A/N: Another short chapter as the true plot of this piece begins, my loves! I hope you all enjoy the turns of this chapter, and sorry for taking so long in between updates! I need a schedule for my fanfictions.
As always, thank you all for the watches, favorites, and reviews! They mean the world to me!
Watching Sephiroth walk into Aerith's church with a slow, almost hesitant stride was one of the most surreal things Cloud had ever seen. In the dark and ruin of the slums, both Sephiroth and the columns of the beautiful church glowed softly as though illuminated by some inner light.
Cloud turned his gaze away and locked the truck. He did not need to watch the procession. He was not worried about the church having occupants. Despite its miraculous nature, most people never made the dangerous trek to go there. He wasn't entirely sure why. Apparently most people who went there said it gave them an uneasy feeling. Cloud had to wonder if that was one of the spirits that inhabited the church's walls shooing them away. He himself had never felt anything but welcome within the church's walls.
He lifted his head, letting out a slow breath into the cool night air. Far away, he could still hear the distant sounds of parties. In the rubble around them, something shifted, sending a piece of metal clinking down a mountain of broken concrete. The sounds were grounding. They were real. They were normal.
What had happened that night was not. Ghosts he was used to. You couldn't see as many ghosts as he had without starting to grow accustomed to their presences. But both Aerith and Zack talking to him in one night—the ghost of Sephiroth visiting as he looked through his collections of dusty memories—the creature that had started dragging him down into the floor. Into...What, exactly, Cloud wondered. What was there other than the lifestream. Other than the in-between existence Aerith and Zack seemed to have.
He slid his gaze towards the church, inhaling the scent of the broken remains of the slums to ground himself once more before facing reality. It seemed that his entire world boiled down to doing the right thing because no one else could. Though he was willing to bet that if he were to askhis friends for help they would help. The problem was he wasn't sure that this was something they could help with. Goddesses and resurrection... It wasn't the sort of thing he'd been prepared for when he woke up that morning.
After a long moment, he walked inside after Sephiroth. He was surprised to find the man sitting between the pews, a frown on his face, his eyes upturned towards the hole in the ceiling. Cloud wandered over slowly after him, not coming too close.
"This is the church?" Sephiroth asked after a long moment.
"There are a lot of churches," Cloud replied blandly, keeping his gaze averted somewhat. It was too strange seeing Sephiroth bundled against the cold. He looked too human.
"This is Aerith's though," Sephiroth replied. "It is the important one."
"Yeah," Cloud muttered in reply. "What is happening here, Sephiroth. Why were she and Zack trying to get me to forgive you?"
"It was their plan," Sephiroth murmured. "They found me, brought me to her field, and were attempting to assist me. It became clear that without your forgiveness, the Goddess was not willing to let me properly join the lifestream. I would always be something different. Something 'other.' Something wrong."
"Maybe that's because you are," Cloud said, glancing up to the hole in the ceiling that held almost as much personal history for him as the church itself did.
"Perhaps," Sephiroth agreed, not shifting from where he was seated. "What is your plan?"
"Well I can't kill you," Cloud muttered. "Not only would it be dishonorable while you're like this, Zack would be pissed."
"He wouldn't be," Sephiroth argued. "Disappointed, perhaps, but he would understand."
"Disappointed is worse," Cloud commented, waving his hand to brush away the thought.
"So you'll... What. Keep me prisoner instead?" Sephiroth asked, turning his head to face Cloud, his eyes looking dull without the impressive glow they usually held. "Hide me away in this old church until the walls cave in and you don't have to accept the responsibility for my death?"
"I don't have a plan yet," Cloud muttered. "A few hours ago, you were dead and I didn't have to worry about it."
"Yes," Sephiroth replied. "I am beginning to miss that state of being as well."
Cloud huffed and stepped past Sephiroth, moving towards the flower bed at the front of the church. He stopped in front of it, not touching, but silently allowing himself a moment to remember. A moment to think about the life that Sephiroth had ended. And to contemplate how he became friends with the two people in the world who would send the person who killed them back to be forgiven.
When he turned back to face Sephiroth, he was surprised to see something out of place on the church's unused pews. There was a book lying there, open as though someone had been leafing through it. It looked old, but it had no dust covering its pages.
Cloud frowned, looking closer. There was a grotesque image on the page facing upwards. When he scanned the pages, the word that stood out was 'demon.' He glanced around, wondering if Vincent was hiding in the church, or had been recently. He doubted it, even as he looked. Vincent had made an enormous step towards recovering from what Hojo had done when he left his coffin and let others grow close to him, but it had cost him to do it. Cloud doubted that the man would be ready to take another step towards facing his demons until at least another thirty years had passed. It was depressing to think that by then all of them would be quite old, if not dead.
'Well, not all of us,' he thought as he looked down into the water that reflected the face of a 20 year old back at him. He hadn't mentioned it, but he was sure the others had noticed by now that he wasn't aging.
"I have questions," Cloud said after a moment. "About what you did and why you did it."
"I know," Sephiroth replied with an almost weary note. "I will answer them if it gives me a chance to leave the limbo I've been trapped in."
"If you were with Aerith and Zack, I'd trade you in a heartbeat."
"With them, yes," Sephiroth said softly. "But separate from them. Untouchable. Tainted. Different. It is not an existence I would wish on anyone."
Cloud shifted, eyes wandering off Sephiroth as he spoke. He turned his gaze to the man's shadow from the newly rising sun. It streamed gently through the door of the church, throwing a long shadow from where Sephiroth was sitting with his head bowed, lost in thought once again.
Then Cloud's eyes reached the tip of the shadow, and he froze. He watched it twist, slowly, as though trying to writhe away from the man who owned it. Cloud glanced back to find Sephiroth as still as ever, then looked back to the shadow, taking a step back and placing a hand on his sword.
"Sephiroth," he said darkly, not sure if he was warning Sephiroth to look out, or warning him to stop. It didn't look intentional, but he couldn't be sure.
"What?" Sephiroth asked softly, lifting his head.
As he lifted his head, the shadow stretched, and the twisting intensified, the edges of the shadow stretching upwards to join the undulating portion of darkness over the floorboards before Sephiroth. The general saw what was wrong, his eyes widening. Cloud didn't take more time to watch him than that. Whatever was happening, it wasn't Sephiroth's plan. He never would have shown that surprise if it had been. He'd have smiled to see it working.
"Don't stand up," Cloud warned softly, moving towards the shadow.
"I'm not moving," Sephiroth replied, his voice low.
Cloud took a step closer and hesitated. There was a strange sound filling the air, as though the shadow's writhing was actually scraping against the hardwood floor beneath it. It stretched itself, reaching upwards as though to grasp at the flowers. Cloud froze in alarm when something that looked disturbingly like a hand rose from the top of the shadow. He moved forward to guard it, but he wasn't quite fast enough or sure enough.
The flower that the shadow hand touched fell, and darkness erupted. Cloud lifted an arm to guard his eyes, taking another step back as something—Something very big—clawed its way out of Sephiroth's shadow. Distantly Cloud heard Sephiroth screaming through clenched teeth, as though somehow it pained him for the thing to enter the world through his shadow. Cloud couldn't help but find that, after a moment to acclimate to the idea, he wasn't surprised at all. Then his time for thought was over.
Whatever the shadow had been before, now it was a monster. It stooped, humanoid but perched on all fours. There was a trembling un-ending roar escaping from it, as though the world was screaming around its existence. Cloud lowered his arm from in front of his eyes, glaring up at the thing. He froze.
The creature gave a bellowing roar, mouth gaping, showing teeth dripping saliva and an ugly purple tongue. Cloud glanced down in surprise to the church pew beside him. He recognized this thing, but surely it couldn't be...
The book on the bench was open to an image of the same creature in miniature black and white imagery—flabby flesh, macabre impersonation of wings, human-esque face with blazing eyes.
The page was labeled "Demon Title: The Other (Alien)"
"What the hell," Cloud hissed, drawing his sword to face the creature and its ugly, gaping maw.
He glanced to Sephiroth, about to tell him to get out of the way and let him handle it. He was startled to find the General still crouching where he had been, frozen half-risen to his feet. His green eyes were wide. The expression on his face looked alarmingly like fear.
Cloud jerked his attention back to the monster just in time to cast a shield and deflect the poison spell shooting their way. Where the spell hit, Aerith's flowers wilted.
"Get up!" Cloud barked in his best command voice.
Whether it came out well or not, Sephiroth reacted to it. He straightened swiftly and held out his hand. Nothing happened. Cloud realized after a moment that the man had tried to summon his sword. Under different circumstances, Cloud would have laughed at the horror in Sephiroth's eyes. As it was he just clenched his teeth and shifted just a little, staying between the thing and Sephiroth. The creature shifted as well, studying Cloud with unnervingly familiar eyes. Its claws tore up floorboards as it moved, and Cloud winced at the damage to the sacred place.
"Start the car," he ordered Sephiroth darkly without looking away from the creature. "I can't fight this thing here."
"I'm not a chauffeur," Sephiroth objected, his voice softer than it should have been.
"Well you sure as hell aren't a fighter right now," Cloud barked. "Do you want to get melted, or start the damn car?"
The monster roared its anger, apparently deciding it had waited long enough. It moved forward, it's footsteps shaking the ground as it walked. Cloud stepped up to face it, and almost missed his strike when the monster ignored him completely, reaching a dripping hand towards Sephiroth. Cloud's strike hit it soundly in the side, but did no damage. The thing staggered to the side, and Cloud felt its attention turn to him. Inhuman eyes regarded him from a twisted, dripping face that was far too human for comfort.
Sephiroth moved, at last. He turned his back and ran out the doors. The monster bellowed as he moved, rising to its full height—it nearly hit the rafters—to follow after him. Cloud summoned another barrier spell, casting it with clenched teeth.
"Ugly bastard," he snarled up at the monster now that there was no one watching. "I'm the one you're fighting!"
He brought his sword down, releasing the energy built up inside it on the creature standing before him. The bellowing sound that escaped the thing made Cloud's head pound from the sheer noise of it. Just barely, he heard the sound of an engine turning over. He looked to the bench, grabbing the still-open book swiftly before turning and running from the church, leaving the enormous creature still staggering from his strike, pulling itself together.
"Drive!" he barked, sprinting to the car.
Sephiroth didn't even wait for him to get all the way in. He floored the old truck. In the back of his mind, Cloud felt a swell of bitterness. Sephiroth was better at driving the old stick shift than he was too. He tried to force it out of his mind, jamming his sword against the dashboard before him. He might need it in a hurry, and stowing it as he usually did would just make it hard to get to later.
"Head the way we came," Cloud ordered, refusing to look at the man in the driver's seat. "We need to get out of old Midgar and into the wastes."
Sephiroth shifted up a gear and turned the truck. Cloud snuck a glance at him out of the corner of his eye. His eyes were narrowed the way he'd known they would be. He was the very image of competence and concentration. Cloud tore his gaze away swiftly. He didn't want to see that face. See those eyes that had looked at him with that same look while they fought to the death.
He looked down at the book that was now resting in his lap instead. He'd closed it as he ran. The cover was actually embossed. He'd seen a few books like this before, but he'd never really held one. The leather patterns were smooth and worn under his hands. It had no writing on the cover, but an ornate design, like a cross. At each corner of the book were metal caps with precious stones embedded. Cloud touched them too, then opened the book slowly, fascinated by its appearance.
The title page read "Demons of Gaia"
The script was elegant. It looked hand-written. Very well written at that.
"What is it?" Sephiroth asked, glancing over with cool, competent eyes.
"Watch the road," Cloud snapped in reply.
He opened the book slowly, flipping back to the page he'd seen in the church. The inner demon. "The Other." It was definitely the creature they'd seen in the church. There was no doubting that fact. It didn't look like anything else Cloud had ever seen. And yet there were strange differences. He was almost certain he'd noticed the stub of a wing on the creature they'd fought that was absent from the book.
"It is chasing us," Sephiroth said, his voice flat and unpanicked despite everything.
Cloud looked back, tearing his gaze off the book to observe the creature. It was staggering with alarming speed after the truck, but as Cloud watched it nimbly avoided so much as denting any buildings or cars as they moved into the less-destroyed parts of town. It was as effortless in evading them as it was clumsy in its chase. It was as though they didn't even exist to it.
"It's only chasing us," Sephiroth continued, eyes on the monster in the rear view mirror.
"Keep watching the road," Cloud repeated, even as he turned to look behind them.
"What the hell is it?" Sephiroth repeated, the faintest trace of a growl in his voice.
Cloud looked down again at the book in his lap. He flipped back a few pages, past pictures of other beasts drawn in black and white—sharp, angular, ugly creatures that, though they were all drawn in black and white, were distinct from each other in their ugliness.
The first page of the section was labeled 'inner demons.' Cloud read it aloud, in the hopes that it would stop Sephiroth from asking anymore.
"Inner demons," he read, glancing back as the creature gave a bellow behind them that rattled the car windows. "Monsters born from the psyche. Unlike natural demons, these beings can only effect the one who created them, unless another steps in the," Cloud paused, brows twisting as he looked back at the monster again. "Steps in the way."
"So it's after me," Sephiroth whispered softly. "And you got in its way."
Cloud didn't respond. He just shook his head and kept reading. "These creatures live in the darkest thoughts and subconscious of every being. It is only the particularly strong or the particularly weak who can manifest them. Each is a personal fear, failure, or trauma..."
"What is that one?" Sephiroth asked, slamming on the breaks to take a corner far too fast, tires squealing against the ground. Cloud had to brace himself against the truck door to keep from slamming into it, but Sephiroth still sounded utterly calm. The monster turned the corner only a few moments behind them.
"It's called 'the alien,' which suits you, I guess." Cloud responded bitterly.
Sephiroth didn't reply, but when Cloud glanced over he couldn't help but think that the man looked paler, and that his hands were clenched more tightly on the steering wheel. Cloud watched his throat move as he swallowed.
"If it won't attack others, then we can take a shorter route to the wastes," Sephiroth said at last. "Do you plan to fight, or let it have me."
"What?" Cloud asked, lifting his head in alarm.
"If I am going to be eaten by that thing, I would like to know." Sephiroth responded blandly. "I do not expect you to fight my battles for me."
"Idiot," Cloud accused sharply, turning and starting to roll down the window.
He didn't wait for Sephiroth to respond. He shifted in the passenger's seat until he was hanging halfway out of the window. He readied a fire spell, eyes narrowing on his target as the creature pounded ever closer to them, leaving dark cracks and gashes in the pavement where it stepped.
"Let it get closer!" he called into the car as Sephiroth sped up.
"You're insane," the man responded, though he slowed the car. "It would leave you alone if you just got away from me!"
"I'm done feeling guilty," Cloud replied sharply, building the power in his hand as the monster drew nearer. "I'm not going to let myself feel that way again over someone like you!"
He released the spell into the monster's face as it lunged forward, mouth wide to bite through their car. The creature's bellow choked, strangled by smoke and fire.
Cloud didn't have to tell Sephiroth to drive. The man slammed on the gas and they were off. Cloud nearly fell out the window before he managed to wedge himself back inside and into his seat.
"Where to?" Sephiroth asked.
"Still the wastes," Cloud ordered. "You look normal. We can't risk someone trying to help you against it and getting caught in the crossfire."
Sephiroth's jaw clenched, but he nodded, turning the car out towards the open area as they finally drove free of the tangle of buildings and out of Old Midgar.
Cloud rolled up his window, staring at his sword. He knew that Zack and Aerith would approve of what he was doing. That was the reason he was doing it. If it had been for himself, he'd have taken Sephiroth up on his offer in a heartbeat.
"Maybe I'll get lucky and you'll freeze to death," Cloud muttered to himself, scowling and resting his hand on the hilt of his blade.
"I'll see what I can do." Sephiroth replied dryly, driving out deeper into the wastes as the sun rose on a new day and a new challenge for them both.
There was silence for a long while. When Sephiroth spoke again, it was quietly.
"Your fire spell didn't kill it."
"No," Cloud said softly, trying not to let it show that he'd been obsessing over his last remarks and how untrue they were. "It's tough. Whatever it is."
"That book," Sephiroth said after a moment. "Does it say how to stop it?"
"No," Cloud replied, shaking his head as he looked down at the book in his lap. "But it says it only shows up in the," he paused, finding the wording before continuing. "In the in-between periods of the day. Dawn and evening. It should fade at noon, and it won't show up again until evening."
"Will it come out of me again?" Sephiroth asked, his voice softer. He sounded worried. Cloud glanced at him and found his face blank of expression.
"It hurt, didn't it," Cloud said after a long moment, watching the slight tightening at the corner of Sephiroth's eyes as he spoke. "I thought I heard you screaming."
"I do not scream," Sephiroth said softly, staring straight ahead at the dusty, empty landscape.
"But it did hurt," Cloud filled in, looking back to the book.
"I don't understand any of this," Sephiroth whispered. "It was supposed to be simple. Either you forgive me, and I'm free, or you don't, and I'm destroyed. This middle ground... It was never something I wanted."
"Guess you're still in limbo," Cloud muttered, staring outside his window rather than looking at the man he hated so deeply and yet was sitting less than a foot away from.
"I guess I am," Sephiroth whispered.
"I still want my answers," Cloud said after a moment.
"I'll give them to you if I can."
"And just because I'm not letting you get eaten doesn't mean we're friends or partners," Cloud said sharply.
"I know," Sephiroth said softly. "I understand. I am your enemy until I can prove otherwise. If I can."
"Right," Cloud said softly, unsure why hearing those words spoken made him feel like scum. It was utterly true, and utterly reasonable.
"For what it's worth, I am sorry," Sephiroth said after a long moment. "For everything. Especially for this. For taking you from your home."
"You're not taking me," Cloud muttered. "I'm just coming with you. It's more to keep you out of trouble than anything."
"Of course," Sephiroth said, his voice low as he shifted up, cruising smoothly in the old car. "Tell me when you want me to stop."
Cloud fell silent again. He wasn't sure how much of it was because he didn't know what to say, and how much of it was how disappointed he was in himself for saying what he already had. He pushed the thoughts away and turned his gaze to the side mirror on his side, watching Midgar's now-broken wall fade behind them as they drove away from both the old city and Edge.