He stood in an abandoned forest, the trees all around him shining with an ethereal white luminescence and bathing everything in its pale light. The full moon, visible far above the bare branches, was not bright enough to touch anything in the ancient forest, its light easily swallowed by that of the trees.
Although the words to truly describe the beauty of this place was beyond the child's limited vocabulary, he found he could not enjoy it. He looked around, letting his hazel eyes wander over the large number of children gathered here. Although they had come from different walks of life, they all had one thing in common: Geostigma. Most tried to hide the black bruise by covering it with bandages while others didn't bother anymore, accepting that they were condemned to death.
He looked now to the one they had been brought to, the one who said he would heal them. The white-haired man spoke passionately, but his eyes were what stood out the most. A pale, but vivid green, slit like a cat's and possessing an almost hypnotic quality. The man's words washed over him, for the most part unheard, but Denzel found he could not look away from that glowing green gaze.
"Do as I do."
Each word was spoken clearly, the fervent passion replaced with the command to obey. Denzel watched as the man stepped slowly and deliberately into the lake, his keen gaze scanning every face to make sure he had their undivided attention. He stopped when he was up to his waist and cupped his hands, bringing the water to his lips and drinking deeply. The smile on his face once he had finished could not be described as anything but predatory.
As if in a trance, the group of children moved as one into the lake, each mirroring the man's motions. Denzel finally looked away from that captivating gaze, staring down into the black depths of the once-crystal clear lake. As if of their own accord, his hands cupped the liquid and brought it up to his face. He thought he could almost hear Marlene call his name as the tainted liquid passed his lips. It was bitter and oddly thick on his tongue, but he drank it without hesitation or complaint. He closed his eyes as he felt it begin to take effect. An odd coldness seeped through his veins, quickly spreading throughout his entire body. He felt different, like he didn't belong to himself, but was merely one part of something much larger. He opened his eyes, not surprised that his view of the world around him had changed. Before, he had been one of many frightened children. Now, he was surrounded by his brothers and sisters. The fear was gone, replaced with steely determination. This man would lead them to Mother. They were One and as soon as they found Her, they would be whole.
Kadaj called. And they answered.
Time no longer had any meaning, although it didn't seem to Denzel like that much time had passed before Kadaj instructed them to hide in the trees. A visitor was coming to their forest.
Denzel did as instructed without hesitation. A detached part of his mind registered a young girl making an effort to stay near him, although he did not know why. She was not his sister, not One with them. She was Apart. She was one of the Traitors. However, Kadaj had not said anything about her presence, so Denzel ignored her. He found it oddly easy to tune out her whining voice.
The roar of a motorcycle caught his attention, the sound achingly familiar to him although he did not try to remember why. It was not important. Kadaj would tell him if he needed to know.
There were gunshots from the other two white-haired men before Kadaj stepped forward, motioning for them to jump down from their perches.
Denzel did so without hesitation, landing on his feet as he gazed emotionlessly into the blinding headlight of the motorcycle heading straight for him. At almost the last instant, the bike swerved to the side, spinning out of control while its rider was thrown off. The children gathered in a circle at the unheard command while Kadaj circled the fallen man.
"I'm glad you could make it!" Kadaj cried, leering down at the blonde man.
"I only came for the kids," was the man's terse reply as he raised himself up on his hands and knees.
Denzel was confused. This blonde man was familiar. A strange feeling arose in his chest at the sight of him. His mind, however, had no need for such weak emotions. What perplexed it was that he felt like he was One and Apart at the same time.
As if sensing his confusion, Kadaj continued. "You see this man? He's our big brother," he said, waving his sword for emphasis as he addressed the assembled children. The blonde man didn't moved except to track Kadaj's movements as he continued circling. "But, alas! In our happy little flock," Kadaj's expression darkened as he leveled the double-bladed sword with the blonde's throat, "he's what you would call a black sheep."
Denzel's mind was satisfied with the explanation. A black sheep. And traitor to the family. He must die. The feeling in his chest, however, was not so easily swayed.
Kadaj slowly raised his sword, relishing his opponent's helplessness. The blonde didn't cry or plead for his life. He merely watched unflinchingly as the remaining seconds of his life ticked away.
Denzel's eyes were glued to the scene before him, eagerly waiting for the final blow to end the traitor's life. This man had to die if they were ever going to find mother.
When Kadaj finally brought his sword down, the movement was almost too quick for Denzel to see. The blonde, on the other hand, seemed to fall in slow motion. He collapsed almost gently on the ground, crimson blood spilling from a deep gash in his throat. It wasn't long before his eyes dulled in death, the soft blue glow fading as the lifeless sockets stared straight as Denzel.
Denzel's mind rejoiced at the traitor's death, but the feeling in his chest intensified. If felt constricted and was becoming more difficult to breathe. The powerful emotions coursing through his body brought images with it, tearing away at the shroud covering his mind. The blonde sitting with him one quiet evening, cleaning his sword while listening to Denzel talk about his day. The blonde crouched down beside his motorcycle, explaining the mechanics of the brake system. The blonde sitting at his bedside, regularly changing the bandage hiding his Geostigma.
Denzel's eyes widened as the control over him snapped and the full impact of what just happened hit him. The blonde's gaze seemed almost accusatory and the boy fell to his knees, wailing in agony.
Denzel shot up in bed, breathing hard. It took a few seconds for him to realize he was in his bed at Seventh Heaven and even longer for him to get his breathing under some semblance of control. He went back over the memories of the previous day, repeatedly telling himself that Cloud was fine. But, the dream was too fresh, too vivid in his mind, and he soon found himself walking quietly across the room so as to not wake Marlene.
All the lights were out, but the street lamps shining through the windows were enough to see by. He slowed as he neared Cloud's door, breath quickening when he saw it was open. Cloud never slept with his door open. He quickly crossed the last few feet and looked inside. Cloud's bed looked like it had been slept in, but now stood empty.
Denzel's thoughts were racing. All sorts of different scenarios flashed through his mind as he stood, trembling in the doorway. Did Cloud leave again? Was it because of him? Did Cloud hate him? After all, Kadaj had neared killed him and Denzel had stood idly by and watched.
The boys thoughts came crashing to a halt when he heard the toilet flush down the hall.
Cloud opened the bathroom door, switching off the light as he stepped into the hallway. The sound of bare feet slapping against the wooden floorboards caught his attention an instant before a small figure crashed into him, arms latching onto his waist. He stared down at the child, recognizing the messy brown hair. "Denzel?" he asked, quietly.
Denzel didn't reply, trembling as he clung almost desperately to the swordsman.
Cloud was at a loss as to what to do. It seemed clear the boy had had a bad dream, but it was usually Tifa who was sought out in the middle of the night, not him. Monsters under the bed or hiding in the closet, he could handle. Nightmares, on the other hand... He had enough problems dealing with his own. He didn't know how to help others deal with theirs.
Cloud rested one hand on Denzel's head, gently ruffling the hair while he considered the merits of taking the boy to Tifa. Surely, she would know what to do.
The calming gesture only seemed to make it worse, a choked sob escaping Denzel's throat as he hugged the blonde more tightly.
Resignedly, he picked up the boy and headed downstairs, where Denzel would be less likely to wake anyone else if he got too emotional. While Tifa could handle the situation better, she probably needed the sleep more than Cloud did. And, the blonde rationalized, he was probably the reason for the nightmare in the first place.
The swordsman remembered one time several months back when he had come home late and found Tifa and Marlene sitting in the kitchen. It was much later than either of them were usually up and Tifa had explained later that Marlene had had a bad dream. Cloud hadn't paid much attention at the time, but he did remember there had been two steaming mugs in front of them. Hot chocolate. Well, it was a starting place, at least.
He flipped the light on in the kitchen, setting Denzel on the counter while he rummaged through the cupboards. He was only a little surprised that he still remembered where everything was located. It didn't take him long to fix the drink and he led Denzel out into the dining area, sitting next to the wall at the corner of the bar. The brunette refused to meet his eyes, tentatively sipping the hot liquid.
Cloud wasn't going to force the boy to talk if he didn't want to, so he turned so he was facing Denzel and leaned back against the wall, getting comfortable. Perhaps the boy just wanted reassurance that he wasn't alone?
The silence stretched between them for several minutes. Vinyl creaked as Denzel shifted nervously and Cloud forced his eyes open, not entirely sure when he'd shut them. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so tired. SOLDIER stamina aside, Geostigma, Bahamut SIN, the Remnants and Sephiroth were a lot to deal with one day...especially when most of the previous night had been spent traveling to the Forgotten City and back again. Leaning his elbow on the counter, he tiredly tilted his head to the side, resting his cheek in his palm. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.
There was a long pause, Denzel staring into his cup as he swirled the liquid around in it. "I'm sorry," he whispered at last, so soft Cloud almost didn't hear him.
The blonde sighed. "Denzel, it's been a really long day. You're going to have to tell me what you're apologizing for."
The boy put down his cup, hiding his hands beneath the bar. "I'm sorry I wanted you dead," he said, his voice quavering.
That...was unexpected. Cloud blinked a couple times, not quite sure how to respond to that. Maybe he should have woken Tifa after all. "I suppose that's...understandable," he said at length.
"I-I don't know why," the boy continued, his shoulders visibly shaking. "I was so angry when he told us that you had turned your back on your family- betrayed us!" He shook his head, eyes obscured behind his bangs. "And, w-when he was going to k-kill you, I was h-happy!" A tear fell down his cheek. "I d-didn't want to s-stop him! I don't even know w-why I believed him! He lied about curing us, but-" Denzel cut himself off, taking gulping breaths as he tried his best not to cry.
"Wait, you're talking about what happened in the Forgotten City?" Cloud asked.
Denzel nodded, not trusting himself to speak as he roughly ran a hand across his eyes.
Cloud straightened up, studying the brunette as he considered his next words. Unable to come up with a tactful way to phrase the question, he decided to be blunt. "Before Kadaj and the others took you...did you want me dead then?"
The boy shook his head vehemently.
The blonde gave a slight nod, cushioning his head in his hand again as he leaned against the counter. "Then, there's nothing to apologize for."
"B-but I wanted you dead!" Several more tears escaped down Denzel's cheek. "I c-could have done something, anything, but I d-didn't! If it wasn't for Marlene, you'd b-be..." He broke off with a choked sob, covering his face with his hands as he tried to get his emotions under control.
Cloud laid a comforting hand on Denzel's shoulder. He was a little surprised when the boy turned and flung himself at the swordsman. Cloud reflexively caught the child, holding him firmly while Denzel buried his face in the older man's shirt, crying brokenly.
Cloud was decidedly out of his element. Although his body had automatically reacted to keep the child from falling, he was now at a loss of what to do. The small body felt awkward in his grasp and he found himself looking toward the staircase, half-hoping that Tifa would walk down them and take the crying child. He shook his head, sighing softly. For all her maternal instincts, he knew Tifa wouldn't be able to help Denzel this time. The only one who could do that was someone who had experienced the same thing.
Although, it isn't quite the same, he mused, absently rubbing the boy's back. Denzel wasn't able to break the control by himself. Of course, neither was I. He closed his eyes, remembering the almost trance-like state he would enter, a sibilant voice whispering in his mind. He didn't even question what it told him to do, the feelings it exuded so strong they could have been his own.
Denzel sniffed, drawing Cloud from his thoughts as he pulled back to his seat. The boy seemed to have calmed somewhat and was now rubbing at his eyes, embarrassed at having cried in front of his role model.
Cloud took hold of Denzel's chin, gently lifting it until he met the bloodshot gaze. "Nothing that happened in that forest is your fault."
"No," Cloud cut him off, shaking his head. "Listen to me. In the forest, after you drank the water, it was like you were in a dream, wasn't it? Kadaj spoke and you listened, hanging on his every word. It never even occurred to you to question what he told you, and why would it? You knew that he would never lead you astray and..." Cloud hesitated, unconsciously lowering his voice as he continued, "it would please Mother."
Denzel's eyes had widened, his mouth dropping open in surprise. "I didn't tell anyone... How did you...?" he whispered, floundering for words.
"I'm not as strong as you think I am," Cloud said, smiling ruefully as he sat back, releasing the boy's chin. "Two years ago, Tifa, me and several others went on a journey."
"To save the Planet when Sephiroth summoned Meteor, she told me," Denzel said, confused at the sudden change of topic.
"That's right," Cloud nodded, shifting his gaze to the worn counter. "But, I'll bet she didn't tell you that Sephiroth took control of me more than once, like Kadaj did with you."
Denzel's shocked expression was answer enough.
"I did some very bad things because of him," Cloud continued. "None of my friends blamed me for the things I did, but I blamed myself enough for all of them. I thought that if only I hadn't been so weak, then things would have been different. Maybe we could have stopped Sephiroth before he summoned Meteor. Maybe I could have saved her." Noticing he was unconsciously rubbing the red ribbon tied around is upper arm, he put his elbows on the counter, interlocking his fingers and resting his chin on them. "But, looking back on it, I don't think I could have done it differently. There was just too much that I didn't know at the time. Too much happened too quickly and I just couldn't cope with it all." Witnessing Zack's death and becoming his living legacy while recovering from severe mako poisoning after four years of experimentation... I simply wasn't strong enough to deal with it. As I was, I couldn't have done anything differently, he thought despondently.
"It doesn't really matter what you did or didn't do," Cloud said, pulling himself from his morose thoughts as he turned back to the boy. "Everyone knows that it wasn't your fault and no one blames you. Especially not me." He held Denzel's gaze, making sure his words were sinking in. "The only thing that matters is whether or not you can forgive yourself." The memory of last night flashed through his mind, after the fight in the City of the Ancients. He had asked Vincent if sins could ever be forgiven, knowing that the gunman would understand what he was asking. Vincent's answer was shocking, yet at the same time, almost expected. The corner of Cloud's mouth quirked upwards ever so slightly as he reaffirmed what he had said only yesterday. I'm going to try. "That, however, is the hardest part."
They sat in silence for a few moments, each lost in his own thoughts. It wasn't long before Cloud found his eyes drooping once more. "Alright, back to bed," he said, standing and stretching. "It's been a really long day for both of us, and Tifa is probably going to want me up bright and early to help repair the damage to the city from Bahamut SIN."
Denzel slid off the stool, taking the cup of cold cocoa to the sink before letting Cloud usher him upstairs. The blonde made sure the boy got back into bed before turning towards his room with every intention of doing the same. Denzel's soft voice stopped him.
He turned back, mako blue eyes glowing ever so softly in the darkened doorway.
Denzel hesitated, fiddling with the blanket between his hands. "Thanks," he said at last.
Cloud smiled, even though he knew the boy couldn't see it in the darkness. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to be needed. "You're welcome."
Denzel listened as the footsteps moved down the hallway, followed by the faint creak of old springs as Cloud returned to his bed. The brunette lay awake for a while longer, listening to the sounds of the house as he ran over the conversation again in his mind. He would never have expected that his idol had experienced the same thing himself. It made Denzel feel better, knowing that he had someone who understood, someone he could talk to. And, he thought, hearing another faint creak of protest as Cloud shifted again, someone who's here. Smiling to himself, he rolled over and closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep.
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