Kingdom Hearts II


By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and this story is! It was directly inspired by the prompt "Keyblade" in the Key Blade community at Livejournal. Thanks to Lisa for her help in figuring out details of Sora's characterization!

It had been a year since Sora had been to Hollow Bastion, and yet so much had changed! Now that the Heartless were gone, the Restoration Committee had obviously been working overtime to get their world back in shape. Not only were the old buildings revitalized, but new ones were being built. Houses were being constructed again as well, and more people were anxious to move into the land once called Radiant Garden.

Aerith was determined that it would be truthfully called that again. She had orchestrated the planting of many trees and flowers, and more brush. She had also organized nature groups, and Merlin was teaching about herbs. A good number of the houses now had gardens of their own, to grow food as well as flowers.

Children were running in the streets, laughing and happy. They chased each other past the lamps that were being put on all the blocks, around the newly planted hedges, and through the dirt on the new lots. Now that the Heartless invasions were over, they could play outside again without fear. And the Keybearer was very happy to see it. Finally, at least for now, there was peace.

He had been to see Leon and the other members of the committee who were still at Merlin's house. But he had not been able to find Cloud yet, and that worried him. He had always wondered what the outcome was of the battle Cloud had fought with his darkness, Sephiroth. Had he won? Had . . . Sephiroth won? Had it been a draw? None of the others could tell him, but Aerith did say that she had seen Cloud occasionally since then, so he was still alive. And that was a relief, at any rate.

Merlin had then said something odd, when Sora had asked if Sephiroth was still around.

"Sephiroth?" Merlin chuckled. "Yes, he lives in Hollow Bastion. Strange man."

"That's not the word I'd use," Sora retorted. "You should have seen the way he acted with Cloud!" It made him furious, whenever he thought of the way the silver-haired man had taunted the blond about giving in to his darkness. Sora had fought Sephiroth himself, and he would welcome the opportunity to fight him again. Someone needed to teach him a lesson!

"Oh yes, yes, I know all about that," the magician nodded, as he walked Sora to the door. "But you might be surprised by him. He isn't an evil person, despite what he might want you to believe."

Sora turned to look at him in shock. "Why would he want me to believe it?" he retorted. If this was coming from anyone else, he would not believe it at all. But for Merlin to say it, when he was a wise man who had been around for many years . . . Sora did not know what to think.

"He has his reasons," Merlin nodded thoughtfully. "And though I'm not at liberty to tell you what they are, I will say that his intentions for Cloud are ultimately good." He would not say more, but this was plenty to befuddle the Keybearer.

Were he and Merlin even talking about the same man? The Sephiroth he had met in the past had been bent on Cloud's destruction. That had been quite obvious. And he had wanted Sora's Keyblade. Nevermind that it would have gone right back to Sora. If he had managed to lose it to a creep such as Sephiroth, then he would have wondered if he even deserved to carry it.

Merlin had also seemed to act like Sephiroth was his own person, instead of part of Cloud. That did not make sense, either. Cloud had been convinced that Sephiroth was truly the manifestation of his darkness. And Sephiroth had not denied it. But if that was true, then why were they both still alive after their fierce combat? If Cloud had won, Sephiroth should have been absorbed back into Cloud's heart, or vice versa if Sephiroth had won. Any way Sora looked at it, he only became more confused.

Eventually he wandered out near the blue canyons that surrounded the town. It was a beautiful place, and yet ominous, he decided. But maybe that was because he could not help but think of the Heartless that had attacked there, and the encounters with various Organization XIII members, not to mention the battle between Cloud and Sephiroth. But he should try to put those negative memories behind him. Even without thinking of them, though, there was something very foreboding about this location. What had its past been?

Placing a hand on the rock, he slowly turned a corner. No one was here now, and maybe that factor added to the gloomy feeling. He had never come here alone before. And he had to admit that he had been hoping he would find Cloud. Aerith had said that sometimes he came here to think.

"Well, if it isn't the master of the Keyblade."

A chill ran down Sora's spine. He had been wrong about being the sole visitor. And that was not Cloud! That was. . . . He looked up, his blue eyes narrowing into a glare as he saw a silver-haired man peering down at him from the top of one of the lower canyons.

"What are you doing up there?" Sora said at last, defensively. "I thought Cloud kicked you into next week!" Unconsciously he gripped the Keyblade tighter. There might be a battle for it again. And he would not be caught off guard.

Sephiroth jumped over the edge. His three blue wings were spread, allowing him to soundlessly and gracefully hover to the ground in front of Sora. "I am Cloud," he said calmly. In his left hand, he clutched the hilt of the Masamune. His eyes did not appear to hold any lie, and yet, somehow . . . it seemed to Sora that the other was not saying everything, that maybe these words were only a half-truth, if indeed they held any truth whatsoever. And yet Cloud had believed those words before. Sora had, as well.

"Where's Cloud?" the boy demanded, stepping forward in determination. He was not intimidated by Sephiroth, even if he was reportedly the best swordsman in this world. What worried him was, What had happened to Cloud, especially if this man had won their battle? Aerith had said that Cloud was alive, but she had been vague. Maybe he had been hurt. Or maybe he had become even more bitter and had closed himself off.

"He's in the city," Sephiroth admitted finally. He looked at Sora, expressionless. "Is your boldness courage, or over-confidence?" he mused. "You've been able to wield the Keyblade for several years now." He started to bring the tip of his long sword up to Sora's throat. "But . . . that doesn't mean you're worthy to carry it."

Sora stood his ground, glaring up at the other. "I'm more worthy than you!" he retorted. "What happened last year, Sephiroth? Did you beat Cloud?"

Sephiroth tickled Sora's neck with the Masamune, enough to cause discomfort but not to draw blood. "What happened is between myself and Cloud," he answered, "but if Cloud wants to tell you, that's his affair." He pulled his sword back. "I don't feel like fighting you today."

"Are you afraid I'll beat you down, like last time?" Sora watched him, still tense. There was no telling what the other might do. He needed to stay alert. Sephiroth could suddenly attack, if he could get Sora to believe there was not any danger. And he was not planning to fall for it.

"I don't fear anything, especially a boy." For a brief moment, something that almost looked akin to weariness flickered in the green eyes. But then it was gone again, as if it had never been present. He half-turned to his left.

Sora frowned, stepping back slightly as the two wings on the other's right swept past him. There was something strange about the lower appendage that he knew had not been the case in the past. It was unnaturally bent over itself about a third of the way down, as if Sephiroth did not have the strength to keep it out normally except in flight.

"What happened to your wing?" he asked, his tone changing and allowing a bit of concern to slip in. Once, Kairi had tended to a bird with a crushed wing, and though it had finally, miraculously, healed enough to be able to fly again, it never was able to hold the wing naturally unless it was in flight, and it had not been able to travel as far or as long as it had probably been able to do previously.

Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder, seeing the wing that Sora was looking at. "Nothing that involves you," he said.

Sora ignored his cold tone. "I saw something like that before, on a bird," he replied, "and only when the wing was hurt really badly."

Now the silver-haired man turned back to face Sora again, his visage displaying mixed and unreadable emotions. "Why would you want to know?" he queried. "I doubt that I am someone for whom you would worry."

"Yeah, well . . . you're not one of my favorite people, but I don't like seeing anyone suffering." Sora looked him up and down. "And I guess I don't think you'd be holding your wing like that if you hadn't really gotten hurt, and if you hadn't really been in pain." He imagined that Kairi's bird would not have been able to help but be in misery because of its wing, even after it had recovered as much as it could. It would probably be the same for any winged creature or person, as the case happened to be. It was probably like injuring one's arm, or at least, that was what Kairi had said.

Sephiroth almost looked amused. "For me to be Cloud's darkness, would I be able to feel anything? Or would I be the equivalent of a Nobody?"

That was a good question. Sora brought a hand to his chin, his eyes narrowed as he pondered over it. Finally he looked over at the tall man once more. "If you're Cloud's darkness, then you're part of Cloud," he mused. "And shouldn't you feel what Cloud feels?"

"But this . . ." Sephiroth indicated his wing, ". . . would have been something that I alone felt." He studied Sora thoughtfully. "And did you ever feel what your Nobody experienced?"

Sora started, his eyes widening in shock. "What makes you think I have a Nobody?!" he exclaimed.

"I know a lot of things people might be surprised about."

Sora decided it would be better to ignore this line of questioning. Sephiroth was probably just trying to rattle him. "It's almost like you're trying to say that maybe you aren't part of Cloud," he deduced. But then why would he sometimes say that he was? He had said so right at the beginning of this conversation. Wow . . . now he was certain he knew how Cloud often felt. Sephiroth really did mess with people's heads!

"I didn't say that. I'm only presenting things objectively."

"Or maybe," Sora said, "you're just trying to distract me from the original question, when I asked about your wing!"

"Maybe." Sephiroth nodded agreeably, then paused. "I suppose as a pre-caution, it wouldn't hurt to warn the wielder of the Keyblade of the possible danger."

Sora came to attention. "What danger?" he demanded. Or would this be another trick?

"There have been strange and deadly dragons seen near Hollow Bastion," Sephiroth answered. "They've always been killed before actually entering the city limits." He spoke matter-of-factly, and yet again, there was a flash of something in his eyes---a remembrance, painful and perhaps even frightening. Sephiroth had said that he feared nothing. Had that been another lie?

Sora blinked at the silver-haired man's words. He had heard of the dragons from Leon, but somehow he had not thought that Sephiroth would mention them. "Did one of them attack you?" he asked. It was not likely that Sephiroth would give him a straight answer, but the question came out anyway. It could certainly be an explanation as to how his wing had been damaged, though Sora had originally been wondering if Cloud had done it.

"I killed the first one that appeared," said the other. "Everyone who has battled the creatures has ended up wounded to some degree." He looked away. "Some nearly died."

Sora watched him. "But you can't die, can you?" This was becoming more confusing every minute. He could easily pick up on Sephiroth's implications, but they contradicted themselves and made the boy's head spin. Definitely something to ask Cloud about, if he ever found the blond. Though, Cloud likely did not know what the truth was, either.

"I'm not dead, am I?" A quiet smirk.

Sora had to sigh. "Nope . . . I don't think, anyway." A spirit would probably not have a damaged wing, for one thing.

Sephiroth walked over to a low-hanging part of the canyon that was flat and smooth and almost like a bench. "Sit down," he invited. Climbing onto it himself, he lowered his body down slowly and spread his lower wings against the back of the platform, near where it connected with the part of the mountain above it. He leaned back against it, starting to relax as he watched Sora eyeing him suspiciously. "Are you afraid I'm trying to catch you off guard so that I can take your Keyblade?" he asked calmly.

"I don't know," Sora answered honestly. Sephiroth seemed passive, but he was not someone who was easy to trust. How would Sora know what the other might do? He had certainly seemed interested in the Keyblade a year ago. And of course there had been the thing with Cloud. Gripping his weapon tightly, the spiky-haired boy started to climb onto the rock. "What do you want?" he asked. If not for what Merlin had said, Sora doubted that he would be getting up here.

Now that he was closer, he could see that tired look in Sephiroth's eyes again. He frowned a bit. That was not anything he had been expecting, either. What had happened to him? Had all the battles with Cloud worn him out like this? In those eyes, he looked so much older than the thirty years he physically appeared to be. And, if he was part of Cloud's heart and soul, he would be supposed to be younger than thirty. Cloud was in his early twenties.

Sephiroth laid the Masamune across his lap, with the sharpened side facing outward. "I don't have any desire to take your weapon," he said. "Power, in the wrong hands, can only bring disaster for everyone, and especially for the one who has been granted power."

"I thought you'd figure your hands were the right ones," Sora remarked. He was sitting near one edge of the stone, facing the other.

Sephiroth smirked slightly. "I wanted you to believe I thought it. I was testing your skills as a Keybearer. It wouldn't have been as effective if you had not been certain that I was a threat."

"Oh yeah?" Could that be believed? If so, why had Sephiroth wanted to test him? Sora had not gotten the impression that Sephiroth was concerned a great deal about what happened in Hollow Bastion, or anywhere else. How much about him really was true, anyway? If Sora had not met him before today, he did not think that he would have the impression that this man was particularly bad or evil---just vague and somewhat cold. And he did not seem like anyone's "darkness", but rather his own person. Or was that all a deception, something he wanted Sora to think?

"Sephiroth . . . what have you done to Cloud that makes him hate you so much?"

Sephiroth regarded him, unconcerned by the question. "It's not so much what I've done, but how he perceives it," he said. "You witnessed our combat last year. That should give you a good idea of what usually happens."

Sora frowned. "It was pretty obvious you were taunting Cloud, wanting him to give in to his darkness."

"Was I?"

Now the Keybearer was more bewildered than ever, though Merlin's words still echoed in his mind. "Well . . . it sure looked that way," he said slowly. "What other kind of reason would you have for acting like that?!"

"What other reason, indeed." Sephiroth began to lower his dominant wing over his right shoulder. Twilight was coming on now, and bringing with it, dropping temperatures. Over the past year, he had found that he could not always handle the chill in the air as well as he had in the past. Perhaps, it was a mostly mental result after laying near-death and cold after the fight with the dragon. Or perhaps he was just getting old. He smirked slightly to himself. He definitely felt it.

Sora shook his head. "I just don't get you at all," he declared.

"Neither does Cloud."

Sora sighed, drawing up his legs to his chest. "You just . . . you don't seem like a bad guy," he mused. "Merlin says you aren't. But I can't forget how you acted with Cloud. You really got him upset. I thought that, when you and he disappeared, he'd beat you back and overcome his darkness by doing it."

"Cloud has a long way to go before he will be able to overcome his darkness," Sephiroth said in a matter-of-fact tone. "He can't even accept it exists. As long as he fears it, hates it, he'll get nowhere."

That actually did make sense. Sora was silent, studying the Keyblade for a long moment. "Are you his darkness?" he asked finally.

Now Sephiroth was silent, for such a long time that Sora started to wonder if he had fallen asleep. He looked up again, seeing that the other was staring into the distance and seemed to be lost in thought. Was it that difficult to think of how to respond to what should be a simple and straight-forward question? Maybe he was going to lie.

At last he turned his gaze back to Sora, looking satisfied with his decision. "Only in a manner of speaking," he replied.

Sora digested this. "So . . . you're not part of Cloud at all?" he pressed.


The Keybearer frowned. "Then why do you say you are?" he demanded.

"I don't. I said I am Cloud. There's a difference."

"Okay, okay. . . . But why do you say that?" Sora blinked confused blue eyes at the enigma. This was certainly the last conversation he had ever pictured himself having, and the last person whom he had ever thought he would be talking to. Cloud would probably be really upset if he was told about this.

"I have my reasons. Think about it a while." Apparently Sephiroth was not planning to reveal anything else. Or maybe this was another test, a challenge.

Sora rocked back, still holding onto the Keyblade. Why would anyone claim to be someone else, if they actually were not? And what did Sephiroth mean about being Cloud's darkness in a manner of speaking? Could it be . . .

"Does Cloud remind you of yourself, somehow?"

Sephiroth looked pleased. "You've solved a mystery in several hours that Cloud still doesn't quite grasp after several years."

Well, that was great, if it was true, but it still left a lot of unanswered questions. In some ways, Sora was more bewildered than ever. "Why, Sephiroth?" he found himself exclaiming. "Why do you hang around Cloud? Why do you say those things to him when you know it will get him angry?" He shook his head slowly. "I just don't get it. Don't you have anything better to do?"

Sephiroth's gaze was steady and still unruffled. "I can't tell you any more than I have. Just know that I would not have chosen this at all, if I had been free to make a decision."

Sora studied him closely. "Merlin says you want to help Cloud," he said now.

Sephiroth was unmoved. "I don't know that I would phrase it that way," he mused, "but it's true that in the end I want Cloud to become better, stronger." He leaned further into the rock. "He believed that I was his darkness, but he never approached me in the correct way. He loathed me, he could not learn from me."

"You say he 'believed.' So he doesn't anymore?"

Sephiroth smirked slightly. "Cloud has also believed that I'm some kind of a demon, assigned to torment him," he said. "He may still think that."

Sora observed the other in the waning light. Merlin's words were starting to make more sense now. And surely Merlin knew what he was talking about. Sephiroth could try to trick Sora, but the thought of him being able to do the same to a famous wizard such as Merlin seemed ridiculous.

"I'm still not sure what I think of you," he announced, "but Merlin seems to think you're okay, and I trust Merlin." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "I don't think you're a demon," he said slowly, "and you're not an angel, even though you have wings. . . . I thought maybe you were a Nobody or a Heartless, but you're not those things, either."

Sephiroth watched him, quietly amused. "Oh really. Then what am I?"

Sora shrugged vaguely. "I think . . . I think you're just a man," he said at last. "Yeah, you're really good with a sword, and you're strong, but I don't get why people are afraid of you." He paused. "Or why you want them to be. And you act like you want people to hate you, too. I just don't get it!"

"No . . . I wouldn't expect you to." Sephiroth still looked relaxed, but there was something else in his eyes as well. Was it regret? Sadness? Sora could not tell. Maybe it was something entirely different. "For right now, I feel that this is the best way."

Sora frowned. It would be pointless to keep trying with this discussion. The subject should probably be changed.

"Why are you telling me all of this?" he asked. Of all people, why him? He was probably half Sephiroth's age, if that. And they could not be more opposite. Sephiroth was serious and aloof; Sora was friendly and liked a good joke. Sephiroth seemed to believe in shades of gray; Sora saw the world in black and white. Sora also had friends; Sephiroth seemed to be a loner, by choice. Sora could not imagine that Sephiroth was a very happy person.

"Who knows." Sephiroth's smirk turned self-depreciating.

Silence reigned for several long moments.

At last Sora spoke again. "If you're bound to Cloud or something, then why not make the best of it?" the boy suggested. "Why don't you try to make friends with him?"

Now Sephiroth blinked in surprise. He looked to Sora, a smirk of dark amusement beginning to grace his features. "If you were anyone else, I would assume that was a joke," he commented. "But I see that you're actually sincere." He shook his head slowly. "No . . . Cloud and I could never be friends. Grudging allies, perhaps, if the situation called for it. Never friends."

"Why not?" Sora returned in earnest.

Sephiroth still looked entertained. "That should be obvious---we hate each other."

Sora snickered. "Oh yeah . . . I don't think anyone could help but see that." He leaned forward, crossing his arms in front of his drawn knees. It was only now that he realized he had let down his guard. The Keyblade was still being held in his hand, but he did not have a deathgrip on it now. Did he believe that this winged man would truly not try to get it away from him? It seemed as though he must have at least that much confidence in the other. Sephiroth did appear to deliberately try to come off as a worse person than he actually happened to be. But the "why" was probably something he would never understand.

"After knowing Cloud for so long, you must've ended up finding out a lot about him," Sora said. Though it certainly seemed that the same could not be said for Cloud's knowledge of Sephiroth. Of course, something could have always changed in the past year. Sephiroth was positively reluctant to discuss anything concerning the battle that Sora had witnessed.

"I suppose you could say that," Sephiroth agreed.

Sora frowned a bit. "Well, he's gotta have some qualities that are just his and don't make you think of yourself."

"Of course he does." Sephiroth looked thoughtful as he studied the boy. "You sound like Zack," he remarked.

"Who's Zack?"

"Zack Fair. He's in the military." Sephiroth nodded slowly. "I think you would like him. Almost everyone does." In fact, maybe that was even why he had stayed here talking to the Keybearer all this time. Maybe he reminded Sephiroth of Zack. He smirked slightly in the darkness. Zack had been the only person who could ever get him to open up at all, and yet now this boy had been able to accomplish the same feat, though to a lesser extent.

"So he's worth liking?" Sora asked.

"Oh yes. He's like you . . . determined, cheerful, friendly . . . unable to stand injustice."

"You sound like you think a lot of him." And that surprised Sora too, he supposed. Zack did not sound like the sort of person whom Sephiroth would think much of, with his cold, serious nature. He really did keep much of his true self hidden.

Sephiroth was looking out at the night sky as the stars began to appear. "You find it strange."

"Yeah . . . I guess I do. Especially since I was just thinking that you probably aren't close to anyone."

Sephiroth leaned back against the rock again. "I've become jaded, embittered, over time. I don't have much hope left. And then I find people such as you and Zack, people who never seem to lose any of it. It can't be naivete, because the hope persists no matter what kind of treacherous, abominable things have been witnessed. And it can't be stupidity. Zack, at least, is too intelligent. Though you seem to be smart for your age, as well." He looked back to Sora, who was watching him with a puzzled expression.

"People such as you and Zack just see life in a way that I cannot. I admire that trait, and I can see how it makes you happy, even though I can't accept it for myself."

Well, that had been unexpected again. Sora stared at the other. ". . . Zack is your friend, isn't he?" he said, with sudden understanding.

"My closest friend." Really, the only person Sephiroth considered to be a friend at all was Zack. There were people he had known in the military, acquaintances, but none of them were people with whom he could feel a kinship. He probably would not have formed such a bond with Zack, either, if it had not been for the brunet's persistence and honesty. Zack was his polar opposite, and yet somehow, they held a deep understanding of each other. He prized that, above all else.

Sora was silent for some time. So even Sephiroth had someone dear to him. The other's eyes were shadowed, both by the night and by the bangs drifting into his face. But his voice, which carried tones of firm devotion, said it all.

"I think everyone needs someone like that," said the Keybearer. "No one should have to be all alone."

Sephiroth nodded slowly. "Many people are," he pointed out.

"I know that. But it doesn't mean I think it's fair."

"Many things in life are not fair. One can't alter what already is."

Sora looked over at the other. "I think a lot more things can be changed than most people believe," he said firmly. "And I'm going to prove it someday." He stood up, stretching his legs. How late was it by now? He should probably be getting back. The lights from the town twinkled in the near distance. He hoped no one was worried about him and had gone looking.

Sephiroth smirked slightly. "Heh. When you say it, I can almost believe it will happen." He slowly got to his feet as well, spreading his wings a bit as he stepped down from the platform. He walked ahead, past Sora, and in the direction of the town. Then he glanced back over his shoulder, his expression thoughtful. "Though . . . I suppose you've already helped to change some things quite a bit," he mused. Sora had been a vital link in the war against the Heartless and Organization XIII. Without him, it was hard to say how things might have ended up.

And during the war, many things had happened that Sephiroth was still somewhat amazed by, as well as impressed. Many lands that were normally in conflict with each other had put their differences aside in order to battle a shared enemy. Quite a few individuals also had done so, though Cloud and Sephiroth had not been among them. Though they had fought the Heartless, they had also fought each other. And the silver-haired man was certain, in his pessimistic way, that most all who had been enemies before the war would be so again now that it was over. The relative peace was not likely to last for long. Zack would tell him to look on the bright side, but that was something Sephiroth was certain he would always have difficulty doing.

Sora blinked again. Probably, he decided, he should just accept that there were going to be many surprises as long as he was talking to Sephiroth. He jumped down from the rock, hurrying to catch up. As long as they were both going to the town, they might as well walk together.

Sephiroth never actually said anything of the sort, and neither did Sora, but the teenager noticed that the winged man kept his long strides short enough that Sora could easily keep abreast. In this quiet, yet informative way, they arrived at the edge of Hollow Bastion. There were still some people out, but most had returned to their homes, and the lights from the windows shone in friendly and welcoming ways.

The duo proceeded down the largely empty street, and Sora observed that many of the lamps he had seen being installed earlier were now coming on. They cast gentle yellow and white glows on the roads and sidewalks, and Sora was reminded in some ways of his home. He wondered what Kairi and Riku were doing.

"Do you have somewhere to go tonight?" he asked finally. Both had been silent for so long that it almost seemed odd to speak once more. And it also seemed strange to imagine Sephiroth having a home. It would appear to make more sense that he was instead a wanderer. But Sora was learning anew that appearances were often deceiving.

Sephiroth nodded. "I have. And you?"

"Merlin said I could stay at his house," Sora answered, and frowned slightly. "I wanted to see Cloud first, though, before it got too late. . . ."

"I know where he lives. I can show you."

The boy looked up at him. "Thanks," he said in amazement.

They continued down the same road as houses began to come into view. Apparently this was the older part of town, judging by the more worn look of most of the buildings and their yards. When Sephiroth abruptly started up the walk of a small, white abode, it suddenly seemed that he had been heading there all along. Sora paused, watching him for a moment before hurrying to follow.

Sephiroth did not bother to wait for him now, instead pushing open the unlocked door and stepping into the sparsely furnished living room. Cloud, who was slumped on the battered couch and dully flipping through the TV channels, looked up.

"What is it?" he asked. Sephiroth was amused to note that the blond actually sounded slightly interested. He must have been ungodly bored.

"The Keybearer has come back," Sephiroth replied matter-of-factly. "He wanted to see you."

Now Cloud blinked in surprise, getting off the couch. "Sora's here?" he said, just as Sora reached the porch and walked through the open doorway.

"Cloud!" exclaimed the other, smiling happily. So he was alright then! He actually looked more at peace than he had during any of their previous meetings. The wing on his left shoulder was visible again, though he was dressed all in black, as Sora remembered from their last visit. The tattered red cloak had been draped on the top of the couch, or more accurately, it had been randomly thrown there.

The blond met Sora's eyes, the traces of a smile coming over his face. "I'm glad to see you're doing alright," he said as the boy came over to him. "What brings you back here?"

"I wanted to see how everybody's doing," Sora told him. "I was looking for you all day!"

"But you found Sephiroth instead," Cloud deduced.

Sora nodded. And though he knew that he could not reveal any of what had been told to him in confidence, he still wondered if Cloud already knew some of it. Would Sephiroth care if Sora asked about the outcome of the battle? He had said that it was up to Cloud whether he wanted Sora to know. He glanced back, his eyes widening in confusion. No one else was there, and the door had been shut. Sephiroth had quietly and noiselessly left.

Cloud followed his gaze. "Slippery character," he muttered.

Sora smirked a bit. "Yeah. . . ." He looked back up at Cloud. "He wouldn't tell me what happened last year, when you two disappeared during that fight. . . ."

Cloud shook his head slowly, walking over to the couch. He had imagined that if he saw Sora again, he would tell him all that had taken place, both during the rest of the fight and when he had nursed Sephiroth back to health after the dragon attack several weeks later. Undoubtedly Sora would be surprised by it all, maybe even puzzled or bewildered. Cloud still felt those ways, even moreso when he realized that Sephiroth had just walked right into his house and he had not batted an eye. Last year, he would have leaped up, yelling indignantly at the other, if Sephiroth had tried to do anything so brazen. But now it seemed almost normal.

We've both changed, he realized.

He looked back to Sora. "Sit down," he said with a gesture. "It's a long story."

It definitely was, too---and Sora was astonished by all of it. Even though it further proved what Merlin had said, however, Sora realized that perhaps he was not as astounded as he would have been had he been informed of these escapades earlier in the day. His conversation with Sephiroth had left him with some level of understanding about the other, and what Cloud was saying now did not seem quite so unbelieveable.

"Wow," he remarked at the conclusion.

Cloud shook his head. "Yeah . . . that's about the only word for it," he muttered.

"So . . . you don't care now when he hangs around?" Sora asked, looking curiously at the other.

Cloud snorted. "Oh, I care. He's an annoying creep." He sighed. "But . . . he's Zack's friend, so he can't be all bad. I guess I'm finding that he isn't."

The Keybearer nodded slowly. "And you still don't know why he's bound to you?"

"No." Cloud looked more weary than irritated. "Zack seems to, but he says Sephiroth isn't supposed to tell anyone, and Sephiroth said that included Zack. So apparently he broke some kind of rule by letting Zack know." He shrugged. "For right now, I had to accept that I'm not going to find out. But at least, now that I know he isn't trying to drive me out of my mind, it isn't so bad." This was said with a certain amount of sarcasm.

Sora snickered.

"What do you think of him?" Cloud asked now.

The boy shrugged. "I don't really know yet. He's . . . different." He frowned. "I wouldn't have given him the time of day if Merlin hadn't told me that Sephiroth wasn't a bad guy. I guess that made me think. And then when we started talking, I saw that what Merlin said really seemed like it was true. It was like he really wasn't what he'd tried to make us think he was."

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "Were you talking to him for a long time?"

"I guess so." Sora frowned thoughtfully. "It got completely dark, and the sun hadn't set when I found him." He paused, thinking back on it. "He . . . he kinda seemed . . . I don't know . . . sad, almost. I thought maybe he was even lonely. He said a lot more than I'd ever thought he would have."

Cloud frowned as well. That was strange.

"Do you know where he lives?" Sora asked now.

"No." An annoyed look passed across Cloud's features. "I think sometimes he comes and sleeps here, on the couch. More than once I've woke up in the middle of the night and thought I saw him going past my room. And then in the morning, I'll find blue feathers caught in the couch cushions." He shook his head. "And then, a lot of the time he's with Zack."

Sora nodded slowly. That made sense. Maybe, he thought, Sephiroth really did not have a home of his own. Maybe he simply went back and forth between Zack's and Cloud's. Another mystery, to add to the growing list.

Sephiroth had gone back to the blue canyons, after taking Sora to Cloud. Now he stood on the peak he had been at upon spotting the Keybearer. In his hand he clutched a piece of paper, a copy of one he had discovered earlier that day. He gripped it tightly, as if he wanted more than anything to crush it completely in his hands. No . . . he would settle for simply turning back the hands of time, erasing what that paper said. He would settle for making certain it never came to pass.

To Be Placed On the Desk of Major General Browning---

Dear Sir,

We regret to inform you that, during our warfare against the dragons earlier this day, many of our men lost their lives. Many others are missing, and though we are diligently searching, we do not carry much hope of their continuing survival. Among the missing is Commander Zack Fair . . .

He had memorized all of it by now. The words had been seared into his mind, engraven on his heart. He did not need the paper, and yet he had it, mainly because of the directions it gave as to their current location. It had gone on to request backup to help both with the dragons and the posses.

Zack had known it was dangerous. All of their missions were. But when he learned of several dragons assaulting villages on the other part of their world, he had decided that immediate action was needed to protect the people. And so he had organized a unit to go there with him.

Sephiroth had wanted to go. His furious pyro attacks were a good match for the terrorizing dragons. But he was no longer part of the military, and Zack had been confident that he and his unit could handle it. They had ended up leaving sooner than expected, and Sephiroth had not even known of their location until that past afternoon, when he had gone to the General's office to search for information on where they had gone. That was when he had found the paper. And while he had still been reeling from its contents, he had found Sora. . . . Or Sora had found him. . . .

He still did not know himself why he had spoken with that boy. A large part of it probably was, naturally, that he was reminded of Zack. But he was not certain if, right now, that was a comfort or a curse.

He had not even been able to speak with Zack before the other had departed. Now, he did not have any way to know if the brunet was still alive. He did not have much contact with his current superiors, and they might not know themselves, since they dealt more with hopeless cases such as himself. Zack would be the farthest thing from a hopeless case, if he was actually . . .

He shoved the paper into his pocket. To leave now would be breaking the rules again. He was never supposed to stray far from where Cloud was. But he could care less about the rules now. He would go to where Zack's unit was, and he would not return until he knew, once and for all, what had become of his only friend.