AN: You know what irks me about FFNet? The formatting codes always change. So then your previous chapters look wrong because they aren't in the proper formatting. (sighs) Anyway, hello again everyone. It's been forever, huh? But can you believe that TCO is really over six years old? Wow. And here we are, still trucking on. It's good to "see" everyone again. Hopefully you guys like this chapter as well. Enjoy!

By the way, to anyone who wasn't already aware, I have edited the first chapter to include a giant author's note that encompasses an introduction, acknowledgments, disclaimer, and a little bit of other stuff included. If you're interested, go visit the first chapter to see what I did. If you don't want to, that's okay. You're not really missing anything too important.

-x-

The Complete Opposite

Chapter XXII

-x-

When Shera neared a flat plot of land, she lowered to allow Cloud and Sephiroth to get off before landing. The two warriors stood on the side and waited for the airship to descend. As they waited, Cloud found his mind wandering, his thoughts trailing back to what had just happened today. The transition of events was still a little startling. It was almost hard to believe all of that had happened in the course of a day. Being in Junon, while it had proved somewhat worthwhile, it felt as if going there had only brought more trouble. It probably would have been better if they hadn't returned. Then perhaps the destruction of the newly established Headquarters wouldn't have happened. It wouldn't have been invaded by JENOVA and her monstrous pets.

Feeling a tinge of guilt, Cloud recalled the battle that took place. JENOVA had said things to him that made him wonder. It made him question the things he knew and the things he didn't. He was curious, and there were too few people who could fill in the blanks. One who happened to be none other than Sephiroth. JENOVA said he should talk to him. Glancing over, he observed the profile of the ex-General as he watched the airship land. The spin of its propeller blades tossed the air about wildly, at the same time making Sephiroth's hair billow out.

Like this, the man seemed almost... approachable. There was no doubt Sephiroth was attractive, sure, but there was always some level of detachment from the rest of society that made him seem unfriendly at first. But as Cloud paused to consider Sephiroth not as he knew him, but simply as another man, he could dare to say that now his impression of the man was more pleasant. Weird.

Why Cloud would think such a thing in the first place was beyond him. Had he changed? Surely not. Had Sephiroth? No, that was unlikely too. He didn't think anything was all that different about them. But between them... that was a different story. With JENOVA's words now floating about in his head, he wasn't quite sure what to think. He needed answers.

Squinting as the wind picked up from the blades, Cloud's gaze trailed down. It unwittingly landed on Sephiroth's hand, encased in a black glove. Looking at it, he was suddenly reminded of the ring and picture he had somehow found stowed away in his things. How it got there, he still didn't know. And why he was thinking about them now, he had even less of a clue. But nevertheless, as he looked at Sephiroth's hand he had to wonder if the man had the matching ring to the one he wore.

For whatever reason he couldn't fathom, Cloud had kept the ring on ever since he found it. He hadn't once taken it off. Somewhere along the way, he had gotten used to the weight of it on his finger. He supposed he was comfortable with it, accepting it as a part of himself. Even though it wasn't a part of him at all. He knew it had to have belonged to the other Cloud; why he had it now was beyond him. He didn't want to lose it though. It contained clues and answers to questions he probably didn't even think to ask yet.

If he had any intention of surviving this world and hopefully get back to his own, then he would need to hoard all the clues he could get, even if it was something so small and sentimental as a ring.

Feeling a gaze on him, Cloud looked up to see sharp feline eyes staring at him. As always, Sephiroth with that master poker face made it hard for him to decipher what it was he wanted. His eyes gave nothing away. His expression was calm and almost blank, with only a hint of being contemplative. His lips weren't even tipped into a smile or frown to give any indication to his mood. Staring back, Cloud was a little wary, not sure what to expect. Somehow he always seemed to be cautious around this man; habit was hard to break.

When nothing happened though, and the staring merely continued quietly, Cloud relaxed a little. He let himself openly observe all of the man's features. When his eyes settled on the man's lips, a brief flicker of memory made him recall that weird dream he had. The very same dream that JENOVA had played word games with him about. It had been so confusing, so frightening... he couldn't even understand why he felt that way. Whatever was going on, whatever happened, just made him scared shitless; all he wanted to do was get away from it all.

But instead of managing to run off, Sephiroth had foiled his plans. And the way he did it... Cloud could remember the kiss. It startled him then and still startled him now as he recalled what it felt like to lock lips with the man he had considered his enemy. That feeling... never before did he think himself capable.

Blue eyes meeting green, Cloud was aware that Sephiroth had not taken his eyes off him. The lasting stare once more made him a little wary, enough to defensively say, "What?"

"I should be asking you that myself," the man returned, unfazed.

A tilt of his brow gave way to a shadow of a frown on Cloud's face. He didn't respond right away, considering what he should say to the man now that he had his attention. Eventually, he decided it was probably best to just get straight to the point. "I need to speak with you." The sound of the airship doors opening made him pause and glance in Shera's direction. "In private," he added.

Sephiroth gave a small nod when he looked at him again. "I have something to discuss with you as well."

Oh, well perfect. Cloud nodded back before heading toward the airship to board it. Sephiroth followed at his heels, not one to be left behind, least of all by him. They entered into the ship and made their way toward the hanger. The crew and some of the other AVALANCHE members were there. Those that weren't there were probably with the evacuees of Junon as well as the Force members.

Rufus sat in a wheelchair, his wounds only partially healed. Some of his more serious wounds, like the one across his abdomen, was still open, only the worst of it Cured. It seemed the only people capable of using materia effectively were too tired to summon up enough energy to fix it all. At least the man wasn't in as terrible a condition as he was before, though he did sport a few bandages now for the time being.

"It's obvious that things have taken a nasty turn and we now have Headquarters demolished. Thankfully we were able to minimize the casualties; the number of dead is low, considering how easily JENOVA managed to catch us off guard. However, this means that we'll have to take a different route of action. Without our main network currently up and functioning, we will have a harder time gathering information and relaying it to our various parties.

"For now we will sent out a small party to catch up with the others, and make plans to transport the civilians to other cities and towns so that they can be safe. We'll distribute what left of the Force members we have to protect them, leaving only a necessary number with us. We will need to relocate..." he added, wincing slightly at the pang of pain in his abdomen. It wasn't a fun trip, being stabbed and tossed around like a rag doll. Being held captive to JENOVA had not only wounded him physically, but also wounded his pride. To think he actually didn't stand a chance against her... how pathetic.

And he couldn't even defend Headquarters from being invaded by a bunch of monsters! Sighing, Rufus shook his head slowly and turned his attention to Cid, giving him a small nod. The pilot returned to the helm and barked instructions to get the airship aloft. "Those going on the search party for the evacuees get ready to leave. Everyone else rest up while you can," Rufus added as he leaned back in the wheelchair and tried to relax. He was going to take his own advice too.

As the others shared a look, a silent agreement was passed between them. Zack took hold of the wheelchair handles and guided the President toward the hallway. "Time for your afternoon nap, Mr. President," he said with a little sing-song in his voice. "Nurse Zack Fair will be right by your side to take care of you."

The mutter of, "Oh great. Just kill me now," could be heard from the blond man as he was carted off. Zack laughed and just continued to take him away so he could peacefully rest and recover.

The rest of the group scattered to do their own thing, a couple of the AVALANCHE members and Force members splitting off together to leave the ship and rendezvous with the evacuees. When it came down to Cloud and Sephiroth, they went off as well. It was an opportune moment to actually talk about certain matters, since the only things they could really do was just wait until they arrived at their destination. There probably wasn't much time to speak about everything, but at least break the barrier.

Going to the room that Cloud was held hostage in when he first arrived here, Cloud sat upon the bed while Sephiroth took to a chair, a medical kit in hand. Just because the world was littered with materia didn't mean that was the only method for healing that they had. When energy was low or people didn't have materia on hand, knowing some first aid methods was essential. Especially to a solider. One couldn't always rely on having an extra boost to help them out.

They began to clean their own wounds, pouring alcohol in open cuts and using moist pads to wipe away as much dirt, blood, and other disgusting muck that still clung to their bodies. If they had a larger supply of water on hand, they would've just washed, but as it was, they couldn't waste the ship's water just to rinse out some grime. Cloud watched Sephiroth out of the corner of his eye, not quite sure how to start. It wasn't every day he held a conversation with the man. When he was back on his own world, the only time he was with Sephiroth was on the mission at Nibelheim, and even then the guy barely knew he existed. The only one he ever bothered to look at was Zack. But then again, it was hard to ignore a character like Zack.

And after that, the only time he saw the man again was when he was drowning in insanity, drunk on JENOVA's word and will. Cloud didn't really have any opportunity to start a proper conversation with him. Now that he had the chance, well, it was kinda hard. And this wasn't even the same Sephiroth to begin with!

If it weren't for the man taking off his glove, Cloud probably wouldn't have been able to think of a good opening line. Staring as Sephiroth slipped off his glove, he saw a flash of gold around his fourth finger. Cloud straightened up, his thumb coming around to rub at the base of his own ring finger. "That ring..."

Sephiroth looked up when he heard his voice. "What?"

Cloud's hand curled into a loose fist as if to hide the one he possessed. "You wear a ring. What's the story behind it?"

Green eyes slowly moved down to look at the fair skin of a large hand, trailing over knuckles until they came to the ring that was nestled at the base of his fourth finger. For a moment he didn't respond, merely looking at the band, but then he lifted his gaze again to look at Cloud. "The same story that's behind the one on your hand." When Cloud's hand tightened, Sephiroth held his out. "Let me see."

Cloud hesitated, not even sure why he did, and took off the glove on his hand. He reached for the ring and slipped it off, handing it over. Anxiety he couldn't explain crept up on him as Sephiroth held the ring and looked it over. The other man just looked at it a little longer before giving his back. Cloud slipped it back on his finger and sighed inwardly at the relief that washed over him.

When he looked back at Sephiroth, he became immediately aware that the man was staring at him. Had he noticed? Startled, he just stared back until the man finally broke the gaze and returned to cleaning himself up. "I don't know the exact relationship you had with the other me, though I can make a fair guesstimate, but here... the two of us were romantically involved. We met when he was still a cadet. Zack introduced us."

Somehow that didn't surprise him. Zack playing the unwitting matchmaker seemed like something he would do. Cloud pressed a cotton to one of his open wounds and let it soak up the blood. "The other me... what was it like for him?" It was weird asking questions about himself when they weren't really about him at all. Still, they were him at least to some degree. And wasn't it natural to want to know about oneself? Even from a different dimension? "Did he ever really become a General?"

Sephiroth glanced his way. "Yes. The youngest General of all of SOLDIER. They called him a prodigy."

"But he wasn't..."

"No. At least not in the way everyone thought he was. But he really was smart. And he adapted well. Without JENOVA's interference, he could've been 2nd or 1st Class like Zack."

Cloud felt a little wistful at that. To think that here the Strife of this world had been so much better off. He fulfilled the dreams that Cloud himself couldn't in his own world. Perhaps saying he was better off probably wasn't the best choice of wording, but at least in terms of career and the short-term, this world's Cloud Strife had it good. Too bad it didn't stay good.

Tossing a dirty cloth into the waste receptacle they had dragged over, Cloud winced as the motion sparked pain in his back. He hadn't really paid attention to it before, but his fight with JENOVA had left him with injuries he would have trouble treating on his own.

Glancing over his shoulder, he tried to look at the slash marks he knew to be on his back, his mako-enhanced blood only healing the wound by margins thanks to his tired state. Cursing under his breath, he made to take off his shirt. He couldn't just leave it like that, he had to try and dress his wounds as best as he could.

He managed to get his shirt off halfway before his body protested. He might've paused then if a pair of hands didn't help him get the shirt off the rest of the way. Looking up, he saw Sephiroth standing before him, that calm, neutral expression on his face as always. "...Thank you."

Sephiroth just tossed the shirt onto the bed before gesturing at Cloud to turn. "I'll clean your wounds and help you wrap them. You can ask whatever you want while I do so."

It wasn't quite a fair trade, but it was the sort of invitation that Cloud needed to continue with his curiosity. Hesitating for only a moment longer, he turned, baring his back to Sephiroth even though half of his screamed not to. Turning one's back on the enemy (even an old enemy) was dangerous and stupid. Yet Sephiroth merely sat behind him, showing no sign of hostility.

Cloud looked down at his leg folded before him. He leaned against it a little, absently plucking at the fabric and its new bloody dye. As his thoughts wound back to the topic they were on earlier, his eyes straying toward his hand once more, he managed to gather the courage to speak once more. "You... loved him."

It wasn't quite a question, nor a statement. Nevertheless, Sephiroth responded anyway. "Yes."

Cloud's brows drew together, his lips tipping into a frown. He remembered the look that Sephiroth had given him back in Kalm. He knew it wasn't a look meant for him, and probably wasn't a look Sephiroth meant to convey, but he couldn't erase it from his memory. As the puzzle pieces slowly fitted themselves together, he couldn't stop from wanting to wanting to finish what was started now that it had come this far.

"How? Why?"

Sephiroth, cleaning up Cloud's back, paused in thought even though his hands continued moving. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke. "He was the second person to understand me. And I was the second person to understand him. Zack was the one common link between us, at first the only common link, but his persistence to help out his comrades kept bringing us together. Zack wanted us to be more open and sociable. We learned of each other. We learned about each other. And as he climbed the ranks, we became closer."

He tossed the dirty swabs before taking the medicine and carefully spreading it along the gashes. Cloud drew in a breath at the sting of the medicine but otherwise didn't say a word or make a sound. He was an ex-SOLDIER; this was nothing.

"Becoming special projects to the Science Department of ShinRa company brought us even closer. Hojo saw how well Cloud reacted to the initial experiments and kept him around. Eventually, he started putting Cloud through JENOVA experiments. Cloud reacted better than Hojo could have hoped. We became his pets. There was a lot we could talk about."

Cloud lifted his head, looking over his shoulder at Sephiroth. "Both of you went through the same torture?"

Sephiroth looked at him, his expression unreadable. "Yes. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. We quickly became close after that." He returned his attention on Cloud's back. "Zack highly approved of our friendship, and encouraged our decision to take it further."

"Did other people know?"

"No. They knew we were comrades, both Generals of our time, but that was it. No one was aware we were involved. We didn't let anyone know aside from Zack."

Cloud gave a slight nod. He could understand why. Romance between two soldiers was frowned upon. Between two Generals was unheard of. And even if no one would ever really dare to question two of the strongest fighters being romantically involved, the announcement would bring forth too much attention and trouble. That was just asking for trouble.

"What about these rings?" he pressed when the thought crossed his mind. For the umpteenth time his eyes had strayed to his hand, his questions still unanswered up to this point.

Sephiroth looked at the band upon his finger for a moment before reaching over and picking up the gauze. "Lift your arms. Marriage between men isn't unheard of. But we didn't want anyone to know. We followed Zack to Aeris' church and promised ourselves to each other. Zack and Aeris were our witnesses."

Once Sephiroth was done tying the bandage off, Cloud shifted and turned to better face him. He looked at his hand and the silver ring on his finger. He looked over at Sephiroth's as well when the man held out his hand to let him look. They matched, identical to each other. "Does yours have writing on the inside?"

"Yes. We both had them inscribed." He didn't take the ring off to show Cloud, nor said anything to identify what it was that was written on the ring. Cloud didn't bother to ask, even if a part of him was curious to know the answer.

Strange as it might have sounded, he wanted to know what sort of life the other him lived. What sort of place did he really grow up in, what sort of people did he meet, what sort of friends did he have? Why did he fall for JENOVA's bribes? What made him so weak to her call? And why did she keep on insisting on taking him now even though he wasn't the same? Why was she so insistent on severing his ties with Sephiroth even while she kept dropping hints that pulled him in the man's direction?

Just what the hell was going on, and how exactly was he supposed to deal with it?

Cloud curled his hands into fists. He had to ask. Now that they had gotten into this conversation and Sephiroth seemed willing enough to talk with him, he couldn't waste the opportunity. "How did he change? Why did he change?"

Sephiroth shook his head. He took the gauze and wrapped up some of his wounds, most of them made when he was protecting Rufus. "I don't know why. But it happened when we were at Nibelheim. Going home did something to him. Ever since we entered the town... he changed. He couldn't handle going to the reactor. He lost himself, lost sight of everything around him. Whatever happened to him in the past caught up with him then. ...You know the rest."

Cloud recalled the lapse of memory, the footage and collected data of all the events post Nibelheim. All the main points had been captured from the eyes of AVALANCHE. It was like watching a film, experiencing the end of the world one more time. It had been a terrifying experience. Once was more than enough; twice, with a version of himself being the culprit of it all, was just too much.

Looking at Sephiroth, Cloud frowned. "I thought JENOVA was supposed to be defeated. Why is she still around?"

Sephiroth didn't have an answer for him. He simply met Cloud's gaze. "If we knew that, we might have known why you are here too. Your being here is a mystery. No one understands it." Aeris didn't know, Red didn't know, Vincent didn't know. No one knew. Gaea would not tell them what was going on.

This answer didn't settle nicely with Cloud. He frowned, saying nothing as his thoughts took a turn. Gaea had said to him that he was to help. How, he wasn't sure. The only thing he could think of was stopping JENOVA. But this JENOVA was different from the one he faced before. She had a craftiness to her, a personality he hadn't taken into account before. Never had she acted this way on his planet. She was more like a mindless, chaotic force. She never spoke to them before.

But the one on this world... she was intelligent. She communicated with her prey. She twisted words in a way that struck at weaknesses. She wasn't the best at persuasion, but to a weaker mind, she could probably easily manipulate them to work for her cause. It wasn't hypnotism, it was brainwashing. And Cloud, the other Cloud, had fallen for it.

She was trying to do it again, to pull him under, but Cloud wasn't going to let her. He wasn't that weak. He wouldn't fall for her tricks. The Sephiroth of his world had twisted him so well that Cloud knew how to resist it. Even if his barriers weren't the strongest in the world, and for that he felt inferior, at least he wasn't as weak as he was before. He would keep going forward.

"You're different."

Cloud looked at Sephiroth, not sure if he heard that right. "What?"

"Apart from the simple fact that you are from another world, you truly are different." When Cloud continued to stare, Sephiroth decided to elaborate for his sake. "Your mannerisms are different. Your thinking pattern is different. In many ways, you are stronger than your counterpart. Perhaps it was the hardships you had to face that made you this way."

Cloud blinked, not exactly sure how to respond to that. It was probably true; the journey he faced was what shaped him into the person he was today. Could he have done without the pain? Yes. But without it, without the trails and struggles, he wouldn't have made the special bonds with his comrades as he did. He wouldn't have developed into who he was. He supposed he could be grateful... in a way.

"You're the cause of that. The other you, anyway," he muttered, looking down at his hands. Upon this flesh were so many scars, some visible, others invisible. He had a mutilated soul, carved through and through over years of suffering. All because of Sephiroth.

"Do you hate me for it?"

Frowning, Cloud looked up at the Sephiroth before him, seeing both his enemy and a stranger. He wasn't entirely sure if the man meant to indicate himself or his other self. "Yes. And no. You're different from him. Whether I want to see it or not, it's obvious you're different. You... he turned my whole world upside down. Everything I did was because of him."

He clenched his hands as the memory welled up inside him, reminded of the journey he had to take. He never really explained himself more than once; he had done it at Kalm, telling a five year old story that actually affected ten years of his life. And now, he was telling it again, of his own volition. "I aspired to be like him. He was every boy's role model, every man's model son. I always thought of how... cool it would be to be in SOLDIER, to be a General like him. He brought me to Midgar and into the program. From there, he continued to be someone I hoped to be. When we finally had a mission together, I was so glad... even though I was nothing but a failure. I had high hopes. Yet when he started acting weird, when everything went to heck in Nibelheim, my dream shattered. Everything fell apart at that moment.

"And from there, my views changed. My mission changed. My life as I knew it no longer existed. I had to start fresh. I was lucky I ran into someone I knew. I was still lost. I didn't know what I was doing or where I was going. Too much of myself was missing. My meaningless life found purpose when people around me started getting involved with ShinRa. And once again, I found myself stuck with him. Everything that had to do with ShinRa, everything that had to do with SOLDIER, everything... it all came back to him. I was glued to his shadow. I was forced to chase after him, the only connection I had to that world, that time.

"Even if I didn't want to, I had to. I twisted myself into thinking all sorts of things, just to keep going. It was my duty; I could be a hero; everything would go back to how it was; my friends were involved, I had to protect them; this was my time to shine and make things right; Gaea was counting on me... The list went on and on. I forced myself to be hard as a rock, even though I was... scared... scared to death about the unknown that lay before me.

"One thing led to another. I'm sure you already know that. It all just fell apart. I managed to get myself together by the skin of my teeth and sometimes I still wonder..." Cloud shook his head. "I don't know if I really hate him because what he did was because of JENOVA's influence and Hojo's fault. He was no more a puppet to them than I was to him. And I realized I made inseparable bonds with people along the way. But... I kind of wish none of it ever happened. If there was a way to reset everything... I might do it. Might." He looked at Sephiroth steadily, his brows drawn together slightly.

So much had happened, not just for him, but for Sephiroth too. Cloud didn't understand this whole concept of parallel universes or worlds or alternate realities or whatever. Abstract concepts like that flew over his head even when Bugenhagen had the patience to tell it to him several times over. But there was no mistaking that the both of them had their stories to tell and their scars to bear. They both suffered. Even if the Sephiroth before him carried the shadow of the man whom Cloud had to kill in his own world, he couldn't quite dismiss that this Sephiroth was suffering too. There was no way he could ignore it and not see this place, no matter how similar, was different, and he couldn't just assume that whatever he knew from his own world would apply here as well. That meant the places, the events, especially the people. Especially the ones whom he considered very influential in his life.

Sephiroth looked at him quietly, merely meeting his gaze. There seemed to be a flicker of understanding between them, as if they came to the same conclusion. No matter how much their faces matched that of their enemies, they couldn't keep looking each other as such. They were two completely different people, and if they couldn't work with each other properly with this set in stone, then they might be doing more harm than good.

They couldn't keep each other at a distance. It just wasn't right.

But now they had to face a new question. How did they move on from here? Even if they both understood that they couldn't keep things as the way they were now, what were they to do different this time? How were they supposed to act now?

It was a little awkward sitting there just staring at each other, not entirely sure which step to take. Cloud couldn't think of anything to say, nor could he reason with himself to act when he didn't even know what to do. He struggled for an answer or hint but when it became clear that nothing would come his way, he gave up. Maybe now wasn't the time. Maybe their first step was simply talking to each other.

Looking for his shirt, he had thought to put it back on, but then paused when he saw what a mess it was. If he could, he would change his outfit, but now wasn't the time or place. He'd have to wait for a more suitable time. Paying the stains and tears no mind, he carefully put the shirt back on.

Sephiroth, seeing that they were putting the conversation on hold, got up. Even though he was in a less than perfect state, his moves were still graceful. Cloud watched the man move to gather up their trash and bundle it up for tossing. Over his shoulder, he stated, "I'll throw this away."

Sephiroth didn't give any hint that Cloud had to come with him or that he didn't trust him to be on his own. Even if it was safer to be together than it was to be apart, Sephiroth wasn't haunting his shadow like a raven. Could this had been a show of trust? Respect? Was it sign of that first step being taken? Cloud could almost say yes, it was. It was a start, however insignificant it seemed. Nodding, he watched the taller man leave.

As he stared at the doorway through which Sephiroth had walked, Cloud's thoughts wandered. He closed his eyes and sighed, feeling exhaustion from the recent events come crashing over him now that he had a minute to take it all in. If he had been in any way aware that his exhaustion wasn't completely from battle, he might have been more prepared for the sudden tug on his conscious that pulled him under.

-x-

It was dark. Despite this, Cloud could see around him. It was a strange sort of juxtaposition. He could see, yet there was nothing to see. Looking one way then another, he tried to get some sign of where he was. There was nothing.

Frowning, he stepped forward, carefully testing the invisible ground below his feet, and found it solid enough to walk upon. He wasn't sure what way was up and what way was down, but forward seemed like a good choice as any.

He walked and walked, but there didn't seem to be any end to his journey. Looking around once more, he tried to see if there was any sign or hint to go by, but nothing appeared. So he continued walking until he stopped one more time. He was getting nowhere.

Just when he thought he'd give up, something touched his hand. Startled, he turned toward the source, but found no one there. Confused, he looked around, but only darkness greeted him. Another touch came, this time at his wrist. It tugged lightly, as if someone was trying to lead him somewhere. He couldn't see anyone, but he followed the insistent tugging, going in the direction it bid him to.

Something fell over his eyes, invisible, yet it made him close his eyes anyway. He stayed that way until it felt as if the blindfold had been taken away. He opened his eyes to what looked like a cave of crystal and rock. Was he in a mountain? The crystal shone like Lifestream, hardened like paint upon the walls. There was a path that spiraled down.

Cloud followed it down, down, down until he came to the end. The path broke off in pieces, continuing to spiral down. Bracing himself, he jumped, taking one stone at a time as he continued to descend. Just before the last few, he stopped and looked at the platform that was there. Somehow, the rest of the mountain or cave had expanded, showing him a strange, colorful scenery that reminded him of the Northern Crater.

Hopping down the last few steps, he jumped onto the platform and looked around. There stood figures in white robes, their hoods pulled down low over their faces so that he couldn't identify them. White gloves covered their hands, white boots upon their feet.

They lined either side of the platform like statues lining a grand hall. They didn't move or show they acknowledged his presence. He walked past them, eying them carefully, but they did not move. Ahead, he saw a high chair, almost like a throne. It wasn't especially elaborate or comfortable, but something about how it was raised gave him the impression that it was designated for one person only. Someone of power. Great power.

He should've avoided it. He should've ignored it and kept looking around, but his feet brought him to the chair. He turned around and sat upon the crystal throne, his fingers wrapping around the arms of the chair. As soon as his back rested against the ice, the white-cloaked figures moved, gathering together at his feet.

They did not show their faces, but they knelt before him, prostrating themselves as if he were their king and they the knights in his honor. One of them lifted their head, looking at him from underneath the hood. "We have been waiting." One by one, the others lifted their heads, looking at him. "Waiting... Waiting..."

"It's been so long..."

"Too long..."

"Show..."

"Guide us..."

"Paradise..."

"To paradise..."

"Lord..."

"Lord..."

"Master..."

They repeated it over and over like a mantra. Master, Master, they murmured, their voices filling his head. They crowded closer, gathering more around him, surrounding him like starving animals to the one they knew who would feed them, mewling their wishes and wants.

Cloud's grip on the arms of the chair tightened, not sure what to do. This confused him. Frightened him. What was going on? They came closer and closer, until they were a mere breath away from his seat. One reached out, a white glove coming toward him. In a panic, he lashed out, pushing the hand away. He stood up abruptly, shoving them away from him. They tumbled, dashed to the floor. One of them fell over another. Their hood slipped, pushing back from their head.

He watched, eyes riveted on the cloaked figure as the hood slipped further and further, until it revealed a flash of red hair and a face he could never forget.

-x-

Cloud gasped as he was jostled out of the dream, opening his eyes to stare up at the ceiling of the room. He had somehow went from a sitting position to a lying position, half sprawled on the bed in a haphazard manner. There was a presence next to him, drawing his eyes to the side to see Sephiroth sitting at the edge of the bed, looking at him.

How many times now did he find himself on his back, with Sephiroth watching him? Grimacing slightly, Cloud pushed up into a sitting position, ignoring the spark of pain from his back as it protested at the movement. When he looked to meet Sephiroth's gaze, the man lifted a brow. It was a silent question.

Even if Sephiroth didn't ask, Cloud felt the urge to say it anyway. That dream, vision, or whatever it was... that place, those people... that face... How could he have not asked this question before? How could he not have been curious? Wouldn't it have been the most obvious thing to ask? Wouldn't it have been one of the most easy things to notice?

"What happened to the Turks?"

Sephiroth's brows went up, the slight twitch to his eye giving away his surprise. Cloud knew his question had caught the man off guard but he didn't take back what he said. Somehow it felt important that he knew the truth. He had to make sure.

Sephiroth let out a soft breath that almost sounded like a sigh. "During the attack on Midgar, there were a lot of casualties. Many people died, including some of the Turks. Some of those that survived are still with us in Force."

"But there are some who aren't." It wasn't a question, and really, it didn't need a clarification. But Cloud wanted one anyway.

Green eyes looked at him steadily. "...Yes."

Cloud cursed inwardly. He knew, even before he had asked, whose face he had seen. But he wasn't sure. He wasn't completely certain. Now he knew. Reno... Reno was wearing a white cloak. He had been made into a puppet.

But what about the others? Where were they? Who had survived? Who had died? Who else was a White Cloak? Who made it into Force? And why didn't he see them? He hadn't seen a Turk anywhere. "Where are the ones in Force?"

"They work in different towns and areas as leaders of their teams. They hardly ever visit Junon." They were the eyes and hands of Rufus in places he couldn't personally reach. Protecting where they could, however they could, as the only fighting force against whatever beast or evil cropped up.

"Who is in it?" Cloud couldn't remember everyone from the Department of Administrative Research, but there were a few key names that he could recall. Faces he couldn't forget. There was no definite reason why he wanted to know, but somehow it seemed important to figure out where they went.

"Rekis, Dahni, Elena, Shodun, Tseng, Ami."

Cloud didn't recognize half of those names, but he did catch Elena and Tseng. That meant they were alive. He knew where Reno ended up, but his notorious partner was nowhere. This caught Cloud's attention. "And Rude?"

Sephiroth might not have understood how he made this leap in connection but he supplied an answer nonetheless. "Dead." A simple answer at that, which should've stopped all further questions, only sparked more. Cloud wanted to ask how, when, all the basics, but he refrained. There were so many possibilities, so many gruesome outcomes, that he wouldn't dare. Who knew what mine would blow up if he did. Flippant talk of the dead wasn't wise after all.

Pulling his lips into a line, Cloud was quiet for a long moment. There was still so much to ask, still so much to learn. It had come back to him, that he was here for a purpose, and one way to take care of it was to learn of his environment. Everyone had been patient enough to provide him answers when he looked curious enough, but had he really taken advantage of their knowledge and learned what he really needed to know about this place and the people he now found himself involved with? Did he really know what he was doing?

Looking at Sephiroth again, Cloud inwardly shook his head. He had been much the fool, taking for granted this and that, avoiding the most important part - the most important person - of all. "...You said earlier you wanted to talk about something?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "You answered my questions already." Cloud blinked at him then, unaware where or when he had done such a thing. Sephiroth didn't clarify or elaborate, leaving Cloud to simply look on and wonder. It was kinda strange, being able to be at ease with Sephiroth now that they were talking to each other. Cloud never thought that the day would come when he could speak with his hero - or at least his counterpart - one on one, on equal standing. As if they were comrades.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." Sephiroth pulled his hair over his shoulder to inspect the fabric and flesh underneath, turning his head to see if there was anything in need of further inspection or tending. The gesture seemed so normal, so human, that Cloud almost laughed under his breath.

"It's strange," he murmured.

"What is?" Green eyes looked back at him, meeting his gaze.

"Talking with you. Like this."

Sephiroth glanced away for a moment. "Yes... it is."

"In one world, we're enemies. In another, we're lovers yet still fated to fight on opposing sides. Is there another world out there, where we're friends? And remain as such?"

Cloud didn't really expect an answer. It was rhetorical, a mere blathering thought he didn't really mean to let slip. Nevertheless, Sephiroth replied, "Maybe. If it's possible for us to be on either extreme, somewhere in the middle could be likely too." The two men looked at each other then, holding gazes. "In another world. Or right here."

Neither looked away. Cloud heavily considered the possibility. What would it be like to be on the same level as Sephiroth? What would it be like to talk to him as a man, not a monster? What would it be like to get along with him, maybe even like him for a whole new reason other than as an idol? What would that life be like? What could become of them? Would it be like with Zack? Could Cloud be honored with another close friend and comrade, irreplaceable, impressive, immortal in his heart?

He held out his hand, still not looking away. Sephiroth reached out and slipped his hand in his, grasping it. Cloud returned the pressure, the warmth and pressure coming from the other man giving him a sense of comfort and hope. Yes. It was possible.

-x-

Note: This seems like a good place to stop. It's all warm and fuzzy. By the way, every time I think about it I wish I made Seph's ring as white gold instead of silver. Gold and white gold are a better match. Bah. Oh well. It still looks silver. (awkward side glance) On another note, the unfamiliar names I used for the Turks are made up. As far as I know, BC doesn't reveal any real names for the Turks. Okiedokie? And no, they don't really hold any significance.

That's all I have to say. Thanks for sticking with me up till now. Look forward to the next chapter! (09/19/2010)