Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Fusion

Part One - Chapter 10

By Knowing Shadows

       

There were two empty glasses in front of Vincent, with a third, half-full this time, standing beside them. He had declined alcohol but Cid had ordered it for him anyway - no doubt hoping that it would loosen the older man's tongue. Still, he doubted that it would matter because Cid was hardly likely to be taking anything in anyway; there were four empty glasses in front of the pilot, and his fifth was rapidly disappearing.

However, Cid had a high alcohol tolerance, as Vincent had discovered, and even though he wasn't showing any signs of drinking as much as he had, surely that couldn't go on forever.

They'd been sitting there for over an hour already, Vincent realised as he looked up at the clock. Tifa had raised her eyebrows at Cid when he had ordered the drinks, but had acquiesced with no further indication of disbelief. To Cid's credit, the pilot hadn't shown anything when he'd spoken to her other than his usual gruffness, for which Vincent knew he would be eternally grateful. Cid was...unpredictable at times. Along with Barret and Tifa, Vincent had hoped Cid would be one of those who never found out about Cloud.

This did not bode well for the continued secrecy from the other two. The two original AVALANCHE members were at least as stubborn and bone-headed as Cid, even more. Perhaps they, too, would eventually travel to Nibelheim and piece things together as Cid had.

Cid absently swirled the last of his drink around in the glass, watching the curving stains on the side as they appeared and disappeared. Cid frowned deeply, contemplating his drink, and Vincent watched him in turn, calm as he waited for the pilot to speak. Cid rarely ever thought to himself without expressing it.

"Things don't stay the same, do they?" he said eventually, putting his glass to his lips and downing the last of the drink before placing the empty glass on the table. Vincent continued to watch him quietly. "Sometimes I wish they would. It would be so much easier if I could just go back to thinking Cloud was just a bit of an oddball with no sex drive..."

"No sex drive?" Vincent queried, raising a fine eyebrow along with the corner of his mouth.

Cid shrugged with a slight grin. "I couldn't see any other reason why he wasn't with Tifa..." Vincent felt the tug at his lips widen into a real smile, shaking his head in amusement. "It didn't even cross my mind," Cid continued after a moment, "that he might, well, you know, bat for the other team."

The pilot looked a little deflated now, after the initial surprise. He'd stewed in his anger and confusion all the way back along the mountain and then on the ride to Kalm, and no-one could physically stay angry for much longer than that, not in one long go where it was all that drove you. Eventually it would burn out, and it had, leaving him subdued.

"I mean," he thought out loud, "yeah, I can sort of see the attraction from a purely aesthetic point of view, maybe - anyone can see that the General wasn't the ugliest duck in the pond - but that can't be all of it...and then that's where I don't get it..." He floundered for a few moments, hands waving a little. "I mean, it's Sephiroth." He made a sharp, knife-stabbing motion with one hand, making a harsh, high-pitched noise with each downward motion to indicate what he thought of Sephiroth's mental state.

"I don't claim to know Cloud's reasons." Vincent shook his head again, wondering just what right he had to be speaking about it at all - even he hadn't known until the few days before they'd found Cloud unconscious. "I can only speculate with what information I have."

"And you don't even know the General better than any of us," Cid said, and sighed, reaching into his breast pocket for his packet of cigarettes and his lighter. "I suppose Cloud did know him better than us, but still..." He pulled out a cigarette and put it between his lips, lifting the lighter. His gaze flickered up from the flame to Vincent's face, and around the cigarette he mumbled, "Does it ever make you sad, that you didn't know him?"

"Everyday," Vincent said quietly, after a moment. He would often wonder about what it would have been like to have bidden his time and stolen Lucrecia's baby away from them after birth - away from the mother that even he could see wouldn't care for him properly if she could even consider leaving him to Hojo - so that Sephiroth had grown up away from ShinRa, perhaps. He could imagine a little house somewhere in Wutai, and in this picture he was a respectable man, no longer a Turk, with a bright, handsome little boy whose eyes shone with contentment and nothing else. Thinking about that image made his chest hurt in a way it didn't unless he thought about Lucrecia, and he thought about it now and it hurt all the more.

He would have kept Sephiroth away from ShinRa and Hojo, and none of this would ever have happened, and Cloud would have been free to live his life, never knowing that Sephiroth existed.

He had been an impulsive man as a Turk, not knowing better, and the damage that that nature had caused was unimaginable. He had not appreciated just how detached from morality Hojo had been. He deserved to have stayed in that coffin forever.

Cid tapped his fingers restlessly on the tabletop, drawing Vincent's attention. "So, Mr. Valentine, 'speculate' away about this whole business. Feel free to enlighten me."

Vincent shrugged, trying to play down the sense of unease that he felt at doing what Cid asked, even though it was all that he could do. "We know that Cloud worshipped Sephiroth. He told us that Sephiroth was his idol and even if he hadn't told us, it was easy to see that much from how he acted. At least, after he'd mentioned the word 'idol', we could attribute any strange behaviour down to that..."

"But you think that that was just a cover up?"

Vincent shook his head. "No, Cloud did worship Sephiroth, so it wasn't a cover up, as such. He just...never made it clear how far that worship extended, is how I'll put it."

Cid snorted, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched his friend across the table. "So, basically, this goes back all the way to before Nibelheim?"

"I doubt very much that Cloud would suddenly fall in love with the man after Nibelheim."

Another snort. "Depends just how bad Hojo fucked him over, and how Zack felt about the General. You know - oh, well, you wouldn't, actually, but still - there were all these rumours going around about him, and how he'd shacked up with a SOLDIER buddy - from what I know, what other 'buddy' did Sephiroth have?"

"I don't know about Zack," Vincent said slowly, quietly, mulling Cid's words over in his head. "But you're right about Hojo - at least, that's what I think. Whatever Hojo did to Cloud's mind just...well, we know what it did. Something so central to him would hardly go unscathed, I imagine."

"Which," Cid continued aloud for him, with the tone of a man who has just realised something unpleasant, "is probably why it didn't go away and is still affecting him almost fifteen years later..."

They fell into the kind of heavy silence that Vincent was quite aware only he usually partook in. Vincent watched Cid's face with a kind of wary tension as the pilot's frown deepened a little, wondering how Cloud had managed to deal with this constant edginess the whole time, and wondering how he'd managed to so successfully disguise it from them.

"So...what now?" Cid asked finally, and Vincent frowned across the table, not understanding what Cid meant. The pilot caught the expression and flicked his hand irritably, elaborating, "About Cloud. What do we do with him? And what did this thing with Sephiroth have to do with what the Ancients have got him for?"

"We don't do anything with Cloud," Vincent said flatly. He watched Cid's expression darken a little at that, but continued, "This is entirely between Cloud and them. I doubt we were meant to even find him. Aeris wouldn't have let him come to any harm."

"Vince, they left him on the side of a fucking mountain about to freeze to death."

"It would take more than that to harm someone like Cloud," the darker-haired man replied sharply. He traced the contours of the metal plates on his gloves in his lap, continuing to watch Cid's face as it flickered between expressions of irritation and neutrality. "And I don't know what it's got to do with Sephiroth, but considering how much of an impact he has had on Cloud's life, I should suspect that he's involved somehow."

"They'd better not fucking well bring him back," Cid muttered. He slumped back in his chair with his cigarette, huffing slightly. "Or I will personally kick all their asses, including Aeris'." He paused, and then amended himself: "Especially Aeris'."

Vincent felt the involuntary lip twitch again and schooled his face back to careful coolness. He lifted and hand and took hold of his half-empty glass, taking it to his lips as Cid seemed to contemplate the idea of Sephiroth coming back to life again. No doubt much of what was going through Cid's head was images of Sephiroth running around cackling gleefully as he chopped off people's heads and did his damnedest to attract a passing asteroid towards the Planet.

And even if they could bring him back, I doubt it would happen again. Cloud wouldn't allow it. Cloud would give him the support he needed that he didn't have in Nibelheim the first time around. He would give Sephiroth the support that saved him from a similar fate.

He remembered Cloud talking to him on the mountain not so long ago, saying that he could have saved Sephiroth at Nibelheim. Vincent had dismissed it at the time, believing that notion to be a product of Cloud's anguished, desperate mind, but now that he thought about it...

If they had only known each other better before Nibelheim...if only Cloud or Zack had managed to be there when Sephiroth was reading those books...If only they had known then what we all know now.

"So," Cid continued finally, "if we can't do anything about Cloud, what do we do about her?" He cocked his head a little at the bar, and Vincent's gaze flickered that way for a second, catching sight of Tifa's face before she ducked down behind the bar to collect something, unaware of their attention. The impression that he received from that glance told him that Tifa was drawn, the skin just a touch darkened under her eyes, which weren't as bright as usual.

"There isn't anything that we can do there, either, really." Not if Tifa won't let him away from her sight. Where could we take him that she wouldn't find him? We could give him back to the Planet and she'd find a way to follow and pull him back from death. It frustrated him to feel so helpless when all he wanted to do was move Cloud somewhere safer - somewhere away from the prying eyes he doubted that someone like Aeris had taken into account. There was no doubt in his mind that it was she that had arranged what had happened, not surprised that she might have been watching Cloud for all this time -

"Ch'." Cid snorted, leaning back in his chair. "Nothing we can do, is there? Just gotta fuckin' sit back and wait..."

"I am about as pleased with the idea as yourself," Vincent assured the younger man. "We could try to sneak him out but then where would we take him? There's nowhere we could go that's far enough out of reach..."

"There must be," Cid answered reproachfully. He gave Vincent a long look. "There's a whole fucking Planet out there, Valentine. There must be somewhere. And even if she goes to the Lifestream, how on earth is she going to find him, let alone bring him back?"

"She had his body last time." She needed a body... Another reason to take Cloud away, if that was what she needed to locate him and bring him back. Vincent shook his head, sighing and pressing a hand to his forehead. "We need to get him away."

"Well done, Captain Obvious."

Vincent scowled at Cid, who just looked at him levelly in return. "So what do you suggest that we do?" he asked, hearing that his tone was short and clipped in irritation. To hear his annoyance aired out loud bothered him even more, and he took a few moments to control himself again, as Cid answered, "Nothing, for the moment. We think of somewhere to take him, if we can, and in the meantime, we watch to make sure Tifa doesn't do something stupid." Cid froze for a moment, and then said, "Oh, wait, she comes from Nibelheim, too - they're all a bit dopey in the head so I suppose we'll have our hands full with that one..."

Vincent was pretty sure that the only person they would have trouble with would be Tifa - certainly her husband wouldn't mind Cloud being moved out of the house. As Vincent passed Cloud's room later that night on his way to his own guest quarters, he noticed that the door was open. Curious, he peered in, and found Richard standing just inside, watching Cloud's still body on the bed where it lay underneath the covers, almost lifeless.

Richard hadn't asked for any of this, Vincent thought. His only crime had been in trusting his heart to a woman who couldn't decide where hers lay.

"You know," the brown-haired man said after a while into the dark, "It was quite easy to forget that Tifa belonged to AVALANCHE when the rest of you weren't here. It was even possible to forget it when you were."

"But not now that Cloud's here," Vincent offered softly, feeling sympathy pool into his chest. "His reputation, among other things, can be...intimidating."

Richard snorted, raising a hand to run it through his hair uncomfortably. "I'd never seen him in real life until he came here. I mean, I've seen the pictures, even heard Tifa talk about him, but...He didn't seem real. I knew Tifa had loved him, once, but he...it didn't seem to have any impact on our lives because he had disappeared and somehow...somehow that made everything all right..." A sigh. "He didn't have an impact on our lives then..." Even with his eyesight, Vincent couldn't quite make out Richard's expression in the dark, though he could see the twist in the man's mouth; he could guess the rest of it from there.

He didn't know what to say. He could have reassured him that Cloud was not in love with Tifa, would not vie for Tifa's attention, but what good would that be when Tifa was the one whose thoughts strayed where they should not go?

"What..." Richard began finally, interrupting Vincent's thoughts, "What is he really like?"

Vincent tried to hide his surprise at the question, but felt his eyebrows lifting a little anyway. He stepped a little into the doorway, just enough to be level with the frame, and cleared his throat. Richard turned his head, eyes reflecting the wan moonlight that filtered through the windows where the curtains had not been drawn all the way.

"What has Tifa told you?" Vincent asked eventually, not knowing where to start. How could he describe Cloud, one of the most complex people he'd ever known, to someone who just couldn't have any idea..?

The younger man shrugged, glancing towards the bed. "The usual. That he's good-looking, that he's good with a sword, her childhood friend, brave...inconsequential things. Just the story of what happened within AVALANCHE, and what happened with General Sephiroth..."

And there was the crux of it, wasn't it? 'What happened with General Sephiroth...'

"He was...is...a very quiet, private sort of man," Vincent decided on, his words cautious. He watched Richard's face, the strong clean lines of his jaw and nose and cheekbones. "Very brave." Then he looked over at Cloud's body as the other man had done. "Braver than even Tifa gives him credit for, that much I know. And not...not a very lucky man for much of his life." And then he thought of Cid, and what Cid might have answered had he been asked this question, and said, "If you ask my friend, he'd tell you that even though Cloud's the toughest fighter out there, he says things like 'Let's mosey' and that that should tell you everything you need to know about him."

Vincent liked the implication in his words, though it was hidden behind a joke, and he watched Richard smile; perhaps reassured, but then again perhaps not.

       

Cloud bounced eagerly on the balls of his feet in the line of equally apprehensive cadets, eyes darting around the room at the general hubbub that was going on around him amongst them. They were arranged in the practice hall at the edge of the mats - he felt his gaze involuntarily drawn to the spot across from them where Sephiroth had calmly informed him that he was practising kata too advanced for his level - and waiting diligently for the instructors.

Reno had sought him out at the beginning of the class, standing beside him with a sort of nervous energy running through him. He, like many of the others in the room, was watching the instructors where they stood on the other side of the mats to them, inspecting swords. For the first time since Cloud had been here, they were being allowed real swords. They were blunted for safety reasons and little more than rapiers, but Cloud hadn't held a real sword in so long that he almost ached for it. He missed the Ultima Weapon keenly in that moment as he watched the wan sunlight flash across the metal blades as they were moved around. He wanted to feel the comfortable weight of it in his hands, knowing that it was his and that it would move for him the way that he wanted it to.

He wasn't entirely sure how he would handle these practice swords. Certainly his mind knew how to use them, but he was also far more used to the Ultima Weapon, a two-handed blade that was almost as unwieldy as the mighty Masamune. But this teenager's body...what could it handle in the stead of his adult figure?

He found himself incredibly eager to find out, and wasn't surprised by that. His place was in SOLDIER, the place he had proved himself more than worthy for in his later years. He knew this, knew it more surely than almost anything else, and this time he had a way of achieving that place the way he had originally wanted to.

SOLDIER was...crucial. Everything rested upon it.

"You ever held a real sword before?" Reno said, his red hair looking a little haphazard that day. "I mean, a real-life thing like you can buy..."

"Yes," Cloud replied without thinking. He was still watching the instructors as they hovered over the practice swords, talking swiftly to one another as they seemed to attempt to sort something out between them.

Reno looked decidedly impressed, his sudden stillness catching Cloud's eye. He looked over and met the future Turk's gaze, hurriedly adding, "Just the once! Back in Nibelheim." Reno smiled, just a hint of rogue-ish-ness in it. "Bet that's how you got to be so good you got to practice all the way over in Nibelheim while the rest of us just had to wait..."

Cloud couldn't help but smile a little. He wasn't fooled by Reno's innocent act for a second, though he didn't doubt that Reno had had little to no practice with an actual sword. He supposed that Reno was more an expert in the knives department they were more economical than guns, and a lot easier to come by on the streets. Cloud liked the rush of close-quarters combat, but not so close as you came when fighting with a blade probably only 7 inches long. He didn't have the reach of the taller, lankier boys, so he'd only be that much nearer.

Most people blanched when they saw the size of the Ultima Weapon anyway, which always worked in his favour.

The instructors seemed to be decided then, and broke apart to turn back to the group. Reno seemed to become suddenly taller with his excitement, back unnaturally straight. Cloud couldn't help but grin, out of amusement at Reno and at his own similar feelings. A proper sword, after how long...?

"Okay, listen up!" called out one of the instructors, a SOLDIER 1st ranking man who was getting on a little bit in years to really be sent out to the type of situations a SOLDIER 1st would have. "As you can see, today's going to be a little different - we're going to divide into pairs and try some sparring practice with the real thing. The blades are a bit blunted, but they can still hurt a bunch if you're too heavy-handed, so be careful."

All things that Cloud suspected the class knew. He bounced a little again to try and dispel some of his nervous energy, but it didn't really work. Many of the others were doing the same. He hoped with all his might that his skill hadn't left him entirely - even so, he suspected that he would handle the swords better than many of the class. ShinRa introduced real practice like this a bit too late in the programme for Cloud's liking, but at least they had a month or so solid practice before the exams.

"And just simple sparring only. There's not enough room for you all to go into fully fledged duels," the instructor continued. "We're just getting a feel for the swords today. Right, now, I'm going to pair you up and you'll start practising as soon as you find a space - Jenkins, you with Strongbow; Strife with Ratchett; Mellings with Lionni..."

Ratchett, Cloud knew, was a handsome, ambitious blond boy who was taller than him by a few inches. He was a bit older than Cloud. He was also a bit of a loudmouth - they had never seen eye to eye, and Cloud avoided him when he could. He rolled his eyes at the pairing, and then followed the other boy across the mats to where he was already heading to stake out a space.

Ratchett was also, a voice in the back of his head told him, a talented if arrogant swordsman.

The instructors dropped off the swords at each pair, and Cloud picked his up to get a feel for the weight. A one-handed sword felt awkward - he kept wondering why his other hand wasn't doing anything - but after a few practice swings, he thought that he'd be all right with one. Ratchett, he noticed, just stood there with his held comfortably in his right hand, watching him and waiting.

He's had practice - how? Cloud thought suddenly, and shifted his grip on the hilt. He ran a finger lightly down the edge of the blade just to check how sharp it was. Satisfied, he let the blade drop a little, checking his opening position. Ratchett was still watching. When Cloud was finished, he saw a slow smile spread across the other boy's face.

"Not had a tryout with one of these yet?" he asked, but there was a slight hint of sarcasm or some other such like emotion in his voice. Cloud didn't like it. "Thought you would have been an expert by now, since you know the General."

Ah, yes, here it comes. Cloud fought not to roll his eyes again, sure that would just provoke something else, and said, "I don't know him that well at all, actually. So no, I haven't, sorry." So there, he added silently. And which of the instructors have you had fuck you so you could get early practice with swords, anyway?

"You don't need to know him that well to get down on your knees," Ratchett spat suddenly, looking abruptly angry. Cloud blinked, surprised, but couldn't say anything before the blond boy was coming at him with the sword. He made a startled sound, bringing his own sword up to parry the blow, and Ratchett's blade slammed into his with a loud twang, before he was moving away again.

"Hey-" Cloud began, but Ratchett was coming again, and he gave up, choosing to give himself over to the fight rather than try and placate the other boy. Ratchett was good, but he was also angry, though Cloud had no idea why, and that was a disadvantage. His sword felt like hardly any weight at all so Cloud dodged and parried confidently, trying to keep his moves a little slower than he would like so it wouldn't look like he had been the one to have had practice with a sword before. Being good with a practice sword was one thing - to then be instantly wonderful with the real thing was another matter entirely.

Ratchett's blade glanced off of his as Cloud moved to one side, turning to follow the other boy with his eyes. Though the blond came back at him almost instantly with a low swing, he jumped back and parried the following blow, backing off.

"Like fuck you haven't had practice," Ratchett hissed so that no-one else would hear. "Like fuck you haven't. And like fuck it wasn't Sephiroth that let you. I knew this would happen!"

"Eh? Is that why you think I know what I'm doing?" Cloud couldn't help but snort. "I'm really sorry if that's what you think but it's not true - hey!" He fought off another blow, feeling his arm jar with the force of it. He backed off some more. "Knock it off!"

Ratchett ignored him. He raised his sword again and approached, slower this time. Cloud raised his own, watching quietly as he watched for the inevitable strike. As Ratchett circled right, Cloud did the same, trying to keep a respectable distance between them. Ratchett seemed to have calmed a little - his face was a dark scowl, but there was a sudden focus in that expression that hadn't been there before. Cloud watched him closely, senses suddenly as alert and heightened as they'd ever been now that he was faced with what looked like a real threat -

The blade came at him from an angle on the left, more difficult to parry but by no means undoable, so he went to block it, and just before the two blades clashed, Ratchett drew his back, retracting the move, and came at him suddenly from the right. He parried that as well, reacting instinctively though not at quite the speed he would have been able to in ten years time. Still, it was faster than Ratchett, and Cloud went on the offensive for the first time, tackling the other boy's blade and driving him back a few steps before sweeping his own sword up and around whilst Ratchett was busy trying to recover. The other boy froze instantly when the blunted edge of Cloud's sword came up against his throat.

"You're dead," Cloud said mildly, and watched as the other boy's surprised expression immediately turned almost murderous.

"Hey, hey, what's going on here?"

Cloud lowered his blade cautiously, just in case Ratchett decided to go for him again, as one of the supervising instructors approached. "You were told simple sparring only, not proper duelling!" the older man said. Cloud looked over, satisfied that his partner would probably not risk it with an instructor so close, though he kept a wary grip on his sword. "What on earth were you two doing?"

Cloud supposed it sounded a bit childish and petulant to say, "He started it." "Got carried away, sir," he said instead, sending Ratchett a brief warning look. The other cadet was still watching him furiously, something dark and ugly in his eyes. "Sorry, sir."

"Well, see that it doesn't happen again." The instructor gave them both looks for a moment, and then said, "But, besides that, I'm impressed - you're both pretty good, actually. If Zack hadn't stopped by and pointed you two out I would have been too busy sorting out the other bozos in the class to have noticed -"

"Zack's here?" Cloud said before he could help himself. He looked over the instructor's shoulder, and there by the cut away section of the seating stood the black-haired SOLDIER. The rack of swords stood next to him. He was watching Cloud with a closed expression on his face. Cloud looked away - again, he'd been stupid enough to actually fight like he knew how to handle a sword -

"Now, can you just do what you were told?" the instructor said. "You're going to hurt each other and then you'll get in trouble."

"Sure," Ratchett said calmly, never taking his eyes from Cloud's face. "We'll play nice."

"See that you do," the older man said, and then turned to leave them. He hurried over to another pair that he could see were getting into it a bit much, and Cloud watched him jog over, the two he was heading for beginning to really go at each other. Each of them looked quite carried away as well, and he wondered if he and Ratchett had looked like that-

Ratchett suddenly moved and as Cloud abruptly swung around to look at him, something heavy slammed into his temple. There was an angry cry from across the room, and Cloud, stunned, dropped like a stone to the mats, pain throbbing where he had been struck. He blinked up at what he assumed was the ceiling as the room spun violently.

That bastard, a part of him thought. That utter bastard!

The side of him that was too used to being in a battle told him to get up and face his enemy, so he did, struggling with the sudden dizziness as he rolled onto his side to get to his knees. There were voices around him, speaking angrily, and someone shouting. His sword was still in his hand - he hadn't let go. At least he still had a weapon, if Ratchett came for him again -

The other boy abruptly grabbed his shoulder, too rough, and he spun his arm up and around without thinking, falling on his back again to go with the movement. There was a blurry mass above him and he could make out the line of the blade, shining silver against the purple and peach and black of the other man's body, at his attacker's throat once more, to keep him away.

Damn, but he wished he had his old body back. A blow like the one he had just received would have distracted him for a moment, now he was reduced to a disorientated wreck on the floor. The side of his face felt wet. With swords this blunt, he thought vaguely, Ratchett must have really hit him hard to break the skin.

His vision was slowly focussing again, and he could see the man above him speaking. "...put it down," he was saying, but it didn't sound like Ratchett. Nor, he thought belatedly, did Ratchett have black hair. "Cloud, just put the sword down, okay, I'm not going to hurt you..."

"Just take it off him," someone else said, but the man above him shook his head. It looked like Zack. Cloud blinked, trying to shrug off the dizzyness, and lowered his sword anyway, letting his arm fall to his side. It was Zack. He'd thought Ratchett had been the one to touch him. Now, as his vision became clearer, he could make out a bit of a commotion off to his right, which sounded like Ratchett and one of the instructors having a shouting match.

"Spike?" Zack said. He was kneeling at Cloud's side, his face a bit pale and worried. There were other people standing close by, having come to see what had happened. "You recognise me?"

"Uh-huh," Cloud said. His head was throbbing phenomenally. He let go of his sword and raised his hand to touch his temple. It stung, and he raised his fingers to look at them, and saw with no surprise that they had come away slick and red. He stared at the blood blankly.

"That bastard really walloped you one," Zack said, trying to smile a little. He held up a hand then, putting some of his fingers down. "How many are there?" he said, and Cloud counted two. He said so, and Zack looked more than a little relieved. His smile widened, more genuine this time. "Don't think you have concussion, but someone's gone for a doctor just in case. Don't move, anyway, you'll probably get nauseous and throw up, and I'd rather you didn't."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence," Cloud said vaguely, and saw Zack grin properly. He didn't really want to move anyway, knowing that he would throw up if he did so.

"-totally uncalled for!" came the instructor's voice from over where Ratchett seemed to be. "Shameful, dishonourable behaviour - I don't teach that kind of stuff in my class, and I'm absolutely disgusted that one of my pupils would even think about deliberately harming another one-"

It was still going on when the doctor arrived. Cloud had stopped listening long before then, only really aware that Zack was watching him with a concern that didn't only seem to stem from his injury.

       

He was dreaming again, and surprisingly aware of it. He didn't care anyway. He was lying in a field full of flowers, the scent of them heavy in the air, and the sky above him was the kind of clear blue that you only got on real summer days out of the city. He stared up at the blue for a while, then closed his eyes and drifted comfortably on the edge of sleep in the warmth. There was a quiet all around him, and he loved it, loved the way it filled his head and his chest and made him feel so at peace that he could forget everything but the summer breeze and the smell of poppies.

And then someone was walking through the flowers towards him, the gentle swish of the grass and leaves against his legs the only thing that gave away his presence. Cloud smiled to himself, turning his head slightly in the grass towards the sound with his eyes closed. He hadn't felt this good in so long.

The other man came to a stop at his side, and there was a silence where neither moved and all there was around them was the whisper of the wind in the field and the feel of the sunshine on his skin in a way he hadn't felt in years. Nibelheim was stuck in the shelter of the mountains and rarely got the sun very much, and his mother had always been wary of letting him wander the fields to the south because of the monsters that roamed the open areas. She'd preferred that he stay in town.

His companion shifted, and then sat down beside him. They were both silent, but Cloud could feel himself being watched, and if he'd opened his eyes he would have been staring straight up into the green eyes that had haunted many of his dreams for fifteen years.

He didn't question Sephiroth's presence, because it was a dream and dreams didn't have to make sense anyway. They rarely did. The only dream he'd ever had to pay attention to was the one Aeris had sent him that one time in the Ancient Forest, where Sephiroth had appeared and lamented over Aeris' interference in his - Jenova's - plans to him. Warning Cloud, in his own way, that Aeris would be hurt if Cloud couldn't stop her from doing whatever she planned to do. Giving him a chance to save her.

It was one of several incidences that had had his heart hammering in his chest, aware all of a sudden that Sephiroth was still there, some part of him sane underneath it all, and wasn't happy with what he was doing. That time in Nibelheim, for instance, when Sephiroth had thrown him the Destruct materia, the only materia that could have destroyed his protective spells during the final battle...

"Cloud," said a voice above him suddenly, as if to distract him from those memories. Cloud loved that voice, the way that it felt. He opened his eyes slowly, knowing that was what was wanted, and Sephiroth was staring down at him, lips slightly parted as if he wanted to say something. Whatever he said was important, at least to Cloud, who took it all in the same way he had with Zack after they'd been captured by Hojo.

The silver-haired man wasn't wearing his uniform, and it was the first time that Cloud had really seen him without it. He was still wearing the leather trousers and thigh-high boots, but his heavy leather overcoat had been replaced by a white shirt that looked a little too big on him, the top four buttons left undone so that a wide expanse of his collarbone could be seen. He wasn't wearing any gloves.

It didn't look odd at all, Cloud thought, though he supposed it should have. It just made him look like a man, the way that his uniform had made him look like a General, and Cloud had always known that this man lurked beneath that mask.

A part of him recognised that this Sephiroth didn't feel like the one from his last, more heated dream, and was a thirty-year old Sephiroth rather than the twenty-five year old one of his current time. Was that significant to this dream? He wasn't sure, and didn't know how to tell.

"Aeris says hello," was the first thing that Sephiroth said, and Cloud frowned, sitting up, keeping his eyes on the older man's as he did so. Sephiroth did not flinch away from that look, meeting it steadily but with a hint of wariness in his eyes.

"Where am I?" he asked. What did Aeris have to do with this? He didn't like it when his dreams were supposed to mean something - he'd much rather he didn't have to pay attention every single hour of the day.

"You're dreaming," Sephiroth said, and his face was very still. He was sitting with his legs tucked at his side, one hand flat against the ground to support him, the other curled on his thigh. "But you're dreaming of the Lifestream, to be honest."

"I thought I was dreaming of a field," Cloud said, but he knew that it was entirely possible for the field to be in the Lifestream, and Sephiroth knew that he knew. His lips twitched a little.

"Indeed," he said, and then his expression quieted. "Aeris wants me to tell you something. She thinks I should."

"Why can't she do it?" Cloud shifted his weight, sitting the same way that Sephiroth was. It seemed right for them to be together in this field, but Cloud couldn't explain why. He was watching the silver-haired man's face and all he knew was that there was the same sense of peace in him that had been pervading his body throughout the entire dream.

The same sort of half-smile pulled at Sephiroth's mouth, and Cloud felt his heart beat just that little bit faster. "Because this is something that I have to say," he replied, "And because you didn't listen to Aeris last time in Midgar and she thinks you're more likely to pay attention to me anyway."

Cloud felt his mood abruptly drop, his expression shuttered, feeling himself suddenly close off and draw back. "What did she say-"

"Cloud," Sephiroth cut him off, face betraying nothing, "I know."

And then there was the quiet of the field again, the movement of the grass in his ears and the sun still shining over them but that did nothing to counteract the sodden feeling in his chest, the way Sephiroth's words filled him with the kind of dread he hadn't felt since the Northern Crater. He stared blankly at the other man, though underneath he was reeling with panic, the emotions so clear and real even though he knew that this place was only in his dream.

But Aeris - this is one of those dreams, I can feel it, that's why this is so clear - it's one of her dreams, she sent this to me, she sent him to me and this matters -

Sephiroth's face hadn't really changed, not in any way that Cloud could see, though something underlying the tension in the air had shifted a little, hardly noticeable. Suddenly Cloud wished he was anywhere else but here, anywhere but at this man's side, where all the attention was focused on him, full of the knowledge he had hidden so closely, so carefully, for fifteen years.

"I can watch you from the Lifestream," Sephiroth said softly, not lowering his eyes, and he was speaking as if he really had, not just in the dream. "Some part of me - the part that was still me after Nibelheim - was curious about you, the only man alive who could beat me - and you had, you killed me in the end, even though you had never been in SOLDIER. You reminded me of Zack." Cloud flinched, but did not look away - there was something in the other man's gaze, some kind of earnestness, that held him. "And I can watch you, so I did - and I saw you on the mountain, what you kept doing. I couldn't...help but find out." He paused, and Cloud looked away then, down at where his hand was pressed palm down to the grass to support the lean of his weight, at the blades of grass that peeked out between his spread fingers, at how the rich, leafy green contrasted so well with his skin.

He didn't know what to say. He wasn't going to say anything anyway - his voice probably wouldn't work, and if it did it would break on him, and the least he could do was keep face as much as he could, keep what ever little ounce of respect and dignity that he could -

"Don't turn away from me." It was an imperative, but it wasn't at all a command made by a man in uniform - rather, just a man, and there wasn't anger or reproach, but something rawer and more uncertain. Cloud looked up and the same thing was in Sephiroth's face, and it startled him because even though he'd known he was facing the man, not the title, he'd expected all of the pain of this confrontation to be on his own part. He was still expecting a General's response.

That wasn't what he loved, what had been the thing that had sustained him for all these years. This - the knowledge that Sephiroth was more like him than anyone but Cloud really knew, and all that followed - this was what he loved.

"...I'm sorry," he said, because there was nothing else he could say, and nothing that could convey how he felt, how sorry he was that this man knew what kind of burden he had inadvertently put upon Cloud's shoulders by allowing madness to overcome him that day in their hometown.

"Don't be," Sephiroth replied, the same tone to his voice. "I'm the one who should apologise, I never knew, I never-"

"I know you didn't. You weren't supposed to." He shrugged it off, though it was as much an admission that he was bothered by Sephiroth's knowledge than anything else would have been. "No-one was supposed to. It wasn't a..." He wanted to say 'it wasn't a big thing' but that was a lie and he couldn't make himself voice it. It got stuck in his throat.

"...I'm not angry." It wasn't until he said it that Cloud realised he had actually expected Sephiroth to be angry at him over this, if he ever did find out, and he glanced away awkwardly, not quite sure whether to believe Sephiroth or not. He had looked liked he meant it, sounded so, too, but this was too close to his being for him to be unsure of the other man's sincerity.

He felt a flash of frustrated irritation, and looked around suddenly, completely sure that it hadn't come from himself - somewhere outside him, in the surrounding air, which abruptly seemed watchful and filled with the same reproach-

"Aeris?" Sephiroth looked startled at his question, the change in subject, and what had been in his eyes became cold and unmoved. Cloud didn't see it, looking closely around him for something, some confirmation of what he'd felt.

I swear, if she's just doing this to try and make me happy, I'll kill her, I really will, this isn't funny and it isn't fair!

Something like shocked surprise then, an emotion both part of and separate from the field around them. Cloud felt his anger swell, looked back at Sephiroth's closed, emotionless face and suddenly, stupidly, wasn't afraid anymore. "And you had me almost convinced that this was real, but it's not, because she's here, everything around us feels like her-"

"Are you saying that what I just said doesn't matter?" Sephiroth asked, and he had gone icy enough for it to break through Cloud's anger, but not enough to convince, because this whole dream had been stupid anyway, right from the beginning, and he'd foolishly allowed himself to get carried away with it.

Cloud sat back, more distance between them, feeling more than a little bitter that Aeris had done this to him. "No, because this is all Aeris." It came out more bitter than he'd intended, too, but that didn't matter. He was getting tired of these dreams - the last one had been bad enough, the mockery wrapped so closely to the intimacy that it was hard to tell where one started and the other ended, even though he'd known he was dreaming then, too.

"No wonder she got me to talk to you," Sephiroth said. There was a flash of frustrated anger in his eyes and the set of his mouth, and it thrilled Cloud as much as it frightened him. "You're so convinced that you're right when you get an idea in your head that no-one can convince you otherwise, and you just don't listen to anything else that they say, do you? Everything else that contradicts your little theory just goes over your head, doesn't it? Like, for example, the fact that I was trying to tell you something important before you started ranting about Aeris!"

Cloud blinked. "If you were real," he said somewhat dazedly, in the wake of that anger, "you wouldn't give me the time of day, let alone waste your energy talking and shouting at me."

Somehow, Cloud realised, Sephiroth seemed to take that as a challenge. It was apparent in the abrupt twist to his features. And then, too fast for Cloud to move away from, Sephiroth was gripping his chin harshly, pulling Cloud's face to his sharply. "I am real, as real as any other form of me you've known, and I've had a long time to think about this after I found out how you felt - how could I not? You're-" he faltered, but only momentarily, "-you're beautiful, and I could appreciate that even if I couldn't appreciate anything else about you."

Cloud stared, more than a little stunned, but he wasn't allowed to collect himself because the next moment there was a mouth on his, bruising at first because the anger hadn't faded - he had to be dreaming, this couldn't be real. The long fingers on his chin were still firm, didn't draw away at all, but that was all part of the sudden sense of domination that came with the force of Sephiroth's lips. A slick, knowing tongue against his, and he was surprised to realise that his eyes were closed and he was kissing back - didn't think his brain had been together enough to do anything at all. The force of it began to ease, until the movement of their mouths was more equal, and though Cloud ached inside to know that this wasn't happening outside of his head, it still felt real, because it wasn't quite like anything he had ever imagined before.

He wanted this. His body was telling him that this was right, agreeing with the quality of the thumping of his heart against his ribs, and he felt the knots in his stomach tighten as, again, he thought of how this was unlikely to be repeated after he woke up. He became abruptly aware, throughout, of various things - the feel of strands of silver against his cheeks, and warmth from Sephiroth's body, close enough for him to wrap his arms around; the feel of air against his cheek as Sephiroth breathed through his nose; the clean, crisp scent of his body.

It seemed to last far longer than it had, and when Sephiroth gently pulled away he felt as if there was a hook in his chest dragging something out of him as well. "Nothing could ever truly happen between us with the shadow of Nibelheim and Jenova hanging over our pasts," the silver-haired man said quietly, his voice devoid of heat. "So I'm going to forget for you, and do it properly."

Confusion. Cloud searched Sephiroth's eyes worriedly, the kiss forgotten except the shaky feeling in his limbs, but all there was, was his own reflection. "What? I don't understand, what do you mean, 'forget'-"

And he woke up. Staring at the ceiling of the infirmary, the shadows that played along its corners and edges with no light to chase them away, as if he had been doing so all night. His head still throbbed, despite the painkillers he had been given by the doctor. Besides the pain, he felt - he didn't know how he felt, there were too many emotions to name that flitted through him. His heart was pounding, his breath quick.

Was that real?

It couldn't have been, he convinced himself into the early hours of the morning, even though several floors away, Sephiroth lay in his bed, also staring up at the ceiling, the feel of Cloud still on his lips and the scent of him still in his nose, disjointed images behind his eyes of a field and a kiss and the fleeting remains of ghost emotions in the dark.

       

Eventually, Cloud fell asleep again, only to be woken what felt like no more than fifteen minutes later by the doctor opening the door and coming in. He couldn't have been sleeping very deeply. He turned onto his back, putting the back of his hand to his mouth as he yawned. He hoped that he would be allowed to go back to his dorm today, because he hated places like this. It was too quiet, and forced him to concentrate on himself with nothing outside of him as a suitable distraction.

He'd end up thinking about that dream, agonising over whether Aeris had really sent it or whether he'd dreamt that she had, and wondering if Sephiroth really kissed like that - he rather hoped that his dream had been accurate. Even the anger behind the initial strength of it had been exciting, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to analyse that feeling in himself.

Gods, and if it was something Aeris sent? What did she mean by it? And what did he mean by it?

And if it had been real, if Sephiroth, somewhere in the Lifestream, had once watched over him, and did in fact know about his secrets, what then? What had that kiss been for?

He didn't want to think about it. His head still throbbed where Ratchett had hit him.

Cloud didn't realise he'd fallen asleep again, sprawled out on his back, until he was being shaken awake by strong, familiar hands on his shoulder. He groaned, feeling heavy all over, and opened bleary eyes to find Zack standing at his bedside, smiling widely. He grinned sleepily, stretching a little underneath the white infirmary covers. "Hello."

"Morning," Zack said amiably and sat down on the edge of the bed. "How're you feeling?"

"Tired," Cloud replied truthfully. His eyelids felt weighted, like he couldn't keep his eyes anything but closed. "Head hurts still."

"Yeah, doctor says you probably have a mild concussion actually. Ratchett really whacked you - he's being punished like nobody's business. He didn't crack your skull, thank the Planet, but your head's going to kill for a few days, or so the good doctor says. He said he's going to dope you up so you can sleep the rest of the day and avoid the pain." Zack's grin widened. "Lucky for some, eh?"

"You try having someone split your head open like an egg," Cloud murmured, letting his eyelids drop a little. "I will gladly swap."

"Any idea why he went for you?" Zack asked, and frowned when Cloud shook his head. The black-haired SOLDIER then looked over his shoulder towards the door, and Cloud followed his gaze. There were green eyes watching him from the entrance to the infirmary, Sephiroth's black and silver form standing where Cloud hadn't noticed him. He seemed to realise that Zack was looking at him, and he raised his eyes from Cloud, frowning.

It wasn't hard, when Sephiroth had turned his attention to Zack, to remember the dream again. He couldn't help his eyes tracing the curves of the other man's lips, remembering what it had felt like to have them pressed to his, what it had felt like to completely surrender his control as soon as they'd touched.

Whatever passed between the two SOLDIERs he missed, but then Zack looked back to him, and even as he turned to meet his friend's gaze once more, sure his cheeks were red, he could feel it when Sephiroth returned to watching him.

"We're on our way to work," Zack explained, but his face looked more solemn than before. As Cloud watched him, he was reminded of the strange quality of the concern Zack had displayed whilst they were waiting for the doctor. "And I wanted to stop in to see how you were."

There was a tension in the lines of his expression, Cloud realised, and suddenly he knew what it was, because it was exactly the same thing he had seen in Sephiroth's face in his dream, after the man had first called his name. "Whatever you want to say to me," he said warily, keeping his voice low, "Just say it."

Zack did not look surprised. His face did not change, but he searched Cloud's eyes as if wondering whether he should follow the blond's request. Sephiroth, his silent presence no less strong in the room for his lack of participation in their conversation, was still watching, and Cloud tried desperately to ignore the feel of the man's eyes on him the scrutiny was making him nervous, and he couldn't work out why Sephiroth was studying him so intently.

Eventually, Zack leaned a little closer and said, "I've not said anything before this because I didn't want to scare you off, but I suppose now you must know that I've noticed how strangely you're acting."

Cloud nodded warily, feeling his chest seize up with apprehension.

Zack did not even seem to wonder at the fact that Cloud wasn't going to say he wasn't aware of how he was behaving. "The fact that you're suddenly fighting on a SOLDIER 3rd level is enough to arouse suspicion," Zack continued. He pursed his lips as he paused. "Yesterday, you were hardly doing anything and that boy was going for you with everything he had, and anyone with eyes could see that you were in complete control of that fight. Every time you fight me I know you're holding back, but I don't know why."

Cloud opened his mouth automatically, about to explain although he had no idea what would come out of his mouth, but Zack pressed a finger to his lips, shaking his head. Cloud frowned, closing his mouth as Zack drew his hand back away, but didn't say anything. What did Zack want from this conversation if he wasn't going to let Cloud say a word?

"And then that thing with Aeris..." Zack trailed off. His dark eyes, Cloud saw with some hope, were not hard or accusing. He continued, "I know you know her, though why she doesn't seem to know you is just another mystery to add to the list. And you just don't act like you used to you're still Cloud, there's no doubt about it, a lot of things about you haven't changed one bit, but still...All these things together, I just can't explain away, though the Planet knows I've tried." He rolled his eyes, and a smile graced his lips, which comforted Cloud a little. His chest became a little less tight.

"Zack," he began, but the older man shook his head again, and he fell silent.

"I'm not going to ask you what's going on." Cloud's eyes widened, but he didn't say a word. Zack's smile had faded. His eyes were neither warm nor cold. He wasn't sure what to make of that, however well he knew Zack. "Obviously," the SOLDIER went on, "there's something going on, but I trust you to tell me eventually. You're my friend, right? And I'm yours, so if you don't want to tell me, or you want to work through it by yourself, I'll respect that. But a burden shared is halved, isn't that what they say?"

"Depends what it is," Cloud found himself saying. His voice sounded a bit strained to his own ears. "Sometimes sharing things makes it worse."

"I won't tell anyone!" Zack exclaimed, looking almost scandalised.

"That's not what I meant."

Zack frowned again, and ran one hand over his hair as if to flatten it a little. "Well, whatever it is...even if you think it's weird, or crazy, or whatever, I'll listen to you, and I'll try to help. I...just wanted you to know that, okay?"

Cloud nodded. He had never wanted to tell Zack about everything so much as he did then, but the more cynical side of him guessed that that was partly what Zack had been aiming for. He didn't say anything, not trusting what came out of his mouth to be what he'd intend to say, and his suspicion was confirmed by the disappointment that crossed his friend's face.

"There are more people on your side than you know," he said then, and Cloud had the fleeting idea that he meant Sephiroth, which was a crazy idea in itself. He couldn't help but glance over, his own eyes meeting green once more still watching him but then looked away, the other man's gaze too intense for him.

Zack patted his hand awkwardly, and then got up. "Work awaits us," he said softly, and his lips twitched. Cloud smiled hesitantly, and watched as Zack went after the doctor, presumably to let him know that they had finished and Cloud would be left to his mercy. As Zack disappeared into the doctor's room, he was left alone with only Sephiroth's watchfulness.

What did he want?

"His intentions are noble," came Sephiroth's voice, low and smooth, and for their ears only, "but there will come a time when he can no longer wait for you."

"I know." And he did know, because he would have been the same. Zack had less patience than even Cloud did how long would it be until that time came? Cloud closed his heavy eyes, as much because of their weight as to avoid having to meet the General's gaze, and that indescribable look in them that he couldn't read.

He was glad when Zack came back, and the two eventually left. He was tired of people watching him all the time.

       

There were privileges to being a General, as there were with any high position within a company such as ShinRa. The one that Sephiroth enjoyed the most was the Officers' Bathroom. It was hidden away on the same floor as his own quarters, solely for the use of the SOLDIER 1sts and any of the higher ranks. A lot of them didn't use it, because their quarters had en suite bathrooms anyway, but this was far more luxurious and about four times the size of the private rooms.

He sank into the large tub with a sigh, the water just as hot as he liked. The bath, sunken into the floor, was meant for more than one person. It could easily fit in about four or five people with room to spare. Some of the officers used it when they brought women back with them, but even though it was nice, Sephiroth could hardly think of a less romantic place.

He let his head fall back against the side, staring up at the ceiling. He had pulled his hair into a makeshift bun at the back of his head so it wouldn't get wet (well, so that much of it wouldn't get wet) unless he submerged, and he could feel it where his head rested against the tiles, but he didn't really care about the discomfort. He was too tired to care, concentrating only on the wonderful feeling in his limbs as the heat of the water helped him to unwind.

He'd found it impossible to relax all day. After he'd woken up in the middle of the night, he hadn't been able to sleep again. He'd been terse and irritable at work out of tiredness, and had known from the moment he'd climbed out of bed that this would be where he'd end up later that night, when no-one else was likely to be using it.

He couldn't...concentrate.

Sephiroth was surprised, suddenly, to hear the lock of the door turning and the soft click as it opened. Most people, when they realised someone was in here, apologised and backed out - especially when they saw it was him, most were too intimidated to bathe naked in the same room, the same bath. This person didn't, which meant that he knew it was Zack, and that raised an eyebrow.

The dark-haired man didn't say hello, but Sephiroth didn't offer a greeting of his own and simply remained gazing up at the white ceiling as he listened to Zack stripping off. It was definitely Zack - he could hear the heavy clunk of the boots being dropped to the floor, and the similar sound of the younger man's belt. He wondered what Zack wanted - part of him expected that the SOLDIER might be craving something physical, but nothing like that had transpired between them for months.

He lifted his head so that he could see Zack as he padded around the edge of the tub, trying to guess what he wanted. The nakedness didn't bother him, he'd seen it before. He looked at the other man's face, and he looked a bit drained. Sephiroth knew how he felt. He watched, silently, as Zack slid into the water onto the shelf around the edge of the tub beneath the surface a few feet away from him. The black-haired man sighed in satisfaction, and Sephiroth felt his mouth curve a little.

"Stressed?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Zack grinned, his own head tipped back and his eyes closed. "Just a little," he replied. "You?"

"You mean you weren't expecting to find me here?" Sephiroth snorted. "I couldn't sleep last night, and work was tiring."

"Oh, is that why you were acting off all day?" And Sephiroth knew from the tone of his voice that that was the main reason why Zack was here. Zack could have spoken to him anytime about that - why now? Why here? He watched his friend's face carefully, not entirely sure what Zack was up to.

"What do you mean?" he asked carefully.

"Whenever I saw you, it was, like, one minute you were snapping people's heads off, and the next you were completely zoned out." Zack grinned slyly, knowingly, eyes crinkling at the edges. Sephiroth merely stared back at him, wondering if he really did know what was bothering his superior.

He slid a bit further underwater so that his shoulders were nearly submerged, and said, "I told you, I didn't sleep. I was tired and everyone persisted in doing stupid things today. I was bound to get irritated." It was a thinly concealed warning for Zack to stop with this line of questioning, but he doubted that it would be heeded.

"You were staring at him this morning." The grin had disappeared and all of a sudden the humour had gone from the other man. "You keep watching him."

Sephiroth didn't like the way his heart began to speed up a little, and his voice was cold when he replied, "And?" There was no use denying it - Zack had caught him watching the practice up in the gallery that day, and had obviously noticed him staring that morning. He shouldn't have gone with Zack, so soon after that dream - he'd seen Cloud and he couldn't help the images that came to him, however much he'd tried. He couldn't even make himself feel disgusted at what he felt anymore. His dream - it had been peaceful, he remembered. That was all he could feel.

Zack's grin returned suddenly, brighter than before. "I think Mr. Stressy over there should get himself a boyfriend. Perhaps that's the reason he's zoning out all day long...and stuff."

"And did you perhaps happen to have someone in mind?" Sephiroth asked chilly. Zack wouldn't dare say it to his face, not when any suspicions the SOLDIER might have had to be based on guesswork and guesswork alone. He wasn't stupid, whatever else he might be.

"Maybe," was all Zack said. He shrugged. "Have you?"

Sephiroth felt his frown deepening, and didn't answer. Zack gave him a long look, and the silence became more tense, but he did nothing to break it. Eventually Zack looked away and sank down in the water until only his head was visible. "I was hoping he'd tell me what was going on this morning."

"He will," Sephiroth said, and leaned his head back one more, closing his eyes in relief at the turn in the conversation. "All good things come to those who wait."

"Bah," Zack said in reply to that, his tone derisive. "I'm no good at waiting."

"I noticed. Don't let it get to you."

He heard Zack sigh and shift a little in the water. "But I do let it get to me," he said quietly. "I'm really worried about him." Sephiroth didn't open his eyes, because he wasn't sure he could stand to see the pained look that must have been on Zack's face. He listened to Zack moving closer in the water, and it occurred to him that his initial suspicion about the other man seeking him out here had been right.

"I don't know what to do," Zack said, and his voice was very close.

"...Neither do I." He opened his eyes after he'd said it, turning his head where it rested against the tiles to meet Zack's unguarded gaze. He still looked pained and drawn but there was also need in Zack's eyes, a desire to forget for a moment that Sephiroth could empathise with. He didn't look away, and neither did Zack, even when he felt a hand slide slowly against the inside of his knee beneath the water and upward.

"Please," Zack whispered. "Just this once. Just so I can...stop thinking about it for tonight."

He accepted because Zack needed it, and because he wanted it to chase away the images in his own mind that he hadn't been able to escape, so when Zack began to close the distance between them he met the man halfway.

It left him feeling empty afterwards, as he made his way to his own bed, his stomach churning unpleasantly. It hadn't worked at all: several times he'd found himself imagining that the hips beneath his hands were slimmer and the bared skin paler. He'd made sure he didn't say anything coherent when he came.

He fell, much later, into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

End Chapter 10

1. I know the Planet has an official name now with AC (Gaia), but I'm just going to stick with "the Planet" because that's what it was in the game, and anything else just sounds odd to me.

2. Again, sorry this took so long, but I had exams, and a holiday, and then some more exams...and HP3 came out and the SB/RL just called to me, as I knew it would, because Thewlis and Oldman were just fantastic. But I hope you liked this, if only for the dream-part.

3. And now you have some S/C kinda-action! And it's not gratuitous, either. If you don't remember what Aeris said to Cloud that he didn't listen to, go back to the scene where he goes to her house and read it. There should be something that she says that just doesn't fit in with what Cloud's thinking. It's important, as was the dream in this chapter.


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