Cloud frowned as he recognised the sound of the shots that woke him, Vincent's Death Penalty sounded unique, and he'd had time to memorise the sound during their hunt for Sephiroth, even if he hadn't really had good enough ears to recognise it over more than a few hundred metres until he'd been changed. It wasn't logical, but somehow he knew that Vincent was in trouble. He glanced over at his mate, noting the startled look on his face and took down the ward he'd used to keep Sephiroth here, where he would be safe while Cloud slept.

"Cloud? You were only asleep for ten minutes."

"One of my friends is in trouble, we need to get there." Except... "Or I do, you could stay here behind a ward if you'd rather." Cloud grabbed his sword as he spoke, anything else would just slow him down. "I know you have no reason to help my friends."

"Except that they matter to you." Sephiroth had his own sword on him already, and Cloud could see that he was willing to come help, so he swiftly cast a spell that would let his mate keep up with him, and grabbed his hand to feed the energy to maintain the spell into him. He was aware of all the monsters they passed by, but they were moving so fast that he knew the landscape around them was blurred for his mate, from previous comments, and so there was no way anything could delay them.

Vincent was running out of ammunition just as they arrived, and even if Cloud knew he could resort to using one of his demons to survive, mostly Chaos by now, he also knew that his friend didn't want to lose control over himself like that. Just before Cloud released his mate to attack Vincent was cut open across his stomach when he switched to using his claw. Cloud cursed, and tossed his mate to land beside Vincent, calling up a ward around them, and letting the flaring Lifestream fry the monsters that contacted the ward, leaving the few left inside the ward for Sephiroth to deal with.

Then he attacked the monsters himself, throwing spells and the sections of his sword at them to kill them from a distance, and retrieving the thrown sections to reassemble his sword as he ran through the battle, before turning back to wade in and fight hand-to-hand. He lost track of time in the fighting, and only the fact that his mate was watching, letting his admiration and lust filter through their bond kept him from reverting to his feral state with the excitement of the battle.

Finally there was nothing living outside the ward guarding his mate but him, and he pulled the ward down, walking over to check that his mate was unharmed - and that his friend wasn't too badly damaged either. Sephiroth looked well enough, a few minor scratches, nothing more, and he was crouched over Vincent, one hand laid underneath Vincent's shirt, against his stomach. He looked up and stood, walking over to Cloud and bending to lick lightly at his lower lip, and that was enough to calm the jealousy that had started to rage inside him.

"I managed to heal your friend, but he'd tried to hide the extent of his injury. Might I ask if that is normal for him Cloud?" The submissive greeting had calmed Cloud's jealousy, and his lover's question had engaged his mind, he hugged Sephiroth in gratitude for the way he'd helped to keep Cloud grounded in his humanity.

"He heals a little faster than you do naturally, and he's always afraid that one of his demonic aspects will emerge. He keeps too tight a rein on them for that, but he's still afraid of it, so he normally tended to his own wounds."

"Oh." Sephiroth dropped his eyes, looking almost ashamed, not that Cloud understood why. "But he hadn't done anything to heal himself when I'd finished with the monsters within the ward. And he didn't ask me to lend him a Restore either. I found it easier to assess the state of his wound by touch, since he wasn't willing to let me expose enough of his skin to see it."

"You did well Sephiroth. Vincent, I can see you want to ask us questions, come with us, you can stay at my home and have some more ammunition delivered there. We'll answer your questions then."

"Thank you Cloud." He was obviously containing his questions to ask later.

xx0xx

"Are you hungry Vincent?" Cloud valued the man and he was a fellow victim of Hojo, and that was all Sephiroth needed to know. He looked surprised at the implication that Sephiroth would be doing the cooking, and Sephiroth couldn't blame him, he'd learned how to cook properly in pure self-defence after he'd been given to Cloud again. His new master was as likely to eat his meat raw as to cook it, and he'd lost the skill he'd once had at cooking, now the closest he came to actually cooking was to roast his latest kill with a Fire spell before picking pieces off it to share with Sephiroth.

"Yes, could you do a stir fry with rice please?" The man had an odd sort of smile on his face, almost as if Vincent thought there was something inappropriate about his request, although he couldn't see what. That was one of the simpler meals to cook, and he used variations on it a lot, especially since it was so quick to cook once everything was cut up.

"Of course. It shouldn't take more than about half an hour." Sephiroth retreated to the kitchen, he knew that Cloud would want to speak with Vincent alone, and they'd hunted him together before the second time Cloud had killed him while his 'mother' controlled him. He set the rice up to cook first, then began cutting up the meat and vegetables before he could start cooking them, the last part was pouring the rice into the wok and adding a couple of beaten eggs with soy sauce, since he hadn't bothered with any sort of sauce. Once everything was finished he arranged the three plates on a tray and began carrying it through to the room where he could sense Cloud's presence.

"...what your disappearance has done to Tifa? And now I find you living here with him?" Vincent wasn't shouting, but his quietly venomous words seemed more menacing than any shout could, and Sephiroth could sense Cloud's rising frustration edging over to anger.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but our meal is ready, and we should eat while it's hot." He knelt to set the tray on the floor, carefully not looking at the gunman or at Cloud, trying to avoid letting Vincent know that his words had been overheard.

"Thank you Sephiroth. Vincent, if you are so worried about Tifa then you can bring her to visit, with one other person, but I don't want to deal with more than three of my old friends visiting at a time." He leaned over and kissed Sephiroth gently before he stood, picking up his plate and chopsticks - the plate with more meat and less rice than the other two had. "I'll be eating in my bedroom."

Vincent looked almost insulted by Cloud's departure and as he started to eat Sephiroth tried to change that.

"Please, don't complain. He left because there's some things you need to know, and because he needs to rest."

"Because of the energy he used to help me?" There was a hint of disbelief in Vincent's voice, but his assumption would work well enough, and there was some truth in it.

"He used more energy actually getting the two of us there in time to help, it took a spell he had to feed energy into the entire time to let me keep up with him. And your shots and need woke him after he'd only been asleep for ten minutes." Which was equivalent to about three hours for a normal human, but he didn't need to know that. "I was restored to life because Cloud is...less stable...mentally than he once was, and to keep me from Jenova's influence. Please do not attack him like you were just now again. He is a lot more powerful than he used to be, and if he lost control..."

"You're afraid he'd attack first and think later. And you don't think I could defend myself against him." Vincent's voice was flat, slightly angry, and Sephiroth looked down at his meal to avoid his eyes.

"Not without being injured, and you would probably need the aid of one of your demons. My master has told me how much you dislike them, and besides a demon would probably mean the two of you would destroy our home in your fight." His words seemed to mollify Vincent.

"I see. You cook well."

"Thank you, but really I should have left the rice to cool before frying it."

xx0xx

"Marlene. How is Tifa doing?" The young woman had taken over more and more of 'Tifa watch' duty as she grew older, especially since they'd found out that Denzel was just as devoted to the idea that Cloud hadn't died when he disappeared while he was off making a delivery as she was. They'd actually found him setting off to 'look for Cloud' the first time they assigned him to keep Tifa from continuing her foolish quest - when he was twelve - and so now Vincent and Barret usually got reports from Marlene on how much her obsession with finding Cloud was affecting her.

"Stable at the moment, she hasn't tried to persuade me that Cloud simply can't die again for almost a week." Vincent flinched at that, they'd all accepted that Cloud must have died within a year of his disappearance, after all they'd killed Dr. Hojo and none of them could believe he would just refuse to contact them. "What is it that you wanted to tell her?" He'd called ahead to let everyone know that he had news, but Vincent wasn't sure who would be here, Barret would for certain, and probably Yuffie, but everyone else had responsibilities of some sort and might not be able to take the time off at such short notice.

"I'll tell you when I tell everyone else. How many of us managed to get here?"

"Most of the old AVALANCHE, Reeve and Nanaki couldn't come, but everyone else got here. You said it was important."

"And it is. Can you close the bar and get everyone together so I can tell you all what I found?"

"Give me half an hour, then we can meet in the bar." It was early enough that Tifa wouldn't be losing much in the way of business at least.

"Thank you." Vincent still wasn't sure how he'd go about telling everyone that Cloud was still alive, and living with Sephiroth, but they had to know - what if the General went crazy again? Would Cloud even bother to stop him destroying the world? Admittedly Sephiroth hadn't acted anything like the way he did while they were hunting him, he'd been oddly deferential to Cloud, and by extension to Vincent, but still...he'd reportedly been ShinRa's perfect obedient weapon before he destroyed Nibelheim.

"The bar's closed down now Vincent." Marlene never had fully outgrown her pre-pubescent crush on him, it wasn't anything obvious, but she'd have just shouted for anyone else, not come to tell them that the bar was empty in person.

"Thank you. Is Denzel here? I expect he'll be interested as well."

"He's upstairs I think. I'll go get him." Vincent thanked her again, and made his way through to the bar, waiting to see who noticed him first - he wasn't making any special effort at stealth, but...

"So, what did you have to tell us Vincent?" He wasn't sure if Marlene had actually noticed him as she dragged Denzel in with her, or just assumed he was there, but he sat down and began to speak.

"It's about Cloud. Tifa was right, he didn't die." Vincent paused, waiting for everyone to react to that announcement.

"He what?"

"I knew it! And you didn't believe me!"

"But...why wouldn't he come back to us?" Vincent couldn't determine everything the others said, but Marlene's question was the most relevant.

"I don't know exactly why he hasn't returned, but it might have something to do with who he's living with. I found out that he was alive when he and Sephiroth helped me deal with some monsters."

"Sephiroth!"

"That bastard's alive again?"

"How many times does he have to die!"

"He's kidnapped Cloud, we have to rescue him!" Vincent waited until everyone had quieted down a little before intervening.

"Cloud seemed to be in charge, and he invited me to return with Tifa and one other person. He seems to have got much more powerful - he doesn't use materia to cast spells for one thing - and Sephiroth seemed a lot saner, so perhaps we should follow his rules." That sparked a long debate, but eventually he managed to get everyone to agree. The only question then was who else would go with him to visit Cloud. Tifa was determined not to let any other women come with them, Vincent suspected she saw them as rivals for Cloud, even though he knew Cloud preferred men, and when he pointed out that they'd be allowed to visit later Barret was the only one who insisted on coming this time.

xx0xx

Cloud frowned at Tifa's request to eat with him privately, but he supposed it wasn't really a problem, and he was pretty sure he could trust Vincent at least with his mate. Besides, he was pretty sure his lover needed to sleep for a while.

"Very well. Sephiroth, I think you need to get some sleep, since I'm planning on keeping you up all night when I get back." Tifa was telling Barret and Vincent to make sure Sephiroth didn't interfere in her dinner with him as he spoke, but Cloud ignored that, leading his lover to one of the 'nests' they kept scattered all over the floor. "Vincent, make sure Sephiroth is safe while he sleeps." Cloud wasn't too confident that Barret wouldn't decide to kill Sephiroth as he slept 'to protect the world', even if that act was more likely to make Cloud decide to destroy the world to avenge him.

"If you think I need to then I will Cloud."

"Thank you Vincent. Go to sleep Sephiroth, unless you learn that you are needed." They'd found out that Sephiroth had to obey any orders Cloud gave him, as long as it wouldn't physically damage him, even if it was something beyond his conscious control, unless it would interfere with the duties Aeris and Zack had assigned him on behalf of the Planet. "I take it you'd rather I wore something a bit less...casual than this?" He gestured to the battered leathers he wore on a day to day basis, making an obvious comparison to her own surprisingly fancy dress.

"Yes, if you've got anything different." Cloud laughed at that, thinking of how sometimes his mate would ask Cloud to take him out publicly, somewhere fancy, and disguise himself as a woman to avoid being recognised. He left her waiting, and changed into a suit made of a material that looked black, except for a dark purple sheen where it caught the light. Tifa gasped in surprise at that, but she seemed to like the way he looked in it, and Sephiroth certainly did - he'd been the one to specify the design when Cloud had decided to have some suits custom made for him, along with some dresses for his lover.

"Shall we go then?" He made sure to offer his arm to her, the way he did to Sephiroth when they were out on one of their dates.

Apparently she'd arranged for them to eat together in one of the bedrooms at the village inn, he assumed because she hadn't been certain he'd have enough beds to put the three of them in - even though that had been part of the reason he'd limited his visitors to three at a time. They had three beds, one they usually shared, and one each if Cloud or Sephiroth wanted to sleep alone for some reason, but the both of them were perfectly comfortable sleeping in their 'nests', and he didn't think their visitors would be.

Cloud ignored the looks he was getting as he walked with Tifa, he liked it that the people valued his mate and were worried that he might be mistreating Sephiroth, it meant that he had a support network if he ever needed it. He seated Tifa at the table and watched as she had their meal delivered, a simple steak with peppers and onions as a side dish. He'd expected a meal she'd wanted to dress up for to include a starter of some sort, but that didn't really matter.

There was an odd taste to the steak, not something he recognised, and he ate here often enough to know what the cook normally did, so that people wouldn't be afraid of Sephiroth, or of him. When he mentioned that to Tifa she smiled.

"Do you like it? It's a special marinade I brought here." Cloud didn't want to upset her, so he changed the subject, but he could feel his control slipping away from him, and when she came around the table to kiss him he realised she'd been trying to take him from his mate. His fury forced the arousal he felt into the back of his mind and he began to deal with this interloper. A swift blow to the neck, not too hard, and then he began dealing with the interloper properly, enjoying the muffled sounds of pain she made.

Then he heard and felt his mate's need, and dropped the interloper as no longer important, taking him to the raised soft place when he protested renewing his claim in the interloper's blood.

xx0xx

Sephiroth was pulled from his sleep as he felt his lover's mind slip into its feral state, the mixture of fury and arousal he could sense through their link making adrenaline surge sympathetically through his own body.

"She's done something stupid, I don't know what, but I have to stop Cloud. You'd best get Tifa out of the way once I distract him, and arrange to have some meat heavy meal, with enough for two delivered as well, to calm him down." Sephiroth spoke to Vincent, the pale skinned man had seemed the more reasonable of the two that woman had ordered to keep him occupied while she was with his mate, and apparently the urgency in his voice got through to him, since he kept the dark skinned man from trying to stop him. It might have helped that Sephiroth left Masamune behind, but he knew the sword wouldn't be any help, would probably endanger him.

He didn't know where that woman had taken Cloud, but it didn't matter, he could sense the man just as he'd once been able to sense Jenova, the mother who'd planned to use him and throw him away. Only he knew Cloud would never throw him away, and so he ran to find him, and keep him from killing the woman he'd seemed to care for.

No one stopped him when he ran into the village inn, the locals all knew about his role in keeping their volatile protector stable and they weren't going to interfere when he wasn't even carrying his sword. Cloud wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms, as much a blessing as a curse, because from the bloody satisfaction coming down their link he was doing something that would have made someone try to intervene if they'd seen it. Sephiroth ran up the stairs seeking the sense of his lover's mind...except he didn't need to, he could smell the scent of blood from the hallway and he froze for a second as he caught sight of what had been hidden behind the door he threw open.

His mate had been systematically beating the dark haired woman to death, he'd obviously done something to keep her from speaking first, and now he glanced over at Sephiroth before dismissing him, and returning to what he'd been doing. Sephiroth swallowed, and focused on the burning, artificial arousal he could feel through their link, drawing it into himself and making it own, opening himself to the instincts the Planet had instilled in him to make him more acceptable to its Chosen.

He dropped his coat and belts on the floor as he stepped over to Cloud, kneeling just out of the way, and reaching up to tentatively touch his arm.

"Please Cloud...I need you." Cloud immediately dropped the woman, and turned to him, pulling him to his feet by the hair and bending him over backwards to kiss, tearing at his pants and literally tearing them off his body. His instincts told him to enjoy it, to purr in pleasure, when Cloud dumped him in the pool of blood from the interloper, but he forced himself to whine instead, letting a hint of fear enter his voice and scramble awkwardly away, remembering that he had to distract Cloud properly. But he froze when Cloud growled and whimpered in now-genuine fear, fear that he'd displeased his lover enough that he might demand Sephiroth accept another in their bed, that he'd failed in the task he'd been set. But Cloud seemed appeased, picking him up and tossing him over to a bed he hadn't noticed against one wall and following him, ripping his own clothes off as he did, lifting one of Sephiroth's legs and pushing into him, biting him at the base of the throat to keep him still.

Sephiroth knew better than to do anything now, not until Cloud released the grip on his throat, so he just lay back, enjoying it, and thanking Zack and Aeris for making sure he was equipped to take this safely. He'd been brought back less human than he had been before Nibelheim, but at least this time he knew he'd stay as he was, not change further, he would keep his mind, and his master now was far kinder than his 'mother' had been. He noticed Vincent entering the room first, pulling out a green materia when he saw Tifa's condition, looking at him with shock in his eyes and knew he had to warn the man.

"Get her out of here first. Cloud will take that as a threat." Sephiroth wrapped his arms and raised leg around his lover desperately, purring in the back of his throat, and lifting his hips as best he could to spur his mate to greater efforts.

xx0xx

Vincent couldn't believe what he was seeing, Cloud was fucking, almost raping, Sephiroth while Tifa lay bleeding to death on the floor beside the bed. He was just grateful Barret hadn't been able to keep up with him, the big man wouldn't be able to think rationally about this, and healing Tifa came first. He'd grabbed a mastered Restore before they left, and pulled it out now, slotting it into his gun when he heard Sephiroth's voice.

"Get her out of here first. Cloud will take that as a threat." And then the silver haired man started encouraging Cloud, distracting him so Vincent could get Tifa out of there. He pulled her into the hallway, and began casting Cure3 after Cure3, trying desperately to keep her breathing. She'd stabilised a bit by the time Barret arrived, still unconscious, but she wasn't in any danger of dying, and he had a feeling it would be better to just leave her unconscious for a while.

"Go order a meal, enough for two and heavy on the meat, have it delivered to that room, and get another room here for the night." Barret seemed to accept his leadership, but he was fuming and claiming that Sephiroth was the one who'd done that to Tifa, except Vincent didn't quite believe that. The ex-General wouldn't have had time to do that much damage, and Vincent wasn't sure he wanted Barret to know how much damage there'd been.

"What did she do to set him off?"

"You're blaming her? That insane bastard-"

"Barret, please, we need their help to care for Tifa." Vincent managed to calm the other man, even if he couldn't quite believe it had worked, and then he turned to the girl standing there. "I don't know what happened, but we need to get her into a room where she can sleep. I've fixed most of the damage, but I don't think you want her awake for a while."

"No, she's lucky the Consort was able to stop the Chosen, and stupid to try to get between them." The woman's voice was stony, but there'd been awe in her voice when she gave the two SOLDIERs those titles, awe, and worship when she used Cloud's title. "We started preparing something to calm the Chosen when we saw the Consort running through without his weapon. It should be ready by the time you get her settled." Barret was bristling at the contemptuous tone in the woman's voice, and Vincent could tell that if she was typical the locals considered it Tifa's own fault she was nearly beaten to death by Cloud. He let the other man pick her up, better to have him encumbered instead of being encumbered himself, and they followed the woman into the room she chose.

Barret looked torn, Vincent couldn't blame him.

"Can you stay here, in case someone else attacks Tifa? Cast Sleepel on her if she wakes up, I don't want her interrupting."

"I don't have a Seal materia on me." And neither did Vincent.

"Well, keep her here then, I don't want to risk her setting Cloud off again."

"You think Cloud...?"

"If it had been Sephiroth attacking her I don't think Cloud would have stopped him by fucking him." Vincent turned and left then, watching as the woman from before cautiously opened the door to the room Tifa'd rented, kneeling and pushing two plates heaped with stir-fried pieces of meat, with much less vegetables and some rice in without actually entering the room herself. He found such obvious fear maddening, and he stepped into the room himself, picking up the plates and moving forward, towards the table.

"He won't eat anything from there, not in his current state." Cloud had apparently finished fucking Sephiroth, but he still had their one-time enemy pinned underneath his body on the bed. "Just put the plates in arm's reach. But try not to get close enough to touch him yourself." Since Sephiroth seemed to understand what was going on with Cloud better than anyone else Vincent followed his advice, kneeling on the floor and pushing the plates to where Cloud would be able to reach them.

"Will that be acceptable?"

"Yes, but...you'd do better to back away a bit more." He didn't get the chance to obey, because a barrier of magic sprung up in front of him, and expanded, pushing him away from Cloud and Sephiroth. Only then did Cloud sit up and reach for a plate, eating a little bit of what was on the plate cautiously, then speeding up, pausing every now and then to feed a piece of meat, or some rice, to Sephiroth, still lying where Cloud had put him. Once he'd made his way through both plates Cloud put them down and lay down on top of Sephiroth, then proceeded to go to sleep.

"He'll wake up in half an hour or so and he'll be coherent then. We'll explain things when you tell us what Tifa did." With that Sephiroth shut his eyes to sleep himself.

xx0xx

Cloud woke up slowly, enjoying the feel of his mate lying beneath him. He wasn't sure what he'd done when Tifa's drugs and advances had pushed him to feral rage, but Sephiroth didn't smell like he'd been hurt, and he'd put a shield up to keep his fragile mate safe as they ate, and while he slept the meal off.

"Did I hurt you love?"

"No, Cloud, you've never hurt me, I'm your mate, you would never hurt your mate, I know that." Except he had hurt his lover before, early on in their relationship, when he didn't realise how fragile Sephiroth was compared to him, and even now he sometimes lost control in sparring and hurt him more than he meant to. It seemed at times like he treated Sephiroth better when he was feral than he did when he was thinking like himself, but Sephiroth didn't seem to care.

"I suppose they'll be demanding explanations." He didn't want to give his one-time friends any explanations, he wasn't entirely convinced they had the right to any explanations, but they wouldn't go away unless he gave them something.

"Yes Cloud, but...I think you'll have to call Aeris and Zack to speak to make them understand even a little bit. And...I told them that they weren't going to get any information from us until they told us what Tifa did."

"Well done, but I want a bit more than that from them. I want Tifa to confess what she did, in front of her friends, and apologise, to me, and to you. I know you're scared of losing me, and I swear you never will." Cloud hated what Zack and Aeris had done to the other man, even if he knew binding Sephiroth to dependence on him was the only way to keep Jenova from ever being able to use him again. And he knew that the binding was the only thing keeping him even as sane as he was now, without Sephiroth, without his mate he'd probably spend most of his life in a feral state, and kill everyone and everything that even slightly inconvenienced him. He knew he'd killed hundreds of people between the time the Planet changed him, and the time it gave Sephiroth to him in apology for hurting him, even if he'd resigned himself to never knowing exactly what he'd done.

"Thank you Cloud." And the sheer gratitude in Sephiroth's voice hurt, because it told Cloud that his lover didn't think he deserved Cloud's love, not after everything that had happened. "You woke up earlier than I expected, do you want to..." He trailed off, blushing, and wriggled beneath Cloud, keeping him from thinking properly, so instead he began to kiss his way down Sephiroth's body, until he could take his lover into his mouth. He knew how arousal affected Sephiroth, making him wet and ready in a way it hadn't before, but he still slid a finger carefully inside him, stretching him as he suckled on him.

"You...don't...need to...ahhh...do that."

"I know, but I like to." Still, he'd stretched Sephiroth enough by now, and he pulled back, rolling off Sephiroth and onto his back. "Ride me love." He liked to give Sephiroth as much control as he could when he was sane, because he knew what he did when he wasn't sane was damn near rape, but Sephiroth didn't seem to care about that. And there was something in the way his lover straddled him, moving above him, a certain reluctance that always made Cloud forget his good intentions, and take hold of his lover, forcing him to move for Cloud's pleasure instead of the slow teasing he usually used. But Sephiroth was virtually purring with pleasure at that, and by the time Vincent came to look in on them he was lying limply across Cloud's chest.

"Cloud? Are you..." He trailed off, as if he didn't know what to ask, so Cloud didn't make him fumble for words.

"Sane? Yes, at the moment. Sephiroth has informed you of his conditions for any explanation of our behaviour. Now let me tell you mine. I want Tifa to confess precisely what she tried to do to me, in front of the both of us, with you two as witnesses. And then I want her to apologise, to me for what she tried to do, and to Sephiroth for her accusations and for trying to separate us permanently." He didn't give Vincent the chance to protest. "Go, so that my mate can get dressed. When you've satisfied my conditions you'll find us at our house." It was a simple matter for Sephiroth to use a Restore materia to fix his leathers, and Cloud took the Ultima Weapon from where he'd left it in a corner of the room to guard him on their way home.

xx0xx

Vincent was coldly furious with Tifa, Sephiroth had made a point of warning them to be careful not to set any strong emotions off in Cloud, and she went and tried to rape him. Oh, she hadn't described it that way, but Barret had been horrified to learn that she'd drugged Cloud before making advances on him, and now he'd agreed that Sephiroth wasn't any danger to Cloud. It had probably helped that Vincent had described the way he found Cloud virtually raping Sephiroth when he came to get Tifa, and how Cloud could apparently now cast spells without the use of materia. It seemed the way Sephiroth had ran out after Cloud without his sword, or anything beyond the materia in his hair had helped his case too, especially when Vincent pointed out that Cloud couldn't have been in any danger.

"I can't believe you'd do that Tifa. You're not the woman I used to know." Vincent noticed that those simple words had more of an effect on her than anything he could have said.

"Cloud refuses to explain what happened to him unless you confess to what you've done, and apologise, to him and to Sephiroth."

"What for? I haven't done anything to that monster." This was the woman who'd spent so much time persuading Vincent that he wasn't a monster, now he wasn't sure he could even really recognise her.

"You accused him of kidnapping and raping Cloud, and then you tried to take Cloud away from him, by raping Cloud yourself. And you owe him thanks for saving your life. I wouldn't have been able to keep Cloud from killing you, Sephiroth distracted him so I could get you away from him."

"Cloud wouldn't have killed me." Vincent exchanged glances with Barret, he could see that the other man couldn't believe the extent of Tifa's self-delusion either. "Sephiroth must have been influencing him to do that, remember he's done that before?" And now it almost looked as if Barret was beginning to be swayed.

"Sephiroth was curled up sleeping until he woke up saying that you'd done something stupid and he had to stop Cloud. He doesn't expect you to thank him, he didn't even expect an apology. But you will apologise, or I'll tell Sephiroth to just let Cloud kill you next time you do something that insane. And Cloud will probably back me up on that."

"He wouldn't!" Barret wasn't buying that either.

"Look Tifa, if you love Cloud you want to make him happy right? And you've been waiting all these years to find out what happened to him. Is apologising to Sephiroth such a high price to pay to make him happy and find out why he's been hiding for so long?" Vincent hadn't thought about appealing to her that way, and he looked at Barret with respect.

"No...no it isn't. You're right, I'll apologise, and...I'll even thank Sephiroth for stopping Cloud."

"Thank you for being so reasonable Tifa." Even if Vincent didn't think she was being reasonable she would probably react better to praise, and perhaps she'd live up to his perceived expectations. "Should we go now then?"

"Yes, lets." Tifa sounded eager. Did she really think there was any chance that Cloud would be willing to come back 'home' with her? He'd always been at least a little obsessed with Sephiroth, and even though Vincent had thought it was simply hatred while they were hunting him it was beginning to seem as if Cloud had loved Sephiroth, even though he'd had to kill him. And even if he had hated Sephiroth, a quiet voice whispered in Vincent's mind, wouldn't he find this a wonderful form of revenge? Having his old enemy so totally subservient to him, clearly so much weaker that he couldn't ever dream of fighting Cloud to distract him from killing someone, just of spreading his legs and submitting to violent sex if not rape? And if he loved Sephiroth, as his anger over the way Tifa tried to separate them, and the way he'd fed Sephiroth while he was insane hinted, why would he turn away from such obvious devotion as the ex-General was showing towards him?

He pushed those thoughts away and focused on their surroundings as they made their way to Cloud's house.

xx0xx

Sephiroth watched that damned woman from his place at Cloud's feet, enjoying the way his lover was stroking his hair. He appreciated the way Cloud had made her apologise to him, even if it wasn't really necessary, but he hadn't expected her to thank him for doing his duty, and since the words seemed so hard for her to get out it made it obvious she'd been influenced into it somehow.

"You don't need to thank me. I didn't do it for you, I stopped Cloud because he'd have felt guilty afterwards, and he obviously values you."

"Far less than I value you Sephiroth." And Cloud had already told him that if she assaulted him again Sephiroth didn't have to worry about getting there in time to save her, she'd lost the protection of his friendship when she tried to rape him.

"Thank you Cloud." Sephiroth ducked his head, he knew he would be blushing to hear his master praise him. "Do you have any of the drug you used on him left?"

"No. I used it all."

"You promised us explanations." Sephiroth glanced up at Vincent where he was standing against the wall.

"Yes, we did. Sephiroth, Aeris and Zack won't respond unless they know you're involved." That bothered him, it always had, but there was no way Sephiroth would try to compel them. He'd done too much of that sort of thing already.

"I know." He moved to kneel by the circle of materia Cloud had set up, pouring his magic into the two Fire materia while Cloud activated the other six; two Ice, one Bolt, one Shield, one Contain and one Restore materia. It didn't really matter that much what sort of materia they used, or so Aeris had said, but the Fire materia were the type he worked best with, and Cloud had added the two Ice materia to balance that out. Sephiroth didn't know how Cloud called their friends from where they rested partially in the Lifestream, but all he needed to do was supply energy so they'd respond.

"Sephiroth, Cloud, what do you need us for?" The dark man started as Aeris asked them why she'd been summoned, although Sephiroth didn't understand why she'd named him first.

"To help explain what I am, what happened to me." Cloud had a sardonic smile on his face as he explained. "I somehow doubt they'd believe me without someone to back me up, especially since I don't really understand everything." Cloud stood, and pulled Sephiroth to his feet, then returned to the couch he'd been sitting on before, pulling Sephiroth to recline on it with his head resting on his lover's chest. "Let's start with what happened from my view on that last delivery. I was attacked, by the Ruby WEAPON, and it drove me into a Mako pool that opened during the fight, at the perfect moment to trap me. And then it closed behind me."

"The Planet wanted a guardian and someone she could talk to, so she grabbed Spike, that's the whole reason she recreated the Ruby WEAPON, because Hojo'd got him halfway there anyway. So she began changing him to suit her, except..." Zack trailed off unhappily then.

"It hurt. Worse than the five years with Hojo crammed into however long she kept me for." Sephiroth couldn't imagine how bad that would have been, Hojo had tortured him growing up, and at least he'd had the thin protection of being valuable company property, and intended for a purpose, so there wasn't any chance of him being 'tested to destruction' the way Cloud could have been at any time. "I woke up on a mountain, with a Nibel wolf standing over me, licking at me, and feeling...incomplete. It was like parts of my mind and soul were missing, so I did the same thing as when Zack died, grabbed onto the Nibel wolf's mind and soul and used it to patch mine up. But that changed me physically too."

"Physically? In what way?" Vincent sounded almost analytical as he asked the question.

"Sephiroth can probably answer better than I can. I do know I've never really been hungry since then, I eat with Sephiroth to keep him company, and because I like to see him eating from my hand. And I like meat a lot more than I used to, I didn't dislike everything else the way I do now before either."

"Actually, Zack and Aeris would be best to explain that. They...were the ones who watched what you did immediately after, and brought me back to be yours."

xx0xx

Cloud didn't really like to remember what he'd been like after he absorbed the Nibel wolf's mind, and he petted Sephiroth as a distraction for himself.

"Before you two say anything I need to tell you this. All I was really certain of was that the Planet had been torturing me, so I went hunting for the black materia, so I could summon Meteor to punish her." His old companions gasped in shock and horror at that, but he couldn't care less. "I...after what you did to me you saw the state of mind I was in then." He glanced over at the summoned souls, one remaining whole within the Lifestream because he still held some portion of that soul within himself, and the other because she was the last Cetra, even if she was but a half-breed.

"He was every bit as insane as Sephiroth was under Jenova's influence. Anyone who got in Cloud's way died, and about twice a week he'd eat between two and three kilograms of meat from his latest kill. And the Planet wouldn't do anything to rein him in, she didn't understand that Cloud wanted to destroy her for what she'd done, or how badly she'd hurt him."

"We remembered that Spike and Sephiroth had been getting together before Nibelheim, and Sephiroth was only insane because of the way Jenova had bound him to her, but we couldn't break the bond because he'd become dependent on it. So we replaced her with the kid in that bond, and on his side we used the Nibel wolf's mating instinct to create a bond to Sephiroth as his mate to keep him sane, mostly." Sephiroth nuzzled against Cloud's chest at that, soothing his anger at the unthinking insult.

"Then we appealed to the Planet to bring him back to life, altered to make him a more fitting mate for Cloud." Aeris frowned, and Cloud looked at the others to see how they reacted to what she was going to say next, to what his guardian spirits had tried to do for his fragile mate. "We were hoping the Planet would make him stronger than he had been,"

"Are you crazy or something?" Aeris ignored Tifa's interruption, and Cloud marked it down as one more reason not to care about her.

"so it would be like he was a SOLDIER 3rd class and Cloud was a SOLDIER 1st class in terms of strength, rather than the comparison being closer to a ten year old and a SOLDIER 1st class. But the Planet wasn't willing to bring Sephiroth back any stronger than he was before Nibelheim,"

"Good for it!"

"so we settled for some alterations that would help him keep Cloud's attention, and...interact sexually without pain even when Cloud is...feral, since we feared he would spend the rest of eternity in that state." She was referring to the fact that Cloud didn't realise he should prepare his lover when he was in that state, so they'd made sure he didn't need any preparation beyond being aroused, the way a woman wouldn't.

"What the hell does that mean?" Barret sounded confused, and Cloud felt a bit more generous towards him than towards Tifa.

"If I might Cloud?"

"Go ahead, explain however you want." Since he wasn't sure he could explain it clearly, if at all.

"Physically, in some ways I'm more like a woman than a man, in that I don't need the sort of preparation for penetration men normally do, and the Planet gave me instinctive responses to match and compliment my new master's reactions." Cloud didn't like that particular bit, but he'd learned to accept how Sephiroth saw their relationship after the way Jenova broke him and he was the submissive one.

"So what, you stopped Cloud looking for the black materia?" Barret didn't seem to quite believe it, not that Cloud could blame him for that.

"Not...exactly."

"He made me sane again, but we still looked for the black materia. Apparently Sephiroth had orders." And Cloud still resented that, the way Zack and Aeris had used Sephiroth's training against him, even if he didn't quite understand what had made him react to them as superiors with the right to give him orders.

"Orders to do what?" And Vincent sounded concerned about that somehow even if Cloud wasn't quite sure why. "And from who?"

xx0xx

"Zack and Aeris gave me very clear instructions on the conditions for me to be reborn as Cloud's mate and consort. The first and most important was to keep him sane, as much as I can and to keep him from doing too much damage. But on a secondary basis I was ordered to help my master find the black materia if I thought he would be willing not to use it, and then make sure no one would ever have the chance to use it." The way AVALANCHE had planned to keep the black materia from Sephiroth so many years ago Vincent found himself thinking.

"I forgave the Planet for what she'd done to me when I realised she'd sent me Sephiroth as an apology, or at least I stopped wanting to punish her. We've got more in common than you'd think, we've both been altered irreversibly by self-centred bitches who only want to use us. But since my mate wanted to keep searching for the black materia I gave him what he asked for. I shouldn't have though." Sephiroth whimpered then as Cloud gripped his hair hard enough to draw blood, although Vincent was sure Tifa and Barret couldn't hear him, and Cloud immediately released his hair, whispering an apology and healing the rip in Sephiroth's scalp.

"Why not? Did he try to use it to destroy the Planet again or something?" Was Tifa only listening to Cloud? Sephiroth had already said he was supposed to make sure no one could use the black materia to summon Meteor ever again, and apparently he'd been successful, at a price Cloud didn't like.

"No. He fucking cut himself open and shoved the materia into his guts before he let me cast a Cure3 to seal the damned thing inside him." Cloud didn't seem to realise his hand was tightening on Sephiroth's shoulder until they heard the bone break, then he released his lover with a curse. "I'm sorry love, let me heal that for you."

"As you wish Cloud." Sephiroth actually smiled up at Cloud, and from the look on Barret's face he was beginning to share Vincent's sudden suspicion that Cloud was abusing his lover, Sephiroth had called Cloud his master out loud. Tifa just looked satisfied to see Sephiroth hurt, she still hated him, while Vincent had learned there wasn't any real reason to hate him any more and Barret seemed to be learning that too.

"Why the hell would ya do something that stupid, cut yourself open like that?" Apparently Barret found that action as hard to accept as Vincent did.

"I knew it wouldn't kill me, just hurt. I can deal with most pain, and I had orders."

"Yes, explain why you ordered my mate to hurt himself Zack, and for that matter why you had the right to give him orders. That never was too clear." Cloud sounded pissed, why wouldn't he have asked these questions sooner? "Don't even think about evading my questions by running back in the Lifestream; I've found a way to keep you here this time." Well, that answered that question.

"You know Sephiroth was conditioned to obey the orders of acknowledged superiors, that's one of the things that let Jenova take control of him, she replaced all his normal superiors in his mind. And in the Lifestream rank really depends on how...coherent you stay, and how well you avoid being absorbed. Aeris is the most coherent of those of us who can't fully join the Lifestream for one reason or another, and she'll never be absorbed." Zack looked and sounded a little helpless as he explained, then Aeris touched his shoulder and took over.

"We knew that the only way to make sure the black materia was never used again was to arrange things so that the only way to get to it is to severely injure Sephiroth. Cloud loved Sephiroth even before, and one of the instincts he seems to have absorbed from that Nibel wolf is never to hurt his mate," Vincent found that a little hard to believe considering that Cloud had just broken Sephiroth's shoulder, "so hidden in Sephiroth's body is the only place we could put the black materia that he couldn't reach it if he felt the need to destroy the world again. And Cloud will defend his mate to the death, so there's no way anyone else could get at it either. It seemed like the best solution at the time." And Cloud was furious at them now, so furious he was making a point of not touching Sephiroth. Vincent was pretty sure that was a bad thing.

xx0xx

Sephiroth shivered at the loss of his master's touch, but he knew that Cloud was just feeling unsure of his ability to keep from hurting him by accident. He was always a little more careful with Sephiroth after he'd lost control of his strength, because he didn't like hurting Sephiroth, even if Sephiroth didn't entirely mind it. It made him feel...safe to know that Cloud was so much stronger than him, and that he didn't care about Sephiroth's weaknesses for any reason other than his desire to protect Sephiroth. He didn't have to worry about Cloud ever replacing him because he wasn't good enough, even if Sephiroth sometimes suspected that he wasn't a good enough consort for the Planet's Chosen.

"But why Sephiroth?" The woman sounded as if he was something she'd scraped off the sole of her boot, and he smiled bitterly at the evidence of how insincere and obviously forced her apology had been.

"Because he's the only one tough enough to survive when I forget my strength." Cloud's voice was harsh, and angry, and Sephiroth twisted to reach up for his face.

"Cloud, no, that isn't it. And even if...Nibelheim hadn't happened we'd still have this problem, even after you managed to qualify for SOLDIER, it would just be the other way around."

"But you never hurt me." Cloud sounded almost sulky at that, and Sephiroth knew that he was glossing over the truth, but he didn't know how to say that.

"Really? That'd mean he learned one hell of a lot more control between when we broke up and when you two got together, and there just wasn't time for that. Or anyone for him to practise with." Sephiroth felt himself flush at Zack's comment. "That's why we chose Sephiroth to stabilise Cloud, because they already had a relationship, even if it wasn't working out very well."

"That, and they wanted to make sure Jenova couldn't control me anymore by giving me to a more...reliable master." Sephiroth didn't understand why that seemed to bother Cloud, he'd obviously been a danger to the Planet under his mother's control, Cloud had had to kill him twice.

"If their relationship wasn't working out why did you bother?" The woman sounded almost contemptuous. "Why not get someone who loved him?"

"Sephiroth does love Cloud." Sephiroth turned to burry his face against his lover's chest when he heard what Aeris was saying, and that seemed to be enough to get Cloud to touch him again. "We'd been planning to sit the two of them down and help them work things out when they all got back from Nibelheim but..."

"I...the only experience I had with interacting with other people outside of work was Zack." And then when Zack had sat him down and broke up with him because he loved Sephiroth, but he was in love with Aeris he'd realised he was being replaced and he'd thought it was because he was too needy. Having Zack set him up with Cloud just a week later felt like he was being given away the way he'd given his old sword away when he got Masamune, and he'd been too scared that Cloud wouldn't want him, or would feel pressured if he was too insistent to realise that Cloud was insecure about being with him. "So I expected Cloud to be the...aggressor for lack of a better term, the way Zack was."

"I had to make all the running, you were too closed off to actually take the initiative with me." Cloud growled at Zack's response, and Sephiroth found himself purring as his mate defended him.

"And it didn't occur to you to warn either of us that we were both pretty passive socially speaking? Say let Sephiroth know that he'd have to let me know he wanted me on a fairly regular basis or I'd think he was playing with me? Or tell me that Sephiroth was too worried about taking advantage of his rank to make much in the way of advances himself?"

"You really should have warned them Zack." Aeris sounded as if she was scolding her lover, regardless of their audience. Sephiroth found it a little embarrassing, but if Cloud was willing to air out their dirty laundry in front of everyone like this it must have something to do with convincing them to go away, where they'd be safe and not remind him of his old life.

"You didn't have the confidence to do anything even if I had warned you Cloud."

"Then you should have told Sephiroth something. Our first time was a disaster." Sephiroth could remember just how much of a disaster it had been.

xx0xx

He was pretty sure that Cloud wanted him, Zack had taught him to read the signs well enough, teasing him about the way most of the army had crushes on him, and he wouldn't have been matchmaking like this if Cloud wasn't interested, so why wasn't he doing anything? Sephiroth had arranged for them to be alone together, and they'd finished going over and amending Zack's report from their last mission with him and Cloud knew by now that he didn't need to stand on military protocol with Sephiroth unless there were witnesses. He'd have had Cloud help him with this in his office the way he normally did if that was all he wanted, not here, in his quarters. But, perhaps this wasn't enough and he wanted Sephiroth to show more initiative than Zack had required?

He decided to risk it, leaning over to kiss Cloud and hoping it was the right thing to do. Apparently it was, Sephiroth felt some of the tension leave his body as Cloud's lips opened beneath his and his arms came up to wrap around Sephiroth's shoulders. He returned the embrace, hesitantly wrapping his own arms around Cloud's waist, but he'd shown about as much initiative as he could bring himself to by kissing Cloud, and he simply opened his own lips to allow Cloud entrance if he wanted it. But Cloud didn't take what he was offering, and Sephiroth whimpered when Cloud drew back looking puzzled.

"I thought...isn't this what you want Cloud?" Perhaps he'd misjudged, it would hardly be the first time, but Sephiroth hadn't thought Zack was the type to give someone a gift they wouldn't like because it would make his life easier.

"I...Y-yes sir. Please! Did I...do something wrong?" Why would he think that? Sephiroth didn't understand what Cloud was expecting, and he wished Cloud would just tell him.

"No! Would you...like to move this to my bedroom?" He just hoped he wasn't being too forward, or spoiling a fantasy of Cloud's; Zack had enjoyed fucking Sephiroth in a lot of different places.

"I-if you want." Sephiroth wasn't sure why Cloud was stuttering, but he did do that around him at odd times anyway, so he dismissed it and focusing on the important point, his agreement, stood to lead Cloud through to his bedroom. He gave his new lover a chance to tell him what to do, but Cloud just stood there watching him silently, and Sephiroth fell back on what Zack liked, hoping it was close enough to Cloud's preferences not to disappoint him. He stripped, slowly as he'd been taught, even though he didn't understand why Zack never just wanted to get him naked as quickly as possible. It seemed to please Cloud too at least from the way his breathing quickened and he kept looking over Sephiroth's body, and blushing too for some odd reason - Zack had never blushed. He sat down on the bed, letting his hair fall forward to partly cover his face and upper body, waiting for Cloud to make some sort of decision, even if it took a while for him to notice.

"Oh! I...should I get undressed too?" He began fumbling with the fastenings of his clothes as he spoke, looking strangely unsure. Sephiroth was beginning to wonder if Zack had handed him over to a virgin, and to pray that if he had he'd be able to bind Cloud to him by being his first.

"I could do that for you if you wanted?" He held out a hand, watching Cloud and hoping he wasn't being too forward.

"Umm...yes, please." Cloud took his hand and let Sephiroth pull him to sit beside him on the bed. Sephiroth bit his lip for a second in thought, then removed Cloud's jumper and shirt first, before sliding from the bed to kneel in front of him and remove his boots. Zack had never asked him to do this, although sometimes he'd undressed Sephiroth he'd always tended to stay dressed himself until the last minute, and he hoped he was doing this right. He stayed where he was, resting his head on Cloud's thigh as he waited for more instructions. "Sir...what?" Cloud was trying ineffectually to pull him back to his feet, and Sephiroth stood, obeying those unspoken instructions.

"Just tell me what you want." Cloud looked surprised, and shook his head, but he lay back on the bed and pulled Sephiroth down beside him. "Is...this your first time Cloud?" He didn't think Cloud would mind answering that question, and it would explain his hesitance. When Cloud nodded he smiled and laid down, pulling Cloud to lie on top of him. "Do whatever you like, or tell me what you want me to do."

xx0xx

Cloud hadn't been able to understand why Sephiroth was so submissive, he hadn't even recognised it as submissive behaviour, and when Sephiroth had told him to do whatever he wanted Cloud had started by trying to ride him, but that had hurt. He hadn't even thought about the need to prepare himself, and he didn't think about that when Sephiroth had suggested Cloud take him instead after seeing his pain, Sephiroth hadn't let him see that he was hurting his lover, and when he'd finished he realised he'd made Sephiroth bleed, and had scrambled into his clothes before he fled in shock.

"I know, I found Sephiroth afterwards." And then he'd made a point of explaining to Cloud precisely how to make love to a man and virtually ordering Cloud to go and fuck his lover again, less than a week after the first time. He hadn't quite believed the eager way Sephiroth responded to him so soon after he'd hurt him, he'd expected that Sephiroth would never want to see him again, and instead he'd acted as if he was the one who'd messed up. And he'd told Cloud after he was brought back for him that he had thought that, that he'd disappointed Cloud somehow their first time together, and that Cloud didn't think he was good enough, or want him anymore.

"But why not get someone else, someone you wouldn't have to bring back to life?" Tifa was stubborn, he'd give her that, but she was fast losing what little care he still felt for her, moving herself into the category of enemy, since she no longer classed as a friend, had fallen to 'acquaintance' the second she tried to rape him, and was fast falling to the class of 'stranger', and possibly from there to 'enemy' if she kept on attacking his mate.

"What, like you lady? We've been watching over Spike since we died, and we haven't seen any evidence that you really love him, that you value anything but the image you've got of him. You try to force him to fit into your idea of what he should be, and when he doesn't do that you reject him, and you let him believe a lie about himself for so long, we don't really care that he forgave you for that. We didn't."

"Besides, it was easier to alter someone when we were going to be bringing him back from the dead anyway, than to snatch someone living and then make the required alterations. We couldn't contact you the way we could Cloud to get your consent, and Cloud needed someone who'd be willingly submissive to him, you don't qualify for that." Aeris' explanation was nicer than the pure contempt when Zack dressed Tifa down, but she still made it clear that she didn't think the other woman was a suitable candidate for Cloud's heart. "And of course there's the fact that by binding Sephiroth this way we keep one of her greatest pawns away from Jenova, another way to keep the Planet safe." Cloud hated hearing her describe his love for his mate as a tool, to use in the defence of the Planet that tortured him, but he didn't protest, just kissed his lover lightly on the forehead, and stood, setting Sephiroth on his feet beside him.

"Is there anything else you need to hear from Zack and Aeris?" He addressed his question to the men, not to Tifa, he didn't think she could really be rational at the moment.

"No, that should be quite sufficient."

"Nah, but you shouldn't have just cut off all contact, you should have got back in touch with us once you...recovered." Barret had a point, and Cloud nodded to him in recognition of that as he knelt and pulled one of the materia from the circle, the Contain, even though he knew the type of materia used didn't matter he liked the implied balance and symbolism of the ones he used.

"I'm sorry, but at first I tended to slip into that feral state at the slightest provocation, and I didn't have the faintest idea of how to control my strength. It's only in the last three years that I've got enough control to be safe around humans without my mate by my side to anchor me."

"And you thought we'd believe you were dead by then? You expected us to just give up on you?" Tifa sounded outraged, but Barret and Vincent looked almost guilty, reason enough for Cloud to reassure them, even if it meant insulting her.

"Anyone sane would have given up hope of my return, or at least the investment you seem to have in my return. Let me make this clear. I never loved you, you never gave me reason to. You earned a position as my friend when we first faced Jenova and in the years after that, but after what you did to me today you are no more to me than an acquaintance. Push too far and I will consider you a stranger, or an enemy."

xx0xx

Vincent knew that Cloud's cruel words were probably the only way to break Tifa out of her delusions even partially, and he felt a measure of sympathy for her, but Cloud's speech had convinced him that he didn't feel any resentment about the fact that he'd been considered dead. And Barret looked as if he felt better about their agreement that Cloud had to be dead after the man had told them it was the only sensible thing to do, Vincent suspected he'd been the one who'd suffered most from Tifa's insistence that Cloud was alive. It was an open secret that he was a little sweet on her, and always had been - except to Tifa, since he thought he was too old for her.

"But-but...I love you." She shook her head, disbelief clear on her face. "I always have, and I thought you loved me too. You made that promise, to come and save me if I needed it, remember?"

"Because for once you were treating me like a real person. No, I can't believe you loved me then. You were one of the ones who led the other children in abusing me when I managed to hide from the adults in Nibelheim. Do you know the real reason Sephiroth destroyed Nibelheim, instead of just going to retrieve Jenova? It was because I'd told him a bit about how everyone there treated me, and there was only ever one person I mourned who died there, my mother." Vincent concealed his shock, but Barret and Tifa couldn't do that, and he watched in fascination as she finally realised that Cloud would never be hers, while Barret looked furious at how Cloud was speaking to her, combined with an awareness that it might give him a chance to be with her.

"So you claim responsibility for that?" He wondered if Cloud felt guilty because he considered it his fault that his hometown was destroyed...

"No, of course not. There were a lot of contributing factors, the fact that I'd told my lover how badly I was treated in my hometown when I was ordered to return there was just one of them, the way they treated him was another." Vincent wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but at least Cloud wasn't blaming himself. "And the only real blame lies with Jenova, who infiltrated Sephiroth's mind and altered it so that she could control him. I wonder if things would have been different if we'd had a better relationship at the time."

"I...doubt it Cloud." Sephiroth's voice was quiet, but Cloud focused on him instantly.

"Why do you doubt it?"

"Because we weren't mentally tied back then, and so it wouldn't have given me any defence against her."

"Or you might have ended up joining Sephiroth, instead of killing him that first time." Vincent had to point that out, since it was something Cloud and Sephiroth both seemed to have overlooked.

"Thing was, back then I was so desperate for someone to care about me that I probably wouldn't have cared that he'd abandoned ShinRa for Jenova, and it would have made me understand how much Sephiroth loves me so much earlier." That was almost horrifying, and from the vindictive smile Cloud was directing at Tifa he knew how much it was hurting her. Sephiroth glanced at Tifa with something a lot like pity in his eyes, then he looked up at Cloud from where he knelt at his feet, and smiled in pure adoration.

That particular expression reminded Vincent so much of his lost love, Lucrecia, who'd looked at him that way for a brief time, and had looked at Hojo that way before then, that he didn't want to spoil Sephiroth's happiness.

"You'd have gone with him?" Tifa sounded outraged, and Vincent knew she was on the verge of saying or doing something that would make Cloud change how he saw her, but he didn't have to intervene, Barret did it for him, wrapping her in an embrace, and whispering in her ear. Vincent couldn't hear much of what he said, but it was along the lines of Tifa deserving better than Cloud.

"You are welcome to remain in my home until you choose to leave, but do not expect us to take any more time out of our ordinary lives to indulge you." With that Cloud led Sephiroth away, leaving Vincent to pick up the pieces.