A/N: I intended this to be a seasonal one-shot, but the ending wouldn't close off, so instead it will be a series of short vignettes about... Well, you'll see what it's about. Enjoy! Disclaimer: I do not own FFVII, FFVIIAC, or anything related to Final Fantasy. Please support the official releases.
Disclaimer: I do not own FFVII, FFVIIAC, or anything related to Final Fantasy. Please support the official releases.
Cloud did not like Halloween. He did agree that Marlene was cute dressed in her witch's costume, and that Denzel made an excellent firefighter, but he refused to go out trick or treating with them. He knew what would await him.
It was the same thing every year for the last three years. The streets would be crowded with children wearing mock-ups of his face, and his clothes, and his hair, carrying fake versions of his sword, some of them caringly hand-made, and other mass-produced by some enterprising soul who'd realized there was a market for Cloud Strife Halloween costumes.
But the worst part was who they went trick or treating with. They never walked around with people dressed up as the other members of Avalanche, or Zack, or even Turks. They always ended up walking with kids dressed up as Sephiroth. The costumes were often disturbingly accurate, right down to Masamune, and sometimes even including contacts with slit pupils. They reeked of silver hair-spray, and the cheap pleather their costumes always seemed to be made out of.
And without a doubt, the kids dressed up as him ran around pretending to kill the ones dressed as Sephiroth. Without fail, the children in Sephiroth costumes gave their versions of maniacal laughs and taunted the children in Cloud costumes. And then they all picked themselves up after their mock battles and begged for candy from his neighbors and the rest of Midgar.
Cloud spent Halloween locked upstairs in Seventh Heaven, in the attic, which had the mercy of at least not having any windows. It was bad enough that he could hear the revelries from bellow.
Tifa was busy downstairs minding the bar, while Barrett had the kids out trick or treating. It was a familiar routine by now. He flinched as he heard a cry of 'Sephiroth!' from outside, screamed in a ferocious child's voice, full of false rage and fueled by pretend vengeance. Tifa didn't allow the costumes in the bar, fortunately. But ladies did get half off their drinks on Halloween if they dressed up like her, so long as they pretended the cowboy-hat picture had never existed. Needless to say, the party downstairs in Seventh Heaven was already loud and rowdy, and would only get wilder as the night went on.
Cloud stood up off of the mattress he'd brought upstairs with him and wandered through the attic. It was almost completely empty. There were a few extra chairs and bar stools, in case any of Tifa's broke, or were broken. In one corner, the supplies to make new tables in case of bar brawls sat. They'd only had to pull them out once since Seventh Heaven opened, and that had been after the Turks' first visit to the bar. He had to smile at the memory of her forcing the Turks to build her a new table while still in their work suits. She'd even cracked the whip on Tseng.
He ran a hand over a box, checking his fingers and sighing at how dusty they were. This box was his—all of the items he'd gathered from his life before Avalanche. It was amazing, how it all fit into one tiny box. He glanced to the closed door that lead downstairs, then to the bare mattress he'd brought up as all he had to keep him company. Then he turned to the box and opened it slowly. Memories were an unexploded bomb for him. He rarely allowed himself to think back to a time before his current life. With children in the house, he usually didn't dare test his control. But right now, he was alone, isolated, and safe. Besides, it was Halloween. What better time to face a fear.
He hesitated as he unfolded the top, and turned away, grabbing one of the spare chairs and dragging it over to sit beside his memories. On the very top was a photograph in an old frame, the glass a little dirty from disuse. A blonde boy stood next to a smiling woman in a modest dress. He wiped the dirt carefully off from over her face. It was the only image he had of his mother, and she had moved slightly while it was being taken. Her face was as blurry as his memory of her. He was glad to have the picture none the less. It had been a stroke of luck finding it at all. He carefully used the bottom of his knit shirt to wipe off the rest of the dust, and set the picture aside, propping it up against the box in front of him.
There were a lot of useless things in the box, he found. Little things, like random toys that he didn't actually remember, but knew distantly were his. He smiled fondly as he set them around the picture, but it wasn't until he picked up the next frame that he slowed again.
This one was newer than the photograph of his mother. Still dusty, but not too bad. It wasn't a picture, but one of the things the Turks had filed away from his personal belongings after he vanished in Nibelheim. It was a framed napkin, which was silly in and of itself, but the signature it bore made Cloud's chest ache.
'Want my napkin?' Zack had joked over the dinner table after discovering Cloud the cadet idolized him. 'Here, I'll sign it for you! It'll be worth a lot of money some day!'
"Not even close," Cloud whispered in response to the memory of his friend, rubbing the edge of the frame. "The frame cost more than your signature would."
He stared down at the scrawled name for a long time. His fingers traced over the letters of Zack's name, as though hoping to take hold of the hand that had written them so long ago. He swallowed heavily, took a deep breath, and set the frame aside, carefully propping it up to face him as well.
The next thing he pulled out was the box Tseng had given him only a year ago. He still hadn't broken the seal. Inside were Aerith's letters to Zack—all of them. The weight of the box always astounded him. The mass of her love, all carefully penned onto the paper she'd probably scrimped and saved for with her meager earnings from selling flowers. She'd kept writing for so long. She had always been like that, though. She loved so deeply, and was so utterly devoted to those she loved. He pet the box gently. He wouldn't open it—not ever—but he was glad he had it instead of the Turks. Glad that the box could sit next to Zack's signature. It was like the buster sword after he moved it into the church—they were just meant to stay together.
There were a couple of odd things below that. He pulled out a pair of training gloves, with holes in them where he'd spent so long training with swords he'd worn through the palms completely. Then an old, tattered magazine with Zack's grinning face on the cover, giving a little salute, with the caption 'Soldier's newest hero?' beneath it. He was extra careful when he set that down. He only had a few more pictures of Zack than he had of his mother, and it was good to see him smiling. So many of his memories of Zack were tinged with pain.
He reached into the box again and paused. It was a long pause. His fingers had touched something smooth, cold, and solid, and he remembered what it was as he touched it. He'd been in such a rush to collect it with no one asking any questions when he saw it among his possessions in the Turk's holding area that he hadn't taken the time to think about it. He drew it out slowly, inhaling deeply as he did so.
It was a simple, dark box. Nothing special by itself, of course. It was what it held that made Cloud's heart beat faster. He opened it slowly, quietly praying they hadn't been broken. Gleaming porcelain was revealed as he lifted the lid, and he let out a soft breath of relief. All three of the Wutaian tea cups inside the box were intact.
He turned them carefully, pointing their simple, elegant designs of trees and flowers upwards. He remembered these. He remembered them vividly. They were from a moment in his past he'd pushed aside for a very long time.
"You kept them," a deep and familiar voice murmured behind him. "Even after all this time."
"They were the only thing I had of the real you," Cloud said softly in answer to the voice which he knew could not be real. He tilted his head slightly, running his fingers over the delicate paintings on the rounded mugs. "The one thing I had to remind me of the man I used to..."
He trailed off for a long moment, searching for the right word.
"Idolize?" the voice behind him offered.
"Something like that," he sighed, "It doesn't matter now. You—the real you—you're long gone."
"Yes," the voice said softly. "May I?"
Cloud didn't get a chance to answer before a slender, softly-glowing hand reached over his shoulder to touch the mugs. He stared down at the hand as it caressed the images, then followed it up the muscular arm attached to it. The arm led him to a broad frame, and gut-wrenchingly familiar silver hair. And yet there was something distant about it all, as real as it was. As far away as Aerith standing in amongst her flowers.
"You're dead," Cloud said softly.
"Very observant of you to notice," Sephiroth responded, tilting his head give Cloud a very faint and very sarcastic smile.
"Really dead this time, right?" Cloud clarified, lifting a hand to curiously touch Sephiroth's very solid-seeming arm.
"Just a memory," Sephiroth replied with a grimace of a smile, straightening from touching the cups and backing away a couple of steps as Cloud rose. "Just as you wished."
There was silence for a moment. Cloud studied the faint glow that Sephiroth seemed to emit, just as Zack and Aerith had, as though he were still bathed in the light of the Lifestream even in his dark attic. He looked unearthly, but not in the sick and alien way he had when they fought. He looked calm and controlled, and carried a quiet solemnity that was very unlike the teasing, taunting villain Cloud remembered.
"It's really you," Cloud said cautiously. "The real you. Right?"
"Are you here to tell me I'll be haunted by three spirits or something?" Cloud asked dryly. "I thought that was a Christmas thing."
"You have already been haunted by three spirits," Sephiroth commented calmly. "If you count Aerith and Zack as the first two, I would be the third."
"What do you want from me?" Cloud asked, "Before you went insane—before everything happened—we barely knew each other. I wasn't even as Soldier."
"I have come to apologize," Sephiroth replied, his eyes steady on Cloud as they faced each other. "Which I recognize is many years too late to mean much."
Cloud took a deep breath, staring at the man. He felt he ought to react violently to those words. His every instinct was telling him to rip this man before him to shreds, before this nightmare worsened and Sephiroth changed again and tore him apart.
"I thought it would be useless," Sephiroth said slowly, "but agreed to do as Zack and Aerith asked. As a favor."
"They told you to come?"
"I thought them foolish," the silver-haired man said, shaking his head as his eyes lowered to the set of mugs again, "but you did keep them. So perhaps not so foolish as I thought."
"So is that it, then?" Cloud asked, shifting and straightening as Sephiroth's reptilian eyes returned to him. "Have you done what you came to?"
"Not yet," Sephiroth replied. "Not quite yet."
He shifted and Cloud tensed. Every movement from Sephiroth screamed danger. It always had. Any toss of his head—any redistribution of weight—it was all carefully controlled and measured, and it called out to every piece of Cloud that had become a killer to defeat this man. He widened his feet just a little, letting out a slow breath, prepared to fight to the death once more to protect his family.
Sephiroth watched him shift, then slowly sank downwards. Cloud watched in faint shock as the man slid to one knee before him, his right arm folded over his leg and his left resting lightly on his thigh. He bowed his head slowly, letting his bangs fall in front of his face. Cloud took a half step backwards, rattling one of the picture frames with his heel, but fortunately not breaking it.
"I have wronged you," Sephiroth said softly, his eyes on the floor and his head still bowed, "In every possible way. I have betrayed your trust, and through my negligence and weakness allowed injury and sorrow to befall you. I failed to protect you, as I swore to Zachary and myself I would before we left for Nibelheim. I failed even to die properly and spare you pain. For all of this—for every horror and loss that you have experienced—I apologize, Cloud Strife. I am sorry."
Cloud watched him with a clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. Silver hair fell in drapes around Sephiroth. He'd once thought that his hair was almost godly. Now it only reminded him of his worst nightmares. There was a whisper in the back of his mind, from the darkest parts of himself, which told him to take advantage of Sephiroth's kneeling position. He was quietly ashamed of the thought. And yet, it wasn't that shame which held him back. It was wondering whether or not the strike would connect with Sephiroth's ghost.
"Stand up," Cloud said softly and firmly. "There's no reason for you to kneel. It won't change anything. Not what you've done, and not what I think."
Sephiroth's eyes lifted first. He fixed his gaze on Cloud, his gaze intense and miserable. Outside children were hollering loudly in glee and pleased screams of fear. Below their feet, Seventh Heaven's murmur was growing into a roar as Tifa's bar grew wilder and busier the later the night ticked on. He stood up slowly, almost stiffly.
"I don't forgive you," Cloud said quietly and darkly once the man was standing. "Not for any of it. I keep these mugs because I remember what you used to be. I keep them to remind myself to stay the Cloud that Tifa and the kids know instead of becoming the monster you tried to make me."
Sephiroth lowered his eyes, and for a moment Cloud almost felt guilty for his words. Sephiroth had been through hell—he knew that—but he couldn't just forgive him. It would be like admitting that he'd failed to save the man Sephiroth had once been.
Something seemed to shift about Sephiroth, and the change drew Cloud out of his thoughts, re-activating his paranoia. The glow began to fade from around the former General's form, and as Cloud watched blood started to drip off the tips of Sephiroth's slender fingers. The tall man tilted his head back slightly, and closed his eyes, a look of pained acceptance crossing his face.
"Goodbye again, then." Sephiroth said softly, his eyes still closed.
Darkness swirled around his feet, springing to life as his blood fell to the floor. The red liquid started to leak from his hair line, sliding down his face in messy streams. His hair twisted behind him, pulling back sharply as the roiling blackness twisted upwards and tangled in his silver locks. His hands twitched, and the darkness reached up to wrap around them as well, shackling him. His head was pulled back, and the snarl that crossed his lips was of pain, not anger.
"What the hell," Cloud whispered as the darkness started to drag Sephiroth downwards.
Bright green eyes slid open, surrounded by the blood now seeming to gush from him. He opened his mouth to reply, but the darkness wrapped around his lips as well, cutting off his words. He closed his eyes again, and seemed to surrender himself to being dragged downwards.
"Take it back," Zack's voice echoed around him, desperate though it was only a whisper. "Take it back, Cloud! Please, you don't have to forgive him, just say you need time to think! Take it back!"
"Cloud," Aerith's voice whispered in his other ear. "Please."
Cloud's eyes returned to the face of the man slowly sinking into the floor. Sephiroth's eyes opened slowly, meeting his a final time as his legs vanished completely into the darkness, still sinking further and further. Memory swept over him.
"You like them?" Sephiroth asked quietly, stepping up behind Cloud.
"I've never seen anything like them, sir." Cloud replied softly, staring at the delicate mugs his General had served him and Zack tea in.
"They're pretty cool, huh," Zack grinned, taking a drink out of his own.
"Are they from Wutai?" Cloud asked softly, running his fingers lightly over the smooth surface.
"They are," Sephiroth replied, though he did not expand upon it. "I am glad they please you."
Cloud had come home the next day to a simple box sitting on his bed, which held nothing but the three cups, carefully settled in velvet, and a note that said 'since you liked them.' He'd been certain from that moment on that Sephiroth was a person he could follow anywhere—that if he ever managed to become as close to the General as Zack was, he could count himself as one of the luckiest men on Gaia. He'd treasured the gift above all his other items, and practically enshrined it in his small drawer of possessions in the barracks.
"Wait," Cloud said softly. "Wait."
Everything seemed to freeze. Sephiroth's descent slowed. The darkness wrapped around Cloud's former hero roiled in annoyance, squeezing him in agitation. The pressure drew a wince and an annoyed look from the ghost.
"I can't forgive or not forgive him," Cloud said, shaking his head, his voice shaking just a little, not sure who, exactly, he was addressing. "I barely even knew him before he went insane. I can't be in control of—of whatever this is."
"You must decide," a voice that was neither Zack's, Aerith's, or Sephiroth's murmured in his ear. "Does he remain, or does he vanish, Cloud?"
"I don't know," Cloud whispered. Something about the voice was achingly familiar, and utterly trustworthy. He didn't even think to doubt it. He stared down at Sephiroth's blood-stained face. "I don't know enough about him. I don't know anything about him."
"Very well, then," the voice murmured after a moment. "You will learn. And then you will make your decision."
"Wait," Cloud snapped as he felt the presence leave the room.
Sephiroth was dragged out of the floor and dropped in an unceremonious heap, bloody and shaking. He lay as still as death for a moment, then dragged in a breath. That single breath chilled Cloud to the bone. It wasn't a sound a ghost made. He took a half-step back, looking down at the silver-haired man collapsed on his floor. Sephiroth shifted, pressing a hand to the floor as he began to rise, before freezing, staring at his fingers.
"I feel that," he rasped.
His voice was no longer clear and warm, but low and raspy and very real. His eyes widened in surprise at hearing himself. Cloud stared as the glow faded from around him. His Mako enhanced hearing picked up the thunder of a heartbeat speeding up coming from the man before him. Sephiroth broke out in a cold sweat.
"I'm alive," He whispered. "What—What have they done?"
"Cloud?" Tifa called from the door, stepping inside the attic, "Things are starting to—Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't know you had company." She smiled warmly at Sephiroth, nodding to him with a complete lack of recognition in her eyes. "Sorry to interrupt!"
Cloud stared at the door as she closed it quickly. He didn't even think to correct her or stop her from going. A slow sneaking suspicion was building in his head. He walked over slowly to Sephiroth, bending and inspecting his eyes. Sephiroth didn't look at him, breathing hard and shaking on the floor, obviously re-adjusting to being a live. His eyes were still inhuman, but they lacked their Mako glow. He was definitely alive, but at the same time it was clear that he was not himself.
Cloud realized, after a moment of stunned silence, that Sephiroth was looking at something fixedly. There was something akin to horror in his gaze. Cloud followed that look, his eyes landing on the framed picture of Zack's signature. The black matting beneath the glass frame was almost mirror-like. Reflected in its surface, Cloud saw himself, crouching and looking into the frame with bright blue eyes. But the collapsed figure on the floor before him reflected as someone completely different—a brown-haired man with unimpressive features and what looked to be a smattering of freckles.
Cloud flicked his gaze from Sephiroth to his reflection and back. The silver-haired former General looked up at him in shock, still as striking as he had always been to Cloud's eyes. Sephiroth gave a shaking wheeze of breath, incapable of forming words in light of the shock of being resurrected as someone completely different. Cloud understood the sentiment behind the failed whisper, and returned it in a whisper of his own.