Chapter 6/6: Found – Alternate Ending Version
Word Count: ~8400
Characters: Sephiroth, Cloud
Genre: AU, friendship, drama
Warnings: major character death
Disclaimer: I do not own FFVII and make no money from this work.
Summary: The sequel to Handle With Care. Cloud and Sephiroth have adjusted to their roles as toy and owner, but life isn't always easy, even with each other. Dealing with the past and the present can be a rough ride.
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A/N: As for the actual story, I'm sorry! Don't read this if you've had a bad day, okay? This is the non-canon alternate ending that has no bearing on anything else in this 'verse. It starts deviating from the original version at around the 800-word mark. And this is chapter 6, so you have to have read up to chapter 5 of the original version first.
"So the plan is to just let him loose? What if he needs backup?"
"I'm certain he won't and I don't want anyone getting in his way. We'll send in operatives after Cloud has been retrieved to clean up. Until then, everyone is to stay back unless he calls for help."
Sephiroth tuned out the voices and ran his hand along Masamune's blade. Lazard was right; he didn't need backup. He would rescue Cloud on his own. The truck bounced along far too slowly, but Zack had made him promise to be patient until they got there. Cloud was all right. It would be fine. He'd get him back from the people who stole him and they'd go home and be happy again.
"Hanging in there, Sephiroth?" Angeal asked.
Sephiroth nodded slightly in return. He felt sick with anticipation; missions never made him this nervous, but this was more important than all the missions put together.
"You'll get him back, don't worry," Zack said, patting his knee. "Everything'll be fine."
"Move fast once you're inside." Genesis spoke to him directly for the first time since they got in the truck. "They shouldn't know you're coming and you'll be able to take them by surprise."
Sephiroth nodded again. He knew what to do. He wasn't stupid. Sephiroth took a deep breath and felt his nerves calm as he went into battle mode. This was a mission. A very important mission, but still a mission. He was good at those. Reno had supplied him with the blueprints detailing the enemy base, and he could see the layout clearly in his mind. Cloud, the mission objective, was in the basement. Exact location unknown. Guards were posted at the North, South, and East entries to guard the prostitution business.
Sephiroth had chosen to enter from the North, because of its proximity to the basement entrance. SOLDIER troops would follow him, but remain behind, guarding the other entrances as well, until he located the objective. The Turks were in place already. They would guard the sewer tunnels and collect the stray rats as they ran. They would be the ones kept for interrogation. Possible obstacles and solutions flowed through his mind and were calculated as the truck pulled to a stop.
"We're here," a voice called out from the front of the truck.
"All right, Sephiroth," Lazard said, "You know your role. Radio in when you've reached Cloud and the rest of the operatives will move in." The back door of the truck opened up and Sephiroth stood, settling Masamune's weight in his hand. "There's the building." Lazard pointed to a large mansion that stood out from all the other buildings around it, kitty corner from where they had stopped. "Good luck."
Several hands patted him on the back as he jumped down from the truck. He took a moment to clear any lingering distractions from his thoughts and then he was off, moving faster than human eyes could properly register.
Whether or not the door had been locked was irrelevant; Sephiroth quickly processed the information he was seeing as the pieces of it were still falling to the ground. Two guards, not Cloud. Masamune made quick work of them and he was moving again, towards the stairs at the back that would take him downstairs. Shouting began as he took out another two people in the hall, and suddenly there were more rushing at him from a room to his right. There was the sound of gunfire, but he easily knocked the bullets aside and cut through the people shooting at him. He had to get to the basement. Cloud was waiting for him.
More shouting and gunfire. He felt a bullet or two nick him as he made his way through the building. It didn't hurt. It didn't matter. They could shoot him full of holes and he'd still get to Cloud. Still, he made sure to disable the guns as he killed the guards. They could damage Cloud. He heard something behind him and turned, almost slipping on some blood on the floor. There was just enough time to recognize that it wasn't Cloud before Masamune was slicing through the person. Always make sure it's not Cloud.
Once the resistance on the stairs was dealt with, the basement was eerily silent. The Turks hadn't been able to tell him where in the basement Cloud was, so he had to methodically check every room. Most were empty when he kicked in the doors, but a few had someone in them. They didn't look like threats, though, so Sephiroth left them and continued his search. It wasn't until over half-way down the long hallway that he recognized the shape lying on the bare cot in the room, facing away from the door. Sephiroth froze as the door creaked on its broken hinges.
Cloud? Lazard's instructions surfaced in Sephiroth's mind and he absently lifted his radio to his mouth. "Found him."
Cloud didn't move and Sephiroth took a cautious step towards him. Was he sleeping? "Cloud? It's me. I found you." There was a strong smell of fresh blood in the room and Sephiroth didn't want to go any further. "Cloud, let's go home."
Still, Cloud didn't move. That wasn't right. Squashing down the feeling of dread in his gut, Sephiroth stepped close enough to touch Cloud's shoulder and roll him over. Not sleeping. Cloud's eyes were open, but he didn't move. The spot on the mattress where his head had been was all red.
Cloud was broken.
Sephiroth very carefully picked Cloud up and made sure his damaged head was supported. He was damaged all over, Sephiroth could see, but his head was the most damaged of all. That was what had broken him. It would take a lot to fix him. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do in this situation; no one had said what he should do if Cloud was broken.
"You're going to be okay, right, Cloud?" he asked, but Cloud didn't respond. Maybe after they fixed Cloud, they'd give him back. If not, Sephiroth vowed he'd find a way to get him back. He wasn't the one who broke him. Cloud would still want to be his toy. Sephiroth rocked Cloud gently and hummed to him while he waited for someone to come and tell him what to do. It wouldn't do to take Cloud out into the fighting in this state. He wiped a bit of blood off of Cloud's face and kissed his nose. He was surprised to see a few teardrops fall on Cloud's cheeks. Why was he crying?
Zack was doing squats to occupy himself while he waited anxiously. He wished he could have gone in with the others, but he needed to be out here for when Sephiroth brought Cloud out. Cloud probably wouldn't be in the best shape ever after being kidnapped, and he was needed to help keep Sephiroth calm. But where was he? Sephiroth had contacted them ten minutes ago saying that he had found Cloud.
"Something's gone wrong," Zack said to Lazard.
"Give it a few more minutes. He probably just had to dispose of a few targets."
A few dozen squats later and Zack knew something had gone wrong. He was taking way too long. There was no way that Sephiroth would stop and fight while he had Cloud with him. "I'm going in," he announced and took off before anyone could stop him.
The fight was beginning to quiet down inside, and Zack was able to make his way to the stairs quickly. He recognized Sephiroth's brutal efficiency littering the trail. He supposed it had been a smart plan, kidnapping Cloud. If only they had managed to keep him hidden, Shin-Ra would have lost their best fighter. Instead, they got a SOLDIER who would stop at nothing to get back what was his.
In the dank basement the noise from upstairs was muffled enough that his sensitive ears were able to pick up a soft humming noise. Sephiroth made that noise when he was upset or trying to comfort Cloud and didn't know what to say. Zack hurried down the corridor, following the noise.
The sight that met him when he found the room Sephiroth was in made his heart stop. Sephiroth was kneeling on the floor with Cloud's body cradled in his arms. It looked like a gunshot wound to the head.
"S—Sephiroth?" Zack choked out, trying to keep calm despite seeing the boy he had come to call his friend dead.
"He's cold, Zack. And he keeps getting colder. Should I make him warm?"
Shit, Zack thought, he doesn't understand. "Sephiroth, I—I—" What could he say? How could he explain?
"Zack? Should I make him warm?" Sephiroth looked up at him, his eyes sparkling with tears.
"No." Zack crouched next to them and reached out to feel for a pulse, just in case. There was nothing. "No, Sephiroth, you can't make him warm. It won't do any good."
"But you can fix him, right?"
"I'm sorry." Zack fought back a sob. "I'm so sorry, I can't. I want to, and if it were possible, we'd pay whatever it cost to fix him. It's not, though. I'm sorry."
"He—he—can't be fixed? But... I found him." Sephiroth sounded so confused.
Zack shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sephiroth." His mind raced as he tried to think of what to do. First and foremost, he needed to get Sephiroth out of here. "We should bring him outside," he said gently. "Can you carry him?"
Sephiroth nodded. "He likes the sun, Zack. I should take him up on the plate where he can see it."
Blinking back a few tears, Zack nodded. "Yeah, let's take him to see the sun." One last time. Zack took a step back and pressed a button on his radio. "Situation Velveteen Rabbit. We're taking him up to the plate. Have a vehicle waiting and clear the area." A small part of him wished they hadn't planned for this. He couldn't help but think that maybe it wouldn't have happened if they hadn't.
There was a small park that Cloud and Sephiroth went to fairly regularly. The trees were fake and the rocky stream running through it, though it had been drained for the winter, was man-made, but the grass was real enough, evidenced by its depressing shade of brown. The park was very nearly deserted when Sephiroth carried Cloud to a small hill with a bright patch of sunlight and sat down on a bench. Good, Zack thought. Sephiroth didn't need a bunch of shrieking children bothering him right now. The few people who were out to enjoy a bit of sun on a crisp winter day left quickly when they saw Cloud.
He sat quietly next to them and listened with a breaking heart to Sephiroth's crooning. Zack was certain that Sephiroth still didn't really understand that Cloud was dead, but he couldn't bring himself to try and explain. Only when the sun began to dip below the horizon did Sephiroth finally speak.
"Is he really broken? Forever?"
"Yes, he's broken and he can't be fixed. Do you understand that? He's gone."
Sephiroth shook his head and hummed in distress. "I don't want him to be gone."
"I know. I don't either. He was a good friend, wasn't he?"
"Best friend." Sephiroth hummed a while longer, stroking Cloud's hair almost obsessively, though he avoided touching the wounds. "What happens now?"
"Well, Lazard will have made arrangements with the funeral home by now. So we need to take him there."
"Funeral home? Wh—why? Cloud wouldn't like it there."
"I know. But we need to. He's not like most broken toys; he won't stay the way he is now." Zack struggled trying to dance around the issue of Cloud's decomposition. He was sure that Sephiroth wanted to keep the body. "They'll cremate him and we'll have a funeral for him like he deserves."
"Do not expose to fire," Sephiroth murmured.
"I know... I know." Zack reached out and rubbed Sephiroth's back. He just needed time to get used to the idea that Cloud wasn't coming back. Someone needed to tell Cloud's mother, Zack thought suddenly. And what would they do with the ashes? Sephiroth wouldn't understand why he couldn't keep them, but they couldn't very well tell Mrs. Strife that she couldn't have her own son's ashes.
"Cloud wants flowers."
"At the funeral home. He wants to have lots of flowers. Pretty ones. So he isn't sad."
"I can arrange that. I'll make sure there are lots of pretty flowers for him." Zack waited a while before speaking again. "We should go soon, Sephiroth. It's getting cold."
Zack knocked and pushed the huge wooden doors open. "Hello?" he called out.
Sephiroth was back home in his apartment, most likely still sleeping. Dr. Hollander had produced some sleeping pills that Sephiroth took willingly and they kept him out most of the time. Angeal and Genesis were with him and Zack wished that they were needed to keep him under control. He'd much rather have a Sephiroth that was hell-bent on revenge than the one that was so completely and utterly broken. Instead, they were there to offer what little comfort they could and to try and convince him to eat or drink something.
"Come in!" a voice called from the back of the church.
Zack approached what would have been the altar area and saw a young woman kneeling among a large patch of flowers. "Are you Aerith?"
"That's me." She dusted off her hands and stood up. "And you are?"
"Zack Fair. Nice to finally meet you." Zack held out his hand.
"Finally?" Aerith raised an eyebrow and didn't take his hand.
"I've heard a lot about you. Do you remember giving a flower to a SOLDIER with long silver hair?"
"You know Sephiroth?"
"Yeah, he's my friend."
The nervous look on Aerith's face disappeared and she broke into a smile. "How is he? Does he need another flower?"
"He's... not good, I'm afraid. But he does need flowers."
"What happened?" she asked.
Zack ran his hand through his hair; he hated saying it and it didn't get any easier, no matter how many times he did it. "He mentioned Cloud to you, right?"
"Yes, he said he was his chocobo toy."
"Yeah, Cloud the Chocobo Toy. He's a person, really. He works—worked as Sephiroth's personal assistant, but he was a lot more than that. He was everything to Sephiroth." Zack choked on his words and Aerith reached out to lay a gentle hand on his arm. "He was killed two days ago. Murdered by terrorists trying to hurt Sephiroth. Shit, I'm sorry; I don't mean to dump all this on you. It's just, he wants flowers for at the funeral, and I was wondering—"
"Of course. When do you need them?" Aerith turned and fetched a pair of garden scissors out of her pocket and began selecting and cutting flowers.
"A week Saturday," Zack said. "If you could have them ready in the morning, there'll be someone who will come pick them up."
"Yes, of course. I'll give you my number, if you can call and give me a name, that would be good. Otherwise, just someone from Shin-Ra?"
"Yeah, it'll be a Shin-Ra person. I'd come myself, but I'll probably need to stay with Sephiroth. I'll call you, though, when I figure out who it'll be."
"All right." Aerith stood with a large bunch of flowers and took them over to a table where she tied a ribbon around them. She also grabbed a piece of paper and wrote something down. "Here." She handed over the paper with her number on it and then held out the bouquet. "Could you give these to Sephiroth for me?"
Zack pocketed her number and took the flowers with a small smile. "Thank you. He'll appreciate them, I'm sure."
"What is it?" Zack went over and sat next to Sephiroth. He was curled up on the couch holding the glass box with the flower that he and Cloud had dried. The bouquet Aerith had sent was sitting in a vase on the coffee table in front of him.
"I don't want to do this anymore."
"What is it you don't want to do anymore?" Zack asked, though he feared that he could guess the answer. Cloud had been the glue that held Sephiroth together. Without him, Sephiroth just wasn't coping.
"This," Sephiroth said, gesturing at himself and the room. "I don't want to go back to work, or go home at night, or go on missions, or go to the park. I don't want to read a book, or play a game, or make waffles. I don't want to do any of it without Cloud."
"I know it seems impossible now, but—"
"No." Sephiroth shook his head violently. "No, it's impossible forever. I don't want it. I don't want to try."
"Give it time, Sephiroth. You've got to give it time."
"I'm not stupid, Zack! Time won't make him come back!" Sephiroth shoved Zack away and stood up, clutching the flower close to his chest. "I don't want to live if he's not coming back!"
Zack froze at the look of determination on Sephiroth's face. He had seen that look just once before. In Nibelheim, just before he had unleashed hell on Jenova. Even if he could, Zack thought, did he really want to convince Sephiroth to live? No one would ever be able to replace Cloud. No one could come close to giving Sephiroth what Cloud had given him, no matter how hard they tried. And what was left for him here? Another ten, maybe twenty years of following Shin-Ra's orders until he died violently on the battlefield?
"Do you want to die?" Zack asked. Not wanting to live and wanting to die might be entirely separate concepts in Sephiroth's mind.
"If Cloud is broken and can't be fixed and is going to be cremated, then yes. It hurts too much."
"I'll make you a deal, then. I want you to wait until after the funeral. I want you to hang in there as best you can until you can say goodbye. Then, if you still want to and can explain to me what it is that you want and what the consequences will be, I'll help you." Angeal would kill him. Angeal would kill him deader than dead. But forcing Sephiroth to live if he truly didn't want to seemed so cruel. He could only hope that Sephiroth would change his mind.
Zack scraped the barely-touched food into the garbage and dumped the plate in the sink. Sephiroth wasn't eating enough too keep up with his high metabolism and it was beginning to show. But, as Sephiroth kept reminding him, he still wanted to die on Saturday so it didn't matter. The closer it got to Saturday, the more worried Zack became. He didn't want Sephiroth to suffer any more than he already had, but between the two of them, all of their methods of killing a person were on the violent and painful side. He needed help.
The doorbell interrupted Zack's thoughts and he grudgingly went over to open it. It was barely noon and he was exhausted already. Opening the door revealed Aerith looking nervous with a man in a dark blue suit holding her by the elbow.
"Tseng? What are you guys doing here?"
"Let us in quickly; Aerith shouldn't be here." Tseng pushed the door further open and ushered Aerith inside.
"I'm sorry, Zack," Aerith said, "But I needed to talk to Sephiroth, so I made Tseng bring me."
"How in the world do you know Tseng?" Zack asked, staring at the two of them in wonder.
"He's my bodyguard, aren't you?" Aerith smiled and patted Tseng's hand.
"Whys aren't important. All you need to know is that the Turks are aware of Aerith's existence and that we observe her to keep her from coming to harm," Tseng said curtly.
"Hookay... I'll just not ask, how about that?"
"Probably for the best." Aerith's expression turned serious when she spoke again. "Where's Sephiroth?"
"In his room. I'll show you." Zack looked questioningly at Tseng, but he just looked away and sat down on the couch. He knocked gently on the door before pushing it slowly open. "Sephiroth? There's someone here to see you. Can Aerith come in?"
There was no response, but that wasn't unusual. Zack just felt it was more polite to announce himself instead of barging in. He led Aerith into the room and gestured to the chair next to the bed. "You can sit there, if you'd like."
"Thanks, Zack. You don't have to stay."
Zack nodded; he could take a hint. "Holler if you need anything."
He shut the door quietly behind him, and returned to the living room to sit awkwardly next to Tseng. Several minutes of silence passed while Zack tried to listen in on the conversation in the bedroom. All he could make out were a few snippets of what Sephiroth was saying and some crying, however. Nothing from Aerith.
"How is he doing?" Tseng asked and Zack reluctantly pulled his attention away from eavesdropping.
"Not good. And not getting better."
Tseng nodded as if confirming what he already knew. "He's not coming back to Shin-Ra."
"No. Are they...?"
"It's been accepted as inevitable. Sephiroth will be useless as a fighter if he continues like this."
Zack nodded, thinking quickly. They probably wrote Sephiroth off so quickly because his grieving was interfering with Zack's ability to work, and Angeal and Genesis as well. That was three First Classes out of action because of one. Even if Sephiroth would get better over time, the president probably didn't want to spend that much time. It was nearing three weeks since Cloud had first gone missing and everything had been disrupted. Knowing that the brass just wanted Sephiroth out of the way at this point made asking for help a lot easier.
"Sephiroth wants to die."
Tseng quirked an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.
"I made him promise to wait until after the funeral. And I told him that he had to be able to explain that he wants to die and what he thinks the consequences will be. But I told him that if he did that, I'd help him to kill himself. If he can't bear living without Cloud, I don't want to force him. And I don't want him to die alone and frightened. It's bad enough that Cloud did." When Tseng still said nothing, Zack continued, "He tells me every morning and every night that he hasn't changed his mind. He's just waiting for Saturday. That's the only thing that's keeping him going."
"Why are you telling me this?" Tseng's expression was completely neutral and Zack couldn't tell anything from it.
"Because I don't want to hurt him and you've got connections. If Shin-Ra's written him off, help me. If you care about him at all, help me. Please, Tseng."
"You know, you're the second person today who's told me this news. I think you need to talk to Aerith."
"Hi, Sephiroth. I brought you a flower." Sephiroth opened his eyes and saw Aerith crouch down next to the bed and take a small flower out of the pocket of her skirt. She pressed it into the palm of his hand, then stepped back and took a seat on the chair.
"Thank you," Sephiroth mumbled.
"Is this the flower that Cloud showed you how to dry?" She pointed at the box on the nightstand.
Sephiroth nodded and picked it up carefully. "He didn't eat it."
"That's good. I'm sorry if I made you worry about that."
"No," he said, shaking his head, "I just asked and he said he wouldn't. I didn't worry." Sephiroth stopped talking as tears welled up in his eyes. Talking about Cloud just made it hurt more.
"It's okay, Sephiroth. It's okay. You can cry for him. I know you miss him." Aerith moved over to the bed and handed him a tissue and brushed some hair out of his face. She let him cry for a while, and patiently wiped his tears away until they finally ran out again. "Feeling better?"
Sephiroth shook his head. Crying didn't make him feel better at all. Crying had only ever made him feel better when Cloud was here to hold. "I'm tired. I want to go to sleep and never wake up."
"I know," she said. "I know you do. The planet told me."
There was a knock at the door and Aerith went to answer it. Sephiroth ignored the hushed conversation and nodded when Aerith said that she would be right back. None of it mattered to him, after all. The world was nothing and the only thing on the horizon was Saturday. Saturday he would say goodbye to his Cloud, and then he would die. He wouldn't change his mind like he knew Zack wanted him to.
Sephiroth sat up in bed and took his photo album out of the drawer. Genesis had given it to him a few days ago. He had overheard Angeal asking where he got all the pictures, and Genesis said that he had gone to anyone and everyone and demanded anything they had.
Cloud was on every page. Laughing and smiling as Sephiroth carried him home when he got back from his maintenance. Curled up next to him as they both took a nap on the couch. Sitting on the counter in the break room with his tongue sticking out for some unknown reason. Blowing out the candles on the birthday cake that Sephiroth had made for him with Zack's help. Wading in the stream in the park and splashing water at Sephiroth.
The pages that the photos were displayed in were covered in plastic and the tears that fell on them wiped off easily. He didn't want to go on without Cloud there to brighten up everything around him. Without Cloud to take care of him. Because really, that's what Cloud did. Even though he was a toy and it was Sephiroth's job to be his caregiver, truthfully, it was the other way around and he knew it. Maybe things wouldn't be exactly the same as they had been before Cloud came, but he couldn't bear the thought of it being even a little bit like that. Cloud could never be replaced, not even if they made another one exactly like him.
The door opened again and Zack came in, followed by Aerith and then Tseng. They all looked sad, even Tseng, who never looked anything. Aerith sat down next to him on the bed, Zack took the foot, and Tseng sat in the chair.
"Is that Cloud?" Aerith asked. "He's very handsome."
Sephiroth nodded and turned the page, showing her pictures from Zack's Halloween party, when he and Cloud had dressed as dinosaurs.
"Sephiroth," Zack interrupted, "We need to talk about something very important. Can you shut the book for a little while?"
Nothing was important anymore, but Sephiroth obligingly shut the book anyways. It was a long time until Saturday. He could look at it a lot before then.
Sephiroth held on tightly to his flower with both hands as he stepped out of the limousine and stared at the foreboding building. He didn't want to go in there. He didn't want to say goodbye. Goodbye meant that Cloud was gone.
He's in the Lifestream. Aerith's comforting words came back to him. Cloud was a special toy with a soul. He was in the Lifestream. He wasn't just gone.
"Let's go, Sephiroth. You can do this," Genesis said quietly and took him by the elbow, leading him towards the building. He heard Angeal and Zack walking behind him.
Genesis led him through the big doors and into a room full of flowers. They were everywhere: on either side of the doors, beside the rows of seats, in the windows, and the far end of the room was covered in them. Cloud wouldn't be sad with so many flowers. There was a long walk past rows and rows of people dressed in black. Sephiroth glanced around, suspicious of how many people were there. Were they just pretending to be sad? But nearly everyone he saw, he remembered interacting with Cloud in some way. There was the tech who had been nice to them in the lab, the desk sergeant who would bring Cloud cookies she had made, there was an old lady that looked how Cloud had described the librarian who helped him pick out books, and there were most of the SOLDIERs stationed in Midgar, who had come to like Cloud a lot.
Genesis took him right to the front of the room and sat him down in a chair near the centre. He barely took notice of the other three sitting down next to him. He was too busy looking at the jar that had Cloud's picture next to it and was surrounded by flowers. Cloud was in there. Sephiroth started to hum and rock as he stared at what was left of his Cloud. Not coming back. Never coming back.
Zack's arm was around him and he pressed his face into his warm shoulder as someone started speaking. Gone. Gone. Cloud was gone.
He paid little attention to what was being said. At one point, Zack got up and Angeal took his place next to Sephiroth. Zack had a long list of stories and memories of Cloud that he read out loud. Each one had apparently been submitted by someone different. Zack's speech was the only one that he really listened to, though it was hard to hear and made him cry even more. Finally, it was over and everyone left the room; Zack told him that they were going to the reception area.
"I want to stay here for a while," Sephiroth said.
"Okay, that's no problem. You can take as much time as you need. Do you want me or someone else to stay with you?"
"No. I want to be alone."
"All right." Zack patted his shoulder. "I'll be just outside, then. You don't have to go to the reception if you don't want to, so don't worry about that. If you want to leave, come tell me."
Sephiroth nodded and looked at the flower in his lap. It was looking a little worse-for-wear after all the moving around it had done over the past few days. Sephiroth was glad it had the box to keep it mostly safe. He still couldn't quite bring himself to look at the urn on the table at the front, but he couldn't leave until he had. He had to look at it and say goodbye. In a little while.
Sephiroth blinked and looked up from the flower. There was a sad-looking woman standing next to him. She had blonde hair like Cloud's, but her eyes were all red and puffy, like his.
"My name's Alde. Cloud told me a lot about you."
"I miss Cloud," he said, looking back down.
"I know. I miss him, too." The woman named Alde sat down next to him and peered over his shoulder to look at the flower.
"Why did Cloud tell you about me?" He was a little bit curious, even though it didn't matter anymore.
"Well, I raised him, you see, before he met you. And I love him very much. So naturally, I wanted to know about his life after he left."
"I'm sorry. I didn't save him. He broke and it was my fault."
"Oh, honey..." An arm wrapped around his back and squeezed him tightly. Sephiroth stiffened; he wasn't sure he liked a stranger hugging him.
"Did Cloud write letters to you?"
"Yes, he wrote me lots of letters. He even wrote and told me about that flower."
Sephiroth nodded. She was probably the person that Cloud always wrote to. It was probably okay if she hugged him. Cloud would like it if Sephiroth let her do that.
"Did he ever tell you about me?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "I just know that he wrote letters. We would go to the post office every couple weeks to mail one. Cloud said they were to someone from the factory that he loved. He was always happy when he got one back."
The woman named Alde stopped hugging him and took a tissue out of her bag, wiping her eyes.
"You did a good job raising him," Sephiroth said. The woman named Alde seemed as sad as he was. "Cloud was a good friend."
She let out a soft sob and hugged him again; Sephiroth didn't stiffen as much this time and raised an arm to hug her back. "He was so happy after he met you," she said through her sobs. "Did you know that? He said you did such a good job of taking care of him. Don't be sorry, Sephiroth. And don't blame yourself. You made Cloud happy and I'm grateful to you for that."
Sephiroth hummed softly and patted her shoulder like people did with him. He was glad that this woman didn't blame him. He had a feeling that he would have been sadder if she had. He didn't want the mysterious other person that Cloud loved to hate him.
She cried on his shoulder for a long time, but Sephiroth didn't mind. Somehow it wasn't quite as hard to look at the table with Cloud's urn on it when she was there. He patted her back while he looked at all the pretty flowers surrounding it. Cloud would be happy that he had asked for flowers. He did a good job with that.
When the woman named Alde said she had to go, Sephiroth hesitated, but then held out the dried flower to her. "You should take it."
"Oh, Sephiroth, I can't. You and Cloud made that together, didn't you?"
"Yes. Cloud showed me how. I think he wants you to have it." Sephiroth wouldn't need it when he was in the Lifestream, but maybe it would make her feel better. It had made him feel a little bit better. He pushed it into her hands and she took it automatically.
With a small smile and a murmured 'thank you', the woman named Alde turned and walked away.
Now that the room was quiet once again, Sephiroth stood and approached the table at the front. He ran his fingers over the petals of the flowers, the picture, and finally, over the urn that had 'Cloud' engraved on it.
"Goodbye, Cloud. I'll see you soon."
Tseng had recruited the lab tech that had helped them locate Cloud to assist with Sephiroth's suicide. Zack watched, feeling rather removed from the situation, as Rick sat on the edge of the bed with his supplies laid out on the nightstand.
"Okay, Sephiroth, I'm just going to hook up your IV. You're going to feel a little pinch. Relax your arm for me."
He was really going to do it. He was going to kill Sephiroth. Zack looked away from the scene in front of him. He couldn't back out now; he had promised and Sephiroth had held up his end of the bargain. His understanding of the consequences of dying like this was fairly limited. He acknowledged that some people would be upset and others would miss him and be sad, but he hadn't thought about any repercussions that the people helping him might face. It was good enough for Zack, though. Sephiroth knew what dying meant and he still chose it. That was all he had really been concerned about. Everyone else here tonight was well aware of the potential consequences of their actions.
"There, it's in now. No more pain." Rick patted Sephiroth's shoulder and stood up. "Whenever you're ready," he said to Zack.
"Aerith?" Sephiroth said, and she hurried over to him.
"What is it?"
"Cloud's going to be there, right? You'll make sure?"
"Yes, I'm going to guide your spirit to where he is, don't worry."
"I don't want him to get lost."
"He won't get lost," Aerith reassured him. "I know right where he is."
Zack wondered if she had also told Sephiroth that Cloud's spirit hadn't moved from where it first manifested in the Lifestream. She had told him that it was really unusual, but she wasn't sure what it meant. He hoped it was nothing bad.
"Okay." Sephiroth smiled slightly and poked at the IV in his arm. "I'm ready."
Aerith leaned over and kissed Sephiroth on the forehead. "Goodbye and good luck, Calamity's Child," she whispered. "Find your peace."
Zack frowned at the odd name she had called him, but stepped up and took her place beside Sephiroth. "Hey, buddy, ready to get this show on the road?"
"All right, I'm going to explain it one last time, so just bear with me, okay?" At Sephiroth's nod, Zack continued, "I'm going to inject you with this one first." He pointed at the first of the two large syringes on the table. "It's going to make you fall asleep. It'll feel weird, because you're falling asleep so quickly, but it won't hurt. Once you're asleep, I'll inject you with the other one. That's what's going to kill you. It's not going to hurt, but you're never going to wake up. Do you understand?"
"Yes. Thank you, Zack."
Zack nodded his head slowly. "You're welcome. I'm sorry that it came to this. I wish you and Cloud could have been happy forever and I hope you can be when you find him again."
Sephiroth blinked away a few tears. "I'll say 'hi' to him for you."
"Thanks. Tell him I said to make sure you stay in line. And I'll keep an eye on Alde for him, so he doesn't have to worry." Zack leaned over and hugged Sephiroth tightly. "I'm gonna miss you."
"Miss you too."
Zack pulled away. He had to do this now or he was going to lose his nerve entirely. "Ready?"
"Ready." Sephiroth held out his arm.
He willed his hands not to shake as he picked up the syringe and inserted it into the IV. Half a minute or so after the drug had been injected, Sephiroth's muscles began to go limp and his eyes slipped shut.
"Goodbye," Sephiroth mumbled.
Zack kept holding Sephiroth's arm and looking at his face long after he was certain he was asleep. He had to do this. He had to keep going. This was what Sephiroth needed.
"Do you want me to do it?" Tseng asked, stepping out from where he had been observing.
"No, I've got it. I promised." Zack fumbled for the second syringe.
"It's what he wanted," Aerith said. She came up behind him and placed a hand on his arm, squeezing tightly.
His hands were shaking too badly to get the syringe lined up, and Tseng stepped up to help. He got it into the catheter, then handed the syringe back to Zack. "I don't mind if you want me to just do it."
"I know." Zack shut his eyes and pressed down on the plunger, then opened them and watched fearfully.
Sephiroth twitched a few times, as the drugs made their way through his system, but Rick had put muscle relaxants into the mix to keep him from having seizures. Zack didn't think he could have handled that.
A while after the twitching stopped, Rick stepped up and felt for a pulse. Looking at his watch, he said, "Time of death: twenty-one thirty-nine."
The moment he gained awareness, Sephiroth realized that something was off. He was...here. Here and aware like he hadn't been in years. He remembered everything. It was like the incident with Jenova had never happened. And yet, he wasn't the same.
You're welcome. A voice echoed through the odd green waves of the Lifestream. It's the planet's parting gift to you.
The planet made his mind whole again?
Jenova can't influence you anymore, though. You're free.
"Where's Cloud?" Sephiroth was overcome with the desperate need to find him. That poor kid; he sacrificed so much to help him. He gave up his past, his freedom, and eventually his life. He needed to find him.
A little ways forward. Keep walking and you'll find him. The voice trailed off and Sephiroth was left with a sense of aloneness. There were spirits all around him, but they were strange and alien. Had Cloud been here since he died? Completely alone? Sephiroth didn't walk, but ran straight ahead.
It felt like it had taken ages, but he hadn't doubted for a moment that he had been heading in the right direction. There, just up ahead, was the familiar sight of Cloud's back. He came to a stop a short distance away. The landscape was difficult to see properly; it all blended together after a metre or two. But he appeared to be sitting down with his legs dangling over some kind of edge. Was he waiting for him? Like Aerith had said?
"Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to come say 'hello'?" Cloud didn't turn around. He didn't do anything except lean down and reach his hand over the edge of whatever he was sitting on.
Sephiroth supposed he couldn't blame him for not jumping up to greet him, so he went over and sat down next to him. Cloud was sitting at the edge of a small stream, trailing his hand in the water as tiny fish swam by. There was a large tree nearby, but small patch of sunlight was shining on the exact spot where Cloud was sitting. Sephiroth stared for a moment; Cloud didn't cast a shadow. He also still wasn't looking up.
"I'm sorry," Sephiroth said, unsure of where he stood at the moment. It would be entirely reasonable if Cloud were angry with him. He had been the cause of his death, after all.
"That doesn't sound like 'hello'."
"Hello, Cloud. How are you?"
"Hello, Sephiroth. I'm okay. A bit worried." Cloud picked up a small rock and skipped it down the stream, still looking away.
"Why are you worried?" Sephiroth wanted to reach out and touch Cloud, but hesitated to do so until he knew where he stood.
"That girl said that you were coming and that I should stay here. I wasn't going to go anywhere, anyways, but this is the Lifestream. You can't come here unless you're dead. So, I'm worried."
Sephiroth sighed and reached out to touch the water like Cloud was doing. "I'm sorry," he said again.
A splash of cold water in his face caught Sephiroth by surprise. "What was that for?"
"Quit it with the 'sorry'!" Cloud must have looked at him to splash the water, but by the time Sephiroth had wiped his face, he was back to watching the fish.
"So, what do you want me to say instead? I am dead. It's what I wanted. I couldn't do it without you, Cloud."
"Am I a bad toy?"
"What? Of course you're not, why would you ask that?"
Cloud's voice trembled and broke as he spoke. "I—I wanted you to come." He grabbed another rock and pitched it downstream. "I knew it what it would mean i—if you did, but... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
"Cloud..." Sephiroth reached out and touched Cloud's shoulder. It didn't feel normal, really, but he was solid enough. He scooted closer and wrapped his arms around Cloud's shaking body. "Don't be sorry," he whispered. "You're not a bad person. I'm happy you wanted me to come. Don't be sorry."
"I just—I just—I was scared and I didn't want to be alone and—"
"I know. I was scared, too. I couldn't handle being without you, Cloud. It was my decision, though. You're a wonderful person and you didn't do anything wrong."
"Yeah... person. You don't have to pretend anymore."
Cloud pulled away from his hug and seemed to curl in on himself. "Oh. That's good."
"I wanted to thank you. I never realized how much you did for me, Cloud, but I do now. You gave me the best year of my life and I wish it could have stayed like that forever. I also never knew how much you sacrificed—"
"Stop it. I didn't sacrifice anything. I wanted to be your toy."
"I know you did." And he still does, Sephiroth thought. He didn't need or want a toy anymore, but Cloud still needed to be his. And Sephiroth did still need and want Cloud.
Sephiroth came to a swift decision. Cloud needed to know that Sephiroth still wanted him around. He was also probably having a hard time coping with his own violent death. They could figure out where their relationship stood later. For now, Cloud needed someone to love him. He scooped Cloud up and hauled him onto his lap, then licked the stunned boy on the nose.
"You still discolour," he said with a smile.
"And Zack says 'hi'. He also said to tell you that he'll look out for your mom and make sure she's doing all right. I'm not certain – I wasn't really paying much attention at that point – but I think Tseng made me sign something so that my estate would go to her." Sephiroth rearranged Cloud a little so he was in a more comfortable position and stroked his hair. "So don't worry about her. She'll be okay. She's a strong person."
"How do you know?"
"She spoke to me at your funeral. I wish I could have met her under different circumstances. She played along beautifully, even though she was grieving too. That was unbelievably kind of her. I gave her the flower we dried."
"Mom was always good at stuff like that. She set an extra place for my imaginary friend for years. It's good you gave her the flower; she probably really appreciated it."
"She'd better've," Sephiroth said fiercely. "It wasn't easy parting with it."
Cloud sighed heavily. "I'm okay. You don't have to do this."
"Sure I do." Sephiroth hugged Cloud tightly. "I spent most of my life being an asshole; I don't need or want to carry on as usual in death. You're my Cloud and you were always there for me when I needed you. If I can't return the favour now, then I never deserved you in the first place."
"But nothing. Maybe it would be best if we just started over from the beginning – as much as we can here – but for now, you're going to sit on my lap and get hugged, okay?"
Cloud laughed in a resigned sort of way. "Okay."
Things hadn't gone as smoothly as Sephiroth had hoped. Starting over from the beginning had seemed like the best plan for their relationship, but something about the nature of the Lifestream made that impossible. There was no moving forward in this place. All they had was memories. But they made do; they still had their love for each other, after all. That made up for a lot of what the Lifestream lacked.
Cloud stirred and whimpered and Sephiroth immediately began stroking his hair. "Shh, it's okay. You're a good toy," he murmured. "You're a good toy. I love you."
He hadn't really noticed it until several years had passed, but Cloud had probably been deteriorating from the beginning. That's what the Lifestream did, after all. It absorbed the memories and experiences of the dead so it could grow and flourish. He wasn't sure why he didn't have any trouble retaining his sense of self, but he often wished that they could just forget together. Watching Cloud fight to remain with him was heartbreaking.
It had started with Cloud disappearing from time-to-time. For a few minutes, then a few hours, and then a few days. He always reappeared in the same spot where Sephiroth had first found him, so he quickly learned to just wait for him there. He pretended for Cloud's sake that he hadn't been waiting long. Cloud had always had trouble judging the passage of time here, anyways, and he usually seemed relieved when Sephiroth told him that he had only been gone a short time.
"Sephiroth?" Cloud started struggling and Sephiroth helped him sit up. Sometimes it seemed like Cloud was getting smaller, but he was fairly sure that wasn't true. His... presence here just seemed diminished. Cloud leaned against him and clutched weakly at his hair. Sephiroth was fairly certain that it was the struggle to keep his mind together that made him physically weak. It seemed to take up all his energy.
"I'm right here. How're you doing?"
"Did you eat?" Cloud asked.
"I ate, don't worry. You're doing a good job."
There was so little of him left now, Sephiroth thought as he rubbed Cloud's back, trying to comfort him. All Cloud remembered now was that he was Sephiroth's toy and that he needed to take care of him. And as hard as it was seeing him like this, Sephiroth dreaded the day when Cloud wouldn't even remember that much.
"I should read to you. You like that." Cloud tried to stand up, but failed, and Sephiroth pulled him into his lap to keep him still.
"That's okay. I think that good toys like you deserve a treat every once in a while. Would you like me to tell you a story this time?"
"I'm a good toy?" Cloud's head moved drunkenly as he turned it to look up, so Sephiroth gently supported it with one hand and cradled him close.
"You're the best toy."
"A story would be nice."
Sephiroth kissed Cloud's pale forehead and hugged him as tightly as he dared. "Okay. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful toy named Cloud. He lived in a tall tower with his owner, Sephiroth. Sephiroth loved his toy very much..."
He always told Cloud the same story: a romantic version of how things might have gone if they had lived. Cloud seemed to like it a lot, especially the happy ending. Sephiroth didn't think they'd get that far today, though, Cloud was already starting to fade.
Cloud had disappeared entirely by the time he got half way through. Sephiroth traced his hand through the nothingness where he had been, then got up and went to sit by the tree and wait. He knew that sooner or later, Cloud wouldn't be able to come back, but he'd still wait. Nothing would make him leave that spot and risk Cloud being left alone.
A/N: Tissue? In lieu of actual tissues, you can take comfort in the fact that the sad ending is out of my system and there will be a second sequel, which will have a happy ending. Probably. Unless something weird happens. Like this. Also, I will have something to rot your teeth next week.