Cloud was coming to him.
Sephiroth could feel Cloud moving with the part of his awareness that would always be tied to the other man. There was a ripple of emotion, annoyed acceptance tinged with something Sephiroth could not quite place. It was irrelevant, really, so long as Cloud came to him when called.
He waited at the edge of the cliffs, the ruins of Midgar stretched out before him. It would be a fitting backdrop for fighting his rival. The land he chose was far enough from Zack’s grave as to not be a distraction, he would not be able to count it a true victory if Cloud’s focus was not on the fight. The area was flatter and less cluttered than their previous sparring grounds. The focus would be on sword and spell work and not navigating the environment, though he knew that Cloud shared his creativity in using what was at hand to gain and keep the advantage.
The churning dust around Fenrir heralded Cloud’s arrival long before Sephiroth could see the man himself. He watched as the bike climbed the path that led to the plateau Sephiroth had claimed, anticipation stirring in his chest. He no longer had the strength to bend the planet to his will, but nothing would take these moments from him.
He did not turn, listening as the bike to slid to a stop and the engine stilled. He could hear the ring of metal as Cloud drew his blades from their storage, the steady thump of Cloud’s boots on the ground. Genesis had often said that his life lacked poetry. Sephiroth now knew that it was not a lack, but a different rhythm.
Immediately, Sephiroth could tell something was not right. There was a sickly sheen to Cloud’s skin, a faint tremor in his shoulders when he drew in a breath. As if he could sense Sephiroth’s hesitation, Cloud settled his stance and his grip on his sword, “I thought Kadaj used the last bit of Jenova to summon you before.”
Sephiroth tilted his head, frowning at Cloud. There was something wrong with his voice. The words sounded as if they had been scraped along the dry stone ground before they reached his ears.
“Your mistake was assuming that she is what ties me to this world.”
Any other time, the flicker of despair in Cloud’s eyes would have been a victory in its own right, but Sephiroth did not find the usual joy in it. When he determinedly set his jaw, Sephiroth could have predicted the inspirational drivel that came out of his mouth. The charge toward him was textbook and Sephiroth swatted it away with no effort.
The fight that followed was a disappointment like Sephiroth had never known. Cloud stayed near to the ground and kept his strikes quick, efficient, and easily deflected. There was none of the usual style or cleverness Sephiroth had grown to expect. In no time at all he panted, clearly unable to catch his breath.
Parrying a messy stab toward his stomach, Sephiroth drove Cloud’s blade into the ground and held it there, “What is the matter with you?”
The Cloud he had fought before would have split his blade and come for Sephiroth’s throat. He would have thrown a spell into his face. This broken excuse for a foe glowered and tugged his sword away, retreating instead, “Nothing.”
Sephiroth did not bother to follow him, “Clearly, that is a lie.”
“What do you care?” Cloud demanded, his voice breaking a bit in the middle. Sephiroth watched him struggle to breathe, arms quivering a bit under the weight of his sword, “You came here to fight me, so come on.”
Sephiroth gave up all pretense of fighting, “No.”
Cloud let out a sound of frustration and threw himself at Sephiroth. It was a futile, obvious gesture and Sephiroth side-stepped it with ease, swatting Cloud on the backside with the flat of his blade. If he was going to act like a brand new Third Class, Sephiroth had no problem treating him like it.
The unexpected blow made Cloud lose his footing. He hit the ground hard but rolled and struggled to his feet as quickly as he could, “Damn it, Sephiroth, it’s the flu. I’m not going to let you kill people or do anything stupid because I’m sick. Stop stalling and-”
“Go home.” Sephiroth sneered, “You’re useless to me like this.”
Cloud’s mouth opened and closed stupidly a few times before he could say anything at all, “I’m not… to you. This isn’t-”
“Oh my, you’ve bested me.” Sephiroth did not bother to hide his contempt as he left Cloud in the dust, “I suppose I will simply have to try again another day. You’ll never be rid of me… etcetera, etcetera.”
Before he allowed himself to return to the Lifestream, he clearly heard Cloud’s slightly congested voice behind him, “What the hell just happened?”
“That was an interesting display of temper.”
Sephiroth scowled at the voice that greeted him, even if the uppity little flower seller did not bother to show herself, “I’ll seek him out again tomorrow. He’s my equal in strength. I’m sure it will have passed by then.”
He refused to let her laughter unsettle him.
The next day, Sephiroth did not want to waste time calling Cloud to him. He went to Cloud instead. Some mindless destruction to go along with the violence sounded much more appealing to him. When he came down the street that housed Seventh Heaven, Sephiroth made sure that Cloud was immediately aware of his presence through the Jenova cells they shared. Cloud’s reaction was swift and angry in his mind.
Sephiroth could hear the panic surrounding him, even reveled in it a bit, but kept his focus on the door to the tavern where Cloud lived.
It was so much worse than the day before.
At least then Cloud had been wearing his usual clothes. The leather and cotton were as sturdy and battle-ready as any Soldier uniform had been, with armor that showed Cloud took him as a serious threat. Today, he strode into the street in a sad, worn pair of sleep pants decorated in moogles. His hair was lank and sweat-soaked against his head and his nose dripped mucus at a rate that Sephiroth found alarming.
Cloud lunged at him and promptly fell to the ground when Sephiroth disappeared.
“Zack says that the kind of flu that’s strong enough to take on a Soldier’s immune system also tends to linger.”
Sephiroth stared darkly into the void, “And does Zack say what it takes to be rid of it?”
Cloud was at his wit's end. Once the remnants had been defeated, Cloud had been sure he had seen the last of Sephiroth. There should not have been enough of Jenova left in the world to scrape together and slap on a clone for Sephiroth to use it as a conduit. Shinra’s other secrets he could handle, would happily fight, if it meant that he would never see Sephiroth again.
Honestly, he had been sure the fever he had been suffering had caused hallucinations of Sephiroth calling to him. It was not until Tseng had called to report a Sephiroth sighting in the wastes toward the Mythril Mines that he realized that the sensation was real. Sick or not, there had been nothing else he could do.
He knew he was not at his best, but he had not thought his reflexes were so impaired until Sephiroth spanked him with the flat of his sword. That was a humiliation that he would never tell anyone about.
Sephiroth had left just as unexpectedly as he had come, leaving Cloud convinced the whole thing had been a fever dream. When Sephiroth had reappeared in front of Seventh Heaven, Tifa confirmed she had seen him too. Cloud was not sure if that made him feel better or not.
Cloud and Tifa had tried to figure it out, once she had hauled him back inside and to his sickbed. Tifa had said the disgust he had shown at the sight of Cloud was the most ordinary expression she had ever seen on his face. Neither of them really knew what to make of it.
He had hardly slept. Every time he closed his eyes, he imagined Sephiroth lingering over him and judging him for being sick. Cloud was not sure what was keeping Sephiroth from taking advantage of his weakness, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the grace period ended and Cloud would actually have to fight for his life again.
It should not have come as a surprise when he felt Sephiroth tug on his strings again. He climbed out of bed but did not bother with the sword. If he was honest with himself, the sickness was only getting worse and he was not sure he could even lift it. Instead, he wrapped himself in one of the smaller blankets from the mound on his bed and headed down to the door.
Sephiroth waited outside with a covered bowl of some kind in his hands. When Cloud opened the door, Sephiroth looked him over in bewilderment. Without a word, he thrust the bundle he held at Cloud, “Here.”
Cloud took it, surprise overriding sense. Even through the congestion, Cloud could smell the spiciness of the liquid that sloshed inside, “What?”
“Soup.” Sephiroth said, in a tone that clearly implied that Cloud was an idiot.
“You can’t honestly expect me to eat this.” Cloud croaked, holding it back out to Sephiroth.
Sephiroth rolled his eyes, “If I wanted you dead now, I’d run you through. I wouldn’t resort to poison. Just drink it so we can fight.”
Cloud closed the door in Sephiroth’s face without another word. He was too sick to deal with this.