Author's Note: I'm sorry. I had to. I've been writing this thing on and off for a little over 3 years... maybe longer? I just finally feel I reached a stopping point so I am splitting my little story up into two parts. Here is the first- unbeta'd (accepting offers- I know I've probably missed a ton of really obvious stuff). I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Part II shouldn't take me nearly as long as part I :)
Ghosts - Part I.
Pale fingers clutched at even paler hair. Shoulders hunched against a hail of memories. Lips stretched wide to let loose a terrible scream, one that fell only on deaf ears. It was numbed pain that caused these reactions, Triggered by images, obscene visions, which flashed through an unwilling mind. Too fast to comprehend, all just bits and pieces of a much larger picture, snapshots of a life he couldn't remember, but had obviously lived. They burned into his retinas like some movie that had been left on pause too long before the TV was turned off- so that the image still lingered, eerily shadowed against what should have been a dead black screen. The pain was nominal, but fresh, splitting and burning into an old wound. And yet, as these memories rewound through his brain, Sephiroth couldn't help but notice a weight being lifted from his shoulders. It was as if this story had already come to it's due close, as he was only being forced to recognize it, to remember it. These flashes of pain, pictures and people, raced forth only to fade back to what seemed more a distant nightmare than a recollection of past events. And as the last of the visions faded, as the story rewound to it's beginning, and green turned to red and red into rocks and beams and fire and pain, his body was thrown forward in a rush of wind and static. Hands clutched desperately for purchase against a slim handle of life, and eyes shut against a vision of gold and anger and promise, its face burned into the black screen of his lids.
Cloud had never been the most…social person, and over the years his friends had come to terms with this, though not without a good amount of effort towards the opposite. So it wasn't with much notice nor complaint that he found himself packing a few meager traveling items into Fenrir and leaving Midgar one night. He had a destination in mind, Nibelheim, but not for any reason other than the normal one. It was early spring, when frost still bit into the dew-covered grass during early morning and the snow-capped mountains still slumbered…and just around the time of the anniversary of, well, what Cloud had come to call 'The Anniversary'.
For the past few years, Cloud had made this same exact journey. His reasons were many, and varied: To pay respect to the many dead, to make sure the reactor truly was inactive, to place a flower upon his mother's unmarked grave. But in all honesty, he couldn't formulate a true good excuse. It was just a feeling, a silent call from his childhood home that drew him. He could cover it up with whatever story he devised, but for those few weeks he stayed in the abandoned wrecked village; he couldn't help but feel like he was waiting for something.
As he came upon the quiet Nibelheim, blue eyes swept over the small shapes of houses, and further in the distance, the looming black silhouette of Shinra Mansion. Now there was something he did avoid. His own skeletons had been chased away, for the most part, but that mansion was home to someone else's demons. Demons that Cloud had no intention of undertaking. He'd continue these visits to his childhood home for as long as he was urged to, but he'd never willing deal anything more than this solemn remembrance.
Nibelheim didn't seem to want to reconcile with it's own demons either. Perhaps that was why all the people had fled from it. Or maybe it was because without the pay coming from down from Shinra…this place really was worth nothing more than the memories it still held. Homes and shops lined the dirt and grass streets, the previous owners not even bothering to close the shutters or lock their doors. Winter had done it's job of killing off the growth of vines and plants, but their brown barren husks still clung to the edges of rooftops, much like village itself still tried to cling to it's past life. How ironic, how appropriate.
Mid-afternoon was easing into evening when Cloud settled into his one of the many homes. He'd long ago 'claimed' the house as his, and so had it stocked with canned foods and toiletries, and some extra clothing, along with an assortment of other items that could come in useful during his short stays. The actual house was probably the smallest of any in the village with a single main room that also functioned as a kitchen, and a separate bedroom and bathroom off to the side. The bedroom was Cloud's favorite portion of the house. Its wooden planked walls warmed nicely when the fireplace was lit and the previous owners had hung afghans on the walls to add a bit of coziness and color to the otherwise barren room. Even though the colors didn't exactly…match, the worn threads and muted oranges and reds and yellows and blues…calmed Cloud, somewhat. The main room, other than holding a large couch and coffee table, had a bookshelf propped against one wall. There was a larger fireplace built in but that one's floo was stuck shut, and it had never gotten so cold before that Cloud had reason to really figure out how to fix the thing. Any meat he needed, to go along with the many canned peas and corn and other vegetables, he hunted for.
So all in all, Cloud considered himself to be well off during his stays in Nibelheim, leaving him more time to sit and think than worry about where his next meal was going to come from. And more time to explore, and remember, and did he mention think? Cloud did a lot of thinking these days. Probably too much, by any one man's standards. One conclusion he had come to, though, was that he had changed drastically over the years. He was still quiet and introspective, but he'd watched the awkwardness that was a result of youth and low self-esteem fade away as he'd grown older. Cloud was no longer a boy, and with his age brought a level of experience and maturity that didn't allow space for his previous hesitancies and uncertainties. Saving the world…twice may have had a hand with that.
Sometimes, Cloud still felt like he was on some kind of a mission, though his goal was unknown. Maybe that's why Nibelheim called out to him, or why he couldn't settle down in one spot for too long of a time. Or maybe the life of a vagrant, whether he chose to recognize it or not, was the only thing that could keep him occupied. What else is there to do with one's life after saving the world from impending doom? Cloud allowed himself a small indulgent smile over that, but really? Settle down and start a family? He had never been that kind of a person, though that seemed to be what everyone thought he should do. From the small hints that Tifa tended to drop whenever they were together, to Barrett's own brash and blunt questions, Cloud would have to be blind to not see their expectations.
Yet, Cloud didn't have any expectations for himself or his life. He just…went with it. And for now, that was enough.
Cloud stared warily up at the entrance to the reactor. The early morning light, gray and heavy, made the already eerie place seem even more unearthly. Wetness clung to his face like a second skin, leaving a film of shine that was both clammy and unclean. As he brushed by cold rock and iron railing, he fought the urge to recoil. He couldn't ever imagine this part of his journey as being pleasurable, but just like he felt like he had to sooth the spirit of Nibelheim with his presence every year, he had to visit the reactor.
As far as he was concerned, this was where it all had started. And while is should hold even worse demons than the damned mansion, Cloud found himself being more saddened than disturbed. Stepping through the different rooms and passing by exposed plumbing and, deeper still, broken pods that once held…god knows what...caused his heart to constrict. His throat grew tight against a sigh he longed to just expel, and his eyes systematically took in each and every sight laid bare before him with a silent sort of acceptance.
The reactor never changed, almost as if it had been thrown into suspended animation, every piece of broken glass and every twisted metal shard exactly as he remembered. And he remembered it all, down to the smallest detail. That was where he had found Zach, weakened and almost unconscious, and that was where Tifa had fallen, and there was where he had thrown Sephiroth…
A figure lay, unmoving, upon the metal grating leading over the mako pit, Sephiroth. Cloud didn't even think as he fell back into a defensive position, sword drawn and leveled before him. What the fuck was going on, he should be dead. But instead there he was, silver hair covering bare shoulders, chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, skin reflecting a faint green light from the mako underneath them. Cloud didn't fight the bile that rose into the back of his throat, nor stop his eyes from narrowing at the sight before him. Even his hands shook as he slowly stepped towards the figure, with fear, with disbelief. Maybe…he's just a figment, I'm just seeing things. Or maybe it wasn't even Sephiroth. Cloud had encountered clones before that had the same silver hair, and so maybe this was one too, or maybe…
Carefully, Cloud took the final step towards the body and leaned over it, sword positioned precariously above the man's stomach, and worked up the courage to peer at the face. Tired lines of pain ran across all too familiar features, and when eyelids blinked open to reveal pale green eyes, Cloud's fear turned back to anger, and his hesitancy into action, and his sword slid easily into the man below him.
Sephiroth was surprised at his own cry of pain as he felt cold metal piercing his middle. It was as if his visions had suddenly become reality, the wound that had ached with forgotten pain reopened by the man's sword. And his face, it was almost a perfect match to the one he'd last seen while the sensation of being thrown forward overtook him.
Metal slid further into the wound as Cloud snarled at him in anger, a rush of hot and cold seemed to almost move straight from the other man through the sword and right into Sephiroth. And the words, they cut almost as deep as the blade, "You, are dead."
"No-" Sephiroth gasped, hands lifted to grab at the blade, eyes a mixture of guilt, defiance, confusion... He hadn't had time to get his thoughts straight, he hadn't had a moment to understand, and he knew this wasn't the same situation as his last vision, as his last real memory, but it felt just like it…
Except there was no voice whispering in the back of his head. There were no false promises, professions of motherly love, no lies. Just the sword in his stomach and the same angry, passionate face…
Sephiroth's hands fell from their loose grip on the sword, fingers leaving trails of red as they slid down the sides. His throat was raw but he couldn't work up the strength to swallow, let alone…plead? Beg? Fight? None of those actions even struck him as being the appropriate response. No, all he really wanted was a moment to breath.
Cloud hovered anxiously over the form below him, waiting for the attack that was sure to come, the scathing remarks, and taunting prods. Yet, nothing but the small weak response of 'no' fell from the other man's lips. It had almost been lost with the gasp, but Cloud had still caught it. And that paired with the quickly fading strength in the body beneath him, and the confused, yet clear and responsive eyes…
Maybe he had reacted too quickly.
Instinct overtook thought once again as Cloud dropped to his knees beside Sephiroth. His sword was still embedded in Sephiroth's abdomen, and he steadied it with a trembling hand, swiping his eyes over bared pale flesh. The wound would need healing, and Cloud did in fact have a potion on him, but the contents wouldn't do much other than slow the bleeding. Unless he was able to come across a cure materia…well. Sucking in a gulp of air, Cloud placed a gloved hand upon Sephiroth's sternum, right above the sword, and slowly pulled the blade free. He couldn't help but cringe at the other man's cry of pain. Sephiroth had never been one to ever make any sound or show of weakness. Hearing anything other than a command or maniacal chuckle disturbed Cloud more than the general situation he found himself in. It almost made Sephiroth appear like just any other person. Almost.
Cloud frowned at his own thoughts and immediately applied pressure to the open wound while setting his sword aside. With his now free hand he dug around in the inner pockets of his coat and pulled out a small, faintly glowing, blue bottle.
"You need to drink this," Cloud popped the cork free and placed the rim at Sephiroth's lips, silently willing the man to trust him enough to drink the contents. After all, he had just shoved a sword through his belly without prompt. And personally...he'd never trust anything the man tried to coax him into drinking.
Sephiroth didn't hesitate in accepting the potion, though, and Cloud quickly discarded the empty bottle. He'd have to wait to dress the wound until he got back to his house, so that still left the problem of getting there. From the looks of Sephiroth, eyes fluttering in attempts to stay open, and body about as limp as a dead fish, well, he doubted the man would be able to walk. Cloud cursed. I must be going insane. Spite and frustration laced his movements as he jerkily pulled his coat off. Helping the enemy, attacking a defenseless man, he couldn't get his mind straight enough to even begin to digest his current situation. And now he'd have to carry him all the way back into town, lend him his home, heal his wound, all the while worrying over his own sanity.
"Gods, shut up," he growled and he went about the task of dressing Sephiroth in his coat. Cloud considered being gentle, but obviously Sephiroth was practically immune to death, so he doubted a bit of rough handling would send him into the lifestream at this point. Unfortunately.
Cloud took a moment to mentally scold himself. Helping. Not hurting. There, good. Back to business.
And so, it was with a grunt and a good balancing act that Cloud hauled the formerly esteemed general and current pain in the ass over his shoulder, and started the slow trek back to Nibelheim.
Sephiroth hurt. All over. Not just his stomach, but his arms and legs and back…all the muscles burned with the pain of disuse. His joints were stiff, and his head felt like it had been smashed with a building. Not against, no, more like some giant had picked up a building and literally chucked it at his face. And his current state of near upside down…ness, was most surely not helping. Mako poisoning, Sephiroth mused, was probably the culprit, as well as the nasty wound in his stomach. Poisoning he had been through before, and had come to a certain…tolerance of the symptoms associated with it. But where had he been that allowed for him to come into such exposure to mako? His memory was still not working, even the present felt hazy.
But at least Cloud didn't seem so bent on his death, as he had before. Perhaps this was part of his ultimate plan of slowly and surely killing his Superior Officer. Sephiroth mentally cackled at himself before pushing those thoughts aside. He was loosing his sanity, apparently, from what he could recall, for the second time in his life. That thought alone was enough to sober him. Fighting against the nausea that crept up to replace the sinking feeling in his stomach, Sephiroth's hands unconsciously clutched at the back of Cloud's shirt. Nostrils flared with breath and the soft smell of clean clothes and sweat washed over him with a sense of calm. He really had gone insane. But…he felt so…normal? It was hard to come to terms with the idea that he possibly could still be insane. Surely, his mind seemed in perfect, if not delirious, shape?
No, he was not insane. Sephiroth was able to recall those hours when he lost his grip, and even those moments didn't seem his own. It was like the voice in the back of his mind had simply stepped forward, and he in his misery had willingly given up control. Jenova. Mother? Even now he still didn't know.
"Cloud…" Sephiroth cringed as his voice came out in a scratched whisper. He had so many questions, and while this was perhaps not the best time to ask them, he needed to break the thick silence that was bearing down between him and Cloud. What had happened to cause such animosity? Where once stood the separation of officer and lowly soldier, a gulf that even then was uncomfortable, was now a feeling of trepidation. Sephiroth felt as though he had to choose his words carefully, that anything could set Cloud off. His attack in the reactor had proven that. Sephiroth was unused to the feeling.
Eventually the sounds of Cloud's footsteps were joined with the soft snapping of twigs from the surrounding forest. Sephiroth's head jerked sideways, green eyes sliding across tree trunks. And there, movement, a black shape among green and brown. It was just a flash, but years of training weren't forgotten in the face of a little bit of pain and introspection. And as he was suddenly being settle down onto his knees, it seemed like Cloud had noticed his sudden change in composure.
"Is something wrong-"
"Quiet," he whispered, his tone slightly commanding. Sephiroth rested a hand upon Cloud's shoulder as he leaned his ear towards the forest, ignoring the slight jerk his touch provoked. Sephiroth was used to people shying from his touch, but even after so long, the reactions still hurt. But his mask hid what otherwise could have been considered a frown, and he instead turned calm, battle-hardened eyes towards Cloud. The tense gulf of...hatred? crashed against Sephiroth as the other evenly met his gaze. Sephiroth's control faltered for a moment, for he wasn't prepared for that, but the sound of movement again, closer this time, brought both of their attention to the forest.
Perhaps it was just some mountain animal out early from hibernation? Sephiroth only dared to hope. Cloud was frowning now, and his body stiffened as a low keening echoed from the forest. The sound was high and piercing, a predator's call that was meant to confuse and disturb prey. So they were being hunted. The smell of blood had probably drawn the beast, and now it was looking to take down its meal. Him, mainly. Predators always went for the weakest of the bunch, the easiest to snatch away, and thus also preserve it's food supply by leaving the strong alive. Sephiroth's hand unconsciously tightened its hold on Cloud's shoulder.
The attack by this point was barely a surprise, though by what did give Sephiroth a shock. Trees trembled and the ground shook, and where Sephiroth expected to see a bear or wolf, was a Nibel dragon. The thing was huge, monstrous, all green and black blurred together as it lunged out of the foliage and right at them. Oh great. All Sephiroth could do in that moment between realization and exasperation was blink. He definitely did not marvel at how the huge body so easily slammed into his and Cloud's own so that they just seemed to bounce right off of it.
By the sensation of warmth sliding down his side Sephiroth knew his wound had split back open. Pain momentarily blocked out all other senses, he really wasn't in any shape for a fight, and with a Nibel dragon nonetheless. Sephiroth still struggled to get himself into a more defensive position. Thankfully, Cloud was already on his feet next to him, swinging his sword around as he prepared to charge at the monster. Isn't this embarrassing. Here he was, about as helpless as an ant, depending on some grunt soldier to protect him. He didn't even have a weapon for planet's sake. Except that Cloud didn't look like the standard grunt arms man anymore. Sephiroth watched with silent fascination as Cloud attacked the beast, body moving fluidly through the air. He handled the huge buster sword with such little effort, swinging and thrusting and slicing into the dragon's hide as if it were made of butter. And his body, no longer was it that of a boys'. Cloud had filled into his small stature, muscles sleek and strong under tanned skin. And he wasn't even that small anymore. Cloud had transformed into a man.
Where have I been?
Sephiroth struggled to push himself up off the ground, to at least try to fight rather than lay there like some invalid. His new-found knowledge that some significant time had passed since he last recalled urged him into action. Apparently, much more was going on than he was aware of, and perhaps that explained Cloud's reaction to him in the reactor. He was going to find out, no matter what it was, but in order to do that he had to survive this fight. Just as Sephiroth managed to gain some semblance of balance, he looked up to see Cloud's body being thrown against the trunk of a large tree, head cracking back against wood and sword sliding across the path out of his reach. Now it did seem like he was going to have to defend himself. The dragon turned from Cloud and stalked slowly towards his intended prey, eyes trained on Sephiroth's form and tail twitching in anticipation of the kill. Sephiroth stumbled forward towards the abandoned sword, aware that he needed to make a move now before the dragon reached him, it wouldn't be long before the scent of blood became irresistible.
Muscles seized against the unwanted use and his head spun, the world lurching and swirling around him. He was a SOLDIER, the General, a damned dragon wasn't going to get the best of him or any of his men, no matter what. The buster sword was heavy in his hand, the weight nothing like that of his masamune and he balked slightly at the difference. Sephiroth, for a fleeting moment, felt doubt creep into the cracks of his composure. He had never fought with injuries such as his before, certainly never with mako poisoning. And now his vision swam and his body felt light as a balloon one moment and as heavy as the dragon the next. The buster sword was an unfamiliar weapon, and while Sephiroth was confident with his swordsmanship to wield it, he wasn't do sure he could handle the extra balance required to swing the thing. He'd throw himself over before he managed a good slice at the dragon. Unfortunately, the dragon wasn't going to wait for him to get himself in order. Sephiroth swallowed back a mix of fear and hopelessness and submerged himself in a state of mind he had long ago become comrades with.
Emotions flowed away in a rush of cold determination. It wasn't anger or fear that fueled him forward, but an absence of anything other than his intent on his goal. Kill. Pain eased into a slight tingling sensation, his mind thinking not about the inflamed nerve endings but rather focusing in on his target. Black and green and so..so huge. Sounds and scents faded until all that he noticed, all that he was aware of was the dragon. His hand gripped the sword and raised it easily into the air, Sephiroth barely registered the sensation of muscle stretching painfully from bone, and locked his arm into a guard position.
"Come on," his voice shook as he watched the dragon turn fully towards him and leapt. Just one lucky thrust into his belly and the thing would be dead, all he had to do was stay upright and conscious and away from the claws... Time slowed as the dragon came crashing down on him, his body straining against the weight, and he heard the audible snap of the bones in his wrist as the blade sunk into soft flesh. The sword was ripped from his lank grip and the dragon tumbled over onto its side, thankfully, off of him. That hadn't worked out as well as he had hoped.
But the dragon was dead.
Sephiroth decided to pass out.
The door to Cloud's home banged open with violence normally associated with anger, but it this case it was more akin to panic. Cloud was frantic. Sephiroth's wound was streaming with fresh blood, split open by the fight with the dragon. That, added to freshly broken bones, combined with the fact that Cloud only had the most basic of first aid equipment at his disposal... things were not looking good.
His hands fumbled with a potion as he brought the rim to Sephiroth's lips. The man didn't swallow the liquid as readily as he had earlier, and Cloud couldn't help but think the worst. Sephiroth was unconscious, not weak with exhaustion as in the reactor, and Cloud's hands were trembling so badly half of the liquid was dribbling down the other man's chin rather than making it into his mouth. Still, the potion was gone in a matter of moments, and he set his attention to stitching the stomach wound closed.
Time crept by, minutes spanning what seemed like hours. When Cloud finally sat back from his work, cold sweat tickled his neck and forehead, his hands shaking as they set aside the needle and thread. There wasn't anything he could do for the broken wrist other than set it, but with all of the mako that had to be in Sephiroth's system he expected that to heal within a day. Standard issue SOLDIER recovery rate, for such an injury. Unfortunately that didn't apply to stab wounds. Or minds.
Even after that display with the dragon, Cloud wasn't ready to believe in Sephiroth's sanity, or redemption for that matter. But he did find himself willing to consider the possibility that maybe this Sephiroth laying unconscious before him was...different, than the more recent incarnations he had encountered. He had seen no sign of Jenova's influence over the man, nothing but for a fleeting moment of fear and then that same cold, emotionless countenance that had been so familiar in regards to the 'General'. Cloud dared to hope. He was so stupid, and he knew it, but he was one of those people who always looked at things helplessly and allowed himself to be taken advantage of. Some said he looked at the glass half full.
Cloud watched Sephiroth. He watched the rhythmic rise and fall of the other man's chest. He watched the way his fingertips twitched and the way his mouth fell open to mouth inaudible words. He watched the way his face would contort with pain before his mind would force his body further into it's protective unconsciousness. He was fascinated, intrigued even, by all of the little human things he never would have associated with Sephiroth. And he wondered. He wondered where he came from and why. Why, after all of this time, and all the different clones and horrors and versions this man had appeared to him as, why he would appear in this form now. It was almost more frightening to be presented with a normal Sephiroth than some mutated version of him. In this form, Cloud was denied all of the easy emotions that made sense when dealing with a monster, a madman. Anger and hatred were all perfectly acceptable reactions to the Sephiroth that he and the rest of the world had come to know. But this Sephiroth... The way he seemed earlier... it was as if this man had picked up where the original Sephiroth had left off. Whether or not he even retained the memories of what his reborn selves had done Cloud did not know. But if it were the case, if this Sephiroth really was the original man from his past, the man who brilliantly won one of the longest on-going wars of their age, the genius swordsman whose skill was brought on not just by mako but by his own amazing capabilities...then Cloud just didn't know how to deal with that.
Cloud had loved that man. Hero worship, or whatever you wanted to call it, was the driving force of much of Cloud's childhood. And now here laying helpless in front of him was the very man Cloud had grown up holding in the most esteemed position in his mind. And to boot, Sephiroth wasn't trying to kill him. Cloud couldn't keep from wondering- just what was he supposed to do?
Sephiroth awoke with the most wonderful sensation of flying. He felt like he was a million miles up in the air, into space maybe, since there was barely any light in the room. Ah, the room. That was sort of the killer of his would-be wonderful lucid dream. He couldn't be flying if he were surrounded by wooden walls and covered in blankets. Not unless the house was flying, and this did not feel like an airship. No, it most certainly was not the house nor himself flying; it was his all in his head, his swimming aching throbbing head. Flying sensations turned into vertigo and then to nausea and Sephiroth fought with all of his control to keep from dry heaving over the side of the bed.
Not a dragon's belly.
The thought was comforting- to know that he was in a place that he could tentatively call safe helped him fight down his gurgling stomach. It didn't, however, quite help with his head. mako poisoning was a horrible experience at any phase, and while Sephiroth recognized himself as having a very mild case of it, any stage of the thing was ridiculously uncomfortable and maddeningly frustrating to treat. A cure materia would help by leaps and bounds, but Sephiroth could only assume that if one were available it would not be offered to him. Not after everything he was guilty of.
Those memories...the longer they sat with him the more realistic they became, and the deeper they penetrated into his mind. They were real, not a dream, but actual events. He knew this without a doubt. And he had been completely, totally, out of his mind. Every action and event he could relive from a first person perspective. What was he thinking? How could he loose himself like that- his control gone and in it's place just absolute subservience to that thing...Jenova. And while she may have been directing his mind he made not a single attempt to stop her. That was where Sephiroth could not forgive himself. His lack of control was disgusting.
"...what has happened to me..." his voice rasped, his throat scratched and dry.
"That's what I've been wondering."
Sephiroth's head jerked up to see Cloud casually leaning against the door frame of the bedroom. Half of his face was cast in a dark shadow as the only light in the room filtered in through the window from the evening's setting sun. It brought out the lines around his eyes and mouth, creating a harsh profile of a person much older than what Sephiroth remembered. The 16 year old boy from Nibelheim was completely absent from this Cloud. Sephiroth thought of the man he watched fight a dragon earlier, nothing like the boy in his memories. Even the boy he remembered...killing him at the crater... Yet again Sephiroth was reminded of how much time he had lost, the darkness of knowing that the whole world as he remembered was gone began to descend on him- and along with it the numbness of knowing that his place in this new world was probably nonexistent.
Cloud stepped away from the door frame and slowly approached Sephiroth. There was not much distance between the two to begin with, but the obvious caution in Cloud's body language was all Sephiroth needed to see in order to know that Cloud was not a friend and would probably kill him in a an instant, if given a reason. Of course, Sephiroth should have already known that after the other man had nearly halved him with his sword earlier.
"You've been sleeping for almost a day," Cloud stated this matter of factly as he finally sat himself in the rickety old chair next to Sephiroth's bed. "I was almost hoping you weren't going to wake up."
A sane man would have protested, but Sephiroth had already proven he was anything but sane and so he nodded his head in agreement with Cloud, "that would have been best."
This little bit of self-depreciation caused Cloud to study him more directly- eyes focused on Sephiroth's own. Yet, Sephiroth could hardly match Cloud's gaze as evenly as he should have been able to. Every time he looked at Cloud's he was reminded of how much time he had lost, and how much pain he had been the cause of. He was sick with himself. Why was he even alive... Sephiroth let out a shuddered sigh and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to fight back another wave of vertigo.
The next thing Sephiroth knew the back of Cloud's hand was lightly pressing against his forehead, "how are you feeling?"
Sephiroth had frozen at the other man's touch, he almost didn't hear the question Cloud asked as he was so intently focused on the hand on his forehead. It dawned upon him that Cloud was trying to measure his body temperature. He had seen this gesture performed before by mothers who doted on their sick children. If someone wanted a temperature from Sephiroth they came at him with sticks and mercury and medical contraptions that not only told the person his body's temperature, but every bit and detail of why his temperature was that and what it was going to be if they injected him with this or that or... "I have a mild case of mako poisoning," Sephiroth managed to say as he let out the breath he hadn't been intending to hold. The motherly gesture was in complete juxtaposition to not just what Sephiroth was accustomed to but also to how he expected Cloud to be treating him.
"I think you have a small fever, you need to drink something- do you think you can hold down some water?" Cloud leaned back away from Sephiroth and picked up a glass from the bed stand that was half-filled with what Sephiroth assumed was water. The light was becoming more dim by the moment and Sephiroth was finding it surprisingly harder to see than what he was used to. Perhaps it was a side-effect from the mako. Sometimes it caused his senses to act strangely.
Sephiroth lifted his hand to accept the cup from Cloud and flinched at the sharp pain running through the joints of his wrist. That's right...the fight with the dragon... some of the last memories Sephiroth recalled before passing out were those of the bones in his wrist snapping from the angle and weight of the dragon hitting his sword. Cloud had noticed his dilemma as well and he placed the cup back on the bed-stand and instead took Sephiroth's wrist into his own hands.
"I would've thought that the mako and potions I gave you would've had this healed this by now," Sephiroth was back to holding his breath as Cloud leaned forward and carefully unwrapped the makeshift splint he had created. The cloth fell away and revealed pale skin that was mottled by deep purple and red bruises. Ever so gently, Cloud pressed his thumb against the sides of Sephiroth's wrist, working his way around with gentle nudges from his fingertips. The attention was causing Cloud to move closer into Sephiroth's personal space, which in turn was causing Sephiroth to hold his breath longer and longer. When Cloud's fingers ran over the tiny spot on Sephiroth's wrist where a tattoo should of been and found nothing he lingered at that spot. "You don't have a number," Cloud's eyes looked up from inspecting the wound and met Sephiroth's.
"I never did," Sephiroth whispered with the breath of air he had been holding, cautiously taking his wrist out of Cloud's hands and cradling it in his lap. "Only my...clones...were given numbers," saying those words was one of the most difficult experiences of Sephiroth's life. The knowledge that his identity had been split among a number of hapless Jenova slaves, mindless except for his and Jenova's influence over them was sickening. Just another incident where his self control was completely non-existent.
Cloud nodded silently, moving to once again offer the glass of water to Sephiroth, who accepted it with his still good hand. "Drink slowly, but often, and I need to re-wrap your wrist- it seems to be sprained but not broken," Cloud dictated his instructions with that same sort of motherly influence that he used while touching Sephiroth's forehead. The water was delicious against Sephiroth's tongue, and he almost didn't want to relinquish his hold on the glass but Cloud insisted. Sephiroth was careful to make sure that it was he who placed the glass back on the bed-stand, and that he did so with as little trembling as possible.
His wrist felt infinitely better once Cloud had re-wrapped it. He had left out the splints this time, using only the soft cotton gauze to firmly support all of the tiny bones and joints. Sephiroth's breath didn't catch as it had before when the other man's fingers worked over his injury. He leaned into the sensation, keeping his eyes intently upon the spinning fabric so that they wouldn't wander to stare directly at Cloud. It was surprising to experience some semblance of gentleness considering the intense hostility which he felt upon their first meeting. The rage and anger that had been directed toward him seemed so vast that Sephiroth wondered what caused Cloud's mood to change so drastically. Even with that thought burning on his mind Sephiroth continued to sit with the same unemotional expression lest Cloud catch that he was actually enjoying the other's considerate mood, and more so, the gentle and attentive touches on his wrist.
Finally, Cloud finished, sitting back in the chair and leveling his gaze on Sephiroth. Waiting. Expectant.
The ability to hide emotions was something Sephiroth considered himself skilled with. So skilled, in fact, that over the years he had actually been able to convince himself that he was numb to most feelings. Those who spoke of him as inhuman, unfeeling weapon were not that far from the truth. But at this very moment, in this situation, Sephiroth pondered over the weight that had now settled deep in his belly. He was nervous, sick with unease. His face tilted downwards towards the bed, his eyes cast off to stare blankly at the fading light from the window that touched the edge of his bed. The utter silence between him and Cloud was crushing. There was nothing to be said. Sephiroth couldn't hold a conversation worth a damn before, and now when he felt he had so much to say and so many questions, nothing would come forth. How does one ask about all of he horrible things he had done. Why would anyone want to acknowledge it? Sephiroth felt like he had to. He knew he must at some point. Why else would fate drop him directly into the lap of the person who could answer his questions best...as well as the person he had hurt the most. This was not an accident. Only a fool would deny the absolute connection that he and the other man shared. This had to all be happening for a reason.
Sephiroth lifted his gaze to the window framing the bleak, hazy dusty colors that formed the remains of Nibelheim. Thoughts of what this little town would have been like if he had never came along and wrecked it to it's very foundations picked at his brain. Just as Cloud was waiting for some sort of answer from him, he could almost hear the voices of the dead asking him why. The sun was setting. The darkness would be all-consuming when it finally fell beneath the horizon. The ghosts would surely be out then- looking for answers, haunting his dreams.
When the bed dipped from a weight settling upon it, Sephiroth's attention immediately snapped to Cloud's sudden close proximity. He barely breathed as the warmth of someone else's body was suddenly close to his bare skin. He hardly moved as the other man knelt on the bed in front of him, leaning in close. And he certainly didn't look up as Cloud's hand reached towards his face. Fingers trailed through silver bangs, stopping to linger momentarily at the pulse point above his collarbone before slipping behind his neck to gently grip him, thumb pressing into the place where his pulse fluttered helplessly.. massaging tiny circles...
Sephiroth wanted to sob- He felt the tightness in his chest increase, his breath hitch as something similar to panic but so much more sad coursed through him. He didn't fight when Cloud's hand inched up his neck, keeping it's gentle grip, and finally moved past cheek and jaw to cradle the back of his head. Oh god... The sound of his own labored breathing pounded in his ears. If he had thought his composure was shot before, now that Clouds thumb was instead massaging the delicate area just beneath his ear and behind his jaw, sending sparks of electricity down his neck and through his chest and belly, well.. now he could feel his control helplessly slip away entirely.
And when Cloud demanded Sephiroth to look at him, he couldn't help but obediently meet his eyes, once again so easily claimed by another. Disgusting, wrong, unforgivable. But for some reason when his eyes met Cloud's own, all the degrading thoughts screaming in his mind hushed and Sephiroth finally felt the sob he had been holding in crawl out up his throat.
The sound was gut-wrenching. Something akin to the cry of an injured wolf crossed with the broken sob of a man's life absolutely falling to pieces. That single drawn out sound seemed to last an eternity- echoing in Cloud's ears even though Sephiroth was now shaking silently in front of him. Tears ran down his cheeks, his mouth hung open with an empty scream- lips pulled back away from his teeth in an almost snarl, and his eyes had squeezed shut- wrinkles spidering out from the clenched corners and making him appear so much different from the mindless monster Cloud had come to know him as.
Cloud allowed himself to react naturally to Sephiroth's pained sobbing. The grip of his left hand intensified, fingers tangling in the soft hair at the base of his skull. Cloud's other hand reached up to firmly stroke the bangs out of Sephiroth's face, wiping away at some of the tears falling out from beneath soaked silver eyelashes. The shaking increased with Cloud's gentle touches but instinct was telling him not to stop, that Sephiroth needed the attention, the support and reassurance that Cloud could give him. Cloud's own breath was beginning to tremble, the effect of watching another man break in front of him disturbing his centered state of being.
It had taken him years to recover from everything that Sephiroth had done- and now Cloud watched Sephiroth go through the same motions that years ago he himself had delt with. Having the support of his friends had given Cloud the opportunity to emerge from the abyss whole and healed, but Sephiroth... Sephiroth had no one. Sephiroth had no one that night in the mansion and he hadn't recovered then. If Cloud didn't step up at this moment and pull him through to sanity Sephiroth would surely snap again. And...could one really blame him for it? That night so long ago, when Sephiroth had no one to go to when the deepest secrets about himself were revealed, who wouldn't break under those circumstances. How could anyone fault Sephiroth for not keeping it together when he was alone and devastated. Jenova was the only kind voice, he was sure, and that was why Sephiroth had clung to her, submitted to her. Just like he was clinging to Cloud's own tenderness. Except Cloud was not Jenova.
"Shhh," Cloud pressed closer to Sephiroth, continuing to stroke his right hand through his hair while supporting his head with his left. He rested their foreheads together, concentrating on the labored breath being drawn in and out of the others mouth. "Shhh...Sephiroth, shhh," the little whispers fell so easily from his lips. Sephiroth breathed them all in, swallowed them whole, and after some time the silent sobs wracking his body slowly calmed into the hitched breathing from before. The tender stroking of Cloud's hand fell into a grip to match his other, so that Sephiroth couldn't turn his face away once he started to gather his wits back about him. Cloud didn't know if he could, but he suspected that Sephiroth would try to pull away, and he didn't want him to succeed. If Sephiroth didn't accept the comfort Cloud was offering him the crack in his being would never heal. Cloud needed Sephiroth to know that this human reaction was good, it was sane, it was wonderful, even.
The urge to kiss Sephiroth was so intense Cloud actually started to tilt his head to side, tugging back on the silver hair so that their lips lined up- pressing his thumb gently against Sephiroth's jaw so that his mouth fell open just slightly... Thankfully Cloud caught himself before their lips could actually touch. Cloud had grown up hero-worshipping Sephiroth. And then, when Sephiroth had finally snapped and set into motion that last decade of his life, Cloud had no choice but to focus almost every thought on him. For the longest time he was the center of his life- killing Sephiroth was always his goal but that didn't change the fact that so much of his energy and focus had been directed on him. And now, the center of his obsession was sitting right before him breaking and Cloud just wanted to kiss him. In some bizarre way it made sense.
Sephiroth seemed to be in a daze and part of Cloud was thanking fate for that small fortune. Certainly kissing was the last thing Sephiroth had on his mind and it should have been the last thing on Cloud's... Either way Cloud could only imagine that the reaction he'd have gotten from Sephiroth would have been more violent than welcoming. Good job, Cloud congratulated himself, you've gone from trying to kill him to trying to make out with him, no wonder he's all fucked up.
Cloud had released the hold on Sephiroth's hair. And it was only when his chin had drooped so low that his forehead was actually resting on Cloud's shoulder that Sephiroth noticed. Exhaustion was catching up with him and his pathetic little meltdown moment had sapped whatever energy Sephiroth had mustered up from sleeping.
Exhaustion. That was also to blame for his hallucinating Cloud almost kissing him. As well his lack of resistance. But while Sephiroth's mind was screaming at him to get away- away from Cloud and away from these sensations and feelings that were rising to the surface of his hazy brain, he just couldn't bring himself to listen. He had spent his life listening to his brain and where had that ever gotten him. Dead. Used. Useless. Sephiroth's past fate encompassed a multitude of dreadful and depressing outcomes. But if he didn't listen to his brain that only left his heart and that was a long unfamiliar path that Sephiroth wasn't so sure he had the capabilities to conquer.
When Sephiroth pulled away he did so with much less force than he originally intended. His shove was spoiled when his awful deceiving fingers instead curled up in the fabric of Clouds shirt, gripping loosely even while his arms pushed them apart. Plus, his arms were shaking- who told them to do that?
"I do not want to talk about it," Sephiroth whispered.
Whether he was answering Cloud's unvoiced question about what brought Sephiroth back to life, or commenting on the almost kiss and the emotional cry-fest he had just put on display was left up to Cloud to decide. Sephiroth purposely kept his eyes clear of any of the internal turmoil that was currently causing his stomach to roll. Stomach. Not quite healed, so it seemed. The pain of his stab wound was throbbing more intensely as each moment passed. Sephiroth suspected that all his labored, gasping breathing from just a few moments ago had re-awoken the pain from whatever drug-induced slumber it had been under. Now, it was back with a fury, perhaps angered at Sephiroth for forgetting about it for such an extended period of time.
Cloud, ever the perceptive observer, was able to just avoid being hurled up on. As Sephiroth flung his head over the bed and puked all over the floor, he felt somewhat vindicated by the disgusted twist of Cloud's features. Plus, he managed to avoid getting his hair in the mess- a small triumph but one Sephiroth gleefully claimed. They were so far and few to obtain lately. Sephiroth's bloom of satisfaction didn't last long. It seemed that the water he had drank just earlier was fueling his nausea and his retching was refusing to stop. Pretty soon he had nothing left to do but dry heave and hack at the burned tissue that was formerly his esophagus. Cloud has since left him alone. Understandably. Sephiroth wasn't really bothered by something so low on a the gross scale as vomit but apparently a lot of normal people were, so he accepted the abandonment. Although, Sephiroth couldn't deny the familiar tickle in his chest that reminded him of being laid out on one of Hojo's lab tables- in pain, alone, cold.. abandoned. It's not that Sephiroth had expected Cloud to help him, no one ever had.
So Sephiroth was almost startled when a hand pressed a cool cloth to his forehead. His body sung in relief at the attention it drew away from his twisting stomach. The pain was still so intense that Sephiroth didn't even resist the slight pressure against his forehead that drew him upwards from where he had been hanging over the side of the bed. A second hand slipped around his waist and joined in guiding him backwards towards the head of the bed, and finally, into the curl of Cloud's loose hold.
Sephiroth did not breath. This was far too much. Too close, too intimate- worse than the almost kiss. So, so much worse.
"This is my last one so don't waste any," Cloud whispered into Sephiroth's ear as he lifted the rim of the tiny bottle to his lips. Instinct took over and Sephiroth obediently drank every drop of the potion. His shocked brain couldn't resist the command - his body was craving the soothing, minty coolness of the healing potion. His tongue lapped at the last remaining drops pooling at the lip of the bottle, he was so thirsty now and the potion was helping to quench his parched mouth. Even when Cloud pulled the bottle away, Sephiroth continued to lick his lips until he could no longer taste the cool sweetness that lingered there. Potions always made people a little bit fuzzy when first ingested. It was probably part of the healing properties- the haziness felt like a warm Cloud around his mind and made him forget about the pain in his stomach and instead sink back into the comfort of-
No, no no.
Warm Cloud was right.
No, it was wrong.
Sephiroth panicked even as he distantly felt his head fall back onto a waiting shoulder, his face turn to rest against the warm crook of Cloud's shoulder, his body relaxing back into the firm support of Cloud's body and the soft comfort of pillows. Only his lips betrayed his inner battle- raggedly trying to keep his breathing under control even as his body was happily betraying him. When Cloud laughed into his temple the sensation resonated throughout his entire body. Bad. Wrong. Unacceptable weakness. Sephiroth's mind lost itself in his own personal scolding while his body hummed with the contentment of finally getting a fucking hug. Thank you very much.
And when Sephiroth finally slipped into sleep, the sun had just fully set. Cloud continued to hold him while night settled peacefully into it's familiar darkness and eventually he too found sleep.
It would seem that Nibelheims ghosts would be held at bay for at least for one night.