The rocks were hard down here. Well, rocks were hard everywhere, but these ones seemed especially so, jagged and unforgiving. Echoes, screams of inhuman beasts vibrated off the cavernous walls, shaking loose eroded dirt from the ledges to fall with a crumble and a hiss into the black abyss below. Small quakes sent shivers up the pathways they walked upon, and occasionally a bright flare from the bottom lit the area for one brief moment, before it died down into the dark.
It was under these horrific conditions that the Avalanche party was trying to get to sleep. For the most part, they'd succeeded. Exhausted from fighting and the rough journey, Yuffie and Barret had passed out and were currently still snoring soundly. Cid had paced around a bit, smoking to calm his nerves, before at last he flopped down as well, grumbling swearwords beneath his breath and stubbornly shutting his eyes. Nanaki had wandered off on his own some time ago, sensitive to the flux of the lifestream, which was particularly resonant down here... therefore the crater seemed to affect him the most of anyone. Cait Sith did not need to rest, and so had gone to try to console the lupine beast. Cloud had smirked, and mentally wished him luck.
Vincent, apparently quite used to similar nightmarish surroundings, had no trouble laying his thin body down on the cliff-edge and dozing off. Cloud remembered still being up when the light breaths of his companions could be heard steadying out in between the howling of the mountain wind over the crater hole a mile up... Cloud remembered that Tifa was still sitting up and awake, poised over the dropoff and staring down, Cloud remembered this as the last thing he saw before drifting away.
When his eyes opened again, they were greeted by a somewhat different sight. The ambient noise like something out of a terrifyingly accurate horror movie continued flooding upwards from the deeps of the cave, territorial monsters competing for survival in the harsh black environment they called home. He looked toward Tifa, who was by now lying down, her ample chest rising and falling with the deep breaths of sleep. Cloud sighed with relief that she had found her nightly peace.
But something told him that wasn't quite it... despite the dark, he could just feel another presence, forcing its way into his awareness. In the dull flickering light given off by Nanaki's yellowish tail (the animal had at last come back to sleep, he supposed) he could see another, much taller shadow standing and looming over him, staring down. The fiery light was cast across a gaunt pale face, its warmth contrasting with the harsh and cold green eyes that watched him.
The pale lips twisted into a smile of recognition, and some bizarre mix of malice and poignance. He knelt beside the boy, maintaining eye contact, but didn't say a word. In a moment, the smile peeled away, and his lips pressed together over a thought he shouldn't speak, while he settled into a comfortable place beside him on the ground.
Cloud was frozen where he sat. Now was his chance! His sword was right over there, within reach, and his eyes darted briefly to it before they returned to the face of his rival. He could strike him down, right here, right now... so why didn't he? Maybe it was something about the way those emerald eyes shone in the dark, brighter than usual, wetter than usual. There was a swirl of unsurity and indecision in those pure-mako pools just as there was in the deep wells of the lifestream beneath them. He could see all of the Ex-General's feelings at once, broadcast out without shame. There was the old mask, the killing-machine from his days with ShinRa, the rage-driven monster poised at insanity by Jenova's will, and the little lost child, crying out for a mother, a companion.
"What do you want from me?" Cloud demanded without fear.
Sephiroth turned his head ever-so-slightly to one side, staring off into the crater core and the almost tangible shadow down there, so thick it strangled out even the lifestream's light.
Allowing for the silence to last a moment, expecting it to be filled by an answer, Cloud gave up after he got none for several minutes. "Why are you here?"
"I'm always here." Sephiroth said, his voice straining slightly as he turned back to look at the boy with those horrible broken eyes, glassy, like those of a doll that had been carelessly cracked on some hard surface. Perhaps the hard rocks on the ground here had shattered them, and the soul beneath. "She keeps me here." he swallowed, and turned to face the pit again. "Like a caged animal." for a brief four words, a semblance of the Ex-General's former pride possessed his voice, but it disintegrated soon enough...
This time it was Cloud's turn to respond, but he found his throat dry and empty, making him unable to do so. He sat up straighter, shaking out his hair, flattened by the position he'd fallen asleep on it. "What do you want from me?" he repeated after a minute.
"It's quiet here." he sighed, kicking his legs over the edge of the dropoff like a child might do in a chair if its feet didn't touch the ground. Cloud didn't believe it. Between the roar of the beasts, the howl of the wind, and the very heartbeat of the earth, how could it be quiet? "She let's me leave sometimes, and wander, but I never find anything but quiet." those eyes were on him again, and Cloud winced, because that look he was giving him stung. "And today I found you."
"Why aren't you killing me?" he hissed, his own glare stern on Sephiroth.
Affronted, he stood abruptly up, standing so precariously over the pit that Cloud's heart jumped into his throat. "You think that's all I want you for?" his voice struck like a dagger, poisoned with accusation and blame, "I am still a human." Sephiroth added in a whisper, taking the utmost care with his last fragile hope, "And despite who I am, or who I was, there is only so much a human can take." he looked down, almost with shame for his weakness that was at the same time his strength... Humanity.
"I don't want to kill, not anymore. I've gotten my revenge on anyone and everyone I ever needed to. It's Jenova who insists on taking these... innocents down with me. That didn't used to bother me much, but like I said..." he looked up again, black-gloved hands settling on his face, his slender fingers looking like bars imprisoning the man behind them, "...there's only so much a human can take. Only so much blood, only so much silence, only so much solitude."
"You're..." Cloud looked at him, confused. "...lonely." Despite everything... despite his mother, his home, Zack, and Aeris, despite Tifa, even, and all the fires of his hatred, this simple show of emotion stirred up some blessed sympathy within him, and the fires slowly began to die, even their light being eaten by the hungry shadow. He said no more.
"You're all I have left..." Sephiroth drew closer, within arm's reach, staring down distantly at Cloud. He reached up a hand, and as it inched for the boy's face, he forced a hard, shuddering breath into his lungs. Soft leather fingertips trailed from his forehead, beneath the blonde spikes, down over his eyelids to at last trace his lips and tilt up his chin... then the arm fell away, like that small, gentle contact was all he had strength for.
"If I wanted to kill..." he said through gritted teeth, his arms now stubbornly straight at his sides, "...I'd pick any random person from anywhere in the world, or maybe one of these others here..." he motioned a hand over the sleeping bodies behind Cloud, which made the boy wince, and spread his feet apart, standing protectively in front of all of them. "No, you're too precious." Sephiroth said sullenly, as if he resented that fact, what Cloud was to him.
"What do you want from me?"
Third time was a charm: "You're all that's left of my old life." the general made his explanation clearer, "The only survivor, the only one who understands..." he looked down, the weakness again, and frowned to himself at the way it twisted in his gut. "...and you're the last one..." he started, voice barely audible over the deep guttural breathing of the planet behind him, "...we need for Reunion." he squeezed his eyes shut a moment, enraged that, despite it all, Jenova had still managed to slip in her preaching. Cloud would surely kill him now. He stared fearfully up at his to-be-murderer, and waited for the end, welcomed it, though the Jenova in him was screaming at the mere thought, a scraping in his head, against the walls of his skull, that he did his best to ignore.
Cloud's breath came back out with a slow caution, "You wanted... to talk to me?" he asked curiously, rounding on the nearly-shivering man.
Sephiroth sighed slowly, and nodded. That was all he could manage then. The humiliation, his soul laid bare, his free will warped and undermined into something else for so long, it was barely his anymore.
Cloud looked regrettably over his dreaming allies. Would he leave them for his greatest enemy? Would he deny each and every one of them their vengeance, their closure? He turned to Sephiroth, still standing there, silent as the grave he should have been resting in. He was alone... lost, without control that he had been so used to having. A small frown creased the boy's pink lips, but he stepped forward.
Maybe it was the Jenova in him giving silent, undetectable little urges for him to follow this path, take this choice. He was the final piece to her grim puzzle, and she was pulling at his heartstrings with Sephiroth's dire plea.
Then again, he was surprised she knew how... the bitch was heartless, unfeeling. So as the general began to smile in disbelief, Cloud knew. He knew Jenova was incapable of replicating the warmth of contentment that spread through them both as glove-on-glove, hand-in-hand, they walked together to bottom of the crater, with Sephiroth silently whispering 'Thankyou, thankyou.' And though he didn't actually say anything, despite the noise, Cloud could hear...
"Thankyou." Sephiroth murmured to the boy as he slept. Cloud had settled down in a new bed by the spring of mako that flowed around this island of soft, crushed dirt. Dirt that had fallen with a crumble and a hiss from the high cliffs above after every little quake that shivered through the wounded earth. The general had other things that begged his attention, Jenova particularly.
She wanted Cloud, she wanted him badly... but at the moment, he stood over the slow-breathing body on the ground... his last refuge of sanity, his last warmth, and decided Reunion could be at least slightly postponed. Put off 'til the morning, perhaps. He wasn't about to lose the last thing, so precious, that could speak to him, that he could speak to with words, real words. Heard physically, not felt, not a ghost of a thought in the mind.
His words had always been sparse, and grew moreso with the time he spent on his own, but here on the eve of Reunion, perhaps sweet death, final rest, Sephiroth decided it high time to use them. He bent down, ran a leather-coated hand through silky-soft blonde hair, and said:
"Now I won't be alone."
Author's Ending Note Thingy: Hallelujah, I can WRITE again! I've had the worst three-month-long writer's block ever, and it's been tearing me to pieces with guilt and frustration, but now I'm BACK! This idea I credit partially to my friend Mel, a similar situation to this happened in one of our roleplays, and I felt compelled to turn it into its own individual little fic. I liked it too much not to share. Also, when I wrote my last Cloud/Seph fic, I had a few requests to write more, and though I realize this isn't exactly slashy (though it is suggestive of the pairing), I'll try to work up to it. Hope you like, please review, the extra encouragement will get me to come back faster. XD