A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 27

By Twig


i've seen a man killed
by his best friend
and lives that were over
before they were spent

i've seen what i was
and i know what i'll be
i've seen it all
there is no more to see

Bjork and Thome Yorke, "I've Seen It All"


A light wind touched his cheek, roused him. Cloud stirred, opened his eyes with a small grunt. He hadn't realized he'd been sleeping. The light was dim, and fading... dawn... dusk... where was he...?


The light was too pale for dusk, just the barest hint of watery yellow, salmon pink...

The blonde smiled, staring out over the whole world, he swore he could almost see the horizon curve from where he sat. He'd watched the sun rise in Nibelheim before, just like this... damn the cold, there was /nothing/ like a mountain morning.

The snow was pure white around him, the clouds in the sky drawing back, opening up on a perfect, clear day... so blue... Only one color had ever dared to match it... vivid, flushed, green and... glowing.

//"I think it would be better... nothing happened..."//

Ah yes, there it was, he remembered now...

Cloud looked down, as something in his hand tugged against the wind. A black chocobo feather... one of /his/ bird's, though how the blonde knew that, or when he had taken it...

//... must have been days ago...//

Had it been days? Weeks Years? Perhaps another lifetime... and he was still grieving...

He would grieve forever, until the stars turned to clay, and all the universe was darkness to join him...

No mocking voice remained, it had all been burned away, not even leaving ash... He could not remember, where he had come from, why he was out here...

Another tug, he looked down again to see the feather, smiled as he realized how far his attention had been wandering... and reached up, with a bit of twine in his other hand, attaching the ornament to his hair... not that anyone would see, but if they found him... later...

//Found me? What am I going to do then...?//

Cloud felt something, looked down, his arm no longer the same pale color as the snow, but shaded in red, from deep purple, to a light, faded pink, where the blood barely touched...

The wind blew, but he couldn't feel it, only noticed the way it made the soft, dark feather bump slightly against his ear... It did nothing to stop him from making another incision on his arm, this one a bit closer to the bulge of the vein... but Cloud didn't move the knife to meet it, felt no reason to hurry, content for a while to watch the clouds roll back overhead, chased by a few whiter, fluffier puffs... the interplay of light and shadow across the great white canvas of the land... his own blood, rising in drops, the slight cuts healing themselves with impressive immediacy...

The blonde frowned, cut a little deeper, feeling the pain, but the knife was so razor-sharp it could cut in further than his body would realize, until it was too late... More blood, Cloud let the knife lay there for a moment, the thick red welling around it...

Of course, there was something he should have been doing, somewhere he ought to have been... but there was a more important reason that it didn't matter, that nothing mattered...

A melody came back to him, something old and broken, something from his hometown, and if he didn't think too hard, just whistled... it would come...

...and Cloud was happy to sit at the ledge, look down over the bright, frozen world, comforted by the simple notes that brought back something warm and unknown from the past, for certainly, no one there had ever really cared for him.

The blonde lifted the knife, made another line without meaning to, and then switched arms, noticing how the red drops fell, staining his uniform... but it didn't matter, there was no one here, no one he'd ever need to impress again...

//It's over... it's all over...//

/... fine with me./


Zack could hear his chocobo breathing hard. Of course the poor thing was exhausted, he'd been running it all day... hadn't even thought to trade off when he'd met Ro at the camp...

//"I'm worried sir... it's about The General..."//

The boy's halting tone had immediately put Zack on alert, though his fears had surpassed anything Roman had actually been able to say... not that the other soldier had said much at all, either over the radio or in person...

//"I don't know what it is sir... but he's been quiet, /real/ quiet... The General won't talk /at all/, and I don't think he's been eating or sleeping... he just keeps leading every attack, /all/ of them. I mean, he did the same thing in Wutai, but it's /never/ been like this... sir, it's never been /this bad/."//

Roman was honestly scared, worried for his commander, and Zack knew that the boy treated Cloud the way most people treated him, and treated all SOLDIERs... as if they were invincible.

This was not good.

//A couple of weeks... what the hell could have happened to him in a couple of weeks?//

What might have happened between Cloud and Sephiroth? Zack rolled his eyes, letting out an exasperated, bitter laugh. What /couldn't/ have happened, when Sephiroth didn't know, didn't realize how fragile the man walking beside him truly was, how much of Cloud's world revolved around only him...?

//If someone told me they loved me the way Cloud loves him, I'd never believe it. I'd never think...//

Fifteen years of this... there simply had to be a resolution.

Zack had realized, very soon after telling Tifa what he knew, that he had done it partly to give himself a time limit, to force himself to come to a decision.

//If Cloud doesn't tell him now, /I will/. I can't let this go on, I won't...//

Unless that was exactly what had happened.

//No... that wouldn't... he /wouldn't/...//

Zack couldn't imagine Cloud ever, /ever/ revealing his feelings to Sephiroth, not on purpose... but if he had slipped, somehow... or simply /thought/ he had...

//Maybe this doesn't have anything to do with Se- oh, who am I kidding...//

Zack was bracing himself for the worst, hoping the worst he could think of was /all/ that he might face, that his blonde friend hadn't come up with something even more brutal... especially after what Roman had told him upon his arrival.

//Cloud went out on another attack... and the men came back without him.//

He'd stayed behind, to give them a chance to escape.

//Oh God I don't need to think about it... what he might have done, if he's /really/ hurting like that...//

Zack soon found his answer, or at least part of it. The tracks of the platoon that had gone out were fairly easy to follow, as the seemingly relentless snows had stopped...

//... but the monsters... haven't.//

The dark-haired man brought the now heavily panting black chocobo to a halt at the mouth of a small ravine, a narrow, steep path glancing upward, the other wall sheer and impenetrable... and the entire canyon floor covered with the remains of what must have been quite a few of Hojo's finest...

Zack could see scorch marks, long black fingers reaching up more than halfway along the walls, and entire pieces of the rock face missing above that, where they had obviously been blasted away. It looked to have been one hell of a battle, one of god knew how many Zack himself had fought... but Cloud had been doing this for days... and had willingly fought this one /alone/?

//Yes.// Resting in the center of the destroyed area, plunged into the ground at a slight angle, Zack could see the blade of the Ultima Weapon shining in the sun.

//Where is he, then...?// No sign, the entire area was dead silent, and still.

The black chocobo warbled beneath him, dancing around nervously, nearly rearing as the dark-haired man tried to get it to move forward.

"Yeah boy... I understand... I wouldn't want to be-"

Zack trailed off, as the bird moved slightly, and he caught a glimmer of color out of the corner of his eye, raised himself up in the stirrups...

A trail of bloody footsteps, on the rising mountain path...

"No... shit, no..."

Zack quickly dismounted, leaving the bird at the mouth of the valley, quickly making his way along the path... following the crimson trail in the snow...

//... too much blood, this is too much blood...//

Strange, that the prints didn't appear hurried, and that he ran into no other bodies, none of Hojo's forces... The SOLDIER fought the urge to cry out the blonde's name, just in case anything else was around, searching for them... but his heart was racing, and each blood-outlined footprint he passed nudged his desperation just that much more.

//After the battle... maybe he was hurt, and he came up here to try and hide...//

The dark-haired man looked down, at the Restore materia in the cuff around his wrist, that had been flickering oddly for the past few days... but it /would/ work, when he reached his friend, if Zack had to reach inside of the green orb and pull the power out himself...

The SOLDIER darted up the path, around the first corner... and froze, all the resolve drawing away from him in an instant.

//... unless... not even that...//

/... oh my god./

"... Cloud?"


"Damn it, Shera..."

Cid tried not to look around the main laboratory of Junon, the building beautifully restored, with the lab as its centerpiece, every window overlooking the ocean far below... so /very/ obviously the figurehead of the building, a fact, repeated to him time and again, that he should have been aware of long ago. He should have known Shera was up to something.

//I should have... why didn't I realize? I didn't even think!//

Each piece of equipment he turned his eyes to only seemed to mock him further, the sheer size and complexity of the place, the fact that Shera was in charge of it all, and very well respected... how had he missed this?

//Last time we went out, I brought the Bronco, and we had a picnic dinner on the wing of the plane, parked in the field away from the city... and she never mentioned... I never considered, she must have been doing /something/ all this time...//

"Why didn't you /tell/ me you were up to all this?"

"You never asked," Shera murmured in her usual mild manner, grinding his own regrets that much deeper into his mind. "You were busy leading the air forces, and I haven't actually been doing all that much, really..."

He couldn't tell it by her tone, and she had turned away from him to gather up her papers, but Cid still had the feeling Shera was laughing at him.

//This is /not/ my fault, that she doesn't /care/ that she's at the head of such an important project!//

Only Shera, only she could go about her work so calmly, with such attention to detail, quietly doing an incredible job, expecting nothing, while everyone around her lauded her praises. Cid had received quite an earful from Melissa before he had boarded the Highwind, the phrase "lucky to have her" still ringing clearly in his mind.

The pilot wanted to sit her down, have a conversation eye-to-eye, but there was no time for that, not if he wanted the Highwind up in the air before nightfall, and on their way back to North Corel.

Cid knew he couldn't yell at her, either... for really, she had done nothing wrong... and especially not when her words were always soft, and unassuming, and the room was nearly silent, as her assistants listened for her instructions, for what to do while she was away. Shera was quiet, but her sharp intellect commanded attention, and usually left Cid only wondered how he had missed it for so long...

//Smarter than me, and I couldn't handle that... not to mention the whole 'space' disaster...//

Memories of that old, stupid anger still lay at the surface of his thoughts, reminding him how easily and viciously he tended to fly off the handle, how much he had already made his sweet Shera suffer for in the past. If he never yelled at her again, it would only begin to repair the damage.

"I just wish... you would have told me..." he muttered to her back, as she continued to pack away her research. It really didn't sound as if he were whining... did it?

"I know, love..." Shera turned and lifted up on her tiptoes, gently kissing his cheek. "... and I'm sorry. If you could help me with that bag, I'm ready to go."

The woman turned, picked up two more bags, and walked out of the door, down to where the Highwind sat. It was one of the first times the enormous airship had been anchored at Junon since AVALANCHE had "liberated" it from ShinRa. Cid was flustered by her professionalism, but forced himself to realize that the imagined snickers from the other scientists were completely in his head. Shera's assistants were all clustered around a far monitor, hard at work, and completely ignoring him.

//We're not /jealous/... are we?//

Cid tried to ignore the chirpy mental voice, already knowing it was too late.

//Disappointed? What were you expecting? Did Shera not fall all over you, and wait eagerly for you to snap your fingers, so she could take care of your every whim?//

/It's /not/ like that.../

The pilot quickly picked up the bag, careful not to jostle it - who knew what she had in there - and frowned slightly, watching a group of people gather around Shera to wish her well as she boarded the Highwind... how had he /not/ seen this earlier?!

"Oh wow..." his ears perked up, at a murmur from nearby. "Is that Shera Highwind's husband?"


As soon as his hands were free, Cid knew he would be taking a very long smoke break.


Blood. Blood everywhere, the sleeves of the blonde's winter uniform torn completely away, revealing arms stained near solid crimson... Cloud's eyes were fixed on the horizon, and Zack was too shocked to do anything, as the blonde calmly drew the knife once more across his arm, sending another spatter of red onto the snow.

"It doesn't even hurt... that's funny... Don't you think that's funny, Zack?"

The dark-haired man jumped as he was addressed, unsure his initial whisper had even reached the air, let alone his friend's ears... Cloud still hadn't turned toward him, but knew he was there...

"What are you /doing/...?" Zack fought to keep his voice steady, as the blonde lazily passed the dagger to his other hand, slicing a deep, diagonal line across his other arm...

"I'm not sure, really..."

He cut even deeper, and Zack took a step forward, couldn't keep from screaming...


Immediately, the dagger flipped, until the point was beneath the blonde's Adam's apple, starkly visible now - god, he was /thin/ - and Cloud had one hand tight around the grip, the other poised, hovering with the flat of his palm over the pommel... All it would take was one good tap, as if he were chipping away at a stone, and the blonde's voice was a low warning...

"Stay there, Zack."

The dark-haired man froze, watching the maddening scene with wide hazel eyes, as Cloud didn't move, but his hand still hovered, poised to end it... inspired now, to finish what he had started...

//I don't have a Restore that works... or anything that will... and even his SOLDIER healing powers might not handle, not if he... oh god...//

It felt as if his skin had been torn away, raw nerves screaming in the frozen air. Zack's blood was singing, muscles demanding action -/save him save him SAVE HIM!!!/- but he wasn't fast enough, there was no way... His thoughts slammed together, blurring to a frantic garble in his mind...

//What happened... what happened, Ro said it was bad but this, but /this/... what /happened/!?//

His thoughts finally leapt to the most logical point.

/Sephiroth, it has to be something about Sephiroth, that's the only thing that could get the kid, the only thing that could wreck him this way.../

//Oh god don't let him, please don't let him...//

/He's going to slit his throat... and I'm going to watch him do it./

"Cloud...?" Zack edged forward, using the excuse of looking for a seat on the nearest rock, as a way to move just a few steps closer to the other man. "I'm going to sit down... all right?"

The blonde was watching him from the corner of his eye, and Zack saw a flash of something angry and bitter and violent shoot through that eerily blank sapphire gaze, the strongest burst of an emotion he knew too well, one he had /always/ hated to see in Cloud's eyes...

Resignation. Zack was stronger, in every way... and Cloud knew he was nothing. The dark-haired man could almost hear the self-loathing in his friend's thoughts.

//Do you think I can stop you? Tell you what to do? Do you honestly think someone like /me/...?//

Zack swallowed hard, and perched himself on the slight outcrop, trying to appear relaxed... but every muscle in his body was tense, and he almost fell over in sheer relief, as the knife slowly dropped away from Cloud's throat...

... but the sharp point had left one brilliant drop, glistening like a tear as it slowly fell, to disappear beneath Cloud's shirt...

-//That shirt fit him the last time I saw... but now...// Zack could easily see Cloud's collarbones now, jutting out from underneath the skin. //Lord, he's so thin...//-

"What are you doing here...?"

Zack winced, as Cloud continued to cut into his arms, criss-crossing against wounds his SOLDIER's body had been able to close but not yet erase, leaving more and more lines along the pale skin, the flashing blade scraping off dried flakes of red as it moved. Each pass seemed to cut a little deeper than the last, shedding a little more blood across the snow, darkening the deep blue of his uniform nearly to black...

"Roman called me. He said he was worried about you..."

Every movement of the blade hurt, as if that knife were carving into his own heart, but Zack knew that if he moved too soon, if he risked... the image of that knife, poised against the blonde's throat was instantly before him, a vivid reminder...

"Stupid fucking kid... that's gratitude for you..." Cloud laughed bitterly, "... I fought the battles, I /won/... what the hell else does he want from me?"

"He doesn't /want/ anything..." Zack chose his words carefully, keeping his eyes on the point of that blade, as the sharp edge continued to dive in and out of Cloud's skin...

//If he loses too much blood... maybe he'll pass out, at least that way I could be sure he was safe.//

Frightening, that he might even consider that an option, and Zack swallowed hard, forcing that thought back. No, there /had/ to be a way... didn't there?

"Cloud... please... give me the knife..."

Too soon, too abrupt, and he watched the blonde's hand clench tighter around the blade, jerking slightly as he dug the point into his skin.

"Not now... I'm busy."

"Cloud... /please/..."


The sudden scream startled them both, though Cloud seemed to regain himself first, turning his eyes back toward the horizon, legs hanging limply over the edge of the lip of the small cliff. He was breathing hard, though his voice was surprisingly stable.

"Go, Zack... please. I don't want you to see me like this, and I don't want to hurt you... and if you stay... I will... I /will/."

"I'm not leaving without..."

"STOP IT!!!" Cloud turned on him then, blue eyes swimming with tears that quickly spilled over, and he reached up frantically, wiped them away with a bleeding arm...

"Stop it! Stop caring! I don't want it! I don't want you to care! Fuck you! I HATE YOU!!! ... I can't... god damn it, why can't you ever understand?! Just get the fuck out of here and let me take care of this!!!"

"Cloud... I..."

Zack was stunned by the sudden fury in his friend, but noticed that the blonde had stopped cutting himself, had seemed to have forgotten all about the knife in his hand in his anger.

"I /want/ to die! What's so hard to understand? Can't you get that through your fucking thick skull... I /JUST/ /WANT/ TO /DIE/!!!"

Cloud's scream vanished in the wind, too far above the cliff for an echo, the silent tundra swallowing all that agony without any effort at all... but the strain left the blonde shaking, gasping for breath with his eyes half closed... and he brought the knife up again...


"Cloud... please... just talk to me. Just for a moment... What happened? Did... did Sephiroth..."

Cloud went absolutely still, frozen in place, staring at nothing, paler than the snow... and the tip of the dagger wavered in the air as he trembled...

//Oh God... I knew it... I /knew/ it...//

"What /happened/..."

"Nothing..." The blonde had his eyes closed, tears slipping out beneath the lids, the pain open and raw in every word he managed to choke out. "Nothing... no no no... nothing happened, he said... he, I... nothing, nothing happened - it was all /my fault/."

//Oh God... Seph, what the hell did you do...?//

It might have been possible, to wrest the knife away from the blonde now, but Zack hesitated... unable to be sure, and unwilling to act without that guarantee... A part of him was already working to narrow down the list, of what Sephiroth might have done to cause this reaction - the possibilities were endless - and how he might work to repair the damage...

"Do you know how much it hurt to lose him, Zack? Do you have any idea...?" Cloud drew in a shaking breath, now very obviously trying to hold back his tears. "Do you know what it's like to live in this body that nobody wants, with this life that nobody needs... and there's no /hope/, no way to change, it's just going to go on and on and on... I would have done anything to save him, /anything/... He could have hurt /me/... as much as he wanted, I would have taken his pain... I /understood/, and even if I didn't..."

Cloud had shown no sign of his inner turmoil, nothing compared to the look on his face now, grimacing as he held back an agony so intense it was close to tearing him in two... and Zack would have given anything to go to him, to help him, but his friend still held the knife, with the tip against his heart...

"Oh god, I lost him, I /lost/ him then... and they should have killed me too, I couldn't... I didn't... he could have had me... he could /still/... but he doesn't want me, I can't be /anything/... there's nothing I can say or do, /ever/..."

His words gained a disturbing steadiness.

"I can't live in a world without him, and it doesn't look like I can live in a world /with/ him, either."

Cloud's eyes met Zack's again, not calm as they had been, but deep with grief, for all he had given in vain...

"I've come to the end of me."

Zack felt his heart skip.

"There's nothing... nothing left... I can't... I can't live without him... I can't /be/ in a world where he doesn't want me... I have to... I /can't/... this is what I deserve."

The point of the knife pierced Cloud's chest, blotted blood moving swiftly across the deep blue fabric. Zack felt the electric shock of panic snap through him as Cloud gasped, shivering against the new pain, unable to push the blade deeper, at least for the moment...

"Cloud! Stop! PLEASE!"

The dark-haired man reached out in desperation, could hardly believe it was his voice that broke over the silence, shrill and desperate... but it stopped the blonde's hand, Cloud's grip eased on the dagger, and those glowing eyes seemed to see him for the first time...


"Cloud..." The dark-haired man kept his arm extended, willing the world around him to arrange itself, to pull that blade away from it's lethal course, shape things to the future he /needed/ to come true. "Cloud... please... give me the knife..."

"No... no no no..." The blonde shook his head hard, clutching the blade to him as a child would hold a favorite toy, staring at him with wounded eyes, the question so apparent - how could Zack ask him that? Of all things, why /that/, the relief he needed most?!


"I... I can't..."

Zack realized he had broken through, somehow, that either Cloud had snapped out of whatever trance he had been in, and was listening to his friend's words...

//... or he's lost too much blood to fight me, or it hurts too much to go through with it - oh God, I hope - and either he'll listen to me...// The man's attention never completely left the now-crimson point of the blade, //He'll listen to me, or this is over, and he'll... I can't push... but I /have/ to... God help me...//

The part of Zack that had been praying for assistance increased its fervor tenfold, and his hazel gaze locked with the crumpled form in front of him, as if he could hold onto Cloud's life simply by needing his friend to survive.

"I'm sorry... I can't..." Cloud raised the knife again, back to his throat, but the action seemed more frantic, and confused, if not hesitant...

//Let me talk you out of this... /please/ God, let him listen...//

"I can't..."

"You /can/, Cloud. I'll help you... I'll /always/ help you. Come on, Spike... /look/ at me..."

The blue eyes flicked up to him, away, and back again, full of a bewildered, breathless terror.

"I won't let you. I /won't/. You're lying, you're lying and... I..."

"I'm not lying. I wouldn't ever lie to you."

Zack kept his voice calm, soft, watching his friend fumble to hold onto his anger, his fear, and failing, the knife point wavering with each moment that passed...

//Just let me reach him...//

"Lying... kindness now, but you'll hurt me... everyone does and I can't... I just can't live with it... not anymore..."

The dark-haired man knew he had to speak, but the words wouldn't come.

//Say something... /anything/...//

Cloud was starving for human contact, always had been, and if Zack could just reach him, and get the knife away...

"Spike... what am I supposed to do, if you do this?" The words didn't mean anything, until they hit the air, and only then did Zack realize he was speaking the truth... "What do you think I'll do, what will happen to me... if I can't even save my friend?"

"It /hurts/..." The blonde's voice never raised above a whisper, as Cloud wrapped his free hand tightly around his waist, curling over where he sat. "I'm so scared... and it never stops hurting... I can't ever make it stop... I just want it all to /stop hurting me/... why... why does it...?"

"You don't have to do anything you don't want... not anymore, not ever again." Zack would make it the truth, if he had to win the war single-handedly to do it. "Please... I don't want to lose you... I /can't/ lose you... for god's sake, you're /family/ Spike, the only family I've got left. Don't leave me alone."

Blue eyes snapped up to meet his, and Zack shivered, nearly recoiled at the hunger that smashed the emotionless blue, the haunted ache in those glowing depths... but he held that gaze, knew he was gripping the end of a lifeline, and could not afford to let it go slack.

"All that time, in Hojo's lab...? All along, when you were living for Sephiroth, living off of that memory? What did you think I was living for? I was living for /you/..." It was the truth, and for a moment that memory, the cold, bleak darkness interrupted even his fear for his friend. "I had to get you out, Spike... that was the only thing that kept me going... I needed to see you safe. Please... don't do this to me now..."

"Zack... I don't know... I don't... I..." The knife slowly dropped away from the blonde's throat, and the dark-haired man's heart leapt.

"It will be all right, Cloud... I promise... please... we'll get through it together, just like always."

Zack knew his friend didn't believe him, not with the despair still shining in his eyes, but the blonde trusted him, and loved him, and deep down Cloud was such a good person, one of the /best/ the dark-haired man had ever known... and wouldn't hurt his friend just to save himself from pain.

//... and forgive me, Cloud, for using that against you... but I love you too much to watch you die...//

"... please, Zack... help me..."

The blade slipped from the blonde's hand, vanishing with a soft thump into the snow. Zack leapt before he truly realized what had happened, throwing his arms around the shaking blonde and kicking the knife even further away. Cloud clung to him with all his strength, agonized screams muffled against the dark-haired man's chest, weeping and shaking uncontrollably. The dark-haired man held the blonde tightly -//God, there's nothing left of him//- and murmured a litany of soft, gentle words, promises he would die before breaking, sending a silent prayer to the heavens, breathless gratitude, as his own heart began to slow...

"Everything's going to be all right... You're safe now, I'm here, I promise, I promise, I promise..."


"Sir... we've got a message in, from Icicle Two..."

Sephiroth turned, spoke without ever thinking...

"Is it Strife?"

//Well, /that/ didn't sound /too/ desperate...//

/Shut up./

"No sir... Lieutenant General Gemini... he said there hasn't been an attack in nearly twenty-four hours sir... everything looks fine."

Sephiroth nodded briskly, withholding all the questions building up in his mind as he watched the man walk away...

//I didn't think he'd call, I didn't think Strife would actually call...//

/You were hoping he would, though./

The white-haired man pounded a gloved fist against his forehead, before slumping heavily into his chair, letting out a deep sigh that didn't seem to do anything at all for his state-of-mind...

A week of this, his thoughts /never/ straying from what had happened on that one horrible, wonderful night... and he didn't, /couldn't/ remember the tears, or the uncomfortable silence, the awkwardness... just the feel of Cloud, soft and smooth beneath his hands, those powerful muscles rising underneath his touch, the finely sculpted body...

//"I love you... so much..."//

Sephiroth snarled, slamming his hand against the desktop, grateful he was alone. If it had been simply lust, he would have been able to ignore it, or at least, it would have been something familiar, and /acceptable/-

... and it would have been safe. What he felt now, and what he wanted from Strife, was most definitely /not/ safe.

He wanted /Cloud/, wanted that joy in those blue eyes, the way the blonde had kissed him, so tenderly, so much as if he knew what the white-haired man feared, the way he had felt so alone... and shared it, made those fears dissolve so easily. It was as if Cloud had understood him, in that warm moment in the cabin, that seemed more like a dream even to /him/ now.

//It was real, but there's nothing I can do... nothing I can say to ever get it back...//

Of course, that was a lie. Cloud /would/ come back, at least once more, before anything truly life-threatening would take place. They had decided unanimously upon at least one more meeting, to smooth out all the details, before striking at the Northern Crater again... this time, for the /last/ time. The blonde would return, and if Sephiroth had anything to say, there was no reason not to tell him then.

//So, what exactly will you be saying? "Gee, Strife... I know things didn't work out too well between us, and you probably loathe me right now, but I still can't stop thinking about getting in your pants... care to give it another go?//

Or even better...

//I don't really even /want/ to get in your pants... can we talk about why that might be?//

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

It was supposed to be forgotten. Sephiroth had told himself to forget it, to move on, and in the past, that had worked just fine. It /hadn't/ hurt when he had been younger, when that first lover had mocked him, when he heard a few of the rumors circulate. They were still scars, but bearable ones, that faded to paper-thin memory with time...

//... or at least, you thought... until Nibelheim.//

Sephiroth snarled at that reminder, and felt it vanish into the back of his mind, like a flushed rabbit seeking shelter. All right, so his heart wasn't impenetrable, he /was/ as vulnerable as anyone else...

//No no no, damn it! I can't be... I /can't/...//

... but what else to call it, what else but vulnerability, when no matter what he did, he couldn't stop from thinking about Cloud, and from imagining all the possible ways to get him back?

/I want to know you... I want to make you smile.../

He was mooning like a cadet, obsessing in the same pathetic way President ShinRa used to whine over each of his rotating retinue of mistresses... it was weakness, it was useless, and Sephiroth knew it, loathed it... and still /couldn't/ make it stop.

//Stupid... stupid stupid stupid...//

... and if it was this bad /now/...

Sephiroth knew, once he was face to face with those blue eyes, when he had to /see/ the blonde again... and there was /no/ way to escape it, not without it being completely obvious... The white-haired man sighed, closing his eyes and resting his head in his hands, well aware he was obsessing over the one thing, the one man he had sworn to forget as soon as possible...

//Oh well, if I have to obsess...//

Sephiroth wasn't made of ice, no matter how many times he had been described that way, and his will wasn't nearly strong enough to banish all, or even many of the sweet memories, no matter how unimportant, how illogical and even hurtful they now seemed to be...

//Not that I'd want that, to be able to forget him...// It ran counter to all his current agonies, but provoked only a slight grimace. He had given up on logic, just as it had seemed to abandon him.

//God, I don't know /what/ I want...//

/Sure you don't./

He wanted Cloud, smiling down on him, radiating warmth and love like a life-giving sun, those gentle lips pressed softly, tenderly against his own, careful fingers twined in his hair... God, it had seemed that the other man had loved him, had wanted him in the same way, and /cherished/ their time together... where had it all gone wrong?

//I shouldn't even be worried about this... there's a /war/ going on...//

The argument died instantly. He couldn't hide the problem, couldn't subsume it beneath matters of supposedly greater importance... in his heart, there /was/ nothing more important.

//If Nibelheim taught you nothing else, it should have at least taught you tha-//

The very end of the thought was snipped off sharply, and Sephiroth's eyes widened as he lifted his head, feeling the room around him, the entire floor shake, the vibrations coming from footsteps slamming down hard on the stairs outside...

//What the...?//

He had a glimpse of black, a wild mane of dark hair, before Zack plowed through the door, slamming the poor plank of wood with such force that the glass pane inside it shattered, and the hinges were ripped away, hanging by a thread for a moment before the smashed wreck toppled to the floor. Sephiroth barely heard it fall, too surprised by the hazel eyes that were fixed with his own, full of a barely-controlled rage Sephiroth had almost never seen his friend in before... and especially /never/ at him...



Tifa walked out of the medical tent, finally sliding the Premium Heart off of her sweaty, aching hands, sighing as she half-collapsed against a low pile of wood that made a surprisingly comfortable chair. The battle hadn't been much, a skirmish, but there were still wounded men waiting to be healed on top of the few who returned injured from the fight, and the Restore Materia they held took longer and longer to work with every attempt...

With all those problems, Tifa's mind had still been locked on a singular focus... had been for a week, since the City of the Ancients... when Zack had spun her entire world out of control.

//"I'll kill him, Zack. If he hurts Cloud... if he ever..."//

Tifa knew her goodbye had done Zack no good, that he most likely understood her sentiments, and her reaction well before he had ever told her... that it was probably the /reason/ he had never told her...

//... or anyone else.//

Of course, no one else in AVALANCHE had as much of a personal stake in this problem as she did...


Was it a problem? One side of the fighter was unquestioningly sure of that, and had already been screaming long and loud for Sephiroth's blood, the brunette knowing down to her very core that the white-haired bastard had done /something/ to Cloud, just as he had in the past... something to make him feel /that way/... something... it was just impossible...

//Is it? Is it, really?//

/Yes! How could he... after all Sephiroth did to him, and Nibelheim and.../

//... and how could Cloud ever tell you otherwise, knowing that you hate Sephiroth /so much/?//

Tifa /had/ been angry, when Zack had said he had to leave, that Cloud was in trouble, and needed him, and only him. The brunette had nearly yelled at him, if there was something wrong, why shouldn't she know? Why shouldn't she go? The fighter realized now, as her anger ebbed, as she remembered what her very first thoughts for Cloud had been upon discovering his secret, not understanding but fury...

//I always told myself I'd be there for him... that whatever happened, I would love him, and take care of him...//

Horrible, that it seemed Cloud had known her better than she knew herself, and understood that her kind-hearted sentiments were nothing more than good intentions, and not strong enough to face the real truth.

//He knew if he told you, you wouldn't understand... and so... he's been hiding this... even in his mind, even confused and frightened, he hid the truth from you...//

The brunette sat down along the edge of a long, tightly packed dirt wall, cupping her hands around her upper arms, staring off into the cold daylight, the sun seeming to chip away at its frozen surroundings...

//I didn't know... I didn't understand, and it drove Cloud away from me... it left him all alone...//

Now that she knew... now that she knew...

//All this time... he's loved... /Sephiroth/ all this /time/!?//

Tifa was determined to kill the anger that still rose up. She would learn to accept it, to understand... she would prove Cloud's fears wrong.

//... but if that bast- if Sephiroth /ever/ hurts him...//

Slim but powerful hands dropped away from well-toned arms, flexing slowly into fists.


"What did you do? What?!" The dark-haired man closed his eyes, hands rising up and falling repeatedly as he paced back and forth, obviously trying to contain, to release some of his anger. "What... the /fuck/? What did you /say/, what did you /do/? What the /hell/ happened when I wasn't paying attention?!"

Sephiroth was completely taken aback, startled that his friend's anger wasn't fading as it usually did, with the hot-tempered SOLDIER quickly regaining his cool, and that Zack truly was /furious/ with him.

The white-haired man was so surprised, that he fell back on instinct, feeling the old, protective walls falling in around him as he leaned back in a perfect imitation of cool, indifferent annoyance.

"What are you talking about?"

He half expected the dark-haired man to realize he was raging at that point, and calm himself down, as he usually did when Sephiroth presented such a cold front, but there was no stopping Zack now.

"You tell me!!!" The fighter paced back and forth in front of his desk, the livid anger in those eyes not fading as they glanced up at Sephiroth in between snarling breaths. "I get a call from Gemini, that "something's wrong" - his hands flexed into frustrated claws for a moment - "... and I run down there just in time to watch Cloud do his damnedest to fucking /slit his throat/!"

"WHAT?!" Sephiroth was out of his chair, lunging for Zack's arm before he could stop himself. He shook the man sharply, though it was unnecessary, his dark-haired friend was already watching him in silent, stunned confusion.

"Is he all right?! Why would he... What happened... what?!"

Zack's eyes widened, he opened his mouth, closed it, and took a step back, pulling out of Sephiroth's reach.

"Wait... hold on... just... wait." Zack hold both hands up, as if to stop the world, while thoughts and images scattered chaotically through his mind. "Why do /you/ care so much what happens to him?"

Sephiroth was silent, but as Zack looked into his eyes, he realized... the silence /meant/ something, something vital...

"Seph... this is /very important/." The fighter spoke each word with slow, deliberate gravity, as much for his own benefit as the other man's. "What did you and he talk about up there? What happened while you were alone with him? I have to know."

"/That's/ none of your business." The white-haired SOLDIER's reply snapped in the air, and they both realized in the same moment that Zack hadn't been even close to thinking what Sephiroth was... not until he had reacted so defensively. The dark-haired man's jaw dropped as he realized... yes, he could see it now, /that/ emotion swimming in those angry, surprisingly /hurt/ aquamarine eyes...

"Oh Seph... you didn't."

The thought had almost glanced off his mind completely, the impossible realization striking too hard, something that even Zack considered nearly inconceivable... and he realized Cloud's hero worship /had/ affected him somewhat, that even he had forgotten that his friend really was just a normal man, that Sephiroth wouldn't have thought twice about... and if Cloud had been willing...

//Of course he would be, even if he /wasn't/, even if he was scared out of his mind... because it was Sephiroth, and he'd never say no... never think he /could/ say no...//

"Oh God, you /didn't/..."

//"nothing happened - it was all my fault."//

The words were a phantom whisper through Zack's mind, and even if he didn't completely understand, not yet, he knew enough... and whatever Sephiroth thought...

//The kid must have been /terrified/...//

"What?!" It was easy for Sephiroth to slip into an indignant rage, and preferable to the anxiety and fear that was otherwise consuming his attentions - //why had Cloud tried to kill himself? Was it because of what they had... because the blond realized, that Sephiroth wasn't human, but too late...?//-

He strangled that thought, lashing out, the only way he could think to take some of the pain away.

"What's /so wrong/ about it, Zack?!"

Zack opened his mouth to speak, and immediately paused, took a few steps back to look outside through the now vacant doorframe. All the people gathered around the tower quickly tried to hide, behind poles, buildings or each other.

"We can't talk about this here..."

The white-haired man snorted derisively.

"If you haven't noticed, Zack, I'm a bit busy with..."

He trailed off, as hazel eyes burst into hellfire.

"Seph, shut the /FUCK/ up and FOLLOW ME!"

Startled into silence by the sudden outburst, for one of the only times in his life, the white haired man did as he was told.



Roman looked up at the soft murmur, made sure his footsteps were silent, as he slowly stood up, and walked to the edge of the tent. The redhead didn't bother to open the flap, letting no light into the darkened area, anything that might possibly disturb the slumbering form in the corner.

"We've got a report in... it looks like Hojo's starting something, north of here... there's a large group, no positive identification on the makeup yet... but they're headed straight this way..."

Roman looked over his shoulder, barely able to make out the General's outline against the back of the tent... Zack's words were still clear in his mind, the quietly threatening rumble matching the dangerous gleam in those hazel eyes...

//"Roman... I don't care /what/ you have to do, whatever happens, you keep him /right here/ until I get back, and /do not/ wake him..."//

The redhead wondered if that were even possible, he had seen the drugs Zack had convinced Cloud to take to calm him down, though it had still taken a long time before the dark-haired man had been able to leave, without the General panicking, refusing to let him go...

//Panicked, I've never seen... and his /eyes/...// The blue gaze had been vacant, empty, and Roman had quickly realized the only thing worse than being noticed by those eyes was being /looked through/, as if he weren't there at all...

Roman wouldn't have believed what had happened, if he hadn't seen it himself... Zack riding his chocobo at a blindingly fast pace into the camp, The General, covered in blood, laying motionless in his arms-

//"Sir, what happened? Was there an attack?!"//

Zack's response, after a long, silent moment, was quiet, and meant for his ears alone.

//"No... no, he... he did this to himself."//

Roman had been the only one to follow the two men closely, the only one to notice the glint of tears on The General's pale cheeks...

//He... was crying...//

"Sir... I really think we ought to tell The General."

Roman immediately shook his head, plotting the defense strategy out in his head. He knew the hills as well as any of them, even as well as his commander did...

"Take two divisions of the east cavalry up and try to split them, before they can make it here. Have infantry ready on the eastern front, and sweep up the north, see if you can catch them in between..."

"That sounds fairly risky, si-"

"Do it."

A startled silence, though Roman didn't really care.

"Yes sir."

The redhead immediately turned back to the bed, though his commander hadn't moved, Cloud exactly as Ro had left him, exactly as /Zack/ had left him... and even though the boy was sure his commander had been thoroughly sedated, even past dreams, he could still see the slight shine of new tears in the hint of blue-tinged darkness...

//I wonder, when he usually sleeps, how his eyes don't wake him up...//

The slightly absurd thought quickly replaced itself with a somber alternative.

//... even with his eyes closed, you can tell he's a SOLDIER... He'll /always/ be different from all of us, even in his dreams.//

Roman returned to his place at the man's side, still unsure of what it was Zack expected him to do, should the commander wake...

//That's not going to happen... I won't let it happen...//

His thoughts were determined, to keep the man safe, but Roman knew he was also listening, very carefully, for the sounds of monsters in the distance... Hojo's forces closing in.


Sephiroth couldn't help himself, wasn't able keep a hold of his indignant rage, as Zack walked silently in front of him, clenched fists the only sign he could now see, of a fury still very much present in his friend. As the white-haired man walked, however, his anger started to fade, and as it did, his mind went back to the most important point...

//Cloud... tried to kill himself? But why? /Why/ would he...?//

/Your fault. He found out he made love to a monster, can you blame him for wanting to erase all traces of /that/... who wouldn't..?/

//Shut up!// The white-haired man almost snarled, even angrier... because he dreaded... that they most likely spoke the truth.

The thought ate at him, and Sephiroth found he couldn't wait for them to reach their destination.

"Is he really... all right, Zack?

"He's alive, for now..."

The comment was made with no malice, there wasn't even anger in the other man's voice. For the moment, Zack sounded simply dead tired, that of a man pushed very close to his breaking point. Sephiroth could think of nothing more to say, and kept his silence, until they entered the doorway of one of the larger temporary storage sheds, Zack closing and locking the door behind them.

"It took me /two hours/ just to calm him down enough for the tranquilizers to work..."


Zack's words may have been soft, but the hazel gaze that answered his question was as hard and unyielding as stone... but a stone couldn't show anger, or disappointment...

"I couldn't take him with me... I wouldn't want to risk... and I /couldn't/ leave him like that... he's a... God, Seph, what exactly comes after "total fucking wreck"? Zack ran a hand through his hair, letting out another deep sigh. "Seph, please... you /have/ to tell me what happened..."

The white-haired man honestly didn't think before opening his mouth, and the words that came out were nothing like what he had been pondering, nothing even close to the shocked, confused cold that was seeping through his entire body...

... but Zack wasn't asking, he was /ordering/ Sephiroth to speak, and the white-haired SOLDIER had always hated being forced into anything...

"Why should I?"

Zack's temper, already hanging by the thinnest of threads, snapped once more.

"SHIT! You... you /ASSHOLE/!"

The dark-haired man continued his frantic pacing, as if at any moment he might explode, low voice sharp with bitter sarcasm, whetted by the most vicious of furies.

"How about I just /ask/ you the questions then, Seph, and you can answer yes or no...? Think you can do /that/ for me?"

Sephiroth said nothing, and Zack choked back a few more insults, forcing himself to simply glare.

"Did you talk with him? Anything important? The past... the future?"

"Oh, I don't have time for this..."

The white-haired man took one step toward the exit, saw the flash out of the corner of his eye, the spell sizzling close enough that he could /hear/ it, and quickly pulled his hand away from the now-bubbling molten metal that had once been the door's handle. Sephiroth turned in shock back to his friend, but Zack was still glaring, completely unimpressed by his friend's shock.

"I'm not finished yet, Seph."

The gauntlet had been thrown down, and Sephiroth didn't wait to hear it land.

"What?! What do you want me to say, Zack?" It was clear, from noble voice to detached, proud posture, he thought the dark-haired man was behaving like an animal. "Did I fuck him?"

Arms crossed now, Zack raised an eyebrow. "Did you?"

"Yes, yes I did."

//I thought you were my friend Zack, I thought you were a better friend than that...// Was he somehow intimating that whatever was wrong with Cloud had anything to do with him? That /he/ had caused this...

//I did I did I did//

/NO! I /am/ human, I am not a monster, I am human... I am, and it was Cloud's fault it has to be.../

The dark-haired man winced again, muttered something Sephiroth couldn't hear, but didn't need to. The disgusted sorrow on his friend's face speaking volumes on its own.

//What was it, Zack? He was your friend, and I just didn't realize I wasn't /allowed/? Was he off-limits? Why? What was so great about him, that I wasn't supposed to touch? What the hell did you think I /could/ do anyway... Am I really /that/ repulsive in your eyes... /Why the hell are you blaming me/?!?!//

Sephiroth was angry, because it hurt... the angry disbelief, the disgust stuck in him like a dagger to the hilt, that his only friend could be acting this way, when the white-haired man had done nothing at all... that it seemed completely beyond Zack to believe he had meant no harm. He felt the old, old anger rising up inside of him, that deeply rooted belief that had never died... that even Zack, deep down, didn't like him, and had always been lying about being his friend...

The anger killed his logic with one swift blow, making him vicious, and cruel... and stupid.

"So I fucked him, Zack. Big fucking deal. It wasn't as if he was any good anyway, and it's not /my/ fault if he has some /fucked-up/ ways of getting his kicks..."

The world had frozen, and if Zack was reacting, Sephiroth didn't see it, too busy trying to spit out every hateful, bitter emotion that had filled him, throw them anywhere else, /at/ anyone else, just so they weren't inside /him/ anymore, so he didn't have to /feel/...

"I don't know what the hell happened... he seemed just fine until it was over... I don't know /what/ his problem was..."

Zack looked up, stunned.

"His problem?! His /problem/!? God, how many people do you think he's /been with/, Seph? How many /men/? Come on... think /real hard/ about it... there sure were a /lot/ of opportunities, between the town where everyone hated him, and Hojo's lab and /now/, don't you think?!"

"I don't... I..."

The words faltered, and Sephiroth realized... he had never even bothered to ask. He hadn't even been able to face Strife, didn't know why the man had reacted how he had, only assumed, /only/ feared... because things with that man had gotten so far beyond what he knew, and what he could control...

//I won't let you make me feel like this, Strife... I won't...//

"I can't believe it..." Zack shook his head, not looking up, "I just can't believe..."

//... you would do that to him.//

The bitter words flashed through Sephiroth's mind, and he /knew/ that was what Zack was thinking, knew his friend had been lying, all that time... and it /hurt/ to be betrayed...

"Don't you dare throw this on me. I had nothing to do with this. I asked, he accepted. If he couldn't handle it, that's /his/ problem..."

"You can't just /end/ it like that, Seph! Cloud /needs/ to talk to you..."

"Well, if he wants to see me, face-to-face, I'd be glad to work this /whole/ thing out right now..."

Another lie. Having to look in those blue eyes would take all the fight, all the anger right out of him. The white-haired man noticed vaguely that Zack was staring at him as if he were crazy.

"He's almost /dead/, Seph! He damn near bled to death right in front of me! This "misunderstanding" is going to kill him if you don't stop being a fucking coward and /do/ something!"

Sephiroth snapped out a laugh, because if he was vicious he didn't have to think, and if he didn't have to think, he didn't have to hurt...

"Why the fuck should I care what happens to him?! What the hell has Cloud Strife ever done for me!?"

In retrospect, Sephiroth realized two important things. One, that he had never /really/ been on the receiving end of one of Zack's punches. Of course they had sparred, fought in mock duels up and down ShinRa's corridors... but he couldn't remember the dark-haired man ever really landing a solid, bare-fisted blow...

... and two, and this he thought as he watched the knuckles suddenly zoom into sharp focus... Zack had an amazingly accurate swing.

The dark-haired man made no attempt to pull the punch, and Sephiroth didn't even think to block, instantly lifted into the air by the force of the blow, coming down hard against the side of a crate before falling heavily to the floor.

It seemed an eternity before either man moved, the moment broken as the white-haired man slowly pulled himself up to a sitting position, wincing and shaking his head very carefully...

//... ow.//

One punch really wasn't enough to make him see stars, but it /did/ rattle him, quite badly... and Sephiroth flinched, surprised at the shame that flooded through him, as he saw a slight shadow pass above him, looked up...

Zack was standing over him, and looked nearly as surprised as he did.

"You deserved that, Seph... and now I want to tell you why."


"He loves you, Sephiroth. He's loved you for the last fifteen years of his life, with more devotion than anyone I've ever known."

After so long, so many secrets left shrouded in the most strict of silences, Zack finally told his friend /everything/, lay it all out directly, in the open, all the time painfully aware that if he'd really wanted to be fair, he'd have to ask Sephiroth to give him a black eye to match the one already fading from the other man's face.

//I should have never let it go this far... I should have said something, /anything/... this is as much my fault as it is his.//

The dark-haired man quickly threw that thought away, self-pity and reflection meaningless in this moment... only now was important, only the future mattered. Cloud's future.

It became clear, immediately, that however Sephiroth and Cloud had managed to get together, it hadn't involved a lot of talking about the past.

//He doesn't know... he doesn't even know what Spike felt for him before...//

Zack brought up every memory he could think of, every formal function he had managed to sneak Cloud into, and all the times the blonde had found a way to smuggle himself in, even before he knew the dark-haired SOLDIER had been watching him... more than once, he recounted how the blonde had stayed up waiting for Sephiroth's return from any number of late functions, even though he had early-morning drills...

"... because he could get closer to you that late, with less of a chance of being seen. He would have done /anything/, just to get a little closer, Seph. I watched him once, Spike was dead on his feet after those nights... and you know, they usually trained all day... /and/ he usually pulled an hour's worth of extra work at the end, because he was so clumsy, because he hadn't slept..."

Zack couldn't tell if anything he said was making an impact. Sephiroth didn't say a word, didn't even look at him, staring into the distance, softly glowing eyes revealing nothing.

"... and when he went to Nibelheim..."

Sephiroth raised a hand. "Stop. You don't have to... we both know what happened at Nibelheim..."

"He loved you then, Seph... and in Hojo's lab, after all that happened... It was all he'd listen to, sometimes... me talking about you. I think it was the only thing that kept him going, near the end..."

Zack cut himself off, refusing to let his mind drift into those darker memories.

//He /survived/... we both did, sort of, and that's all that matters now...//

"... and... during the year I tried to destroy him, he still... oh god, no..."

The white-haired man trailed off, as Zack nodded.

//Fifteen years, and you hurt him worst of all...//

Zack's heart ached for his friend, but the white-haired man deserved to hear the full truth. Sephiroth dropped his head into his hands with a sigh, waving away any of Zack's attempts to dull the accusation of those words.

"How long did you know, Zack...?"

"In Midgar? A few years... Once I found out, it was pretty easy to tell... even though he did a damned good job of hiding..."

Easy enough to tell, that when the SOLDIER had been brought back from the dead, when he had learned all of what had happened in his absence, what Sephiroth had become and what the blonde had done to stop him, he could still see the pain etched in deep, jagged lines across Cloud's heart... after all the blonde had been through, /nothing/ had changed between him and the one he loved.

"I didn't tell you in Midgar, Seph, 'cause he was just a kid, and I was sure it would pass... and by the time it /didn't/ pass..." Zack shrugged. "What the hell was I supposed to say? I didn't know... I did the best I could, what I thought was right at the time... and now... I don't know... I didn't want to fuck it up..."

"It's impossible..." Sephiroth murmured, not in doubt but wonder, not wanting it to be true, not wanting fifteen years of someone else's life so quietly tied together with his own, when he hadn't known... hadn't ever been warned to step carefully, to be cautious because he was walking on someone else's heart... he hadn't known... hadn't known...

"It's impossible, for him to love me like that. Before now, just a week or so ago, I barely even knew his name. How can he even...? It's just not /right/..."

Not right, that he didn't know, because even back then, even if he hadn't /cared/, hadn't had time to care or the opportunity to even consider opening up his heart, with ShinRa always watching... Sephiroth at least hoped he could have been kind to the blonde, that in all of this, Cloud might have received some kindness.

//I should have known... if only I had...//

"It's impossible for him to love me... I haven't /done/ anything to deserve..."

"I know it seems that way..." Zack murmured, just as softly. "...but Seph, it's true."

The white-haired man paused, swallowing hard.

"I'm the reason he tried to kill himself, aren't I? The only reason."

Zack closed his eyes, took a deep breath.

"I think... he must have thought he'd failed you somehow..."

Sephiroth winced, closing his eyes, and Zack knew his words had struck a nerve.

//"You d-didn't do anything w-wrong... I'm... I'm s-sorry..."//


Zack felt useless, and that his words, all his words were meaningless, could not begin to sum up all that he knew. How useful could words really be, when a handful of sentences, less than a half-hour's worth of talk could sum up the secrets, the sorrows that went down to blood and bone, of more than a decade's worth of suffering? So much emotion hidden away, revealed by a handful's gathering of conversation... how could that possibly be right?

... and how could those same words be anything /but/ precious, when all those barriers, all those walls could be erased completely with a few simple statements.

"Cloud loves you, Seph. He always has, he always will. In the end, it's really as simple as that"

"I never asked for that... I never..."

Sephiroth shook his head, and Zack was amazed as those emerald eyes lifted to meet his, how strangely new they seemed, in the face of so old a friend, how /vulnerable/...

"I hurt him, Zack. Worse than anyone, even if he hadn't, he didn't... love me... Now, even now, he /still/...?"

"I know. I know it isn't easy to think about, and hell..." The dark-haired man took a deep breath, sighed. "... hell, it is pretty messed up, in its own way... but it is /real/. Remember that, that he /loves/ you... more than I've ever seen anyone love anyone, more than /I've/ ever loved anyone, that's for sure..."

Sephiroth was watching him more closely now, that last admission an unusual one to make, and Zack shrugged, knowing it sounded strange... but it was the truth. He had loved once, and he could let go of the pain of losing Aeris, and love again... but Cloud... that man's heart was a force all its own, with a singular focus almost frightening, near obsessive in its loyalty and devotion...

"I've never seen anyone feel the way Cloud feels for you. Never... so I have to ask, Seph, what do you feel for him?"


//I am a monster... I am, I am... not to notice this, not to step out from behind my fear for one moment, to see what he was feeling...//

... but how to guess, a secret such as that?

The admission, learning what Cloud really felt for him so matter-of-factly, all at once, was simply more than the white-haired man could take in. He realized as he opened his mouth to answer that he was reeling, and could not come up with any immediate answers.

How could he answer, what could he say... how could it not be frightening, to know he'd have to live up to that kind of devotion? Could he ever be worthy... especially when he'd already done so much damage?

//I don't want... I don't know... I'm not sure, and how could he...? Maybe it's not... maybe it really isn't...//

He was sure Zack saw the questions, the worries playing across his face.

"It /is/ real, Seph..." Zack smiled slightly, rolling his eyes. "If I didn't know /anything/ else for sure in this life, I'd believe in that. In him."

"Hell, if that's true... if he loves me that much, then it's like I'm being /forced/ to..."

Sephiroth lifted his hands, let them fall, already knowing it wasn't a real protest. Learning how Cloud felt seemed like an unreality, but it had sparked something deep inside of him, a joy so stunning and powerful that he couldn't comprehend, couldn't /feel/ the initial impact, and the aftershocks were just beginning to make themselves known...

//... someone who loves me... someone I can love. I can make this right, now that I know...// Perhaps it was a bit cowardly, that he only felt so assured now because he /knew/ the blonde would reciprocate... but there was nothing he could do about that, nothing he could do, but refuse to be cruel, or afraid of it anymore, to do anything that might hurt the man who loved him.

//Cloud... Cloud Strife loves me... and /wants/ to be with me...//

"I'm not saying you have to... no one could ask you to do something like that..." Zack trailed off despite his strong words, looking away and Sephiroth saw something dark shiver its way through the back of his hazel eyes.

//... no, you wouldn't ask me to do it, Zack but you'd do just about anything to see it happen... because if I don't, Cloud will probably die.//

The thought of that, of Strife, so proud and angry at their first encounter, a mask for what lay beneath, and even /that/ a mask, the terror and fear a cover for the true man he had been with for those few precious moments in the cabin, a Cloud who had wanted to give of all of his soul, wanted nothing more than to care for the white-haired man... the thought of that man, all that love gone, wasted... all because of /him/...

//He didn't tell me he was afraid, because he didn't want to disappoint me...//

Zack had said as much, that Cloud's love was unconditional...

//Am I worthy of /that/? Could I ever be? Could anyone?//

His dark-haired friend was worried now, Sephiroth knew, worried for the friend he had tried to help for all these years, because now that the secret had been revealed, Zack no longer knew how things would work out, he didn't know if there would be a happy ending...

//... but I do. I think I know...//

"... no one can make anyone else love them, I understand that. Maybe that's why I didn't say anything for so long. I couldn't bear to see Cloud get hurt, so I wouldn't even let him take the chance... but I /swear/ to you, Seph, if you would just let him in, get even a little closer, you'd realize that..."

//Cloud... Cloud loves me... and I...// Sephiroth felt his thoughts hesitate, still standing at the edge of that abyss, though his heart leapt, so high...


The expression must have swept across his face, for Zack to see it, but Sephiroth said nothing, kept those newly fledged feelings to himself... it was too fragile, this hope was too fragile to be shared with anyone... except for one other.

"Seph... what are you thinking?"

"I'll tell you that," Sephiroth murmured softly, gesturing to the melted door. "... as soon as you tell me how you're getting us out of here."

Zack winced.

"Uh... oh boy..."


"Fifth division, come in... can you hold a steady position, are you doing all right?"

Cloud couldn't get to his feet, and after a few moments struggle simply remained on his knees, head resting against the wide blade of the Ultima Weapon, where the sword had been imbedded in the earth. Whatever Zack had given him, the drugs were still running thick and heavy through his system, and he found he barely had the strength to lift the radio back to his lips, ready to speak again when another voice finally answered his call...

"Yes sir... we're stable here, and it looks as if Hojo's forces are retreating..."

//Of course they are... we kicked the shit out of them... again.//

Cloud smiled, a grim, determined expression, devoid of pity... or life. All around him, the bodies of friends and enemies alike littered the ground, a scene dully familiar, even the pain close to routine now, the bone-crushing horror at so much wasted life nearly numb within him. Cloud's forces had been only one division of many that had held back Hojo's forces from taking down Icicle... but once again, among these faithful soldiers he had led into the fray, the blonde with the SOLDIER's body was the only survivor.

//I can lift the radio, and I can give the order, and I can lead an army even if I'm pumped full of drugs and have to fight alone... and if Hojo comes down on me, I can do whatever it takes, as many times as it takes, through day and night and hellfire... I am the ultimate fucking weapon...//

It wasn't entirely true, as Cloud hitched a very uneven breath, and felt the sharp stab of pain, from where /something/ had managed to carve him along his right side, from his hip to just underneath his arm... what a scratch, but it would heal, as long as he willed it, he would /always/ heal...

//The only thing that can take me down... is me.//

Thankfully, when the expected wave of nausea finally hit him, Cloud was able to crawl a few steps away from the weapon, though they were mostly dry heaves anyway, a little bile, and the ounce or so of water he had drank, to try and draw the fuzziness in his head away just before the fight had started...

//Lovely... just lovely...//

The radio hissed and crackled from where he had left it, propped up against his sword, and somehow Cloud managed to crawl back to it - god, he was tired - barely able to balance even on his knees, as he took a few sips of water to wash the horrible taste out of his mouth, resting his head once more on the flat of his weapon.

"Sir... Sir, are you there?"

Roman's voice was close to frantic, very fearful. Cloud knew that Zack had most likely told Gemini to avoid waking him at all costs, that the redhead was probably beside himself with worry now... should anything happen...

//... but I'm the only one he could have sent... Hojo attacked with too many, too many for the army to take on their own... and I'm the only one who can do what needs to be done...//

"I'm fine, Ro..." Cloud lifted his head, just slightly, gauging the devastation, realizing his first assumption to be true, it was total. The smoke from half-burned corpses still drifted up through the air, blurring the horizon, but he could see enough details to gather the necessary picture. "Casualties were a hundred-percent... except for me..."

Thank God he had taken the first chocobo out he could find, and that bird wasn't Karat.

"We're coming to get you sir... just stay there, we can be there within..."

"No, Lieutenant, don't come... don't bring anyone. I don't want anyone leaving Icicle until we're sure the threat has been neutralized."

"... but sir-!"

"That's an /order/."

As always, that one harsh word ended it... though Cloud tried to be kind, knew where Roman's fears lay...

"I'll be back soon, Gemini. I promise."

Cloud listened for a moment, but of course his second-in-command didn't argue. Very slowly, as gently as his exhausted body would allow, the blonde let himself fall, until he lay on his back in the muddy ground, eyes closed, just trying to relax his aching muscles, even a little bit. All the marks from his own self-inflicted wounds had long-since healed, but his skin still felt tender to the touch, sensitive to every slight movement he made. It was too painful to bother even trying to open his eyes, the clouds covering both sky and sun with a thick haze, illuminating the entire sky into a sheet of depthless white.

//I know why Ro was worried...//

The blonde knew, though, that even with the sedatives still in his blood, tempting him with a warm, hazy exhaustion, he wouldn't fall asleep... There had been enough of /that/ problem during the battle, the drugs slowing his attacks, clouding his concentration even at the peak of the fight, and nearly allowing one of Jenova's spawn to gut him where he stood...

//Nearly? Not hardly... Hojo /can't/ stop me... nothing can... I'm going to live forever...//

The exception to that rule made itself known once more, as his strangely wandering hands bumped against the side of the Ultima Weapon... it had such a nice, sharp edge, nearly drawing blood by accident... such a nice, sharp...

//No. No, no more of that...//

He would have to apologize to Zack for his outburst, Cloud knew, though there was nothing he could say to begin to make up for what he had done, for how he had made the other man worry. Cloud doubted if the dark-haired man would even forgive him, he had caused /such/ a scene, not just when they were alone, but back at the camp as well... he could remember only cloudy moments, but that /everyone/ must have known by now... especially as the black chocobo feather was still tied into his hair, he hadn't thought to remove it, despite the strange, wary looks it received...

//Pathetic... acting like a child... I feel fine now... just fine...//

The thought that it had been the one of the last, desperate throes of a dying heart never even entered Cloud's mind. The blonde finally opened his eyes, for no real reason at all, staring into the blank white sky, not even a sky, it was so white...

//... not pretty, though... not a white like... like /him/...//

The blonde's fingers flexed around empty space, imagining the wind softer, smoother... strands twining around his aching hands, the cool touch soothing his burning skin...

//... at least he was beautiful... so beautiful...//

Cloud choked on a soft sob, found that there were tears in his eyes... but it just wasn't worth it to brush them away. He would find the strength, of course...

//... but later, later...//

The blonde knew he would move, would go back to Icicle, but it could all just wait, it was better to /stay/, to lay and rest and not think... except to pretend that if gravity pulled just a bit harder, drew with slightly greater force, it might drag him down below the earth, and he might be safe, forever...

Cloud could feel the weight of Holy and Meteor, resting in the center of his chest, reminders, of his duty, of what happened when he failed... memories were all he had now, all he would ever have again...

//It doesn't... stop thinking, just /stop thinking/... it can always get... worse...

/... it doesn't get worse it /can't/ not after this there's nothing left nothing nothing nothing.../

//... but I have to keep living... even if I'm not really... living... Nothing matters... nothing... not anymore...//

The blonde had no idea how long he actually lay there, the world fading in and out as the wind blew ever colder across him, the drugs threatening to pull him back into unconsciousness but never quite dragging the darkness over him. The blonde was senseless, unaware of the passage of hours, unsure if he lay on the plain for moments or days, with the sky a still-vacant brilliance overhead.

//... nothing... it's all over... all...//

A tremor nearby finally roused him, he stirred, and found it more difficult than he had imagined, limbs he thought ready and able to move at his command were heavy, motionless as he tried to lift them, and it was nearly impossible to even open his eyes... and he hadn't remembered them closing.

Silence, the slight sound and vibration stopped, and gentle hands carefully lifted him into the air, cradled him against a warm, broad chest. Cloud didn't struggle, didn't even bother to open his eyes, curling closer to that welcoming embrace. He knew who held him, the only person it possibly could have been...

"Hi, Zack..."

No answer. Cloud frowned, knowing why, knowing the dark-haired man had to be angry... and tried to put the pieces of his thoughts together, enough to speak... but he could tell they were moving now, and the slight sway accompanying the motion was very relaxing... he was so tired, and at least in darkness, his sorrows couldn't seem to find him, he could let go, at least for a while...

//Apologize... apology first...//

"I'm sorry, Zack... don't be angry at Roman... he had to, and they were attacking... I didn't mean to... and about all that happened... I'm sorry."

Still silence, and he tried to speak again...

"I'll make sure to tell him that, when I see him..."

Cloud froze, though it took the usual emotions a few more moments to move through his weary body, new shock pushing at his already overtaxed reserves. The voice was familiar, but smoother than his friend's, and one he knew as well as his own heartbeat...

He opened his eyes, and though the blonde expected no less, the glowing aquamarine eyes looking down into his own still nearly stopped his heart. The blonde was immediately, uncomfortably aware of his situation, how much he must have weighed, how it must have been to carry him, /god/ he felt awkward now... so stupid, and /of all the people to find him/...

//... oh no... not now...//

He was sure he would have been panicking, if he hadn't been so tired, instead found he was only able to shift slightly in the other man's arms, as he fought to think of something to say...

//... Sephiroth?//


"It would be easier to carry you, if you'd stop struggling..."

Cloud was actually moving very little, but the order gave Sephiroth the chance to finally see what Zack meant, as his offhand comment made the blonde go completely still in the space of a heartbeat.

The white-haired man tightened his hold protectively, though his stomach lurched even further at how the fighter seemed more like a bundle of cloth and sticks than a living person.

"I was blind... completely... Cloud, I'm so sorry..."

Sephiroth dipped his head, kissing the other man's brow without a second thought, and felt the blonde seize up even further, barely breathing, his blue eyes flicking from Sephiroth's, to some invisible point just off the man's shoulder... there, back, there...


"I... don't understand."

Frowning in concern, Sephiroth carefully returned Cloud to his feet, trying to give him some space, the long gash in the blonde's side not going unnoticed for a moment, as he watched the fighter wince, unwilling to put nearly any weight down on his right leg. Cloud leaned against him heavily, not quite able to balance on his own, and trembled as the white-haired man ran a hand through his mud-soaked hair to soothe him.

"I don't... understand." The words were more deliberate, an obvious question, tinged with a fear that made Sephiroth ill.

//He loves you, and he's afraid to love you... he's afraid that once you know what he feels, you won't... somehow, you won't want him anymore...//

Sephiroth thought he had been used to fear, but not like this, and certainly not as a part of the secrets, the years and years of building sorrows that Zack had revealed...

//All this time, and he never told me, because he was afraid I'd... what? Reject him? ... and that would destroy him? My god, what power do I pretend, to make him fear me like this? Whatever it is, I don't want it, I /don't/...//

Still conscious of the barely healed scar trailing across Cloud's side, the white-haired man slid a steady hand around the blonde's waist, bowed down to murmur softly in his ear. He wanted to make tender promises, declarations of love, but couldn't... and knew he couldn't, not until the blonde had healed, and they had talked, and were once again - or perhaps, for only the first time - on some sort of even ground.

"I don't know either, Cloud... not yet, not completely, but all either one of us needs to know now is that..."

//I love you.// He couldn't say it, wouldn't say it until he /knew/...

//... until you know what?//

/If he wants to be with me, or with the dream he's made me up to be. Until we know each other, I just can't... and right now, I barely know him at all.../

Sephiroth only knew what Zack had said, mixed in with his own desires, and it did feel so /good/ to have the blonde in his arms...

"... I won't leave you again."

The vow was unbreakable, his honor would have allowed no less. It was the most important thing he could offer now, and Sephiroth only hoped Cloud would understand, and that it would be enough.

"I promise, this is just the beginning, and I won't leave you until its finished..."

//... and perhaps, when we've talked it all over, sorted this all out... I hope you'll still want me to stay.//


Cloud closed his eyes, almost whimpering in agony at the sudden shock of happiness, the brush of hair against his cheek, a softer echo of the warm kiss against his temple. He could feel Sephiroth's dark cloak wrapping around him like wings, the brush of leather at his calf, as the white-haired man drew his arms around the blonde and held him... warm, and safe... more precious than the world to him, this one touch...

It was all a dream, /had to be/, and so Cloud was not sad when it ended, Sephiroth pulling away, leading him towards a waiting Chocobo.

The blonde found he didn't have to fear invading Sephiroth's space once they were on the bird, though the problem had been foremost in his mind. The entire ride, he sat with his back against the other man's chest, one strong arm held loosely, protectively around him... it was heaven, and paradise, and Cloud only hoped, if he wasn't truly here, and still lay in the field, that he /had/ died, or would die before he was found, before he was drawn out of such a wonderful dream...

A long dream too... lasting all the way back, not to his camp, but to Icicle...

//Makes sense... to report in, after a battle like this...//

It would have made sense, except that it made none at all... but it was all only fantasy, and he dismissed all his questions after less than a passing glance.

They drew up to the stables, and Sephiroth helped him dismount, half-catching him, holding him until his unsteady legs could find their balance. All the while Cloud wondered when the dream would end, and where he would end up when this illusion shattered.

They walked through the camp, Sephiroth always only a half-step behind him, a gentle touch at his shoulder or the small of his back letting the blonde know the other man was there, to steady him, to help if it was required. Surprising, how vivid it all was, the people that passed by... everything wavering between reality and the illusion, the hallucination he knew it had to be...

//All right... about time I get a good one...//

Hardly paying attention to where his feet went, moving more by habit than intent, Cloud started stumbling toward the radio tower, to give another report, dreading the pain of it, coming face to face with all he had lost... The blonde closed his eyes, and a hand took his shoulder just as he realized he couldn't seem to open them again...

"Wait..." His voice seemed welded to the back of his throat, he coughed lightly to release it. "I have to..."

"It's been taken care of. Gemini knows you're here, and things have quieted down for now. You don't have to worry about it anymore."

Cloud nodded weakly... he could feel the Planet only dimly, through the haze of chemicals, exhaustion, despair, and not enough to tell whether he should be worried, or if he should just listen to that voice... that gentle order...

//... isn't real... can't be...//

"Come on, Cloud..."

The dark-gloved hand moved gently around his shoulders, and the blonde closed his eyes, leaning into that touch... the world faded without a flicker of protest... and abruptly went dark.


//"So, what would you do, Spike? If you ever got a chance to meet Sephiroth? What would you say, if it was just you and him?"

Zack was teasing him, grinning like a fiend, and Cloud could feel the blush creeping into his cheeks. The SOLDIER knew his secret... but hadn't told, and the blonde had realized then that the dark-haired man was truly his first real friend. Nearly a year had passed since that point, with Zack continually making it easier for him to be closer to The General, posting him on guard at functions Sephiroth would attend, bringing him along if there were even the slightest chance the white-haired man might show up...

... but Cloud still didn't know... couldn't think of anything to say, even though his deepening blush and continued silence only made Zack laugh harder... what would he say? What could he say, if he ever really /did/ come face to face with that dream...

He had no idea... but then, he didn't really need to... after all, it wasn't as if it could ever really /happen/, that Sephiroth would ever know, or care... never... never.//


Cloud opened his eyes very slowly, his entire body aching, terribly heavy... At first, his eyes focused on nothing, the shapes before him swimming in and out of focus, soft shadows and curves refusing to make sense... where was he... what...?

The blonde realized he was shirtless, and laying on his stomach only when a warm hand drew a blanket up around his shoulders, and gently rubbed its way along the muscles in his back... The fingertips were skilled, and strong, he couldn't help but arch to meet that touch, a sigh of pleasure buried in the back of his throat... his muscles tensed in bliss, as two strong thumbs rode up the ridge of his spine, wide warm hands with fingers splayed covering most of his bare skin, that careful, soothing touch stroking his aching body with an expert's care... oh yes, Sephiroth was all Cloud could have expect-

//Sephi... Sephiroth?!//

Cloud froze, didn't turn his head, breathing hard against the pillow beneath him. He felt that touch retreat, but his muscles refused to tense back up, his exhausted body fighting against the sudden anxiety with all it had.

"Welcome back. Good nap?"

The voice was rich and deep, filled with a humor that made Cloud's entire body ache with longing, to see... not daring to turn, but wanting to see that smile... god, he was really /here/...

He choked back a gasp, as a warm leg curled against his own, and only then did Cloud realize he wasn't wearing /anything/, and only partially wrapped in the blankets, as was the man beside him. The blonde let out a muffled yelp, felt Sephiroth move away completely, though slowly, his tone unconcerned.

"Sorry about the clothes... but you were covered in mud, and so was I... it was just easier this way... if you want, I could get you..." the white-haired man seemed about to stand, move away, and Cloud felt the panic snap through his mind...

/no don't leave don't leave no!!!/

He shook his head hard, still unwilling to face the other man, not knowing if he could bear it, trying his best to speak -/"don't go, please... stay"/- but nothing came out.

He nearly sighed in relief, as he felt Sephiroth settling back down... until one of those large hands wrapped languidly but firmly around his waist, pulling him closer, turning him, until Cloud was more or less forced to meet Sephiroth's glowing aqua gaze... immediately lost in the foggy, emerald sea... distantly noticing that the other man seemed equally interested in him...

... and... was that a smile? Yes... /yes/... he watched in awe, as it grew, not possible, that it was all for him... too much, an expression just too rich for one man to deserve...

"I took this..." Cloud tilted his head up, saw the black feather in Sephiroth's hand, a moment before the man let it fall, unwanted, to the floor. "I didn't think you'd need it anymore."

Cloud watched the other man blankly, until he realized he was supposed to react, and quickly shook his head. He was startled even beyond that, as Sephiroth laughed.

//... the summer sun, that brilliant day... and that laugh, but not for me... never for...//

- but... it was?

"So, I see the "real" Cloud Strife is even more of a chatterbox than the man I thought I knew..."

Sephiroth was teasing him, /teasing/ him, and between that thought, and the warm hand gently sliding along his arm, Cloud was stunned, overwhelmed, couldn't believe even a single thought made it through...

//The "real" Cloud...? What does he...?//

The thought vanished, and the blonde nearly winced as Sephiroth sobered, smile fading in a heartbeat... Any minute now, any moment Cloud was sure things would go back to the way they had always been, this dream would end, and the world would be cold, and dark and cruel once more...

//No... please, I can't go back... it /hurts too much/ I can't... can't live like that... I...//

A steady hand cupped his chin, broke that fear into pieces just as easily as it had his calm, and tilted his eyes back up... the emerald gaze was unreadable.

"Cloud... Zack told me where to find you... and he told me..."

The blonde stopped breathing, barely mouthed the words...

"What... what did he..."

"Everything. Zack told me everything he could... and that I should get the rest of my answers from you."


They were too close for caution, or restraint... and despite himself, Sephiroth couldn't help but lean in, kissing the blonde deeply, unsure even as those lips parted for him whether or not it was the right thing to do...

//How do I show you... what do I need to do, to show you how I feel...?//

He was worried now, because he had given up control, and let himself fall... and he was sure that now, they were both flying blind.

The most vulnerable, open blue gaze met him, as he finally drew back, Cloud so afraid, so absolutely terrified...

//... not because he doesn't want it... Zack said he loves me, and if he didn't... he wouldn't still be here... but he's afraid that I won't want him... that once he reaches out, I'll pull away...//

How could it be, that he was loved like this, that he had Cloud's heart, always, fragile and brave, afraid but willing, so willing, right in the palm of his hand?

//I don't deserve... /no one/ deserves... but yet, that's what he thinks I am... that's who I am to him...//

"... and you were afraid..." He stroked the peaks of the blonde spikes gently, loved the way the soft yellow gold felt against his naked fingertips... "You were afraid... and you weren't ready at all... but you let me, you let me do whatever I wanted, because you didn't want to disappoint me."

He nearly winced, even though he expected the reaction, Cloud nodding wearily, closing his eyes as if even the admission was too much to bear.

"Oh Cloud..." Sephiroth curled his hand slowly around the back of Cloud's head, kissing his brow, pulling him close... how could he have done such a thing?

//I didn't know... I swear, I didn't...//

"... God, I'm so sorry... I'm sorry, that all I do is hurt you, and hurt you... and apologize when it doesn't matter anymore... I'm sorry."

He felt Cloud's hand against his arm, lithe fingers bent forward, gently threading through the long, snow white strands that had cascaded down around them. Sephiroth looked up, found the gaze that had captured him so easily before, blue eyes that held no blame, and no sorrow, but a steady, constant strength, a devotion so deep there was no bottom, no end...

"I love you. I always have... I've always..." He frowned slightly, searching for the right words. "Just tell me what I'm missing... I know, there must be something... what wasn't enough? What couldn't I do to..."

"No, Cloud... /no/." Sephiroth shook his head almost violently, working very hard to keep the roughness out of his tone, as even now he could feel the blonde flinch... afraid that the white-haired man's anger was for him...

"It was my fault... /mine/. I assumed exactly what I wanted to assume, because it was easier for me, because it hurt less than owning up to my responsibility..."



It was such a rush, to watch those sapphire eyes light up, the frantic flight of so many emotions in those perfect glowing pools... and Sephiroth did not shift his gaze, let the moment draw out as long as it would, watching in amusement as Cloud blushed, but did not look away... and they were once more happily, comfortably lost in each other's gaze.

"... m-me?"

Sephiroth chuckled, and watched again as Cloud's eyes widened, warily delighted by his good humor. It was wonderful, but so painful to see...

//... like a beaten dog, always ready to be hurt, barely daring to hope for real kindness...//

The white-haired man knew it might have been for the best, to leave it there for now, and just go to sleep... God knew it was late enough, and it had been one hell of a day...


//... balls to /that/ idea, then...// A victory, that he had finally succeeded in annoying those inner voices as much as they'd irked him.

He reached up, brushed a few slightly drooping spikes away from Cloud's eyes.

"Would you kiss me? Like you did in the cabin?"

The blonde startled visibly.

"That- that wasn't... that was a dream..."

"No..." Sephiroth smiled, gently shaking his head. "No, it was real, as real as all of this... and I liked it."

The admission was more than he had given anyone, friend or lover, in longer than he could remember, and though it was a small concession, it was still no easy thing to say. Admitting weakness... that he wanted... -//needed//- to have the blonde near...

"Please... Cloud..." Sephiroth pulled closer, waiting, but would not, would /not/ cross that line, would do nothing this time, unless Cloud came to him... It was an admission of weakness, maybe, but he was more than ready, more than willing to trust...

Willing, for the way the other man's mouth so carefully, warily closed with his, hesitant but wanting, afraid, because of how /much/ he wanted... and the kiss itself seemed to tremble with that need, nearly folding under its own hesitation, until Sephiroth added his own strength to it, supported that flickering desire with his own...

It was a long time before they broke from that simple, powerful connection, and Sephiroth immediately moved forward again, landing a light aftershock that the now-smiling man knew caught the blonde completely off guard. He could hear Cloud breathing, steady but shaking gulps for air, saw the fading wariness in the blue eyes, the hope still being held back, still restrained by fear...

//Of course, I didn't expect it all to change at once. Until now, I wasn't really sure it would change at all...//

Sephiroth smiled, knowing it was the best antidote to that fear, drawing his hands up and clasping them gently behind Cloud's neck.

"/I/ was afraid, Cloud. I was afraid that if I loved you, you would hurt me..."

He nearly laughed again, watching the blonde startle once more. /Every/ admission the white-haired man made was so obviously something Cloud had never even considered... amazing, the kind of man he must be in the blonde's mind, the paragon, the idol he had been shaped into...

//Not anymore... just the man. I want him to know the man, me for me...//

"... I tried, but I couldn't kill that feeling with logic, I couldn't make it leave me. I was afraid to feel anything for you, but it didn't change what I felt..."

He paused, but Cloud said nothing, watching him in utter disbelief.

"I want to know you, Strife. I /need/... I need to be with you."

Really, he was not at all surprised, as after a moment of silence, Cloud was shaking, turning his face to the pillows as he fought to control his tears...

"Oh... please don't..." Sephiroth drew him closer, nesting them in a loose tangle of limbs and blankets, the blonde clinging to him as he fought for calm... "Shh... Cloud... it will be all right now... It will... I swear..."

"W-what if..." The blonde's voice was thick with tears, glowing blue eyes shining and terrified, "... what if this isn't... real?" He shook his head slightly, as if afraid he had insulted the other man, obviously desperate to explain. "You don't understand... you can't know... how much I've wanted... how long I... and I'm so tired... I just... I don't know anything anymore..."

Sephiroth kissed him again, the salty taste of tears nothing more than the bitter edge of his own heart's ache, not in sorrow, but relief, wonder and a newly-born happiness...

He knew this was real, knew how quickly those tears would turn, how easily he could make Cloud smile, and erase the sorrow, the heavy burden he had carried for so long... the future was so /bright/...

The white-haired man kept the blonde close, resting his head on the top of those feathery spikes, Cloud's scent pervading the warm air around them, the smell of rust-red cranberries and far-off wild spaces. He breathed in deeply, so grateful for this closeness... for the second chance he had been granted...

"Go to sleep, Cloud... and when you wake, and I'm still with you, I hope you can truly believe. I'm here... I'll stay... I love you."

Sephiroth froze, the words repeating in his mind in the silence that followed, hardly believing it was his own voice that had said... he hadn't /meant/ to...

//... not until I'm sure.//

Of his own intentions, or of Cloud's? Sephiroth brushed the question aside, unwilling, maybe even unable to answer it.

//Just /not/ until I know... not until I'm /sure/...//

Thankfully, a cautious glance showed him that Cloud had fallen asleep, and must have done so before he had said those words... certainly, the blonde would have reacted to something like /that/...

//... but am I really thankful? Am I really happy, that he didn't hear?// He lifted a hand to Cloud's temple, rubbing gently, and couldn't help a grin, as a strong hand shifted its grip against his side, the blonde snuggling deeper into his arms...

/... of course I'm happy.../

//... but... what if it... what if this /is/... this is really, this may /really/ be...//

Sephiroth let himself drift off, not needing or wanting to finish the hesitant thought, not until he could see it clearly by the light of day... though he doubted, smiling softly to himself, if it would really change anything


Cloud wasn't sleeping, /wouldn't/ sleep, the darkness dragging him down by infinitesimal degrees... he /would/ hold on, fearing that sleep would break again what it had shattered once before, and break him in the process... So fragile, this peace, the sudden shifting of the entire world into the light...

//"I love you."//

Of course he had heard it, with ears that had been straining for the words nearly all his life, despite all the knowing, despite being sure of failure, mocked, taunted at every pass... An entire lifetime, knowing he'd never... that it could /never/... how could he /ever/ fail to hear those words?

The lips that met with his were so warm, and generous with their affections, careful hands sliding slowly across his skin... aware of his fears, his doubts and his injuries, never forceful, simply tender... he had known Sephiroth was beautiful, and had /always/ longed to touch that graceful symmetry of balance and form, muscle, power and beauty... but he had never dreamed, never dreamed that the man could be so /gentle/...

//"I love you..."//

The words echoed down to him through a warm, thick haze of comfort, driving away any doubt that remained... -//if this were a dream, if this were dream...//- A new caress pushed that fear away, bliss on top of paradise... Cloud snuggled closer... he had never, /never/ expected... not once in a /lifetime/... such breathless joy, lost in this new hope... no fear, only sweet desire...

So... this was what it meant to be loved.





Author's Notes - no artificial preservatives

1. Yes, I know it's utterly pretentious as hell to use a song from such an exquisite film as "Dancer in the Dark" in this stupid fanfic. Forgive me, the lyrics just fit so well...

2. A line in this section was taken verbatim from "The Hudsucker Proxy," but once again, it was just too good not to use.

3. Distance and time? People getting to places faster than they ought to? ... don't know, don't care. : )

4. Lots of ooey-gooey romance... all together now: "EEW, COOTIES!"

5. Sorry if the chapter's a little disjointed. As those of you who've read the spoilers (and listened to my incessant bitching) know, I've been writing this during the last few weeks of class... finals, ugh.

6. It claims 44 pages as .doc and 41 pages as .txt. I have no idea what this means, but everything looks ok to me... <shrug>

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