~ Warning: Just in case you missed it, this really /is/ a SHONEN-AI story, with a Cloud/Sephiroth pairing beyond Cloud's incessant soliloquies. You have been duly warned. ~
A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
... and you will keep me safe, and you will keep me close...
I'll sleep in your embrace at last.
~Eponine, "A Little Fall of Rain" - Les Miserables
Sephiroth slowly knelt over the body of the soldier, but didn't bother to touch. The man had been dead for a long time, most likely killed by whatever the /thing/ was that was now lying next to him.
It had taken a day and a half, but the SOLDIER supposed he had found what had happened after he and Cloud had lost radio contact, as he looked down, at a significant portion of Cloud's army strewn along the small plateau, and across the valley below.
//Of course, it looks like they took a fair portion of Hojo's forces with them...//
There was no time or opportunity to burn all the bodies, as he knew he should have, and the fact that no one /else/ had was, of course, troubling.
//If they didn't have the time, that means they're on the run, and /not/ doing well, I'd assume...//
Of course, he had known /that/ from Cloud's last radio transmission, but the visual evidence made the situation much too clear...
//Why are you so nervous, though? Forget that, why are you even /here/?!//
He had left the army against the voices of his better judgment, but that didn't mean they weren't following him, and didn't continue to trail him as he leapt back into the saddle and continued down the valley.
//Yes, you like Cloud, and yes that is perfectly understandable, even /we/ will agree to that, but /once and for all/, he /doesn't/ like you, and he will /never/ like you and this is all going to end in disaster... don't say we didn't warn you...//
/I never asked!/
Sephiroth sighed, his anger fading against what he knew to be the truth. Yes, they were right... but really, what could it hurt? What could it hurt, to pretend his little crush when he could, and abandon it when it was no longer interesting?
//... because it's /not/ a little crush... and when you touched him last, you know you /wanted/ him to feel for you. You wanted... something you know he could /never/ feel for you. You're deliberately setting yourself up for this. Why?//
He couldn't answer the question... not when it was asked, and not in the long, silent hours that followed, as he worked his way down the path the army had followed.
Bodies... many, /many/ bodies floated past him when he finally reached the river. There had been another battle here, an /ugly/ one, and Sephiroth caught himself holding his breath, as each limp form passed by, until he saw that none of them had blonde, spiky hair...
The site of the second battle was just as bad as the first, except it seemed that the remainder of the army had simply scattered afterward, there were too many fragmented trails for him to try and pick one to follow...
//Cloud would never have allowed that to happen... never...//
/So, that means.../
His heart sank, despite its protests that he really didn't care. Left with little more than fading footprints in the snow, and the increasingly sure feeling that there was nothing of the army left to find, Sephiroth continued down the path, following the river, knowing he could do so for a while. An old remembrance, of ShinRa arctic training, had come back to him while he moved forward. His memory /was/ very near perfect, save the year he had spent under Jenova's control, and he remembered that this river terminated in a waterfall, or at least it had then. If there were any survivors, perhaps they had gone there...
//Oh, so you're an optimist now?//
He wasn't, and his thoughts became decidedly more grim the longer he followed the river. The trail had vanished completely a half-mile out, any tracks blown away by the swirling winds. Crossing to the other side, and gaining the advantage of slightly higher elevation brought him nothing better... as far as he could tell, he was the only thing alive for miles.
//Might as well turn back. I can see the mist from here... the edge of the river, the waterfall. There's no-//
Sephiroth blinked, emerald eyes narrowing, even his enhanced vision struggling to distinguish a small point from its stark, white surroundings...
//A body... just a body. Damn it.//
The dark-clad man tapped his heels against the chocobo's side, spurring it forward. He had come this far, it wouldn't hurt to see if this man's remains could offer him any further clues...
Recognition didn't come until he was nearly on top of the slumped figure, and that only because of the massive weapon resting on the ground in front of it. Sephiroth stopped short, and looked around, quickly searching the silent artic landscape for enemies, for an ambush... but there was no sound, no movement. The body in front of him didn't seem to be the bait for any trap he could see...
Sephiroth quickly jumped from the saddle, still moving cautiously towards the man sprawled face down on the ground, half buried in the windblown snows, a few strands of blonde hair waving slightly in the wind.
It was Strife, without a doubt, but as Sephiroth moved closer, he could see the man was deathly pale, lips shaded with a dangerous hint of blue...
No answer, and with the man laying on his stomach, it was impossible for Sephiroth to tell if he was even breathing. The dark-clad man quickly pulled off a glove as he knelt at the blonde's side, carefully checking for a pulse. It didn't take long, for that beat to push out against his hand, but it was sluggish, very weak...
Emerald eyes widened in surprise, as he moved his hand up to the back of Cloud's head, the hair matted down somewhat, stained brown and crimson throughout. His fingertips brushed carefully against the blonde's head, gently explored the bloody knot, and he winced in sympathy...
//Concussion...// The dried blood flaked away as Sephiroth examined further, and caught sight of another injury. He guided the spikes away from another vicious gash at the man's temple.
//... /one/ of these was more than enough... God, Strife, do you /always/ have to overdo it?//
The surface wounds were healing all right, but the force of the blows must have been incredible, and the white-haired man very gently pressed his hands against the blonde's neck, searching for broken vertebrae, or any other signs of damage, praying he would find none...
//We have to move... now.// He had seen no sign of Hojo's creatures yet, but /knew/ they must have been close, and as things now stood, they couldn't present an easier target.
He found nothing alarming, and turned Cloud over as gently as he could, checking for any further injuries. The blonde's shirt was torn, just above his belt, and Sephiroth could see a hint of red beneath, along with a few other places where smaller wounds had already mended. A rope -//rope//?- was tied tightly around his waist, though Sephiroth quickly cut that away. The white-haired man was most alarmed to discover that the blonde was soaked to the bone, a thin sheet of ice crusting across his pants and shirt.
//He fell in the river, then... but why... how?//
The fighter groaned, beginning to stir, and Sephiroth immediately rocked back on his heels, pulling his hands away. There was no need for his caution, though, the blue eyes only fluttered partly open, looked at him with no trace of recognition.
He could see the man's eyes trying, and failing, to focus.
//Concussion, and hypothermia, no doubt...//
The tips of the blonde's fingers, nose and ears were only starting to go red. Sephiroth knew from his own experience how sturdily SOLDIERS were constructed to withstand things like frostbite, but the continued blankness in that gaze worried him... and if Cloud stayed out in the cold for too much longer... he had /already/ moved past the shivering stage...
"W-who... where...?" The words were soft, weak, and Sephiroth moved, just a little, watching as the blonde's eyes worked to follow him.
//Disorientation, it's either from the head trauma or the cold, and either way it's not good. Get moving.//
"Do you think you can stand? We have to get out of here."
Cloud's hand clenched around his when Sephiroth offered it, the fact that the blonde didn't hesitate to accept his help only affirming the danger of his condition in the dark-clad man's mind. Sephiroth helped brace him, one hand on his shoulder as the blonde sat up. Cloud cried out as soon as he was up, as the movement blasted new pain through his body, and he doubled over with the sudden agony. The white-haired man hesitated for only a moment, before lightly rubbing a hand along Cloud's back, murmuring soothing nonsense... without a flicker of argument from the usually clamoring voices of his common sense.
Very slowly, he helped the blonde to his feet, though he could feel that he was doing most of the work of pulling Cloud up, and supporting virtually all of his weight once the man was on his feet...
//I'll carry him. If he's still so out of it, I'll just /carry/ him...//
/How very... /utilitarian/ of you.../
"Ro... th' army... wha... happen..?" Cloud's words were badly slurred, and the blonde couldn't even raise his head halfway. "... army... you have to help... help them..."
Sephiroth felt Cloud freeze in his arms.
"... gone? Dead...? All of them...?"
"I don't know." The white-haired man was startled by the sound of his own voice, too soft, much too gentle to be his, but he was grateful for it, this time. "I couldn't find anyone. I think so."
"No. Oh... god, no."
The blonde murmured a few more lost, broken words, and sagged in his arms, as the brief hope that had kept him fighting for consciousness was abruptly, thoroughly extinguished.
Cloud knew he wasn't dreaming... dreams didn't hurt, not like this. Each time his head shifted, it sent a line of solid lightning running through his back, amplifying a countless number of tiny aches in the rest of his body... God, his hands were /killing/ him...
No, this couldn't be a dream... but then, why couldn't he open his eyes? Why was everything so dark? So hot... but with a bitter cold still biting at him from time to time, and he was... floating? No... being held, rocked gently with the cadence of whatever it was that kept moving his neck. The blonde wanted them to stop... stop the jolting, but keep rocking... it felt so nice.
Cloud tried to look again, to gather enough energy to see through the unrelenting haze, needed to know who was holding him... because... this had all happened before, somewhere...
An murmur, filtering through the haze to him, calm, so sure, and soothing... trees... the blinding sun from behind their slight shadows... shifting... shifting... and darkness once more...
He spent eons in the shifting place, as the distance between him and anything else, anything that wasn't that thick darkness seemed to open up...
Far away, a green glow and a warmth near the side of his face, but it wasn't strong enough. For what? He did not know, only that it wasn't, could feel it flicker and fade... and someone, that same voice, but this time it murmured something violent... but not to him, not for him...
The world around him was stirring with new fury when he woke again, but this time it all seemed even further away, just the sensation of swift motion... the wind against his skin, and loud cries, flashes of light and darkness... but so distant... so...
The first sensation, as that strange half-dream departed, was that his arms wouldn't move. Cloud discovered, after another moment, that he wasn't trying all that hard to break free, but still... there was a restraint.
A half-second of panic backfired somewhere in his brain at that thought, but he was much too tired to put it into any real use...
The blonde stayed very still, kept his eyes closed, waiting for the rest of his mind to catch up, doing his best to simply focus the vague sensations into solid understanding.
His head hurt. Really, really hurt.
//Of course... I rattled it around like a rock in a tin can when Ro and I fell into the...//
Cloud set his jaw hard against the overwhelming rush of fresh grief, the memory of Ro, disappearing over the side of the falls with that small smile of futility on his face, that image bringing his entire past with it, the swift passing of so many faces, all those he had fought his hardest for but had /always/ been unable to save...
//No. NO. I will grieve... but later...//
Pain would push the memories away. Cloud opened his eyes and pushed out with his arm at the same moment, trying to rise... and froze, panting, squeezing his eyes shut once more as the combined effort, the agony that accompanied it very nearly sent him back into darkness.
The frigid air blew against him now, and his arm was completely free. The blonde realized the "restraint" was nothing more than a heavy weight, one that had been tucked carefully around his entire body.
Carefully, Cloud opened his eyes again, and though it still hurt, he could manage it without passing out. The blonde had reached up with his other hand already, pulling the thick, heavy blanket away, and could now easily stare dumbly at it, carefully rubbing the soft material with the pads of his fingers, the smooth black leather of...
... Sephiroth's coat.
He could do nothing more than continue to stare, until his mind regrouped, and gave him a swift, sharp kick.
//If /he's/ here, you'd better get the fuck /up/!//
Cloud scrambled to his feet with surprising speed, though it took him a few more moments to truly get his bearings, to open his eyes /and/ walk while dealing with the pain in his head... but the thought that Sephiroth was out there, somewhere, the thought, that /he/ had been the one, to put his coat around
-//he must have been so close to me...//-
Cloud stifled the smallest, nervous giggle, the sudden sound shocking him, in its elation, and its frantic power...
//Pull it together, pull it /together/... don't you /dare/ do anything stupid now...//
/I'm fine... I'm fine... I'm fine.../
It took him a few more steps to regain his balance, but as he walked, the pressure and pain in his head started to recede, and after a minute or two, he didn't have to move directly from tree to tree, nearly falling on each one as he reached it... though he was still cold...
//You /could/... put his coat on...?//
Cloud laughed at the absurdity of that thought, shifting the carefully bundled black leather to the crook of his other arm, grimacing slightly at its cumbersome weight. The Ultima Weapon, at his side when he awoke, quickly took on a role as an awkward, makeshift walking stick, and he moved to the edge of the trees...
There was no sign of the river, and none of the mountains pushing up around him looked at all familiar. His head ached, it was too much to wonder whether he could listen to the Planet now...
//Lost, then. So where is...?//
He turned sharply, senses keyed as a branch snapped somewhere behind him.
//Oh no... not now...//
He let Sephiroth's coat fall near one of the outer trees, moving his way back into the woods, toward the source of the noise. There was no use trying to run from whatever it was, he may as well try to make a stand here.
It was hopeless, really. His entire body was leaden, and cast in frozen lead at that, the SOLDIER conditioning that kept him alive doing little more to help stave off the bitter cold, or the pain... and as he wrapped sweating hands around the hilt of his sword, he found he could lift it only a few inches off the ground, and the point wavered erratically in the air.
//Adrenaline will fix that. I only need one good shot...//
It had always been his motto, but this was the first time his body replied to it, sinking a heavy feeling into his chest, a weary, all-consuming exhaustion... he might not have even one good shot left.
//Don't think, just act...//
It was relatively easy to be silent in the powdery snow, and, Cloud figured, if the enemy was large enough, the trees might give him some protection. A memory flashed by, his most recent memory... the hundreds upon hundreds of creatures that had spilled down from the mountain...
//Just give me a fighting chance... let it be something I can--!//
A flash of movement, out of the corner of his eye, and Cloud drew his sword up blindly as he turned... but it was all done too quickly, much too swiftly for him to hope that he could keep his balance.
Cloud dropped, landing hard on his side in an awkward, painful half-crouch, feeling his instincts scream at him as he fought to get to his feet, and slipped... but his sword was still up, that last gasp of adrenaline /was/ holding the point straight, and he had at least some defense from -
The blonde felt the cool edge of metal at his neck, the sensation sharp and clear even though he was still freezing, and paused... followed the edge of the Masamune up... and up... Sephiroth had stopped, just as he had, though the tip of the Ultima weapon rested just beneath the taller man's chin, while the blade of the Masamune curved along the side of Cloud's neck, extending past his head by at least half a foot.
Neither one of them moved, for a long moment, the setup both strange and yet familiar to each, echoes of the past converging back into this new moment...
//... /never/ again.//
Cloud didn't hesitate to drop his sword, and felt the slight pressure, the killing edge against his neck vanish immediately.
History pushed him back to his feet, fervent prayers of long ago hovering in the air, that if he was /ever/ given a chance, this chance, he would not be weak, he would be strong in Sephiroth's eyes... he would /not/ be weak...
He turned away, gestured to the distant tree and the black, shapeless form beneath it.
"I brought you your coat."
//If he keeps up this pace, he's going to collapse.//
Sephiroth watched the shorter man's back, as Cloud plowed through the drifts, carving a path for both of them, the sword in his hand helping him keep his balance rather than guarding against danger. The blonde was moving by sheer will alone, the SOLDIER knew it had to be true. No one could come back from those sorts of injuries /that/ fast...
Sephiroth had lost the chocobo in the last fight, the bird cut right out from underneath him. It was a vicious, nasty battle, had required him to put the blonde somewhere safe, and /that/ had lost him his shoulder armor, casually tossed away as he used his coat to try and keep the injured man warm. He had hoped the black leather would be at least some protection from the cold...
//... but now, /I'm/ the one wearing it... he didn't even have it on when I found him... or he found me... stubborn ass...//
There was no way to reach the army, not before nightfall, and in searching for an alternate plan, Sephiroth's memory had dredged up another interesting detail... there /was/ a ShinRa outpost somewhere up here, hidden away in the middle of the hills. God only knew if it hadn't been destroyed...
//... but it's our only hope, and I don't care if he acts as if he's fine, he's soaked to the bone, and a concussion just doesn't go /away/...//
He wondered, once more, how in the world Cloud had ever managed to take the lead... and why /he/ hadn't simply moved in front of the other man, to slow things down if nothing else. The blonde was setting an unforgiving pace, nothing as fast as they needed to go... there hadn't been a sign of any monsters since the last battle...
//Risk slighting his precious pride, though? Not with the mood I'm in... and it might be good to make the time while we can...//
Aquamarine eyes looked up as they had many times in the last hour, seeking out the tiny wisps of white that lay on the top of the wide, blue sky... the foreshadowing of a storm that would hit before nightfall, and /all/ the blizzards up here were killers...
His attention snapped back, as Cloud stumbled, very nearly fell on the steeply sloping path.
"Hold up, Strife. I want to try my PHS again."
He received no argument, and that was still the precursor that worried Sephiroth the most. Cloud didn't even glance his way, merely nodded, jaw set in violent determination, and slumped forward against a nearby tree.
The white-haired man's request was mostly a lie. Sephiroth knew that the mountains provided too much interference to transmit any calls, even if Hojo /wasn't/ trying to break up the signal. He went through the motions anyway, bringing the radio up to his ear, checking through all its component parts, for defects he knew weren't there, while keeping his eye solely on Strife. The blonde shuddered, and from where he stood Sephiroth could see the man's eyes were closed in utter fatigue. He thought about offering his coat again, but knew Cloud would not accept, for the same reasons of pride that had forced him into the lead.
//That damned attitude...// Of course, he couldn't deny the fact that he had that exact same stupid pride. //Still, I wish he would just fall over, so I could help him without a protest... so I wasn't forced to just stand here and watch him...//
/... and why do you care? You don't have to be concerned for him. This is a crush... just a stupid, stupid crush.../
//... and it would have been smarter to grill him for answers, about what had happened, what had gone wrong when you first saw him.//
When he first saw Cloud... when they had very nearly taken each others heads off.
//Now I know, though... he really is as fast as I am.// Except, a small voice reminded, the blonde had also been injured.
/You should have questioned him there, but you didn't... why? Why did you let it slide?/
Sephiroth pushed that question to the side, and moved back onto the center path. "Strife... let's keep moving."
He watched the blonde stagger away from the tree with a very weak nod, blue eyes never meeting his, but fixed on the ground directly at his feet. Cloud's pace didn't alter, and soon they were off, just as fast as they had been going, towards a shelter that might not even be there to greet them...
//Let it be...// Sephiroth wasn't prone to asking for favors from the air, but he made an exception now. //Just let it be there... and this time, let's keep the obstacles to a minimum.//
He had tried, and failed, to completely heal the blows Cloud had taken to his head, the materia's power fading and dying despite his best efforts to hold onto it. The blonde was healing, would heal... but Sephiroth still needed to find that sanctuary, needed desperately to see some sign of safety.
/Why do you care? You could fight just about anything, you already have... /you/ could survive just fine out here./
//Oh /stop/...// Angrily, he tore into that logical voice, that had done such a good job all this time, of pretending things hadn't changed.
//Just /stop/ trying to pretend. Stop. I'm not worried for me, and I didn't want to question Cloud out here because I want to get him to safety, because I don't think he's going to last much longer. I /do/ care what happens to him, damn it! I don't know what it means, or what will come of it... all I want to do right now is get him somewhere warm and get those clothes off...//
It was an exceptionally good thing, he thought, that at times like these, his thoughts were all his own.
//You going to fall?//
Cloud grinned as well as he could, given that his lower jaw was just as well frozen as the rest of him seemed to be.
/Not for the world... I'd rather die./
He measured out each of his steps, as carefully as he could, though gravity seemed to have more and more to say about where he stepped than his own intent.
//My whole life. I've been waiting my whole life for this. Cut my damn legs off... I'd keep walking.//
Cloud knew he wasn't truly aware, or alert, or focusing on anything but breathing, and keeping the four inches of rock and stone in front of his face clear, making sure to measure his steps very carefully... for if he fell... if he fell...
He would take the lead, he would take the chance that had been given to him... and be able to remember, for the rest of his life, that when that dream had been offered to him, he hadn't failed, hadn't been weak.
The man behind him made no sound, at least nothing Cloud could hear over his own breathing, or the desperate thudding of his heart, but the blonde knew Sephiroth was there... that presence, that aura of sure, secure, incredible power, there was no way /not/ to feel it.
"Hold up, Strife. I want to try the PHS again."
The smooth voice came from miles and miles away, and though Cloud knew he could have done anything, /anything/, if that voice had asked him to, it was just easier to not even bother turning, to answer, and simply nod instead, take a few moments out to rest against a nearby tree... Cloud fell against it harder than he had expected, face first, too tired to even reach up and attempt to change the course of his descent. He felt the rough bark scrape against his cheek, before he shifted, bringing his shoulder up, holding his legs steady but feeling them tremble despite his best efforts, muscles screaming, an orchestra of aching pain that burned in his calves, tore along his skin, and sent knives into his joints, where his hip and thigh connected...
He was always cold, had always been cold, the bitter sting against his lips and cheeks just about the only thing he could feel, his boots still squishing, /still/ soaked, the wild arctic winds chilling but not drying him, though the ice had melted with the heat, as he had moved...
The world faded away, Cloud could no longer determine when he had his eyes open or closed, when he was being spoken to and when it was only the howling wind... where they were going, why? He caught a glimpse of darkening sky, or thought he did, the gathering clouds swelling into a thousand levels of purple-blue... the sun was gone, swallowed up by a thick blanket of gray and white...
//I'll never fall... never, never, /never/...//
More wind, and stinging snow, but Sephiroth never paused, and neither did he. If the white-haired man walked forever, Cloud would be there to provide a path...
//... something... shelter...?//
More snow, stinging even sharper than the wind against his face, and he felt his foot give way, just slightly, against the steep incline - all he could remember, walking up, and up, and up - but he caught himself quickly, pulled himself up to the top.
//Oh my God.//
Their course had been straight, and now Cloud saw the next obstacle that stood in their way... a sheer rock face, indomitable, merciless, rising further than he could see, lost in the darkness and the still-growing storm. The wind screamed again, as if following his gaze, laughing as it saw the task ahead.
//I can't... I can't...//
The wind howled, this time nearly managing to fell him, though he held on to the Ultima Weapon, where he had driven it into the snow, held on with his gaze still locked, horrified, at the point completely covered by clouds and snow, the summit of that vertical peak...
... but Sephiroth would. It would be nothing for the man, barely an effort, and Cloud clenched an already set jaw, prepared to do battle yet again with the world around him. However long it took, whatever was asked of him...
//I /won't/ be weak, I can't...//
God, it was so /high/...
Cloud turned dumbly at the yell from behind, the white-haired man pointing not to the cliff, but off to the side, down along the valley floor... and the blonde squinted, thought that between the drifts of blowing snow, he could make out an unnatural shape, something too straight and solid to be a tree or rock...
"Come on... before the storm gets any worse."
Sephiroth set out first, Cloud had taken a few steps in the other direction without realizing it, and quickly struggled through the snow to catch up.
//Made it... made it, and I didn't... strong, I was strong...//
The relief was so great, and the only thing that truly penetrated his exhausted mind, that Cloud didn't really notice how /small/ the shelter was, didn't stop to ever consider who he'd be sharing it with.
//It's still here, still standing...//
It was an impossible stroke of good luck, that the tiny cabin wasn't even /locked/, and Sephiroth found himself double-checking for any sign of a trap, unwilling to believe this sort of good fortune was really possible...
A rush of wind, straight from the top of the mountain, quickly sped up his cautious search, and within moments, he and the blonde were standing just inside the doorway of the small cabin, a blue-green glow hovering in the air, melding together as the two looked at each other, and at the sparse accommodations around them.
//It's not much, but given the way ShinRa usually operates, it's almost more than we could ask for...//
The post, he assumed, had simply been forgotten about, used long ago, in training and then abandoned, forgotten when the company had fallen apart, when the Crater had come to life...
The small room smelled musty, like sawdust and slowed time, but it was sturdily built, creaked just enough in the winds to ensure it could endure them... There was no sign of a bed, or any furniture save for a small stove, and a trunk set against the opposite wall. Sephiroth quickly moved to it, hoping there had been no time for ShinRa to retrieve the basics. The brass catches snapped open with a surprisingly fulfilling click, somehow comforting after all the time they'd spent in the relative silence of unfriendly nature, and Sephiroth smiled, just a little, as he opened the box and looked inside, started pulling out the contents.
A first-aid kit, a few extra cases of ammunition, for the standard ShinRa soldier guns neither he or Cloud had... a bag of greens - yes, he /had/ noticed the small stall set just inside the door - flares and matches and a small amount of fuel for the stove...
/Now/ they were getting to what he wanted... two containers for water, they'd have to melt some snow... a set of ShinRa rations - Sephiroth snorted softly, wondering if even SOLDIER training would be enough to handle /that/- and two large, thick blankets, along with an extra set of clothing...
//Thank God.// Strife needed to get those wet clothes off, but Sephiroth hadn't come up with even one plausible way to approach the blonde on the subject, how he'd ever convince Cloud to strip down with no new clothes to offer him.
//I could tell him I didn't mind... but I really don't think he'd want to hear that.//
Sephiroth reached the bottom of the container, paused for a moment as he lifted the last item halfway up, a copy of the "Honey Bee Kiss," an old, /old/ girlie magazine, dated well back to when he had still been a General, just after the Wutai war had ended.
//I remember... I think Zack /had/ a copy of this one...//
His friend, of course, had always professed that he read it strictly for the articles.
The girl on the cover was blowing him a kiss, the parts of her that someone had obviously bought the magazine to see discreetly covered up by a sticky note, no doubt left by the last person at the post.
"Here's a little fun while you're in Solitary Confinement, soldier... and check out page 42!!!"
Sephiroth dropped the magazine back into the bottom of the trunk without turning to the glories of page 42, and picked up the spare pants and shirt.
The blonde was standing exactly where he had been, just as he had been, eyes closed, looking as if he could drop at any moment. The cabin really /wasn't/ much warmer than it was outside...
//I'll fix that... it's going to be all right...//
Those glowing blue eyes had opened at his call, but Cloud was staring blankly, questioningly, as if he didn't believe any of it was real, expected at any moment to be thrown back out in the cold...
Cloud somehow managed to pry his eyes open, knowing with dead certainty that this would most definitely be the last time. He looked up, saw Sephiroth watching him, but for once, wasn't afraid of that gaze, too tired to feel much of /anything/...
A flat square landed against his chest, and he caught it without thinking, fingers curling around it as it collapsed softly against his hands. In the pile was a pair of drawstring pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, both in wonderfully soft cotton. His fingers gently traced the slightly raised outline of the ShinRa power company logo, embroidered where the shirt would cover his heart.
"Go change," Sephiroth nodded his head toward the other end of the wide room, where a very small bathroom had been sectioned off from the main, "If you don't get out of those wet clothes, you'll only get worse."
Wondering just how much worse he /could/ get, Cloud nodded, absently and made his way into the bathroom. He shut the door after glancing again at the white-haired man, feeling that he was missing something, that /something/ important was happening, that Sephiroth wasn't... usually didn't... had never... and he had only dreamed...
He lost the thought, felt it amble into oblivion, and only hoped that once he had gotten into drier clothes, things would become more clear.
//Oh yes... /this/ is what I need now.//
Sephiroth fought with the stove for another moment, hearing various mechanisms click and clank, hoping the fuel smell only came from the leftovers inside the small container, and that some hose somewhere wasn't leaking, preparing to blow them to kingdom come...
//Kingdom come might be preferable, to what I'll have to do if this stove won't light.//
The quiet thought had been idling around in the back of his mind since he had remembered the tiny shelter, and they had decided to seek refuge in it. Cloud /had/ to get warm, SOLDIER or no SOLDIER, his body couldn't take such a long period of abuse without eventually breaking down... and Sephiroth had none of the medicines that would be required to help him, if something went seriously wrong.
//Sharing body heat... it would be the best way, even if I /could/ get the stove to light...//
His own problems with that situation were meaningless. Sephiroth knew he could keep his absurd emotions in check, that this was a matter of survival, nothing more. Hell, at the height of his infatuation with Zack, they had been in a situation quite similar to this, and the dark-haired man had never known, never even realized his friend had felt what he had. If /that/ wasn't a testament to his willpower, Sephiroth didn't know what was.
//... but it's not /me/ I'm worried about.//
He could already imagine trying to tell Cloud what they would have to do, maybe not to simply survive the night, but to survive it comfortably, and for the blonde to let his body get any measure of real, restful healing.
He could also imagine quite easily the hole where the cabin had been, and he and Strife standing over it, the blonde doing his best to beat the holy hell out of him for ever even daring to make the suggestion...
//He hates you, let's face it. He just /does/, no matter what anyone's said, or what /he's/ said... He'll play nice to keep everyone happy, but to expect him to... it's asking too much.//
Sephiroth looked, from the spluttering, barely functional stove, to the blanket in his hands. He /had/ a solution, and it was quickly becoming the only one.
//Strife's /not/ going to like this...//
//A sealed up, secret wish... tender memories no one can ever know...//
The reality of his situation fell on him all at once, as he pulled the dry shirt over his head, still shaking droplets of pink water, blood-tinged melted snow, from his hair. Cloud gasped, would have dropped to his knees had the room not been just big enough for him to stand in. Instead, he hit the back wall, trying hard not to make any noise... he /couldn't/ draw attention to himself... not now, as he simply struggled to breathe.
Sephiroth was here. As in, the next room. As in, only a few feet away...
Cloud could hear his heart thudding around, in ways that were very, very un-heartlike, the pounding muscle scrambling up into his throat before falling somewhere near his spine, repeating the unnerving cycle over and over as he tried very hard to simply keep breathing.
//He's here... he's /here/... I... I don't...//
The few thoughts that did manage to break through his shock weren't much help.
//You'll be spending all night alone. In this cabin. With him.//
The howl of the wind, the heavy patter of snow outside suddenly didn't seem so threatening.
//What am I... what should I... how...?//
/You'd better decide quickly... I don't think you can explain away locking yourself in the bathroom all night./
It was minor, really, compared to the scope of the situation... but he was also still cold, just beginning to come out of the true depths of it. Slowly, but steadily, tiny shivers were making their way across his body, and he knew it would only get worse, before it got any better...
//If it gets better... I'm so tired, I might just shake myself apart...//
Cloud was exhausted, /until/ his mind caught once more, on the thought of who was waiting for him beyond the paper thin divide.
//I can't... I can't...//
Logic, fear, and determination all tried to push their walls back up around him, desperately attempted to shore up any support, to resurrect The General, the man who could face this daunting task and come out whole on the other side... but that man had been lost, somewhere back in the snows, had wandered away into the darkness, leaving only Cloud, terrified and defenseless, to face his fate.
With a deep, steady breath, the blonde slowly stepped out of the bathroom, kicking his wet clothes into a rumpled pall in front of him, not carrying them, to keep his new clothes dry. He didn't want to even bother touching them, until he could stretch them out in front of the stove...
... that wasn't working. Sephiroth was standing there, but still hadn't looked up. He was busy laying down a blanket... no, two...
Confusion swirled up between thick, unmoving thoughts, layers of ice in his brain, just as frozen as the rest of him still was.
"What are you doing?"
"The stove is broken. It won't get any warmer in here, and it'll probably drop a few more degrees in the night."
Cloud blinked stupidly, could feel the two ideas, Sephiroth's words and his actions, smashing together behind his eyes, but unable to fuse into anything even resembling a coherent thought...
It didn't get any easier, as Sephiroth moved back, finally shrugging off his long, black coat, unceremoniously letting it fall to the floor, pulling off the winter undershirt he had donned... and leaned against the wall to pull off his long boots...
The white-haired man's movements were slow, unconcerned, and he was completely oblivious to the open-mouthed stare he was receiving from the man on the other side of the room, Cloud's eyes fixed unblinkingly on every movement of those long-fingered hands, the long, rich spill of snow silk brushing the floor as Sephiroth dipped his head down...
The white-haired man had decided his course of action long before Cloud had returned, that it would be easier /not/ to meet the blonde's eyes when he explained his plan, that it was better to present as unthreatening an image as possible... something he already knew wouldn't be easy. He had obliterated the voice of stubborn protest in his own mind, was willing to give Cloud a little room, a little care, if it would make things easier for the both of them. He dropped his eyes down and kept them down, watching only his own hands move slowly against the leather and metal, as if taking his boots off had suddenly become a challenge.
"The stove isn't working..." -//Might as well just get it over with//- "... so we'll have to share the blankets tonight, to keep warm."
Silence. Dead silence. Sephiroth waited, not ready to look up quite yet, trusting in his other senses to let him know if Cloud was rushing him with his sword drawn, or about to cast a spell...
The silence lasted, and lasted, and finally he could find no other excuse to keep him from pulling off his other boot... besides, the blood was rushing to his head, and certainly Cloud could at least make the attempt of maturity, could see the rational side to this...
He had thought having Cloud attack him outright was the worst possible outcome he could imagine... but the toneless, level reply left him even more stunned. Sephiroth looked up quickly, surprised, but the blonde had already turned away.
"So... you left the army, to try and lead Hojo's troops away from them, to give them a better chance to make it through to the other side... and your second-in-command is..."
Sephiroth lay on his back, arms up, hands tucked underneath his head. He was taking up a rather large share of the blanket space, but there was still some distance between himself and the other man. Cloud had moved to the farthest edge of the blanket, was curled up, facing the wall. The blonde had moved to the blankets before Sephiroth had, and hadn't shifted positions even once since then. It was slightly grating, but Sephiroth tried to be understanding, knowing the man /must/ have been uncomfortable.
- //hey, look at it this way, at least he's probably thinking of you like another human being now...// -
Sephiroth rolled his eyes at the terribly unhelpful thought, his slight frown deepening as another shiver from the blonde's corner shifted the covers.
//Damn idiot... there's no way he can get warm that way...//
So far, though, Sephiroth had been unable to come up with any solution to the problem, nothing that wouldn't make things worse between them.
"Your troops made it to the other side?"
"Yes." He realized how ugly it sounded, a quiet slight, and reached for an addendum. "We weren't pursued by nearly the same number of enemies as you were."
"So, it looks like only your troops are still here, then..." Cloud's voice was too soft to convey any emotion, but Sephiroth knew /something/ was there.
//... even /I'm/ not that cold.//
"They're on the plateau. I don't see a reason why they couldn't hold it."
"Why did you leave them? Why did you come back here?"
//... because I was worried about you.//
Startled, Sephiroth realized that he was tired enough that he almost said the words aloud, and struggled in silence for a few moments as his mind reeled, and he fought to come up with an appropriate response.
"I wasn't doing any more good there. It was more important to try and locate the rest of the army."
Silence again. Talking to the blonde was just about as difficult as Sephiroth had thought it would be.
//It wouldn't be that impossible, if he wasn't /shaking/ so hard...//
Another problem was quickly making itself known, as he shifted positions, curling on his side, taking full notice of the way Cloud jumped whenever he moved, no matter how slightly... There was no room to sprawl out, truly, the way he liked to. Unlike the shorter blonde, Sephiroth more or less touched both walls when he was lying down, and the barely functioning stove was still producing some heat... right where his arm should have been laying. It was decidedly uncomfortable, and the only place he could think of to drape his arm, where he wouldn't get pins and needles...
The distance between him and the blonde was impressive, because, really, the blanket wasn't /that/ large... and if he threw his arm out as he wanted to, it would land itself snugly around Cloud's waist.
//Damn it... if he would just drop his damned attitude, we could /both/ be much more comfortable, if not asleep by now... I know it's an awkward situation, but for God's sake, does it have to be unbearable too?//
Cloud had lost all the charm he had previously possessed, reduced to nothing more than the obstacle that was causing his fingers to tingle, with the awkward way he had been forced to position himself in the small room.
//Oh, fuck it...//
He had fully expected Cloud to jump, had even predicted the slight yelp, as his hand came down around the blonde's waist, but for some reason it just pissed him off more.
"There's no where else to put it, if you hadn't /noticed/..." Sephiroth withdrew his arm briefly, to rap against the wall directly above his head, before returning it to its resting place. "Whatever you've heard about me, Strife, I can assure you that raping skinny soggy soldiers in freezing cabins really isn't one of my favorite pastimes."
There. Blunt, to the point, perhaps even a bit over-vicious, but something that would be able to penetrate even Strife's thick-headed nature. Cloud didn't respond, didn't throw his arm away, but also didn't relax. Seconds passed into minutes, and Sephiroth could still feel him shivering, and completely rigid, though the white-haired man had been sure to keep his touch innocent... not that he truly felt /anything/ at this moment but resentment, for the man keeping him from at least a few hours of rest.
"For God's sake, Strife..."
The blonde cut him off.
"I'm going up to the Northern Crater alone. You can lead the rest of the army in, whatever you want to do, they're yours, but as soon as the storm clears, I'm gone."
He shouldn't have had a response, yet alone the one that snapped out, accompanied with a flash of rage.
"That is the stupidest plan I have /ever/ heard."
Cloud didn't answer, and Sephiroth fought the urge to leap over and force the blonde to face him, couldn't believe...
//Not because I care... I'm /not/ angry because I care...//
"No, you're /not/. You might be selfish enough to go out there and get yourself killed, Strife, but it's not just your decision anymore. You've got other people to think about besides yourself now..."
"Don't," Cloud's voice was raw with anger, and this time there was no camp, no Roman, no one and nothing to keep this fight from flaring up well past reason. "Don't you /dare/ speak to me about obligation. I don't owe anyone /anything/..."
The memory returned, just for a moment, of his fears of starting a fight, that they would end up battling in the snows, their shelter reduced to smoking rubble... but Sephiroth couldn't quite bring himself to care.
//Stupid selfish stubborn /asshole/!!!//
"What about Zack? What would happen to him, if he found out that you just went and threw your life away... like you nearly did /today/!!!"
The blonde whipped around, Sephiroth pulling his arm back as Cloud hoisted himself into a sitting position. The blue eyes that met his were furious, solid fuel burning all the way down, a blue fire that threatened to consume him and everything else in its rage.
"/You/ should talk. You treated Zack like /shit/ whenever you felt like it, whenever he wasn't exactly what and who you needed, whenever you didn't have the time or the attention to /spare/ on being his friend!"
//I had wondered...// Sephiroth thought quietly. //I had wondered what kind of friends they were, and what Zack had told him. I /knew/ there must have been things he wouldn't have ever told me...//
"... not to mention the way you just conveniently /decided/ that the world was against you, no matter how hard he tried to convince you otherwise!"
Absently, the white-haired man realized his words must have struck some nerve even beyond their intended goal, for Cloud was far from finished venting his anger, /finally/ giving a voice to the rage Sephiroth assumed had always been there.
"Did it feel good to stab him?! Did that make you happy?! Did it make your pain go away to kill my mother and destroy my town?! We had a right to fear you, you son of a bitch! You did /nothing/ but prove us right!!!"
The words hurt, much too close to Sephiroth's own regrets... though a part of him was little more than openly astonished, that Cloud was actually /yelling/ at him, a liberty /no one/, not even President ShinRa, had ever assumed.
It was startling, and striking... but it did not slow his anger, and the white-haired man retaliated, as he always had, with the sharpest and most lethal attacks he could bring to life.
"At least I realized Zack was a person, an /individual/, and not just some /thing/ to stop up the gaps in my life, when I couldn't deal with my problems anymore." His voice was a poison hiss, he neither realized nor cared that he was dealing a series of exceptionally low blows. "I read a lot about you in your files, Strife... you know, those documents you just let quietly /slip into the background/. Does Zack know? Does he know how you decided it was easier to just forget about him, rather than acknowledge your part in what got him killed?!"
//Stop. Stop this, right now. Zack is your friend, a friend to /both/ of you, not a weapon in this stupid fight...//
It was an exhilarating feeling, really, that much anger, and an easy fuel for his attack... even as a part of his mind noticed that Cloud had gone completely silent, that the fury in those eyes was fading, and leaving very little in its place.
//Do you even remember /why/ you're fighting? What will this improve? Stop... please.//
The argument, as the worst arguments always did, had a life and a purpose all its own. All the confusion of the past few days, the resentment, the annoyance the blonde had stirred up inside him was demanding release, demanding vengeance on the little bastard that had dared to make him /feel/. Another voice, very distant, was calling out for his attention, with a sense of foreboding, fear, that he /had/ to take the control back from his rage, had to let this fury go...
//Like hell... finish this son of a bitch.//
The need to destroy was stronger, the violent urge that life had again and again proven to be the true voice of reason. If he let up, if he didn't crush his enemy completely, /every/ time, he could be hurt, /would/ be hurt for his care... and that voice was the true driving power behind the fury, the anger that translated itself into words he barely heard himself speak. Mercy was weakness, weakness was unacceptable.
"If Zack hadn't have been so hell bent on saving /you/, Strife, he wouldn't have died. He could have gotten out of that situation, he was a SOLDIER, but he stayed behind for your sake. It's as plain and simple as that. You dishonored his memory by forgetting him then, and you've thrown his friendship in the dirt by being so selfish and /stupid/ now. He swore to me you wouldn't desert your army, that you wouldn't attempt to reach the Crater alone, but that seems to be about all you're good for, all you really give a damn about. You were pretending. Were you ever /really/ even his friend, or were you just pretending /that/, too?!"
Cloud didn't answer, just watching him, still shaking in the cold night air. Sephiroth could hardly feel the chill, the heat of his anger burning well enough to dispel any cold.
//Funny, that... I don't think I've ever... ever been angry like this. Not /yelling/ like this, at least...//
... and just like that, as the rage found its way through every cell of his body, he remembered the other reason the blonde had been making him so angry, even when Cloud hadn't been doing anything at all.
//How /dare/ you... try to make me /care/...//
The blonde's eyes still seemed dazed, but, Sephiroth figured, even someone as obtuse as Strife could eventually pick up on an obvious signal. He made absolutely no attempt to hide his gaze, letting it linger on the blonde's tense features, across the curves of his body, only half-hidden by the loose fitting shirt... emerald eyes tracing the steady slope of Cloud's neck, the flawless line of his jaw... and up, the look in the blonde's eyes easily recognizable now, that mingled horror, surprise, and fear... but the white-haired man didn't care, feeling, if anything, a little more pride...
//... teach the little bastard to fuck with /me/!//
"W-what are you looking at?"
The voice of his reason had gone completely silent now, overwhelmed at the eager anticipation, the excitement... he would make sure Strife remembered /this/ fight, would shove all that stubborn pious righteousness, all that unbearably egotistical confidence right back in his face.
"Were you pretending, Strife, that Zack was your friend... /only/ your friend?" His voice was dangerously soft, and he watched the blonde flinch outright, blue eyes darting anywhere other than his face, refusing to lock onto his own...
//I knew it... I /knew/ it! He's just the same... /exactly/ the same...//
The fragile point, attraction, something most people didn't like talking about... and discussing the sexual variables of the world, especially among straight men, caused /nothing/ but discomfort. It seemed that stoic, stone-faced Cloud Strife, where it counted, was no different than anyone else...
...but Sephiroth was also starting to have his doubts, by the way the blonde had started to fidget, that his false accusations truly were without /any/ merit.
//Cloud and Zack were never... but, perhaps, not by /mutual/ consent?//
He remembered now, that Zack had always been unusually vague on that point, on /anything/ to do with Cloud's personal relationships...
The idea that Zack had turned them /both/ down might have meant something different had Sephiroth not still been angry, but he /still/ wanted to hurt Strife... and knowing that pain on a personal level only made it that much easier a weapon to wield.
"You never told him... hid that feeling, all those little whispers, where you hoped he'd never find them, praying that he wouldn't think to look...?"
It was sick, really, as he was doing little more than reiterating how /he/ had behaved around Zack, speaking of his own attempts to hide the truth from his dark-haired friend. The barbs he threw at Strife could just as easily have been reflected back against him.
"Shut /up/... I'm not... you can't... I /won't/ let you do this to me..."
The question was pure innocence, though Sephiroth knew exactly what Cloud was remembering, going back to the time when Jenova had influenced the blonde completely through him, when the man had been utterly unable to fight back.
//You're playing /filthy/, you bastard, to take it this far...//
His honor was disgusted, but his anger could easily rise to match that revulsion.
/I'm playing by the rules of the rest of the world... and there /are/ no rules.../
"I'd never... it wasn't... I'm not..."
It was the final straw, and the anger in Cloud's eyes didn't just blaze back to life, but went into nova.
"I thought that was the problem..." Sephiroth said mildly, placing the capstone on the argument, knowing /exactly/ the reaction he would get. Cloud didn't disappoint, springing to his feet and pulling the blanket with him as he stormed to the other side of the room.
Sephiroth lay back down, pulling the other blanket around himself, before turning away. It struck him, just before he fell asleep, that this hadn't been what he had wanted... that he hadn't gone into this conversation to push Cloud Strife away, that he hadn't really meant to argue at all...
//He's not your concern, you don't have to give a damn... Strife's got a blanket, he'll survive.//
The merciless utility at the foundation of that thought had served him successfully, if not happily, over the course of his life, and Sephiroth knew he needed nothing more. Content that he had won the battle, he let himself rest.
The dark-clad man never truly slept, dimly aware of the wind whistling along the sides of the small cabin, always alert, should any of those sounds change, become something more predatory than the simple ice storm. He was never completely asleep, and so, he could feel the anger fading, all the emotions that had been behind that somewhat nonsensical fury now making themselves loudly known, disrupting his otherwise pleasant night.
//... that was disgusting.//
Half asleep, Sephiroth still found focus enough to snap back at that voice.
/He drew first blood... that nonsense, about going to the Crater... and all that shit he said.../
//... and you handled yourself /so/ well... calmly, maturely, just as expected.//
The white-haired man bristled, at the sarcasm in that voice, the blame.
/You heard what he said about Zack.../ Even to his own ears, his protest sounded petulant, that of a pouting child determined to have his way.
Drifting half in darkness, the words were more emotion than anything actually verbal, and because they were his feelings, the meaning, even in sleep, was clearer than it would have been even had he been awake.
//You could have let it go. He's not thinking clearly, he's injured, and he truly does have /every/ right to be angry... even if it isn't /exactly/ your fault. You really took one apology as enough penance for the past? Did you honestly think that things between you were squared away... after all that has happened to him, because of you? You didn't even try to understand...//
His anger attempted to throw off the guilt that those words brought, but the sadness in them, not rage but sorrow, those emotions cut him deep.
//Once again, I act with the worst... the worst I was taught... I throw all that on him... when I /still/ haven't paid for what I've done...//
The thought hadn't completely faded, when Sephiroth finally woke up. At first, as the darkness in his mind receded, replaced with the darkness in front of his glowing eyes, he couldn't remember exactly why he had woken, or why the sick, sad feeling of sorrow had wrapped itself so well around him. The white-haired man noticed absently, that the stove had finally taken its last gasp. Beyond the relative warmth of his blanket, the room was chillingly cold.
He could tell before turning, that the blonde was no longer nearby, but was surprised as he rolled over, to see that the other man hadn't changed positions at all, was still sitting in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall... and his eyes were /open/, glowing quietly in the darkness.
//He hasn't been up... all this time?//
Sephiroth hadn't bothered to remove his watch from where he had thrown it in a pocket of his coat, but by how he felt, he was sure he had slept at least a good hour, if not more...
The white-haired man could tell very little, Cloud sitting just outside the range of his sight, too far to get a good look... but he could see that the blonde's blanket had fallen from around his shoulders, and had not been returned to any sort of comfortable place... and he could hear Cloud breathing, slowly... very slowly...
"It's warmer over here... we could trade blankets."
It was a lame attempt at apology, sounded so even in his own ears, though he had gotten away with it before with Zack... and /that/ thought had never sounded more amazing than it did this night...
//How on earth has he put up with me all this time?//
Sephiroth sighed as, of course, the blonde gave him no answer, and he slowly sat up, watching the unmoving figure carefully.
"You don't have to try and... prove anything, Strife..."
//... just that you'd better not dare to contradict me, or I'll tear you apart without a second thought... Good lord, I /am/ an idiot...//
He couldn't remember every word, but enough of them to know that what he had said and done had been vicious, brutal and cruel, designed to do nothing more than hurt Cloud as much as possible.
//... and I'd say, SOLDIER, that you succeeded.//
Cloud still hadn't even turned his head, acted as if the other man had never spoken at all.
"If you stay out there, you'll freeze." Sephiroth could see the other man's breath in the air, as well as his own, though, once more, the blonde's breaths seemed to be coming at all-too infrequent intervals.
"Strife? Cloud..." he hesitated, "say something."
Nothing, and Sephiroth felt the worry fill him, just as annoyance had an hour ago. Slowly, he stood up, the cold air striking him like a blow against his bare chest, sweeping all the warmth he had collected away within seconds. Slowly, carefully, he made his way over to the blonde, looked down. Cloud still hadn't moved.
"I'm... sorry." The words sounded strange, unfamiliar.
//Of course they are... how many times have you used them?//
He could count the answer on one hand. Zack had never asked him for an apology... not ever...
//... he spoiled me.//
"Cloud, I have to apologize, for what I said. I'm tired, I can be extremely short-tempered, and as I'm sure Zack would tell you, I overreact at the drop of a hat."
His attempt to lighten the mood failed miserably, and produced no reaction, good or bad. Cloud didn't even turn his head up, left Sephiroth staring down at a sea of blonde spikes.
"I meant none of what I said, /none/ of it. I was completely out of line, to say what I said to you, and to attempt to browbeat you into an alliance. This... this is your war, not mine, and I've got to learn that. I... apologize completely, I had no right.... I only hope you can understand... none of this should have happened."
Silence. Sephiroth finally knelt down, attempting to catch the blonde's eye.
"Cloud... don't stay out here... please. I swear, I won't touch you again. I won't say a word."
Blue eyes turned to his, and Sephiroth froze, caught again in that sapphire gaze, the emotions pouring out over him so quickly, so strong that he couldn't begin to describe them. Finally, after several long seconds, he found his voice.
"I know I have no right, Strife... but I'm asking you to trust me. Just for tonight."
The blonde blinked slowly, lips moving a few seconds before he finally spoke.
"... c-c-cold... too c-c... c-can't... m-move..."
It took Sephiroth a few moments to get over his surprise, at what Cloud was actually saying, a few more seconds spent in shock, but after that he was moving, as quickly as possible, to make amends.
The white-haired man carefully wrapped the blonde up in the blanket that had fallen around him, and easily lifted Cloud from the floor, moving back to where the other covering lay. He spread it back out over the cold floorboards with his foot, unwrapping Cloud just long enough to pull the blonde into his arms, to tuck the blanket around them both. The blonde was too tired to fight him, actually leaned into his warm embrace, and Sephiroth couldn't help but marvel at it a bit, so unaccustomed to kindness, to being the one to /offer/ it, and see it so gratefully accepted...
... it felt very good.
The white-haired man couldn't help the whispered oath, the blonde was like a block of solid ice against his chest. The other been telling no less than the truth about being frozen, was literally unable to pull himself from the tightly curled position his body had gone into all on its own, as it desperately tried to conserve even a few snatches of heat.
Sephiroth didn't mind the cold discomfort, his chest tight against the blonde's back, arms snaking their way around Cloud's waist to keep him there. The white-haired man was careful, aware of every inch of the body he was holding, ready to let the blonde go as soon as he made any sign of wanting to pull away...
He would be kind... that was all that mattered now.
//All I want... I don't want him to hurt anymore...// The sentiment ran completely counter to all that he had done prior, to the hurt he had caused...
... but this time, Sephiroth knew it was nothing less than the complete truth... he would not hurt Cloud anymore.
It took a few more moments of cautious consideration, but finally Sephiroth conceded to the impulse, and carefully tucked his chin against the other man's shoulder, putting his mouth right against the blonde's ear, where he was still easily able to see the glowing blue haze around those sparkling ocean eyes.
"I'm sorry, Cloud. I'm sorry."
"... we'll have to share blankets tonight, to keep warm."
He hadn't remembered what he had answered, or even if he had answered... and everything that had happened afterward held nothing but the vague semblance of a dream...
Fifteen years. Fifteen years... and in that time he had felt the blade drop upon that hope, tear his life apart not once but twice. Distantly, he realized Sephiroth was... apologizing? Those steady words destroyed the angry echoes Cloud could still hear singing their way through his mind, the argument between them -
that was impossible, though, to think of arguing with... /him/? It was madness, absolute madness...
- but the white-haired man was murmuring as much, his voice so close, so /close/, and there was not a way that Cloud could move, that the other man was not there against him.
//Love him... I love him so much...//
Fifteen years for this impossible moment. It was nothing... /nothing/... he had sacrificed nothing, for what he had received, where he was now...
//I can't... I can't...//
Terror, nothing but pure and blinding terror, and he realized he was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for whatever it was to happen, that had always been waiting to happen, or the barrier between himself and Sephiroth, that had always been there before to come back... and he was begging, begging for its return, as both time and memory were slipping from his grasp.
Arguing, he had been arguing... with Sephiroth, but more standing outside himself, and watching the argument than actually speaking, feeling a little pain and a rush of power as he flung words he had never truly believed, words to hurt and maim and keep him away- /God let him stay away!/- even if /he/ had never blamed... never blamed the other man, though the anger was not false...
//I lost /everything/! Who will answer for that? Who will pay?! It wasn't much, maybe, but it was my life... my /life/...//
That anger had never had a place to go, Cloud had never let it run loose, and its pent-up power had been the first weapon in his pathetic defense, chosen of sheer convenience, no matter what he truly felt or thought...
//Truth... do I even know what that /is/ anymore?//
The blonde held to that defense with all his strength, though even when he considered it, he wasn't exactly sure why, or what he was fighting so hard to keep from coming closer. He let his mouth run off without his mind, said every hateful, petty thing he could think of.
It was a stupid, futile move, whatever the reason. Nothing he could say or do could ever put a barrier between him and the other man, not if Sephiroth truly wanted to see. The white haired man could brush him off, crush him, and had done so, as easily as swatting a fly.
//He was right, too... about Zack... I wonder if he knows, that I agreed with every word...//
Sephiroth's counterattack hadn't bothered him, not really. Cloud had been expecting it, waiting for someone to throw that past back in his face. He barely even remembered the white-haired man's words. It had hurt, yes, but on some distant level, more an affirmation of things he already knew to be true, things he had already taken the blame for long ago in his own mind. Sephiroth's words could only add weight to that burden, could not cut a new wound.
It had been nothing... at least, not compared to what happened next.
Cloud grimaced against the sudden wave of dark sorrow, and realized he was shivering again, worse than before... except this time he was not alone, not huddled against a freezing wall. Now, the arms around him only adjusted their grip, tightening slightly against his fears, some of their near-burning warmth finally starting to seep into his skin.
//Sephiroth... he's... and I...//
The thought shut down on its own, Cloud could not begin to tackle it outright, couldn't hold the idea in his mind past vague contemplations... that he had been held this gently only by a handful of people through his whole life, and never, /never/ was it as precious as it was now...
//This /can't/ be happening...//
The blonde closed his eyes, oddly remembering the events of only the last hour or so, and a face that he would have only had to turn his head to see again...
//I'm not that brave... nowhere /near/...//
Sephiroth's features had been half-shadowed in the night, softened into heart-stopping gentleness by the dark shadows Cloud's vision could only half remove. He had looked nothing less than some reclining angel, or god, a sublime creature too beautiful for anything so crudely made as the earth. Cloud had watched him sleep, all the while feeling that even that slight gesture was too much... too much...
//"W-what are you looking at?"//
Had he seen a smile there, or simply imagined it? Had he imagined... no, there was no way to imagine /that/, not the look the white-haired man had given him then...
/He knows!!! He knows he knows he knows oh god he knows.../
His fear must have been blinding obvious, to the amused emerald eyes that had bored into him so easily, driving their way right to the center of his soul, and Cloud shuddered hard at the memory, even despite his shivers, and only when the man holding him murmured a few comforting words did Cloud realize he'd whimpered aloud...
The blonde looked down blankly, as Sephiroth's hand shifted slightly against his stomach...
He turned instantly red, choked, and tried very hard not to swallow his tongue.
The slight, frantic humor was short lived, as the reality of his situation smashed into him yet again with near lethal force... All those years, years of holding everything away, of keeping it secret, never telling, /never/ risking...
He knew a love like his wasn't normal, wasn't right. He /knew/ what true love was...
His mother had said she loved him, but she had also ignored him, and didn't look his way when he reminded her too much of his father, a man who must have also said he loved her, so long ago...
That was love, /real/ love, a thing that was passionate and wonderful and brief, and that hurt and abandoned when it was needed the most. What he felt was only fantasy, not meant for the real world.
Love was Tifa, whom he couldn't care for, no matter how much she cared for him, and love was Elicia, who had died because she dared to believe in him, to give him even a fleeting moment of warmth and happiness.
Love was Aeris, who had sacrificed herself for the world... and love was Zack, who had grieved the flower girl, but who would learn to care again, could open his heart to someone else...
Love was either that strength, that power to go on, or a brutal, horrible lie... and his was neither. Cloud had known he would never love again, when Sephiroth had died, that the white-haired man had been the beginning and the end of everything...
His love was absolute and unconditional... and Cloud knew too well why he had hidden it, hidden it for so long...
//The world is cold, the world is cruel... this /will/ be taken from you, just like everything else... even this final grace will be stripped away.//
It had to be a secret, for so many reasons... because that desire was too precious, too precious to cast into the void of the real world, and he was too weak, that ultimate rejection would crush him completely... he had /nothing/ left to give.
Cloud was too tired to even shiver anymore, panic and exhaustion melding together in his mind, a furious energy he could not use to flee, because he knew his legs would not hold him... and because he was elated, giddy at the knowledge of where he was... who he was with.
At the same time, he was nearly screaming, longing to be anywhere else, because this was too good, too perfect, and to lose it with the dawn, if not sooner... to have to walk away...
One more moment of hope lost, dreams smashed, /one/ more and he /would/ find a way to erase every trace of his existence, crawl into oblivion and just let himself unravel into dust. He couldn't bear /any more/...
//I... can't... I can't think... I can't... I don't... God help me, I'm scared.//
Cloud had been sure, dead certain that he would never sleep again, could not close his eyes, not with the shifting of Sephiroth's chest, ever so slightly, as he breathed, the sound of that heartbeat -//close... so /close/...//- unbearably near to his own. The blonde barely realized, barely noticed as his thoughts began to drift apart, those worried moments broken up into meaningless sound and muddled fear, interspersed with longer, deeper periods of darkness.
No matter how worried he was, how impossible the moment, a moment that simply /couldn't/ be happening, his body had given up, /finally/ warm, with those strong arms still secure around him. He was safe, for the first time in his life... and Sephiroth would protect him...
//... not safe, /never/ safe...//
He was truly /here/, truly /now/. No matter what else was real, the man that he had spent his lifetime loving from afar was /really/ holding him now...
... and the fear was gone, just for a moment, and it was wonderful. All that remained was peace, joy for this moment... all he had ever wanted, all he had ever prayed for, for years and years, never expecting... -//thank you//- and he would /not/ fall asleep... would not, the morning would take this all away and he could not bear it... he /had/ to stay awake...
//... that body, disappearing in the Lifestream, drawn away to nothing in an instant... and through the salvation of the world he had lost /everything/, had lost himself. His life, his joy was dead, /forever/...//
Cloud turned sharply as the memory turned his relief to ash, throwing his arms around Sephiroth with a choked sob, burying his face against the other man's chest, knowing he would be punished for it later but not caring, daring just once, just /once/ to hold on to what he couldn't ever deserve, to fall into darkness with his hands clasped tightly around the one person in the world who made his life worth living.
//I'll never let go... not again, not /ever/...//
The white-haired man was grateful, very grateful, to finally feel the blonde's shivers cease, trailing off to a warmer, and more peaceful rest, and Sephiroth was even more glad that Cloud did not make a move to push him away, that things were comfortable between them, and a temporary peace had been reached. The wind outside howled still, roaring loudly, but it could not reach them, was no longer important when measured against the body in his arms.
The change, when it came, happened all at once, and so sudden that he couldn't react until it was over. Sephiroth had felt Cloud relax, had been trying his best not to move, to startle the blonde, hoping the other man might finally go to sleep, when all at once, Cloud rolled over, throwing his arms around the SOLDIER's waist around, pulling himself close. Sephiroth could feel the tickle of blonde spikes against his chest, a slight wetness, of what was most likely a few, exhausted tears...
The white-haired man tried to extricate himself immediately, dead certain that the blonde had fallen into a sudden nightmare, just as sure that he didn't want Cloud wouldn't want to wake up like this. The rubble-strewn snowscape was still an all-too possible future for the both of them, despite the emotional minefield they had managed to slip through so far.
//I'm not whomever he thinks I am, that's for sure... /and/, if he squeezes any /more/ tightly, I think he'll cut off the circulation to my legs!//
"Cloud?... Cloud, come on... let go..."
It was useless. Still sleeping, the blonde only held on tighter as Sephiroth gently tried to guide his hands away.
//That same stubborn... Good Lord, does he live his entire life this way?!//
Sephiroth's thoughts were bemused, not angry, as they had been at the blonde's last display of hardheadedness, and the sentiment startled him. Had he really said all those horrible things, thrown all those ruthless, vicious jabs at a man he hadn't really been angry with at all?
//God, I really /am/ a fickle bastard...//
After a few more moments of slight struggle, Sephiroth finally gave up, could only hope that the blonde wouldn't wake, and fell back into a surprisingly cozy half-sleep.
"... don't... please don't... I'll do anything... /don't/..."
Sephiroth woke instantly, as the back of Cloud's hand rapped lightly against his chest. The white-haired man had slept lightly, not needing or wanting to be completely unaware of his surroundings. He was still keeping an ear out still for any sounds from outside, as well as noticing every movement Cloud had made over the past few hours. The blonde had finally let go of him, shifted away, but not very far, still within the sheltering circle of his arms, and so far, making no protest against him...
//He never accepted your apology, though. There's a good chance he might not even remember it, or /any/ of this night, really...//
Sephiroth had been watching, had seen that the wounds on Cloud's temple and the back of his skull were nearly healed. He could only hope that there had been no other damage, nothing but a simple concussion, and even that now mostly gone...
//The cold doesn't seem to have done any irreversible damage... I suppose I should feel lucky for that.//
Suddenly, the idea seemed absolutely ludicrous, as it should have been in the first place, absurd, that he had ever let Cloud stalk off to sleep alone, knowing he wasn't doing well...
//Another mood swing, then? This is what... the fifth... sixth?//
/How am I supposed to help it? It's not my fault that he's...// Sephiroth struggled, but still could not define precisely what was wrong, //... he's /doing/ things to me!//
"... no, no no... no please..."
The SOLDIER's attention was pulled away from his silent argument with himself, as Cloud muttered again in his sleep, moving restlessly against his dreams. This close, the white-haired man could see his eyes moving quickly beneath their closed lids, feel the rush of his breathing, fast and shallow... The blonde cried out again, murmuring a few more words of negation to the empty air. Sephiroth was sure this was nowhere close to the first time the man had been harried by these nightmares.
//How long has this been going on, then? Have you had a peaceful night in weeks? Months? Years? Since Nibelheim... since I...?//
Sephiroth reached up, knowing very well that it could cause no end of trouble, that if Cloud were to wake... He paused, listening for a moment... but there was no response from any voice of reason, nothing telling him to stop.
The SOLDIER let the back of his hand brush the other man's cheek - and /yes/, it felt /very/ good to touch him. Sephiroth's breath caught as the blonde, still asleep, leaned into his touch with a happy sigh. The white-haired man swallowed hard - this was /not/ the kind of thing that needed to happen right now, even if Cloud was asleep - but he did not, /could/ not pull his hand away.
//Oh, you're going to hell for this one, Sephy... this /is/ the same man you tried to crush just a few hours ago... the same man you can't decide whether you hate or you l-//
He cut that thought off, but it was too late, and the silent accusation, the single, simple word rang through his mind like a bell... something he had never even considered... never...
"Don't... please don't go... don't /go/..."
Cloud turned his head, quickly enough that Sephiroth's hand was nearly pinned beneath it. His voice was a soft, throaty whisper, a keen of pure sorrow, and Sephiroth watched a single tear trace a path down the side of his face.
The white-haired man reached up, brushed it away without thinking, letting his hand come up further to rest on Cloud's forehead, expecting the low grade fever he found there, the only sign of an ordeal that would have easily killed anyone else nine times over.
//All those tests for SOLDIER, all that time they were prepared... Hand-picked, to take on that task...//
Sephiroth had never been a part of that, he had been /born/ into the role, a path that had been lain out for him from the very beginning, but it hadn't been a truly horrible fate, he supposed... a life truly no better or worse than any other could be...
//Better, though, maybe better than some...// He looked at the blonde's youthful features, wondered when exactly the other man had been frozen in time, what too-young age Hojo had made his final mark. //... better than those who never /had/ the choice, and weren't prepared, weren't brought up ready for what their future would bring...//
The white-haired man let his hand stay, as it seemed Cloud showed no signs of waking, and drew his fingertips down the side of the man's face, rubbed his thumb very gently along the blonde's jaw line, and /shivered/ as the man let out a soft, happy sigh, and shifted into his touch, a smaller hand falling onto his waist, just above the curve of his thigh...
//Oh Seph, don't you dare... he's /sleeping/, he has no idea...//
/Oh, hush... I'm not going to /do/ anything.../
Of course, even /this/ small gesture would have probably resulted in his arm being ripped off, had Cloud been awake, and aware of the emerald eyes now watching his every move, the flicker of his eyelids as he slept, the slight shine of moisture on his barely parted lips...
//He's beautiful...// Sephiroth couldn't help but smile, remembering how annoying, how grating... and how they had so wonderfully stepped all over each other's nerves. //Beautiful ... when he's sleeping.//
After another moment, the white-haired man had to stifle a chuckle, but risked keeping his hand out, and froze as holding in the laughter caused his entire arm to shake, and Cloud stirred...
-/Idiot! Now you've done it!/-
... and sighed, and burrowed his head deeper into the pillow. Sephiroth closed his eyes briefly, stifling a small sigh of relief.
//Thank God... if he had... wait, what are you /doing/?!//
/Didn't I tell you to go away?/
His hand was already there, and Cloud had shown no signs of truly waking... this could be his only chance, to even /attempt/ to figure out what quality in the other man had cast such a spell over him. What did it matter, if he finally gave into temptation, and gently ruffled the blonde spikes, let himself touch...?
//If he wakes up, he's going to kill you.//
/Probably.../ It was a risk worth taking.
Sephiroth quickly found himself fascinated by how soft Cloud's hair really was, the blonde strands just as powder fine as they had seemed, not what he had expected, as undaunted as they were by fire and fight.
//Even his /hair/ is stubborn...// Sephiroth grinned, as the strand he was toying with jumped out of his fingers, back to its original position... it was funny...
... but the smile froze, and vanished, as Sephiroth realized much too late that his movements were now backlit in the gentlest blue glow, and Cloud was watching him, very closely, in silence.
//How did I not...? Oh /shit/.//
The white-haired man suppressed a shock of something akin to, not fear, exactly, but feeling as if he had been found with his hand in the cookie jar. His mind fumbled for an explanation, fully aware of the silence extending further... and further... and Cloud had still not said a word.
Those sapphire pools were still deeply clouded, and may have only been able to focus on him now because he was so close. The blonde seemed slightly bewildered, but not angry... not yet...
//If you don't think fast...//
Images filled his mind, of a furious Cloud, sword drawn, standing in the hole where the cabin used to be, ready to strike him down...
... and he was /finally/ warm, for God's sake, and if not completely comfortable, than relatively close... and he'd be damned if a moment's stupid impulse was going to ruin it...
Slowly, Sephiroth pulled his hand back to his side, and murmured the first thing that came to mind that might get him out of this mess.
"You're dreaming, Cloud..."
The blonde blinked slowly, very obviously confused...
//That could be my saving grace...//
"Dreaming..." Cloud frowned, blinked slowly, and Sephiroth held his breath, waiting for sparks of anger in the blue, "... feels real."
"You're dreaming..." The white-haired man repeated dumbly, fairly sure that he had failed, and only hoped that by the time Cloud awoke fully, he had forgotten about the other man touching his hair... touching him.
A hot rush of shame made him nearly turn away. Sephiroth didn't /want/ to see that loathing, that fear in Cloud's eyes... it had been innocent, he had known the blonde would not reciprocate, and would /not/ have done anything, hadn't even thought of actually /doing/ anything...
God damn, but he had ruined it all anyway, hadn't he? He had insured that there would be nothing but cold, uncomfortable distance between them... even /worse/ than before... he was so /stupid/, what the /hell/ had he been thinking...?!
Sephiroth was reprimanding himself with impressive fervor, but /did/ notice when Cloud finally looked down, at how close they were laying together... and the white-haired man tensed, knowing that when those eyes glanced up again, they would be filled with fury... and disgust... and...
"Of course... of course, a dream..."
Brilliant sapphire eyes met his own, and Sephiroth was caught, and pulled in, and drowning...
Cloud smiled, and the expression hit the white-haired man like a brick between the eyes. He reeled, but didn't really notice the shock, for he had been caught, strangely caught in a look so open, so quietly /delighted/...
//Get a hold of yourself... it's not... it's...//
The blonde moved closer, and reached out, sliding a hand around slowly to the small of the taller man's back, pulled himself tightly against Sephiroth, while those blue eyes remained fixed on his, unwilling to look away.
//It's... I... I...//
His mind was running circles around itself, this was /not/... not what was supposed to be happening...
He could feel Cloud's hair tickling once more against his chest, but this time the blonde was nuzzling him, laying a series of very careful kisses along his breastbone... and Sephiroth had /no/ idea what to do. His body /wouldn't/ move, he was frozen... breath catching again as Cloud met his eyes once more, elation and delight sparkling in the cool blue depths. Cloud slowly shifted on the blanket, moving up until they were eye-to eye, but this time there was /no/ distance between them... Sephiroth swallowed dry, so unsure... he had /never/ been so out of control, with no idea what...
//I can't... I have to... oh...//
The blonde's touch was careful, and sure, brushing lightly against his cheek, as if the white-haired man were fine china, so fragile... He had never, no one had /ever/ treated him this way...
Never... never treated so gently, those blue eyes staring directly into his own, so open, and /happy/ to see him. Cloud wasn't /wanting/, wasn't watching him in fear, or with his gaze turned away in secret loathing, placing contempt behind physical need...
The blonde wasn't hiding /anything/, but simply looking at him, so closely, as if he were the only thing that existed in all the world, all that had ever or would ever matter. Sephiroth almost couldn't hold that gaze, those eyes /so/ serious, and so caring that he wanted to turn away, /afraid/ of what they offered him... but he was caught... Cloud had him, for whatever he chose...
//Don't... don't let him... /don't/ trust... not like this, not like this...//
The touch against his cheek pulled away, only to return, glancing down the side of his face, reaching back... Sephiroth could feel those slim, strong fingers twining in his hair, caressing the nape of his neck... and then Cloud was kissing him, kissing /him/... God he had never, never /never/ let it go this far, had never dropped so deep, so fast, when he was still unsure of where the bottom lay...
Cloud's kisses were pure, liquid fire against his skin, pressing on his Adams' apple, moving with such care and delicacy, that soft deep touch drawing itself slowly upward... and he was /still/ powerless, could not do more than breathe raggedly into the chill air, afraid to move, so afraid... for /he/ had always been the one, always working, always fighting to stay interesting, to be the one they wanted, the ice god, mysterious, untouchable even in passion, and /working all the time/, fighting for even that tenuous affection, so that he wouldn't be abandoned, wouldn't be thrown away... No one could ever know him, /really/ know him, or they would leave him alone forever, no one would touch him, ever again...
... but the other man had come to him with no preamble, nothing but his eyes and his heart and his joy, and the blonde had reached out first and Cloud Strife was touching /him/, kissing him, and Sephiroth only had to accept what was offered, didn't have to be or do or say anything...
The blonde's lips were against his own, burned like flame but sweet... so sweet... Sephiroth didn't hesitate to let him in, too startled to do anything /but/ accept, barely able to even consider returning what was offered. Cloud's tongue in his mouth, but not forceful at all, not hurried but impossibly gentle, /tasting/, as if he could drink of Sephiroth's own soul... and the white-haired man would have let him, let him do anything... couldn't help but trust despite the fear. Cloud gave so freely, so eagerly, asking nothing from him, not even that which he would have given gladly in return, if the surprise, the shock hadn't seemed to have frozen him solid...
//I want this... God, I want this...//
The white-haired man still hadn't moved, couldn't move, as Cloud pulled slowly away, the arm he had slid around Sephiroth's waist coming back up, moving through his hair... and the man brushed a kiss against his temple, matched it with another along his brow. Cloud stretched his other hand out, as the one twined in the white hair drew itself free, the blonde returning to his place, nestled at Sephiroth's side. That free hand gently slid into the blanched moonlight strands that had pooled on the floor, the blonde twining a few of them around his fingers, sighing contentedly as he bowed his head once more against Sephiroth's chest.
The white-haired man had nearly regained some semblance of composure, some inkling of what had been so thoroughly swept away, when those glowing blue eyes sought his out once more, immediately scattering his thoughts, as blue fires flickered down to the very bottom of his soul.
"I love you, Seph... I love you... so much."
The arm slid back tightly around his waist, and with a contented sigh, Cloud fell asleep.
Sephiroth lay very, /very/ still, for a long time in the darkness, feeling the heat of the other man's body against his, the still-tingling sensation of that mouth against his, washing electric chills all through his body... The wind, oblivious to what had occurred, continued to push against the walls, and he was sure, though he could no longer hear it, that the snow was still falling. Emerald eyes finally turned down, watching the slope of Cloud's shoulder rise and fall slightly as he slept. Finally, carefully, the white-haired man reached down, and pinched himself hard on the leg, half-surprised to feel the sting.
It was real.
Author's Notes - not just for lemurs anymore
1. Yes, a blanket scenario. No, I don't care if it's a total set-up, I've been waiting since chapter 13 to write it.
2. Many, many thanks to Lunar for hell'a inspiration and idea bouncing. Are you sure you don't want to write the rest of this for me?
3. Thank you everyone else for all the reviews and letters and fan art. I really can't say how cool it is and how much joy I get from all the responses.
4. Well, if this chapter hasn't proven it, I can assure you that things are going to be a lot more shojo from here on out, with a /lot/ more shonen-ai. Sorry, anyone who doesn't like that sort of thing... I'll explode some heads every now and again for you guys too. : )
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