “But I still got dead-ass drunk and drove Genesis mad the night after. So I don’t think I’m getting any awards in healthy coping mechanisms, either.”

Sephiroth freezes.

Cloud tries to look up at his face. “What’s wrong?”

“You… love me?”

“Well, yeah. Didn’t you say so yourself?” Cloud affects as deep and dramatic a voice he can muster. “‘You love me as both, don’t you? What a foolish little puppet.’ That’s what you said. The puppet comment was not very appreciated, but you were essentially right.”

“I… I suppose it’s a little different, hearing it straight from your lips,” Sephiroth says. “I… I love you. Truly. You aren’t a puppet to me, Cloud. You’re everything. When you weren’t there, it felt like… like nothing mattered. Like I would never smile ever again.”

“Look at you, being a drama queen,” Cloud says. “I love you too, okay? I can’t make any promises about things always being okay, or us being together forever, but that’s one thing that won’t ever change.”

“Even if I decide one day to burn down the world?”

“Especially if you decide to burn down the world,” Cloud says. “How else would I have the right to curbstomp your ass and drag you back home? Lovingly, of course.”

“ … Very eloquent.”

“Shut up. Let’s get my stuff and go before they start thinking we’re sexing it up in here or something.”

Cloud’s sweatshirt, when he brings it up to his face, smells heavily of burnt wood and smoke, but lingering underneath is the faint scent of sword polish and coffee that is undeniably Sephiroth.

-

When a shirtless Sephiroth arrives in front of the hospital with a half-naked Cloud in one arm and Tsurugi in the other, Yuffie wolf-whistles sharply. “Whooo! Seph’s got game!”

“You were gone for an awfully long time for just picking up a sword,” Aerith says, eyes sparkling, despite them not being alone for more than about fifteen minutes.

“Picking up a sword, hah! I get it!” Yuffie whoops, and Zack makes a pained whining noise.

Cid groans and covers his eyes. “That’s more than I ever wanted to know about fuckin’ Sephiroth’s sex life, goddammit.”

Vincent raises a brow. “Not Cloud’s?”

“Shut yer yap!” Cid snaps. “As far as I’m concerned, y’all look like bare-assed dolls below the belt and that’s it, got it?”

Cloud rolls his eyes as he slides out of Sephiroth’s grasp. “That’s enough out of you guys. Do you have any clothes?”

Tifa drops a bundle into his hands. “I stopped by your house once I heard the news. I didn’t bring any boxers—don’t blame me for not rummaging through your underwear, I’d like to not be stabbed any time soon.”

“Thanks.” Tifa, at least, is always reliable. He tugs the sweatpants on before stripping off Sephiroth’s shirt in a fluid motion, flinging it at his head. “Stop parading around shirtless. My payment deserves to be exclusive.”

Sephiroth says nothing as he catches it in one hand, only glancing pointedly at Cloud’s own shirtless state.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Cloud says. “You don’t see me flashing anyone my ass, do you?”

Sephiroth growls. “If you were, there’d be significantly more wounded.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, well,” Rufus says, strolling out of the hospital with his usual entourage of Turks. “Isn’t someone in a good mood?”

Cloud pulls his shirt on and shrugs. “Being alive is nice. Also JENOVA’s dead. Always a plus in my book. Seeing you, on the other hand… not so much.”

Rufus sniffs. “I assure you, the feeling is mutual.”

“You could just leave,” Cloud says hopefully. If he says no, then it won’t be Cloud’s fault if he punches him in his smug little face.

“As much as I would like to,” Rufus says, “I have some questions for you, Cloud Strife.”

“You always do,” Cloud says wearily. “What is it this time?”

“Well, it appears you have Neo Midgar in the palm of your hand.” Rufus gestures about them at the abandoned buildings, at the scorched sidewalks, at Sephiroth, still standing shirtless to the side. “So, my question is, what do you plan on doing with it?”

“Not everything is a political scheme, you know. I expect it won’t be much different from last time you were around. We’ll spend some time rebuilding. Maybe wait a while for everyone to come back. Then get on with our lives.”

“You’re as simple as ever, I see,” Rufus says rather condescendingly, and Cloud decides to take it as a compliment. “Then what about him?” He nods at Sephiroth.

Cloud tilts his head, confused. “Last I heard, Sephiroth’s going to attend University of Midgar on scholarship. Not that he needs one, the rich bastard.”

Sephiroth frowns. “I hope the delay in our final transcripts will not affect my admission status.”

“It’s in the same city, you worrywart,” Cloud says, rolling his eyes. “They’ll understand what happened.”

Rufus stares, then laughs. “I suppose that’s all well and good, then. As long as you’re around to keep an eye on him.” And he struts off, the Turks trailing faithfully behind him.

Cloud blinks. “Was he… concerned about the welfare of the citizens?”

“As much as he annoys you, Rufus has learned from the error of his ways,” Tifa says. “Mostly.”

“Do you know what we should do to celebrate while half the city is still abandoned, though?” Yuffie says. “Let’s raid a bar!”

-

Cloud’s mother and Ms. Crescent are waiting in a corner of the hospital lobby, chatting quietly.

Cloud halts a few feet away, a lump in his throat. He’s not sure how to catch their attention. Not when his mother thinks that he has died, not when Ms. Crescent thinks Sephiroth is planning to. He opens his mouth, then shuts it, then opens it again.

Somehow, his mother senses his turmoil, and looks up. Her breath catches in her throat at the sight of the two of them, damp and singed and weary, but clutching each others’ hands tightly.

Ms. Crescent smiles tearfully. “Welcome home, you two.”

-

Within less than a year, the damaged parts of the city are rebuilt, and the people, still wary of another inexplicable monster attack, slowly begin to trickle back in. The government passes it off as some sort of freak mutation in the local wildlife from dangerous chemical runoff, and though Sephiroth spends a whole afternoon ranting about how scientifically implausible it is, most normal people just nod their heads acceptingly, eager to get on with their lives.

One evening, Cloud comes home after a day working at Cid’s garage to find Sephiroth seated on the couch, flipping through a book as he waits for him.

“Did I forget some kind of special occasion?”

Sephiroth looks up at him and raises a brow. “I can’t just decide to come visit my boyfriend without any ulterior motives?”

“Hm. I don’t know, can you?” Cloud teases as he walks up behind and peeks over his shoulder. The last line on the page catches his eye.

And as the raindrops fell and kissed his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, he realized that as love had guided his decision, it was love that saved his life.

Cloud blinks. “Are you… reading a love story?” he asks incredulously.

Sephiroth chuckles. “What’s with that tone? It’s about us, you know.” He flips it closed, revealing the front cover: The Redemption of the One-Winged Angel.

“Is it some kind of new version? I can’t believe they got it wrong again.”

“It is. It’s actually wildly popular—it’s topped the bestseller list since its release,” Sephiroth says. “And don’t let Genesis hear you say that. It’s by his friend, you know. Besides…” He pulls Cloud down for a kiss, breathing against his lips, “I happen to believe that it is quite accurate."

Chapter Text

Cloud wakes up with a start.

Normally, this is not a cause for alarm. However, given that his joints don’t ache anymore, and his back doesn’t crack ominously as he sits up, he knows the event he has been dreading all these years has finally come to pass. After all, Zack and Aerith have both already passed on. It isn’t too far of a jump for Sephiroth… for Sephiroth to…

He stares down at his hands, skin smooth and taught once more, not a liver spot to be seen. Strong and calloused, meant for wielding a sword.

Beside him, he knows the body is still and cold, eyes closed as if still in sleep. He can’t bring himself to look. Instead, he calls, “Denzel!”

“Coming!” A minute later, the door opens gently and Denzel scolds, “What are you yelling so loudly for? You know Seph’s been having a hard time falling asleep lately, if you wake him up—”

“Denzel,” Cloud says again, staring up at him helplessly.

With one look at Cloud’s too-young face, Denzel’s face falls in realization. “Oh. Oh, Cloud…”

Cloud sighs. “It wasn’t like we weren’t expecting it, at this age… but…”

“I know,” Denzel says, placing a hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “What are you planning on doing now?”

Cloud shuts his eyes, taking another moment to mourn, then opens them and straightens his shoulders. “Well. Cloud Crescent-Strife couldn’t take his partner’s passing, so he left a note for his adopted son and retreated to somewhere isolated in the mountains to await his own death. No one knows where he is. Sephiroth’s funeral will be a small, quiet affair. Family and close friends only. Maybe my grand-nephew will show up. No one knows I have one, of course, but the family resemblance will be so strong the relation will be obvious. As for everything else… you have our will.”

Denzel nods and says gently, “I’ll take care of the body and funeral preparations, okay? You go take care of anything else you need to.”

Cloud takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Thanks, Denzel.” He pushes the covers back and steps out of bed, both revelling in and hating the new strength in his legs. He grabs his cell phone from the nightstand, then opens the closet, digging through to the very back, where he’s kept a stash of clothing just for this occasion. He changes quickly into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. When his hand brushes against a faded black sweatshirt as he rummages through the closet, the lettering on the front long illegible, he hesitates, then pulls that on too.

The back of the closet is wood paneling. With a careful press, a panel swings open, and he pulls out Tsurugi from the hidden compartment. It’s still untarnished after all these years. Beside it is a harness, carefully recreated from its original design. After strapping his sword to his back in swift, practiced motions, Cloud steps outside to make one last phone call.

"Vincent Valentine speaking."

"Vincent… it's time."

" … We'll be there as soon as possible."

-

And why should we grant you this request, Son of Calamity?

"JENOVA may no longer be here, but I am perfectly capable of clawing my way out of the depths of hell with or without her aid. Cloud is mine. And there is nothing in this world or otherwise that will keep him from me."

An agitated hiss. We will not condone this sort of behavior.

"I care not for what you do or do not condone. This is what will happen: you grant my request, and I will never threaten the Planet again, or you reject this offer, and I will complete my objective on my own, with no regard for the safety of the Planet and the life on it. Your lack of cooperation, to me, is a mere inconvenience. Well?”

More agitation. Finally, relention. Very well. The Champion will not be pleased.

Sephiroth smirks in satisfaction. “On the contrary, I think Cloud will be very pleased.”

-

Sephiroth’s funeral is, as Cloud had requested, a quiet affair.

He sits beside Genesis and Vincent, not in the front where he should be, but near the back right corner, face ducked low, both to conceal his features and hide his expression. He refuses to cry, not here and now, but his face is still too pale and too stricken to for him to simply be a distant relative.

He doesn’t look up throughout the entire service, not even when someone slides into the seat beside him.

When all the speeches are over, Vincent has already long vanished. Genesis pats Cloud’s arm gently and drifts off to speak with Tifa, leaving Cloud to sit in silence. Eventually, the person next to him says, “It was a very nice service. Those yellow flowers on the coffin… do those have any particular significance?”

Cloud glances up briefly, just enough to catch a glimpse of a wide-brimmed black hat with a veil. Oddly dramatic, but people show their grief in different ways, he supposes. “They’re yellow loosestrifes. They were his favorite flower.”

“I see. The name and appearance remind him of his husband,” the stranger deduces. “Why did he not give a speech?”

“You mean his husband?” Cloud worries his bottom lip. “He… left.”

“He did not even wait to attend his own deceased partner’s funeral?” The stranger sounds mildly taken aback.

“ … No.” Cloud shakes his head. He can’t take this, talking about himself and Sephiroth as if they were merely gossiping. “I’m sorry, I don’t really… want to talk about this right now—”

“Cloud.”

Cloud jerks, looking up. That tone of voice—

The man pulls back his veil slightly, revealing the gleam of a mako-bright eye and a fraction of an achingly familiar face. “You’re a terribly awful liar, Cloud.”

Cloud’s eyes widen in disbelief. “Se… Sephiroth?” he whispers.

Sephiroth smirks. “Did you really think something as inconsequential as death would keep me away from you, Cloud?”

Cloud chokes on something between a dry sob and a laugh. “Only you would call death inconsequential.”

“I rather think you’d be able to claim something similar, too,” Sephiroth says, but clutches Cloud tightly back when he throws himself into his arms, knocking Sephiroth’s absurd hat straight off his head.

-

“Genesis.”

Tifa looks up from her conversation with Genesis, already expecting Cloud’s rather jarring youthful appearance, but not the tiny, content smile on his face, and most definitely not the very familiar person standing next to him. Beside her, Genesis balks.

Cloud tilts his head in amusement. “We’ll be waiting for you outside.”

Beside him, Sephiroth smirks and nods, and together they turn and walk out, hand in hand.

As Tifa watches the two of them leave, both clad in black like so long ago, the sunlight catches in their hair and burnishes it brilliant silver and gold, a snapshot of eternity.

 

 

fin.