Kingdom Hearts II

The Price of Darkness

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! This is a direct follow-up to Duel of the Fallen Heroes, and it takes place on the same night, so having read that first would be useful, but it isn't required. It was directly inspired by the prompt "Kiss" at the KH is Love community, though I'm still trying to figure out how that happened. I think "kiss" made me think of "lipstick", and from there it went to "red" and then "blood." I only added Cloud's brief reference to the seductive woman later on, so that part was definitely not the inspiration for all of this. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help, and to Kaze again for the title!

Drip, drip.

The sound startled him back to awareness. For a moment the significance of it would not come. It was not water, he knew that much. His gaze followed it to the edge of his buster sword. Somehow it . . . it was stained red. And it was crimson drops splashing from the tip onto the blue ground under his feet. Deep crimson, like the color of his tattered cloak, or like a pair of deadly lips he had once encountered on his travels---lips that had tried, unsuccessfully, to ensnare him with poison kisses. . . .

Blood. . . .

What was it doing on his sword?! Yes, he had once accepted a contract to assassinate Hercules, but he had not gone through with it. And he had not harmed Sora, either, having come back to himself in time. His hands were not those of a murderer. Still . . . what . . . what was this?!

Swallowing hard, he forced himself to look beyond his weapon. Blue eyes widened in disbelief and horror. The body laying at his feet was half-drenched in the red substance. The fatal wound had gone through the chest, and it was from there that most of the lifeblood was emerging. Torn, dark clothing adorned the form, and the hue was fast changing to a sickening shade mixed with crimson.

The long hair and limp wings spread around the corpse were chilling. It had not been long ago that those wings had flapped, carrying the man out of the sky to land in front of his nemesis. The silver locks had streamed behind him, then shifted into position as he had stood there with the quiet smirk that was so despised by the buster sword's bearer.

There was not a smirk now. The still expression was pained, the lips parted slightly as a trail of red trickled from them to the ground. The eyes were closed, not staring at him with blank accusations---but they might as well have been.

His heart began to pick up speed as he took in the rest of the details. Several loose blue feathers were scattered about, forlorn as the wing carried them in various directions. One turned over itself two times and landed flat in the growing puddle. Its color changed from a royal blue to a morbid violet.

He took a step back, his hands trembling around the hilt of the heavy blade. "No," he choked out. "This . . . this isn't real. I didn't do this! I . . . I . . ."

A sharp clang sent him flying nearly a mile. The long katana, having been clutched in the strong fingers, had just been released. It clattered to the ground, missing the blood---but other drops were already on it, having splattered there when the buster sword had been driven into the once-proud chest.

Another clang soon followed. The buster sword had slipped from the shaking hands, their owner stumbling back again. This scene was too horrible. There was no memory of what he had done, yet no one else was around who could have committed this act of violence. If he had done it, it must have been in a fit of blind hatred. But . . . but . . .

"I didn't do this!" he screamed again. The words burned his throat as they burst from his lips. He would end up hoarse, but what did that matter? He had to proclaim his guiltlessness in this atrocity. He could not have done it! He would remember something like this. . . .

"You didn't do what, Cloud?"

His head snapped up as he whirled. His friend's voice, usually so cheerful and kind, was now dark and cold. His eyes were the same. There was no trace of mercy or worry within them. At his side he held the sword he bore in the military, the blade gleaming and unforgiving.

To have killed in hate was horrific enough, but to see Zack looking at him like that . . . to hear the unpardonable chill . . . it was too much. To hide in shame in the deepest cavern would not be far enough away from this . . . this just punishment.

He wanted to run, but his legs had become clay. They crumpled underneath him, sending him to his hands and knees in the gore. The blood was warm and sticky as it rushed over his fingers and splashed onto his arms, and bile rose in his throat. Sephiroth's blood . . . it was everywhere---emotionlessly accusing Cloud, letting him know without a doubt that this was his doing. It was his fault that it had spilled.

"I saw what happened. I thought you were my friend, Cloud." Zack could be heard walking over, his boots pressing and lifting on the blue rock. "But you killed Seph. So instead of losing one friend, I've lost them both."

The shadow of the blade could be seen hovering above Cloud's back, when he looked to his own shadow painted on the rocks. He shut his eyes tightly. He would let it fall. He had become a monster. Death was too good for him, but he would not object to it. Not after what he had done. Zack had seen it. . . . It must be true. He had killed Zack's other friend and had lost Zack's friendship.

He froze, gasping in pain as the sword plunged through his form. Blood leaped into his mouth, and as the blade was withdrawn, he choked on the thick liquid. More was coming into his throat, quicker than he could cough it out. He slumped to the ground, his vision clouding over as the crimson trails slithered into the cracks of the Dark Depths, racing to join with the blood of his old enemy.

So this, he thought, was the price of his darkness.

"NO!" Blue eyes flew open in sheer horror. Beads of perspiration were slipping down his face, over his neck, and into his shirt. Already it felt clammy against his skin. And his chest was heaving as he gasped in desperation for breath.

His hands curled at his sides, his current location ignored. All that could be thought of was the drastic nightmare he was still partially within. Sephiroth . . . somehow he had killed Sephiroth . . . and then Zack had killed him without him even resisting. But Zack . . . Zack would never do that! Zack would be too grief-stricken and filled with indescribable emotions of disbelief and hurt.

And he did not want Sephiroth dead now! He did not! How could he, when knowing of his friendship with Zack? And Sephiroth . . . Sephiroth was not his darkness. Sephiroth was someone else, a completely separate person. He had learned that when nursing the other back to health after the dragon's attack. Sephiroth was just a man . . . not even a bad man . . . not someone who deserved death.

"No," he moaned, turning his head to the side. "I didn't do it. . . . I didn't . . ."

Strong arms went around his shoulder blades and under his knees as he was lifted off of the surface upon which he had been laying. The weariness of the other man's body could be clearly felt, even in Cloud's dazed condition. His lips parted as he searched for words.

"What . . . what are you doing?"

"You almost rolled onto a large spring," was the sardonic reply. Now they were moving, heading toward an open door through which all was dark.

"Spring?" Cloud blinked. It was his couch that had springs sticking out everywhere. But . . . oh, he had been sitting on it, hadn't he? He had been there until he had gotten too exhausted, and then he had slipped down onto the arm and had fallen asleep again. And now he was being carried back to the bedroom. He was alive . . . Sephiroth was alive . . . Zack was his usual cheery self . . . or he would be, if he was there and not off on a mission. . . .

They passed through the doorway. Sephiroth sighed to himself, bending over as he laid Cloud back on the bed. The younger man was still looking up at him with those bewildered, glazed eyes. This had already been a long night, and apparently it was going to proceed in that vein. It would be a lie to say that he did not wish that Zack was there. Zack would be able to deal with Cloud's illness much better than Sephiroth could. But he would also worry a lot more, even though he would try not to show it. This task should not be wished upon Zack.

He pulled the old brown quilt over Cloud's weakened form. "You're still not well, Cloud," he grunted, placing a cool hand on the blond's forehead. "Your fever's gone up."

Cloud shivered, reaching up to bat the hand away. "I killed you," he mumbled, his words slurring. "I killed you, and Zack killed me. I let him. . . . He hated me. . . ."

Sephiroth shook his head. "You were dreaming again," he said, his voice flat. "Just as you dreamt that you went insane and took over Hollow Bastion as a tyrant. This delirium is bringing out your worst fears." He paused. "Though, surely you know Zack would not kill you, not unless he was absolutely forced to. And you would never put him into such a position."

"Of course I know! . . ." Cloud snapped, his weak voice rising as much as he could take it. And of course he did, but . . . but why? Why would he dream such a thing? Sephiroth was mentioning his worst fears, but he did not think that Zack would ever turn against him! Zack never would! It was an injustice to his best friend to even have such a nightmare.

He slumped back into the bed, his eyes wearily closing. "Sometimes," he found himself saying, "I think about what would happen if the people I pushed away in the past turn against me in the future . . . even though I know they won't. But I can't make those stupid thoughts go away." If he was fully coherent, he would never be saying this, and especially not to Sephiroth, of all people. But the fever had loosened his tongue, which he would no doubt regret come the dawn.

Sephiroth paused, slowly removing his hand. Even he had, at times, been plagued by such thoughts and illogical fears. Zack would never, never betray him and he knew it whole-heartedly, but at the same time he despised himself so greatly for his past mistakes that he wondered how Zack could ever continue to want to be around him.

Cloud's rage was one of Cloud's most intense concerns, and if he ever lost himself in it, he would no doubt feel entirely unfit to be around Zack or anyone. Though he had ended up sinking into it in the past, he had caught himself before he had done anything extremely treacherous. And he had worked hard to get himself under control since then, despite the fact that it had taken him a while to determine what he needed to do in order to accomplish that feat.

"That's only human, Cloud," Sephiroth grunted at last. Was Cloud even still awake? He had not opened his eyes. . . . Nevermind.

Blue eyes blinked up at him as he spoke. "Human?" Cloud repeated. "It makes me feel like trash . . . like I'm not trusting Zack. But it's not that I don't trust him. . . . I don't trust myself."

"I doubt you've ever spoken to Zack about this." Sephiroth certainly had not. It seemed foolish, when he knew it was all in his mind. And though he felt that Cloud should tell Zack what was bothering him, he had decided that he himself must keep it inside and fight it alone to be strong.

Cloud gave a weak snort of derision. "Of course not. That's a great topic for conversation---Oh yeah, sometimes I'm afraid that I'll lose control of myself and my best friend will turn against me and kill me in cold blood, even though he's like the most gentle guy on the planet." He looked away, studying the edges of the quilt through bleary eyes. "I just . . . he's stuck by me all through the years, when I was doing the most stupid stuff I could, but what if I end up slipping back into my darkness and I do something so . . . so horrible that not even he can forgive me for it?"

Sephiroth was silent again. At last he sank into the chair by the bedside, spreading his wings enough so that they would not be in the way. His tired joints thanked him for the relief. Honestly, it had been such a long night, but he sometimes just felt old, anyway. Even though chronologically he had not yet gained thirty-one years.

"There's not an easy answer to that," he said. "You can tell yourself that you will never let that happen. You can know that there is never anything you could do that would make him turn against you. And yet, somewhere in your mind, the fears are still stirring, waiting to be released."

Now Cloud was silent. "You're always giving me this great advice that's full of cheer," he grumbled in sarcasm.

Sephiroth grunted. "Would you rather I lied to you and told you something you wanted to hear, rather than the truth?"

Cloud glowered at the quilt. "No . . ." he admitted. "I just wish that it wasn't the truth. I wish there was some way to stop it."

Sephiroth crossed his arms. "The greatest comfort and help in such times is to see things as they truly are," he said. It was what had eased his own agony many times. That, and his determination to not think about such ridiculous subjects. But Cloud had no doubt made a similar goal. And they still found times in which to flare up---such as now, when he was so sick.

"Yeah, I guess." Cloud paused, mulling over his former enemy's words in his feverish mind. "You're talking about yourself, aren't you?" he said in realization.

Sephiroth looked at him. "Myself?" he repeated ambiguously.

"When you're saying about the fears always being there, even though you know you won't let them come true, and even though you know Zack won't ever abandon you. You're talking about yourself."

". . . Go back to sleep, Cloud."

Cloud rolled his eyes. Same old Sephiroth. He never wanted to talk about himself. Of course that was why it had been so surprising earlier when Sephiroth had admitted to having fallen into darkness and had counseled Cloud not to tread the same path. It was the first time Sephiroth had ever spoken plainly on the matter, instead of talking in riddles. But it would be too much to think that he would open up twice in the same night . . . and lifetime.

He sighed, turning onto the side facing Sephiroth and allowing his ragged bat wing to spread out on the mattress. "Are you going to stay here?" he asked, his voice half-muffled by the pillow.

He sensed Sephiroth shrugging in the darkness. "Would you rather I left?"

"Doesn't matter," Cloud mumbled. "You're bound to me, so you'd be hanging around whatever I said."

"You're taking me for granted then." Now there was a familiar dark smirk in the tones. "There are times when I've had enough of you, Cloud. And when that happens, I leave."

Cloud grunted into the pillow, pulling it close to him as he let his eyelids sink. There was no way he would ever admit that it was actually somewhat a relief, to not have to brave this illness alone---and to know that he was not the only one tormented by such an intense guilt and fear concerning past mistakes.

". . . Even if you did start to slip back into your old ways, there are those who would not let you."

"Hmm?" Cloud was half-asleep by now, but the words still registered.

"Zack, of course. And your friends from the Restoration Committee."

"Yeah. . . ." Cloud's voice was a tired murmur. All of them . . . and Sephiroth, too? He was bound to Cloud. His mission was to help Cloud stay away from a path of darkness, so he would likely be involved as well. Not that it really mattered to Cloud if he was . . . but it was nice to at least know that Sephiroth wasn't trying to kill him or drive him out of his mind. Sometimes he was not such bad company.

. . . Had he really thought that? No, it must just be that he was so tired, that some weird idea from an oncoming dream had crept in. Well, it had better shut up, because it was annoying and he wanted to sleep.

He felt the morning sun on his bare face and arms before the beams pried under his eyelids and forced them open. At first he wondered if the warmth was the fever again, but as the blue eyes focused on the light streaming in from behind the worn curtain, the truth was quite evident. He looked away, grimacing at the interruption to his slumber. Somehow he had rolled onto his other side in the night, and he was paying for it now.

There was still a definite feeling of being unwell. His skin felt flushed, and every part of his body was screaming. A cough escaped his lips, a shiver running up his spine at the same time. He had certainly done a number on himself this time, after that stupid plunge into the water. It felt like his head was hurting, too, probably from that bump he had gotten.

"Hey! Seph tells me you've had a rough night, buddy."

He started, turning around to stare at the doorway. A familiar dark-haired man was standing there, one hand on the woodwork. It dropped to his side as he advanced into the room. His lavender eyes were filled with nothing but kindness and concern for his dear friend, and as he drew closer, regret was also evident.

"Man . . . I would've been here if I'd known," he said. "I came over as soon as I could, once I got back." He surveyed Cloud's ill form, shaking his head slowly. "How are you feeling?"

"Could be worse," Cloud answered. It felt like his voice was scraping his throat.

How much had Sephiroth told Zack, anyway? He would not have taken it upon himself to mention the nightmare, would he? He might have talked about the delirium in general, just to make a point of how bad off Cloud had been. And Zack would worry about that.

But if Zack knew, he did not speak of it. Instead, he plopped into the chair Sephiroth had occupied the night before, reaching to feel Cloud's forehead for a fever. His hand was cool, but in a welcoming way---as opposed to chilling Cloud half to the bone. That was a good sign.

"Looks like your fever might've come down a bit," Zack chirped.

"Feels like it." Cloud relaxed into the softness of the bed. "Where is Sephiroth?" It was weird, to be asking, but he could not help wondering. Had Sephiroth gotten fed up with Cloud's nonsense and left? Or had he just opted to let Zack take over now?

"Fell asleep on the couch," Zack answered, leaning back and reaching for the thermometer. "He didn't say so, but I could see that he'd been up with you all night." A slight smile flickered over his features as he said this.

"Yeah?" Cloud had really not expected that. But when did Sephiroth ever do what was expected? His gaze flitted to the device in Zack's hand.

"Yep!" Now Zack gave Cloud a mock stern look, as the blond regarded the hated instrument with suspicion. "Aww, come on, it's not that bad!" he scolded. "And it'll just take a minute." His look changed to mock pleading. "You'll open up, won't you, pal?"

Cloud rolled his eyes, but allowed his lips to part enough that Zack could slip in the thermometer. He shifted position, spreading his wing out again. After a moment the thing beeped and Zack removed it.

"Ninety-nine point seven!" he announced. "Some more rest and you should be good as new!"

"Heh." Cloud smirked a bit as he leaned into the pillows. He was feeling a lot better already. Zack's presence had that effect.

Now Zack sobered again. "So . . . Seph also mentioned you were having some kind of creepy dreams." He watched Cloud in concern, looking through the suddenly embarrassed blue orbs for any indication of what had been seen. The news of the delirium did not surprise him, but it did make him worried. Cloud carried so many inner demons that tried to sneak into the forefront of his mind at the very worst times. There was no doubt that they would have contributed to Cloud's illness.

Cloud frowned, looking down at the quilt. "How much did he tell you?" he mumbled.

"That was about it," Zack said. "If you want to talk about it . . ."

"Not really." Cloud shook his head. "I was just acting stupid last night. I'd rather forget it."

He could see Zack nodding. "That's fine. Just as long as you know we're here for you."

"I know that." Though . . . "we"? As in, Sephiroth as well?

. . . Sephiroth was gruff, but understanding. Cloud had discovered that the previous night. And he apparently had stayed up, even after Cloud had fallen asleep. Had he had some other delirious spell that he did not remember? That would be humiliating, but not surprising.

Suddenly he was glomped. "As long as we stick together, everything'll be fine!" Zack chirped.

For a moment, Cloud started in surprise at the abrupt action. But then he slowly relaxed into his childhood friend's embrace. That was Zack for you---always finding some kind of a silver lining. And undoubtedly he made life brighter for the two pessimists he hailed as his best friends.

"You dork," Cloud mumbled, smirking a bit as he drew back.

"Dorks help make the world go round!" Zack smirked as well. He released Cloud, letting him sink back into the pillows.

The blond looked up at the other. Relief and healing had been washing over him in the last few moments. Not that he would admit it to anyone but himself, and only in silence, but Sephiroth was right.

"The greatest comfort and help in such times is to see things as they truly are."