Author's Note: Oh jeez this chapter is laaaate. I'm so sorry. It's also really long, and kinda graphic, and CLIFFHANGERY. I'll try to have the new one out on time to make up for it, okay?

V: Monsters of Men

Jenova screamed, and Sephiroth stumbled backward in shock. The singing in his head broke off with the howl, the calm and goading adoration burning in his chest going instantly cold. The materia in his skin crackled, snakes of energy jumping from one shard to the next all up and down his body, trading and intermingling to form one great power in place of the miniscule hundreds junctioned to his flesh.

The tendrils of light twisted suddenly, joining together to push into his chest in a glowing latticework of planetary energy, and the force of it put him on his back. Sephiroth's knuckles went white beneath his glove where he gripped the Masamune, sword song raising to fever-pitch while his body convulsed, eyes as wide and unseeing as they'd been when he was found not so very long ago.

Vie scrambled to her feet and away, watching in horror as the silver-haired young man howled and writhed, once again burned by the planet's own blood—this time so much more condensed and so much more invasive than before.

Slowly, tentatively, she moved forward again. Sephiroth's eyes—Cloud's eyes, to her—burned bright enough to hurt when she came around to meet them, shifting constantly between that impossible green of the madman he'd become and the intense, concentrated blue of the young man she'd initially met. His mouth was wide and his voice hoarse but unceasing, scream ragged and filled with pain.

And the materia just kept pushing, the crystals one by one going out as they expelled all the energy they had into his body, fighting some unseen enemy, forming some unseen protection.

The scream trailed into silence and Sephiroth went completely limp as the last strand of light threaded itself into his heaving chest. He stared at the sky with wide, blank eyes for a long moment before finally taking a thick swallow and turning, lethargic, to look up at Vie.

She tensed and pulled back.

"Usurper," he whispered, breathless, tone equal parts exhausted and heartbroken. "Child of thieves." He struggled to rise, grip on his sword tightening again, but succeeded only in pulling the oversized blade closer to him. "Won't let you—" He took a ragged breath. "—take it from me."

Blood began to well up around the shards of dead crystal still imbedded in his skin. Lacking the driving force of the planet's energy to keep them active, the materia shards were little more than slivers of stone driven into his flesh; there was no longer a buffer of magic to keep them from hurting him. Watching a trail of scarlet wind its way down his cheek, staining his hair, Vie felt a swell of what might have been pity.

Young as she was, she knew that this boy, this man, this creature was dangerous. She had no idea how much damage he'd done or how many people he'd killed, but no matter how pitiful he looked now she knew he had to be stopped before he could catch his second wind.

"You're completely mental," she murmured. "I don't want anything from you."

He made another attempt to rise, just as much a failure as the last. "Already took it," he said weakly, closing his eyes and struggling to catch his breath. Blood began to pool around him with startling speed. Without pulling the shards out, the wounds couldn't heal; unable to heal, they would simply continue to bleed.

And his heart beat so fast that his blood practically raced to leave his body.

"Took my…planet…" He ground his teeth, bent his arms and pushed himself up onto his elbows. Vie took a startled step backward, caught between wanting to bolt and looking for something to defend herself with. "Took…him." Sephiroth fought himself up to a sitting position. He shifted and stabbed the Masamune into the ground, at a harsh angle and with far too much ease, before changing his grip and using the length of metal as a support in his continued attempt to rise. On his knees, he turned to look back at Vie with those same wide, mad cat's eyes as before.

His voice came out in a deep growl. "Made him one of you instead of one of me."

With that, Vie's inner debate ended and she broke into a run. Sephiroth heaved to his feet, jostling more than a few crystal fragments loose—they rattled around in the inside of his sleeves, bounced off the metal of his belt when they dislodged at last from his chest—as he stumbled after her with a roar.

"Because of you!" He bellowed, pulling the Masamune free and giving a swing that arced just short of his target. "He couldn't do it because of you! Not different enough—never different enough—because of you!"

Vie gave a cry of terror when she heard the air just behind her sliced in two yet again, felt the wind from the failed strike at her back. Sephiroth just kept moving, and even lurching and stumbling and bleeding he moved quickly enough to catch up, to bridge the gap.

She tripped, and Sephiroth practically jumped to finish her off. Someone behind him cried out, some silhouette in the firelight, and just as he moved to take another swing something hard and heavy slammed into the back of his head with a crack.

Being attacked was a surprise. Not so much in that it came from behind, anyone with half a brain knew better than to take Sephiroth head on, but the fact that someone actually thought to fight back at all.

He jerked forward, bent almost double from the force of the blow, but didn't fall. Thick, spiky silver hair cloaking the face that was only halfway his, Sephiroth took a split second to allow his addled senses to right themselves before straightening and catching the his attacker by the hand just in time to keep her from striking again.

His bright green eyes met the deep hazel of Amaere's. "Oh," he said, voice level and lucid once again, no longer bordering on incoherent through the madness, "that was not a good idea." There was fear in her gaze, etched into her face deeper than anything else, harsh and dark and beautiful, but after a strained second of stunned silence, Mae surprised him.

She reeled back her free hand and punched him in the face, right where the shard still remained imbedded under his eye. The force of the blow jammed the crystal in further, twisted it under his skin and chipped it against his cheekbone; it must have bit into her knuckles as well, probably sliced her hand open, but she didn't even flinch.

Mae screamed, "Vie, run!" at the same time she used Sephiroth's moment of shock and pain from the blow to jerk her hand and haphazard weapon free so she could swing again. It collided with the side of his head, dizzying him for an instant, and in that instant she did it again. The third time he reached up and almost reflexively caught the weapon mid-swing.

Leather-gloved fingers clenched around the wood, and it cracked in two in a mess of splinters and blood and strands of silver hair ripped from his skull. Amaere didn't bother to try pulling it away this time, instead jumping back and shouting at the top of her lungs.

"Agol, now!"

Sephiroth heard the siren song of active materia behind him too late; he whirled just in time to see a young man, burned and bruised, raise his hand and shout something in the Ancients' language as loud as he could, gleaming orb set into the metal cuff on his wrist glowing like the sun.

A chill settled into him, he gave one breath—a puff of mist from his lips—and then the very moisture in the air condensed around him in a millisecond, drop after drop careening together into a cyclone of ice.


Jenova gave no whisper of reassurance as it pulled in around him, spinning and so cold it burned, the whirlwind snow pulling tighter and tighter until finally solidifying in an instant into a great cocoon of ice. The temperature drop, so sudden it hurt, pushed at the materia fragments still remaining in his body, tightened the molecules further and further until the brittle material couldn't handle it anymore, whined under the strain. They shattered, blasting gaping craters in his skin.

Sephiroth, encased in ice and burning alive, screamed.

Cloud and Jenova stumbled in time, pain exploding within the both of them in perfect time. Through it, Jenova blocked yet another of Cloud's strikes, already in-progress when the pain came, with one of her great monster wings. She shoved outward to knock him away in spite of how deep it bored his sword into her, the metal scraped against bone; Cloud knew he should have given another shove to break that bone, but could barely even move through the pain.

Jenova coughed, and the sound was so eerily normal in spite of her appearance that it made Cloud's stomach clench in response. What was this creature, really? A god from above, come from another sphere to take over a planet, or a person?

"They're killing him," she breathed.

Cloud jerked, setting his jaw and struggling to lift his sword through the agony flaring in patches all over his body. "Sephiroth…" He could sense the elite in the back of his head, inexorably connected to him in this shared body—he hadn't thought Jenova shared that connection. The energy shield around him, the fluid materia energy Gaea bestowed to keep him safe, flashed once and the pain abated.

Jenova wasn't so lucky. Her connection to Sephiroth had been forged with such determined intensity, such ferocity that no amount of will could break away from him quickly enough to stop her feeling the echoes of whatever agony he experienced in the world outside. Cloud saw an opportunity, and took it.

Lunging forward, he made another hard downward strike—again Jenova blocked, but this time Cloud gave another push, using strength he'd never before possessed to make sure the swing followed through. This one clove Jenova's right wing from her body.

The Calamity howled and stumbled back, fallen wing pulling sluggishly toward her, trying to rejoin the same way her fingers had but unable to move quickly enough under its own weight.

It was strange, because Cloud knew that none of this existed on a physical level. It was all internal, all mental, just a battle of wills; the fact that Jenova still suffered so much when he struck was almost confusing. Even she had her mental limits, even she couldn't simply will herself to win. Even the great Terror from the Heavens couldn't completely overcome the will of one desperate young man unwilling to just give up those things he loved to madness.

He swung again, at an upward angle this time, using the blade two-handed . The sharp tip just barely sliced into her midsection; even in such a state, she could still convince herself to move.

And to push back.

She let out a horrible cry, like a mako-high bird, and lunged forward with both hands raised to strike. Cloud blocked one with his sword, the other slashed at his chest, razor sharp points slipping through his shield and finally inflicting some noticeable damage.

Blood welled up from the wound, crimson dyeing the blue of his uniform a deep indigo, but the shield closed in another flash and Jenova leapt back to avoid the aftershock of the energy release.

It hurt, and it hurt a lot. Like the prick of a thornbush up in the mountains, something in Jenova's claws kindled a deep ache around the wounds themselves, spreading out into his chest in a haze of pain. Still, this was far less intense than what he'd felt before the buffer limited the echoes from Sephiroth.

Cloud was certain that, if he'd known the truth, Sephiroth would be able to match with Jenova even through that pain. He'd been stabbed and burned and probably shot more than once back during the war, and never once stopped. Cloud had taken part in minor skirmishes in Wutai and in-city conflicts, but nothing like Sephiroth—he didn't have his skill.

I have given you power, the best way I can.

The memory of Gaea's voice echoed through him, that vision of Sephiroth standing undaunted by the inferno all around him. Cloud felt something in his head shift, as though pulling aside, and something cold and unfamiliar settling into the gap.

He shifted his weight, lifted Zack's borrowed sword, and threw himself into her with renewed vigor.

Now his body knew what it was doing. Reflexes he'd never had, abilities he'd never honed enough to use, a level of skill he'd never dreamed of reaching came to him as naturally as breathing. He understood that this was how Sephiroth fought; this was what he felt like when he fought, this was what he could do.

They shared a mind, locked away with one another under the same skin. Sephiroth's memories, even those set into muscle instead of thought, were as much at Cloud's disposal as they were at Jenova's.

This was a battle of the mind, of wills and opinions and certainties. Jenova knew that Cloud couldn't beat her, so he couldn't. They both knew that Sephiroth could, so as long as Cloud did all he could to be Sephiroth, just for this one battle, he could never possibly lose.

"Fight with me, Seph," he whispered, tightening his two-handed grip on Zack's sword. "We'll take her down together."

There were a number of things that could happen in the moments it took for a third-level ice spell to melt or break, and more still in the time it would take a body built both of man and monster to stitch itself back together.

Sephiroth hurt, and he howled loud enough that everyone knew. When the ice invaded his mouth and froze him in place, he choked and fell silent. He stood, hurting beyond description but held erect by the freeze, sword humming weakly in his hand, and he thought. He listened, and he thought.

Hurried voices all around him—

"Recharge it!"

"Someone else take the bangle and—"

"Agol's the only one strong enough, and he can't—"

"Someone go get an ether!"

"Gaea, hurry!"

—and a low, comfortable murmur in his head.

"Fight with me, Seph."

That was the sound that made him think, because he knew that voice. Perhaps not as well as he'd like, but more than well enough. He remembered slate blue eyes and wild blond hair, a tousled set of nightclothes and a shaky salute when Zack hailed him over to say hello.

He remembered wondering how anyone so small could ever expect to make it anywhere in the military, how anyone that wide-eyed could believe they had what it took to take another life on command. He remembered the anxiety in that high, tiny voice when he introduced himself, and how he'd barely believed the name at the time.

He remembered bright violet eyes and messy black hair, and a hand on his back while a familiar voice proclaimed with a laugh, "No, Seph, that's his real name. Cloud Strife."

Sephiroth remembered, but Cloud was dead.

His voice echoed, calm and determined.

"We'll take her down together."

But Cloud was dead.

"M-Mother—" Sephiroth gasped, voice thick through the ice melting in his mouth. "Mother, he's not—he's—"

He's alive.

The ice strained to hold together, cracking and vibrating and keening under the force of the power roiling around Sephiroth, the atmosphere of the very planet fighting to break the ice.

That means he's different enough.

In a cacophony of cracking and scraping and a sort of screaming that only cold could create, the frozen prison shattered.

A ripple ran out through the people scrambling around him, every one of them freezing in place for a split second as he tumbled out of his frozen coffin to the ground, onto his hands and knees in a mess of ripped leather and gore, flashes of his insides clear as day where his body had been blown apart. Breath heaving, Sephiroth's body began to pull back together, craters filling in with bone and muscle and sinew, skin pulling taut over the massive breaches in his shape. His right arm, initially more heavily junctioned than the other, went rigid again, broken bones straightening again and growing to fill in the gaps where the force had completely obliterated them in chunks.

He pushed himself up to his knees and held out his left hand.

"Masamune." He didn't have to see the sword spring to his grip; his fingers curled around the black wrapping, tassel swaying just slightly as he rose to his feet. He angled his head back slightly, turning to look at the people around him one by one. They all wore the same expression of shock and disgust, rank with confusion.

He'd seen the look before, of course, both on enemies and allies, friends and foes alike.

What are you?

The last heir of the planet. The rightful ruler of the world. The child of a god. He straightened and closed his eyes, pushing back the stares and the questions and reaching out for reassurance instead. Jenova would confirm everything, just as she had in Nibelheim. She would sing him up again, whisper his name and trace up his spine to the base of his brain, send a jolt of power through him that proved she couldn't be anything but sincere.

He reached and he listened and he strained—

And Jenova gave no response.

Sephiroth was alone. In that realization, he found a sudden clarity, a train of logic that worked too perfectly to ignore.

Jenova said Cloud was dead.

Cloud was alive.

Jenova said she loved him.

He was in pieces because of her.

Jenova said the planet loved him.

The Masamune whimpered for him to stop.

Like gears set carefully into place, filed to fit perfectly together, the clockwork in Sephiroth's head began to turn. Alone under the stares and bleeding inside, skin dyed hideous blue-black where his injuries still worked to heal, he saw and he felt and he knew more than the claws dug deep in his heart had ever allowed, understood more than he could ever have grasped on his own.

I have allowed you understanding, in spite of your heart's protest.

It wasn't his memory, the words weren't meant for him, but it didn't matter. They set the workings in him on jewel movements, pushed every component perfectly into place.

Jenova said.

She didn't mean.

Cloud made another forward stab, tip of the blade barely grazing Jenova's chest as she reeled backward, carving a violet-black rivulet down her collarbone and over one breast. She ground her teeth and caught on her hands, flipping over in the instant it took for Cloud to draw back and swing again.

She screamed when he sliced her remaining wing clean from her body.

"Let him go!"

Jenova surged to her feet and all but staggered away from him, struggling to breathe as she struggled to stay on her feet, struggled to understand how in all the worlds this child could possibly be besting her so soundly. It wasn't possible; the Cetra couldn't even stand against her, the shapes she'd stolen were too flawless, the songs she sang too enticing to deny. One human boy, blessed by the planet or not, couldn't possibly match the combined strength of all the original children of the planet.

He swung again, and she spun to avoid him, stumbling backward and away. He moved with such fluidity and grace, but there was something wrong; his movements, even the way he angled his head, none of it was right for a body of his size. The swings all seemed cultured to longer limbs, the way he flipped his head quite clearly designed to brush back long hair, the movement of his legs practiced to keep lighter steps than a weapon like his would allow.

As he struck again, goring her shoulder but not breaking through, she could finally see what was truly beating her. The ghost of another, guiding his every motion with long limbs and strong hands, danced in time with Cloud, overlaying everything from those casual shifts of his shoulders to the frequency of his breath.

Cloud wasn't beating her. Sephiroth was.

In the instant she understood, something echoed through her, echoed out through the void all around them, some high pitched keening that made her go instantly rigid and still. It felt like an epiphany, a sudden understanding of something far greater than any of them could grasp, and while it chilled Jenova to her core it only added strength to her opponent.

Cloud angled his borrowed sword and drove forward, running the Calamity through and through, blue metal snapping through her spine and protruding perfectly centered between the stumps of her wings. Still he pushed in, closer and closer until she could see the blue of his eyes through the green of the shield Gaea built him.

"Let him go," Cloud demanded.

Jenova closed her eyes, and knew that she didn't have to. While they fought, in these sparse minutes that she was forced to withdraw from him or risk her absolute destruction, Sephiroth had let himself go. She could reclaim him, just as surely as Meteor burned, but it would take time to gather that strength. And that, she knew, was time she didn't have.

"He killed you once," she rumbled. "Twice." She smirked through the blood in her mouth. "He will do it again."

The voice of Gaea's most recent chosen was little more than a hiss, the whisper of a breath over skin. "That's not your problem."

She laughed once, then, and reopened her eyes to look up into the dark.

"Fools, the both of you."

With that she withdrew, and all those present—attackers, defenders, and observers alike—felt her hold on the shadows go suddenly slack. The shield of condensed Lifestream flowing around Cloud flashed and swirled around him, bright and strong enough to burn, and washed over Jenova in a flood of brilliant green.

She arched her back and the shield surging all around her solidified in another flash of white, giving off a shockwave strong enough to send the boy flying.

Cloud flew and tumbled, burning and choking, for far longer than he would have thought possible. Finally he careened to a stop on his front, Zack's sword lost somewhere in the flight, and pushed himself up to see.

Jenova was gone. In her place stood that brilliant figure of glowing white, eyes pools of green amid the mask of her smiling face.

Well done, child.

He hurt everywhere now, chest aching and eyes burning, but he managed a smile in return. "She's—"

Not destroyed.

Cloud's heart dropped into his stomach.

So long as her body lives, even one cell left corrupt and free of purification, the Calamity cannot die.

He forced himself to his feet. "But if she's not dead, then why did I just—why did Sephiroth—what's any of this even for?"

She is contained, and you…

She barely seemed to move, but in a flowing wash of light she stood before him; she reached up to touch his cheek and smile, lips unmoving as she spoke, voice deep and soothing and wonderful in ways Cloud couldn't name.

Until her those of her legacy can be cleansed, you will be her container.

She said it with such love, such heartfelt pride in his position, that Cloud couldn't even think of feeling indignant at what transpired here. He—and Sephiroth as well—had somehow been turned into a living prison for the greatest enemy his world had ever known, but under that gaze he couldn't bring himself to care.

He leaned into the touch, basking in the warmth of it, and gave a low, contented sigh.

I will keep you safe from her, and strong enough to fight her.

He nodded slightly, eyes drifting shut, and she leaned in to press her lips to his forehead, just as the Cetra girl in the healing grounds had done what felt like so long ago, a memory Cloud could only barely grasp. The shield around him, that buffer that shattered when Gaea stole the energy to contain Jenova, slowly built back up around him.

The best way I can.

Slowly, the void bled away around him, like paint washing off a window to reveal another scene. Gaea herself swirled away into a vision of night and sea and flame, and with a loud snap the world came into sudden focus.

He was back in Mideel. Still in Mideel, he supposed, with people rushing all around him, shouting and moving away, some pushing ahead to stand between the space he stood and the people making their retreat. How long had he been gone? More importantly, what had Sephiroth done in that time?

Jenova said they were killing him, but aside from patches of ache up and down his body, Cloud couldn't pick out any injuries worth mentioning. If their body was fine, that meant—

Cloud felt his mouth move, and heard a voice that wasn't his whisper in time. In the back of his head it seemed to echo, overlaying with a deeper, older tone that was more than just familiar.

"I don't understand."


His body—their body—went rigid, and though neither of them spoke a word aloud, Cloud heard Sephiroth's voice as clear as a summer sky over Mount Nibel.


Gods, he sounded almost scared.

"Sephiroth," he murmured, quieter now that he had the General's attention, "what's going on?"

A moment passed in tense silence; Sephiroth shook his head slowly, then with growing vehemence. His words came out broken aloud, interspersed in the shared cavern of thought with slightly less nonsensical additions. "I don't—" understand what's going on it can't be that "—I'm not—" everything she said I was everything I felt and knew and heard but "—she's—" silent quiet as death she's dead you're dead you killed her I killed you take her down together.

Sephiroth reached up with both hands, Masamune keening as it fell from his grip, and clutched at his head, eyes clenched shut as he doubled over and screamed at the top of his lungs. Cloud almost cried out in time, Sephiroth's howl only barely louder than the cacophony of confusion running through his head, leaking into Cloud's perceptions like water from an overfilled canteen.

The people gathered around him—them—jerked and reached up in time, clamping hands over their ears as Sephiroth's scream went up in pitch, layered and echoed and resonating with the energy churning just below the surface of the earth, Lifestream singing up at this body it had helped to rebuild.

Just off the coast, the ocean began to boil. The materia in Agol's bangle started to flicker and glow, pulsing like a heartbeat as Sephiroth's inhuman mind lashed out in search of something, anything he could understand.

This couldn't continue. Cloud could feel the mako running below the surface roiling and crashing against the underside of the ground, vibrating up through the earth from the sheer force of Sephiroth's will, his call for stability. He might not have been an Ancient, but whatever Sephiroth was—son of the Calamity, child of a monster mistaken for the last daughter of a wounded god—it was certainly equal, at the very least, with that lost species.

Cloud whimpered for him to stop, begging and pulling at his psyche, struggling to force him down to no avail. Sephiroth clenched and screamed and the mako well below Mideel thrummed in time, surging and struggling to meet him. The ground at his feet cracked, something glowing and green bubbled up over their boots.

That alluring feeling, the siren song that had cut through the security of the Masamune's resonance when Cloud woke up in this tiny village, rose in the back of his throat like the tang of blood. That's what it was—that well of planetary blood just under the surface harmonizing with the mako in his system. Breaking through the surface caused such a heavy energy release, thick and sharp and sweet like cotton candy, like sugar water, clinging to his insides like half-dried corn syrup, it almost sent Cloud reeling. If he'd been in control of their shared body, it probably would have.

Gods, what could he do? Sephiroth was unstoppable, his screams cut like white-hot metal through wax, if he kept this up then the whole of Mideel would be swallowed up by the Lifestream. But what could he possibly do?

'Keep me restrained. Stop me.'

Sephiroth continued to scream.

'I love you—stop me.'

Steeling himself, Cloud did the only thing he could: He took hold of Sephiroth, willed him into his arms, and pulled the shaking light of his consciousness backward into the black. The General's hold on their container broke, and for an instant before Cloud withdrew he felt muscles go slack, felt this body he'd been shunted into collapse in a crumpled heap of silver hair and blood and tattered black leather.

It was like going mad, he thought. Everything collapsing all around him, caving in and sinking, dragging him down to where it was cold and dark and unfamiliar—and yet quiet and subtle, letting him build his own fears in the gaps of silence and low, whispered warnings of what he was up against.

It was like being seven years old, looking up into burning red eyes smoldering like fire through a curtain of black hair, sharp teeth glinting in the low, yellowed light—and not understanding in the what in the name of any god was going on as long pale fingers reached out and touched the sides of his face, brushing back silver-white hair as that mouth pulled into a weak, pained smile.

And then red was blue and black was gold, and Cloud leaned over him, touching his cheek with one pale hand and whispering his name.

Everything snapped into focus.


No voices in his head, no shrill hiss of materia in his skin or in the air around him, even the Masamune was silent. It was just him, and just Cloud. He realized it wasn't like going mad at all. This chill, this detachment, this sense of being really and truly alone in himself—this was what it felt like to go sane.

How did humans bear it?


He looked up at him from where he lay, pulled rather awkwardly into the younger man's lap, and blinked owlishly once, twice, three times before his lips parted and his voice came out in a ragged croak.


His reaction was instantaneous. Cloud all but doubled over, burying his face in the older man's neck—although it felt strange somehow, the contact muffled like words overheard through a wall—and heaving a shaky sigh of relief. "Oh thank god."

One hand ghosted up Cloud's back, tangled into his hair, and held him there for a minute. He couldn't feel him properly, but he could smell him, and whether that sense was genuine or through a memory powerful enough to rekindle as they lay in this dark, shared recess of spirit didn't matter. The clawing inside him calmed, soothed by Cloud's closeness in spite of the barrier between them, and he relaxed.

Cloud pulled back first, searching his face with wide, mako-bright blue eyes. "Are you all right now?"

Sephiroth's mouth worked for a moment, then he closed his eyes and forced himself to sit up, taking a steadying breath. "I…believe so." His eyes narrowed slightly in thought as he tried to piece everything back together, tried to form the puzzle of these last hours into a coherent picture.

The image formed made him jerk and turn to stare at Cloud. "You—You killed her. Jenova, my mother, you—"

"That thing is not your mother," Cloud interjected, young face stern. The glow in his eyes intensified slightly, and Sephiroth couldn't possibly doubt his certainty. It hummed around him, nudged at the edges of Sephiroth's entire being with such confidence that to refuse it entry would be like turning off the sun. "I don't know what she is to you," he continued, "but if that thing is your mother then I'm President Shinra."

Sephiroth held a hand to his head, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes. "Right," he whispered. "Right, I know, I—" He phrased it the only way he could make any sense of the realization. "She says, she doesn't mean."

Cloud seemed to understand, because he nodded. He didn't move to stop Sephiroth as he rose to his feet, although he did hesitate for a split second when the older man turned and offered a hand to help him rise. Now, why would he—

Oh. Right.

Sephiroth gripped his hand tightly and pulled him up to his feet, letting go and looking away as soon as he could manage. "Where are we?"

"Inside," Cloud supplied, and Sephiroth could taste the word in his mouth as well. "The place you go when you think. Only…we share it. Now."

"Because we're in the same body."

Cloud nodded.

"…Gaea did it."

Another nod.

"Why?" He instinctively reached for the memory, but something kept him restrained; those weren't his memories, and Cloud was well-protected against at least intentional prying now. Whatever had happened, it had left him with quite the barrier against willful intrusion.

Cloud blinked. "You don't remember?"

He remembered a blur of fire and mako and burning, deep voices and a sense of maternal familiarity, anger and confidence and a thousand other things, and though there were parts that made perfect sense, parts he could see with all the clarity of a summer day in Costa del Sol, others were nothing more than a swirling mess of color and emotion.

"We're supposed to keep Jenova restrained," Cloud explained, understanding Sephiroth's confusion without needing a verbal response. "We're her…container." He looked away, rubbed the back of his neck, eyes going dark and distant. He didn't sound completely confident now either. "That's what Gaea said, anyway." He hesitated for a moment, swallowing thickly. "She's…not an Ancient. Jenova. Gaea said—"

"I don't care what she said," Sephiroth stated, voice darker and sharper than he'd intended. "It doesn't matter. You killed her, didn't you?"

Cloud shook his head. The confusion Sephiroth felt at that boiled over easily, and Cloud hurried to explain all Gaea had shown him. He spoke of visions of the past, secrets, Cetra and stars and a monster known as the Calamity who took the guise of dead loved ones to make monsters of men.

In his words, the story he wove, Sephiroth found a sort of sense he'd never known before. It still didn't explain his part in things, where he'd come from or why he was this while everyone around him was quite clearly not, but it was…cathartic. He once again had no idea where he stood, but without Jenova murmuring in his head and doubtless reveling in the flavor of his insecurities, it didn't hurt so much.

He wanted to tell Cloud that he and the Calamity were too tightly linked, too alike for there to be no connection at all, wanted to remind him of very silver hair and clearly slit-pupilled eyes on the violet-skinned figure in the tank at the reactor, but he held his tongue.

"…I think that's sort of like what she did to you," Cloud completed. "Only instead of infecting you physically, she just…dug into your head."

An apt description; Sephiroth wondered how much of Jenova's hold the younger man had been able to sense before it broke. He nodded once, squinting in thought.

Then he jerked as a rush of pain ran through him, strong enough to make him choke.