Hearing the slight edge of panic in Sephiroth’s usually controlled tenor had shaken him. Here was the man he’d both feared and adulated as a teen, then later despised and chased, obviously human and more than slightly overwhelmed with their current situation.
Even with Zack’s reassuring presence at his side, seeing the man again, very much alive and breathing, was disorienting and confusing. Cloud’s reality was now almost merged with his nightmares and his memories and the labs around them; scientists bustling about busily wasn’t helping. By Gaia, he was exhausted, and the coming conversation was a looming mountain ahead of him, another long trek, alone, through uncertain terrain. Would they find stable ground there, or had Jenova wiped all possible traces of sanity from Sephiroth’s mind? Would the telling of what happened destroy him again?
Would anyone even care if they failed? Even Tifa didn’t want this to happen, and the blond felt sure Reeve was starting to have doubts on his ability to handle this. Hell, even I’m starting to think this was the dumbest idea in the very sad history of really stupid ideas. He shook his head, fighting to clear his mind, to steer his tired brain back to the job at hand.
A jolt, that voice, sending an uncontrollable shiver all the way down his spine. How the hell did he just remember my name? He felt sure the man hadn’t known him then, couldn’t possibly have both recognized him and pulled a name from memory. Unless he’d memorized the roster, which wasn’t impossible.
The alternative was unthinkable; if Sephiroth possessed memories from after Nibelheim, then Jenova had left more than simple cells behind. Cloud lifted nervous eyes to meet Zack’s gaze, where he also read surprise. Not from his photographic memory, then, otherwise Zack would take it in stride.
He forced his eyes back to the silver-haired man, where he found both nightmare and flesh staring back at him. A slight edge, a barely perceptible tension, betrayed the man’s state of mind although his face was carefully schooled into a neutral expression. Cloud felt panic and bile rise up in his throat and forced himself to close his eyes and breathe. When he felt human enough, he stared up at Sephiroth again, trying to control his erratic heartbeat. If he could just make it through this one conversation without anything blowing up in his face, everything would be fine.
Trying to ignore the man’s eyes, he took three quick steps forward and managed to keep his hand blessedly steady as he held up the file he’d prepared with Reeve earlier. The silver-haired man simply stared at the file. When the other’s man gaze traveled up his extended arm and reached his eyes, the blond felt a slight blush creep up his cheeks and mentally cursed. Several times.
Sephiroth was simply sitting there calmly, a curious and slightly disoriented look now on his face. What should’ve been just a standard pair of military slacks, was, on the tall man, the lowest-cut pair of uniform pants Cloud had ever seen. The man had just been brutally awakened in what must appear to be another Shin-Ra lab, yet he still managed to command and dominate the entire room with his presence. The blond felt ridiculously small and obscenely young and it infuriated him; he’d gone through hell and back, had endured pain and betrayal and loss, all because of this one man. Yet he still felt insecure and inferior, a mere pawn whereas Sephiroth was the major player, the one who would lead him, forward or astray. This close, and without the added pressure of fighting for his life, the blond had time to notice all those little things he had been sure he’d erased from his memories; the fact that the silver-haired Soldier was much taller and broader than him, the way his hair always pooled around his form like silver silk and his eyes, piercing and mesmerizing at once, of that almost obscene shade of green that haunted his dreams and nightmares.
The blond felt his gaze drawn down the man’s hunched torso, draping down his relaxed arms and lingering just slightly too long. Cloud realized he’d been staring and forced his eyes to steer back up to the older man’s face with a start, praying he hadn’t been gaping like a fool.
The distaste at his own weakness must have shown on his slightly reddened face, because Sephiroth eventually extended his own arm to reach up and delicately take the file from him. The man’s face showed a slight edge of what could be confusion, and on the ex-General it was a humbling sight; waking up in the labs must have shaken him more than he was letting on. The blond stood his ground, letting his arm fall gently back to his side as Sephiroth’s eyes lowered to the folder, scanning it briefly. After a few seconds he raked a hand through his hair in a gesture so beguilingly human and confused that Cloud almost caught himself laughing. Again, something new, unexpected. Sephiroth turned his eyes to Zack, who still stood close by his side.
He waved the folder at the younger officer, a slight frown now on his face. “Just what in the hell is going on?”
Cloud flinched, then cursed inwardly, as the man’s striking eyes swept back towards him. “And what in Gaia happened to you, Strife?”, he added, with a casual wave of the folder towards the blond.
There was a tense silence, and for a moment Cloud doubted his own strength. Shit, I can’t do this. I can’t just blurt out all of it, I can’t live through this all over again, I can’t be here, I can’t BE HERE… His heart hammering a wild beat in his chest, he managed a nonchalant shrug that surprised even him and saw, from the corner of his eye, Zack’s face growing a little dark, brows arching just ever so slightly. Worried.
“It’s a long story. The file explains most of it. I…” A pause, then, as he took one long breath, averting his eyes from the silver-haired man’s intense green gaze. He more or less felt irritation radiating from the Soldier now; he was avoiding giving him a direct answer and knew the other didn’t like his dancing around the question. He shrugged again, mimicking Sephiroth’s earlier motion and weaving his left hand through his blond tresses hurriedly.
When he spoke again his voice was clipped and angry but he didn’t care. It sounded, to his own ears, blessedly free of the trembling nervous fear he was drowning in. “Just read the damned file. Zack’ll be there to answer any of your questions. If you really need to talk to me, I’ll be in Hollcomb’s office.”
He managed a small nod in Zack’s direction, then turned about smartly, averting his eyes quickly towards the exit and away from all that silvery green, his chest thrumming violently. He forced his hands into his pockets to keep them from shaking and shouldered his way through the hallway door.
* * *
There was a long silence during which even the nurses contrived to make themselves look busy. Sephiroth stared at the door where the younger man had disappeared, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Did Cloud Strife… Did Cloud Strife actually just brush me off?
It was Zack who finally broke the silence, clapping a hand on Sephiroth’s naked shoulder with a laugh. “Don’t mind him, man. He’s just, you know, been through a lot.”
The silver-haired man cast a sidelong glance at his second-in-command. “Any time you’d care to explain, Lieutenant? I’m all ears.”
With a heavy sigh, Zack dropped his hand from Sephiroth’s shoulder, then turned to the nearest nurse. “Excuse me, Miss, can we do this elsewhere? Labs aren’t really, you know, ideal for conversation.”
“Sure. There’s an empty office right down the hall,” she pointed towards the corridor opposite the one Cloud had exited through and flashed Zack a small smile, then blushed furiously and busied herself with her medical clipboard. Sephiroth shook his head, a small smile curling at the corners of his mouth despite his uncertain situation. Zack, at least, hadn’t changed much.
“Come on, man. We’re blowing this lab.”
Sephiroth sighed and got up as Zack hurried towards the office and held the door open for them both. The silver-haired man glanced up at the group clustered on the second floor railing then followed Zack into the office, grateful for the chance for a little privacy. The room held a small desk and a threadbare chair, which Zack motioned the older man into after closing the door. He sat down less than gracefully and with a sigh; away from prying eyes he could let some of his confusion and distress finally show. Zack was pacing the room nervously and that worried him more than he would care to admit. He opened his mouth to speak but the smaller man interrupted him with a wave of his hand and a frown, then seemed to realize how agitated he was and finally plopped himself down onto the desk.
“How are you feeling? I mean…” Zack smiled then, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You must be wondering what the hell’s going on, Seph, but this is important.”
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow at him. “I feel fine, Zack. What’s this about?” There was a pause, and he could see Zack was clearly trying to collect his thoughts.
“A lot’s happened, Seph. You know how I always exaggerate and shit? Well, this isn’t one of those times. A lot has really happened.” The black-haired man sighed, then essayed another smile. “To answer your first question, you’ve been out of it for about eleven years.”
For a few blessed seconds he thought Zack was messing with him, but the younger man’s face remained serious and Sephiroth felt his heart rate spike in a bout of dizzy nervousness. The shock must have shown on his face because his friend smiled again, and this time it looked tired and strained.
Sephiroth looked down at his hands pooled in his lap, trying to grasp the enormity of what Zack had just said. When he looked up again, Zack’s face was a carefully-controlled mask and his eyes were trained on his own, trying to gage his reaction. “You all right, man?”
Sephiroth shook his head slightly. His mind was racing. That explains Strife at least. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen when I saw him last. He felt the world spinning around him again. And when was that exactly? He couldn’t remember; his recent memories were a jumbled mess.
Zack reached over and gently took the manila folder from his unresisting hands. “Let’s just go through this thing one fact at a time, right?”
* * *
“What the hell was that? I thought Cloud said we would see everything from up here!”
Reeve shook his head calmly. “I’m not sure everything went exactly as planned; Cloud was supposed to stay down there and explain things.” He nodded towards Vincent, who nodded back wordlessly. “I’m going down to try and find him; find out why he bolted. You guys stay here. If anything happens, I need to know there’s someone here that can handle this mess.
“I’ll be right back,” he added before turning back towards the stairs.
Tifa turned to stare at Vincent. “You know what happened, don’t you?”
Vincent, standing propped against the railing, shrugged. “It’s not my place to say.”
Tifa frowned. “It’s not your… For fuck’s sake, would you listen to yourself? This isn’t some sort of game!”
Yuffie turned and laid a hand on Tifa’s shoulder. “Tif, we both know this isn’t easy on him either. Maybe he just left to gather his thoughts or something.”
From the corner of the upper deck, Cid puffed out a breath in a noisy wheeze. “Yeah. You’d have to pay me a fortune to drag my sorry ass down there with that folder. Kid’s just regroupin’. Least we can do is give ‘im a chance to do this properly.”
Tifa snuck a glance at Barrett, who was leaning next to Cid and watching her. The big man shrugged. Tifa shuddered, worried. “I don’t know how you guys can all manage to be so damned calm about all this. If something happens in that office we won’t know anything about it until Zack’s really in trouble.”
Yuffie shook her head vehemently, keeping her arm on her friend’s shoulder. “Zack can handle this, Tif, I’m sure of it.”
* * *
Zack’s words washed over him in as he sat and listened. At first he’d tried to voice his protest, interrupt with his own jumbled memories, but as the story unfolded he fell silent. He stared at his hands, still clasped in his hands, as Zack’s voice calmly told of the burning of Nibelheim, the reactor, what they’d found in the ruins of Hojo’s labs and the scientist’s true involvement with the Soldier process.
When his friend stumbled in his telling and his voice trickled to a stop, Sephiroth looked up unsteadily, watching the other’s face as he tried and failed to lighten his expression. The silver-haired man frowned. Nibelheim was only just the start; everyone’s terrified of me, even Zack. Something else happened.
Did he want to hear the rest of it? Zack’s silence as they stared at each other spoke volumes. When his friend opened his mouth to continue Sephiroth raised his hand in protest.
“Just give me the file, Zack.”
It was torture to watch the pained look that passed across his second in command’s face but, to his credit, he reached over and handed him the file back. Sephiroth snatched it from his hand with rather more force than he’d meant and opened it, scanning its contents. It took quite a while for him to force his way through all of it. Some part of him wanted to shove the folder at Zack’s face and scream; he hadn’t done any of these dreadful things, he had no memory of any of it. He read on. The file was written in the very cold, calculating manner of a report, which made the actual contents easier to assimilate. He read of the Cetra and Hojo’s misguided attempts at recreating what he mistakenly thought was a true Ancient. He read of Avalanche and their role in ShinRa’s fall, of the murder of one of their number at his own hand. He read of Jenova and what she was, of the genetic experiments Hojo had carried out in secret. Of his own death. Of Geostigma.
It should have been too much to take in; he should have stumbled, forgotten, lost his track, but his mind was painfully clear as he absorbed the knowledge of the destruction he’d caused. Parts of what he was reading clicked neatly into place, filling holes in his own memories and experiences. Hojo’s constant meddling in his life had been dismissed as Soldier maintenance, but it had never made any sense to him. His own file in the ShinRa personnel records had always been incomplete and now, finally, he could put names to his own genealogy, could now correctly identify his mother as a scientist on one of Hojo’s teams. Hojo. The scientist’s lies unravelled one after the other as he read.
After a very long while, he finally closed the folder and gently placed it face down on the desk next to Zack. He glared at it as though his gaze could changed its contents, could nullify its existence.
A hand on his shoulder startled him, and he stared up in surprise into Zack’s worried eyes. “You all right? I know you have questions, and that’s why I’m here. Why we’re all here.”
“How…” His voice was raw, unrecognizable as his own. He raised a trembling hand to his forehead and sighed heavily. Questions. They were piling up in his mind. Why had anyone let him do any of it? How had Strife managed to best him, not once but three times? How could he have been foolish enough to let Hojo manipulate him so clearly? How could he have been so deluded as to let himself be goaded by some— some monstrous thing he hadn’t even ever heard of, save in Hojo’s lies and half-truths? In his mind’s eye he saw Midgar, defeated and destroyed under an onslaught of his own making. He took a deep, calming breath.
“How many dead?”
Zack blinked at him. “I… What?”
“How many people have I killed, Zack?” To his own rising horror, his voice broke as he spoke and he forced his free hand into a fist.
“I don’t really know, Seph. A lot.”
Another deep breath. He felt his own fingernails digging into the palm of his hand and squeezed tighter, gritting his teeth. “Jenova?”
“Dead, as far as we can tell,” Zack answered.
He forced the next question through clenched teeth, voice murderous, and felt blood start to seep through his fist. “And Hojo?”
“Definitely dead. Cloud made sure of that.”
Strife, again. He had destroyed the boy’s hometown, killed whatever family he’d had left, fucked with his mind in the sickest way possible and forced his hand into playing his own twisted game. Jenova had used him and he’d used Cloud in return, as a weapon, as a plaything and, ultimately, as a way out. Well, that explains that, at least. No way the cadet I remembered would’ve grown up into such a tortured man. He’d seen it immediately, in the blond’s eyes; something had been destroyed and crushed utterly. The boy had matured into a fighter but he’d lost something of himself in the process. Sephiroth had recognized the cold stare and hatred that lay dormant there, he simply hadn’t understood why it was there.
It had hurt, to see the blond so changed; the shock alone had been enough to render him nearly breathless and had forced the cadet’s name out of his lips before he could stop himself. Stupid mistake. By all accounts he shouldn’t even have remembered the kid’s name and he’d mentally slapped himself as soon as the word left his mouth; he’d seen both Strife and Zack flinch.
Well, now you know why he’s changed so damn much. Congratulations; not only did you almost destroy half the planet, you also managed to mangle the one damned thing you might have ever wanted.
* * *
You weak-willed git! After all this time, all the preparation you forced yourself through and all the shit you’ve inflicted on everyone else, you bail at the last minute! As soon as he’d closed the door behind him, Cloud had stumbled his way to Hollcomb’s office chair and had gratefully sunk his long body into it before burying his head in shaking hands. What had he expected to find in that lab? Reeve’s short report should have told him all he needed to know; not an empty husk sitting there confused, not one of Hojo’s clones staring blankly at the wall but Sephiroth himself, as he had been during the blond’s own Soldier training, alive, aware and definitely confused.
He had hoped the long walk down to the labs would calm his trembling nerves, had somehow thought that he could will himself to confront the man he would find behind those damned double doors. He knew exactly when things had spun out of his control, when he had felt his legs threaten to give way under him and breathing become erratic, when the world had spun to a stop for him.
He shouldn’t have remembered my name! Even Zack told me he’d never once mentioned me by name. Their friendship had been discussed, he was certain of it, but as Sephiroth had called out his last name in a breathless hiss, Cloud had seen the look of surprise on the black-haired man’s face and had known something was wrong.
This entire plan rested on him; while Zack was a formidable fighter, Cloud knew if it came to it he was the only one truly capable of stopping Sephiroth. But facing him again in theories and plans was one thing and now that he was here, and this was now, it was an altogether different matter.
The blond realized he’d been digging furrows into his own scalp with his nails and dropped his hands into his lap, his blue eyes panicked and wide, breath leaving his chest in short bursts of panic.
“Shit. What have I done?”
A soft knock at the door interrupted him and he jumped, startled. “Cloud? Can I come in?” Reeve’s voice, calm and more than slightly hesitant. The blond sighed; as he got up to open the door for the man he took note of the weariness in his limbs and forced himself to concentrate, to stay awake and aware. He couldn’t let Reeve know he was breaking down now.
“Christ, Cloud, are you all right?”
Well, so much for that plan. The blond shrugged and motioned Reeve inside, walking aside to let the taller man through. “I’m fine. How’s everyone up on the second floor?”
“Worried. Tifa’s a nervous wreck,” he added as he turned to face Cloud. “Not that I can blame her. You don’t… look so good, Cloud. I know you’d planned to stay with Zack all the way through this, but maybe you should simply get a bit of rest.”
The blond opened his mouth to protest but Reeve waved a hand at him, waving his concern away. “They’re going through the file as we speak, and everything’s under control. You’re running yourself ragged with this, Cloud. I don’t care what it takes, I want you to sleep; Zack told me you’ve been up for days.” Reeve dropped a hand on Cloud’s shoulder and smiled at the smaller man. “If I have to post a couple of Turks outside the door to make sure you stay in here and rest, I will.”
The blond exhaled slightly, managing a small smile at the other man. “Fine. Did you speak with Hollcomb about the tests?”
“Later, Cloud. I said rest.” Reeve’s voice was playful as he squeezed his shoulder then walked back out to the corridor and closed the door behind him. Cloud stared at his retreating back, then at the grain of the wooden door and tried to collect his thoughts.
Sleep. He knew restful slumber would be next to impossible now, and had no desire to revisit his old nightmares once again. No way in hell am I going to even try sleeping, not with him so damned close. He could barely tell the difference as it was, between his nightmares and this new, confusing reality; when he was near the man, he felt the ground twist under his feet feverishly, his heart race in irregular beats that definitely did not feel normal.
He had to avoid the nightmares at all costs; he wasn’t sure how many more time he could visit that featureless, barren plain on the outskirts of Midgar before he drove himself completely insane.
Gaia, what had he gotten himself into?