Warnings: Boys who like other boys. Extended canon deviation. Non-explicit sexual situations. The works.
Summary: The day before the Last Battle is one of questions, and Cloud is full of them. And Sephiroth... well, Sephiroth has human enough left in him to make an offer. Go back. Answer your questions. Try and kill me. Rise from your melancholy and be the man who stands as my enemy, who knows what it is to be my puppet.
Disclaimers: I had a dream where I had these three boys with me. It was a grand and glorious dream. It was also ten years too late to claim rights over them. You know the feeling.
Prologue: Dead Man's Oath
Chapter 01: This Is How It Was
Slip, slide, stumble forward in time
Cloud threw himself on the bedrock with a groan, wincing as he listened to the sound of the Ultima Weapon clatter to the ground next to him a moment later, and resisted the urge to turn over and pet the thing in apology. A silly habit. Especially when the sword didn’t matter to him so much as the other, the first. As if on a whim, he unsheathed it… the original Buster sword, quiet and still deadly. The thing was his, his in a way none of the other swords he’d gone through had been because patchwork memory or not, it had always been there. The others… those had been sold nearly as fast as they’d been found or bought or given to him. This was different. Special. If he ever got around to retiring, this and possibly one or two others would be the only ones he’d hang on his wall and point to if he ever had cause to wax poetic about his glory days.
...This was running under the assumption that he’d ever consider these his glory days.
Wandering the length and breadth of the Planet with a ragtag mob of terrorists, ninjas and vampires. Racing after a man who was bent on destroying everything. Fighting the WEAPONs that were supposed to have awakened to help stop the calamity, but instead were there to wipe out the entirety of the human race along with it. Falling into the Lifestream itself and taking refuge in the very recesses of his own mind. Failing a woman he loved and letting her die.
And now… waiting to make the last descent into the Northern Crater and face the man whom he hated-loved-hated more than anything.
The soft groan he let out was one of utmost weariness; something he couldn’t allow any of the others to even begin to suspect. Not when tomorrow… tomorrow, they’d…
“Cloud?” The voice was uncharacteristically quiet, almost hesitant. His eyelids flickered open before he’d even realized he’d closed them and turned his eyes to watch Tifa’s approach, rusty-red shoes making soft clacking noises against the gravel and pebbles that were scattered liberally over the rock face. “Yeah?”
“Can I—?” she gestured to the spot next to him, and he made a ‘go ahead’ motion with one gloved hand. A moment or two later, she was settled down on the rock next to him, one hand running through the soft spikes of his hair under the pretense of dusting the gravel off. He closed his eyes and allowed it, knowing better than anyone that she was thinking of what they had gone through and what was to come. His hair could afford to be treated like a petting chocobo for a little while.
“What do you think will happen? You know… tomorrow?”
Cloud opened his mouth to give his best attempt at a stirring speech about freedom and liberty and victory… and then stopped.
Tifa, more than anyone, perhaps even more than himself, knew everything, and would know if he tried to lie. She’d dived after him into his psyche, brought him back to the surface, brought him back to himself, and he was grateful for that, but still, who knew what sort of secrets she’d stumbled upon in his mind?
Perhaps it was for his own good that she didn’t tell him all the answers, but he could never really shake the sense of betrayal that’d washed over him when he’d learned that she’d lied to him.
“Best friends, right Cloud?”
“I don’t know.” He sat up, looking up at the red of the sunset burning even darker with the sickly glow of Meteor off in the distance. “I’d like to think… that we can stop that from falling.”
Who knew if Holy was enough, after all? It seemed so… final. Way too important for a test. There’d be no second chances for the Planet this time around if they failed.
A strangely bitter smile passed over her face as she clasped her arms around her knees—Cloud had long since given up on telling her that she flashed her panties at everything in sight when she did that, because she just nodded, kept on doing it, and didn’t seem to care. He figured she had a good enough, left- and right-hook—this was without continuing on about the effectiveness of her roundhouse kicks—to her name that she could fend off any and all unwanted attentions, and was long since past blushing like a tomato every time she finished off one of her Limits. “Not what I expected of our illustrious leader, Cloud...”
That got a low chuckle out of him. “Way to inspire the troops, huh?”
“Think I’ll be any better at it in the morning?”
“Well you’ve still got time to practice…”
And then the silence fell again, the two of them watching the sun set in the distance while a few insects attempted to ease that unnatural stillness. The whole Planet was waiting for the next day and sleep would not come to it until it was all over.
Tifa shuffled her feet in the pebbles again, before she leaned her head against his shoulder and he let her, even going so far as to wrap an arm around her shoulders. She hummed a little noise of pure contentment and he felt his heart warm, felt something other than the guilt he held so close to his chest. “Can we stay like this?” she asked finally, “Just for a little while?”
Time didn’t seem to matter after that. Cloud’s attentions shifted back to the sky, watched it continue to darken into night around them until the stars came out; weak and white against Meteor’s glow. Tifa was long asleep by then, breathing quiet and slow, warm against the side of him, and utterly oblivious to his thoughts.
And because he was Cloud, his thoughts turned to things of the past, to things dead and gone… Shinra, Jessie, those above and below the Plate when it fell on Sector Seven...
Aeris. And Zack. And… Sephiroth.
When had it begun? Would killing Sephiroth, destroying Jenova… would that change things? Would they be happy then?
He was empty. Empty. There was nothing left—not the anger, not the sadness, not the fear and anguish. Tomorrow maybe. Tomorrow it might come back, that rush of strength and brought on by sheer willpower. But tonight, just for tonight, he could go away, draw back inside where there was only a little floating island in a galaxy of stars. For now he could sit, he could wait. Because that was all that was left. Just this waiting, just this reason… A lifeless little doll given a purpose and told to march until he either succeeded or was destroyed in the attempt.
“You reek of indecision, Cloud.”
The Buster sword was in his hand even before the voice had finished speaking; the soft low silk and knowing purr of a voice that he knew all too well, laced with knife-edge cruelty he knew even better. Cloud’s hand closed around Tifa’s shoulder, shaking her. When she didn’t awake, when she didn’t even respond, he glanced at her too-still features once before jerking his gaze back on the towering figure of leather and steel that had appeared, choking on the rising fury and the icy backwash of fear. “What have you done to her?!”
First Aeris, now—?!
“Peace, Cloud, she merely dreams.” The smirk twisted the man’s lips, taunting the anger that rose up in him, made him want to smash that perfect face with its perfect bow lips until Sephiroth looked as much of the monster as he truly was.
The little whimper that escaped Tifa’s lips was barely audible, but neither Cloud nor Sephiroth could have missed it. Sephiroth’s smile widened. “Unpleasant dreams, I’m afraid…”
“Let her go.”
The other man’s voice dropped even lower; dark silk on even darker velvet, taunting him. “Do you need her to stop me, Cloud?”
Cloud’s hand tightened on the hilt of the buster sword, even as he laid Tifa gently down on the rock face, an action that would have, if nothing else, woken her completely if Sephiroth hadn’t… done something to her. “I don’t need anyone else to be able to defeat you.”
Brave words, he thought wryly to himself as he watched Sephiroth’s eyebrows rise in response. Precious little puppet’s growing a spine. Anger. Yes, anger, that would bring him back. Give him the strength to face this monster that wore Sephiroth's face. That would let him win. Because he had to win. He had to!
“So you say…”
Sephiroth took another step towards him, the crunch of gravel underfoot and the clatter of pebbles could only be heard because the man had meant for it happen, because every movement was so carefully calculated, nothing about him happened if he didn’t want it; Cloud knew as well as anyone how soundlessly the man could move, even when he’d only been merely human. The seemingly innocuous sound was as close as Sephiroth would give to an overt threat, as much as the baleful glance he cast on Tifa’s sleeping form, or the twitching of the hand towards the Masamune that might have been threat, might have been reflex. After all, this girl had struck out at him before, many years ago, and had survived. “Can you prove it to me?”
Cloud charged at him, thinking, hoping, that this was only an image… that Sephiroth really was waiting for him in the Northern Crater and was only trying to provoke him, trying to plant doubts in him, and could be banished somehow.
Sephiroth sidestepped his downward slash with the rustle of leather and the grace of a dancer, hand shooting out to grab Cloud’s wrist and twist it, hard enough to make him cry out, hard enough to make him drop his sword.
Cloud could see his death playing out the moment he heard the clatter of his sword falling to the ground and being kicked out of the way with one black leather boot, let out a strangled noise that was everything; fury, shame, anger, and utter humiliation all rolled into something he couldn’t express in words.
And then he felt Sephiroth’s hands close around his throat, hauling him up until there was only air beneath his boots and he couldn’t get free, couldn’t make him let go, and—
“Is it too hard to try and kill me now?” Sephiroth asked; his voice barely a whisper and his lips so close Cloud felt them brush over his own like a mockery of gentleness. Sephiroth’s voice was slow and unhurried… at odds with the fact that his hands around Cloud’s throat were like a band of iron choking the life out of him, and the insane laughter glittered in his eyes, “Where are all your brave words now?”
“I—” Cloud managed to gasp out before he was quickly cut off.
“You want to change things. You are not content with what already is. You have lost your focus. You are hiding again, Cloud. My poor little puppet, a broken little bird.” The words were matter-of-fact and to the point, falling on him like stones because fuck him they were true, even as he jerked at the grip on his throat that lifted his feet off the ground, feeling the blood pound hard in ears as he tried to form the words, stop, stop, stop!
Sephiroth dropped him suddenly, and Cloud fell to his knees gagging, coughing, feeling as pitiful as he’d ever felt when he was nothing more than a child, like all the years since then hadn’t happened, hadn’t mattered. Undaunted, it seemed Sephiroth had only spared his life in order to get a better grip on him because a moment later, both his wrists were clamped in Sephiroth’s hands; immovable, even when he lashed out with his legs like a child.
“Do you really believe if you could go back, you could change things? That you could have…” and here, Sephiroth couldn’t hold back the laugh, “that you could have saved me? Saved that Ancient?”
Cloud hadn’t known his eyes had filled with tears until he felt Sephiroth dip forward, silver hair like heavy silk brushing against his skin—soft, cool, he remembered that feeling, remembered the sensation of all that hair draped all along him like an embrace of its own, sharp, as if a memory long forgotten, oh no, no, not another one—before the man’s tongue flicked out to the saltwater sliding down his cheek. The man pulled away again before Cloud could cringe back, struggling against him, hating him and hating himself, and there was something new in Sephiroth’s eyes: surprise and faint amusement and he looked, for a single moment he looked like Sephiroth, the real Sephiroth, the one both he and Zack remembered and he didn’t want that, didn’t want to remember the betrayal, didn't want to remember that the man he was trying so desperately to kill was the man he’d—no!
“So you do. You want to change what was.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Cloud ground out, jerking fruitlessly at his trapped wrists again, "Do I look happy with what you've done?" He wasn't going to cry, no, he was not fucking going to cry. He was not a child. He was a grown man and this thing, this killer, would not win, not that much. "This is more of your little half-truths, more of your lives. You're trying to prove to me that I'll fail, that I'll never compare—that I'll never defeat you!"
And he couldn’t believe that, couldn’t let himself believe that for a minute, not when the others were counting on him. Not when he’d never forgive himself if he let this man, this man who’d used him and tossed him aside, this man he hated more than anything because of what he’d done, what he wanted to do, live!
And then Cloud was falling, stumbling backwards, as he watched the image of Sephiroth waver, and for a brief moment there was a rush of relief, that it was only a fake, that Sephiroth wasn’t actually here or maybe he was just dreaming again and Sephiroth was playing with his mind and it was all just a—
But Sephiroth was laughing—the kind of laughter that ate at Cloud’s insides because he could remember, remember a time when he’d wished more than anything to hear General Sephiroth’s laughter, but not like this, never like this. His head was thrown back baring the long pale line of his throat, and his shoulders shook before he let it fall forward, shaking it as the laughter faded into what in any other man would have been a chuckle. “Then you will go back,” he said, and Cloud felt the build-up of raw magic like what happened just before unleashing a summon but more, and dove for his sword.
Sephiroth ignored him, continuing as if he hadn’t even noticed Cloud was armed and angry enough to slice his throat open. “Try and change the past, Cloud. Come to me. Change me. Kill me. See what you can do. We will see your grand future then…”
Cloud opened his mouth to scream at him, that it was impossible, that Sephiroth wasn’t supposed to have the power or the knowledge—and then he felt the Lifestream, as if the ground had opened up and the green of the Planet had welled up around them, because he could hear the Cetra and they were singing, they were agreeing with Sephiroth and that wasn’t supposed to happen because he was the enemy!
But then their singing surrounded him, flowing into his mind and resounding in his head; hundreds and thousands and millions of voices chorusing together, all parts of a single whole.
He’s waiting for you to come and find him…
He’s waiting for you to come and kill him…
He’s waiting for you to come and deliver him…
He’s waiting for you to come and save him…
Save him, Cloud…
That last… Aeris…?
He was screaming and he couldn’t even hear himself because the roar of Sephiroth’s and the Cetra’s magic exploded around him, tearing the ground away from him and he was moving, the air was rushing past him in a shrill screech of sound.
How was he fit to save anyone… if he hadn’t even been able to save her?
There might have been an answer, a whisper in the back of his mind that he could hear past the screaming of the wind in his ears. He could feel her presence, like a brush of sweetness and warmth and the faint scent of flowers as he flew through the nothingness, in the cool of the Lifestream that washed over him and carried him along with it; It’s all connected, Cloud.
But it was as gone as fast as it had come, and he was left with only the howling of air as the noise reached a crescendo that he screamed against, couldn’t bear, couldn’t guard himself against because his arms wouldn’t move and the world was exploding a second time, smashing through time and space and he didn’t know what else, and he was blinded by the white.
For a moment the rushing stopped and it was like he hung motionless in midair, the silence as loud as the screaming before he began to fall, and the darkness rushed past him, taking him to oblivion.
Whee, I actually have enough left in me to make some neat last-minute changes/additions to this bit! ^___^ Not bad, considering I haven't been in any state to write fic for months now. This was short, but it wasn't really a chapter, more of an inbetween. ^_^; You'll see a lot more of them in future I'm thinking.
Continue on to the next chapter here.