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Everything Changes (but some things never do)

Chapter Text

Cloud hated war. As a footsoldier, he felt like a small, insignificant cog in Shinra’s massive invasion machine. He wished he were a real SOLDIER, so that he could actually make a difference.

The regiment had defeated a force of enemy warriors overnight, with little help from the infantry, and as the morning dawned, the village leaders surrendered. Sephiroth himself stalked out of the forest, and everyone got quiet. Cloud’s breath caught in his throat, watching the great hero. His leather coat flared out behind him as he strode forward, blood dripping from his blade and staining his silver hair.

He said something in Wutainese. The village leader responded, his tone proud and firm, but the other elders sank to their knees in the mud, staring at Sephiroth with desperation, begging for something. Cloud didn’t speak the language, but he understood the fear in their eyes.

The Masamune flew out more quickly than Cloud’s eye could track. All he saw was a glint of the red dawn light on steel, and then a spray of blood. The proud leader staggered, then fell to the ground, blood flowing from his throat and spattering the others who had begged for his life.

Several people from the village began to sob, but Sephiroth turned from them indifferently, addressing instead the Lieutenant responsible for Cloud’s squadron.

“Burn it down,” he said, gesturing to the village full of weeping elders and frightened children.

“Yes, sir,” the squad leader said, readying his materia.

As a warrior he would one day become, Cloud was most powerful when he wasn’t thinking at all, when he let his instincts guide him. And right now, all he could see was the little girl clinging to her grandmother’s hand, half-hidden behind a wooden house that would burn like a torch when the fires were set.

“No,” he said, and his legs carried him forward until he was standing between Sephiroth and the village.

For the first time since the exchange began, Sephiroth looked something other than indifferent. He raised an eyebrow, slight surprise and curiosity on his face.

“These people are no threat to us,” Cloud said. “There’s no reason to burn down their homes.”

“I gave you an order,” Sephiroth said. “That is reason enough. If you continue to question your commanding officer, I will have you punished.”

Cloud’s body trembled with fury and with fear, but when his hands gripped the hilt of the sword at his back, they were steady and strong. He drew it slowly and held it before him, watching the steel of the Masamune and the unnatural glow of Sephiroth’s eyes.

“Hmm.” Sephiroth looked bored. “Let this be an example to the rest of you.” His quiet voice carried along the line of silent soldiers.

It took one strike of the Masamune to knock the sword out of Cloud’s hands. A second thrust, as swift and decisive as the first, drove the blade into his chest. Searing pain bloomed around the cold steel, and Cloud lifted one hand, dumbly, to touch the side of the sword. For a moment Sephiroth held him there, suspended in agony. And then he pulled back and watched indifferently as Cloud slumped to the ground, clutching at his bloody chest.

“Set the fires,” Sephiroth said. His voice was distant and cold, and his black boots left footprints in the bloody mud beside Cloud’s head. The last thing Cloud saw before closing his eyes was a cascade of silver hair, stained deep red at the tips, and the gleam of the dawn light on the long, slender sword.

#

Reno walked the perimeter of the smoldering village, muttering unhappily to himself. Never again, he swore, would he do his President Shinra impression where there was any change Tseng might overhear it. It was a shame, too. Reno’s impressions were wickedly hilarious. He was sure of it.

But, according to Rude, he “lacked situational awareness” when he was being funny. Which was an overly complicated way of saying the wrong people had overheard his completely innocent joke. A chain of events he preferred not to relive followed, the result of which was his presence here, trailing behind Sephiroth’s regiment with mud and blood and other disgusting chunky things clinging to his boots, doing dirty work for Hojo, of all people.

Never one to be far from Sephiroth, Hojo had moved most of his expensive lab equipment to a station in a remote corner of Wutai so he could watch over his favorite experiment like the complete and total creep he was. Reno’s job, right now, was finding the perfect subject for Hojo’s newest pursuit.

As Hojo’s experiments tended to have a ninety percent mortality rate—making it a complete miracle that Sephiroth reached adulthood at all, fucked in the head though he may be—Reno couldn’t just snag a volunteer from the front lines. He had to find someone who was mostly dead but not all the way, who couldn’t be healed with materia and put back on the battlefield.

It would have been an easy task except Hojo had stipulated that his subject be: one, male; two, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen; and three, not from Wutai. The third condition was by far the most frustrating one, as there were plenty of dying Wutai soldiers scattered everywhere, but when Sephiroth and the other SOLDIER Firsts were around, Shina’s people tended to be either completely dead or on the mend. Reno had seen Sephiroth heal someone who took a blade straight through the heart.

So he followed the regiment, resigned to continue on this hopeless chase for literally forever, in the rain and the mud and with the huge fucking bugs flying around, because that was just how—

Something skidded beneath his foot and he landed on his ass in the mud, yelping. He groaned, mud oozing into the gap between the top of his boots and the cuff of his black trousers. One of his hands was completely coated in the grime, and he could feel it weighing down the tips of his hair. He was very glad no one was around to see it.

He turned to see he’d slipped on the handle of a Shinra standard-issue sword, which had been left carelessly beside a young recruit who was currently in the process of bleeding out through a hole in his chest. The blood was still bright red, still flowing, and there was a very slight rise and fall to the boy’s chest.

“Hells yeah,” Reno said, sitting upright with glee. “Hojo, you sick fuck. Have I got something for you…”  

Chapter Text

Cloud didn’t know how long he drifted, through layers of sleep and wakefulness. It could have been the passing of days or of many years. There was often a crow with him, whose voice was an unpleasant caw, who spoke of mako levels and Jenova cells and genetic alterations. The crow circled overhead of the pool of blue where Cloud lay, laughing, laughing.

Sometimes there was pain, cold, heat, but they were distant sensations happening to another body, a physical aspect only barely tethered to the consciousness receded within. He lay in the pool of glowing water for an eternity and no time at all.

And then one day he was not alone. Another creature came to drink from the same pool where Cloud spent his days. The firelion had red fur like the sky at dawn, a tail that was flame itself. One eye was merely a scar, and the other one glowed with deep knowing. On his shoulder was tattooed the number XIII.

“Who are you?” the firelion asked, raising his head.

It took Cloud a few moments to speak. “Cloud,” he finally said.

“Cloud. I am Nanaki.” The firelion bent his head to lap at the glowing water. “Where are we, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Cloud said.

“I believe,” Nanaki said, after a long pause, “that we are in your head. Do you recognize this place?”

Cloud looked at the mountains around him, the jagged, blackened peaks that were so familiar, though he didn’t know why or where he had seen them before. “Maybe,” he said.

“Your body is in a laboratory in the mountains,” Nanaki said. “Are you aware of that?”

Cloud lifted his hand and examined it. For the first time, he noticed the needle inserted into his vein at the elbow, the long pale tube running off of it. “I…don’t know,” he said.

“We are prisoners,” Nanaki said. “You have been here much longer than I. Several years, I believe.”

“I don’t remember,” Cloud said helplessly. “I don’t remember anything.”

“I have a plan to escape,” Nanaki said. “I have made an ally who can help us, who has recently awoken from a long sleep.” Nanaki paused, hesitated, then spoke carefully. “Do you want to come with me?”

Cloud met the firelion’s gaze. He knew the truth of his words. This was an in-between place, a place to rest but not a place to live. “Yeah,” he said, though his heart twisted with fear at the thought of a return to the world. “I’ll go with you.”

Chapter Text

Sephiroth set his pen aside, sighing. He had always hated writing reports, and never more so than now that the Wutai war had ended and he had no reason to keep such detailed records. Hunting monsters outside of Midgar was akin to pointless busywork, and he had to wonder why Shinra kept him at all.

Probably to prevent some other entity from using me as a weapon against them, he thought, toying with the Masamune paper cutter Genesis had gotten him last year. Genesis had meant it as a joke, presenting it with a sardonic smile, but Sephiroth had actually liked it. Because it was a very well crafted scale model, and because it was from Genesis. The two of them had tolerated each other more than they’d gotten along, but they had eventually become something like friends before Genesis left Shinra, taking Angeal with him.

The loud crack of an explosion startled him from his reverie, accompanied by a vibration he could feel even sixty stories above Midgar’s upper plate. He looked out the window at the great burst of fire blossoming at the edge of the ring, lighting up the Midgar dusk as bright as day for just a few seconds before it was swallowed by billowing black smoke.

Was this Genesis’s revenge at work?

Sephiroth watched the smoke curl into the atmosphere for a few minutes, until his phone started ringing.

#

“Holy shit, holy shit!” Tifa Lockhart, SOLDIER First Class, jogged onto the elevator just before the doors closed. “Did you see the explosion?”

“Yes,” Sephiroth said, and pointedly did not ask any follow up questions. He tolerated Zack Fair’s protege in much the same way he’d tolerated Zack Fair when he was Angeal’s. Ignore the puppies, and eventually they will get bored and go bother someone else.

“You on your way to the big meeting?” Tifa asked. She had her knuckles taped up and looked like she was ready for a fight, though they weren’t likely to get one tonight.

Sephiroth nodded.

“Yeah, me too.” Tifa danced deftly from one foot to the other like a boxer in the ring, smacking her fist into her palm. “Maybe we get a mission out of this? I’m bored as fuck, Seph.”

“It’s Sephiroth,” he corrected her. Admittedly, he was bored as well. It had been a long time since they’d had much of a fight. The Wutai War ended only a year ago, but it had long been a foregone conclusion that the Wutainese would surrender.

The elevator opened onto the sixty-seventh floor, and she followed him into the grand conference room. Zack was already waiting for them, slouched in one of the cushy chairs with his feet up on the table. Tseng was there too, with his “daughter,” the Wutainese girl he’d adopted during the war.

“Hey Tifa,” Yuffie said, darting across the room to throw a few kicks and punches at the air in Tifa’s vicinity. Tifa laughed and pretended to be wounded when one of the blows landed on her arm.

“This is no time for horseplay.” President Shinra strode into the room, scowling fiercely. He was flanked by Scarlet and Heidegger, their usual grating laughter absent.

Tifa and Yuffie stepped back to let him pass by, and Zack stood quickly, saluting with respect. But the only person President Shinra acknowledged was Sephiroth, who gave him a respectful nod in return.

“I’m going to ask you this only once,” Shinra said, standing in front of Sephiroth. “Because I trust you to tell the truth. Do you know where he is?”

“I don’t,” Sephiroth said. While Genesis did occasionally contact him, he was never so stupid as to give Sephiroth any information that could leak back to Shinra.

“Very well,” President Shinra said. “We will find them regardless. Sephiroth, I entrust this task to you. Hunt them down.”

“Yes, sir,” Sephiroth said impassively. He didn’t need to look at either of them to know that Tifa and Zack were exchanging a dismayed glance. Angeal was still a hero to them both, even after all this. And Genesis--for all his swagger and imperiousness, Genesis had been a friend to them as well.

Sephiroth wondered how difficult it would be to track Genesis down, and if there was any chance Genesis could best him in a fight. He put Genesis’s odds of survival at almost zero, if found, and wondered what the odd sinking feeling in his diaphragm was.

It couldn’t be sorrow or regret, because he simply did not care. Would not care. Not about Genesis or Angeal, not about Tifa or Zack, who were holding onto each other, talking softly and sorrowfully.

Genesis and Angeal were friends once. Now they were fugitives. Sephiroth had his orders, and he intended to carry them out as competently as he always did.

#

“There’s your goddamn gil,” Barret Wallace grumbled, thrusting a handful of worn, grubby bills at Cloud. The young mercenary pocketed it, meeting Barret’s eyes with a cool, indifferent gaze. At the time, he had felt the excitement of the mission, the jolt of adrenaline when the scorpion-like construct attacked them, the vicious thrill of winning a fight as the mako reactor blew to pieces behind them. But now, like usual, he felt almost nothing.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Whatever,” Barret growled. “Gonna be two or three weeks until the next job. Gotta take a while and let the Shinra calm down.”

“You know my price,” Cloud said, tucking the money away in his pocket. It was steep, but after the enemies they’d faced on this mission, he was confident Barret would see that it was worth it. He didn't know when or how he had learned to fight, but the muscle memory was there, the instinctive knowledge. His superhuman strength and agility--results of experiments he couldn’t remember--had been honed to a fine edge by Vincent Valentine’s tutelage and many sparring sessions with both him and Nanaki on the open plateau beside Cosmo Canyon.

“Yeah, yeah.” Barret waved his machine gun—the weapon fused to his arm where his right hand should be—dismissively. “I’ll pay the damn thing when the job’s done.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Barret sighed heavily and turned away, heading back downstairs to his secret room, where the other members of AVALANCHE awaited him.

“He’s not always like that,” Jesse said from behind the bar. “You want a drink?”

Cloud slid onto a barstool at the far end of the bar, as far from the bar’s entrance as possible. Having the door at his back made him uncomfortable in a way he couldn’t quite articulate. Jesse poured some yellow liquid so bright it almost looked toxic into a glass and handed it to him with a cheerful smile.

“I’m glad we had you with us,” Jesse said, with a cheerful smile. “It got dicey there for a minute. Thanks for helping me out.”

Cloud nodded his acknowledgement, raising the glass slightly before taking a sip. It was strong, but not strong enough to get him drunk. Whatever experiments had been done on him in the time his mind had blanked out entirely had left him with enhanced strength and speed, and a ridiculous alcohol tolerance.

“So tell me a little about yourself,” Jesse said, leaning on the bar opposite Cloud. “Where are you from? Your accent tells me you weren’t born in Midgar.”

Cloud didn’t answer because he didn’t know. All he could really remember was waking little by little from the daze of mako addiction in a small, sunny bedroom in Cosmo Canyon with Nanaki by his side.

He drained the rest of his drink in a single swallow and set it on the bar. “My accent, huh?” he said, his voice slightly roughened. “Where do you think I’m from?”

“Hmm.” She tilted her head, thinking. “Somewhere along the western mountains.”

“It’s something like that,” Cloud said vaguely, wondering if she was right. “Look, I gotta get going. Thanks for the booze.”

She gave him a wide smile and a wave. “Come back anytime.”

#

Sector 7 was lit by harsh yellow and blue lamps suspended haphazardly from storefronts or strung between tall posts. Cloud wandered for a while with no particular destination in mind, watching the flow of people. Some carried groceries, sad, mutated fruits and vegetables, strange pale gray meat. Others had only dark bottles of sake and wine. Vendors sat outside with their wares, or inside exposed storefronts, calling out to passers-by. Children scurried around the edges, picking pockets and collecting anything that dropped on the ground, but they avoided Cloud, wary of the giant sword on his back.

He found a room at the inn for 10 gil a night and hid his few possessions under the bed. The greatsword he would take with him, but he changed out of his armor into his only other set of clean clothes. The armor—unremarkable leather with a single shoulder pad which he’d bolted together after it started to crack—needed to be washed after a trip that deep into a reactor. Unlike the others in AVALANCHE, he was used to mako—the way it tugged under your skin like the itch of a healing wound. The rest of them had seemed uncomfortable, agitated by it, the entire time they were in the reactor. But of course none of them had ever had it injected into—

Don’t think, don’t think of it, don’t—

The floor was grimy and rough against Cloud’s cheek as he opened his eyes blearily. Hadn’t the people in Sector 7 heard of a mop?

He raised his arm with more effort than it usually took to lift his greatsword and checked his watch. He had been out for forty five minutes. He groaned, getting slowly to his feet, his strength and balance returning as he moved. As he studied his face in the mirror, he could hear that voice, the one that often whispered at the back of his mind.

Someday that’s going to happen while you’re fighting, and then you’ll be a dead man.

He shrugged at his reflection. At that point, it wouldn’t really be his problem anymore, would it?

#

Lying on the creaky inn bed in the late night, he reached out with his mind, a gentle touch to which he could feel Nanaki responding. Their connection wasn’t powerful enough that they could talk, or return to that cool blue place in his mind—not from this distance. But they could nudge each other, a reassuring reminder that Cloud wasn’t alone in the world after all.

He was deeply indebted to Nanaki, Vincent Valentine, and everyone in Cosmo Canyon, debts he could never pay back. Nanaki and Vincent had saved him from a laboratory, where someone had been doing experiments on all of them--but they wouldn’t say much more than that. Every time he tried to find out more, their eyes went dark and haunted, and eventually he stopped asking altogether.

He had been addicted to mako, helpless and lost. They’d taken him to Cosmo Canyon, where Bugenhagen had nursed him back to health. The sympathy of the townspeople, though earned, stung his pride, and eventually he’d left a note and set out for Midgar without saying goodbye. The soft touch of Nanaki’s consciousness against his own as he traveled told him that he was already forgiven.

He had been in Midgar before—he was certain of it despite his lack of memories. But it hadn’t been for long, and he was still alternately shocked and dismayed at what life in the city was like. Crime festered everywhere under the plate, and it stank like mako and the garbage which was irregularly and only sporadically collected by Shinra’s waste management service. It was always dark and the air was thick with pollution.

A woman screamed, distant enough that anyone without enhanced hearing might have thought it was a shrill laugh or dismissed it as a child’s playful shriek. But Cloud could hear clearly enough to read the woman’s distress.

He slid down the ladder into the second level of the slumping tower that held an inn, the weapons shop, and an assortment of other businesses both legitimate and not. He sprinted out onto the second floor deck, looking around.

There, in the shadows near the edge of the junkyard. Without enhanced vision, it would be easy to miss the hand clamped over the woman’s mouth as she was dragged further into the darkness.

He leapt from the second story to the ground, landing gracefully like a cat. And then he started running in the direction of the kidnapping. His bare feet splashed the foul mako puddles along the road as he ran, barely noticing the cold water.

“Let her go,” he said, slowing as he approached the kidnapper and saw the glint of a small knife pressed to the woman’s throat.

“Stay back,” the kidnapper hissed, showing yellowing teeth. “Or the bitch gets it.”

“If you kill her, I’ll kill you,” Cloud said. “The only way you get out of this alive is if you let her go.”

The man snorted in amusement. “You and what army?”

“I don’t need an army,” he said, though he realized he would have a hard time intimidating anyone like this, barefoot, unarmed, and shirtless, wearing the loose pants he had been sleeping in.

“Look at his eyes,” the woman said, softly. “They glow. Like a SOLDIER’s.”

It wasn’t the first time someone had remarked on Cloud’s eyes, but it was the first time anyone had made that particular connection. Cloud wondered if he could possibly be a SOLDIER. He hoped not. His memories might be gone, but a powerful mistrust and dislike of Shinra and the SOLDIER program remained.

The man stared at him for a moment, then released the woman, shoving her at Cloud. He took off running into the darkness of the junkyard. The woman stumbled into Cloud’s arms, and he caught her, then gently pushed her aside with a murmured, “Sorry, ma’am.”

The kidnapper had a head start, but hadn’t counted on the speed of someone with whatever enhancements all those experiments had given Cloud.

Cloud caught up quickly and tackled the criminal, knocking him to the ground. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” he said.

“I was just…gonna have a little fun,” the kidnapper said. He tried to buck free, but Cloud’s grip was like iron. “I wasn’t gonna kill her.”

“Then I won’t kill you,” Cloud said. Instead, he broke the man’s arm. It was a skill he’d learned from Vincent, who had spoken of sin and atonement even as he taught Cloud the exact angle to use, the amount of leverage necessary to hear the sickening crack of bone and an animal howl. With medical care the way it was under the plate, the kidnapper would probably live, but lose the use of his right arm.

Cloud could have turned him over to the justice system, but he was no idiot. He had seen the small Shinra emblem on the man’s shoulder even in the dark and knew there would be no justice.

He left his victim sobbing in the junkyard and ran back to help the woman waiting at the edge of where the darkness started.

Chapter Text

Tifa made her way carefully through the ruins of Reactor 1, looking for any trace of evidence that might give a hint of which way Genesis and Angeal had run.

She was about to despair, the scorched metal offering no clues at all, when a single white feather floated to the charred and blackened floor in front of her. She looked up.

“Angeal,” she said, startled. Zack had told her about the angel wings, but it was something else entirely to see them in person. “What are you doing here?”

He floated gracefully to the floor, standing six feet away from her. He was unarmed and looked relatively harmless, but she didn’t lower her fists.

“I’m not going to fight you,” he said, holding his hands up. “I just want you to take a message to Zack.”

Tifa glared at him. She wasn’t about to be his courier--whatever he’d said to Zack at their last encounter had nearly broken his heart. “If you wanna talk to Zack, go find him. It’s not too hard for someone who can fucking fly.”

“Tell Zack that I—that we didn’t do this.” Angeal gestured to the blackened rubble around them. “Genesis and I had nothing to do with this.”

He sounded sincere, but Tifa was skeptical. Angeal might be honorable, but Genesis was bound by no such constraints, and had a flair for the dramatic that would be nicely satisfied by such a large and public explosion. She had never trusted him anyway.

“You think I’m just gonna let you walk away cause you say it’s not your fault?” Tifa asked, sinking into a ready crouch. “You’re coming with me back to Shinra Tower.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Angeal’s wings flared, then swept downward as he took to the air. But Tifa had been expecting that move. She ran at him, tackling him as he lifted off the ground.

Angeal was a swordsman, and although a proficient warrior, grappling on the ground with someone as flexible and scrappy as Tifa was a different kind of fighting entirely. He had raw strength on his side, but she was quick and clever. She hung on tenaciously as he tried to fight his way free. Unlike someone constrained by high-minded honor, Tifa fought dirty, yanking hard on Angeal’s hair, clawing her fingernails down his neck until he finally managed to throw her.

She went flying, off to one side and then down, through a gaping hole in the reactor floor that went all the way through the Sector 1 Plate. Angeal prepared to dive after her, but someone grabbed him by the collar and tugged him back.

“One less SOLDIER to deal with,” Genesis said, his wing folding behind him as he settled to the plate. “Well done.”

Angeal looked away. It was a thing done without honor, but it could not be undone, so he had best hold his head high through the consequences.

#

Tifa was aware of falling, careening wildly through the Midgar dusk. It felt like the fall went on forever, polluted air rushing in her ears, the LED lights of the pillar winking brightly at her as she passed them by. And then she hit the ground—and there was nothing but blackness.

The traders are leaving for Midgar today.” Sixteen year old Tifa stood in her living room, her duffel bag over one shoulder, trembling inside as she stared defiantly at her father. “I’m going with them.”

She could have snuck out in the middle of the night, but she felt strongly that she needed this final moment, this final confrontation, to lay to rest whatever festered between them.

“Oh you are, are you?” he said, lowering the newspaper to study her with a casual slowness that made her heart beat frantically against her ribcage. She resisted the urge to run, to hide. That’s how she’d spent her entire life. Running. Hiding.

No more.

“I’m going to join SOLDIER,” she said. “If you want to find me, that’s where I’ll be.”

Her father laughed, cold and mocking. “You’re more likely to get fucked by a SOLDIER than become one if you go running off to Midgar.”

“I wanted to say goodbye because I’m not coming back,” Tifa said, shouldering her bag and hardening her heart against the imminent loss of everything she’d ever known.

She walked out the door to the sound of her father’s jeering.

In the center of town, she looked around her at the sturdy stone houses, the mountain beside them rising up into thin air. It wouldn’t be too hard to say goodbye to Nibelheim. Her best friend Cloud had been about the only good thing in her life, and he’d left a year ago, when he turned sixteen. He left to join SOLDIER, and she knew that he had at least made it as far as Shinra’s infantry program before his letters stopped coming.

There were a lot of reasons why he might stop writing a girl from his hometown—but in her heart Tifa was certain Cloud was in trouble. Something was very wrong. If joining SOLDIER was what it took to rescue him, then she would do it without hesitation.

But as the weeks turned into months and then years, she could find no trace of him anywhere. And at the same time, she became a rising star through the SOLDIER program, accepted immediately and promoted quickly to Second, where her skills caught the eye of the legendary Zack Fair himself, and he became her mentor.

For once in her life she had a place to belong, where she was valued for her courage and strength. If little by little she stopped searching for Cloud Strife, who seemed to have vanished off the face of the Planet, it was understandable, wasn’t it?

#

There was nothing but blackness all around her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I tried to find you. I tried.”

“It’s okay,” said a soft, chiming voice from somewhere nearby. A cool wave swept over Tifa, soothing away the pain she had only started to be aware of.

Tifa opened her eyes. An angel was standing over her, a halo of sunshine casting bright sparkles in her hair. Her eyes were gentle and her smile was the mysterious smile of a saint who had touched something of the deep, true spirit of the Planet.

“Did I die?” Tifa asked, blinking rapidly. She was lying on a radiant blanket of yellow blossoms, and beneath that, rich, soft soil.

“I don’t think so,” the woman said, with a hint of mischief glinting in her green eyes. “I’m Aerith. You fell into my church.”

Tifa looked up. There did seem to be a wooden structure over her head that came to a steeple point, and in it, a hole large enough for a person to tumble through. “Tifa,” she said, struggling to sit up.

“You’re a SOLDIER, aren’t you?” Aerith asked, studying Tifa’s uniform. A thin line appeared between her brows, and Tifa felt the automatic urge to do something that would bring her smile back.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Tifa said, getting to her feet. “I’m sorry about your flowers.”

“Hmm.” Aerith’s lips twisted in a slight smirk. “I guess you’ll have to make it up to me.”

Maybe it was the blow she’d taken to the head, but Tifa’s mind immediately conjured up several very intimate ways she could make it up to Aerith. She hoped none of it showed on her face.

“I’ve never seen these kind of flowers before,” Tifa said. “But my grandma had a garden before she died. I used to help her tend it, before I left Nibelheim.”

“Oh.” Aerith smiled. “I have a friend from Nibelheim. He told me the soil there was so rocky you could barely grow anything.”

Even now, after all this time, Tifa’s heart seized in her chest. Nibelheim was not large, but it was large enough she didn’t know everybody. It was unlikely that some random stranger from Nibelheim would be Cloud. But still—she hoped.

“Maybe I know him,” she said, as casually as she could. “What’s his name?”

For the first time, she saw a flash of mistrust in Aerith’s beautiful eyes. “I doubt you know him,” Aerith said, carefully. “He left there a very long time ago.”

Tifa nodded. It had only been six years since Cloud had left.

“You seem unhappy,” Aerith said, gently touching her elbow.

It felt like Aerith meant more than just this single moment, that she understood how deep Tifa’s loneliness ran and how long it had been since she’d felt a real connection to another. Sephiroth and Zack were friends of a sort, but they weren’t people around whom Tifa could let down her guard. There was no one you could really trust in Shinra.

“I want to make it up to you,” Tifa said firmly. “For the flowers I crushed.”

“Oh?” Aerith turned her face up towards Tifa and as the sunlight fell on her delicate features, Tifa thought she looked like a goddess, holy and infinitely precious.

“How about dinner?” Tifa asked. “Tomorrow night. Wear something nice and I’ll take you somewhere fancy.”

Aerith smiled and clasped her hands together in delight. “I’ll be waiting for you,” she promised.

#

Aerith was no fool. She knew what Shinra really was, that the gleaming facade of Shinra Tower was just a cover for the rot within. She knew that the SOLDIER program was a haven for monsters who wore human faces and had committed atrocities in Wutai.

And yet when Tifa had fallen into her flowerbed, all of that caution had disappeared, and she had yet to recover her common sense, even though Tifa’s silhouette had long disappeared from the church doorway.

Now someone else was stepping into her church. She rose to greet him with a smile, a familiar face, if not a name she knew.

“My name is Barret Wallace,” he said, respectfully avoiding her flowers as he approached her. “I just uh, wanted to come in and let you know. If you need someone to get rid of that SOLDIER for you. I got no love for the Shinra, but you do a lot of good out here. Healin the sick and all that. Just say the word, Ms. Gainsborough. My people will protect you.”

Aerith smiled. She knew Barret by sight if not by name--Sector 7 wasn’t that large, after all, and he was well known and well liked by all. He and his people were the reason Shinra enforcers rarely shook down this neighborhood, after all.

“Call me Aerith,” she said. “And thank you. Your offer is very kind. But Tifa didn’t mean to cause me any harm. Not all SOLDIERs are like that.”

Barret nodded. “Fair enough. Look, I uh, I didn’t just come here for that. I’m here cause Cloud told me a little about you.”

“Did he?” Aerith raised an eyebrow. Cloud often came by to help her tend her flowers. He seemed to like working with his hands, and was in the process of building her a cart to sell them from.

“He said you can hear the Planet.”

Aerith nodded. There was no reason to hide it--it wasn’t really a skill that could be put to sinister use, or any use at all. It was like the Materia her mother had left her, serving no purpose at all.

“Then you know it’s dyin,” Barret said.

“Yes.” Aerith’s voice was soft and sorrowful. “I know.”

“It’s them goddamn mako reactors,” Barret growled. “Fuckin with the lifestream. Look, Aerith, I ain’t a hero or nothin. But I know one thing. We gotta stop the Shinra before it’s too late. I got a team; we’re called AVALANCHE. Reactor One--that was us.”

Aerith’s eyes widened. “Reactor One--all those deaths…”

Barret set his jaw. “It’s them or the rest of the Planet. I don’t like it, but I’ll do what I gotta to save us. And we’ve got a lot of dangerous work ahead of us. We could really use someone like you on the team.”

Aerith hesitated. “Can I think about it?”

“Course you can.” Barret nodded. “You know where I am, yeah? At the bar down the street? Just let me know.”

“Thank you, Barret,” she said, gently touching his arm, the one that transformed, halfway down, from flesh into the metal of a machine meant for killing. “I’ll come see you soon.”

She already knew her answer, of course, had always known it. The last of the Ancients, her duty and her calling was to fight for the Planet, even if it might already be beyond salvation.

Chapter Text

“Flowers?” Sephiroth said, raising an eyebrow at the bright yellow and white flowers on Tifa’s table. They were sticking out of a plastic water bottle, as the pre-furnished Shinra quarters did not come with a vase. 

Tifa grinned at him. “They’re pretty, huh?”

Sephiroth nodded. The blossoms almost seemed to glow, and they had filled the room with a sweet, soothing fragrance. “I read your mission report. Angeal threw you off the plate? I’m glad to see you’re unharmed.” 

“It was a fucking miracle, Seph,” Tifa said, opening the fridge and pulling out two glass bottles of her favorite brew—a craft IPA made in the mountains near Nibelheim. “I landed hard. But there was this girl. I don’t know how to explain it, but she saved me.” 

The bottle of beer made a soft hiss when Tifa opened it. She handed it to Sephiroth, who took it with a murmured word of gratitude. 

“She didn’t have any materia or anything,” Tifa said. “I didn’t see her cast a spell. But I know that she saved me somehow. She wouldn’t say a word about it though.”

“We should investigate, then,” Sephiroth said. “Unauthorized magic is—”

“Over my dead fucking body,” Tifa said, standing straighter. “You’ll leave Aerith the fuck alone, and if you say one word to the Turks…”

Aerith . Just the sound of her name was enough to bring a flood of memories rushing back. 

“I’m sorry,” Professor Gast said, his hand resting for just a moment on Sephiroth’s shoulder. “You’ve done so well, Sephiroth. You’ve done everything I asked of you, even when I…when I perhaps should not have asked. I know that Dr. Hojo will take very good care of you from now on.” 

Sephiroth nodded, bowing his head to hide his heartache. Professor Gast was the only adult in his life who had been kind to him, who had seen him as more than an experiment. And now he was leaving? 

“My wife is going to have a baby,” Professor Gast said. “We need to go somewhere safe. Be strong, Sephiroth. Someday, perhaps you’ll even meet my daughter. We’re going to call her Aerith.” 

At that moment, Sephiroth despised Aerith more than he had ever hated anyone, then or since, because the soft, besotted smile on Gast’s face held more love and affection than anyone had ever given Sephiroth. Aerith wasn’t even born yet, and she’d already taken away the only person who had ever really cared for him. 

“Uh, Sephiroth?” Tifa poked him in the arm, looking worried. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Sephiroth said. “I know Aerith. Or rather, I know of her.” 

“Really?” Tifa snapped to attention eagerly. “She’s so mysterious. What do you know about her?”

“She’s the daughter of Professor Gast,” Sephiroth said. “I believe her mother is dead. Tseng would know more. The Turks have been watching her for years.” 

“Thanks, Seph,” Tifa said, punching him in the arm, which was her version of a hug. “I’ll pay Tseng a visit.”

“This seems a lot of trouble to go to for a flower girl in the slums,” Sephiroth said. 

Tifa shrugged, looking sheepish. “If you met her, you’d understand. She’s like a fucking angel. Beautiful, sweet, gentle…” 

Sephiroth studied her, amused. He never thought he’d see Tifa mooning over anyone like this; she was too hard and pragmatic.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Tifa said, blushing. 

“You’re going to see her again?” Sephiroth asked. 

Tifa shrugged, trying to look nonchalant, but the flush to her cheeks gave away her eagerness. “I guess. I mean, yeah. I hope so.”

#

One of the advantages of having a famous persona strongly tied to a costume with a long black leather coat, a seven foot sword, and four feet of flowing silver hair was that it was possible to have some degree of anonymity simply by getting rid of those attributes. With his hair tied back and in civilian clothes, his sword left at home, Sephiroth could more or less blend into a crowd, so long as nobody looked too closely at his eyes. He was aware that his military posture and height still made him stand out, but he was only infrequently recognized.

He didn’t usually bother with the jeans, T-shirt, and ponytail that felt like more of a costume than his battle attire, but tonight Zack had insisted, and Tifa had backed him up. Sephiroth had not put up too much of a fight—Zack was still relatively depressed, after all. They all missed Angeal, but Zack had been the one closest to him, the most heartbroken about his departure. 

He had to also admit some curiosity about the girl Tifa was taking them to meet. It had been only a few weeks since Tifa fell through the plate into her church, but it was clear Tifa was already smitten with her. 

Aerith . He had always wondered about her. Would she look like Professor Gast or the few quick glimpses Sephiroth had gotten of Gast’s wife Ifalna? 

They took the train around the city, shaking wildly on its tracks as it dipped below the plate, then evened out again. It pulled into a run down station in the slums, and Tifa led them past a pair of men in ragged clothes sitting on the curb of the train’s platform. They traversed a junkyard and found themselves in a bustling market, neon tubes lighting up the perpetual Midgar dusk, vendors hawking their wares as they walked by. 

Sephiroth watched it all with fascination. He had rarely ventured beneath the plate, and it was almost like a different country here.

They walked into a crowded, dimly lit bar, where Tifa secured a large table in the back with ease. She and Zack were still wearing their SOLDIER uniforms, which meant that all doors in Midgar opened for them. 

A woman in a pink dress approached, and Tifa hurried to her side, dipping her low for a passionate kiss while Zack cheered them on. 

“You must be Zack Fair,” the woman said, when Tifa let her go. “I’m Aerith. Tifa’s told me all about you.” 

Zack kissed the back of her hand with a flourish. 

“And you, Sephiroth.” Aerith stepped towards him, not the slightest bit afraid. “My father told me so much about you.” 

Professor Gast had spoken of him to his own family? Even all these years later, the thought that he might have been so important to Gast made Sephiroth’s heart constrict briefly in his chest. 

Aerith took Sephiroth’s hands and pulled him closer, standing on tiptoes to whisper into his ear. Her words felt like the breath of a Cure spell, a cool, curious touch of the lifestream. When she released him, he walked away, as quickly as he was able. He could hear her behind him, telling Tifa to let him be. 

He stepped out into the humid, dank air of Wall Market and started walking. He heard her words over and over, chiming like bells. 

He said to tell you he loves you. And he never stopped being sorry. 

#

Monsters never fought with Sephiroth when he was alone, though sometimes, like right now, he wished they would. They occasionally followed him like unsightly pets, but never attacked unless he did first. He assumed it was because they recognized him not as prey or hunter, but as kin. 

He wandered past the junkyard into a large pit filled with defunct trains and other machinery. For a while, he thought he was alone. But then he heard the scuff of footprints running and a solid sounding thud. He followed the noise to the east, until he came on an open clearing between three broken down engines. There was a man there—little more than a blur of spiky blonde hair and dark armor—running through a kata with a broadsword as large as he was, each movement fluid and perfect and performed at breakneck speed. 

Sephiroth approached carefully. 

The man stopped suddenly, pushed his bangs out of his face, and gave Sephiroth a flat, annoyed stare. “There are a lot of monsters in this area. You shouldn’t be here.” 

Sephiroth blinked at him. He knew that face. He knew that face. It was the face of a sixteen year old boy who had dared to draw a weapon and defy his commanding officer. Cloud Strife—he’d had to look up the name later, impressed by the boy’s courage if not his common sense—had bled out in the Wutai mud six years ago. Sephiroth remembered killing him, the angle of the blow calculated so it would take him hours to die. It was not cruelty but rather pragmatism, that the other soldiers would see Strife’s final agonies and think twice before questioning Sephiroth again. It was how armies were made; it was how wars were won. 

And yet. Here he was, the only person Sephiroth had ever failed to kill. He must have been strong to survive it; he must have gone through the horrors of hell to come out the other side like this. 

When Cloud was a part of the Shinra army, Sephiroth had not been able to break his will, not with fear or violence or shame. He remembered, just before he ran Cloud through with his sword, that fascination he’d had with someone who just wouldn’t break . He felt that again, now, but differently. Then, facing the boy in Wutai, he’d been curious, perplexed even. Now, he was nearly overcome by an urge to possess, to lay claim to this man, to take with his body what he hadn’t been able to with his sword. 

But Cloud looked at him with no fear, just a steady, surly defiance. “Huh,” he murmured. “Guess you can probably take care of yourself.” 

“You recognize me, then?”

“Sure. I’ve seen the fucking Shinra recruitment posters like everybody else.” 

Apparently Sephiroth was the only one who remembered their shared history. And while part of him was annoyed, he also realized it meant he had an opportunity to draw Cloud closer. He would play along, for now.

“You know my name, then,” Sephiroth said. “It’s only fair you tell me yours.” 

“Cloud Strife.” The greatsword glinted in the dim light as Cloud finally lowered its tip to the ground. “At your service, sir.” The last word was drawled with a startling lack of respect that Sephiroth found both aggravating and oddly arousing. 

 “Your sword is fascinating, Cloud,” Sephiroth said, stalking closer. It looked like it was made of several smaller weapons, though he couldn’t tell how they were joined. 

Cloud gave him a slight nod. “Thanks. I made it myself.” 

“Impressive.” This close, Cloud’s eyes glowed mako-bright, a dazzling sky blue. “I’d like to see it in action.” It was a clever concept, but Sephiroth wasn’t convinced that one hit from the Masamune wouldn’t knock all the components apart. 

Cloud’s PHS started playing a cheerful rendition of the chocobo song, and he glanced at it, frowning. He silenced it and tucked it away, then turned to Sephiroth. “Fuck. I gotta be somewhere. Something tells me you can get back fine on your own.”

Before Sephiroth could think of a way to prolong the encounter, Cloud hefted the greatsword onto his back and started running, more quickly than should be possible for anyone without mako enhancements. He disappeared quickly into the shadows around the junkyard, leaving Sephiroth both annoyed and frustrated that the object of his—desire? wrath?—had gotten away so easily. 

Chapter Text

Aerith’s heart raced in her chest as she huddled in her chair. She was lurking in the corner of a dark, anonymous bar near Shinra Tower. Above the plate, everything seemed almost too clean, storefront windows without bars or shutters, bright street lamps illuminating everything. 

She watched the door intently, hoping, each time it swung open, for a tall, broad shouldered figure to stride through. She didn’t know if Sephiroth would come. She had asked a friend in Shinra, who was sympathetic to AVALANCHE, to slip a message to him. But such communication only worked one way, so she had no way of knowing if he would accept her invitation, or if he had even received it. 

She could still hear the sound of Cloud’s voice, his parting words to her as he was taken away, one of the Turks holding a pistol to his temple. 

“Don’t do anything stupid, Aerith. Tell the others not to do anything fucking stupid, okay? I’ll be fine on my own. I always am.” 

Cloud had traded his life for hers, his cold, indifferent facade falling away in a flash when the Turks had her at their mercy. And now she was left with the shame of having been rescued and the fear of knowing her friend was in enemy hands. 

If Sephiroth didn’t come…

She would have to talk to Tifa. That was the only option. She would have to admit to Tifa that she was a member of AVALANCHE, and beg Tifa to help her free Cloud. But as much as she cared for--maybe even loved--Tifa, she didn’t think Tifa would be willing to turn against Shinra. Not for Aerith, not for anyone. The thought of it broke her heart. 

“I apologize for being late.”

Aerith looked up, startled. Even though she’d been watching the door, she hadn’t seen Sephiroth enter. He must have taken her request for discretion to heart.

He sat across from her at the tiny table, studying her intently. His cat’s eyes glowed in the darkness an eerie green, and a slight chill ran through her. For a moment, he looked like the Demon of Wutai, the cold-blooded killer who brought a country to its knees. 

Faced with his callous gaze, Aerith hesitated. But the quiet voice in her heart, the voice she’d learned to listen to in times of struggle, told her to trust in this moment. 

“Your note implied some urgency,” Sephiroth said. “I held your father in very high regardl. So here I am.” 

“My friend was captured by Shinra,” Aerith said. “He’s a good person. He doesn’t deserve to be shot or thrown off the plate or sent to a work camp in the Mythril Mines.”

Sephiroth looked skeptical. “And you want me to intercede on his behalf?”

“Please,” Aerith said, softly. “I don’t have anything to offer you, but I’ll beg if you want me to. If you cared at all about my father--”

“Enough,” Sephiroth said, coldly. “I will look into it, but I promise nothing. What’s his name?”

Aerith breathed out a long sigh of relief. “Cloud Strife.”

A flicker of--something--crossed Sephiroth’s face for just an instant before his usual impassivity returned. “Very well,” he said, and started to get up. 

“Sephiroth,” Aerith said quickly. “Please--don’t tell Tifa.” 

Sephiroth studied her curiously for a moment, then nodded. Aerith watched him go, praying to all the spirits of the Planet that he would find it in his heart to help her. 

#

Cloud was done. He was just—just done. He wasn’t even a member of AVALANCHE, just a mercenary helping them out for a little gil. These Shinra assholes should understand that, if nothing else. Instead they had him chained up—in restraints that were made for people with mako-enhanced strength—and locked away in a cell at the top of Shinra Tower. 

At least Barret and Aerith had gotten away, and would have regrouped with Biggs, Wedge, and Jesse by now. Cloud hoped Barret wasn’t about to do something stupid like storm Shinra Tower. They didn’t have the best relationship—Barret didn’t trust Cloud’s motives, and hated that Cloud was only in it for the money—but he had a strong, unbreakable sense of honor. He wouldn’t leave a fallen comrade behind if there was any chance they could be saved. 

Cloud didn’t think the situation was completely hopeless, but judging by the expression in the eyes of the stoic man in the black suit, it was going to get a lot more unpleasant before it got better. The Wutainese girl with him, who couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen, looked no less vicious. 

“My name is Tseng.” He stood facing Cloud, well within punching range if only Cloud wasn’t chained to the wall. Cloud settled for a vicious glare instead. 

“Go fuck yourself,” he said. 

“I’d thank you not to swear in front of my daughter,” Tseng said.

The girl stepped forward. “I’m Yuffie. And you’re about to get the shit beaten out of you unless you tell Daddy what he wants to know.” 

“What is this, Shinra’s take your daughter to work day?” Cloud sneered. 

“Yuffie is learning a trade.” Tseng put a hand on her shoulder and cast a meaningful glance down at her. “Right now, she’s supposed to be learning temperance.”

Yuffie scowled, rebuked, and scuffed her foot on the cell’s concrete floor. 

“Let’s get down to it,” Tseng said. “Your eyes glow like mako and you have enhanced strength, yet our files show you never made it into SOLDIER. The records say you died a member of the infantry in Wutai. But here you stand before me. You can understand my confusion.” 

Cloud stared at him, barely daring to breathe. “I was in Shinra?” 

“Don’t play stupid,” Yuffie said, and punched him in the stomach. Chained up as he was, the impact knocked the breath from Cloud’s lungs. 

“I’m not,” Cloud said, feeling annoyed and a little embarrassed to be interrogated by a little girl. “I lost my memory.” 

“I hear that excuse more often than you’d think,” Tseng said coolly. “Let’s see if we can’t help you remember.” 

“Yeah.” Yuffie grinned, cracking her knuckles before landing several more blows along Cloud’s ribcage. Chained up as he was, he could do nothing but take the full impact of every punch. Judging by the slight luminescence to her eyes and the strength of her swinging fists, he guessed she must be at least a little mako-enhanced. 

The door opened with a hiss, and a young blond woman poked her head in. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief as Yuffie turned away from him with a soft, annoyed sound. “Sorry,” the woman said. “You’re both needed upstairs.”

Tseng looked annoyed for a brief second before he schooled his features into impassivity. Yuffie was more obviously pissed, scowling and stomping her foot. 

“We’ll continue this conversation soon,” Tseng promised. 

Cloud breathed out a sigh of relief as the two of them left. He leaned back against the wall and played their words over in his head. 

I was in Shinra?

It seemed impossible. Shinra was a monolith of evil—how had he ever thought joining would be a good idea? 

The door opened again, just a few moments later, and Sephiroth walked in. He was wearing his black leather coat, his silver hair cascading down his back, and even in the fluorescent lighting of the cell, he looked like he did on his recruitment posters. All he needed was his sword and a slight breeze to lift his hair. 

“Cloud Strife,” he said, as coolly indifferent as ever. “It’s good to see you again.” 

Cloud narrowed his eyes. “I knew you did Shinra’s dirty work. But I didn’t know you did this kind.” 

The corner of his mouth turned in a slight smirk. “I’m not here to torture you. That is the Turks’ area of expertise.” 

“Then why are you here?” 

Instead of answering, Sephiroth approached him, standing close enough that Cloud’s face practically brushed his neck as he reached up to where Cloud’s right arm was restrained against the wall. He smelled like mako and steel and the slightest hint of something floral. 

He put his fingers around the cuff holding Cloud’s wrist and pulled. Cloud had tried these restraints several times, and found them to be unyielding even to his enhanced strength. But Sephiroth looked like he was barely extending any effort at all as he slowly pulled the manacle free of the wall, the metal groaning in protest. 

“Shiva,” Cloud whispered. “You’re strong.” 

Sephiroth ignored him, moving to pull his left hand free from the wall. 

“Are you seriously helping me escape?” Cloud asked.

“Try not to get captured again,” Sephiroth said, kneeling to pull Cloud’s feet, one by one, away from the wall. “They’ll probably put you in stronger restraints next time.” 

“Thanks,” Cloud said, as Sephiroth finished the job and stepped back. “But, uh, why are you helping me?”

Sephiroth’s eyes swept over him, cool and possessive. “Did they hurt you?”

“Nah.” Cloud shrugged self-consciously and tried not to wince with each indrawn breath. Probably Yuffie had broken at least one rib. “I’m fine.” 

“Hmm.” Sephiroth’s hands glowed green, and with a more restrained gesture than Cloud had ever seen from a materia user, he cast a high level Cure. 

Cloud breathed a sigh of relief as the pain in his side subsided. His pride, however, felt bruised, and that was worse than a broken rib. It made him prickly. “Said I was fine,” he muttered. 

“This way,” Sephiroth said, and stalked out of the cell without looking back. 

Cloud followed. What the hell else was he supposed to do? Sephiroth led him to the glass elevators, swiping his keycard before entering the floor number—forty-nine. They walked together down a hallway with identical numbered white doors. Two of the doors had been recently broken down, and caution tape covered the gaping entrances. Sephiroth very pointedly did not look at either one, but pushed past them to unlock the door at the very end of the hall. 

Cloud followed him inside the most austere living space he’d ever seen. It had obviously been furnished by Shinra, as everything was minimalist, shiny, and hardly used. The only human touch in the living room was a water bottle with one of Aerith’s flowers sticking out of it. Cloud wondered if Aerith had any idea that her flowers, sold from a humble cart in the slums, had made it all the way to the top of Shinra Tower. 

“You wouldn’t happen to know what they did with my sword?” Cloud asked hopefully. First Tsurugi was irreplaceable. 

Sephiroth shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “AVALANCHE is not my responsibility, so I have limited access to information.” 

“It’s okay,” Cloud said. That probably meant Sephiroth couldn’t look at whatever files Tseng had been talking about, which would have been Cloud’s next question. “But I should probably get out of here. I don’t suppose you got a plan for that?”

“I do.” Sephiroth opened the window overlooking Midgar. The huge window didn’t open all the way, but it was enough for a single person to wiggle out of it.  

“What, you expect me to jump?” Cloud backed away, eyes wide. 

“Of course not.” Sephiroth turned and looked him in the eye. “But I do need you to trust me.”

Cloud laughed, a little hysterically. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No.” Sephiroth’s expression gave away absolutely nothing.

“Okay…” Cloud considered his alternative options and found that he had none. “What do I have to do?”

“There’s a ledge just below the window,” Sephiroth said. “I need you to climb out the window and stand on it and wait for me to join you.” 

Cloud peered out of the open window, feeling a dizzying sense of vertigo as his head poked out over Midgar forty-nine stories below. For a moment, he thought he would throw up. He could see the ledge, about two feet below the base of the window. It was so narrow his entire foot wouldn’t fit on it. He would have to cling to the side of the building, and if Sephiroth shut the window, or even just pushed him at little, he would fall into that vast open space. 

He jerked back, head spinning. 

“Cloud.” Sephiroth stepped between him and the window, and put a hand on his shoulder. “I will not let you fall.” 

“I just—why?” Cloud said, jerking his shoulder away. “Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t know,” Sephiroth said, sounding more baffled than anything else. “But you don’t have any other option. Get on the ledge.”

Cloud took a deep breath and walked to the window. He looked out over Midgar, a constellation of smudged grays and browns, punctuated by bright, glimmering lights in gold and green. Bracing himself, he climbed out the window, lowering himself slowly until his feet settled on the narrow ledge. 

Up this high, the city didn’t even smell that bad, and a slight breeze stirred Cloud’s hair. He was covered in a clammy sweat, skin prickling as he waited. 

Sephiroth took off his coat and climbed out next, casually like he did this kind of thing all the time. “Are you ready?” he asked. 

“Ready…for what?” Cloud’s voice faltered, betraying his uncertainty. 

Sephiroth’s answer was to put both arms around Cloud’s chest and let himself fall backwards, pulling Cloud with him. Cloud’s fingers scrabbled for purchase on the surface of the window, but caught on nothing but smooth glass. They both started to plummet down towards Midgar, Cloud still held securely in Sephiroth’s iron grip. 

“I’m going to die, I’m going to motherfucking die and it’s all your fucking fault,” Cloud yelled, struggling to get free. “You motherfucking asshole, you—” 

“We’re not going to die,” Sephiroth said. 

And he was right. Somehow, they weren’t falling—they were flying. Midgar’s lights danced beneath them, as Sephiroth took them through the mako-smelling dusk above the plate, Cloud held securely in his arms as though he weighed nothing at all. 

“How are we flying?” Cloud asked breathlessly. 

“I have a wing.” Sephiroth was still holding him close, Cloud’s back against his chest, and when he spoke, his breath brushed against Cloud’s left ear. 

“What, just one?” Cloud asked. This was beyond weird, but it was an escape, so Cloud wasn’t going to complain. 

“Yes. Just one.” 

“How do you fly with just one wing? Wouldn’t you just go around in circles?”

Sephiroth laughed—an actual laugh that Cloud could feel press against his back. They were dipping beneath the plate now, coming to land on the playground near the junkyard in Sector 7. Sephiroth set him gently, almost daintily on the ground, and Cloud turned to face him. 

Sephiroth hadn’t been lying—there was only one wing, massive and covered in iridescent black feathers, a dark silhouette spouting from his right side. He was shirtless, the black straps of his SOLDIER uniform crossed over his bare chest. Cloud wouldn’t have thought a weird alien appendage would be sexy, but it suited Sephiroth, somehow, and Cloud had to make a careful effort not to stare. 

“Thanks,” he said awkwardly, scuffing his toe in the dust. “I probably woulda been tortured a little more before I managed to get myself out.” 

“I don’t think you would have escaped on your own,” Sephiroth said. He sounded oddly annoyed at the idea. “The Turks would have tortured you, then killed you and dumped your body in Hojo’s lab for analysis.” 

“I’m tougher than I look,” Cloud said, scowling. The idea that Sephiroth might think of him as a weakling was galling. 

“I could take you back, if you like.” Sephiroth tilted his head, a barely-there smile half hidden by windblown silver hair. 

Cloud shoved his hands in his pockets and looked up at Sephiroth. “I really am grateful, though. I’ll, uh, I’ll owe you one.” 

“You will,” Sephiroth said, with a real smile this time, wicked in a way that made a thrill run down Cloud’s spine. “Don’t forget it.” 

“Right.” Cloud cleared his throat. It was the rush of relief at having escaped a dangerous situation that was making him weak in the knees, not Sephiroth’s smirk. “I’d better let my friends know I’m okay. I’ll see you around.” 

Sephiroth nodded. “Take care, Cloud Strife.” 

Chapter Text

Sephiroth frowned at the giant teddy bear sitting by his front door. It was clutching a heart pillow, and a card was stuck to it bearing his name in a flowing, elegant script. 

He sighed, reaching down to grab it by an ear and take it inside. It was Kunsel’s job to make sure that gifts from the Silver Elite were acknowledged with a form letter and then destroyed or given to orphans or whatever. These items were under no circumstances supposed to make it to Sephiroth himself. 

And the stuffed bear that was the cause of his current frustration had the added annoyance of being too large to fit in his trash receptacle. He was sorely tempted to call Kunsel and make this his problem instead when he noticed the sticky note on the back of the bear’s head. 

Thought you might want this one. -K

Sephiroth opened the card. It was adorned with a bright pink flower covered in glitter.

Sephiroth, 

I can’t thank you enough for saving my friend. Cloud is back with us and he doesn’t seem any worse for the experience, though he won’t talk at all about how he escaped. Still, I have a feeling it was because of you. 

We all belong to the Planet, even you. We are all her children. I pray for your happiness and safety, as I know my father would have wanted. 

Be well, my friend. 

-Aerith

Sephiroth held the card gingerly, like it might bite him, like its poisonous sentiment might leech into his bloodstream. Hojo had always warned him against those who gave affection freely and wore their emotions for everyone to see. Friendship was not to be trusted, and love just made one weak. One only had to look at the fate of Dr. Gast and Ifalna to know the truth of that. 

As he stood there, staring at the ridiculous bear, a knock sounded on his door. It was too soft to be Tifa’s and too polite to be Zack’s, but few other people frequented this floor, and none would dare knock so casually. 

He quickly hid the bear and card in his bedroom, then opened the door carefully. He was no longer in Wutai, no longer at war, but habits of caution were difficult to shake. 

“Hey.” Cloud Strife was standing in the hallway in battered leather armor with only one shoulder piece, which must have cracked at some point, and he’d repaired it with a couple of bolts. He seemed to be unarmed.

Sephiroth opened the door wider and gestured for his visitor to slip inside. “The Turks are still looking for you.”

“Is that a threat?” Cloud’s voice was low and husky, dryly amused. 

“A compliment,” Sephiroth said. “It takes courage to walk into the lion’s den.” 

“I think of Shinra Tower as more of a rats’ nest.” Cloud gave him a small smile. “I, uh, I wanted to say thank you. You saved my life.”

Sephiroth nodded brusquely. He still wasn’t sure why he’d done it, why anything about Cloud mattered to him at all. 

“I also kinda wanted to ask for a favor,” Cloud said. 

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. 

“The Turks took my sword,” Cloud said. “It was kinda…special, to me. You know what that’s like, right?”

“I do,” Sephiroth admitted. 

“So, I guess I got no choice but to storm the fifty-seventh floor and get it back,” Cloud said cheerfully, as though he were discussing his enjoyable weekend plans, not a suicidal scheme. 

“You are an idiot,” Sephiroth said. 

Cloud shrugged. “And you’re a fuckin Shinra lapdog. Just thought I’d ask before I start.” 

He turned to go, and Sephiroth grabbed him by the back of the collar. “I’m a lapdog?” He felt a strange, dizzying anger. He was used to snide comments, whether made to his face or behind his back. But disrespect from this mercenary felt different. 

Cloud gave him an exaggerated, passive-aggressive shrug. “What do I know? I’m just a terrorist.” 

“You’re very close to being a dead terrorist,” Sephiroth said. 

Cloud had to tilt his head up to look Sephiroth in the eye, and that was perhaps the only satisfying thing about this encounter. “You’re jealous,” he said. “Because I have no master.” 

Rage flooded Sephiroth, burning white hot at the edges of his vision. He grabbed Cloud by the throat and slammed him up against the wall, pinning him there. “You will watch your tongue,” he hissed. 

Cloud didn’t speak, just met his gaze with steady, defiant blue eyes that glowed like mako. 

“We are both weapons for sale,” Sephiroth said, finally releasing Cloud and stepping back as the anger receded into his usual coldness. “The only difference is the price.” 

Cloud nodded, though he didn’t look convinced. “Look, if someone had taken the Masamune, wouldn’t you have to go after it?”

No one could take it, because Sephiroth could summon it at will. But he understood the hypothetical well enough. 

“You will wait here for the next three hours,” Sephiroth said. “After midnight, most of the Turks go home. We’ll have a better chance then.”

Cloud grinned like Sephiroth’s hand hadn’t been moments away from closing around his throat. “That sounds awesome.” He sat on the couch, putting his dusty boots up on the coffee table. “Got any beer, General?”

“No.” Sephiroth sat in the chair facing Cloud. “Be good, and I’ll raid my neighbor’s fridge for some.” 

“Your neighbor?” 

“Tifa Lockhart.”

Cloud’s eyes showed a flash of surprise and recognition. It wasn’t surprising—Tifa’s popularity had been growing rapidly ever since she’d made SOLDIER First Class, and her fanclub, the Locked Hearts, was already larger than Zack’s. 

“You’d just steal a beer from Tifa?” Cloud asked. “Seems dangerous.” 

It was a little odd, the way Cloud spoke about Tifa. Like he knew her, and not just from the interviews she gave. 

“More dangerous than a Nibel dragon,” Sephiroth said wryly. It was what her fans liked to say, and while somewhat melodramatic, it was not inaccurate. 

Cloud laughed. “That’s what we always said when I was a kid.” His smile faded, and he frowned intently, puzzled. “No. That’s not right, is it?” He looked sheepishly up at Sephiroth, rubbing the back of his neck. “It gets jumbled sometimes.” 

Sephiroth kept the realization off his face as two puzzle pieces clicked together. Tifa’s quest to find the boy she grew up with, and the file on Cloud Strife which had listed Nibelheim as his hometown. Strife’s memory loss must be extensive indeed. 

“Sometimes I wonder if I was in SOLDIER or something,” Cloud said. “Everyone says my eyes glow, and I know some stuff about Shinra that doesn’t really make sense. Like, regulations about how you’re supposed to keep your boots shiny. And I feel like I remember the exact texture of the mud in Wutai. But I’ve never been there, as far as I know.”

Sephiroth considered revealing what he knew of Cloud’s past, or giving him access to his Shinra records. But he had a feeling Cloud would be very unhappy to know that he had once been a cog in Shinra’s war machine, and he didn’t want Cloud to know that Sephiroth had once tried to kill him. The connection they had now would almost certainly be severed if Cloud were to remember the past. Sephiroth found that he very much did not want that to happen. 

“Would you like to spar?” Sephiroth asked, on a sudden whim. He wanted to see this man’s prowess for himself. 

Cloud gave him a wide, lazy smile. “If you think you can handle it.” 

Sephiroth made no attempt to hide his amusement. “I’ll have to find a sword for you to use.” 

“How about that one?” Cloud nodded towards the Buster Sword, which was leaning up against Sephiroth’s wall. Angeal had left it behind, oddly enough. Zack had not wanted to look at it, so Sephiroth had been keeping it for him, assuming that someday he would want it. 

But he saw no reason not to let Cloud use it for a spar, except perhaps that hilt to pommel it was taller than Cloud himself. 

“Go ahead,” Sephiroth said. 

#

Sephiroth lit up the training room with the colors of Junon at sunset. Cloud looked appropriately awed. As a cadet, he would not have been permitted to use Shinra’s training simulations yet. And he was probably sent to Wutai after only a few weeks basic training. 

Sephiroth stood on the barrel of the great cannon, lifted his sword over his shoulder, and raised an eyebrow. 

Cloud hefted the Buster sword into his hands, dropped into a fighting stance, and lunged. 

He did not disappoint. He was acrobatic, quick, and relentless, and it was the best spar Sephiroth had since the days he used to fight Angeal and Genesis together. The clash of steel on steel ran out through the open air, as Sephiroth slowly drove Cloud back.

The duel ended with the Masamune just an inch away from Cloud’s throat. Cloud was breathing hard, a slight sheen of sweat on his skin, as he lowered the tip of his sword to the ground in a graceful gesture of defeat. It was an oddly…compelling sight. 

“Damn,” Cloud said, running a hand through his hair. The blond spikes bent beneath his fingertips, but sprung up again immediately. “You’re good.” 

“Yes,” Sephiroth said. It was a statement of fact. “You are also quite accomplished.” 

Cloud grinned, a slight flush in his cheeks. Sephiroth lowered his sword and let it dematerialize. Cloud did not look surprised, just as he hadn’t been shocked when Sephiroth summoned the Masamune before their duel. Some part of him must have remembered seeing it as a cadet, all those years ago. 

“It’s midnight,” Cloud said. “Can I borrow this?” He hefted the Buster Sword in his hand.

“No.” Sephiroth took it from him. “Go home, Cloud. I will see about your sword. Just tell me where to find you.”

Cloud hesitated, but he was clearly tempted. “Just outside of Sector 7. The train graveyard where we met. No one’s ever there. We could meet like…early morning, two days from now.”

Sephiroth nodded. “If I can get the blade, I’ll bring it.” 

 

Chapter Text

Cloud felt an odd eagerness tugging at him as he made his way to the train graveyard, a feeling that had as much to do with Sephiroth as the anticipation of having his sword back. 

In Midgar, there was little difference between day and night. Night was slightly darker, but barely enough to be noticeable. Now, just before dawn, it was as dark as it ever got. But with his mako-enhanced vision, Cloud could see just fine. He settled atop one of the defunct trains to wait. 

A little while later, a black feather floated down almost into his lap, and he looked up, eyebrows raised. 

“You found it!” he said, getting to his feet as Sephiroth touched down atop the same car a few feet away from him, carrying First Tsurugi.

“Yes.” Sephiroth folded the wing behind himself, and then, in a split second, it vanished entirely. He held out the sword and Cloud took it eagerly, relishing the feel of the hilt on his palm. 

“Shall we?” Sephiroth’s Masamune materialized in his hand, and he raised it over one shoulder with a mocking smile. 

He was good, but Cloud knew the train graveyard like the back of his hand, because he had spent so much time practicing there. He still lost the spar, but not by much.

“You’re impressive,” Sephiroth told him, afterwards. 

Cloud was sweaty and panting, Sephiroth as cool and unruffled as ever. Cloud tried to remember that he was a hardened mercenary who didn’t give a fuck what Shinra’s lapdog thought about his swordwork. But his heart still leapt in his chest when Sephiroth praised him, like he was some wet-behind-the-ears Shinra recruit. 

“How did you learn to fight?” Sephiroth asked. 

“I don’t remember,” Cloud replied honestly. “It’s like--my body knows the basics. How to hold the sword, how to swing it. The rest I kind of made up, I guess.” 

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. “You’re self-taught?”

“Mostly.” Cloud shrugged nonchalantly, but he felt a little defensive. He knew that his technique was probably rough edged--no one had taught him finesse of the kind Sephiroth exuded in every effortless arc of the Masamune. But it was his

“I am as well,” Sephiroth said, and gave Cloud a smile that felt genuine. “Mostly. My enemies in Wutai taught me a great deal.”

“Yeah.” Cloud cleared his throat. That smile was affecting him more than it should. It made Sephiroth look...human. “I learn from everyone I fight.” 

“And what did you learn from me?” Sephiroth asked, stepping closer. 

“That you’re compensating for something,” Cloud replied, grinning cheekily. “How long is your sword, anyway?”

“You’re one to talk,” Sephiroth murmured, but his eyes flashed with amusement. “That sword of yours probably weighs as much as you do.” His gaze moved over Cloud’s body with deliberate slowness, and Cloud felt his face flush. He had to be imagining the intent in Sephiroth’s eyes. 

“Will you show me how the blade comes apart?” Sephiroth asked. 

Cloud nodded, grateful for a change of subject. It was probably a terrible idea to explain the intricacies of First Tsurugi to someone who would inevitably become his enemy, but no one else in his life was really interested in it. So in a secluded corner of the train graveyard, he disassembled the sword and lay the pieces out in the dust for Sephiroth to study, then showed him how they could be put together again. 

Sephiroth listened with a rapt attention that was nothing short of flattering, and asked intelligent questions. 

“This is beautiful,” he said, running his finger down the flat side of the weapon, tracing the etched edges where the blades came together. 

“Thanks,” Cloud mumbled, feeling both pleased and oddly self-conscious, even though Sephiroth had been complimenting his sword, not his appearance. 

“I have never met anyone so like myself in this,” Sephiroth said. “Your sword is a reflection on who you are, just as mine is.” 

Cloud shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I made it this way because it’s useful.” 

“It’s built to serve a purpose, and in serving that purpose elegantly and competently, it becomes a thing of beauty. It is utilitarian, just as you are unfailingly pragmatic, but that does not mean it is not a wondrous thing.” 

Sephiroth was studying the sword, and Cloud was glad, because he was sure his expression was somewhere between dumbstruck and completely charmed. Sephiroth is a monster, he reminded himself. He is the dark, corrupted product of Shinra’s arrogance. 

But here, in the morning darkness, it was hard to believe it. 

“What does your sword say about you?” Cloud asked. 

“I don’t know,” Sephiroth said. “But I understand it to be an extension of my own self. When I was a child growing up in a laboratory, I was often made to fight monsters. The first time I faced a behemoth, at nine years old, I was afraid. So I summoned a sword. It was the perfect size for me then, the perfect fit in my hand. And as I grew, it did as well.”

A child growing up in a laboratory, made to fight a behemoth at nine years old. It sounded like something Shinra would do, but Cloud’s chest still ached in sympathy for the child this monster must have once been. It humanized him in a way nothing else could. 

“The wing came about in much the same way,” Sephiroth said. “I often dreamed of escaping, of flying away. During one particularly painful procedure, the wing suddenly appeared. Hojo knocked me out before I could manifest another, and did something—I’m not sure what—while I was out. After that, I was unable to manifest anything beyond the single wing and my sword.” 

Hojo . Cloud knew that he’d been saved from one of Hojo’s labs when AVALANCHE came to Nibelheim and blew up the reactor there. He didn’t have any memories of Hojo, but the name made him think of a crow circling overhead, nasally voice and a cawing laugh. 

“That’s so fucked up,” Cloud said. “You must be really angry.” 

Sephiroth was quiet for a moment. “No,” he said, softly. “I understand my purpose. I am a weapon, one of the most powerful on the planet. It is not for me to question what made me such.”

He got up, brushing dust off his long black coat. “Thank you for showing me your sword,” he said, so oddly formal that Cloud didn’t dare crack a joke about the phrasing. “May I spar with you again sometime?”

Cloud nodded. “Give me your PHS. I’ll call you.”

#

Sephiroth watched Cloud pick up the Buster Sword one-handed and twirl it in his grip. The careless display of strength was more alluring than it had any right to be. Cloud was strong, in body and mind, and that strength was apparently Sephiroth’s weakness, because he found himself thinking of it more often than he should. He had come to spar with Cloud half a dozen times now, and after each one, found himself eagerly awaiting the next. 

Cloud grinned and gave him only a half-second before rushing him, the greatsword flashing in the dim light of the train graveyard. Sephiroth met the blow with the steel of the Masamune, and joined the dance. 

Sparring with Cloud was exhilarating like nothing else. It was easy to get lost in watching the quick, agile movements of his body as he backflipped out of reach, flashing his cocky smile. But Cloud was skilled enough that even those minor distractions allowed him to get the upper hand. Each time, Sephiroth would have to fight to earn it back. It felt good to earn each victory, rather than being assured of his dominance before the match even started. 

Afterwards...well, that was good too, sitting together atop one of the defunct trains and talking. They always started out by discussing their spar, asking each other questions about technique and training. Sephiroth wondered idly if perhaps he shouldn’t be sharing his expertise with the enemy, but he enjoyed the interaction too much to give it up. 

“So this sword,” Cloud said, running his finger along the flat edge of the Buster Sword, which he’d laid across his knees as he sat cross-legged on the train car. Sephiroth had brought it for Cloud to use tonight, feeling a strange desire to see it in his hands. “Seems like it’s got some meaning for you.” 

“It belonged to a friend,” Sephiroth said. “He asked me to watch over it. I was puzzled by the request, as this is a family heirloom he treasured. But he felt that when he left Shinra, he left his honor behind, and therefore did not deserve it.”  

“Huh.” Cloud’s fingers moved to the hilt, tracing the contours of the design there. It was clear that he liked the sword; he had wielded it as though it were an extension of his body, as natural as a wave of his arm or a kick of his leg. Its simplicity and heft suited him, a man who was straightforward and direct, but not to be underestimated.

“Keep it,” Sephiroth said, with an odd lightness to his heart. “I have no use for a greatsword and Angeal is not likely to want it back.” 

“You sure?” Cloud glanced at him. “We might have to fight for real someday. I don’t wanna use your friend’s sword against you.” 

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think you’d be able to get a single hit in?”

Cloud grinned and playfully bumped his shoulder against Sephiroth’s. The slight touch caught Sephiroth by surprise, but it was not unpleasant. “Your ego is the size of Shinra Tower.” 

“It’s not arrogance if it’s true,” Sephiroth said. “Take the sword, Cloud. I don’t want it to sit in my apartment unused.” 

“Thanks,” Cloud said softly, his fingers tracing the materia slots in the hilt. “Y’know, you’re not really like I thought you’d be.” 

“How did you think I’d be?” 

“Cold,” Cloud said without hesitation. “Vicious. A killer who only cares about war.” 

Sephiroth wondered if that impression was due to what little of Cloud’s memories remained, buried in his subconscious. 

“Wutai was a tenacious, proud country,” Sephiroth said, staring out into the dark of the slums. “To conquer it, I had to be ruthless. Anything less would have resulted in defeat.” 

“Why conquer it at all?” Cloud asked. “Why not just tell President Shinra to go fuck himself?”

“As appealing as that idea is…” Sephiroth hesitated, trying to sort it out in his head. Genesis had asked him the same question once, but he had been unwilling to answer it, to lay himself so vulnerable before another person. “Shinra created me. Where else could I possibly belong?”

Cloud studied his face curiously, but without judgment. “Shinra trained you, maybe. Gave you the mako treatments. But they didn’t make you.” 

“They did.” Sephiroth’s voice was cold, distant and severed from anything he might be feeling. “I was born and raised in a lab. Genetically engineered to be the perfect SOLDIER, so that when I was fifteen they could send me to Wutai to bring them victory.” 

“Fifteen,” Cloud murmured softly. “Shiva. That’s fucked.” 

Sephiroth laughed softly. “It was clever. I won an unwinnable war.”

“Still fucked,” Cloud muttered. “And to think I had your picture hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid, dreaming of joining SOLDIER. I remember--” He gasped softly, pressing his face into his hands. His body tensed, and Sephiroth jerked the Buster Sword out of the way just before he started trembling and fell limply forward. Sephiroth tossed the sword aside and caught Cloud before he could tumble off the train. 

He wasn’t sure what to do, then, with the unconscious body in his arms. Cloud was breathing quickly, his brow furrowed in pain or fear. Curaga and Esuna had no effect.

“Cloud,” he murmured, brushing blonde hair off of Cloud’s forehead. “Wake up.” 

Cloud’s eyelids fluttered, and then opened. He looked blearily up at Sephiroth. “Again?” he murmured. 

Sephiroth was surprised at the strong wave of relief that washed over him to see Cloud recover. He made no move to push Cloud away, and Cloud seemed content for the moment to linger in Sephiroth’s arms. How strange it was to touch someone like this, with no violent intent but instead an almost unbearable sort of fondness. He found he didn’t want to let go, that instead he wanted to bury his nose in Cloud’s oddly spiky hair and breathe in his scent, to hold him closer and press a kiss to his forehead. 

“Ah, fuck,” Cloud groaned, finally sitting up. “Thanks for catching me.” There was a slight flush in his cheeks as he pulled away. 

“What happened?” Sephiroth asked. 

“Dunno. Something’s just fucked in my head, that’s all.” 

“And if it happens in a fight?” Sephiroth demanded. 

Cloud moved one shoulder in a weary shrug, and Sephiroth had to suppress the impulse to argue the point further, or follow Cloud around making sure no one took advantage of such a moment.

The strange attack of sentimentality was unhealthy, he reminded himself as he flew back home. It made him weak, and was therefore dangerous. The smart thing to do would be to cut all ties with Cloud. It wouldn’t be difficult--the mercenary was maddeningly elusive. Sephiroth didn’t even have a way to contact him, but was forced to rely on the few occasions when Cloud messaged him from a burner PHS. 

It was ridiculous, all of it. Even so, it was nice to have a friend. Sephiroth knew he wouldn’t be able to let the next message from Cloud go unanswered. He would just have to be careful not to get any more attached than he already was. 

#

When Sephiroth returned to Shinra Tower, Genesis was sitting on the railing of the balcony that wound around the upper floor where the higher ups could come to look out over their domain--not that any of them ever did. His large wing loomed over his left shoulder, dark as a shadow. Sephiroth suppressed the sting of jealousy at the thought that Genesis could leave his wing out whenever he wished, that he no longer needed to hide his true nature. 

He was dangling one foot carelessly over Midgar, looking completely at ease even in the lair of the enemy. 

Shinra’s security is falling down on the job, Sephiroth thought wryly. Though if it meant Genesis and Cloud would visit him, he was less inclined to improve it. 

“Where were you off to?” Genesis asked impatiently, as though they had made some kind of appointment Sephiroth hadn’t kept. 

“Visiting a friend,” Sephiroth said. 

“All your friends live in Shinra Tower,” Genesis said skeptically. 

“A new friend.”

Genesis gave him a sly smile and hopped off the railing to cross the distance between them. “I’ve missed you, Seph.” 

“It has been quiet without you,” Sephiroth admitted. He missed their friendship, prickly and volatile though it had been. He missed both sparring with Genesis and fucking him, although Genesis seemed to put more emotion into the fighting than the sex. Those encounters were purely for stress relief, particularly in Wutai when the war had dragged interminably on. If Sephiroth ever doubted that, seeing Genesis woo one of his many lovers would remind him.  

“Come here.” Genesis dragged him into a darkened corner of the balcony, pushing him up against the wall for rough, passionate kisses. There was something dark and aggressive in his approach, a hint of a dangerous edge that hadn’t been there before. 

When Genesis got on his knees, Sephiroth’s hands tangled in his hair, Sephiroth leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. 

Unbidden and unwanted, the thoughts overwhelmed him: his fingers tugging on spiky blonde locks, glowing blue eyes peering up at him in the darkness. And himself, coming undone, begging Cloud to want him, to need him, to lo--

He came with a ruthless intensity of sensation that made everything else blank out for one perfect moment. 

And when he opened his eyes again, breathing hard, Genesis had gotten to his feet and was glaring at him furiously. 

“Is that a comment on the weather or a name?” Genesis asked acerbically. 

Sephiroth blinked at him, his pleasure-addled mind struggling to catch up. 

My name is Genesis. In case you forgot,” Genesis added, scowling. “Have I really been gone that long? Who the hell is Cloud?” 

“I…” Sephiroth was at a loss for words. Had he really been so careless as to say someone else’s name? And why would he call for a mercenary who meant nothing at all to him? “I’m sorry, Gen.” 

“Well, whoever he is, he’s doing it right if he’s making you beg like that.” Genesis’s usual smirk returned, sharper than usual. “It was hot right up until you said his name.” 

Sephiroth arched an eyebrow, certain Genesis was exaggerating. He was the Demon of Wutai--he did not beg for anything.

“It’s almost worth it to find out that you have a weakness just like anybody else,” Genesis said. “And here I thought you were untouchable.” 

Sephiroth gave him an odd look, wondering if he should be insulted. “You touched me often enough.” 

“Your dick, yes.” Genesis rolled his eyes. “Your heart might as well be at the bottom of the North Crater for how easy it is to reach.” 

“I didn’t think you cared,” Sephiroth said mildly. He wasn’t particularly bothered by the description. It was true that he kept himself out of reach, and tried not to let sentiment overrule his decision-making capabilities. He was a weapon--this was part of what made him an exceptional one. 

Genesis huffed. “Of course I cared. You’re insufferable, you know that? Do you inflict this kind of annoyance on this Cloud guy too?”

“Cloud is a friend,” Sephiroth said. “That’s all.” 

Genesis crossed his arms. “Bullshit.” 

“I am a weapon, Gen,” Sephiroth reminded him. “One of the most dangerous on the planet. I don’t need this kind of complication.” 

All the mirth left Genesis’s eyes, and he held Sephiroth’s gaze for a long moment. “Stop making excuses. Shinra fucked you over but you’re responsible for what you do with what they gave you.”

“I’m not leaving Shinra,” Sephiroth said firmly, but something about the manic gleam in Genesis’s eye made him uneasy.

Genesis let out a long sigh. “I know. Look, I didn’t just come here for that. I came to ask a favor. And after what you just did, I think you owe me.” 

Sephiroth found it hard to argue with that. “What do you need?”

“Access to the libraries on floor sixty-two. I have some research to do.” 

It seemed a relatively harmless request, to an area Sephiroth had easy access to. And he did feel guilty about calling Genesis by someone else’s name. “I’ll open a window,” he said. 

Genesis grinned, and there was something savage about the flash of his teeth, something that set Sephiroth on edge. But he said nothing, and made his way up to the sixty-second floor to let his longtime friend in. 

Chapter Text

“We did it,” Cloud said wearily, his head bowed beneath the single shaft of sunlight that fell through the roof of an abandoned church in the slums, lighting the idly drifting dust motes golden even in Midgar’s eternal twilight. The flowers beside him flourished, bright and vibrant yellow, and beneath them, a clean, honest patch of dirt untouched by the pervasive mako pollution. 

Aerith knelt beside him and pressed her hands against a patch of bare soil, humming softly. “We’ve eased the Planet’s suffering.” 

Cloud nodded, but that didn’t really feel like absolution for all the lives he’d taken on the mission tonight--including some Shinra workers who happened to be in Reactor 5 at the wrong time. He thought about them as he approached the reactor’s core, but that didn’t stop him from setting off the bomb. 

Cloud wasn’t doing this for the planet or for the future of all living things. He didn’t have noble, shining ideals like Barret, or a connection to the earth like Aerith. He joined AVALANCHE as a means to an end—the end of Shinra. Someday, all of them, even Sephiroth, would pay for their sins. He would see to it. 

“Cloud!” Denzel’s frantic shout came from the entrance to the church—the doors that never properly closed—and the boy ran down the aisle, stopping at Cloud’s feet. 

“It’s okay,” Cloud said, dropping to one knee so he was level with the kid. He put his hand on Denzel’s trembling shoulder as the boy caught his breath. “Tell me what’s happening.” 

“Sephiroth,” Denzel said, and then was interrupted by a fit of coughing. Cloud and Aerith shared a worried glance—his asthma seemed to be getting worse. Aerith cast a simple Esuna, and he finally caught his breath with a gasp. It would ease the problem for now, but it wouldn’t cure the underlying disorder. 

“He’s here,” Denzel continued, his eyes wide with fear. “Sephiroth is here—he’s asking for you. Barret told me to come find you quick. He said you gotta get out of here before the Shinra finds you.” 

Aerith glanced at him, her expression unreadable. 

“Wait,” Cloud said. “Denzel, do you remember what Sephiroth was wearing? Was it the long black coat like in the posters?”

Denzel closed his eyes for a moment, brow scrunched. “No,” he finally said. “It was black, but it was just like…normal clothes.” 

“Did he have his sword?”

Denzel shook his head. 

“Thank you for telling me,” Cloud said, squeezing the boy’s bony shoulder. “Everything is going to be okay. I’m just going to go talk to him, then he’ll leave. I want you to tell Barret and the others that I’m safe and they don’t need to worry, okay?”

“Yes, sir,” Denzel said, giving Cloud and Aerith each a hug before hurrying out of the church. 

“Cloud…be careful,” Aerith said. “Be careful who you trust.” 

Cloud nodded, wondering what that meant. Aerith had a way of giving cryptic advice, but it always made sense eventually, and was always right. “I’ll talk to you later, Aerith, I promise. Just…keep everyone calm. I’ll be back soon.” 

Aerith looked worried, but just nodded. 

#

Cloud found Sephiroth at Wall Market, speaking to Jerry, the hustler who always took up residence just outside the inn. 

“His name is Cloud Strife,” Sephiroth was saying, and he sounded annoyed.

“Clod?” Jerry said, playing dumb. “I don’t know no Clod. Why don’t you go back uptop the plate where you belong?” 

“I think that you know exactly who I’m looking for.” Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. “You are not the first person to lie to me today, but I can promise you that—”

“Hey,” Cloud said, stepping forward. “I got this. Thanks for having my back, Jerry.” 

“You know it, Cloud,” Jerry said, clasping Cloud’s bicep for a second in the traditional slum gesture of male affection. “You need some help with this Shinra asshole, you just shout, okay?”

Cloud nodded his thanks, wondering if Jerry knew that the Shinra asshole he was hassling was the General Sephiroth, or if Jerry had just seen the small Shinra logo on Sephiroth’s black turtleneck sweater and assumed him to be a low-level rep of the sort that was often sent to shake down the slums. Sephiroth’s hair was back in a ponytail, and without the flowing mane of silver and the large pauldrons, he looked...not ordinary, but closer to it. 

Cloud tugged at Sephiroth’s arm. Sephiroth was glaring at Jerry with unrestrained hostility, but turned and followed him through the throng of people to the deserted playground outside of Wall Market. 

Cloud climbed to the top of the jungle gym, and Sephiroth joined him. From up here they could see for a half-mile or more in all directions, and be sure of the privacy of their conversation. 

“You can’t come here asking for me,” Cloud said, breaking the tense silence. 

“I didn’t know how else to contact you,” Sephiroth replied. 

“You wait,” Cloud said, glaring at him. “You wait until I call you, like usual.” 

“I saw the explosion from my office.” Sephiroth was frowning out over the deserted playground. “I heard there were casualties.” 

“So what, you’re here to arrest me?” Cloud asked. “You can’t possibly think you could lecture me about civilian casualties after what you did in Wutai.” 

“I came to make sure you weren’t one of them.” 

Cloud glanced at Sephiroth, startled. Sephiroth was staring out into the Midgar dusk, his fine features set in a mask of indifference. How Cloud knew it was a mask he wasn’t entirely sure. 

“Does it bother you, then?” Sephiroth sounded like he was placing his words very carefully. “What I did in Wutai?”

“You were following orders,” Cloud said. 

 Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. “And that makes it better?”

“That makes it worse.” Cloud got up and jumped down from the jungle gym. He felt like the conversation had restored some of his common sense. Sephiroth was a monster, and he had been under the impression that he could keep that monster separate from his life here under the plate. But he’d been wrong. 

He was almost back to the entrance to Wall Market when he heard the soft flapping of a wing. Sephiroth touched down directly in front of him, standing in his path. 

“Don’t walk away from me,” Sephiroth said. His voice was as calm and controlled as always, but Cloud could see the anger flashing in his bright eyes. 

“Fuck off,” Cloud said. 

“Do you think this is easy for me?” Sephiroth asked, stepping closer. “I never asked to think of you this way. I never wanted to feel this way about anyone. You are quickly becoming a weakness I can ill afford.” 

Cloud blinked at him. That sounded suspiciously like a declaration of affection, which was the last thing he’d ever expect from Sephiroth. 

“Call me next time,” Sephiroth said, his usual cool composure in place again. “Or I will find you.”

“I don’t answer to you,” Cloud said, feeling strangely vulnerable, like Sephiroth’s unexpected words had reached deep into him and twisted something, made him aware of a wanting that he immediately suppressed. “Don’t fucking tell me what to do.” 

Sephiroth hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose that’s true,” he said, more to himself than Cloud. Before Cloud could respond, he turned away, his wing extending to the sky, and in the next moment, he was gone, lost in Midgar’s constant dusk. 

#

Sephiroth hesitated only a moment before pushing open the door to Hojo’s laboratory on the sixty-seventh floor of Shinra Tower. It was one in the morning, but he knew Hojo would still be there, among the smells of disinfectant, blood, and mako that were strongly tied to every memory he had of his childhood. 

Hojo was at the long, pristine white counter, mixing a vial of something glowing an insidious green. He looked up at Sephiroth, his prominent forehead creasing as he raised one dark, sloping eyebrow. 

“Do you need another pair of hands?” Sephiroth asked. 

Hojo nodded, gesturing for him to come closer. “Those lazy assistants of mine went home at midnight,” he muttered. “Here, hold this.” 

Sephiroth held the vial steady while Hojo slowly added small quantities of several different mixtures, muttering to himself about the contents. When it was done, Hojo suspended it above a burner to simmer. 

Sephiroth wasn’t sure why he occasionally found himself back here, in this place he despised, with a man he didn’t respect in the slightest. But at times it was impossible to deny the compulsion for familiarity, for the nasally voice and cruel, acerbic humor he’d grown up on. As much as he wanted to leave all this behind him, it was in his blood just as Banora was in Genesis and Angeal’s. Just as the formidable Nibel Mountains would always be in Cloud Strife’s heart, despite his lack of memories. 

Sephiroth leaned on the counter while Hojo fiddled with the temperature of the burner. 

“You used to sit up there,” Hojo said, his eyes still on the bubbling mixture. “When you were little. At three years old you’d jump up there and sit, waiting for me to draw your blood or give you shots.” 

“You sound like you miss me, Hojo,” Sephiroth said, raising an eyebrow in amusement. He didn’t see nearly as much of Hojo as he used to, when he was living in the labs like all the other specimens. But the thought that Hojo might feel any kind of sentimentality at all was utterly ludicrous. 

Hojo glanced at him, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “I have no time to miss anyone. What is on your mind, Sephiroth?”

It took Sephiroth a moment to speak. Although Hojo kept meticulous records of very detail of his body, and the entirety of his history and life’s experience, this issue felt different, somehow. 

“I feel...a connection,” Sephiroth began. “To another person. The intensity of it is...unsettling.”

“That’s highly irregular,” Hojo said, frowning as he took a thick binder off of a shelf. Sephiroth recognized it as being the most recent one to contain information about him. “You are supposed to be perfect, Sephiroth. That means self-contained. That means that you need no one.” 

“I don’t need him,” Sephiroth protested, feeling oddly vulnerable and defensive as Hojo began to flip through the pages of experimental results. “Cloud is--the feelings are not mutual. I’m not likely to see him again.” 

“Cloud? Cloud Strife?” Hojo snapped the binder shut. “Of course. It makes perfect sense.”

Sephiroth crossed his arms, leaning back against the counter. “You know him?”

“He spent a good deal of my time at my lab in Nibelheim before the reactor there was destroyed. I was making excellent progress until he escaped along with another promising specimen.” Hojo scowled fiercely. “I was attempting to replicate some of the success I’ve had with you. This connection you feel to him has nothing to do with love--it is a result of the way you were created and the experiments I did on him.”

Sephiroth felt a coldness wash over him, a numbness that separated him from the world. Everything that he was--soldier, killer, lover--was a result of how Hojo had engineered him. It was simply cause and effect, and there was no reason for him to mourn the lack of his own identity or free will. 

Weapons did not make choices. Weapons did not have desires. Weapons did not fall in love. 

“You have the power of the Calamity, wrapped in your DNA,” Hojo said. “Cloud has it too, but to a lesser extent. What you feel is the kinship of your shared origins. Like to like.” 

“Cloud doesn’t feel it,” Sephiroth said. 

“Cloud is not as aware of it as you,” Hojo said. “You are Jenova’s strongest and her most powerful. As for the rest, well...do you remember the experiments we did with that Nibel wolf?”

Sephiroth nodded. He would never forget watching the wolf be injected with Jenova cells, howling in agony for days until its body adapted to the foreign presence. And what came after he recalled in kind of a daze, the way he’d been able to exert his will over the wolf through that connection, bringing the Jenova cells in its body to life and guiding its desires to match his own. 

“Well. If you want this Cloud Strife, he is yours for the taking. The technique is the same.” Hojo yawned extravagantly, stretching. “Goodnight, Sephiroth. Do try to document the outcome as best you can.”

Sephiroth sat in the cold, sterile lab for a very long time before he took the elevator back to his floor and tried to get some sleep. 

Chapter Text

Sephiroth perched atop the cannon at Junon, his mako enhanced eyes lingering over the slums at the base of the city. A little girl was splashing in the water, a dolphin leaping next to her. An older woman was sweeping the ground outside the inn, while two men stood nearby, talking. 

Behind him, the obnoxious parade music droned on. Sephiroth’s presence at the festivities would be required soon, but not just yet. For now, he was content to turn and watch the sun glinting off the water for a little longer, before he spread his wing and took to the air, making his way discreetly to the back entrance to the military compound and from there onto the air carrier platform where President Shinra was making his speech. 

“All of our best and brightest are here to pledge their loyalty to the next President of Shinra Inc,” the master of ceremonies was saying. He introduced Heidegger and Scarlett, and then, with a dramatic intonation, called Sephiroth’s voice. 

Sephiroth stepped onto the stage and approached the podium. From that vantage point, he surveyed the crowd, noting exits and possible dangers. 

“I’ve known Rufus Shinra since he was a boy,” Sephiroth began. His gaze landed on the formation of Shinra troopers in their blue uniforms, assembled to the right of the stage. They were all standing at attention, their posture uniform and flawless. “Rufus is smart, strategic, and ruthless. I’m sure that he will lead Shinra to new heights.” 

He’d memorized his speech beforehand, and paid little heed to the words he was saying, because something was off about the group of helmeted, uniformed soldiers standing at attention. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but on second glance…

The soldiers would have been chosen for their ability to move cohesively as a unit and look impressive on TV. But one of them was at least six inches shorter than all the rest. Shinra’s PR executives were the best in the business--they never would have made such an amateur mistake. In fact, the cuffs of the short trooper’s pants were rolled slightly, as though his uniform didn’t quite fit right. 

Sephiroth finished his brief speech, and the Shinra troopers stepped forward, their rifles held in a formal posture. Each of those rifles had a small point of light towards the base that glowed green, indicating that the safety was on. Except for the rifle belonging to the short trooper. 

He brushed by Tseng as he left the podium. “Keep the cameras away from the troopers,” he murmured. 

He crossed the distance as quickly as he could without sprinting, as the soldier’s hands shifted on the rifle, moving it from a parade grip to a more lethal one, the barrel pointed directly at Sephiroth’s chest as he approached. He stepped closer, until his body was blocking the weapon from the view of the crowd. Their attention had moved on anyway, because Rufus himself was speaking now, and every so often applause would break over the stage like a wave, Rufus basking in the limelight. 

“Dismissed,” Sephiroth said to the other troopers, who were frozen in disbelief, their Shinra masks obscuring their expressions. “Get off the stage.” 

It was highly irregular and not part of the planned festivities, but there was no one in the Shinra military who would ignore such an order from Sephiroth. They filed out in a uniform line, seamlessly adapting to the loss of the single soldier, whose hands remained steady on the gun pointed at Sephiroth. 

“Whoever put you up to this put you on a suicide mission,” Sephiroth said. “You’re not going to walk away from here alive unless you come with me quietly, right now.” 

“I came on my own,” came a familiar voice from within the helmet. “Nobody else knows.” 

Sephiroth reached out, but instead of grabbing Cloud’s wrist and twisting until it broke, he simply put his hand over Cloud’s blue gloved fingers, which were resting dangerously near the trigger. “I will not let you die today,” he said. 

“Fuck off.” Cloud growled. “I’m just trying to do my job.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Sephiroth warned him. Zack and Tifa were both here, as well as several SOLDIER Seconds and Thirds and nearly every Turk. Cloud’s life was in more danger with every second that passed. 

“Get out of the way. I know what I’m doing.” 

Sephiroth could see Cloud’s determination in the strength of his stance, the steadiness of his hands on the rifle. He would not be turned away by anything Sephiroth might say. He would stand here until Shinra’s elite fighters saw him and attacked. They would overwhelm him with their sheer numbers, and then he would die unless Sephiroth could make him walk away right now. 

Sephiroth took a deep breath and pictured the Nibel wolf with whom he’d had such a strange kinship. 

It worked--he felt Cloud’s connection to Jenova become alight as his own did, binding them together. But unlike the Nibel wolf, which had bowed its head immediately, Cloud defied him. His hands trembled, the barrel of the rifle shaking wildly, while inside his mind he fought Sephiroth’s control with teeth and claws like a wild beast, the sort that could never be tamed. 

Walk.

At Sephiroth’s command, Cloud’s feet took two trembling steps, then were still again. Inside his head, he could hear Cloud screaming in protest. He could feel Cloud’s fury at Sephiroth’s cruelty and his own helplessness. 

But Sephiroth did not stop. 

Walk. 

Cloud took another slow step, than another. 

With me. Sephiroth led Cloud backstage, Cloud fighting madly against each inch he surrendered. 

But it got easier. The longer it lasted, the stronger their connection became, so that by the time they entered a small room in the back of the Junon compound, Cloud was moving almost naturally.

Sephiroth pressed a button to lock the sliding door behind them and turned to Cloud. 

Take off your helmet.

Cloud did as he was told. His blue eyes were bright and full of hatred, but Sephiroth could feel the compulsion becoming stronger. Over time, Cloud would come to trust and obey without hesitation. Cloud would come to need him, to give himself over body and soul, if Sephiroth desired. He would beg, on his knees, for Sephiroth’s affectionate touch.

For a moment, the thought of it flooded him with overwhelming want, and Cloud responded to the pull of Sephiroth’s will, dropping to his knees.

I could have this. I could have this always. 

“Go to hell,” Cloud hissed, even as he tilted his head to look up at Sephiroth, his hands pinned at his sides because Sephiroth wanted them to remain motionless. 

How is he still fighting? Sephiroth watched with fascination as Cloud’s muscles struggled against the compulsion, his arms trembling as they lay helplessly by his sides. Sephiroth felt something dark within him stir. It would take time to break Cloud’s will, but part of him would enjoy every moment of it. 

“I will never...be...your puppet.” 

My puppet. Is that what he is?

Sephiroth could pull Cloud’s strings, could make him dance to any sinister tune he wished. Cloud would look at him with love, with desire, with fondness. Sephiroth wanted that so much it was an ache in his bones. 

But he would always know it wasn’t real. 

It was almost painful to sever their connection. Cloud gasped for air like a drowning man coming back to the surface, falling forward onto his hands and knees. 

He recovered quickly and scrambled to his feet, murder in his eyes. “What the hell did you do to me?” 

Sephiroth didn’t answer. There was no adequate response, and he was still mourning the lack of their connection with an intensity that dismayed him. 

Cloud rushed at Sephiroth, shoving him hard. The blow caught him by surprise, and Cloud’s fury gave him strength, so that Sephiroth went stumbling back against the wall of the reinforced room, the metal hard and unyielding against him. 

“Cloud.” He raised his hands and Cloud caught him by the wrists, leaning in and pinning him against the wall. 

“Don’t say my name.” Cloud was standing close enough to kiss, now, and if it wasn’t for the hurt and anger in his bright eyes, Sephiroth might have tried. 

“I saved your life,” Sephiroth said. 

“I would rather die than be your puppet.” Cloud’s teeth were bared in a snarl. “I would rather die.” 

“Then go back out there.” Sephiroth did his best to appear indifferent, to give no hint of the storm in his heart. 

Cloud released his grip on Sephiroth’s left wrist in favor of closing his right hand gently around Sephiroth’s throat. “I should kill you.” 

Sephiroth leaned his head back. “Then do it, Cloud.” 

Cloud’s hand closed over Sephiroth’s neck, hard enough to leave bruises, but held it only briefly before releasing him. “Look at me.” 

Sephiroth did. Cloud’s eyes were blue fire, his mouth set in a grim line. 

“I could feel what you wanted to do to me,” Cloud said. “I can still feel what you wanted--it’s like a fire inside me.” 

“I didn’t--”

“Shut it.” Cloud’s eyes blazed a warning. He slammed Sephiroth’s wrists back against the metal wall again, and Sephiroth let him. “Don’t talk and don’t move. I’m gonna walk out of here and get on my bike and go back to Midgar. And if I see you again, I’m gonna kill you.” 

Sephiroth remained motionless, back against the wall, long after the sound of Cloud’s footsteps disappeared down the hallway.

Chapter Text

Cloud sighed, fidgeting self-consciously. To his left, Aerith was stunning in a long evening gown, and to his right, Jesse was gorgeous in a short cocktail dress. Those were sights he might have otherwise enjoyed, but the gaudy decor and tacky lighting of Don Corneo’s mansion weren’t exactly flattering. And it was hard to pay much attention to them when his own body felt so vulnerable and exposed in a long silk dress that swished around his legs every time he attempted to walk in the platform heels Aerith had insisted on.

It had been a little embarrassing, but also kind of fun, running around Wall Market with her. The wig was from the ripped bodybuilders at the gym, kept in perfect coiffed condition in the locker room along with a few dresses that were way too big to fit him. The silk gown itself was made to order, Aerith charming the dressmaker into complicity. They found the tailor had his own reasons to want to pull one over on Don Corneo anyway--a sister who disappeared into the Don’s manor and came out a different person.  

He had drawn the line at the women’s underwear she had acquired by sweet-talking one of the Honeybees, and now standing here in front of Don Corneo and his men, he was glad to at least be wearing his own underthings. But his discomfort had less to do with the dress and more to do with the predatory way the greasy Don was leering at him. Even in full armor, with the Buster Sword on his back, he would have felt weird. 

“Hello, my sweet,” Corneo whispered in his ear. Cloud did his best not to flinch at the hot, wet breath on his face. “Tell me. Have you ever been with a man?” 

There was no reason to think of Sephiroth, not as an answer to that question. No reason to remember the thrumming intensity of the connection that had formed when their minds touched, the strange want that brought him to his knees. 

It was Sephiroth’s fault, fucking with Cloud’s mind and his heart, creating desire and affection where there was none. 

If it really was just his influence, why would you still feel that pull? 

He ignored the quiet voice in the back of his mind and focused only on the present moment, batting his eyes at Don Corneo as he promised that he was as pure as snow. 

“This one,” the Don said, leaning in close. “She’s shy. I like that.” 

Cloud loved Aerith like a sister, but in this moment, Don Corneo’s hand lingering on his waist, he wanted to fucking murder her. 

Aerith giggled softly, and suddenly all this seemed almost worth it, just to hear her laugh again. When he first put on the dress and stepped out of the locker room, clumsy on his high heels with the skirt wrapped around his legs, she smiled for the first time since she broke up with her mysterious girlfriend--the one she had refused to introduce to any of them, but who Barret said was tied up with the Shinra. Whoever she was, she seemed to have broken Aerith’s heart. 

“You can do whatever you’d like with the other two,” Corneo said to his guards with a dismissive gesture. 

Jesse kept her eyes on the floor, frowning. “I’m sorry, Cloud,” she whispered in his ear as she and Aerith were pulled into the next room. 

He wanted to tell her it was okay, but she was gone too quickly for him to figure out what to say. It wasn’t her fault she’d gotten into this mess--she’d been on a mission, spying on Don Corneo, who had some nefarious tie to Shinra and information they needed. But when she didn’t come back to the hideout after the third day, Cloud and Aerith had decided to go after her. And even though he was being tugged by the hand into Don Corneo’s bedroom, Cloud found it hard to regret sticking his neck out for a friend. 

It’s not like he had any intention of giving the Don what he wanted anyway. 

“Well, my darling,” Corneo said, as the door closed behind them, leaving them alone in the tackiest bedroom Cloud had ever seen. “Shall we get started?” 

“Yeah,” Cloud said. “Let’s. You got any rope?”

#

“I don’t think Cloud’s okay,” Jesse said. She and Aerith were standing back to back in the dimly lit side room, dispatching Don Corneo’s lackeys with blasts of fire from Aerith’s hands and electric jolts from Jesse’s electro-pistol. Jesse carried one that could stun and one that was lethal. She hated to kill when it wasn’t necessary, but these assholes had been about to rape herself and Aerith. She didn’t mind their dying screams so much when she thought of that. 

“He won’t talk to me,” Aerith said, and paused to let one of the rapists scream as a fire spell consumed him. “I wish he would.” 

“He came to save me,” Jesse said, softly. All the men were dead or dying now, scattered across the room. “He even put on a dress so he could get in here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Aerith said, with her usual cheer. “It’s good for him to get out and meet people.” 

“People like Don Corneo?” Jesse couldn’t stop herself from giggling at the absurdity. “Yeah, he seems like a great match.” 

Aerith laughed too. “Go catch up to him. I’ll put these guys out of their misery and be there in a minute.” 

Jesse nodded. She knew Aerith liked to bless those who were dying, if they would receive it, in the hopes that their souls would find the lifestream. Aerith was all goodness and kindness and light, after all. Jesse wished that she could be so pure, but at the same time was glad she didn’t bear Aerith’s burdens. 

She hurried into the hallway and, after a few deft turns of the lockpick she always carried, opened the door to Don Corneo’s bedroom. 

The scene inside might have almost been comical, if it wasn’t for the brutal way Cloud’s fist connected with Don Corneo’s bruised and bloody face. The Don was begging on his knees, his hands bound behind his back and tears streaming down his cheeks. Cloud was in his boxers, his wig askew and his makeup smudged, the flowing silk dress crumpled on the floor. 

“If they find out I told, I’m a dead man,” the Don whimpered. 

“They’re not here,” Cloud growled. He managed to be more intimidating in his underwear than most men were in full armor. “I am.” 

The Don shuddered, swallowing hard. “The Turks are gonna be here. Any second, they’ll be here.” 

“You think I’m afraid of some Turk?” Cloud said irritably. He’d been on edge ever since he came back from Junon, on a mission of his own design that he refused to tell anyone about. Right now, with blood on his knuckles and a prisoner begging at his feet, he was actually a little scary. Jesse had always thought of him as gentle, despite his great strength. But when his fist connected with Don Corneo’s face again, she winced. 

“Okay, okay,” Corneo said in a half-sob. “Just don’t--don’t hurt me anymore.” 

“That depends on you,” Cloud said. 

“They’re targeting the structural supports above Sector 7,” Corneo said. “They’re going to knock ‘em out, and the plate will come crashing down on all you scum.” 

Jesse gasped, putting her hand to her mouth. The sheer destruction that would cause, the lives that would be lost...

“When?” Cloud demanded. 

Don Corneo grinned, showing bloody teeth. “This is all your fault, AVALANCHE. Those people are dying because of you.” 

“When?”

Don Corneo’s sinister grin got wider. “I’ve done my job. I wonder how Shinra will reward me when they find out I kept you away from Sector 7 long enough for them to set the charges. There won’t be any saving the day this time.” 

“Cloud.” Aerith was standing in the doorway, her eyes wide and panicked. “We have to go. Now!”

Cloud leaned forward and grabbed the Don’s head with both hands. Jesse looked away, but couldn’t avoid hearing the sickening crack as the Don’s neck broke. 

“Let’s go,” Cloud said, jogging past them. “We need to--”

An explosion sounded, distant but clearly audible, ringing through the air. They made it outside just as the sound of explosions gave way to a deep rumbling and a crash that reverberated so loudly Jesse could feel it in her bones. 

Aerith fell to her knees, pale and gasping. “The Planet…” she whispered. “The Planet can feel them. So many to join the lifestream...” 

Jesse knelt too, putting her hand on Aerith’s shoulder. When she looked up, Cloud was gone. 

#

“Part of the plate has fallen,” Tseng said to the SOLDIERs gathered before him in the training hall. There weren’t many of them. Zack, Tifa, and Sephiroth were the only Firsts left. 

Tifa gasped softly. “How?” 

“AVALANCHE,” Tseng said.

“No,” Tifa whispered, her voice barely audible. “She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t.” 

“Those bastards,” Zack growled, his fists clenched. “Tell me we get to go after them, Tseng.” 

Tseng gave a grim nod. “Yes. AVALANCHE is priority number one. The loss of life in Sector 7 is an atrocity that we cannot allow to go unpunished.” 

“The plate fell on Sector 7?” Sephiroth asked, thinking only of Cloud. Cloud, who frequented Wall Market and had numerous friends in the Sector, who lived just at the edge of Sector 6. 

“Yes,” Tseng said. “Very little of the sector remains. Surely AVALANCHE chose the target for its--Sephiroth, where are you going?” 

Sephiroth did not answer as he strode out of the briefing room and hurried down the hallway that would take him to a balcony overlooking the city. He could only think of Cloud--trapped under rubble or lying dead beneath the broken concrete. 

The jagged-edged hole in Midgar’s upper plate was like a wound, torn and gaping open. He dove into it, letting gravity lend him speed until he was nearly at the ground. Beneath him was a sea of debris. The plate had shattered in most places when it hit, leaving a violent landscape of sundered concrete blocks, twisted metal beams, and sparking electrical wires. 

The neighborhoods atop the plate had been fully evacuated, but the slums below had not been so lucky. Reeve had done his best to get people out, but he had not been given much time. 

Sephiroth didn’t think of the multitude of corpses that must lie below him, only of Cloud. Only Cloud. 

Sephiroth knew better than to believe AVALANCHE was behind this attack. It had the mark of Shinra’s mindless brutality all over it. If Cloud was dead, he would kill every single one of them in retaliation. 

From Cloud’s home, the ruined remains of Sector 7 were clearly visible but the devastation had not reached the shack made of old metal beams and concrete that he lived in. 

“Cloud,” Sephiroth called, hurrying to the door. “Cloud. Answer me.” 

The relief he felt when Cloud stepped out of his home beside the junkyard, alive and unharmed, was powerful enough to take his breath away. 

Cloud, obviously, did not share the sentiment. His bright eyes narrowed, he reached behind him for his sword, and then he lunged at Sephiroth. 

Sephiroth was so surprised by this that Cloud was almost able to get a strike in. Almost. His training took over and the Masamune appeared in his hand as it always did, ringing true against the steel of Cloud’s sword again and again. 

It was perhaps the first fight in ten years that Sephiroth had any possibility of losing. Cloud was good; he was as fast as Genesis but with none of the showiness to his moves; he was as strong as Angeal but with no high minded ideal of honor to hold him back. When Cloud swung his sword, there was murderous intent behind it. 

And when Sephiroth landed a strike just right and sent the Buster Sword flying off into the dust, Cloud didn’t even glance at it. He ran at Sephiroth with his bare fists flying, fighting with every bit of spirit he had. 

Unlike a duel of swords, where they had been close to evenly matched, Sephiroth was much better at hand to hand combat. Cloud appeared to be leading with his emotions, which was perhaps also why Sephiroth had been able to disarm him. 

The fight ended with Cloud on his knees in the dirt, one arm pinned behind him and Sephiroth’s hand on his throat. 

“Stop this,” Sephiroth said firmly. “Calm down.” 

Cloud went limp, and Sephiroth cautiously let him go, stepping back. He half expected Cloud to get up and attack him again, but Cloud only stared at the ground, still on his knees. 

“Cloud?” he said, warily. 

Cloud looked up at him with wet, furious eyes. “Do you have any idea how many people died in Sector 7?”

Sephiroth shook his head. Given the lack of documentation for those who lived in the slums, such a number would be impossible to estimate. 

“Do you care?” Cloud hissed. 

“It was a tactical mistake on President Shinra’s part,” Sephiroth said. “Anyone can see that.” 

“That’s not what I asked.” Cloud glared at him, tears running down his cheeks.

“I care that you are safe,” Sephiroth said. “That’s why I came for you.”

Cloud made a noise that could have been a laugh or a sob. “They think I’m a hero, Sephiroth,” he whispered. “If I’m a hero, why didn’t I save them ?”

Emotional situations were never easy for Sephiroth to navigate. Genesis had called him emotionally stunted on more occasions than one, and was probably right. Cloud buried his face in his hands and wept, and Sephiroth stood helplessly over him, wishing he could bridge the distance between them. 

After a moment he knelt awkwardly at Cloud’s side, and put his hand on Cloud’s arm. Cloud turned to him and buried his face in Sephiroth’s shoulder, tangling his fingers in Sephiroth’s hair.  And then Sephiroth was permitted to hold him close, to breathe in his scent—earthy with the metallic tang of sword oil—and to feel the rise and fall of his breath beneath his hands. 

It had never been like this with Genesis, who had never been vulnerable, at least not where Sephiroth could see. There was no urge towards…tenderness. How odd to find it here, with this mercenary who seemed to despise him. 

He could take Cloud now--bring their Jenova cells to life as simply as turning on a light in a darkened room. In his weary, heartbroken state, it would be easy. Cloud might not even realize what had happened. 

Cloud took a deep breath and pulled away, scrubbing his hand over his face. “I wish I could kill you for this,” he said plainly. “I wish I wanted to kill you. You are everything I hate, so why can’t I hate you?” 

“You would be smarter if you did,” Sephiroth said. 

“I’m gonna kill them.” Cloud got to his feet, fists clenched. “I’m gonna get over to Shinra tower and kill every motherfucker who wears that blue.” 

“Some of them are innocent, Cloud.” Aerith approached, her pink dress torn and smudged with ash. 

“I don’t get a fuck,” Cloud said through gritted teeth. “Somebody’s gotta pay for this. I already let them down once--I’m not gonna do it again.” He turned his back to them, walking towards his weapon, a bright gleam of silver against the dull, dirty ground. 

Aerith glanced at Sephiroth, her hands moving as she began to cast a spell. “Catch him,” she said. 

It took a moment for Sephiroth to realize what she meant, and only his inhumanly quick reflexes allowed him to cross the distance between them and catch Cloud as the sleep spell knocked him unconscious. 

“You have about an hour until he wakes up,” she said. “Can you get him out of Midgar?” 

Sephiroth nodded, lifting Cloud in his arms. Aerith only seemed mildly surprised when his wing appeared. “Take care of him,” she said. “And Sephiroth--trust him, if you can. He’s the only one who can save you.” 

Before Sephiroth could ask what that meant, Aerith turned away, towards the remains of Sector 7, and the many injured that she would likely spend the next several weeks caring for. 

How could Shinra have been so stupid? 

He did not look at the devastation beneath him as he flew, but rather kept his head raised to the sky that was beginning to appear as Midgar’s smog thinned at its outer edges, only glancing down now and then to watch Cloud’s face, as tense and restless in sleep as it had been when he was awake. 

#

Five ethers and twelve hours later, Aerith was exhausted, her body trembling with the effort of standing up straight, but she refused to stop moving. There were so many wounded, so many trapped among the rubble. Far, far too many for her to save, and healers were in short supply beneath the plate. She was out of potions, ethers, and bandages.

She desperately missed Tifa. 

“How could you, Aerith? AVALANCHE is trying to destroy Midgar--to destroy everything I’ve sworn to protect!” 

Aerith knew that Tifa might never forgive her for her ties to the eco terrorist group. She knew that everything between them ended the moment Tifa saw her on that mission and realized who she was working for. 

If only she could make Tifa understand…

But Tifa would never betray her SOLDIER honor. Even if it meant breaking Aerith’s heart. 

And now, Aerith didn’t know if she would be strong enough to survive all this devastation without Tifa by her side. 

She heard soft sobbing a short distance away, and, ignoring her own fatigue, hurried towards it. Denzel was lying on a slab of concrete, his face stained with tears, mouth open in sobs that shook his whole body. 

“Denzel,” Aerith whispered, hurrying to his side. “Oh, Denzel. Oh, honey.” 

His leg was trapped beneath a broad steel beam. Aerith stared at it helplessly. It would take half a dozen men to lift it--and everyone who could help was scattered across what remained of the sector. Even if she could find a way to free him, she felt the emptiness inside her that meant her reserves of mana were entirely depleted. She would not be able to save him. She would not even be able to ease his pain. 

Still, she had to try. She curled her fingers under the steel beam and pulled with all her might. And then--inch by inch, the beam began to rise, almost weightless in her hands. 

“Hey, babe. Why don’t you leave the heavy lifting to the SOLDIERs?” 

Aerith turned, her mouth open in something between a gasp and a sob. Tifa was there, lifting the beam like it weighed nothing at all and tossing it aside. She bent down at Denzel’s side, gently stroking his hair. 

“I bet that hurts,” she said, softly. “It’s going to be okay.” Her hands glowed green as she cast a cure spell, and Denzel’s leg, unnaturally twisted, began to mend itself. It was a more powerful cure than Aerith had ever seen, the kind of elite materia that was only given to SOLDERs.

Slowly, the child’s sobs stopped, and he stared up at Tifa with wonder. 

“Okay, let’s get back to base camp,” Tifa said, turning to Aerith. “You look like you can barely walk. How about I carry this tough guy, and you climb on my back.” 

“Tifa…” Aerith said, her eyes wide in wonder. 

“Come on,” Tifa said, lifting Denzel in her arms. “We can talk about it later.” 

Carrying the two of them, Tifa jogged back to the camp where Barret was keeping guard over the many refugees. When they got close, Tifa set Denzel in Aerith’s arms and brushed her thumb tenderly over Aerith’s cheekbone. 

“We’ll talk, okay,” Tifa said. “After.” 

Aerith watched as Tifa ran back out into the rubble to look for more survivors. Whatever might happen between them, Tifa was here now, and that gave Aerith the strength to walk into the makeshift hospital they’d set up and start to give orders. What was left of Sector 7 would survive--she would see to it. 

Chapter Text

Cloud woke slowly, his limbs stiff and heavy with the kind of grogginess that comes after a sleep spell wears off. He blinked. He was lying somewhere soft and warm, much more comfortable than the hard bed in his shack in Midgar. 

Midgar. 

Sector 7. 

The plate. 

He sat up with a gasp. The air was cool on his bare arms, slightly damp. The room around him was elegant and austere, modern furniture with sheer glass or black surfaces, gleaming in the twilight that fell through the floor to ceiling windows that made up one wall. Mercifully, they pointed away from Sector 7, looking out over an intact portion of Midgar. 

Cloud got up, his bare feet whispering on thick carpet as he walked into the next room. Sephiroth was leaning against the window, looking out over the scattered lights below, talking on his phone. But he ended the conversation as soon as he saw Cloud, quickly crossing the distance between them. “How are you?” he asked. 

“Leaving,” Cloud said, looking around for his boots. There, at the door. “How the hell did I get here, anyway?” 

“You were about to storm Shinra Tower all by yourself,” Sephiroth said. “I brought you here to cool down a little. Your people don’t need a warrior right now.”

Cloud clenched his fists, trembling with a hot, dizzying fury. “What would you know, you fuckin monster?”

“I have never pretended to be anything else,” Sephiroth said coolly. 

“Why don’t you do it?” Cloud said, shoving Sephiroth hard in the chest. It was like shoving a brick wall. “Why don’t you make me your puppet? I know that’s what you want--to see me on my knees.” 

He remembered what it was like when he gave in to Sephiroth’s desires, the sweet relief that had rushed over him each time he obeyed. The way the world disappeared and all that was left was Sephiroth, his want and his will, like fire and like iron. The anguish at the tragedy of Sector 7 weighed so heavily on Cloud that he actually wanted to disappear into the oblivion Sephiroth could bring him. 

“Don’t tempt me,” Sephiroth said, his voice as controlled as ever. But Cloud could see tension in the taut line of his posture, the tightness to his eyes. 

“Then do it,” Cloud said, heady with recklessness. “Because that’s the only way you’ll ever have me. That’s the only way I’d ever let you touch me.” 

“I want to,” Sephiroth said, his green eyes glowing in the rapidly falling darkness. The Demon of Wutai, his head held high, his hair falling in a straight cascade of silver down his back. “Believe me, Cloud. I want to.” 

“Do it!” Cloud shouted at him, his breath coming fast and hot, his heart racing. If he were Sephiroth’s puppet, he wouldn’t feel this heartbreak, this guilt, this shame. It would be as good as death, and easier. “Stop fucking with me and just do it.”

He thought that he had remembered the intensity of their connection, the way it washed over him until he felt like he was drowning. But his memory was a dim candle compared to the consuming glow of the actual experience. 

Do you hear me, Cloud? 

Like this, enthralled, every word of Sephiroth’s was as clear and loud as a struck bell, vibrating through him. Nothing mattered, not Sector 7, not his friends, not the part of him that had been missing for as long as he could remember. 

His shame and his guilt were gone, because Sephiroth did not believe him to be guilty or deserving of shame. His grief had faded into the background, because Sephiroth did not care about any of the people crushed by the falling Sector 7 plate. 

It would be so easy. It would be so easy to just let go

What do you want, Cloud?

With the connection flowing between them like an electric current, Cloud didn’t have to speak. He didn’t even have to come up with words. He just took the need he felt deep within himself and offered it up to Sephiroth like a prayer. 

Hurt me. Break me. Punish me for all the evil I’ve done. Make me your puppet so that I’ll never have to think about anything else, ever again. 

“Cloud.” It was barely more than an exhalation, soft and reverent, as though Sephiroth was just as enthralled as his puppet. “I might not let you go,” he said, his voice low and full of promise. “I might never let you go.” 

The words were meaningless to Cloud--all he could feel was the breathless thrumming of Sephiroth’s hope, his anticipation and his sudden joy. If something had made Sephiroth so happy, then Cloud wanted it too, again and again. 

“Anything,” Cloud said, tilting his face up towards Sephiroth like a flower to the sun. 

In an instant, Cloud was breathless, his back pressed against the cool glass of the window, Sephiroth’s lips on his. “Mine,” he whispered, like a man possessed. “I love you and you’ll always be--”

“Yours,” Cloud agreed. This moment was so hot and bright it eclipsed anything he had ever felt before. Everything that pleased Sephiroth--the brush of their tongues together, his hand pressed against Sephiroth’s chest, the way he yielded into Sephiroth’s embrace--made pleasure and happiness crash over Cloud, addictive and exhilarating.

“This is what you want?” Sephiroth asked him, lips trailing over the shell of his ear. 

Cloud shuddered in his embrace. Sephiroth wanted this desperately, and so he did too, and the thought of giving Sephiroth something he desired so intently brought with it a sort of ecstacy. “Please,” he whispered. 

But then Sephiroth pulled away, his sword appearing in his hand as he turned towards the door. Cloud felt despair overtake him like a storm as Sephiroth’s attention was taken from him. He wanted to beg Sephiroth to turn those snake’s eyes on him again, but he could sense that Sephiroth wanted him to be still and stay quiet, so he did. 

“Sephiroth? I knocked but you weren’t answering, and Genesis gave me the code, so I…” The woman froze in the doorway, her eyes on Cloud. 

Her long dark hair was flowing freely down her back, her black clothes stark against her creamy skin. Her knuckles were taped for fighting, the bandages bloody, unraveling at the edges. She looked like a dangerous brawler. She looked like a SOLDIER. She looked like…

A little girl, sitting on the merry-go-round by herself in the rain that had sent all the other kids shrieking indoors. Her dark braids so long they dragged on the metal where she was sitting. Cloud had watched her for a long time from inside the covered slide before he made his way across the wet sand to ask what her name was. 

“Tifa,” he whispered. 

Sephiroth must have felt the moment when his control broke, shattering like glass and leaving Cloud cut and bleeding in a thousand places, but he said nothing, stepping back to put even more distance between them. 

“Tifa,” Cloud said, staggering towards her. He fell to his knees, as sixteen years of memories rushed back into him at once, knocking the breath from his lungs. “Tifa!”

She ran to his side, kneeling beside him and pulling him into her arms. “Cloud,” she said. It was half a laugh and half a sob. “I’ve been looking for you for so long.” 

“I...I remember,” Cloud said, shaking. “I was in Shinra. I was in Wutai. I was fighting in the army. It rained all the time, and one day I…” He clutched at his chest, at the long-healed wound there. “Sephiroth…”

He looked up, wanting to see the expression on Sephiroth’s face, to read if there was any remorse at all on those fine, noble features. But all he saw was the long fall of silver hair as Sephiroth walked out the door, the gleam of the sword in his hand winking a goodbye. 

Chapter Text

“Geez, Seph.” Zack jumped back at the last minute to avoid being hit by flying chunks of Nibel dragon flesh. “Leave some for the rest of us.” 

Sephiroth looked away from the dragon he had been viciously slaughtering to give Zack an annoyed glance but did not deign to answer. He had taken off his black coat to fight, and a long spatter of dragon blood crossed his bare chest. Anyone else would have been utterly terrified, but Zack was more irritated than impressed. 

Sephiroth was all he had left, anyway. Tifa didn’t sneak away in the night like Genesis and Angeal had, but she was gone all the same. He’d had an epic fight with her before she turned in her resignation papers--he’d called her a traitor and a coward, and still felt bad for it. But hey--she left. How could she so easily forget her SOLDIER honor?

Zack sighed, sheathing his sword. “Did that dragon fuck your mom or something?” he asked, not bothering to keep the frustration out of his voice. Sephiroth had been in some kind of mood for this entire trip, and, good-natured though he tended to be, Zack was really fucking tired of it. 

Sephiroth flicked the Masamune just so, sending dragon blood and gross little chunks flying. He gave Zack a glance that would have made lesser men piss themselves. “Having never met my mother, I wouldn’t know.” 

Zack blinked at him. “Man, I can’t tell if that’s a joke or not.” 

With a turn of his wrist, Sephiroth let the Masamune dematerialize. It was a trick Zack had seen a hundred times before, but it never got old. Without a second glance at Zack, he walked towards the armored Shinra transport where the two cadets accompanying them on this journey would be waiting. 

Zack stepped into his path. “What is with you, Sephiroth?” 

Sephiroth’s eyes glowed a sinister, frigid green. “None of your business, Fair.” 

Zack had a lot of good qualities--he was friendly and clever and warmhearted. But he never did know when to let things go. So instead of stepping down like a smart guy might, he moved forward, defiantly meeting Sephiroth’s gaze. 

“On this mission, you’re making it my business,” he said. “And anyway, we’re friends. I care and all that shit.”

“I don’t have friends.” 

Zack rolled his eyes. He leaned forward and knocked on the door to the transport. “We’ll meet you there,” he said. 

The armored car lurched to life with an anemic wheeze of its engine--Shinra tech at its finest--and continued on its way. 

Zack grinned at Sephiroth. “Race you?” Nibelheim was only about seven miles away--a trivial distance for a SOLDIER to run. Hopefully the exercise would mellow Sephiroth a bit, and then maybe they could talk. 

He thought he saw something like a smile cross Sephiroth’s lips for a split second. There was nothing Sephiroth liked more than winning, after all, and he was faster than Zack--or any other SOLDIER--by a lot. 

“To get a break from your mindless chatter?” Sephiroth asked. “I’d run to the moon and back.” 

“Hey, man, that hurts,” Zack said, but Sephiroth was already sprinting off into the distance. Zack watched him go with a worried frown. Something wasn’t right. 

He stretched, and then started jogging in the direction Sephiroth had disappeared, wishing that he had Angeal to run by his side, like they used to do so often. Sephiroth wouldn’t understand the appeal of running with someone rather than against them, just for the pleasure of having them by your side. 

Zack had always thought of Angeal as his mentor, to be admired and revered. It wasn’t until Angeal left that he realized it was so much more than that. Angeal had been his other half, temperate and wise, and what he thought was an immature crush on the person who had raised him out of obscurity now felt more like true love. 

He reached into his pocket and ran his fingers over the folded paper inside. The eighty-ninth letter he had written to Angeal since his mentor left Shinra without a word of goodbye. He was going to send it tonight. After this one, he vowed, he wouldn’t send any more. 

#

Sephiroth stood by the window of the inn, looking out over the town of Nibelheim. It was a quaint, austere village, the buildings made of the same dark stone as the twisting mountain peaks around them. Blonde haired, blue eyed villagers greeted each other with little more than a nod as they went about their business in the town square. It was cold, the kind of biting cold that seeps into the bones, the wind a bitter slap against any exposed skin. 

It was a hard, unforgiving place, where people had to be grimly pragmatic, willful, and strong to survive. Not surprisingly, Cloud Strife had all of those qualities in abundance. 

Sephiroth closed his eyes for a moment, as that strange grief washed over him again. 

How is it that I mourn the loss of something I never had to begin with? 

Yet mourning he was, for the intensity of the connection that had existed between them, for those few, fleeting moments when it felt like Cloud really was his. But Cloud had broken free as though their connection meant nothing to him at all, and then…

The look of abject betrayal in his eyes, as he’d clutched the scar on his chest and said Sephiroth’s name. 

He remembers you. A woman’s voice, clear and chiming and beautiful, drifting softly towards him. Dear child. My Sephiroth. His little heart. Means nothing. My love. Is so much more. 

Sephiroth glanced up at the twisting mountain path that led to the reactor. Somehow, he knew the voice was coming from there. 

I will wait. For you. I have waited for you. For long, so long. 

The voice made him ache for something he couldn’t remember, a sensation of warmth and gentleness, like he imagined it might be to be cradled in a mother’s arms. He needed to get to it--to her. He raised his hand, about to break the glass of the window so he could fly up to the reactor where he knew she waited, her warm dark embrace open to him. All he had to do was--

“Hey.” Zack came bouncing up the stairs, as irrepressible as ever. Following him was a short, dark haired cadet who lowered his gaze shyly rather than look at Sephiroth. “See anything out there, Seph?” 

Sephiroth shook his head. He had the vague sensation he’d been about to do something, that he’d forgotten something vital. It lingered just at the edge of his awareness, then was gone. 

“Okay, well we’re gonna get some shut eye,” Zack said. “You should too.”

Sephiroth nodded, turning from the window and the cold, unforgiving mountain outside. 

#

The very first flakes of snow were drifting lazily downward, the evening as sharp and cold as glass, as Cloud approached the humble wooden house which stood just where he’d left it years ago without a glance backward. As a child he’d assumed it would always be here, and so would she. Now that he was an adult, he wasn’t so sure anything had that kind of permanence. 

She could have moved. She could be long gone already. 

He stood outside the door for a long time, staring into the lines worn into the sturdy oak by time and weather, trying to decide if he should knock or not. If it was safer to simply walk away. If it was better not to know how life had moved forward in his absence. 

He might have stood there all night, the clear sky darkening above him, but the curtains fluttered as though someone was peering at him, and a second later, the door opened. 

She was older than he remembered, her eyes care-lined and weary, her hair more gray than blonde. She stared at him with eyes the pale blue of the sky above the mountains for a long, searching moment. 

“Well,” she finally said, stepping aside. “You’d better come in before you catch your death out there.” 

Cloud brushed a hand absently against his wet cheek, bowed his head, and walked into his childhood home. 

His mother’s face betrayed little emotion, but the way she clutched him to her chest with trembling hands spoke of their long separation. “They said you were dead,” she told him when she finally released him. “But I never believed them. Never.” 

Cloud cleared his throat. “I, uh, I lost my memories. Or I woulda been home sooner. I promise.” 

“I know.” She kissed his forehead. “Cloud, honey, I know. You would never abandon family.” 

Cloud breathed out a heavy sigh of relief. She wasn’t angry for all the years he’d been missing, for all the years he had failed to take care of her. “I--” his voice broke slightly. “I missed you, Ma.” 

“I missed you, dear.” She pulled him into a warm embrace, and he leaned against her, feeling suddenly very weary, as though he’d been forcing himself to march forward for a very long time, and only in stopping did he realize the weight of his own burdens. 

#

Tifa stood in the living room, examining the photographs on the mantle, the framed picture of herself in a cowgirl outfit, standing with her father and a few cousins, her hands proudly on her hips. It was in a new frame now, the glass smooth and intact. The previous frame had shattered when her father threw it at her head when she was thirteen and trying to slip out in the late afternoon to go see Cloud. 

Her father’s new housekeeper, a thin, pale woman in a frayed apron, set a teapot and three cups on the coffee table and went back into the kitchen without a word, her feet making soft whispers on the thick carpet. 

“So you’re back.” Tifa’s father stood in the doorway, his mouth quirked into a slight smile. Chestnut hair hung over his forehead, his eyes the same dark, mysterious pools Tifa’s had been before she’d joined SOLDIER and they’d acquired their golden mako glow.  

She stood at attention, shoulders squared and hands clasped behind her back. She was wearing civilian clothes, and for a moment she wished for her uniform, for another layer of protection between herself and this man. 

Why am I back here? 

“Hello.” Aerith set the teacup down and rose from the sofa with her usual breathless grace. “My name is Aerith. It’s good to meet you.” 

Tifa’s father gave Aerith a nod and a smile. “Name’s Brian. Good to meetcha.” His eyes met Tifa’s. “It’s good to have you home, sweetheart.” 

He sounded like he really meant it. 

“They said you left SOLDIER,” he continued. “Said all sorts of shit in the news about you. But I know it ain’t true. I know my girl.” 

“I did leave SOLDIER, Papa.” 

“Ah, well.” He gave her a gentle smile, the kind she remembered from when she was very little, back before her mother died. “Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you never came back.” 

“I--” Tifa began, but her father held up a hand. 

“It’s okay. I been a shitty father, and if you’d never come back, well that’d be about what I deserve. I started drinking the day your Ma died, and I didn’t stop until it was too late. I gotta own that, now.” 

“Papa…” Tifa whispered, tears in her eyes. It was what she had always wanted to hear, and it was simultaneously too much and not enough. 

His smile was fond and sorrowful both. “You girls staying for dinner?” 

“Yes, please,” Aerith said, bright as ever. She took Tifa’s hand and squeezed, smiling softly. “We would love that.” 

“I’ll get something started,” Brian said. “You know I cook now, sweetheart? Miss Danva still thinks I’m gonna burn down the kitchen, but I do what I do. Go on and show Miss Aerith around. I’ll call you when it’s time” 

Chapter Text

Cloud sat with his mother on the worn blue couch that had been in their living room for as long as he could remember. She folded her legs beneath her, holding her teacup as daintily as a queen in hands that were chapped and dry from her work as a laundress and housekeeper. 

Cloud looked away, feeling a pang of guilt. He had left Nibelheim with such hopes and dreams--sure that he would become a SOLDIER and send so much money home that his mother would never work another day. Instead, he had only added to her burdens, again and again. 

“The goats got out again yesterday,” she was saying, the rise and fall of her voice soothing away his worries as she went over the mundane town news as though Cloud had only been gone for an afternoon. “They were all over the Lockharts’ yard. I thought Brian was about to have a fit when they munched on his roses. But you know, he’s different now.” 

Cloud nodded and sipped his tea, grateful to her for making it so easy to slip back into his old rhythm. No frantic questions about where he’d been, no dramatic sobbing or reproach. Just the same safety and comfort his mother had always brought him. He’d only been back for a day, but already he felt the ease of being at home. 

“I love you, Ma,” he said, interrupting her story. It had felt important, urgent, that he tell her immediately. She didn’t seem to mind. 

“Love you too, Chocobo,” she said, ruffling his hair. “Where are you living, these days?” 

“Midgar,” Cloud said. “But--I promise I’ll come visit, Ma. As often as I can.” 

“I know you will.” She put an arm around his shoulders. “And are you still alone? Have you found a nice older man or woman who can take care of you?” 

Cloud shrugged and spoke without thinking. “He would if I’d let him.” 

She laughed fondly, and the sound made Cloud smile. He wasn’t a funny person by any stretch of the imagination, but his mother always laughed at his jokes, and he always filed away the sound of her mirth like a treasure to be opened later. 

“That sounds just like you,” she said.

“He’s with Shinra,” Cloud continued. “And he’s...not a good person. Pretty much the opposite, actually.”

She put her hand over Cloud’s, the plain gold band glinting on her finger. Cloud’s father had been dead for almost his entire life, but she’d never taken off her wedding ring. 

“That doesn’t change how you feel, does it?” she asked. 

“I don’t know how I feel,” Cloud muttered. 

“Yes you do. You just don’t want to admit it.” She kissed him on the cheek and got up. “Let me fix you some dinner.” 

“Ma, you don’t have to,” Cloud said, getting up to help her in the kitchen. As he chopped vegetables to the sound of her cheerful humming, he let his mind wander back to the moment Sephiroth had him in his thrall. 

Although he was the one compelled to act, the connection went both ways, so that he could feel what Sephiroth felt, desire what Sephiroth desired. 

You’re mine. I love you and you’ll always be…

Sephiroth had meant every word. Cloud didn’t know what to make of that. Anyone could be a puppet, and there were certainly easier, more attractive choices than Cloud. And puppets were meant to be played with, not loved.

He hated how confusing Sephiroth had made all of this, how he had to now add the memories he had of being a cadet, the awe and loyalty Sephiroth had inspired right up until the end. The pain of the razor sharp sword entering his heart and the shock of finding that everything he believed in was simply a shining cover for something dark and ugly. 

And yet…

“I miss him, I guess,” Cloud said, into the companionable silence. “Don’t think I’m gonna see him again.” 

His mother made a thoughtful humming noise, stirring the soup a few more times before turning to him, mixing spoon in hand. “I can’t tell you which way is up, honey,” she said, smiling ruefully. “Your father wasn’t perfect, but I miss him every single day.” 

“I know,” Cloud murmured, bowing his head. He wasn’t sure how to feel about his father--it sometimes seemed his grief was insufficient, but it was hard to mourn someone he couldn’t remember. 

“You’re like him, though,” she said fondly. “So stubborn. And this hair.” She tugged gently on one of Cloud’s blonde spikes before turning back to the soup. “But this man is older? And does he have money? Will he take care of you?” 

“I don’t need his money, Ma.” Cloud laughed. He realized that despite everything else, he couldn’t remember feeling this happy. Before he got his memories back, when he was wandering Midgar, he had completely forgotten what it was to have a home, to have a family. 

He wondered what it was like for Sephiroth, who had never had either. 

“But he does have money. And you smile when you talk about him--when you think I’m not looking.” She poked Cloud in the shoulder. “I want you to bring him to dinner soon.” 

“I don’t even know if I want to see him, Ma.”

She gave Cloud a look that made him think she could see right through him. He wished she’d tell him what she saw.

He crossed his arms, scowling and feeling exactly like a surly teenager. “I don’t think he deserves a second chance.” 

She smiled gently at him. “But you want to give him one, don’t you?”

Cloud wondered how she always knew his heart, even before he did. 

#

“The guide said he’ll be ready to take us up the mountain tomorrow,” Zack said, leaning in the doorway of Sephiroth’s room at the inn. Sephiroth was at the table, eating a stew that could be charitably described as “awful.” 

“Then let’s leave as early as possible.” Sephiroth was tired of Nibelheim--everything here reminded him of Cloud. “How long will it take us to get there?”

“It’s not far, but it’s a steep climb. A few monsters on the way, nothing we can’t handle.” 

“Very well.” Sephiroth set his spoon down with a sigh, giving up on the terrible local cuisine. “Make sure the cadets are ready. Eight a.m. sharp.” 

“Sure.” Zack hesitated, then entered the room and shut the door. He grabbed the chair facing Sephiroth and turned it so he was seated in it backwards, resting his arms on the chair’s back. “You and me gotta have a talk.” 

Sephiroth regarded him warily. “A talk?” 

“You made Private Erin cry yesterday, you know that?” Zack asked, a sudden edge to his voice. “Sephiroth, all he did was--”

“Fall asleep at his post. It’s unacceptable behavior, even for a new recruit.” 

“Yeah. Because Private Losse cast a sleep spell on him as a prank.” 

Sephiroth glanced at Zack, surprised. He hadn’t been aware of that. 

“Don’t you think it’s weird you didn’t even notice what’s going on with them?” Zack asked. “Ever since we got to Nibelheim you’ve been completely distracted. If Genesis shows up or something, we’re all fucked.” 

This was...disquieting, to say the least. “Genesis wouldn’t hurt me.” 

“Yeah maybe not, but he’d set the rest of us on fire. And my point still stands.” Zack thumped the table. “Get your shit together, Sephiroth.” 

Sephiroth nodded. The criticism was valid, and he had felt out of sorts lately. Distracted, like there was something tugging at the very edges of his awareness, something forgotten, as though from a dream. 

“Thank you, Zack,” he said. “I’ll do better.” 

#

Sephiroth woke in the darkest part of the morning to the sound of singing. A woman’s voice, haunting and unearthly, but instead of a love song or a dirge, it was a lullaby. Like she was singing to her child. 

Like she was singing to him. 

Around him the world seemed unreal, cocooned in silence. Even though the town ran on the power generated by the reactor, the people were reserved in their usage, and as he walked silently to the window, he could see only a few scattered lights. They were as tiny as fireflies, nearly swallowed by darkness. 

He walked out of the inn, the singing wrapped around him like the wind, pulling at his hair and clothes. It felt like a dream, the warmth that filled him at the thought of her in her dark home deep within the reactor. 

Mother. 

She would be beautiful and terrible, powerful like no mortal woman he had ever known. Her melody was a swift and deadly current, pulling him to the dark depths where he would no longer need to breathe. 

#

Cloud sighed, lugging the heavy box of explosives up the hill towards the innocuous looking shed at the edge of town. Barret had plans for the Nibelheim Reactor, and Cloud, stupidly, had volunteered as the hired muscle again. Except this time it was literally his muscles that were in demand. With his mako-enhanced strength, he could move their payload more quickly and quietly than anyone else. 

He’d rather just move them directly to the reactor and light the fuse, but blowing up a reactor even that far away from a town was a complicated process if you wanted to both avoid casualties and create a big enough mess Shinra wouldn’t be able to get back into the lifestream. Barret’s orders were to stock the explosives and then wait until Sephiroth was back in Midgar before proceeding. Cloud, though annoyed, had to admit the wisdom of the plan. And it gave him time to spend with his mother, reveling in the feeling of belonging and security that came with his childhood home and the woman who had never stopped loving him. 

He set the box of explosives gingerly on the pile, then covered it with a tarp and locked the shed door. He, Tifa, and Aerith would take turns keeping an eye on the path out here over the next few days. 

Brushing the dust off his hands, he hurried back to the main road, but stopped short when he saw someone was walking down it. He ducked into some nearby shrubs and watched, ignoring the way the brambles tore at his exposed arms. 

It was Sephiroth, walking slowly down the mountain road with his chin raised, looking up at the dark silhouette of the reactor in the distance. His hair streamed freely behind him, caught in the eddies of the wind. He was wearing only loose black pants and a dark gray T-shirt, and...was he barefoot? 

Cloud stepped out into the moonlight, rustling the shrubbery, but Sephiroth didn’t even glance at him. With the pale light on his face and the shadows accentuating the height of his cheekbones, the elegant severity of his jaw, he looked like a king or a deity, stepping slowly towards his birthright. 

And yet, something was off. Cloud could feel it, something eerie in the air. 

“Sephiroth.” Cloud called out to him, hurrying to his side. “What are you doing?” 

Sephiroth blinked at him. His pupils, which had been huge and round like a cat’s, quickly contracted to their usual slits. He ran a hand through his windblown hair, pulling it back from his face. “Cloud,” he said, softly. “I...didn’t know you’d be here.” 

Cloud crossed his arms. “You should go back to bed.” 

“I saw you with your mother, earlier,” Sephiroth said. “The two of you were in the market. You said something and she laughed. And then she ruffled your hair and kissed you on the cheek.” 

“Are you spying on me?” Cloud asked, narrowing his eyes. 

“It made me wonder what my mother would be like,” Sephiroth continued. He wasn’t looking at Cloud, now, but at the dark reactor, looming at the top of the mountain. “She wouldn’t be anything like your mother. But she would love me, in her monstrous way.” 

Cloud blinked at him, baffled. “Uh, what?”

Sephiroth brushed past him and kept walking, his eyes still cast towards the mountain. 

“Hey.” Cloud grabbed Sephiroth’s wrist and jerked. In a breathless instant, his feet left the ground and the air was shoved out of his chest as Sephiroth slammed him into a nearby boulder.

And then Sephiroth let him go, his eyes wide. He looked down at his own hands, stunned like he couldn’t quite believe what they’ve done. “Cloud,” he said, softly. “You startled me--I didn’t...I didn’t know you were here.” 

Huh. Maybe he really had been sleepwalking. Whatever it was, he definitely wasn’t in his right mind. 

“I’m fine.” He’d been more surprised than injured by Sephiroth’s attack. “But you’re acting kind of weird. C’mon.” He took Sephiroth’s hand and led him down a back alley, past the hidden pile of explosives, to his home. 

“My Ma is sleeping,” he said softly. “So be quiet.” 

Sephiroth nodded and sat obediently on the worn blue sofa while Cloud went to the kitchen and pulled out two mugs for tea. When he turned, Sephiroth was standing beside him, close enough to touch. His mouth was set in a grim line, his eyes intent on Cloud’s face. 

“After the plate fell…” he began. “It was not my intention to take advantage of you, Cloud. I...very much regret what happened between us.” 

Cloud set his jaw. He was not going to be moved by what felt like a touching, sincere apology. He was not.  

“And what about this?” He unbuttoned the top of his flannel shirt to reveal the fine-lined scar etched onto his chest. “Are you sorry for this?” 

Sephiroth brushed his fingers over the scar, and Cloud felt the light touch of his skin like an electric shock. 

“You’re so strong,” Sephiroth said. Cloud felt his breath come fast and shallow, his pulse accelerating beneath Sephiroth’s hand. “To think that I couldn’t stop this heart from beating, even if I tried.” 

“So you’re not sorry,” Cloud tried not to be affected by Sephiroth’s voice, low and deep and almost reverent as he ran his thumb over the length of the scar. 

Why do I want him so much, even now that I remember what he is? 

Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed. “We were at war. I did not conquer Wutai by showing mercy.” 

Cloud scowled, turning away. “That’s what I thought.” 

Sephiroth grabbed him roughly by the chin, tilting his head upward, and kissed him. Cloud was so surprised by this that he didn’t realize he was kissing Sephiroth back until his hands were already plunged into Sephiroth’s silver mane, tugging on the soft strands to pull him closer. 

“I am a monster, Cloud,” Sephiroth said, pulling away. “I cannot change my nature. If you don’t like it, then perhaps don’t bring me home with you.” 

“Don’t fuckin talk so much,” Cloud muttered, pulling Sephiroth down for another kiss. 

It was easy to get lost in it, the wet of Sephiroth’s mouth, the hand that slid under Cloud’s shirt to roam across his chest. It was an entirely different experience than the last kiss they’d shared, while Cloud had been under Sephiroth’s compulsion. Then, everything moved honey-slow, each sensation bursting with an overwhelming sweetness. Now, it was sharper, with a darker edge to it, a hint of danger in the possessive way Sephiroth’s hands tightened on Cloud’s hips, the scrape of teeth when his mouth moved to Cloud’s throat. 

That edge of danger, Cloud realized, was just as intoxicating. Sephiroth was one of the few people on the Planet strong enough to hurt him, and yet Cloud felt completely safe in his arms. It was easy to forget that the cold edge of the Masamune wasn’t the only way Sephiroth could devastate him. 

He forced himself to pull away, putting his hand on Sephiroth’s chest and gently pushing him back until he could think clearly. 

“Cloud…” Sephiroth said. His desire was clearly telegraphed in the hungry way he watched Cloud’s every move, his pupils so dilated they were almost round. 

Cloud opened his mouth, fully intending to remind Sephiroth (and himself) what a bad idea this was. He wasn’t under Sephiroth’s compulsion--he wasn’t a puppet--but he still felt enthralled just by Sephiroth’s proximity. 

Sephiroth, despite the tension in his posture, seemed willing to wait while Cloud sorted it out in his head. 

“Not out here,” Cloud finally said. Fuck it. Why not? He took Sephiroth by the hand and led him to his childhood bedroom, flicking on the lights and locking the door behind them. 

Sephiroth looked around with slight amazement, though the room, in Cloud’s opinion, was pretty unremarkable. There were a few toys from his childhood that he’d never been willing to part with, a small sword that he grew up training with, and pictures of him and his Ma or him and Tifa hanging in brightly painted wooden frames on the wall. And--most embarrassing of all--a poster of Sephiroth, posed in his military leathers, his hair blowing in the breeze, the Masamune gleaming in his hand. 

At the bottom, in bright silver letters, it read: Shinra needs you, SOLDIER! 

“This is me,” Sephiroth said, tracing the edge of the poster where it had started to curl away from the wall. “Is this why you joined Shinra?” 

“Not really,” Cloud said, clearing his throat. “I did it because the only thing I was ever good at was swinging a sword, and when I was sixteen, I wanted to get the hell out of this town.” 

Sephiroth studied him. “Why put this on the wall, then?” 

“You’re hot. I was lonely.” Cloud shrugged one shoulder, face flushing. He would really rather get back to kissing then continue this conversation. “Can we forget about what a dumb kid I was? I want you to fuck me.”

That did the trick--Sephiroth turned back to him, his eyes glowing with predatory promise. “Yes,” he said, softly, pushing Cloud down on the bed where he’d once lain awake fantasizing about Sephiroth. Now it was real, and it was somehow both better and worse than he’d imagined. Better because Sephiroth’s gaze was on him, laser focused like Cloud was the only thing in the world that mattered. Worse because even like this, legs spread, Sephiroth’s silver hair falling like a curtain around them, he could only allow himself to be so vulnerable. Sephiroth wasn’t someone he could trust, as much as he longed to. The Masamune was not the only way Sephiroth could devastate him. 

He would never admit it to himself, but he missed their connection, the vital thrumming bridge between their minds. It came with a startling intimacy he knew he would probably never have again, with anyone. He didn’t have to wonder how Sephiroth felt about him; when they were linked together like that, he knew.

But this was good too--its own kind of ecstacy. Sephiroth moving inside him, green snake’s eyes never leaving his face, drinking in every sign of pleasure or want. At the end, when Sephiroth trembled in his arms, his body going still and stiff, he said Cloud’s name like a plea, like a prayer. 

And Cloud realized he might be under an entirely different kind of spell. 

#

Sephiroth woke with the dawn, the barest hint of light creeping around the curtains in Cloud’s window. He was on the floor, on a thick rug with a blanket thrown over him and Cloud curled against his side. Cloud’s narrow twin bed was too small for them both to sleep in, so when Cloud asked him to stay, he’d insisted on taking the floor. A little while later, Cloud had joined him, and spent the rest of the night tangling his limbs with Sephiroth’s. He shifted often enough that Sephiroth--a very light sleeper--had mostly stayed awake, but he didn’t mind. He wasn’t sure if he would ever be given this privilege again, and he didn’t want to miss a moment of it. 

But now it was morning, and he should probably sneak back to the inn before anyone was made aware of his absence. He’d told Zack to be ready at eight, and he wasn’t about to be late himself. 

He slowly untangled their limbs, despite Cloud’s sleepy protest. 

“I love you,” he whispered, kissing Cloud on the forehead. There was no reason to deny it--Cloud knew, had felt the truth of it when their minds touched. 

“Nnn...Sephiroth...best dream,” Cloud murmured, snuggling back into his pillow. Sephiroth pulled the blanket over him and slipped out of the room as quietly as he could. If he was careful, he could probably make it back to his room at the inn without anyone seeing him like this, barefoot and in pajamas, his hair a tangled mess. 

“Good morning.” 

He froze in place as though he’d been caught doing something illicit. A blonde woman was standing by the stove, a frayed apron tied over her dress. She waved a wooden spoon at him, eyebrows raised expectantly. 

“Good morning,” he managed. She must be Cloud’s mother, he realized. The familial resemblance was striking. 

“Well I’ll be darned,” she said, looking him over. “Cloud never said his older man was General Sephiroth.”

He studied her, trying to read her expression for signs of anger or mistrust. He wasn’t sure what to say--he’d never been confronted with the mother of a lover before. In fact, he had very little experience with mothers in general. 

“You’re not sneaking out, are you?” she asked, hands on her hips. 

Sephiroth shook his head. “I have a mission early this morning. But if Cloud allows it, I’ll be back. As often as he lets me.” 

Her expression softened. “You come for dinner before you leave Nibelheim, you hear me?” 

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “It was a pleasure to meet you.” 

As he stood in the doorway, the chill morning air greeting him, he had the strangest sensation, like something was pulling him away. Something that could catch him in its current and sweep him somewhere he’d never return from. 

“Ms. Strife,” he said. She turned toward him, eyebrows raised. “Please tell Cloud…” 

He hesitated. It was hard to be so vulnerable, especially when speaking to a stranger. But it also seemed vitally important. 

“Please tell Cloud I love him. And that...I am sorry. For everything.” 

She nodded solemnly. “I will. You be careful out there, Sephiroth.”

Chapter Text

She can sense them all, these odd boys who bear her genetic mark like a stain upon their souls. How strange to have waited so long and now here they are, her brood gathering in these cold mountains for a family reunion. 

Two of them come to her immediately, intertwined like siblings from birth, their destinies a tangled web. Yet they could not be more different--one the tempestuous surface of the sea and the other the peaceful depths below. They complement and compete; they bicker outside the door to her chamber. 

“I don’t like this, Genesis. Something’s really wrong here; I can sense it.” 

“Angeal. If you don’t like it, you can go. All that awaits you is a somber morrow, after all.” 

A long, world-weary sigh. “Look, I...Fine. You talk to Sephiroth--he’s more likely to listen to you anyway.”

The calm one leaves, the storm remains outside her door. It matters not. They matter not. They are imperfect creations, already decaying. She cares nothing for their suffering or their petty desires. 

And then he comes to the metal door. 

Her son. 

Her love. 

He is strong of body and sound of mind, the equal of a thousand humans--these insects who scurry like ants on the face of the Planet. But there must be something to their species, a tenacity, a capricity, because they created him. 

Sephiroth. 

A sound like a steel blade cutting the still air, like the revenant whispers of the dead. In her language it means “fire.” It was a suggestion she slipped into the mind of the man who made her son, when he had her body open on the dissecting table and took from her what he needed. 

My son. 

My fire.

She sings to him, all the lullabies she never got the chance to croon. She sings of his strength, of his future. Of her pride and their shared power. 

Come to me, my son. Come. 

“Could it be that I...was made the same way?” 

His voice outside her door. Not like the buzzing insect tones of all the humans who brought her to this place. Rich and resonant, as befits a god. The man with him speaks, but she cares little for what he has to say. Zack Fair is nothing at all to her, not even an inconvenience.

The tempest speaks again, his rhapsody cold and condemning. He tells Sephiroth of their shared origins, their monstrosity. And then he extends his hand, and though she can feel how it tears at him to do so, he asks for Sephiroth’s help. 

“Your desire is the gift of the goddess.” 

She feels Sephiroth--her true son, her only beloved--reach out. She sings to him from beyond the metal door, bringing the air alive with a melody only they can hear. It thrums from her twisted heart to his own, and instead of offering aid and kindness, he turns from his kindred in scorn. 

“You will rot.” 

Good. Good. My son my heart my love. Take me to see the sky, before we set it to flame. 

“Am I...a monster? I always knew mine was a special existence. But this is not what I meant!” 

Do not despair, my fire child. What they call monstrous is beyond their comprehension. My son, my love, you will become a god as they have never seen before. 

Come to me, and I will open the way. 

He hears her--she knows he hears her--and yet he turns away. And she cannot even be angry, because it is more evidence of his formidable strength. To hear her siren song and yet refuse to yield. 

She knows he will return. 

She has waited two thousand years. What is a few more days? Once this world is burned to ash, they will have eternity together.

#

“Cloud.” Sephiroth looked up from the book he was holding in his hands and smiled. There was something eerie about it--it came more readily to his lips than his usual restrained expressions, manic at the edges. 

“Hey.” Cloud glanced warily around the library. It was hidden deep in the basement, like someone had something they wanted to lock away. Books were scattered haphazardly across the large table, stacked in corners, lying open on the floor. Sephiroth looked like he hadn’t slept in days, his hair falling into his face, the fine strands of silver carelessly tangled. 

“I was hoping that you would come.” Sephiroth closed the book. “I want to tell you what I found.” 

“Uh, sure,” Cloud said. He set the Buster Sword against the wall, beside a towering stack of journals. Some strange instinct screamed at him not to part with his weapon, not here, but he ignored it. He had nothing to fear from Sephiroth. 

“Thousands of years ago, this planet belonged to a race called the Cetra,” Sephiroth began. He told Cloud the story of how the Cetra--the Ancients--had once ruled the planet, but had been driven to extinction by the carelessness and cruelty of humans. There was something else tangled up with it, this idea of a Promised Land that seemed strange and far fetched. Sephiroth seemed a great deal more animated than a history lesson really seemed to warrant, but Cloud nodded along warily. 

“So what?” Cloud asked, when the story was finished. “Seems like ancient history to me.” 

Sephiroth’s eyes flashed with momentary rage, but it faded so quickly Cloud wasn’t sure if he’d actually seen anything at all. 

“It matters because I am an Ancient,” Sephiroth said. “My mother was one, and so am I.” 

“Oh,” Cloud said, softly. He knew how much Sephiroth wanted a sense of belonging, to have a mother and a place to call his own on the Planet. He understood, having lost his own compass for so long. 

“Cloud.” Sephiroth crossed the distance between them with breathtaking speed, dropping the book carelessly so he could pin Cloud to the wall with one hand, the other gently caressing Cloud’s cheek. “I have an idea. Let’s go to the Promised Land, just you and me.”

Cloud hesitated. There was something wrong, an unhealthy brightness to Sephiroth’s eyes, the unhinged tilt of his smile. 

“You don’t need these filthy people, this filthy world,” Sephiroth said, pressing a kiss to Cloud’s temple. “We’ll cleanse it with fire, and find the Promised Land together. Just you and me, and Mother.”

“I...uh, thought your mom was dead,” Cloud said uneasily. Something was very, very wrong here. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea. I think we should get out of here.” 

Sephiroth knelt before him, looking up at Cloud through long tangled strands of hair. “Mother wants to meet you,” he said, taking Cloud’s hands in his own. An eerie smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You are the only thing in this world that is worth saving. Come to the Promised Land with us, Cloud.” 

“I don’t even understand what that is,” Cloud said, his voice harsher than he intended. 

In that moment, it was hard to remember why he had ever thought of Sephiroth as cold or distant. Now, his eyes blazed like green wildfire, the pupils contracted to tiny slits even in the dark of the basement. He got to his feet, placing his left hand gently on Cloud’s neck, his skin hot as though he was burning up from the inside. 

“Hush, puppet,” he said, brushing his lips against the curve of Cloud’s ear, and Cloud felt his body go cold as ice. “You’ll find out soon enough.” 

“If you make me your puppet again you better never let me go,” Cloud snarled, shoving Sephiroth backwards. “Or one of us is gonna die.” 

Sephiroth chuckled, low and full of dark promise. “Mother is going to love you.” He kissed Cloud, rough and passionate, and when Cloud bit down hard on his lip, he pulled away laughing with blood on his teeth. 

“Leave me alone,” Cloud said, and for the first time in a very long time he felt real fear--not at the prospect of death, but at the other type of oblivion Sephiroth could bring him.

Sephiroth grabbed his wrists and dragged him through the dark hallway into the next room, the one full of coffins, a set of sturdy restraints hanging from one wall. 

Cloud fought and cursed and spat at Sephiroth, but his strength was no match for his captor’s. 

Sephiroth chained him to the wall, grinning madly. “These restraints held me when I was a child here. I think you’ll be safe, puppet.” He left the key just out of Cloud’s reach, sitting on a decrepit wooden table. “Even if you get free, there’s nowhere you can go where I won’t find you. I’ll be back soon with Mother, and we can go to the Promised Land.” 

When Sephiroth disappeared through the doorway, Cloud sagged in his chains, feeling utterly defeated. He stared down the dirty ground, trying to calm down. 

What the hell? 

He drew in a shuddering breath, than another, and finally his heart stopped beating so frantically, and his mood fell from panic to despair. Who could stand up to Sephiroth? Who could stop him? 

If not me, then who? 

The lid to the coffin furthest from the door rattled, and Cloud jerked away from it, pressing his back against the wall. After a moment, it was pushed aside, and a dark, shadowy figure emerged from within. 

Cloud breathed a sigh of relief so powerful it almost felt like a sob. “Vincent.” 

“I thought I heard you.” Vincent stood up and hurried over to free Cloud from the restraints. “What happened?”

“Thank you,” Cloud said, rubbing his wrists. “I’ll explain later, but I have to go.” 

“Wait, Cloud--” Vincent called after him, but Cloud was already running back to the library to grab his sword, and then up the long spiraling flights of stairs. 

He dashed through the mansion and burst out into the night, coughing at the acrid smell of smoke that filled the air. The night was lit with orange and yellow, the flickering of flames that were rapidly consuming Nibelheim. 

“Ma!” He ran through the streets, heedless of the smoke stinging his eyes and burning his lungs. His home was still mostly intact, but debris from the roof had collapsed, blocking the front door. 

He jumped through the window, breaking it with his shoulder and rolling as he landed to put out the flames biting at his shirt. His mother burst out of the closet, soot smudged on her face and hands, clutching a photo album to her chest. 

Cloud picked her up, unaware of the tears running down his face, making sparkling trails through the ash. He kicked open the door to the garden and carried them through the rows of plants dying in the sudden heat out into the town square, where the other survivors had congregated. He set her on a bench and immediately Aerith was there, casting something on him that let him breathe freely again before turning her attentions to his mother. 

He looked around wildly, wondering what the hell just happened. 

A figure stepped out of the shadows, his long black coat flaring around him. Cloud was standing in a large group of people, but he knew that Sephiroth’s glowing eyes saw only him, and that when Sephiroth mouthed I love you, it was meant for him alone. 

And then Sephiroth turned and walked away through the flames, the dancing light reflected in the sinister length of the Masamune by his side. 

A scream drew his attention back to the town. Tifa was kneeling in the middle of the street over a body that was not burned or covered in soot, but rather drenched in blood. “Papa,” she said, her fingers twisted in his shirt, dark and slick with his blood. “Papa. Papa. Papa!” 

#

Angeal ran up the path to the reactor and wrenched open the door. He had awakened to smoke, which had drifted all the way to the hidden cave where he and Genesis had been staying while they tried to work out the mystery of Jenova.

The other bedroll had been empty except for a note from Genesis. Cryptic as ever, it contained only two lines from Loveless. But Angeal didn’t need a degree in classic literature to know that Genesis meant to confront Sephiroth again. 

As he’d flown over the town, he’d seen the sudden leaping flames, and his heart had seized in his chest. Something was wrong, very wrong. 

Inside the dark of the reactor, Angeal skidded to a sudden stop, drawing in a shocked breath. A body lay sprawled before him, a familiar red coat in a pool of fresh, dark blood. A few feet away, the blue glow of the reactor’s LED lighting glinted madly off the silver of a dangling earring. Genesis’s head had been cleanly severed, his bloodstained hair obscuring his eyes, his mouth half open in shock.

“Angeal?” The hoarse whisper came from the shadows beneath the monstrous pods. 

Angeal crossed the room and was on the ground in an instant, leaning over Zack, who lay limply on the reactor floor. 

“Glad you’re here,” he said. His voice was strained, the lines of his face tight with pain. “Thought I’d die before I…”

“Shh,” Angeal whispered, frantically pulling off his shirt. He balled up the dark fabric and held it firmly against the wound in Zack’s chest, trying desperately to stop the fresh blood that pulsed out with every heartbeat. “Save your strength.”

“Nah.” Zack smiled, showing bloody teeth. Even now, even amidst the dead and the dying, his goodness shone like a beacon. “I gotta tell you, Angeal.”

“Zack…” Tears ran down Angeal’s face, over the bloodstained fingers caressing his cheek. 

“I love you,” Zack said. He coughed, closed his eyes, and opened them again, bright and beautiful as ever. “Not like a mentor. Like...like everything.”

Angeal bit back a sob. 

“I was scared,” Zack said. “Scared I wasn’t gonna get to tell you. Now it’s okay. Now you’re here, and I’m not afraid anymore.”

“I love you,” Angeal whispered, leaning forward to gently press his forehead against Zack’s. If he hadn’t been cradling his dearest love so closely, he might have missed Zack’s final words.

“Would you say I...became a hero?”

Angeal might have crouched there in the dark, Zack’s head on his lap, and mourned for hours or days or years. But a voice from further within the reactor startled him back into awareness. 

“Mother. Everything is ready, just as you said it should be.” 

Sephiroth!

Angeal got up and ran deeper into the reactor’s core, past the solid metal door that had once locked Jenova away but had since been torn aside by a beast stronger than any mortal man should have the right to be. And there, standing before a suspended tank, was Sephrioth. Blood dripped off the blade of the Masamune as he spoke to the creature in the tank with a kind of eerie reverence. 

“Just you and me and Cloud, Mother,” Sephiroth said. “The rest of them can burn. Like you always wanted.” 

“Did you do this?” Angeal staggered up the curved surface leading to the tank. “Sephiroth! Did you do this?” 

“There’s another one of them,” Sephiroth said, sounding annoyed. “Don’t worry, Mother. I’ll take care of it.” 

Angeal raised his broadsword and lunged. 

He had fought Sephiroth many times. Usually with Genesis, but sometimes just the two of them. And Sephiroth’s strength had always been extraordinary, but tempered by grace and his characteristic restraint. Sephiroth had always fought the way that Genesis wrote, beauty and fire and an economy of words or motion that rendered everything in crystal clarity. 

This was different. It felt like Sephiroth wasn’t even really paying attention to him, that while the Masamune traveled its deadly arc just short of the curve of Angeal’s neck, Sephiroth was dreaming of something else. 

Angeal fought with everything he had, but as the Masamune sliced a bright line of pain across his face and his body was thrown hard against one of the steel pods, all he could think was that he had failed Zack. 

The last thing he saw before the world went dark was the impossible gleam of a sword that used to be his.  

#

“Are you ready, Mother?” Sephiroth asked. He pressed his fingers against the cool blue surface of her tank. What barbarians they were, to treat her so. 

My son my love my life. I want to see the fires. Take me to see them burn. 

He struck the tank hard with the hilt of the Masamune, the glass shattering and falling to the reactor floor a hundred feet below in a glittering rain. The viscous blue fluid surrounding Jenova washed over them both. 

“Mother,” Sephiroth said. He was overcome by a longing so powerful it left him breathless. “I...Here I am.” 

Here you are. Everything. Everything I have carried these many thousand years is in you. Everything. 

He put a hand gently on her cheek. “I missed you. I--”

Pain lanced through him, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. A sharp line across his back, wicked bright with agony. 

He turned, grasping the Masamune tightly. 

“You...bastard…” Cloud was standing before him, his body one hard, lean line of tension, ash smudged on his face and in his hair. 

“Puppet. How could you?” The betrayal hurt worse than the severed skin and muscle of his back. The physical damage would heal. But this broken ache in his chest might not. 

Cloud hefted the Buster Sword, and that was answer enough. Sephiroth knocked the blade out of his traitorous, disrespectful hands with a single strike. It fell over the side of the railing and clattered on the floor of the reactor below. 

No matter. Sephiroth would forge him another, when he finally learned his place. 

With the point of the Masamune pressed just gently to Cloud’s chest, not yet breaking the skin, Sephiroth reached out with his mind. With Jenova’s power added to his own, Cloud would never break free, never. 

A gift of love, my son my heart. This one for you, to keep when all the rest is ash. 

Cloud’s eyes went wide the moment their minds touched. But it wasn’t fear. It wasn’t fear at all, but rather that unbreakable line of fine steel within him that Sephiroth loved and loved and hated. 

And instead of falling to his knees, he simply stepped forward, again and again, until the steel of the Masamune had impaled his chest all the way through. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but only blood fell from his lips. 

“No,” Sephiroth whispered, his eyes wide with terror. “Cloud--” 

Let him go. He is nothing nothing NOTHING

Sephiroth dropped the hilt of the Masamune and crossed the distance between them, pressing his hands to the sides of Cloud’s face. “Please. Please, Cloud…” 

He is a puppet. There will be others. A world full of your puppets and why this broken one? 

“Sephiroth,” Cloud rasped, one hand clutching the side of Sephiroth’s coat. “You tried to kill my mom. I’m going to--kill--” 

Pain blossomed on the left side of Sephiroth’s chest, sharp and searing. He looked down to see the hilt of the knife Cloud sometimes carried with him, blood running down his bare skin and over the black straps of his uniform. 

Somewhere distant he could hear Jenova shrieking, sobbing, singing a dirge as Cloud’s hands landed hard on his chest, shoving him backwards. And then he was falling, falling, into the bright hot base of the reactor where the mako glow made it impossible to see the death that awaited him below. 

Chapter Text



-Everything Changes-

Part II






Claudia Strife set a bowl of stew in front of Cloud, and he gave her a slight nod in acknowledgement. She sat down at the table with him for another quiet supper with her terse, troubled son. 

In the five years since the Great Fire, Nibelheim had rebuilt itself, the residents banding together to bring life back to their home. Claudia had a much nicer house now, insulated and well made, easy to keep warm even without the ready supply of mako that Nibelheim had relied on for so long. Cloud had paid for most of it, and she’d never asked where the money came from. 

Cloud didn’t come to visit often, which was perhaps best for both of them. He was different now, cocky and arrogant with the rest of the world, and quiet and reticent when they were alone. Where he had once spoken of the fate of the Planet, he now seemed to believe in nothing but the strength of his sword arm, and cared little for the future. 

She remembered that he’d saved her from the fire and carried her to the town square. She had been half-blinded by smoke, coughing and choking, and when she could catch her breath again, he was already gone, running off towards the dark silhouette of the mountain. 

He never told her where he had gone or what had happened there. But her Cloud died that night, somewhere on that mountain, and while she tried to love the hardened man who came back in his place, she knew it would never really be the same. 

In the late evening, well after dark, he emerged from his room with his jigsaw-puzzle sword strapped to his back. The lone black feather that dangled from the hilt--too large for any bird she knew of--cast eerie shadows as he walked to the door. 

“Will you be back tonight?” she asked, when his hand was on the doorknob. 

“Probably,” he said. “Late. Don’t wait up.” 

“Cloud,” she said, and he turned to her again. “I love you.” 

His eyes flickered away, glowing blue in the dim light. “Yeah. You too, Ma.” 

She let out a long sigh as the door closed behind him, and then got up to make some tea. She wouldn’t sleep until he returned. 

#

Cloud stood before the twisted steel and shattered concrete--all that was left of the Nibelheim Reactor. He’d blown it all to hell the day after the Great Fire, Barret’s words of caution be damned. He’d nearly blown himself to pieces as well--the process was not meant for a single person to do alone. In some ways, that would have been a mercy. 

Five years had passed since then, but sometimes the scar on his chest still burned, and the fire inside--the hate and the anger--never went out. 

“You’re not real,” he said to the winged figure sitting atop the highest point of the wreckage. “I don’t even know why I’m here.” 

“No?” Sephiroth leaped down to the ground in a graceful arc, landing just before Cloud. “I think it’s because you miss me, puppet.” He leaned forward as though to plant a kiss on Cloud’s lips, and in an instant, he was gone. 

Cloud took a deep, shaky breath. It wasn’t the first time he’d had a hallucination like that, but they never got any easier to handle. 

What’s wrong with me? Why would I think of him like that? 

He reached behind him and closed his hand around the hilt of his sword, solid and cold beneath his fingers. The feather that dangled from the hilt brushed over the back of his hand like a caress.

“I hate you,” he whispered. “I’ll never forget how much I hate you.” 

He turned from the wreckage and started on the long walk home. 

Chapter Text

It would have been easy for Jesse to spend her entire life waiting. It would have been easy to devote days and weeks to it, to let Cloud’s absence fill every space in her mind until he was all she could think of. 

But that would have been foolish, and Jesse, AVALANCHE First Class Lieutenant, was no fool. She dedicated one evening a week to his absence--sitting at 7th Heaven sipping a whiskey sour that tasted of loneliness--and the rest of the time to her work, her friends, and her own pursuits. 

Tonight was a 7th Heaven night, and she had been drinking for a few hours, the world gone fuzzy and warm at the edges. An almost pleasant melancholy had settled around her. By now she was more accustomed to the waiting than to his actual presence.

“How’s it going?” Tifa leaned on the bar across from her, a towel draped over her shoulder. The bar was almost empty by now, only a few regulars nursing hard drinks remaining. 

“It’s okay,” Jesse said, with a smile. “Barret’s cooking up something big. I’m helping him work out the details before we spread the word.” 

“Well if you need a SOLDIER, let me know,” Tifa said. “Aerith would be game too.” 

“We’ll need you both,” Jesse promised. “And Cloud too. This job is really important.” 

In the past five years they hadn’t made much headway against the Shinra. The Turks had been dogging their every move, and Biggs and Wedge were sitting in Corel Prison as a result. 

They’d all been laying low for long enough. It was time for something big. 

“We’ll be there,” Tifa said. “I’m sure Cloud will too.” 

Jesse nodded her agreement. Cloud wouldn’t always return on Jesse’s request--she’d learned to stop asking--but he would come if Barret needed his sword. 

“And how are you doing?” Tifa asked, putting her hand briefly over Jesse’s where it lay on the counter. “Really?” 

“I’m okay,” Jesse said. “Really. I’m used to it by now. I just wish...I wish I could help him. I might be unhappy that he’s gone, but it’s nothing compared to his unhappiness ever since...” 

“Ever since the fire,” Tifa said. “Ever since Sephiroth died.” 

Jesse nodded. She didn’t like to say his name. He was her rival for Cloud’s attentions, even five years after his death. 

Cloud had told her, one drunken night, about the scars on his chest. Sephiroth had tried to kill him twice, had betrayed him and destroyed the town he came from, and since then Cloud’s hate and anger for Sephiroth outsized anything he could feel for anyone else. 

It was hard to be angry with him when he was so clearly miserable. When they’d taken up together, she had been blinded by the admiration and desire she’d always had for him. And when she moved past that, she was drawn to the wound in his soul with the hope that she could help heal it. Now, however, their intimacy was mostly a force of habit she hadn’t the courage to break. 

“I wish he’d tell me what happened,” Tifa said. “He’s--well, he’s like a brother to me. And he’s really the only family I have left.” 

“He’ll come around,” Jesse said. “You just have to give him time.” But the hell of it was that she no longer believed her own words. 

#

Cloud Strife was a shitty boyfriend. Angeal had come to this conclusion weeks ago when his mission had started. The impetus for his current task came from Hojo, who, in the absence of Sephiroth, had been scheming for some time now to get his hands on the next best thing--the specimen he’d spent five years treating with Jenova cells. Cloud had escaped years ago, and now Angeal’s job was to bring him back. 

Hojo had saved Angeal after Sephiroth sliced him open and left him for dead, Shinra troopers pulling him from the wreckage of the reactor he’d somehow crawled away from before it blew. 

Through whatever dark science or magic Hojo had employed over the last five years, Angeal was stronger than ever, with the frustrated lust for vengeance pumping hotly through his veins. He needed to kill, and since Sephiroth was already dead, he was happy to direct his vicious energies in whatever direction Hojo suggested. 

Zack Fair had died slowly and in agony on the metal floor of a Shinra reactor. Angeal’s flawless honor had not been enough to save him, so what good was it at all? This world was full of death, and not even someone as precious as Zack could avoid it. Genesis and Zack had been Angeal’s whole world, and they had both been cut away from him in a single moment by a single sword. If Angeal killed, it was only hurrying along the inevitable. It was a mercy, in some ways, because this world was so full of suffering. 

His wings were no longer white, the feathers now streaked with black and gray as though they’d been painted with tar. A reflection of the corruption that stained his once pure soul. 

Which left him here, in this alley in a slum beneath the plate, waiting beside a murky puddle for a young woman to emerge. The young woman who Cloud Strife left for weeks at a time as he traveled, seeking something that no longer existed. 

The woman had soft, friendly features, and when Angeal stepped into her path, she smiled and asked him if he needed directions. 

“You look a little lost,” she said. 

“I am,” he said, because it was the truth. “Now try not to scream, and I’ll try not to hurt you too badly.” 

Her eyes went wide and he clapped his hand over her perfectly surprised O of a mouth. She fought like a captured tiger, but she was no match for his enhanced strength. 

“Cloud Strife--” she growled, struggling in his grasp. “Cloud is going to come for me. And he’ll make you wish you had never been born.” 

What faith she had in a man who was absent more often than present. Had Zack held on to a similar promise, when Angeal deserted Shinra and left him behind? 

Zack...

He put his hand on her throat and shoved her hard against the filthy brick wall. “Be good. I’m supposed to take you alive, but that doesn’t mean I can’t break your jaw if you keep talking.” 

Her eyes widened and she shut her mouth immediately. She was trembling with fear, but her spine remained straight, her eyes on his. 

And she was probably right. Strife would come to save her. Angeal was counting on it. 

#

Tifa sometimes liked to joke, a little bitterly, about how she’d gone from being a SOLDIER First Class to a simple bartender. But to Aerith it didn’t matter. She loved to watch Tifa move, whether it was on a battlefield or across a crowded room with a tray of drinks in her hand. Wherever she was, Tifa had the powerful grace of a lioness. But when her hands were on Aerith, that great strength was always kept in careful check. Aerith knew Tifa could break her in half without even trying, but in the same deep, instinctive way, she knew that Tifa would only ever use that unnatural power to protect her. 

Aerith liked it best when most of the customers had left for the night, and it was only their friends and a few members of AVALANCHE hanging around the bar. Barret’s meeting had concluded and most of AVALANCHE had gone home, but he was still downstairs, and she could hear the soft, staccato rhythm of his fist on the punching bag. 

Nanaki was curled up by the fire, his tail flicking whimsically and his good eye closed. Vincent was sitting in the chair beside him with his feet up on the table, looking half asleep himself. Did Vincent need to sleep, Aerith wondered. It seemed impolite to ask. 

Together, they were a large and eccentric family, and Aerith felt warm and content on the evenings when they could all gather together like this. 

She brought another glass of wine and set it before Vincent, then settled a dish of broth on the floor for Nanaki. His eye opened and he lifted his head, thanking her. 

She was about to settle down with them when the door opened. She turned, expecting perhaps Jesse, who hadn’t shown up to the meeting this evening. But it was a Turk, the one who had watched her for years, his elegant features grim and serious. Beside him, in a tailored but otherwise identical black suit, was a Wutainese woman who couldn’t be older than twenty. Her dark bangs fell over a pale headband, and her grin was as threatening as Tseng’s slight frown. 

“We’re closed,” Tifa said, stepping in his path. 

“Tifa!” The woman threw her arms around Tifa, squeezing. “I didn’t know you were in Midgar. Hey, did you know there’s a bounty on your head? Don’t worry, we’re not stupid enough to try and collect it.” 

“Yuffie.” Tseng’s tone was cool and reproachful, and he put a gentle hand on Yuffie’s shoulder. “We’re here on business.” 

“Oh, right.” Yuffie straightened, schooling her features into impassivity, but there was still laughter in her eyes. 

“It’s good to see you, Yuffie,” Tifa said. “You’re welcome to come see me anytime you want, so long as you come alone.”  

“Don’t be afraid of Daddy,” Yuffie said. “We’re just here to bring you a message.” 

“Yes.” Tseng took an envelope out of an inside pocket of his suit jacket. “We are just messengers, this time. Please keep that in mind, Ms. Lockhart.” 

Tifa took the envelope warily and opened it. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened as she looked through the photos within. She handed them to Aerith without a word. 

Aerith drew in a sharp breath. It was Jesse, locked up in a Shinra cell. She had a bruise on her face, but otherwise looked unharmed. 

“We would like Cloud Strife to come collect her,” Tseng said. 

Tifa’s eyes glowed golden as she stared furiously at him. “If Cloud and I storm Shinra Tower, there isn’t going to be any fucking tower left standing by the end of it.” 

“Cloud’s gotta come alone,” Yuffie said. “You can’t go with him.” 

“The cell is rigged with a toxic gas,” Tseng said. “If the door is forced, or if any of my colleagues decide to trigger the trap, she will die. The only way to save her is for Cloud Strife to turn himself in at Shinra Tower. We will exchange her for his willing surrender.” 

“You bastards,” Tifa growled. “What authority do you have to arrest Cloud?” 

“We don’t need any fucking authority,” Yuffie said, standing straighter. “Shinra is the law. You know that. You used to be part of it.” 

“Yuffie is technically correct,” Tseng said. “Additionally, Cloud Strife is wanted for the murders of Genesis Rhapsodos, Zack Fair, and Sephiroth.” 

Tifa stared at him. “That’s impossible,” she whispered. But from her tone of voice, Aerith could tell there was a little part of her that wondered if it was true. Aerith and Tifa had found him in the reactor, slumped over and nearly dead with the Masamune sticking out of his chest. Tifa had carried him to safety and Aerith had healed him--it had taken nearly everything she had to bring him back. But neither of them knew the truth of what happened that night. 

“If you don’t believe it, you better talk to Angeal,” Yuffie said. “He was there, Tifa.” 

Tifa took a deep breath, one of the photos crumpling as her hands clenched into fists. “I’m going to walk away,” she said to Tseng, her voice cold and measured. “Because if I don’t, I’m going to murder you. Make sure you’re not here when I come back.” 

Aerith followed Tifa out of the bar into the alley behind it. Vincent and Nanaki would take care of the Turks. 

Tifa was leaning against the grimy wall of the bar, her face in her hands and her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. 

Aerith wrapped her arms around Tifa’s shoulders and hugged her close. She could hear Tifa whisper so softly it was barely audible even with Tifa’s face buried in her neck.

“Papa. I’m so sorry, Papa.” 

All the healing magic Aerith possessed was not enough to salve this wound. She could only remain by Tifa’s side and hold her in the dark of night when even Tifa’s SOLDIER strength was not enough to keep her from flying to pieces.

Chapter Text

Cloud followed Reno down a short hallway to a row of cells containing lethargic prisoners who barely glanced at him as he walked by. From the elevator, he’d watched as Jesse walked out of Shinra HQ, her head down and her shoulders slumped. He wished he could tell her everything would be okay. He wished he could fight his way out of here, but until she was out of sniper range, he had to play along. 

“This cell was designed to hold Sephiroth,” Reno told Cloud, pressing a button to open a small room and shoving him in. “We locked him in and had him try to escape, and then we reinforced it wherever he broke it. So don’t even try to escape.” 

Cloud looked around the tiny, white walled enclosure, wondering. Why would Sephiroth help them develop a means to chain him? 

“He must have hated it,” Cloud said, stepping inside. “Being locked up.” 

Reno crossed his arms, his electro-mag dangling from one fist. “How would you know? You guys have a nice chat before you murdered him?”

Sephiroth turning to him with dismay and betrayal written across his beautiful face, the light of madness in his eyes. “Puppet. How could you?”

“I did you a favor,” Cloud said. “You should give me a fuckin medal.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Reno waved his hand dismissively. “Shinra doesn’t give a flying fuck about your side of the story.” 

“And I don’t give a fuck about yours,” Cloud said evenly. “Did you guys go to all that trouble to get me here so you could talk me to death?”

“Geez.” Reno rolled his eyes. “Just making some friendly smalltalk. Find some chill, yo.” With that, he turned and strode out of the cell. The door hissed as it slid shut behind him. 

Cloud looked around, wondering if the cell really was built to hold Sephiroth. 

There wasn’t much to see. The walls were concrete but had been painted white, the bed just a metal shelf extending from the wall, covered with a thin mattress.

Cloud got on his hands and knees and crawled under the bed. He turned and looked up at the underside of the slab of metal. The harsh shadows down here meant that the symbols scorched into the metal were invisible to anyone without enhanced vision. They had been left by someone with an incredible degree of control over his fire materia. 

Only Sephiroth could have done it. And it was exactly where Cloud would have left a note, if he had the means to do so.

The message consisted of a single Wutainese symbol, one of the few that Cloud actually knew. It meant crow, and demon, and could also be used more generally to describe anything that brought death. Over the course of the war, it also came to mean “Sephiroth .

Sephiroth had liked the name, he told Cloud one evening after a spar. They were sitting in Cloud’s kitchen, and even though the cheap beer they were drinking didn’t have enough alcohol to affect Sephiroth, he seemed relaxed all the same. Almost happy, even. 

It doesn’t just mean Demon. They call me the Demon of Wutai, but that’s inaccurate. In Wutai, I am much more than I am here. They fear me, and wish me dead, but I would rather have that then be kept on a leash, as I am in Midgar. 

Cloud reached up and brushed the scorched symbol with his fingertips. “I hate you,” he said, if only to remind himself it was true. It didn’t matter if he’d shared more of himself with Sephiroth than with anyone else and been trusted in return. It only made that betrayal worse. 

#

Warm hands ran up the length of Cloud’s body, gentle but firm. A dream--it was only a dream.

“I miss you.” A featherlight brush of something against Cloud’s lips. “Shh, don’t open your eyes.” 

“No,” Cloud said, but obediently kept his eyes shut. Somehow he knew that if he opened them, he’d be alone. “I don’t...I don’t want you.” 

“Shh, puppet,” A hot tongue ran over the shell of Cloud’s ear, and he shivered. “Don’t lie to me. I can see it in your face when you lie. I can feel it.” There were fingers brushing over Cloud’s crotch, where he was already embarrassingly hard. 

“This is just a dream,” Cloud said, shuddering as a wet mouth descended on the vulnerable skin of his neck, a firm hand caressing him through his Shinra-issued prisoner’s outfit. “You can’t--you never touch me like this.”

“Hmm.” A warm hand slipped under the waistband of Cloud’s pants, long fingers wrapping around his cock. 

Cloud cried out, arching his back, and nearly opened his eyes. He could, he could open them and banish this demon, but he didn’t. His body felt hot and sensitive, like any little touch could push him over the edge. It had been so long, and he had wanted this--these hands on his body, this voice in his ear. 

For five years Cloud had heard that voice and seen that face--but his demon always disappeared into thin air before Cloud’s hands or his sword could connect. It was never like this, so urgent and real. Caresses so intent and gentle they felt like love--twisted, maybe; broken, maybe, but love.  

“I killed you,” he whispered, trembling with pleasure. “I’d do it again.” 

His lips were caught in a passionate kiss, and he cried out against the mouth pressed to his, his hips jerking frantically as he came. 

Soft lips brushed against his forehead. “Come find me. I will wait as long as I can” 

After a long, quiet moment, Cloud opened his eyes. 

#

He was alone in the dimly lit cell, the bed hard and unforgiving beneath him. “Just a dream,” he murmured. The most intense he’d had in a long time, and he’d woken with an uncomfortable stickiness in his pants.

It distracted him, so that it took him a moment to realize that something was very wrong. There was absolute silence in the cell block--no patrolling footsteps outside, no murmur of other disgruntled or despairing prisoners, no beeping of security machinery. Cautiously, he sat up and looked around.

The cell door was open. 

He got up and crept towards it, wishing he had a weapon. He peered out, and drew in a sharp breath. 

The security guard was slumped by the door to the cell across from him in a pool of blood, his face slack and lifeless. Sticking out of his chest like an offering was First Tsurugi. 

Cloud blinked at it. It was almost like a gift--the open cell door, the destroyed security panel beside it, the dead guard, and his sword gleaming in the fluorescent lighting. But he could think of only one person who would make such a gesture, and he was long dead. 

On a table beside the guard, Cloud’s other confiscated possessions were waiting for him, his clothes neatly folded and his knife lying beside them. 

He dressed quickly and stepped into the hallway. A clearly marked trail of blood led him from one corpse to another, a garish red against the white Shinra hallway. He followed the gory path of murdered Shinra personnel, as it led him up and up flights of stairs until he reached the top of Shinra Tower and opened a door that should be locked, but had been torn off its hinges and left conveniently open for him. 

Rufus Shinra--now President Shinra since his father stepped down five years ago--had a large, extravagant office. The floor was a highly polished white marble against which the blood trail was disturbingly vivid. 

Huge windows looked out over Midgar. Beside them was a length of wall decorated with expensive art. In the center, Rufus Shinra hung suspended a foot off the ground, skewered on a long, slender sword, its impossible length gleaming darkly under lights that flickered and dimmed. 

Cloud’s breath caught in his throat. He knew that sword, had met it with his own in countless duels. It had pierced his flesh and broken his heart, and then fallen into the depths of a reactor now reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. 

And yet here it was. 

He remembered his own clumsy attempt to assassinate Rufus Shinra, all those years ago. Was this another gift? 

“You’re not real,” he shouted into the dark, empty room. “You’re not real!” 

And then he saw it--sitting on Rufus Shinra’s desk beside a gleaming golden pen and a notebook. 

A black feather as long as his hand, shining iridescent under the light. A twin to the one on the hilt of his sword, the one he carried with him always, so he would never forget the hate that drove him.

He reached for it with a trembling hand. It didn’t shimmer and disappear, but sat motionless on the desk as he brushed his fingers over its length. 

And Cloud knew it in his heart, with heavy dread and beneath that something almost like exhilaration: 

He’s back.

Chapter Text

It was after midnight when Scarlett got the call. On the other end of the line, Tseng’s usually cool and confident tone had a very slight line of tension running through it. 

“Are you sure it can’t wait until morning?” she asked, stepping back to admire her handiwork--a young executive eager to rise through Shinra’s ranks was bound hand and foot to her bed. He was blonde and fit and looked quite a bit like Rufus. Probably one of ex-President Shinra’s many bastards. 

“We have a situation I’d rather not discuss over the phone,” Tseng said. “I will just say that the first person to react to this...situation...will have certain opportunities open to them. But I can call Heidegger if you’re busy.” 

“No,” Scarlett reassured him. Tseng’s instincts had never steered her wrong before. “I’m on my way.” 

“Come to the top of Shinra tower,” he said. “As quickly as you can.” 

#

Scarlett was there in twenty minutes, in her heels and a sharply tailored blue suit, not quite dark enough for her to be mistaken for a Turk. She stepped out of the elevator on the top floor into a scene from a horror movie. 

“This is disgusting,” she said, her eyes following the gleaming trail of blood on the white marble floor up the red stains on the wall to where Rufus was impaled on a long slender sword. “Shouldn’t someone get him down?” 

“I wanted you to see this first,” Tseng said. His daughter was with him, taking photos of the gruesome scene from every angle. 

“What happened to his security?” she asked. 

“Dead. All of them.”

“That’s impossible,” she whispered. The finest Shinra’s security team had to offer were on Rufus’s security detail. 

“And I must say, that sword bears a striking resemblance to--”

The elevator dinged and Tseng and Scarlet both startled, turning to it. Hojo walked out, ignoring them completely as he took in the scene with his usual disinterested mien. And then his eyes landed on Rufus, and he smiled. 

It wasn’t his usual vaguely distracted smirk. It was a wide, happy grin--unlike any expression she’d ever seen him wear. It made him look ten years younger and, disturbingly, kind of handsome. 

“Well done, my boy,” he said, sounding oddly like a father whose son has just learned to throw a ball. 

“How is this possible?” Tseng asked Hojo. “We know for certain he’s dead.” 

Hojo’s grin faded, but there was still a look of glee in his eyes. “My dear Turk, your problem is a lack of imagination .”

“His tracker is in the rubble of the Shinra reactor.” Yuffie crossed her arms. “You said it couldn’t be removed without killing him. Either you fucked up when you made it or--”

“Oh, his body is in the reactor,” Hojo said cheerfully. “That is a fact. But to beings such as Sephiroth and his mother, a single body is not so important.” 

Scarlet drew in a sharp breath, her calculating mind already exploring various opportunities this information opened up. “You think Sephiroth is back?” 

“I don’t think anything, girl,” Hojo snapped. “I know he’s back. I’m certain of it.”

Girl. Scarlet scowled at him. She’d like to punish him for his constant insolence, but of course that was impossible. He ran Shinra’s science department like his own personal laboratory, and without him, the SOLDIER program and several others would shut down entirely. 

“Then, that is the Masamune,” Tseng said, looking up at the sword. “Why would he leave it here?” 

“I don’t have time to explain it to you,” Hojo muttered, turning to leave. “I have preparations to make.”

“Wait.” Scarlett’s voice was cool and commanding enough to stop even Hojo in his tracks. “Sephiroth would never do something like this without a reason and a plan. What does he want?” 

“That is also beyond your comprehension,” Hojo said. He studied her for a moment, those cold scientist’s eyes moving over her in a way that made her feel as though she was reduced to mere data, a number on a spreadsheet or a point in a graph. “You may hunt him, if you wish. If you feel you must get revenge for...this.” He waved his hand at Rufus’s corpse. “It will make no difference.” 

With that, he walked over to the elevator, pressed the button to open it, and stepped inside. The last thing Scarlet saw before the doors closed was the proud, pleased shine in his eye as he looked once more at the gory scene. 

Well that’s creepy as fuck. 

Thundering footsteps sounded on the stairs and Reno and Rude hurried into the room. They looked around, startled by the devastation. 

“Holy fuck,” Reno said. “Ding dong, the boss is dead.” 

“Reno.” Rude gave him a disapproving frown. 

“Get him down,” Scarlet said, nodding at the unfortunate President of Shinra Inc. 

The sword was sticking out of Rufus’s chest, which was somehow six feet above the ground. Sephiroth was tall, but even so, this was quite the feat. Scarlet didn’t really want to think about how he managed it. 

The Turks shared a glance that somehow seemed like the equivalent of drawing straws, then Reno sighed heavily. He grabbed a chair and set it below the sword. Standing on the chair, he took a deep breath and reached for the hilt. 

As soon as he touched it, the sword turned to dust. Rufus’s corpse slid down the wall and crumpled in a heap. 

“What the…” Reno muttered, staring at the empty space between his hands. 

“It’s a summon,” Yuffie said. “Or something like that. Have you ever seen him carry it around? He pulls it out of thin air when he needs it.” 

They all stared at her. Scarlet would have accused her of believing the ridiculous rumors that spread about Sephiroth, but it seemed this one was actually true. How bizarre. 

“I don’t need to tell you that the details of this incident never leave this room,” Scarlet said. “Reno, Rude, I want you on damage control. Make sure no one enters the upper levels of Shinra Tower until everything is cleaned out. Yuffie, get the janitorial service that cleans the labs and let them know we’ve got a special project for them. They’ll all get paid double for the time that they spend on it.” 

“Yes, Ma’am.” The three Turks snapped to attention and then, having great understanding of social cues, turned to leave. 

Tseng glanced at her, awaiting orders. Technically he reported to Heidegger, or to Rufus. But the chain of command was entirely fucked by this assassination, and he had been right when he’d said it presented certain opportunities. 

“I had a late meeting with Rufus,” Scarlet said. “I walked in to find him dead of a gunshot to the chest. No evidence as to who might have done it, but Shinra’s finest are working day and night to catch the culprit.” 

Tseng nodded solemnly. She liked this about him, that he only spoke when necessary. 

“Our forensic analysis will find that the gun was of an unusual type,” Scarlet continued. “A type that was still in development here at Shinra. Very few people had access to such a weapon. Only the head of Public Safety and a few of his top scientists could get their hands on it. And the scientists all had an alibi.” 

If Tseng was pleased or shocked by her scheming, he gave no indication beyond a respectful nod. 

“I know that the Turks are under Heidegger’s authority,” Scarlett said. “However, I like to believe that your people are truly accountable only to Shinra’s best interests. In this time of uncertain leadership, the Department of Administrative Research will be given greater flexibility to deal with the threats that face this company.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” Tseng said. “It will be as you say.” 

Scarlet smiled. “Good. Have Elena find the best copywriter in the advertising department and have them sent to my office immediately. I need to prepare for an interview with the press. Oh, and have Reeve’s assignment in the Mythril Mines extended for a week. Better that he stay out of all this.” 

The only executives ranking high enough to be considered for the position of President--now that the Shinra dynasty had ended--were Scarlet, Heidegger, and Reeve. Heidegger would make a blatantly obvious grab for power--which would reflect poorly given the suspicions surrounding Rufus’s murder. And while Reeve wouldn’t want the title, he was popular with the public. Better to keep him out of the way until the dust settled. He wouldn’t want to dirty his hands with this affair anyway. 

Scarlet dismissed Tseng. She walked to the window and looked out at Midgar down below her, glittering in the smog. 

Gods, but I love this city. 

And soon it would be hers. 

#

Jesse woke to a soft knock on her door. Slipping quietly past the den where Nanaki was curled up by the heater, she went to open it. 

She expected someone from AVALANCHE, or one of her friends. Tifa, Barret, Aerith, and Vincent were all taking turns watching her home, while Nanaki had situated himself inside, well within range to hear if she called for help. Now that Shinra had who they wanted, she was probably safe. But her friends weren’t letting her take any chances. 

She felt beyond lucky to have them. 

She kept the chain latched as she opened the door just a crack to peer outside. Then she drew in a short breath and unlatched it with trembling fingers so she could pull Cloud into her arms. 

“Hey, hey, Jesse.” His voice was low and soothing, his hand trailing gently over her back. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” 

She pulled him into the warm living room and shut the door behind them, putting the chain firmly in place before stepping back to look him over. 

He looked fine, a little weary and worried, but unharmed. Though she knew that even if they had beaten him, the bruises would have faded by now. 

“Sit down,” she said. “I’ll make a cup of tea.” 

He nodded, and sat on the couch, a line of tension through his posture, as she heated water and poured them each a steaming mug. Then she sat beside him on the couch and waited for him to speak. In their time together, she had grown used to his long silences, had come to understand that she needed to leave space for him to talk, or he wouldn’t say a word. 

“I’m real sorry,” he finally said. “I...I shoulda been there to protect you.” 

“It’s not your fault,” she promised. “It’s the Shinra. They’re the ones who should be blamed.” 

He nodded, carefully placing his hand over hers, his strong fingers and broad nail beds. A swordsman’s hands, or a mechanic’s, she’d seen them stained with blood and with engine oil. 

“You know I love you,” he began, then faltered. “You know I--”

“You don’t.” She interrupted him as gently as she could. “You think you should love me, so you pretend to. I wish you’d just be honest.” 

He was quiet for a moment. She thought he might protest, but he simply nodded. “I’m sorry, Jesse.”

“It’s okay.” She let out a long sigh. It felt good to have the truth out in the open. Somehow it closed the distance between them slightly, rather than widening it. “I’m not angry at you.” 

“I wish that I could love you,” he said. “You deserve that.” 

“And I wish I could make you forget,” she said, turning to him. She brushed her fingers over his cheek, gently. “Sephiroth is like a poison, and you’re sick with it. It’s burning you out from the inside. If you don’t let him go, you’ll never--” 

“He’s back,” Cloud said abruptly, turning his face away. “That’s what I came here to tell you. He’s alive and he’s out there somewhere.” 

“Who cares?” Jesse put her hand on Cloud’s cheek and turned his head so their eyes met. “Let him be someone else’s problem. He has made you suffer more than enough.” 

Cloud pressed his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Jesse.” 

“Then stay , Cloud. Stay with me.” 

He pulled away and shook his head. “You know I can’t.” 

She blinked back tears, drawing in a sharp breath as the inevitability of it finally hit her. Ever since the beginning, ever since the first time they kissed, they had been moving towards this moment. And there was nothing she could do to stop it. 

“I hope you find him,” she said, her anger overcoming her for a scalding moment. “You two deserve each other.” 

It was too much--every sleepless night spent worrying about him, every long, lonely afternoon, every time he whispered a name that wasn’t hers against the bare flesh of her shoulder as they made love. All of that had meant nothing in the end. 

“I’ve done wrong by you for a long time,” Cloud said, softly. “Jesse--I’m probably not gonna come back from this.”

“I know,” she whispered, her tears beginning to fall. “I know. You bastard.” 

“I’m sorry,” he said, anguish in his eyes. “I wish I could--”

“Just go,” she hissed, covering her face while her shoulders shook with silent sobs. “If you’re leaving then--just go.” 

He was silent for a moment, and then she heard him get off the couch and walk into the bedroom. Drawers opened and closed as he packed his backpack. She wanted to call after him and remind him to take some remedies and elixirs, but she bit her lip to keep herself quiet. 

It took him less than ten minutes, and then he was back, his bag slung over one shoulder. 

“Jesse…” he said, standing by the doorway. He was quiet for a moment. “You kept me going. For five years you kept me going. I don’t think I can ever make it up to you. But I want you to know. If I had a heart, it would be yours.” 

Jesse sniffled and looked up at him. “Be careful, Cloud.” 

He nodded and walked out the door. 

Jesse put her face in her hands and wept. 

#

Cloud had always been special to Vincent, occupying a space in his heart that was somewhere between a son and a protege. In Cosmo Canyon, when Cloud first emerged from the mako addiction, Vincent was the first person he truly saw. He stayed on a cot in Vincent’s home there for months as he recovered, as Vincent cared for him. 

Vincent had tried to teach him to use a gun, so that he would be able to defend himself, but Cloud had been hopeless, a terrible shot, slow to dodge and react, his muscles weak from his long illness. Vincent hadn’t minded--he rather liked the idea that he would be the one to look out for Cloud for as long as they were together. They had a simple life, and Vincent looked forward to waking up to the sound of Cloud frying eggs and making coffee, the dinners they shared with Nanaki and Bugenhagen. 

But one day they had walked by the Cosmo Candle, the guards sparring in the open space beside it. One of them had left a broadsword nearly six feet tall leaning against the side of a building. Cloud picked it up with one hand, twirled it, and then proceeded to defeat every guard in Cosmo Canyon. 

After that, nothing was the same. Cloud spent his time hunting monsters in the caves beneath the town, collecting trinkets to sell so that he could buy mysterious pieces of metal and circuitry. He stayed up late in Bugenhagen’s laboratory, using the metalworking equipment and who knew what else. He built himself a motorcycle and a sword, and his restlessness drove him to range further and further from home, until he left them entirely for Midgar.

Five years ago, after the reactor in Nibelheim blew, Cloud had returned home to Cosmo Canyon. He hadn’t said much of anything, but Vincent had never seen him look so defeated, not even when he was emerging from months of mako addiction. He spoke little and spent most of his days hunting monsters, and most of his nights staring blankly into the flames of the Cosmo Candle. 

Vincent offered his home and what comfort he could, and slowly Cloud returned to life. They sparred like they used to--Cloud with his sword against Vincent and his gun, or against one of Vincent’s monsters. Cloud’s wanderlust returned, and he ranged from the Nibel Mountains to Midgar and back, but he always stopped in Cosmo Canyon. One day, he brought with him Barret Wallace, who told Vincent and Nanaki of AVALANCHE and their war against the Shinra. Barret didn’t even have to ask them to join. They volunteered. 

But AVALANCHE was not Vincent’s first priority. His friends were. 

He put his arm around Jesse, who was drying her tears. Nanaki had brought him here, told him something was deeply wrong. Now, he waited patiently for her to speak. 

“Cloud thinks Sephiroth is alive,” Jesse said. “He left to go find him.” 

Vincent and Nanaki shared a glance. 

“Is he...correct, do you think? Vincent asked delicately. He didn’t want to insinuate directly that Cloud might be hallucinating, but they all knew Cloud’s mental state was not completely stable. 

“I don’t know,” Jesse murmured. “I feel like I barely know him at all.” 

“Perhaps he saw something in Shinra Tower,” Nanaki said. “Perhaps the Shinra know something.” 

“They’d never say,” Jesse reminded them. “It would look bad for them.” 

Vincent felt a cold dread creeping over him. There was only one person who would know for certain if Sephiroth was still alive. He had hoped never to hear that voice again, but if it was for Cloud, he would endure anything. 

“Excuse me,” he said, standing abruptly. He walked down the hall and into the den, tucking himself in a dark corner of the room. He pulled out his phone and took a deep breath before dialing the number he knew by heart. 

“Yes?” That acerbic voice--it made Vincent hot with anger and cold with fear, even after all these years. “Who is this and what do you want?” 

“Hojo,” Vincent managed. 

“Vincent?” Hojo sounded surprised. “I thought you were sleeping.” 

Vincent’s heart pounded in his chest. “Is Sephiroth alive?” 

“Still worried about his well being?” Hojo chuckled madly. “I would have thought you’d learned to look after your own.” 

“Is he alive, Hojo?”

“You never even asked after my experimental results,” Hojo said. “They were everything I expected, in the end.” 

“Answer me,” Vincent growled. 

There was a moment of silence. “Yes. My son is alive. He’s answering his mother’s call. Jenova’s call.” 

“His mother was Lucrecia,” Vincent said, his voice low and full of fury. “I want you to say her name. Lucrecia Crescent. She gave her life for your research and you just took and took, from her, from Sephiroth, from all of them.” 

“I gave Lucrecia a purpose,” Hojo replied. “I gave Sephiroth his life and his strength. What have you ever done for either of them?” 

Vincent realized he couldn’t answer that. 

“That’s what I thought,” Hojo said smugly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Valentine. You’ve interrupted some very delicate work.” 

Hojo hung up the phone, and Vincent slowly lowered it from his ear, like a man caught in one of those nightmares that turns time to molasses. He huddled there, in the dark corner, for what felt like a very long time. Then he collected himself and went to tell the others what he’d learned. 

Chapter Text

They caught up with him in Kalm. 

Really, Cloud should have known they would. Tifa wasn’t the type to let a friend walk into a dangerous situation alone. But this was way more dangerous than she knew. Than any of them knew. 

That’s how he found himself in a simple but respectably furnished inn room, the curtains drawn and the door locked as he told them the truth. Nanaki sat upright on the ground near the hearth, his tail flicking gently against the floor as Cloud spoke. Vincent leaned into a shadowy corner of the room, his eyes intent and thoughtful. Tifa and Aerith sat together on the bed, holding hands. Not one of them said a word. 

The story spilled out of him faster than he could control, after bottling it up for so long. He told them about Jenova, about Sephiroth’s obsessive research in the library and his claims of the Promised Land, about the fight in the reactor where Sephiroth had fallen to his death. 

He left out the details of his relationship with Sephiroth and that final fight, where Sephiroth had tried to control his mind. But the rest he laid bare, for all of them to see. 

When he finished, he held their gazes defiantly, daring them to blame him or scorn him. But none of them did. They looked at him with such love and worry that he felt oddly humbled and almost bashful. 

“That’s it,” he mumbled, scuffing the toe of his boot against the woven rug. 

“Thank you for telling us, Cloud,” Aerith said. She got up and threw her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek. “We’re with you, no matter where you go.” 

“Thanks,” Cloud mumbled, awkwardly hugging her back. 

Nanaki stepped forward next, bumping his head against Cloud’s hand. “On my honor, I will not abandon this quest,” he said, oddly formal. 

“Nor I.” Vincent crossed the room and put his human hand gently on Cloud’s shoulder. “We’re in this together.” 

“Thank you,” Cloud said, his voice rough. “I...thank you.” 

Aerith murmured something to Vincent, and he and Nanaki turned and followed her out of the room. Leaving Cloud alone with Tifa, who had yet to say anything. 

“You know, I left Nibelheim to come find you,” she said. “I joined SOLDIER hoping to learn what happened to you. You might have lost your memory for a little while, but we have always been best friends. Nothing could take that from us.” 

“Well, you found me,” Cloud said, after a long silence. “You, uh, kinda saved me.” 

“You saved me more often than you know, when we were kids,” she said. “I’m with you for as long as it takes to see this through.” 

She got up and put her arms around him, and for just a moment Cloud felt like he was ten years old again, holding his bestest friend in all the world tightly against him. When they were kids he used to hold her like this after her dad hit her or yelled something hurtful. It always made him feel strong, like he was the one thing keeping her from falling. Now, it was the other way around. It felt like her embrace was keeping him from tumbling backwards, into memory and shame. 

#

Reeve had been back in Midgar for about half an hour when he got the call. An emergency executive meeting at Shinra Tower, and his presence was needed ASAP. He sighed, threw on some clean clothes, ran a comb through his hair, and brushed his fingers over his beard, wishing he had time to trim it. A fortnight in the Mythril Mines did no one any favors, but at least the supply issue was settled, for now. 

It was nine p.m. and Shinra Tower was quiet as he made his way through the lobby. He stopped abruptly, frowning at the huge photograph of Rufus Shinra that was held on an easel in the center of the open space. It was surrounded by an arch of roses, and people had left flowers and candles at the base. 

“This seems a little excessive,” he muttered. Did Rufus’s arrogance really know no bounds? Did he need to be worshipped now like some sort of idol? 

The woman at the desk gave him a sharp, chastising look, but said nothing. Must be one of Rufus’s groupies. 

Reeve found Scarlet alone in the Boardroom, her nails clicking on the keys of her laptop as she typed. She closed it and greeted him with a smile. 

“I thought I’d be the last one here,” Reeve said apologetically. “But I suppose Heidegger is always late. Where is Rufus, though?” 

The oddest look of satisfaction crossed her face. She looked like a cat with prey in its claws, prolonging the moment of the kill. 

Reeve did not like Scarlet nearly as much as he liked his cats, but at the moment he was forced to concede the similarity. 

“You haven’t read the news recently, have you?” she asked. 

“I spent the last two weeks in a mineshaft, Scarlet,” he said. “I got back home, changed my clothes, and came straight here for this urgent meeting. Now could you please tell me what is so important that I had to run over here but our dear President can’t be bothered to show up for on time?” 

“Let me catch you up,” Scarlet said. “Rufus is dead. Heidegger is in custody, awaiting trial. And Sephiroth is back among the living.”

Reeve blinked at her, his mouth hanging open. “Rufus is dead?” 

“He’d have a hard time getting any deader,” Scarlet said. “With you off running errands and Heidegger arrested on suspicion of murder--Rufus’s murder--I’ve assumed control.” 

Reeve had a million questions for her, starting with Did you kill Rufus? But he had learned by now to keep his mouth shut. Rufus had been a good president, arrogant and pushy in his interpersonal interactions but thoughtful in his policies. Scarlet would be more difficult to manage, but Heidegger would have been worse. 

“Fair enough,” he said. “As long as you don’t have any plans to make major changes to the Department of Urban Development, I’m happy to back your authority any way I can.” 

She gave him a brilliant smile. “Thank you, Reeve. I knew you’d come around.” 

The door to the Boardroom opened, and Hojo walked in, flanked by Tseng. They all took their seats except Hojo, who paced back and forth in front of the doors. 

“Thank you for coming, Doctor,” Scarlet said. “Can you tell us what you’ve found?”

“You are running out of mako.” Hojo’s pronouncement surprised no one. The end of mako was approaching, and unless they did something innovative, it would also be the end of Shinra Inc. “If we don’t replace it with another energy source, some other company will.” 

“Tell me something I don’t know, Doctor,” Scarlet said, waving her hand. 

Hojo ignored her. “As you know, Sephiroth is alive. He is gathering strength to return to us fully. When he does, he will lead us to the Promised Land.” 

Reeve couldn’t quite hold back a short laugh. “The Promised Land? Hojo, I thought you were a doctor, not a nanny telling fairy tales.” 

Hojo’s eyes narrowed, catching Reeve in their intense glower. “Be silent, Tuesti, before I decide to feed you to my latest creation.” He resumed his pacing. “The Promised Land is very real, and it is the future of this company. It is not a fairy story, but rather the name the Ancients gave to a place with a pure and unmatched energy sources. But we will get there if , and only if, Sephiroth survives and regains his strength.”

Reeve was skeptical. The “Promised Land” sounded ridiculous, and he didn’t see why Sephiroth was connected to it or what in the holy hell was going on with him anyway. Last he’d heard Sephiroth had been blown to bits in a reactor, but apparently everything in the world had changed while he was away. 

Scarlett seemed pretty keen on the idea, asking Hojo for details and talking about how Shinra could work with Sephiroth to make sure it happened. 

“There is an obstacle,” Hojo said. “Cloud Strife.” He slammed his fist down on the table so hard it rattled against the floor. 

Reeve sat back, startled. He’d never seen Hojo so emotional before. 

“You think he’s going to murder Sephiroth again?” Scarlet asked. “Let’s send Angeal. Surely he can take down one man.” 

Tseng held up his hand. “May I?” 

Scarlet nodded. It made Reeve a little nervous to see how readily the Turk answered to her. She really had pulled off a coup. 

“My profile of Cloud Strife suggests that he will seek Sephiroth out,” Tseng said. “He seems to have some kind of connection. If we want to find our wayward SOLDIER, we should simply follow Strife. When he has outlived his usefulness, Angeal can terminate him.” 

“Very good,” Hojo said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have preparations to attend to.” 

As he stalked out the door, Reeve actually heard a very soft melody, like the professor was humming. Like he was happy.  

Shiva, I leave Midgar for one week and everything is upside down. 

“There is only one obstacle,” Tseng said. “Tifa Lockhart is with him. She is familiar with every operative I would consider sending to follow them.” 

“So we need a spy no one will recognize as Shinra,” Scarlet said. She was quiet for a moment, thinking, and then her eyes lit up and sought out Reeve across the table. “I’ve got it!”

“Whatever you’re thinking, I’d rather not,” Reeve said uneasily. He’d seen that look in her eyes before. 

“No one will recognize the person we send, because we won’t send a person,” she said. “Reeve, what’s the name of that little cat thing you have? You know, the tiny one you brought to the holiday party.” 

“Cait Sith?” 

“Cait Sith!” Scarlett clapped her hands gleefully. “You take Cait Sith and infiltrate their ranks. We’ll be able to watch from here and strike when the time is right.” 

Reeve shook his head. “Cait was made for crawling inside ducts and other infrastructure that I can’t get into, not espionage.” 

“We can outfit Cait Sith for combat and offer him as support to Strife’s team.” Tseng looked thoughtful. “He already has a motley assortment of misfits. One more would probably fit in just fine.” 

Reeve sighed, helplessly watching as Tseng and Scarlet hashed out the details of a plan that was, quite frankly, insane. Sometimes he wondered why he was still here at Shinra, trying to stay out of petty power squabbles that had, alarmingly, just turned bloody. But when he finally left the meeting and took the elevator down to the first floor, he had his answer. 

Midgar might not be the most beautiful city, yellow lights cloaked in smog and slums festering beneath the plate. But Reeve loved it, and he loved the people in it, whose resilience and strength never failed to inspire him. Shinra was evil--there was no question about that--but it was the place where Reeve could do the most good. While he hadn’t had the power to stop the Sector 7 plate from falling, he knew that no one else at Shinra would have poured all possible resources into the recovery and rebuilding effort the way that he did. No other possible candidate for the head of Urban Development would have spent weeks on the ground in the rubble of Sector 7, coordinating search and rescue teams and making sure supplies flowed to makeshift hospitals. 

He remembered that time in a blur of exhaustion, working frantically in the wreckage and then tumbling onto a cot in one of the hospitals for three or four hours of restless sleep, only to get up and do it again. 

He had not been able to stop that atrocity, and the guilt and the shame had nearly eaten him alive. If not for the kindness of a healer who ran one of the refugee camps, he might have succumbed to it. 

He had fallen quite madly in love with her, through their brief and intermittent interactions, and he still thought of her sometimes, when the frustration and despair of the job threatened to overtake her. 

Where are you, Aerith? 

He watched the city below draw ever closer as the elevator slowly descended, wondering if he would ever meet her again. 

Chapter Text

“It’s hard to believe he’s really alive,” Tifa said, staring into her mug. She and Cloud--the two members of their group most wanted by Shinra--were keeping a low profile in the little town outside of Junon proper, while the others looked for a way to get across the ocean. 

“It’s not that hard to believe,” Cloud said softly. “Not for me.” 

Tifa glanced at him. Sometimes it seemed like she had been worrying about him every day since he left Nibelheim when they were sixteen. Their lives had been tumultuous since, but that had not changed. Neither had the love she felt for him. Though they were not related, they had grown up with their destinies intertwined. Blood might be thicker than water, but mako was thicker than both, and they had plenty of that that running through their veins.

“Did you know he would come back?” she asked. 

“He never really left,” Cloud said. His bright eyes flashed with anger, but the turn of his mouth was all melancholy.

“What do you mean?” 

“He would never leave me if he could help it.” Cloud laughed bitterly, and raised his mug, downing half of it in a single gulp. 

There was something between them that Tifa didn’t understand. The flush on Cloud’s cheeks when she’d walked into Sephiroth’s apartment and found him with his back against the window, his eyes dull and hazy for a brief moment. It had disappeared too quickly to tell if she’d really seen anything at all. 

“But you killed him,” Tifa said. 

“Apparently I didn’t do a very good job.” Cloud gave her a small, vicious smile. “Next time, I will.” 

Tifa had only seen Sephiroth once after she found Cloud. She had come across him in the hallway as she was on her way to turn in her resignation papers to Lazard. He had barely spoken to her, but his eyes flashed with brief, hot anger when they moved over her face. 

At the time, she thought it was because she was deserting Shinra. Now, she wondered if it had more to do with how she’d helped Cloud stagger out of Sephiroth’s apartment, looking like his mind was barely holding together. 

“Hello, friends!” A strange voice drew her attention, but it took her a moment to locate the source. 

Standing just before their table was a small robotic cat. It stood upright on two legs, but the nose, face, and tail made it easily recognizable as a caricature of the animal. It was wearing a small crown and a red cape. 

With surprising agility, it hopped up onto the empty chair beside them. 

“May I tell your fortunes?” it asked. “Two interesting looking folks like yourselves--I just have to tell your fortunes.” 

Cloud was studying it with the fascination he reserved for mechanical things. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?” 

The cat turned to Tifa first, shuffling his feet and drumming his little paws on the table for a long, awkward moment. 

“You climbed a mountain,” he finally said. “Metaphorically speaking. You reached the top. Everyone admired you. Everyone envied you. And then you threw it all away for love.” 

Tifa blinked at it. That was eerily accurate. 

“That’s the past,” Cloud said. “A fortune is supposed to tell the future.” 

“I’m getting there,” the cat muttered. “You can’t rush this.” After another awkward moment of silence, he raised his head to grin at Tifa. “There will be hardships. But you’ll get your happily ever after.” 

Tifa thought fortune telling was ridiculous. But when she pictured Aerith’s lovely face, she hoped with all her might that the cat’s fortune would come true. Aerith deserved it, even if Tifa herself did not. 

The cat fell silent again, studying Cloud with an uncomfortable intensity. Cloud fidgeted slightly under his gaze. 

“Every time you’ve believed in something, it’s fallen apart,” it said. Cloud looked away, scowling. “My fortune is this. Believe in what you have right now. For all the people who let you down, there is one person who never will.” 

Cloud met Tifa’s eyes for a brief moment, and she gave him a firm nod. It was true. She would never turn away from him.

“My name is Cait Sith,” the cat said. “And yes. I am a robot. The person controlling me is confined to Midgar. After what happened in Sector 7, he can’t leave. He wanted to know what it would be like to have the freedom to explore the world, so he made me. If he could, he would bring down Shinra Tower the way the Shinra brought down the Sector 7 plate.” 

Tifa and Cloud shared a glance. This was surreal, but in her time with Shinra, Tifa had seen weirder shit. 

“Cait Sith,” Cloud said cautiously. “My name is Cloud. This is Tifa. If you tell anyone you’ve seen us, you’ll be helping the Shinra.” 

The cat made a motion as though to zip his mouth shut and throw away the key. “I’ll burn in hell before I help the fucking Shinra,” he said gleefully. 

#

Sephiroth’s true self, the body and mind that housed his volatile consciousness, was imprisoned in a cocoon of crystallized mako, suspended in a cavern deep within the Northern Crater. But thanks to Hojo, who had strategically positioned malleable humans dosed with Jenova cells across the planet, Sephiroth’s reach was unsurpassed by any living thing. He could easily take control of one or all of his puppets if he wished, transforming them until they resembled his own image. In such a way, he had slaughtered Rufus Shinra and recovered the pieces of Jenova that Hojo had kept in his lab in Shinra tower. 

He could feel all of them at once, the children of Jenova that wandered the four corners of the Planet, unaware of their true destiny. Of all of them, Cloud was the only one who resisted, even when unaware of Sephiroth’s watchful eye. 

Mother was always with him now, reading his thoughts as her song filled his mind. For someone who had spent his entire life alone, apart, it was both everything he ever wanted and incredibly overwhelming. 

They could never truly be separate, not anymore. But when her song became too loud, the chorus crashing in a vibrating crescendo that he, despite barely being connected to a body at all, could feel in the back of his teeth, he would let himself slip away into the body of one of his clones, focusing on that singular experience until the rest faded into a background roar that dulled but never quite ceased. 

Right now, he felt a ship sway on the ocean beneath his feet, the salt spray gently brushing his face as he leaned over the edge. It was dark, and he was wearing the simple white and blue uniform of a Shinra sailor, but the body had fully become his own, his hair blowing in the sea breeze that kissed his face. 

Soon the sky would burn and the sea would boil, and everything around him would turn to ash, as was the justice this planet deserved for keeping Mother prisoner for an era. He looked forward to that moment, with a dark, hateful anticipation. 

He spent a few long minutes out there, beneath the stars, watching the moonlight shine on the water. And then he went below decks, slaughtering the Shinra guards as he moved through the ship. He killed them efficiently and silently, leaving a trail of corpses behind, and then let his bloody sword dematerialize before he opened the door to a small cabin on the lowest level. 

Cloud murmured something in his sleep as the chill air from the hallway swept over him, but did not wake. Even when Sephiroth crossed the room to sit carefully at the edge of his bed, Cloud stirred slowly from sleep, opening his eyes only when Sephiroth ran a hand over his forehead, brushing blonde hair away. 

“M’tired of dreaming about you,” Cloud mumbled irritably. 

Mother’s song reached a crescendo as their eyes met-- kill him, kill him, KILL HIM. 

Usually her commands were impossible to disobey. Sephiroth wavered for a long moment, imagining the Masamune slicing into Cloud’s bare chest, left exposed by the thin blanket. It would be so easy. It would be what Mother wanted. And Mother knew--she always knew what was best. 

My son my heart my love. My love. Is everything, everything you could need or want. Have you not, every moment of your life, wished for your Mother’s love? 

I will bring him in soon enough, he called back to her, in the language only they, of all the beings on the planet, could hear or understand. He can still be useful, for now. 

“Oh shit,” Cloud said, sitting up. “This isn’t a dream, is it?” 

Sephiroth shook his head. 

“Well, fuck.” Cloud shoved Sephiroth lightly. His complete lack of fear or surprise was oddly alluring. “Move. I need my sword to kill you. Not all of us can just summon one whenever we want.” 

“You can’t kill me,” Sephiroth said. “You can kill this body, but that’s barely an annoyance.” 

“You’re so weird ,” Cloud muttered, kicking the blankets aside. He tried to push past Sephiroth to get at the sword leaning against the wall, but Sephiroth caught him by the wrist and pulled him back, his other hand on Cloud’s shoulder, pressing him back down onto the bed. 

“Not just yet,” Sephiroth murmured, leaning forward to breathe in the heady scent of Cloud’s neck. He ran his tongue over the smooth, pale skin, and was rewarded by a slight hitch in Cloud’s breathing. 

“What do you want?” Cloud sounded wary, but he still hadn’t pushed Sephiroth away. 

You. Always you. 

“I have a gift for you. You can use it when you try to kill me, if you like.” 

“I don’t want any gifts from you.” 

Sephiroth smiled. Cloud sounded so surly, so genuinely annoyed by the prospect. It was endearing. 

He stepped back and gave Cloud room to clamber off the bunk, grabbing First Tsurugi before Cloud could get to it and holding it out of reach. 

“Is this one of my feathers?” he asked, smirking at the ornament on the sword’s hilt. 

“It’s from some big ugly bird,” Cloud said, crossing his arms. “The fuck do you want?” 

Sephiroth raised First Tsurugi in a defensive posture. “I want you to attack me with your sword.” 

“Uh, you’re holding it,” Cloud said. 

“The sword I gave you,” Sephiroth said. “The Buster Sword. I want you to reach for it. I want you to imagine that the hilt is firmly in your hand. I want you to attack me with it.” 

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Cloud said. But he took a deep breath all the same, briefly closing his eyes. He reached out with one hand and the Buster Sword appeared in a shimmering instant, with all its heft and dignity intact. Cloud stared at it, so startled he almost dropped it. 

“Well done,” Sephiroth said, pushing the large flat blade aside so he could step closer and kiss the stunned expression off Cloud’s mouth. After a moment, Cloud was kissing him back, fervently, the Buster Sword dematerializing as he let go of the hilt to pull Sephiroth closer. It would come back, of course, the moment he had need of it. 

After a few seconds, Cloud darted away, pressing his fingers to his mouth with a startled expression that quickly turned furious. 

Every emotion of Cloud’s exhilarated Sephiroth--his anger, his hate, his self-loathing. That he could make Cloud feel so intensely was a heady reward. It didn’t matter if it was pleasure or suffering, so long as he wasn’t indifferent. 

“Will you come find me, puppet?” Sephiroth asked. Cloud’s eyes flashed hotly at the endearment. “I’m on my way to the Temple of the Ancients. If you want to stop me, that’s where I’ll be.” 

The Buster Sword appeared in Cloud’s hand again, but Sephiroth was already on his way out. Cloud didn’t pursue him, but that didn’t matter. They were tied together, always, and would see each other again soon.