Disclaimer: See Chapter One.
Part One - Chapter 6
By Knowing Shadows
"I've tried so hard to tell myself that you're gone,
And though you're still with me,
I've been alone all along."
Evanescence "My Immortal"
Sephiroth's proposed visit to the training of one of ShinRa's best cadets in years didn't quite happen when either the General or Zack had planned it. This was not, however, through any lack of curiosity on the General's part. The original reason that it was put off was that a lot of paperwork and trouble had just come the way of SOLDIER and its General, which kept Sephiroth too busy to even attempt to think about it. It stayed in the back of his mind, however, but remained unrealised.
Zack reported to him, occasionally, that the training was about as useful as teaching a duck how to float on water. Zack was also the first to say that Cloud couldn't yet beat him - quite proudly, as if Cloud was 6'4'' and built like a tank - and Sephiroth was secretly quite amused when Zack came into work on the odd occasion limping or rubbing a sore shoulder where the blond had landed a decent blow. He'd asked to see Zack's battle scars' once and had been grumbled at uncharitably.
"The thing is," Zack said one morning, gingerly rubbing the bruise blooming on his right wrist, "the only time I get hurt is when I catch him off guard. Most of the time he's fine and I win quite fairly. It's just that...it feels like he's holding back. It's when I get him going into a rhythm and suddenly do something unexpected that he just reacts without thinking. He reacts on instinct and actually lands and damn good blow, nine times out of ten! I'm almost afraid to try and get him to fight like that constantly during the sessions because I get the feeling I'll walk away a lot worse off than he will."
Sephiroth nodded to show he was listening. The fact that Cloud apparently had such moves ingrained in him suggested years of hard training or experience, and this settled uneasily with the General. The boy was, what, fifteen? "Does he still move oddly, sometimes?" In the back of his mind the image of the blond's sometimes almost loping walk came to mind.
"Not anymore, no. That's one thing, at least, that the training's doing. He seems to be a lot more confident in what his body can do. I don't know where he learnt half the stuff he shows off against me. And I wouldn't worry about his height or weight being a disadvantage - he's quite ingenious enough to make up for it."
"So it would seem." Sephiroth leaned his chin in his hand and frowned, signing the report swiftly before reaching for the next. He ran his mind back swiftly along what Zack had mentioned. "Holding back, though? Why would he do that?"
Zack made a rather loud, exasperated noise, causing Sephiroth to look up to catch the dark-haired man burying his face in his hands. "I don't know! That's what I keep wondering and every time I say something he just goes to ice on me!"
It wasn't surprising, really, Sephiroth mused. The impression that he'd received from Zack of the boy was that he avoided confrontation whenever possible when it came to something he'd done or said. Zack cared too much to really push for answers, suited more for his position as so-called 'carer' for a group of cadets rather than for a high leadership job such as Sephiroth's within the military. Sephiroth, it had been said, didn't care enough, and the General was aware of this - resented it, in fact, because it reminded him too much of Hojo and he would be damned before he found something in himself that could be likened to that man.
He did care, but kept it to himself more than anything.
"Why don't you ask him!" Zack started exclaiming, his frustration tangible. "You're the General, he can hardly just cross his arms and glare at you if you ask him! He could be thrown out for insubordination for that-"
"He could be thrown out for insubordination for doing it to you because you are a higher ranking officer," Sephiroth pointed out, his voice clearly indicating that he thought Zack would never even dream of reporting Strife. He knew Zack well enough that he was a man who disliked those who didn't try, but would do everything possible for those who did.
"I'm his friend. It's different."
An excuse, however valid it might seem to the other officer. Sephiroth let it slide, closing his eyes for a moment as he rolled his shoulders against the incoming ache. He'd been sitting down for too long, staring at report after report after report-
"But you are gonna make time, aren't you?" He glanced up to find Zack watching him intently, momentarily thrown by the change in the direction of the subject. "To come see him, I mean."
"Yes." Eventually. When I have time. These days, he rarely had any time.
"If I can." He had never been a real liar, never one to get someone's hopes up knowing that he could only dash them when the time came. Zack would just have to deal with the amount of time that his job took up, and so would Sephiroth.
"It'll be worth your whiiiile," Zack wheedled hopefully, trying not to smile too widely.
"I'll find that out when I find the time to go."
"Spoilsport." Zack snorted softly, getting up from the chair he had pulled up next to Sephiroth's desk. The General watched him patiently and Zack grinned. He offered a wave and a goodbye, leaving Sephiroth to his own paperwork in silence.
Mostly successfully, Sephiroth let all thought of Cloud Strife drift away so that he could concentrate on his work. He'd found what Zack now referred to as "the Strife Dilemma" particularly vexing not only because he could find out nothing to solve the puzzle, but that it so easily dominated his thoughts because of it.
The loneliness helped, somewhat.
He wasn't left alone for long, as it was. Sephiroth hated the constant interruptions and everyone who worked on his floor knew that unless you were Zack, you never took up the General's time. It was only those who didn't work on his floor or the two floors either above or below, for that matter who would not have known not to disturb him. Even then, Sephiroth suspected that word must have spread, just in case, so in reality no-one in the entire building had any right to go against it.
The noise of his door being pushed open was enough to startle him out of his paperwork and lift his head. Irritation settled instantly in his chest, even before he had seen who it was. Zack had been a distraction he didn't mind, because the other man knew not to stay long when he was working, but he doubted very much that anyone else who might enter would be so welcome.
When his eyes lifted to those of his new company, he couldn't help but let the irritation shift to a sudden surge of surprise.
"Hojo," he said, as politely as he could manage, knowing that it would be ignored anyway.
The Professor looked decidedly wrong, standing in front of his desk. He always seemed like he wasn't quite on the same plane of existence as everyone else, perhaps because Sephiroth was well aware that the Professor's intelligence lay at a level far above anything he had ever encountered before. He was always pale, and lab coat starkly white. The only thing that stopped him from seeming like a ghost was the shocking mess of long, pitch black hair that seemed so at odds with the colourless nature of the rest of him.
Sephiroth paused, letting his pen fall to his desk, and then frowned as he regarded the shorter figure of the scientist in front of him. "What are you doing here?" In fact, what was Hojo doing anywhere other than the top floors of the ShinRa building anyway? Sephiroth had become entirely convinced that the Professor had developed an intense loathing of anywhere other than a laboratory.
"I came to find you." Hojo pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose irritably, dark eyes black with what Sephiroth knew was anger; or, as close to anger as Hojo ever got. The professor's emotions what he had of them were something entirely darker than what could be considered normal. The General had known that since he was five years old.
"To find me?" Somewhere, deep down, Sephiroth was quite aware that this was a bad thing. He was good at keeping his emotions private however, and kept the sudden awful uneasiness hidden. He racked his brain for something that he had done wrong, but all he could think of
"Yes," Hojo said slowly, clasping his hands behind his back, mouth set in a slight sneer of disdain. "As much as it must have slipped your mind, you are not at liberty as an employee of this company to simply ignore my summons to appointments."
Sephiroth bit down the anger at Hojo's utterly bored, disgusted tone, settling for flexing his fingers into a fist for a second and then straightening them again instead. Setting his jaw, he said, "I was working when that particular appointment arose."
"And yet you failed to notify me of this." There was that awful knowing boredom again, the tone of voice that Hojo had often taken with him since he was about ten. One day, he mused, he would make Hojo pay for the last fifteen years of using that voice with him.
"It slipped my mind." Falling into the now familiar pattern of using insolence as a shield against the Professor was easier than using the masamune. "Like you said."
"I came to deliver a message in person " Hojo's tone of voice didn't hide how deplorable he found it " that your next appointment is for two days time, normal time. Your attendance is compulsory."
"Fine." When insolence failed, resorting to his own quiet fury gave him something to use. Sephiroth abhorred dealing with Hojo. He wasn't a man whose hate was easily earned, but he had hated the Professor ever since he could remember. "Is that all?"
This man could never be my father.
Hojo sneered, a slight pull of his top lip revealing the straight white teeth beneath. "That is all."
And I will never be his son.
Sephiroth sat at his desk thinking for a long time after Hojo left, and eventually picked up the phone to contact Zack to let him know that he would come to watch Strife's training in two days time.
Cloud grunted with effort as he raised the flat side of his sword up to ward off Zack's sailing blow. His elbows bent to take in some of the impact but his arms threatened to cave completely in exhaustion. He knew that if he looked up at the high windows he would see the twilight sky. They'd been at this for hours and even though in his mind he knew the moves, his body didn't have the stamina that it would have in fifteen years time.
He looked up at the window briefly, in fact, and heard the whistle of Zack's sword blade slicing the air in two suddenly much closer than before. He brought his arm up awkwardly both arms, twisted and bent in an instinctive move that he knew Zack had been looking for as he did it and parried again, feeling white hot pain shoot up his arm from his wrist. There wasn't enough bracing strength in his arm to pull off the move properly and he had known it as he'd done that, too.
He pulled back, dancing on the balls of his feet, wincing even as he watched the small smile playing across Zack's face.
"If you'd had more strength behind that, you'd have pulled it off."
Cloud scowled in disgust as if he hadn't known that! "It's late, Zack. Why can't we leave it for today?"
"You haven't beaten me yet." Zack's smile widened to a grin, eyes bright with energy. Cloud vaguely wondered if he'd ever be able to stand up to Zack's level of enthusiasm.
"I won't be able to beat you," Cloud said, aching to reach over and rub his throbbing arm. Zack kept on pushing him like that, trying to get him to react instead of think about his moves. Of course, he was as used to doing that as Zack was, but when he was fifteen he'd have had little reason to have learnt anything like that. He wasn't entirely sure what Zack thought he was doing by provoking such moves from him, but he knew that one more would finish him off tonight.
"You don't try," Zack said, flipping his sword easily in his hand. "Let go for a while, just go with it. I bet that style would suit you."
What are you trying to say to me, Zack? Cloud felt the frustration welling up in him as he shifted his grip on the hilt of his sword. "Zack, I'm tired. My wrist hurts. Please, can't we just pick this up tomorrow?"
Zack's expression faltered uneasily at "my arm hurts" and Cloud silently cheered. He watched his friend's brown eyes darken in thought for a moment and when he saw the tip of Zack's sword waver and lower just slightly in the air, he knew that he'd won that time. Biting back a sigh of relief, Cloud nearly dropped his own sword and reached over to gingerly touch his sore muscles.
"Oi, you're not hurt that much?" Zack had dropped his sword, watching where the blond was rubbing.
"You came at me pretty hard." Cloud shrugged, wincing as a muscle in his lower arm protested to being inadvertently tensed. "It's alright. You'll just have to take it easy tomorrow." He looked up just in time to catch the fleeting look of horror that passed across Zack's face. Realising that he'd been seen, Zack then looked mildly panicked, before trying to affect an expression of complete innocence.
Cloud stiffened. "What's happening tomorrow?" he said after a moment of letting Zack stew in his own carelessness.
"More practice," came the reply, with a pretty good feigned tone with it. Cloud merely raised an eyebrow, waiting expectantly whilst he watched his friend's face crumble. Eventually, Zack sighed, fiddled with a few odd spikes of hair self-consciously, and smile widely. "Will you stop looking at me like that if I say it's a secret?"
"You won't tell me anyway, so I'll have to." Cloud picked up his sword, trying to curb his curiosity and almost failing. Damn, but he wanted to ask. It wasn't the first time that something like this had been done to him recently, however.
Zack had been given to infrequent fits of odd behaviour in the last few weeks, where he'd say something strange and sometimes look at Cloud in an almost cold manner. At least, Cloud thought, he wasn't looking at the blond in that way this time.
He hated that look, because it made him feel like he was lower than dirt in Zack's eyes. Sure, his own behaviour must have been strange at times, but he'd been sure that Zack would put it down to his rather odd disposition anyway back when he'd had to live through this the first time, the SOLDIER 1st would often comment that he was "a strange kid", but Zack had liked him anyway.
Zack had never looked at him that way back then.
"Come on," the dark-haired man said unexpectedly, clapping Cloud on the shoulder with a smile, "it'll be fun not knowing, yeah? Let's get these swords back and head off better put a support bandage on your wrist just in case you've sprained it."
"I haven't sprained it," Cloud scoffed, but realised that Zack knew that. Obviously, Zack wanted him in as good a condition as possible tomorrow, but why, he wasn't sure. He wasn't about to argue, in any case, because his wrist was beginning to throb dully.
The next day, he met Zack at the usual time in one of the private practice arenas, flexing his fingers cautiously and gritting his teeth against the ache that set up beneath the tight bandage. Whatever they'd managed to do to him yesterday, it hadn't yet healed. Of course, it hadn't helped that he'd twisted it in a practical class earlier that day, either.
Zack was watching him worriedly as he tried to find a way to move his hand that didn't involve a spike of pain and continued to fail to do so. Cloud propped his sword up against the wall, pulling the bandage back to show a dark purple bruise spread across his pale skin. Zack looked over, mouth pulling into a grimace of sympathy. "Damn," he muttered. "Does it hurt much?"
"A bit." Cloud pulled the bandage back into place. "I won't be able to do anything tonight, I don't think, or we'll just make it worse." Especially if you keep pulling those moves on me.
"Damn," Zack muttered again. "Damn, damn, damn."
"Why is it so dreadful that I can't practice today?"
Zack fidgeted a little, giving Cloud sidelong glances that told the blond it was still supposed to be secret. A surprise, perhaps? Cloud couldn't think of anything it could be other than maybe a new training weapon or some materia. He'd been dying to get some practice with materia in-
"Sephiroth was supposed to come watch today."
Cloud paused, frozen in place, and stared blankly at the older man for a long moment. The shock of the unexpected statement washed through him in a cold wave, followed by a sudden glow of heat that made him sure his cheeks had gone pink as well as causing a rippling shudder throughout the rest of him. "Oh," he said. "Why?" His voice came out in something like a terrified whisper.
"Because I wanted him to see you." Zack shrugged, dark eyes sliding away from Cloud's. "And I knew that you might not turn up today if I'd told you he was coming."
It was true, Cloud thought with a flush of shame at what would have constituted as cowardice in his own eyes, however much he might have been unable to avoid it. The thought of Sephiroth's eyes on him still frightened him somewhat and always had, because when the General's attention was all on him what would he see that Cloud couldn't hide?
The odd fluttery feeling in his chest and stomach turned heavy as he remembered that Sephiroth hadn't, in the end, turned up at all. He let his gaze slide down from where Zack stood to where he had raised his trembling, bandaged arm.
Not that I'd have been much of a show today anyway. The embarrassment intensified slowly in the pit of his stomach and he lowered his arm so that Zack might not see it shaking.
"But he's not here." Zack shook his head, his voice drawing Cloud's eyes back up to his. "And he called me to tell me he would be here. That's unusual for him in the first place, so he should be here."
"Maybe he's been held up." It hurt less to think that way, and it was difficult to keep the hope out of his voice. "Or something's happened."
"Something has to have happened, because he wouldn't just-" Zack stopped abruptly, eyes going wide and losing their focus momentarily. Cloud fidgeted, his own eyes following suit out of sudden panic.
"What?" He padded closer to the dark-haired man, who didn't respond. "Zack, look at me! What is it?!" He grasped Zack's arms to try and shake him, but was suddenly being shaken off himself, Zack's hands waving around in an attempt to ward him away. His eyes had come back into focus as he returned from his reverie, and he gazed at Cloud with something just short of calm.
"We just need to find him, is all," Zack said. Cloud stepped back a little, letting the older man take his sword and wander out to quickly put them away. He watched, feeling the panic that Zack seemed to be hiding dancing beneath his skin. "I think I know where he'll be, so don't worry."
They found themselves in front of a door.
Cloud stuck closely to Zack's back, having been taken to a floor of the building that he'd never been in before, and this was obviously for a reason. Everybody that they'd passed on the way had been a SOLDIER 2nd or higher and had given him the kind of looks that made him feel about three inches tall.
Not that the thoughts going through his own mind were any different from theirs, though. Why was he there anyway? Zack had said relatively little on the way, walking purposefully fast. Cloud had had to jog some of the way to keep up on his slightly shorter legs.
The whole floor consisted of many long corridors full of the standard ShinRa sliding doors, and most had a name or number plate on them to identify whose quarters lay behind them. They'd walked almost the whole length of the floor until they'd come to a corridor where none of the doors had name plates, and it was much more quiet here than it had been in the other areas.
The door that they stood before was a dark uniform grey colour, just like the rest that they had passed. A keypad was mounted on the wall just to the right of the door at chest height, and a red light blinked on and off on it.
"Zack," Cloud said quietly, tugging on his sleeve to get his attention, "where are we?"
"Seph's room," came the distracted reply, and Zack reached up to type in the code as Cloud almost rocked back on his heels. The familiar wracking tension and apprehensive fear was still unexpected, however many times he had felt it. It had filled him when Zack had left him outside Aeris' house, that strange clamouring of delight and terror at the prospect of having the attention of the man he'd always, always admired.
He can't expect me to go in there! I can't go in there!
"Zack!" He tugged at the sleeve again, but was ignored. "Zack, please-"
"Cloud!" Zack half-spun around to look at him, eyes hard with irritation, and Cloud dropped his sleeve. "Will you just be quiet for a moment?! This is important!" As Cloud shrank back in surprise, Zack turned back to the door and finished entering the code. The door slid open with a quiet hiss, and Cloud watched as he entered the room, blocking his view of what lay within.
I didn't mean...
He realised that perhaps Zack's anger had been earned in what must have been selfishness on his own part how could he be so concerned with his own personal problems, ones that he usually kept hidden so deep down that no-one on the outside had even the first inkling of them, when they were here for Sephiroth?
He hesitated, head lowered and trying not to tremble. Awkwardly, he massaged his injured wrist and quietly stepped in after Zack.
The General's quarters had always been sparsely furnished; little more than what came with the room to start with was there, except for Sephiroth's clothes and things, which were all neatly put away out of sight.
The first warning sign was that there were various articles of clothing dropped unceremoniously across the floor. The first thought that had crossed Zack's mind the first time he had encountered this was that Sephiroth was nowhere near as virtuous' as people sometimes thought. His second thought, not long after his first, had been that the other person must have been naked to start with because all he could see was Sephiroth's clothes.
He felt his heart beat just that little bit faster in dread, eyes going to each abandoned garment in turn, knowing without even thinking that the little trail would lead to the bed. One boot had gone first, followed somehow by a pair of rumpled leather trousers, then the other boot. The leather coat sat by the bottom of the bed with one of Sephiroth's shoulder plates. Looking around briefly showed that the other shoulder plate had ended up under the table on the other side of the room with a glove. The other glove lay crumpled up in the middle of the floor.
"This is so not good," Zack murmured.
Cloud stood behind Zack, feeling the tension emanating from the other man so thickly that he almost wanted to back-peddle out of the room as fast as possible. What he could see of the room was as much as he'd expected, except that he could see littered clothes vaguely from where he could peer around Zack. He was almost afraid to step around to look, afraid that he would be seen and thrown out, but something was going on.
He stepped around anyway as Zack moved forwards towards the far end of the square room, and felt himself grow cold. His own eyes followed the trail of clothes, heat rushing to his cheeks in embarrassment as he realised what he was looking at. That embarrassment, however, was forgotten instantly as his eyes alighted upon the bed in the far corner, and his breath hitched just enough to make his chest ache for a moment.
What's going on?
Zack was leaning over the bed, over the curled up figure under the light cotton sheet and reaching down to place his palm against Sephiroth's pale forehead. Cloud started forward, and stopped when he detected a faint metallic tang to the air.
"What's wrong?" he asked, voice quiet in the stillness of the room, feeling the panic begin to rise as Sephiroth didn't respond to Zack at all. The General was just a barely breathing lump under the sheet, only recognisable as Sephiroth because he was facing the wall and so presented glimpses of the back of his head to the room. His silver hair gleamed.
"Shit," Cloud heard Zack mutter, drawing back from the bed. The dark-haired man looked over his shoulder at him, expression drawn with worry. "I need to get some stuff from the bathroom, so I need you to just...just sit with him for a moment. Talk to him if you want to, but I don't know if he can hear you. Don't touch him-"
- Skin, burning and all fire around him, so painful he wanted to rip right through the Mako-soaked uniform and tear his flesh from his bones, just to escape the pain for one moment -
"-because his skin'll be real sensitive. Okay? Cloud?"
Cloud blinked, eyes focusing suddenly on Zack's worried ones. He hadn't even realised that he'd zoned out for that brief moment, but the faint phantom pain dancing across his body was only too clear. He nodded, too eager with the fear of making the other man angry again, watched as Zack strode quickly off into one of the side rooms that Cloud assumed was the bathroom, and stood frozen by the doorway for a moment longer as the memory of Nibelheim shivered through him once more.
Nervously he walked towards the bed, and the door hissed closed behind him as he moved away from it. He hated Zack in that moment, because the man knew how he felt and knew that he was afraid god, so afraid, even after so many long, lonely years...
He realised as he stood cautiously about two feet from the edge of the bed that Sephiroth was shivering beneath the sheet. The tang in the air had increased to a sharp bitterness that clung to the back of his throat. Mako. Cloud knew that, were he inclined to look, he would find a dark bruise not very unlike the one of his wrist that marked where the silver-haired man had been injected. Once upon a time, he had spent hours looking at those bruises, some part of him marvelling over the beautiful contrast against his pale skin, one barely fading before another was branded on him with what could have looked like carelessness had he not understood how precise Hojo was.
Sephiroth lay close to the wall, the sheet drawn up to his chin and grasped in his hands as if someone was trying to steal it from him. Every so often, Cloud noticed, his fingers would flex in an uncontrollable spasm. His knees were curled up to his chest, head bowed towards them. His hair was mostly fine, but around his face strands were stuck to the fine sheen of sweat that covered the pallid, ill-tinged skin. Cloud stared, feeling the familiar tightness in his chest, biting his lip.
I came back for you...but I don't know what I'm doing that will help at all. You don't need anything from me, I'm no-one...but Zack told me to sit so he must think I can give something, however small...
He perched himself cautiously on the very edge of the bed, just enough that he wouldn't fall off. Vaguely, he heard Zack swearing from the bathroom that he couldn't find a flannel, but it barely registered. Cheeks growing warm, he stared at the smooth curve of the back of Sephiroth's neck where the hair had fallen away.
"When I killed Hojo," he murmured to the prone form, quiet enough that Sephiroth probably wouldn't have heard had he been listening, "I killed him for both of us. I only wish that I could do it now. We'd all of us be saved...at least a little..." Sephiroth did nothing but shudder against the words, to all appearances dead to the world. Cloud wrung his hands nervously in his lap.
Cloud remembered this experience painfully well, and his whole body itched as he watched the General. He remembered days on end where he and Zack would be suspended in the cells of Mako; days of constant agony where he couldn't even move to try and hurt himself to distract his mind from the burn of the green around him. His dreams these days, more often than not, contained either Sephiroth or an endless wave of green vision, finding himself trapped inside the Mako-filled cell once more even if it was within his own mind.
The shared experience, the knowing, was something he perhaps felt he could have offered had it not been impossible to do so without raising questions. He burned with it then, the unfairness bitter in the back of his throat with the Mako.
Sephiroth hitched an awkward breath, pulling Cloud's often introspective attention outwards. His gaze lifted from the other man's neck, and he let out a sudden squeak of surprise as Sephiroth shifted. He instinctively moved off of the bed and stumbled back a step, and Zack re-emerged from the bathroom with a bowl of water and the sought-after flannel. He glanced at Cloud, and the blond stepped back further, feeling that this was Zack's space and not wishing to intrude. The older man's brown eyes slid from his as he moved, and the SOLDIER settled on Cloud's vacated spot with more certainty than Cloud could ever have dreamed of in that position.
Sephiroth had twisted half onto his back, and Cloud suddenly saw the sliver of green beneath the thick eyelashes that Zack had spotted.
"Hey," Zack said in a low voice, dipping the flannel into the water. "Welcome back to the land of the living. Please pass Go and collect 2000 gil." He brought the flannel out of the water, twisted it to wring the water out, and folded it against Sephiroth's clammy forehead. "You're a sneaky bastard, you know that? Next time, why don't you just ask for help instead of setting the both of us up like that, you stubborn-" Sephiroth didn't even blink, simply watching from beneath his eyelids in what seemed like a confused daze. "Okay, maybe we're not totally there yet," Zack murmured, placing the bowl on the floor by the side of the bed. "But we're getting there."
"Is he okay?" Cloud dared softly, near bouncing on the balls of his feet in nervous apprehension.
"He'll be okay, yeah." Cloud watched as Zack reached out to briefly touch his friend's arm, wishing he had the courage to do such a thing, even when Sephiroth was mostly unaware of it. "I should go get some pain stuff for him...the only stuff that works is in the labs, though, and you would get in so much shit if you got caught."
He would have gone if he'd been asked, Cloud knew, even though in his mind his better judgement would have warned him that Hojo was a cruel, unfeeling monster who would tear him apart for any indiscretion. He was only a cadet, after all, and couldn't any body be donated for the good of science?
The dark-haired SOLDIER stood up, and Cloud watched as Sephiroth's gaze trailed after him, slightly delayed and obviously attracted by the movement more than by recognition. Zack gave a last worried glance before turning back to Cloud. "I'll go get the pain meds. There's only so much they can do to me if I get caught, anyway. Just make sure he stays lying down. If he starts getting coherent, just talk to him a bit...I don't know, just use your head. Change the flannel every so often to keep him cool. I'll be back soon, okay?"
He nodded quickly, shoving away the first thoughts of being left alone like this. He wondered if that was how Zack saw him as someone whose own petty problems came first. If that was so, what might anyone else see in him?
Zack offered him an encouraging smile which he couldn't quite manage to return, and walked out. When the door hissed closed behind him, Cloud stood for a moment, wondering if he should turn around and face the green gaze that he could feel had fallen onto him in Zack's absence.
He did, eventually, turn. Sephiroth's eyes had lost none of their confusion, looking at some point past him rather than at him. Cloud moved hesitantly across the room, watching for the following of the other man's eyes and looking away when it happened, unable to look because he knew that he wouldn't be able to look away again. His heart out on his sleeve one more time that he couldn't afford it.
The distance ached anew, the way it used to even before Nibelheim.
He sat once more on the very edge of the bed, staring down at his knees at the folded hands there because he didn't know where else to look. The silence was broken only by the sometimes rasping breathing. He listened to this, debating whether or not to go and get a glass of water to ease the parched throat, when the rasping suddenly increased. He looked up, about to go for water, to find Sephiroth's eyes open fully, watching him with an awareness that had not been there before.
"I know you."
Cloud's eyes widened. "Yes...I'm...a cadet. A friend of Zack's." He shivered when silver brows drew together, the eyes narrowing in an almost accusative manner. He shifted as far back as he dared, his heart pounding uncomfortably in his chest. He watched, almost guiltily, as Sephiroth drew in more air through soft parted lips, still unable to breathe properly.
"No..." It came out in a breathy rush that caused Cloud to quiver in response, eyes riveted. The accusing scowl eased into puzzlement, and then Sephiroth murmured, "No, I remember you...I remember that I hurt hurt you. I tried to...with the Masamune. But...I can't...I don't know...why did I..?"
Hurt me? But the only time was...when we were in...Nibelheim...
Cloud trembled, fumbling desperately for words that wouldn't come from his suddenly locked throat. His eyes stung and blurred sharply as he scrambled up off of the bed, panicked, and as his eyes focused he could see the other man's eyebrows raised in concern, eyes questioning and sharp with a sudden desperate worry. He stood, legs shaking. How - ? This couldn't be happening because there was no way that Sephiroth could have known
What is he saying? That he remembers me? No! He can't he can't remember! It's not possible that he can it hasn't happened yet!
"You don't know me," he said eventually, voice choked and mind reeling. "You can't!"
"I...I don't know you..?" Sephiroth started to move then, tried to get his elbows up so that he could lever himself into a sitting position, but he couldn't quite do it, continuing to watch Cloud with the controlled confusion that the blond couldn't master himself, and voice still dazed. "But I remember "
"You can't remember!" Cloud's hands flew to his mouth, shaking his head, but there was no way he could make sense of it, not with Sephiroth watching him like he held the answers to the universe. He stumbled backwards, chest heaving as he fought to calm his own breathing down, but gods it was so hard when all he could feel was the panic of not knowing what was going on.
"But I...I put the Masamune...through you..." And there Sephiroth's voice trailed off in something like a dim dawning horror, and Cloud fumbled for the doorframe to the bathroom before going backwards through it, locking the door with fingers that shook so badly that they ached.
Zack found the blond, when he returned, sitting in the corner of the bathroom by the sink, and Sephiroth upright on the bed staring vacantly at the door.
I leave them alone for ten minutes and when I come back they've still managed to fuck things up.
Zack held the stolen hypo and bottle of liquid pain medication in his hands, quietly watching where Sephiroth was sitting up in bed, the sheet pooled around his waist and stomach. He, in turn, was watching the bathroom door, which was closed when Zack had left it open before. Cloud did not seem to be in the room.
"Seph?" He half-expected there to be no response at all, but Sephiroth flinched, head lowering as he seemed to come back to himself. After a moment, the General raised his eyes to Zack's, still slightly unfocused from the Mako, but he seemed to be quickly shedding most of the effects. The pain meds would be useful still, and more than welcome. Zack held them up so that his friend could see, and Sephiroth nodded slightly. His gaze darted back towards the bathroom door almost ashamedly, but when Zack next caught a glimpse of the faintly glowing green, they were as cold and hard as Zack had ever seen them.
He walked over and stood by the edge of the bed, waiting for the older man to acknowledge him. Sephiroth held out his hand, and Zack stared at it for a moment before determining that he was able enough to administer his own meds. He offered the stolen goods and they were taken without question.
You're a stubborn bastard, Seph. You know I'm going to ask, and I know that you won't tell me, but I'll still ask anyway.
He watched in silence as Sephiroth inserted the needle into his arm, not even flinching as he did so. He hoped, with a tightening disappointment settling in his chest, that the silver-haired man hadn't said anything stupid. "So, where did he go?" he asked, unable to think of any better way of phrasing the question.
Zack rolled his eyes. "And why did he go in there, pray tell?"
And there, as the dark-haired man watched, came the unexpectedly fleeting expression of consternation, Sephiroth's frown deepening as he continued to regard the closed door behind which Cloud lay. "I don't really know why." A one-shouldered shrug accompanied the admission, one of the older man's traits that Zack knew to mean he was less than comfortable with answering.
"You must know why, for heaven's sake." Zack closed his eyes momentarily, fighting the surge of frustration at Sephiroth's cryptic answer. "What did you say to him?"
Sephiroth looked away from the door. "I said...that I remembered him."
Silence. Zack glared, though Sephiroth couldn't see it, and reminded himself to get angry at the man later. He looked away and strode towards the bathroom door in disgust, knowing that he was being watched. He rapped his fist gently against the door not one of those goddamn awful sliding ones, for once and waited. "Hey, Spike? Can I come in?"
After a moment, the door opened a crack, but no more. He assumed this was an invitation to enter and did so without a glance over his shoulder. The door hit something about halfway, so he stepped around it and found Cloud sitting on the floor, leaning against the adjacent wall. His knees had been brought up to his chest to allow the door to open as far as it could. He was staring absently across the room to the far corner, though there was nothing there.
Poor kid. I'm sorry about whatever he did to you, even if he's not.
Zack winced as he knelt, his knees cracking. Cloud still hadn't looked at him, was staring at that vague point beyond the wall. His eyes held the odd, distant look of someone who couldn't wouldn't make sense of something they'd just experienced. Zack reached out, biting his lip, to brush a loose strand of blond away from the side of Cloud's pale face, and smiled in relief when the boy turned his head in response to the movement, focusing on Zack's face, looking somewhat like a bewildered animal.
"Hey." He let his palm rest against the cadet's cheek for a moment, hoping that Cloud would interpret it as a soothing gesture. "You okay?"
Cloud's throat worked once, twice, without sound coming forth before a quiet "Yeah" reached the SOLDIER's ears, followed by "I'm fine."
"What did he say to you?" He could see the instant change in the blond's expression, the distracted look reappearing at the memory brought up by the question. "Hey, Spike, come back to me a minute, kay?" He kept his voice low, barely above a whisper, and let his thumb move to gently rub against the soft skin, hoping that the physical sensation would attract Cloud's attention once more. "What did he say? Tell me so I have a reason to kick the crap out of him for it."
"N...Nothing." Cloud wasn't looking at him anymore, though he was responding as if he were. "It doesn't matter."
"You sure?" He wouldn't push the boy now, not when he was like this, but Zack knew with a sudden fierceness that he would have no qualms about beating an answer out of his superior later on.
"No...I'm fine." Cloud tried to look at him properly and almost managed, before losing it to the recesses of his own mind again. "I need to lie down."
A/N: My Livejournal is now my writing journal, and the url is on my profile. So you can see that I don't sit around doing nothing in between updates.
2. *dies over the Advent Children trailer*
3. This would have been up much sooner, sorry, had I not gone on a three day trip and spent two weeks feeling totally out of synch with catching up schoolwork, etc.
4. Where's all the S/C gone from the fandom? *pokes everyone hard*
5. Akemi-sama of course you can have this. Just let me know the URL.
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