Chapter Eleven

I am awake when the door opens. I look up, turning my head slightly towards the doorway. I am expecting to see you, but instead it's Merlin who is here. This is surprising. And an odd coincidence, when Zack and I were just speaking of him yesterday. Of course, knowing him, I wonder if it's a coincidence at all.

"Good morning, Sephiroth," he greets.

I give a slow nod, watching him questioningly. He never goes anywhere without a reason. He would not come here for the sole purpose of socialization.

"You're looking quite well," he observes. "Awake and alert . . . much better than when I saw you last."

"The last time you saw me, I was more than half dead," I grunt. It was you and Zack who spoke with him when he came briefly to leave the herbal substance. I was sleeping then, though at least, not still half dead.

Merlin nods. "You're lucky to be alive," he says.

"If it can be called being 'alive.'" I'm not certain how to refer to my state. Yes, I am breathing. My heart is beating. Technically, I am alive. But I am not free to do whatever I like. I am bound to you. Sometimes I feel as though I'm on probation. And such a thing would not surprise me in the least.

Another nod. "Tell me, Sephiroth," he muses, sitting in the chair, "why do you think this was allowed to happen to you?"

If this was anyone other than Zack, or Merlin, I doubt I would even answer. Merlin seems to consider himself my mentor. I don't know that I share this viewpoint. But he has always seen deeper into my soul than I would like. It would be pointless to refuse to answer---though if I was still as bitter as I was when Merlin first stumbled across me, I definitely would have done so.

"Because my superiors couldn't care less what happens to me." My response is instantaneous.

Merlin doesn't seem surprised by this. "Do you feel that you have learned or gained anything of importance from this experience? Don't try to rush your answer," he adds, holding up a finger in emphasis. He watches me calmly, and through his thick beard I can see the trace of a smile.

I don't find anything to smile about.

This does require thought. This escapade has been long and painful. And it is possible that scars, both physical and mental, will linger. These wounds may never fully heal, and I may never fly again. But . . . you and I have come to be able to understand each other better. Is that the sort of response Merlin wants from me?

"Cloud and I no longer desire to kill each other." This is said with heavy sarcasm. I never wanted to kill you, though I have strongly disliked you.

Merlin looks amused. "It's unlikely the two of you could have learned to tolerate each other without going through an experience such as this," he says, sobering again.

I don't like where this is going. "Are you saying my superiors arranged for this to happen to me because I wasn't doing a good enough job to suit them? And because they wanted Cloud and I to bond?" That seems like such an extreme way to bring about what they want. Though, considering their methods of punishment, I wonder if it is extreme for them at all.

He quickly shakes his head. "No! Not at all." He looks at me in all seriousness. "This was not planned, Sephiroth. They did not sit around wondering what they could do to you and deciding on the very most horrible possibility. And, I know it's hard for you to believe, but they do care about you. They want what's best for you, even if it doesn't seem at the time that it could ever be the best thing.

"When this happened to you, they stepped back and allowed you to choose whether you lived or died. They wanted to see if you would still opt to live, despite how unhappy you are over being bound to Cloud. And they were hoping that what has happened would occur, that Cloud would take you in and help you to recover. They knew the experience would be worthwhile for both of you."

Worthwhile? I don't know about that. Even if there is some value to it, I still abhor being incapacitated in any way.

"In some ways, you really haven't changed much, Sephiroth."

I look back to him. "How do you mean?" Do I even want to know? Merlin's insight has always annoyed me, and still does, despite the fact that I have tried to accept that quirk. Even Zack's deductions about myself irritated me, before we bonded.

"You still don't like it when you can't do everything yourself."

"I doubt most people enjoy having to be assisted on the least and most mundane tasks."

"That's true . . . but I've rarely seen a man as stubborn and determined as you---almost as if you feel that it's a crime to need help."

That might be true to an extent, but it isn't Merlin's business---or anyone's. Except possibly Zack's.

"Is such an attitude a crime?" I say now.

"No," replies Merlin, "but it may make things more difficult for you and those who want to help you."

"I haven't rejected their help."

"True, but your feelings on being assisted might discourage them."

"Maybe they don't want to help me any more than I want to accept it."

Merlin nods thoughtfully. "You're speaking of Cloud."

I don't answer. It's true that you helped me grudgingly at first. But I've noticed a change in you. You seem more willing to give help, in general, and less likely to act as though it's a burden. Still, I suppose I have changed as well. I have learned to be grateful for what you do. You, like Zack, understand my feelings on assistance, and you allow me to attempt things myself whenever possible. You only step in when I cannot succeed on my own.

"Cloud is gaining maturity," Merlin says. "This has been good for him, to have the responsibility of caring for you. One of the things that has always tortured him is a feeling of helplessness, that he can never do anything worthwhile."

I respond with a grim smirk. "And he would find it worthwhile to nurse an old enemy back to health?"

Merlin smiles. "I believe he has come to find it so." He pauses. "And I believe you will fly again, Sephiroth. Maybe not as effortlessly as you once did, but your determination will likely take you into the sky once more."

"Not even my determination can alter what is, if my wings are not capable of carrying me."

Now he looks amused. "Such a pessimist," he scolds, as he did upon our original meeting.

"To be a pessimist is only realistic."

Merlin nods. "I know I said just now that in some ways you haven't changed much, Sephiroth, but in other ways you most certainly have. You don't bear the immense bitterness that you did upon our first meeting, though I noticed it had lessened the second time we spoke, as well. I believe you have started to find yourself again. And that is very encouraging."

I just smirk. "And this 'finding myself'. . . . You believe I'm going to see myself as the noble figure you have painted me as being?"

"Maybe someday," Merlin nods in thoughtfulness. "Maybe someday."

I doubt it.

You come to the doorway. "Breakfast is ready," you announce gruffly, and then look to Merlin. "Are you planning to stay?"

He shakes his head, which doesn't surprise me. "I'm afraid I can't," he says. "I have other matters I must tend to." He gets up and heads for the door. "But I do wish you both well! I expect we will be seeing each other quite soon." And with that, he teleports out, seeming pleased with the situation here.

You mutter something under your breath, turning to walk away from the door.

Taking up my cane, I begin to ease my body off of the mattress. My lower right wing still feels as though it is being held down by an immense weight. I hold it close to me, not wanting it to catch on the infamous chair. Now I move forward, using the cane for support as I make my way out of the room.

You are now standing in the doorway of the kitchen, your arms crossed on your chest. Beyond you, food is dished on the table. It looks and smells expertly prepared, which alerts me that you were not involved with its creation. The extent of your culinary skills is heating food in a microwave. Sometimes you even fail with that task, if you're not watching it closely enough.

"Did Merlin make breakfast?" I ask.

You shake your head. "Brooms," you mumble, going into the room.

There honestly isn't anything to say to that.

I follow you in, sinking into the nearest chair.

You pour a glass of orange juice. "Merlin said he came to tell you something," you say, your tone gruff.

"He didn't come for idle conversation," I answer. Picking up the fork, I test some of the scrambled eggs. Considering that they were cooked by bewitched household cleaning items, they don't taste that bad.

You grunt. "He didn't want to tell me what it was."

"Should you know?" I reply.

You drink some of the beverage, much quicker than is safe. An immediate round of coughing follows, as I give you a deadpan gaze.

"That wasn't your most intelligent moment," I comment.

You roll your eyes at me. "He said that if you wanted to tell me, you would," you say, once you have control of yourself.

"And why would you want to know, Cloud?" I resume eating. "Curiosity?"

You become interested in your food. "I don't know," you grumble. "I just . . . I hate being kept in the dark. But I know, I know---patience. I have to have patience." Every time you say "patience", you spit it out as if it is spoiled.

I lean back, regarding you as I muse. I suppose I could tell you something of it, without revealing my secrets. I have a morbid interest in knowing how you would react. And it could be amusing, to tease you again. I know you won't well accept any of what Merlin had to say.

"Merlin believes," I announce slowly and with deliberation, "that this was allowed to happen to me in order for us to bond."

You almost choke again, which really doesn't do much for you as far as looking intelligent is concerned. "That's . . . that's . . ." You grab the glass of orange juice and gulp its contents in order to push down the lodged food---and possibly to keep from saying the full extent of your feelings on the matter.

I regard you in some amusement. "It isn't what I was expecting to be told, either," I say, "and I don't know that I believe it."

"It's typical of Merlin," you grumble. You shake your head, reaching for the catsup.

I don't bother to ask why you're putting catsup on scrambled eggs.

The meal proceeds in silence for a time. It's a fairly calm quiet, devoid of tension. It's a relief, especially considering the first meals we shared. There was more screaming than eating. I wouldn't be surprised if the neighbors grew used to it and now wonder if we finally killed each other, hence the recent noiselessness.

"I've been hearing that the military thinks you're a fraud."

I raise an eyebrow, looking to you and wondering where you're going with this. "Hearing it?" I repeat. "From whom?"

You shrug. "People in town. Is it because of your wings?"

I lean back, an amused smirk coming over my features. You're always trying some new tactic to gain information about me. "Partially," I admit. It's fine to say that much, but to tell you of my death is forbidden. Even if I wanted to say it, I'm not anxious to find out what would happen to me if I did.

"And there's the stuff Zack said, that you disappeared for a while."

"That's true. Against my will."

You stop mid-chew, giving me a scrutinizing look. ". . . So you were held prisoner or something, like by the other army?"

"Or something," I agree.

You scowl.

"Honestly, Cloud . . . you wouldn't want me to get in trouble, would you?" I ask, still with the amused smirk.

"Zack knows," you point out. "You didn't have any qualms about telling him. And how would they even know you told? It's not like my place is bugged."

"Oh, trust me, they would know. They know I told Zack. They just chose to not take action against me that time."

"They must be psychics," you say in sarcasm.

"You could say that."

I suppose there might not be a problem if you guessed the truth yourself, rather than me telling you, but you certainly don't seem to ever entertain the thought. When I think about it, it's one of the only standing possibilities, and it makes a lot of sense where the military's suspicions are concerned. But you would never guess such a thing, would you? You would never imagine that someone would return from the dead. It is unheard of, in general.

Yet I have done exactly that. Twice, now. And you were a witness to the latter occasion.

"Sephiroth . . ." You sound hesitant, which is rare for you. When I turn to look at you, you've grown serious.

"What was it like, to die?"

Now that is a strange thing to ask, in light of my current musings. I raise an eyebrow at you. "Excuse me?"

You move the eggs around with your fork. ". . . Merlin said you were alive, but you looked dead," you elaborate. "Your heart wasn't beating, and you weren't breathing. Did you . . . know what was going on when we were trying to help you, or was it just like you were in a deep sleep?"

I lean back. So that's what you're referring to. It's still strange, at this point, but maybe not so surprising.

"I wasn't aware that I was being helped," I answer. "But I wasn't asleep, either. My spirit went to an in-between place."

You frown, turning this over in your mind. "Like between Heaven and Hell?"

"More like between life and death." I slowly eat a piece of the bacon. "Why do you want to know?"

A shrug. "I never talked to anyone who died. I just kinda wondered what it's like, if there's anything after this or what." You shove some of the egg into your mouth.

"There's definitely an afterlife. Though it may be different from what is traditionally taught."

You're silent now. "You didn't . . . see anyone who'd died, did you?"

I regard you in slight amusement. "Were you expecting, or even hoping, that I had?"

Another shrug. "Zack's mom died when he was just a kid. They were always really close."

"If I had seen her, that would be something I would tell Zack," I say in a matter-of-fact tone.

You roll your eyes, glaring down at your plate.

Is there something more to it than that? It could just be that you're wanting to know anything that possibly concerns myself or Zack, as usual, but maybe that isn't all that's on your mind. Maybe you don't want to say your deeper thoughts.

". . . Do you wonder if I saw someone that you lost, Cloud?"

You stiffen. "My mom," you admit at last, lifting your gaze to meet mine. "And I'd like to know what happened to my dad, too---if he would've gone to Hell." There is a lot of loathing in your eyes, but it isn't directed at me, for once. More than that, however, there's pain. Your father hurt you deeply.

I don't know all the details of that, but Zack told me that the man was an alcoholic and a gambler. He said that at times your father flew into drunken rages and beat your mother. Then Zack fell silent, sick horror in his eyes. I asked him if you had been beaten as well. He didn't respond for a long moment, but then he admitted that it was true. He wouldn't have told me at all, except that he was worried about you, and when I was first assigned to you, I needed to know as much about you as I could.

"I couldn't tell you that," I say now. "I didn't see either of them, or anyone else who has died." I look at you with soberness. "But there are many kinds of Hells, Cloud, not only one with fire and brimstone."

You frown in confusion. "What's that supposed to mean?"

I shake my head. "Nevermind."

It somewhat isn't a surprise that, now that we have worked ourselves into depressed states of mind, a cheerful cry breaks into our thoughts.

"Ho! The door's unlocked again!"

We both look up at Zack, who is making his way to the kitchen doorway. He gives us a mock stern look.

"So, what's all this gloom at the breakfast table?" he demands. "Thought I heard something being said about Hell."

"You did," I supply.

"Well, that's a great topic for this early in the day!" Zack crosses his arms. "Let's talk about something else."

"Help yourself," you say. "Get some food while you're at it."

"I will!" Zack chirps. "Smells good!" And he gives you a puzzled look. "Was Aerith by or something? You couldn't have whipped up something like this."

"It was brooms," we reply in unison.

Zack blinks, actually looking surprised. He stares at the food again, rubbing the back of his neck. "Well . . ." he says slowly, "that's different."

You snort. "That's one way to put it."