The Masamune should have materialized and blocked Cloud's heavy downward swing; but instead Sephiroth fell into a crouch and dodged in a swirl of silvery hair. Cloud's broadsword hacked through three floor planks and half a support beam before he could stop the momentum. Stuck. Shit. He jumped up, shifting his weight onto his hands and the hilt of his sword. Sephiroth's long leg scythed where his knees should have been, and Cloud kicked off the wall and let his weight yank the sword free.
Stand-off. Cloud had landed in the middle of the floor. Sephiroth was moving slowly, standing straight, but spine and shoulders loose, hands lifted at waist height, ready to snap up into a number of potential barehanded fighting stance. It gave Cloud pause. All SOLDIERs were taught some hand-to-hand, but in actual combat Sephiroth had always used swords -- the longer the better, as if the idea of actually touching those he cut down was distasteful.
Perhaps he just found the ceiling too low to swing the Masamune around properly. That gave Cloud the advantage in reach. Strategize too long, though, and he would lose that advantage. He threw himself forward, sword slashing the air.
Sephiroth was fast, though, and the floor was wide enough to let him move. He kept out of Cloud's range -- they ran, sidestepped and chased from one wall to the next in a flurry of quick steps and quicker lunges and dodges.
Still no counterattack, no sword, no fire spell. No taunting. Cloud didn't like it. It was abnormal. He knew better than to stop pressing his advantage -- if it was actually an advantage. He had a feeling Sephiroth was directing him somewhere...
-- Directing himself. A glancing blow at Cloud's swinging blade redirected it into a wobbly pile of debris; Cloud jerked back to avoid flying glass, one second, no more, and then Sephiroth was leaping into the half-destroyed staircase well and bouncing up, from windowsill to support beam, toward the gaping hole in the roof.
Cloud gave chase.
The feminine scream made him freeze in his tracks. He glanced up, sword up to block if Sephiroth decided to use his distraction -- when had she gotten to the rafters ?
Aeris was clinging perilously to a broken railing, her bare toes at the very edge of the last plank before the void. The railing must have seemed support enough to lean over and look down at the fight, but it only held to the staircase by one rotten end; it had swung toward the void under her weight, and now there she was, arching over the gaping hole and completely off-balance. On tiptoes, she tried to shift her center of gravity back toward the support beam; the railing splintered.
"Zack!" Cloud hollered, still holding his defensive stance. Sephiroth had caught a ledge and pulled himself up to the hole in the roof. If Cloud didn't stop him now, he would escape, lose himself in the middle of an oblivious city; but someone needed to catch Aeris, and what the hell was she doing up there anyway --"Zack!"
Zack was climbing the staircase six by six. He hit the second floor at a dead run -- and another rotten plank snapped under his weight, making him stumble and fall to a knee, lose his momentum. One floor overhead, Aeris gasped as the railing she clung to gave a thoroughly underwhelming wet crunch and broke away from the support beam.
Cloud launched himself at the falling woman, amidst a rain of tiles that his kick had shaken loose. There was no way to slow down and catch her gently; he heard her expel a shocked breath as their bodies collided. Letting her fall would be worse; he grabbed her around the waist, and twisted in mid-air, so his feet would hit the opposite wall first. He kicked off again, ricocheting down to the closest floor. The second he was on stable ground again, he let her go, eyes snapping up to the hole in the roof, expecting to find it long since empty.
But Sephiroth was still standing up there, a black silhouette against the night sky, watching.
And Aeris was clinging to his neck with one arm, weighing down his sword hand with her whole body. Like cats and little children, she seemed to have mastered the art of making herself a lot heavier than she should have been.
"Aeris, you okay?" Zack called down, leaning over the edge of the second floor.
"I'm fine!" she called back, without looking at the black-haired man. She was staring at Cloud, he could see her from the corner of his eye.
Sephiroth wasn't moving, and she was staring hard, so he glanced at her, tried to make her understand how serious this was. "Aeris, let go --"
She scowled, startling him into giving her another, longer look.
"I didn't bring him back to life just so you could kill him again, you know!"
He hadn't even thought that far. Some days it seemed death was a revolving door for Sephiroth and his many clones. Did she really mean...? Suddenly Cloud wondered how accidental her fall had really been, what she'd even been doing up there in the rafters.
Aeris gave his forearm a soothing caress, eyes full of compassion, and maybe, far behind, a hint of exasperated -- was that amusement?
"Jenova didn't bring him back to life. I did."
Cloud stared at her, uncomprehending.
"Cloud... Jenova is long-gone. She was burned out of him. She was burned out of everyone she tainted. It's okay, I promise."
"He's Sephiroth," Cloud replied, at a loss. He wasn't sure what her explanation implied, but at least he was sure of what his reply meant. This was Sephiroth; that was explanation enough. "Are you trying to tell me he's -- what, safe to be around?" he scoffed.
"About as safe as you are when you wake up armed and without coffee!" Zack sang cheerily from overhead.
Cloud shook his head and snapped back. "Zack, I don't drink -- what are you doing?"
While Aeris and Cloud talked, the black-haired young man had climbed up to the rafters, casually straddled one, and was now in a deep, if one-sided, conversation with Sephiroth, who stood just overhead. Cloud just about had a heart attack.
Zack glanced down at Cloud and made a shooing motion. "You make a sucky straight man, you know."
All Cloud could see was Aeris kneeling in prayer, smiling sweetly at him, while Sephiroth plummeted down toward her unprotected back. Zack, god -- no. He tried to shake his arm free, but Aeris wouldn't let go; he would have had to hurt her.
"Okay, Seph, seriously, what do you say about getting down from there and putting something on to keep your danglies from dangling? I'm sure the hair doesn't keep you that warm."
The man's eyes narrowed faintly, but he didn't move, not even to look at Zack.
"Seph, come on, he'll be twitchy as long as you stay overhead."
"And I will be 'twitchy'," the man bit out slowly and precisely, voice just as low and intense as Cloud remembered it, "as long as Strife is intent on hacking me to pieces."
Cloud stared, incredulous. How did Sephiroth -- the man who'd razed a town to the ground in a fit of pyromaniac glee, tried to become a god, summoned a meteor to destroy the Planet he was standing on -- manage to imply that Cloud was the dangerously unreasonable one?
Zack huffed in frustration. "Oh, for God's sake. Cloud, will you holster the sword?"
Cloud growled out a "No" that really meant 'Are you fucking serious.'
"Cloud, please, he's not dangerous, would we bring him with us if he was?"
Sephiroth's lips took on a slightly pinched air, as if he dearly wished to object. He didn't say anything, though, and that was a little more convincing than Cloud was willing to be convinced.
Cloud took in a deep breath, released it slowly, and let his irritation come out in his voice. "What the hell is going on?"
"Aeris just told you, blondie--"
"Zack, can it," Cloud asked quietly. "Explain."
Zack loved risks, but he wasn't suicidal; he didn't reply 'He's here because Aeris brought him back, duh.' Cloud would have hurt him. Zack just sighed, smile fading. "A lot happened in the Lifestream."
Cloud switched his sword to his other, Aeris-free hand, and pointedly propped it up against his free shoulder, waiting for more. Even SOLDIER eyesight had limits at this distance, but Sephiroth's face looked... tense, jaw clenched, eyes narrowed. Zack looked up at the man, as if to ask for permission, or perhaps apologize. The white-haired man stared at his lieutenant for a few seconds, and -- Cloud was a little far to be sure, but he seemed to catch a reluctant 'fine, if you must' in his expression as he nodded. Obviously that was how Zack took it.
"Aeris was going around, trying to gather stuff and ghosts, kickstart healing -- places, peoples -- it was easier when people still present in the Lifestream gave a hand, you know? But there aren't a lot who are strong enough to keep themselves together for long. Natural order of things says you go from whole to not, not the other way around, just some people go more slowly."
Aeris started rubbing Cloud's arm gently once again, like she would have a skittish chocobo. Her eyes were unfocused, pensive, as if contemplating an inner landscape that wasn't particularly pretty. "He wasn't... whole, not really. Not with Jenova taking so much away, and doing her best at shredding the rest. But he was reweaving himself together anyway. I was... curious."
Only Aeris, Cloud thought. Only she would be so curious about the man who had killed her.
Cloud looked up again at the silver-haired man standing there. Now he looked sour, openly displeased. Aeris smiled and shook her head, as if amused at her own lack of surprise.
Zack took over. "Long story short, she got talking to him, he realized she wasn't gonna take no for an answer, I decided to follow, we had many a," his voice went dryly ironic, "violence-free, heart-warming little chat, and then -- well, you gotta understand, we really thought we were dead for good, so the whole forgiveness deal didn't sound that bad." He paused, thoughtful, then shrugged again. "But then Aeris realized that hey, there was a tricky way she might be able to go back and probably take one or two people with her, and we decided we could nag him longer if we brought him along."
Zack grinned, not quite convincingly.
"And that's the Abridged Story of How Sephiroth Followed Us Home. Mom, can we keep him?"
Sephiroth gave Zack a glare that said he dearly wished to kick him off the rafters. If only; then Cloud could stomp him once he landed.
He closed his eyes, trying to make sense of the whole mess. Aeris and Zack were alive again. He'd never dreamed or expected it, but now that they were here, he didn't even have to think twice to know he would go through anything and anyone to keep them from going back. Sephiroth was alive again -- no great surprise -- but apparently he wasn't... evil anymore? That still refused to make sense.
"Get down here," he asked tiredly.
He looked up at Sephiroth, who watched him back without a word. After a few seconds, Sephiroth dropped to Zack's rafter and made his way down. He walked like a cat; all unhurried grace, perfect balance, and uncaring, inborn poise. Cloud couldn't help but tense slightly at his approach, and was glad when Aeris freed him on her own and stepped behind him, to the side. She wasn't hindering his movements and she stayed where he could shield her if need be, so Cloud didn't try to move, standing there with his sword over his shoulder. He watched his old nemesis advance on him, feeling like perhaps he was just having an exceptionally coherent hallucination after all.
"Sure you don't want pants?" Zack asked, teasing quietly; sound carried well in the church, and Cloud's ears were just as enhanced as the rest of his body, but he pretended not to hear anyway.
Cloud had to admit, the man was so at ease in his own skin, it was hard to remember he wasn't supposed to be going around nude. It wasn't obscene; it gave off a feeling closer to watching a classical statue that had gotten bored on its pedestal and decided to go on a walk.
Sephiroth looked at Cloud, a question almost, one he wasn't holding out much hope for. Cloud wanted to prove him wrong, suddenly.
He wasn't going to refuse him that dignity.
(Even if waiting until Sephiroth was tangled in his pants would be the safest way to take him down, and Cloud wasn't above playing dirty when he really had to. And this was a really bad time for any kind of amusement, even the grim, black humor sort.)
He waited, a block of tense muscles and raw nerves, as Zack trotted off to get the abandoned pants. The man who had haunted his nightmares crossed his arms casually and leaned against a pillar -- over fifteen feet away from Cloud, true, but not battle-ready anymore. That made it hard to keep himself poised to attack.
Zack handed him the pants, and then went to Cloud and Aeris, quite deliberately stepping in between Cloud and Sephiroth to block his view. Cloud's jaw tightened with irritation and vivid mental pictures of seeing Zack suddenly skewered just like Aeris had been, and his fingers twitched with the need to grab him and pull him to safety, but he stopped himself. When Zack stepped to the side and around him to stand with Aeris, Sephiroth hadn't moved an inch.
Except now he wore pants. What a showoff. Bastard. Cloud's pants were a little tight on him. At least, he thought with wry, not-that-amused humor, the tight fit over the hips would prevent Sephiroth from dodging as fast and leaping as high.
So he watched Sephiroth and Sephiroth watched back, and it soon became apparent that neither of them would start talking first.
"We should do the voices."
"Hey babe, how about you play Seph and I play Cloud?"
Aeris chuckled, eyes gleaming with mischief, and started toward the white-haired man, curling her fingers to invite him to move closer. Cloud's shoulders hurt from the effort he made not to reach for her and haul her back to safety. But Zack... He wouldn't let her put herself in danger, would he?
Cloud didn't know. The way he talked, the way he acted -- Zack was his General's man once again, like he'd never stopped. Cloud realized he was wondering if he really could trust him, and shoved the thought away. It was wrong. Zack wasn't so blindly loyal that he wouldn't do what needed to be done. He'd done it before.
"Enough -- no need."
Aeris stopped, looked over her shoulder, and pouted slightly at being denied the game. "Aw, but we could speed it up a lot!"
She looked a little guilty, but not really that much; neither did Zack. They just didn't get it. They might have had months or years to get used to the idea, but Cloud hadn't! He flung his hand out, frustrated.
"What do you all expect me to think? How should I react? Should I erase the last ten years of my life? Even if you tell me everything that happened after Nibelheim was entirely due to Jenova and the clones--"
"It wasn't." Sephiroth's expression was cold, a little bored, as if he found the conversation tedious. His shoulders were tense. "What happened at Nibelheim wasn't, either."
Good, Cloud thought through a haze of anger. He would hate to have killed an innocent man. The reply was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it back somehow, waited for more.
"That day, Jenova did nothing more than give me a nudge." Sephiroth's expression was ... strange, with an edge of disgust. "I was only too happy to open myself up to her."
Cloud had already taken a step forward when he realized... No, not disgust.
Self-disgust. The revelation kept Cloud frozen, kept him from letting the memory of his burned hometown seal Sephiroth's fate.
That didn't make any sense. Or too much, too conveniently so. Was he really implying that he hadn't been thinking, that he regretted it? How the hell was Cloud supposed to believe that?! How the hell...
"Seph!" Zack protested. "You weren't in the best state of mind, and it was more than a nudge!"
The man shook his head, gave his subordinate a quick glare. "No. I might have been -- misguided... But this doesn't mean I didn't choose to do those things."
Zack's eyes softened, sad and compassionate. "Seph, Jenova--"
"I wanted to believe her," Sephiroth snapped, almost baring his teeth at him.
Cloud stared at his face and for a second he didn't recognize him. Where was the perfect, poised calm, the cruel amusement, the cold disdain? Sephiroth was angry. Not even at Zack, for pushing. At himself.
Because he'd deluded himself. Allowed Jenova to delude him. Because he'd been wrong, wrong, wrong, and he knew it, and he hated that.
The fact that Sephiroth now didn't like that he had embraced that genocidal space mutant and her goals... That... didn't absolve him much, actually. If it was true. But... It made his sudden about-face ring truer. It made Cloud feel -- just a little bit -- convinced.
It made Cloud feel like perhaps the sky wasn't blue and 'up' and 'down' weren't where he'd assumed them to be.
Cloud shook his head, reminded himself that for all he knew Sephiroth just regretted he hadn't chosen his targets on his own, without outside influence. Just because he hated that he'd allied himself with that crazy space mutant didn't mean he'd hated the rest.
He wasn't convinced of even this much, anyway.
"And you don't, anymore?"
"Believe that she is a goddess?" Sephiroth replied quietly. "No."
"And that she's your mother?"
A muscle in Sephiroth's jaw jumped, and his eyes went dull, flat. "That part was true enough."
Cloud hated it when he thought he understood the way Sephiroth's mind worked, because that was never true. He'd thought Sephiroth was honorable, once upon a time. He scrutinized him, waiting, but Sephiroth seemed to want the subject closed. Cloud didn't feel like humoring him. "Explain."
"It isn't relevant."
Zack stepped up and nudged Cloud's shoulder, wincing. "He doesn't mean it like that, Cloud. He knows she didn't carry him -- couldn't have, I mean, she was fossilized. He doesn't mean it like, I dunno, she's his mom so he'll want to avenge her, or that he still shares her goals--"
Cloud frowned. Why wasn't Sephiroth saying that much? It wasn't from Zack's mouth he needed to hear that. "So you know for sure he isn't persuaded that humanity is on par with maggots anymore?"
Sephiroth's lip curved up in a humorless smirk. "It isn't?"
"You're not doing a great job of convincing me not to kill you again," Cloud remarked quietly.
They stared at each other. On the sidelines, Zack and Aeris grimaced at each other, probably trying to come up with a good plan to get in the middle. Cloud was looking for a way to make sure they would butt out, but Sephiroth dealt with it first. "Zack. Miss Gainsborough. If you will wait outside, please."
Even Zack didn't mistake the 'please' for anything but a formality. He threw them a worried look. "Guys..."
Neither of them answered, refusing to take their eyes off each other. Biting her lip, Aeris tugged on Zack's arm and, reluctantly, he followed her down the staircase to the ground floor.
Cloud would have expected Sephiroth to want them around; without them, there was no one to stop Cloud if he decided to attack again. He wondered if this was when Sephiroth's mind would crash into his own to try and take over, and he just didn't want witnesses.
But Cloud's mind stayed his own.
He waited; he didn't want to be the one to ask to be given answers, when Sephiroth was the one who owed him an explanation. And there was silence and more silence, as they stared each other down with matching, growing annoyance.
"It is unpleasant enough to be questioned at all," the silver-haired man eventually commented, his slow, uninterested voice distancing him even more from the topic.
Cloud didn't particularly care if Sephiroth found being interrogated on the subject of his homicidal urges distasteful, and he was out of patience with the waiting game. "Do you still hate humanity?" he snapped.
Sephiroth straightened up, regal, distant. "I... do not hold a sizeable portion of the human race in high esteem, no. But I no longer feel I should actively seek to remedy that."
That he still didn't think much of most people, but wouldn't try to kill them anymore was a lot more believable to Cloud than a sudden 'I'm so sorry, I love all living beings now'. But the weight of their shared history said it was still less likely than Sephiroth secretly brewing plans to climb back to the top of the food chain at some later date.
Cloud wasn't sure Sephiroth's ambition, his belief in his own superiority, had appeared out of nowhere. Hadn't there been hints before, even before they became Jenova-encouraged obsessions? Being made General so early, surrounded by so much publicity -- when everyone fawned over him, how could he not believe in his inherent superiority?
After all, Cloud had believed it. He'd been a runt of a teenage hick, clumsy, badly socialized, too easily picked on; Sephiroth had been... More than human. Better. Even now, having fought him to a standstill three times, Cloud still felt like Sephiroth was better, still couldn't get rid of a strange aftertaste of awe. He shook his head, annoyed at himself. He didn't need to dwell on his teenage stupidity right now.
"Why did you come back?"
Sephiroth turned away, chin held high, gazing at the first floor of the church with indifference. Cloud's eyes narrowed.
"Dead men are rarely known for making amends, aren't they."
Cloud grunted, openly disbelieving. "You came back just to make amends."
The man snorted quietly, eyes glancing back and then sliding over Cloud, as if he were not worth stopping for. "It's a goal to strive for."
"It's not an answer."
The silver-haired man twitched in annoyance. "No, I did not choose to come back in order to make amends. I think Zack and miss Gainsborough are misguided, and rather too optimistic as to the greeting I might expect, even with all the time in the world to prepare all interested parties."
Well, he'd gotten that right. Cloud could imagine Tifa's, Barret's, Yuffie's reactions; they weren't going to be pretty.
"The world is going to be full of enemies. I doubt many of them will want your amends, even if you find a way. In fact they might hope very hard you go right back where you came from."
Sephiroth turned to face him fully then, green eyes blazing with sudden anger. "I want to live. Is that surprising? I want to live. And if I have to spend my life fighting, then so be it."
He took a deep breath then, the next concession forced out with reluctance.
"I don't intend to attack anyone who hasn't attacked me first. And if it's revenge they want -- hn." He shook his head, a line between his brows. "I am not willing to die again. But I am willing to do my best not to kill them for it. Does that satisfy you?"
Cloud bristled. How generous. Asshole.
He stared at Sephiroth, taking him in, past his memories of the man, trying to see what was truly there. Gleaming cat eyes, bare chest, too-small pants and all -- but the eyes gleamed less with smug superiority than with a feral sort of ... wariness? He held himself like he was prepared to move out of the way of Cloud's sword, fast.
Like he was planning on counterattacking only as long as he needed to open himself an escape route. The way he'd done once already.
It was almost as if Sephiroth didn't believe he could win... Cloud huffed quietly. The idea felt almost too ludicrous to contemplate.
"So you waited because... you want peace."
"I don't want war."
"For the foreseeable future."
"You any good at tarot reading?" Cloud snapped. Sephiroth arched an eyebrow, as if he didn't get the reference. Cloud snorted. The foreseeable future, huh. Easy way to promise nothing. "Never mind. What stopped you from running off to live in the wilderness? Hours went by between you lot coming back and my arrival. Why were you even still here?"
Anger flashed briefly in green eyes, and was hidden away again. Cloud was almost vibrating with tension, aware of every single twitch his enemy made.
"It would come back to your ears eventually, wouldn't it? And then you and your group would track me down, and you wouldn't bother discussing a thing. You would be persuaded that I was planning something nefarious."
"There's precedent," Cloud said, irritated. Presumption of innocence was for men who hadn't tried to end the human race.
Sephiroth inclined his head, as if to concede the point. "Hence waiting for you."
Cloud considered that answer for a second. It was... logical enough. If Sephiroth was sincere. He couldn't figure out another reason for him to stay back and allow himself to be caught anyway -- it didn't mean there wasn't one, though. Just that he was missing some key elements. But Sephiroth wasn't going to list them if Cloud requested it.
So he switched tracks. "Do you believe you're sane?" Cloud asked.
The man's jaw tensed briefly, but he relented, another flare of inward-turned disapproval flashing through his eyes, unsettling Cloud. He didn't want to see that. It was out of place. It didn't belong. (He didn't want it to belong.)
"... I thought I was sane back then."
Cloud couldn't answer that for a second, and when he found his voice again it was a little quieter, a little -- strange. "And now what do you think?"
Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow. "I fail to see why this matters. You won't trust my word either way."
"Damn straight I won't," Cloud snapped back, irritated all over again.
Alright, he wasn't going to get much more useable information from him here and now. Now he had to... make a decision... aw, fuck.
Cloud sighed quietly. He wanted to close his eyes and rub his temples so very badly. How had he ended up sole judge, jury and executioner on all things Sephiroth? Back then he had felt it his duty to take care of that crazy menace no one else seemed to grasp, but he didn't know what path to take with a sane, logical asshole of a Sephiroth. And one who acknowledged Cloud's place as judge and jury, however much that obviously rankled him.
Fact: Cloud had come very close to nailing Sephiroth a couple of times, and he hadn't called Masamune to him, or used any magic. Hypothesis: he couldn't.
Fact: Sephiroth couldn't be entirely sure that Aeris and Zack would manage to sway Cloud enough that he would even agree to listen, yet he had risked staying. Hypothesis... Hell, Cloud didn't have the first clue. His brain felt like it was trying to dribble out of his ears. Nothing made sense anymore.
"I can't make that decision alone," he finally said. "Not alone, not now." If he made the wrong one... "Aeris, Zack, you can stop hiding."
They peeked around the edge of the stairwell, Zack looking sheepish at being caught spying, Aeris not even bothering.
"So, er... What now?" Zack hazarded.
Cloud didn't know. He had no high-security prison that would contain Sephiroth at his disposal, no secret bunker. What to do? Bring him home? What about Tifa, Denzel? What would happen when Cloud would need sleep?
But there was nowhere else he could figure out.
"... I'm bringing you all back home." He turned to Sephiroth, before Zack could comment. "You won't be fighting anyone until that decision is made. Anyone. If you do, I'll kill you where you stand."
"What if someone attacks him?"
Cloud scowled, uncompromising. "He'll dodge. It's not fair, I don't care. Do you really want to talk about what would be fair to people trying to kill him?"
That they succeed. Zack winced, but looked like he wanted to keep arguing; Sephiroth himself lifted a hand in front of Zack to stop him, his eyes still on Cloud's face.
"I'll step in if anything happens before this mess is settled," Cloud granted grudgingly. "...You'll be under a Sleep spell until I've talked to the rest of Avalanche."
"Sleep spell? Isn't that a bit --"
Damn it, why was Zack -- Zack of all people -- arguing like he thought Cloud was the bad guy? That was just -- hell. Cloud knew that Zack and Sephiroth had been friends back in the day, and intellectually speaking he could even sort of see how they might have become close again in the Lifestream, but... Fuck. Just -- fuck.
"What else can I do?" he snapped. "Let him roam wherever he pleases?" Cloud shook his head before Zack could plead in favor of his ex-General. "I wouldn't care if we were in the middle of nowhere, but not in Edge, with Tifa and the kids around. They'll feel threatened enough."
Aeris nodded slowly, biting her lip, and gave Sephiroth an apologetic look. "That's... I'm afraid it's the best solution. If you're asleep, they won't feel so scared they can think of nothing else," she added gently. "They'll be more likely to think things through rationally."
Sephiroth's upper lip curled up slightly. "That sounds lovely."
"Oh, Seph." Zack sighed, and watched Cloud and his stern, unyielding expression for a few seconds in silence before turning back to Sephiroth.
Sephiroth's somber look seemed tinted with worry -- or maybe Cloud was just imagining things. His voice was quiet, obviously for Zack's ears only, but the rest of the church was even quieter. "Strife is -- right. I have to prove my good faith first. But being so defenseless --"
"I won't let anyone get to you while you sleep."
Zack let out an explosive sigh and raked his hand through his hair. "Do you trust me to keep you safe? Because yeah, from the side that doesn't want you any more ventilated than you are it's kind of worrisome, but it's that or letting Cloud find you some Mythril-strength bondage gear and hogtie you in a corner."
"That won't be necessary," Sephiroth replied stiffly, and it was both a 'Keep your puerile jokes to yourself, if you please' and a 'Don't be ridiculous, of course I trust you', and it made Zack grin so wide, so happy, Cloud briefly ached, wanting to smile for him. Argh. He wasn't a kid anymore, mollified with just a single smile -- and why was he even smiling at anything Sephiroth-related anyway. He hated that the man could put that expression on Zack's face. He hated that Sephiroth would even say he trusted Zack, like his trust was a gift to bestow, like Zack should be honored. Sephiroth had betrayed Zack.
Aeris chuckled and beamed up at them mock-innocently, pulling Cloud's attention away from the men. "Oh well. We'll keep that in mind for another time."
Zack choked on a burst of laughter. "Aeris," Cloud protested -- that was so wrong, wrong, wrong -- but she only grinned at him too.
Cloud allowed his resentment and annoyance to simmer down. He hadn't been able to stay angry at either of them even before they died -- and now, even when he tried, he still couldn't totally smother the corner of his mind that still watched them with wonder.
Sephiroth's expression showed he had already dismissed that moment of friendly teasing from his mind. He watched Cloud. Cloud frowned back. "What is it?"
"Am I at least allowed to walk there on my own?" He smiled, faintly sarcastic. "It would be nice to enjoy the night at least once before I die again."
Cloud's eyelid twitched. Of all the people in the world, Sephiroth was the last who was allowed to guilt him into anything.
"If I kill you again, you'll be awake," he promised harshly, before he could think better.
He had misgivings for a moment; no doubt that a lot of his friends would disagree. It would be safer and easier to put him down in his sleep. But Cloud didn't like the idea of slaying a man unaware, defenseless. They would just have to move his sleeping body to the desert first; there were more than enough wild, uninhabited areas on the Planet for another final battle.
"... Sure, you can walk," he added grudgingly, shrugging off the tension. He glanced at Zack. "You'd whine if I made you carry him."
"Damn right I would. I'd whine you like you've never been whined before."
That, and Cloud didn't have any Seal materia on him anyway. Granted, a good knock on the back of the head might do the trick. One, or several.
He just wasn't sure how the hell he would take Tifa aside to prepare her without letting Sephiroth out of his sight. Send Zack inside to talk to her first, maybe? Tifa hadn't known him as long as she had known Aeris, the shock wouldn't be as violent... But then maybe she wouldn't believe Zack. It had been a while; she might not remember him well enough to even recognize him.
"Well, if we're done negotiating last requests here!" Aeris exclaimed brightly.
She tugged on Cloud's sleeve, made a shooing gesture at Sephiroth, and started herding them toward the exit, her unbound hair dancing on her shoulders. Snickering, Zack followed on their heels.
"Home! Let's go home now. I want to see Tifa."
Tifa's bar was brand new, Aeris had never lived there, but if he said that, he knew she'd reply something horribly corny like 'home is where the heart is.' She would mean every word of it, too. So Cloud went, allowing her to keep the arm he didn't hold his sword with so long as it kept his body between hers and Sephiroth, Zack taking the rear like he'd never stopped guarding his back. Sephiroth's silent presence was unnerving, but listening to his two lost friends as they marveled over the living world -- even such a dirty, disused part of it as the Slums -- kept it in the background.
He still didn't know why Zack and Aeris were willing to go to such lengths for the man who had slain her and betrayed him to his torture and death -- and Cloud would ask them, yes, once he could talk freely -- but...
Having them back was worth it, even if the price was to have to deal with the headache that was a supposedly sane Sephiroth. Having them back was worth just about everything.
<[Chapter 1]< - >[Chapter 3>]