Redemption Day : Chapter 4
Author's note: Finally, the conclusion.
"I hate this," Zax said, before Cloud could even ask. "It's like being a guinea pig, only not near so cute."
"What are you doing?" Cloud said, forgetting completely about the specimen bottles he was supposed to be delivering to the lab. "Are you sick?"
"Nah." Zax picked up a cup of water from the waiting room table, drained it, and tossed it into the nearby wastebasket. There were quite a few crumpled paper cups already in there. "Regular mako effect testing. Be glad you didn't make the cut, kid. You'd be pissing in a jar three times a week." He rifled though the papers on his clipboard, which were thick with type and pink carbon slips. Zax closed his eyes and signed something at random. "Aren't you supposed to drop those off?"
"Oh." Cloud looked down at the crate in his arms. "Right." Cloud deposited the empty vials at the window and initialed the three delivery blanks. ShinRa was nothing if not heavy on the paperwork.
"Hey, Strife--" Zax made a noise of disgust at one of the questions. "With livestock? Hell no, what sicko writes these things up? -- Where you headed?"
"Back to patrol," Cloud said, unsubtly trying to see what the rest of the questions on Zax's clipboard were. He'd checked 'no' a lot.
"Could you do me a favor?" Zax checked his watch, and scowled. "I'm gonna be late for my mission briefing, could you run up and tell Seph I'm stuck in the lab?"
Cloud's stomach took a sudden drop. "Seph-- Sephiroth?"
"Yeah. You know where his office is, right?" Zax rattled his watch back down his wrist, and scribbled his name in the blank at the bottom of the questionnaire. "Tell him I've gotta give some samples and I'll be up just as soon as they're done with me. He'll understand, he's had to do it enough himself." Zax tore off the top sheet and went on to the second one, and it was a moment before he realized Cloud was still standing there. "What are you waiting for? He's seen me with you, he knows who you are. Go on, I'll see you for dinner." He waved Cloud off, going back to his papers, and Cloud had no choice but to do as he was told.
It really sucked to be outranked by your best friend.
Sephiroth's office was on the 54th floor of the ShinRa building, in the military wing. Yes, Cloud knew where it was. Everybody knew where it was, and whose it was, even though his door was just as nondescript as every other standard-issue ShinRa class-2 doorway on the floor.
Cloud had never been less than 300 yards away from Sephiroth. He was not quite sure what he expected to find, behind that door, hanging in glory around the White General. Zax might laugh out loud in his presence and call him Seph, but Zax was not a grunt like the rest of the army, and Zax had once carried an injured Sephiroth on his back out of the jungle. It made for familiarity between the two of them, Cloud was sure, but Zax had a habit of forgetting that to the rest of the world, Sephiroth was just two steps shy of deity status.
And to Cloud, maybe not even those two steps away.
The door buzzer rang like any other, and Cloud wiped clammy hands on his pants, half hoping and half dreading that Sephiroth would not be in his office.
No such mercy.
It was common, among the ranks, to wonder what The General was like on his own time. His office surely was the best in Midgar, no doubt stocked with trophies from his many victories, prizes from Wutai and exotic locations.
It did in fact smell strongly of paint, and there were drop cloths on the floor. Masamune, the great black sword, lay sheathed across a low sheet-covered table. The general himself was sitting on a crate, balancing his laptop on his knees, long hair pulled back and wire-framed spectacles on the end of his nose. "Pardon the mess," he said, not looking up. "Why they can't redecorate when I'm gone is beyond me."
Cloud simply goggled, his reason for coming flying entirely out of his head.
Sephiroth, who clearly expected to be informed immediately as to the reason for the intrusion, blinked up when there was no prompt delivery of message. "Yes, Boy? What is it?"
Cloud shut his mouth with an audible noise. Spectacles and office furnishings be damned, nothing that looked like Sephiroth could be ordinary. "Zax'llbelatehe'sinthelab." Cloud said, and added, "Sir."
Cloud wondered, for a wild second, if Sephiroth was prone to killing messengers. Then he thought maybe not, but he probably could read minds, and the resultant look on Cloud's face as he tried to both think and not think about the sword on the table was no doubt exceedingly comical.
"Strife, isn't it?"
Cloud stopped breathing, then started again. "You-- you know who I am?"
"Of course. You're Zax's friend. In the lab, did you say?" He didn't wait for confirmation, standing up and setting his laptop down on the crate. He lifted a few sheets, looking for his filing cabinet. Cloud's curiosity got the better of his common sense, and he sidled to the left a little to see what was on The General's screen. Battle plans, most likely. Or an important e-mail to the president. He found it was mostly text, in stanzas, the cursor blinking demurely at the end of the last line.
Beyond the dreams in ice
Remember the voice of angels.
Sephiroth shut the file drawer with a bang and Cloud jumped, trying to find an innocuous place to rest his eyes. There was more he hadn't read, but Sephiroth stepped in front of the crate, blocking Cloud's view of the laptop screen. "Mission file. Take this down to him, Strife. He can come up and see me when he's done being leeched. Dismissed."
Cloud accepted the manila file automatically, bowed, and left Sephiroth's office, all in a kind of daze. He wasn't sure why, but of all the unexpected things about Sephiroth, he found himself most surprised by the fact that the deadliest man in the world wrote poetry.
"Yuck," Zax said cheerfully, sitting down across from Cloud in the dining hall. "You aren't going to eat that, are you? What'd they call it?"
Cloud looked at his slab-like entrée and prodded it with a spork. "Meatloaf."
Zax wrinkled his nose, pulling the tray away. "You can't eat that, I've got to keep you alive. You're being shipped out day after tomorrow." He stood and dumped the tray in the nearest disposal, Cloud trailing after him. "C'mon, let's go to that place in Sector five. The Wutai one."
"I'm being shipped out?" Cloud could not bring himself to be sorry about his appropriated dinner. "why? Am I in trouble?"
Zax shook his head. "Didn't you look at the mission file you brought me?"
Cloud was indignant. "Of course not. It was confidential."
Zax stopped short in the hallway, digging in his pants for his keycard. "I swear, Strife. I think you're the only honest person in this outfit. We're heading out for Nibelheim, some kind of reactor inspection. I wrangled your name on the escort list, thought you'd like to go home." He looked up and caught Cloud's stunned expression. "...Maybe I thought wrong."
Cloud shook his head quickly. "No, No, It's not that. It's only that I'm not-- I said that I was gonna--" Cloud shut his mouth, waving a hand as if to erase his words. Zax waited patiently. "Forget it. Sorry." Cloud smiled, and it was only a little forced. "Thanks, Zax. It'll be good to see Mom again."
Zax narrowed his eyes appraisingly. "Hey, we all say we're gonna leave our backwater hometown and join SOLDIER, kid." Zax grinned, pulling Cloud into the elevator. "Take it from me, you should be glad not to be in it. It's no picnic."
"Backwater home town?" Cloud was puzzled. "You aren't from Midgar?"
Zax laughed. "I'm as far from Midgar as it gets."
Cloud should not have been surprised to find Reno waiting on the inn stairs. The Turks, these days, seemed to know everything that was going on, anywhere in the world, and it could hardly be hoped that a small thing like fishing Sephiroth out of the North Crater would have escaped their notice.
"Hello, Cloud." Reno said amicably, as if he had never tried to drop half a city on Cloud's head. "Up for a little skiing?"
"What are you doing here?" Cloud demanded, knowing full well, and knowing he'd be damned before he let the ShinRa get in his way.
"We like to keep tabs on our employees," Reno said, bracing his foot on the banister and blocking Cloud's path. "Company policy."
"Reno, quit provoking him." Tseng stepped out of the shadows at the top of the stairs, and Reno obediently dropped his leg to let him pass. "Mr. Strife. I trust you and your teammates are doing well?"
Cloud scowled, not liking this one bit. "I still don't know what you're--"
"Mr. Valentine," Tseng said, raising his voice slightly, "Informed us of your endeavor, here. We wished to have options available to us, and to... certain valued members of our company, if your efforts were successful. I do not think your people or ours wish to endanger what we are trying to rebuild?"
The door a the top of the stairs opened and closed, and Zax blinked down at the scene below him. "It's okay, Cloud. They asked."
"Not me, they didn't," Cloud grumbled, but Tseng had turned to look up at Zax.
"Did you discuss the matter with him?"
"I did." Zax limped down the steps, one at a time, grasping the rough-hewn banister for support. "I think he's willing to do it. I think he wants to, even. Vincent's talking to him now."
"He's awake?" Cloud was sick and tired of being the last person to know things. "what about--"
"My apologies, Mr. Strife." Tseng inclined his head. "We had hoped, if you and" he nodded to the closed door at the top of the stairs, "...your guest were amendable to the prospect, that he would accept a position with us, again."
Cloud stared. "You want to hire Sephi--"
"Of course," Tseng said, purposefully overriding the name, "Only if he is in condition, mentally and physically, to be of use, and certainly no danger, to us or anyone else. I think Mr. Darklighter has confirmed that?"
"It's all right, Cloud." Zax nodded, and Cloud could see the shadows under his eyes. No wonder the bed had been empty this morning. "I've been talking to him all night, me and Vincent. You can go and see him yourself, if you want."
"I'm sure you understand the need for reliable communication in this day and age." As businesslike as Tseng was, it was still a bit hard to believe his casual tone, what with Reno standing behind him and absently twirling his nightstick. "We are working on a kind of network, to ensure a steady flow of information, with both our group and yours. We would like it if Mr. Darklighter and your guest were to join forces, as it were, and keep an eye on things for us. We have no one to monitor Costa Del Sol."
"Now wait just a damn minute," Cloud said, taking a step up and discovering that Tseng was still taller. "Since when are you guys in charge of the planet? He's not going anywhere or doing anything until I'm convinced he's not going to try to drop another meteor on our heads, and--"
"Cloud," Vincent interrupted from the landing, closing Sephiroth's door quietly behind him. "He wants to see you."
Sephiroth's room was dark. They had brought him here, three days ago, wrapped up in blankets and Vincent's cape. The innkeeper might have been suspicious of their excuse that it was merely a friend of theirs who was sick. But Cloud had learned in recent months that his name and AVALANCE could pack a lot of wallop, especially when combined with a liberal amount of gil.
Sephiroth slept for two days, fitfully, and Vincent or Zax was always there to keep an eye on him. Vincent, Cloud was glad to note, kept his gun loaded and on his knee the entire time.
Cloud had requested not to be left in the room alone with him. Vincent and Zax had complied, without question.
In the darkest corner of the room sat the man who still haunted Cloud's dreams, and his nightmares. His hair was paler than the snow filling up the window, and even in the darkness his eyes gleamed.
Cloud wished he'd brought his sword.
"Hail the conquering hero," Sephiroth said, ruefully but without malice, lifting his head. His voice was hollower than Cloud remembered, as if he was recovering from illness. "It's no fun, is it, Cloud Strife?"
"No," Cloud said, surprised his voice was so calm, that his hands did not tremble. "It's not. Was it always that way?"
"Always," Sephiroth murmured, and folded long white hands in his lap. He was wearing a shirt and pants that Zax had scrounged, and they fit him awkwardly. It did not make him a fraction less intimidating. "Zax has told me much about you, Cloud Strife. And of the past five years." He stood, and Cloud could not help noticing that it was hard for him, that he was still weak. He picked out weak spots instinctively, in his armpit and side and the open collar of his throat.
"My apology will mean nothing to you." Sephiroth said, turning to Cloud. "and it will mean even less to those you are mourning. I will ask of you only one thing, which I have already asked of Zax. Is Jenova destroyed?"
"Yes." Cloud found himself biting off the 'sir' before it could escape his mouth. There was so much of the General still in Sephiroth, even ill-dressed, even so weak as to seem transparent. "I did it myself."
"Vincent Valentine has been able to tell me much of the nature of the Jenova Cells." Sephiroth moved to the window, and splayed a hand across the frosted glass. "The two of us are very much alike." He turned to Cloud, who had not moved from his position, two steps inside the room. "You don't trust me."
"No," Cloud said.
"And yet you do not fear me, either, Cloud Strife."
Cloud narrowed his eyes, knowing it was true. He was anxious, he was tense, he was on guard, but he was not afraid. "I've killed you before," he said, flatly.
He had not expected for Sephiroth to look sad. "A pity your hard work should go to waste. Would you exterminate me now, and have done with it? There's a knife in your belt; it would suffice."
Cloud considered. "No."
"No? Surely you slept better thinking me dead." Sephiroth regarded him keenly. "And yet you won't kill me now?"
"I'm not sure yet." Cloud drew the utility knife out of his belt, ran his thumb along the blade. "Vincent and Zax seem to trust you. They hear you, I don't. I'm not sure how much of what you did was really you; I'm not sure of your guilt. I'm not sure of a lot of things. It was easier when you were dead, but making you dead again won't answer any of my questions." Cloud slipped the knife back in its sheath. "It would only give me more things to lie awake over."
Sephiroth raised his eyebrows. "A shame about your incompatibility with Mako, Cloud. You'd have made a good SOLDIER."
Cloud felt rather suddenly as if he was trying to swallow a globe of materia. "Thank you, Sir."
The silence, though awkward, was mercifully brief.
"It would seem you will have a chance to answer your questions. Did Zax tell you about the ShinRa's proposal?"
"He mentioned it."
Sephiroth sat down on the unmade bed, and gestured to the chair. "Sit down, Cloud Strife. Vincent and Zax have both told me the story, but I would have in your own words how you defeated the greatest general of all time."
"You're honest." Sephiroth said. He had not interrupted, not once, until Cloud was finished. "Painfully so, I admit, but I'd rather that than untruth." He sighed. "I think I will do as I have been asked. There is, after all, very little other option. Zax has already requested a set of tracking materia, from the ShinRa. It will ensure that history does not repeat itself." Sephiroth's lips tightened. "In my present state, he is more than capable of overpowering me."
"I trust Zax," Cloud said. "So I won't stop you." He stood up. "History will not repeat itself." Cloud's eyes brightened, as if the mako in his blood could sense his emotion. "I will make sure of that."
Sephiroth nodded. There was, Cloud supposed, little he could say in response.
"If that's all," Cloud said, scenting escape, "I'll go and get Zax."
Cloud stopped, his hand on the latch. "Yes?"
"I have a favor to ask of you." Sephiroth reached up, and with one hand deftly lifted the white mass of his hair. "They will let me have nothing with an edge, and I fear I am too conspicuous as I am. So if you would, please, make some good use of that knife of yours?"
It seemed to take a long time for Cloud to turn around. Sephiroth waited, sitting patiently on the corner of the bed. He lowered his head when Cloud approached, and his hair slid over his shoulders like a glacier over stone.
"Are you sure?" Cloud had never touched Sephiroth before, not with his bare hands. Not since his days in the ranks had he thought about Sephiroth's hair, the way it reflected any color around it, the way it moved as he walked. He remembered asking Zax about it, only once. Zax had only said that Sephiroth was beautiful, and he'd be beautiful no matter what, and that was that. "Are you certain?"
"It's a small thing, but I cannot go undetected without it." He indicated a line, just above his shoulders. "Try to make it even, if you would."
Sephiroth's hair was softer than Cloud thought it would be, and heavy. Cool, too, as he gathered it in one-handed. He pulled the knife from his belt, thought of beating wings, and in one motion drew the blade across.
Sephiroth tipped his head forward a bit at the sudden absence of weight, and he reached up to rifle his fingers through his hair. There was no mirror in the room, but Sephiroth went to the window and studied his pale reflection in the frosted glass. "It will do. Thank you." He turned, and reached out his hand.
Cloud started. He'd forgotten he was still holding four feet of perfectly white hair, neatly severed above his fist.
"My name will not suffice, I have been thinking of a suitable replacement." Sephiroth ran his fingers over the detached length of his hair before opening the window and letting the brisk icy wind bear the strands away. "and Reno has an idea for how best to conceal my eyes. It will not be easy, but people are prone to believing what they want to believe." Sephiroth shut the window firmly. "As you have cause to know, Cloud."
"Why?" Cloud asked, looking at the three pale hairs that had caught on his fingers. "Why did you have me do this, and not Zax?"
"I should think it was obvious." Sephiroth's expression was the closest to a smile that Cloud had yet seen. "You are the man who killed Sephiroth. It wouldn't do for you to leave the job unfinished."
It had been in October, Cloud remembered. That first October of basic training, when the sky whipped up dark storms off the ocean and it would rain all weekend and they would play cards in the barrack lounge until they had nothing left to bet with but pinups of favorite porn stars. Good guys, most of them. Like Cloud. Nothing special.
But it didn't rain only on the weekends, and it made for a miserable post by the cargo entrance of the base, a boring sentry duty worsened by a sincere lack of shelter. Cold rain drizzled down the collar of his uniform until only the prospect of hot shower water on his skin and a cup of instant coffee and crawling under the blankets on his bunk got him though the hours of the day. His gun on his shoulder was an aching weight, and he was certain he'd never feel his toes or nose again.
The SOLDIER hadn't been wearing a raincoat, arms outstretched to the rain, head tilted back, the dark grey top of his uniform drenched by the downpour. His arms looked cold, bare to the rain, slick and shining under streetlights that were coming on before lunch on those stormy days. Ah, god, but he was one of them, and Cloud watched every move he made.
"Shitty duty, huh?"
It took Cloud a moment to realize he was being spoken to. "Huh?" he blinked. "Sir?"
"Gotta be. How long before you're off?"
Cloud fumbled for his watch under his glove, trying not to drop his gun, rubbing his thumb over the fogged-up crystal. "Twenty minutes."
The SOLDIER leaned against the chain-link fence, and it sagged slightly beneath his back. "What barracks you in?"
"Thirty-six, sir." Cloud tried not to sniffle.
He made a disparaging noise, and Cloud wondered frantically if he'd given the wrong answer, if this was some test of base security. "Sweet Shiva, that's miles. C'mon. Come with me."
"But I-" Cloud looked to the sentry in the box by the gate, a warm, dry post compared to his own. The sentry scowled, but then saw the SOLDIER and nodded, waving a hand at Cloud.
"Go on, Striff, If he needs ya."
"Strife, sir," Cloud muttered, but splashed eagerly after the officer waiting for him by the gate.
"Strife, is it?"
Cloud nodded, shifting the weight of his gun and trying to keep up with the long strides of his companion. "Cloud Strife, Sir."
He shook rain out of his hair, and grinned at Cloud over his wet shoulder. "Zax Darklighter."
Cloud knew who he was, but had never seen him, much less expected to be bustled up to his private apartment in the SOLDIER dormitory as if he was a childhood friend, ushered into the bathroom with plentiful hot water, told to take as long as he needed, given a dry bathrobe and hot cheese soup that didn't come out of a ration tin.
Zax never told him why he did it. Cloud supposed that he could have just wanted company for the night; it never occurred to him that a guy like Zax could ever possibly be lonely. And later that night, in a warm soft bed three times the size of the one in his barracks, it never occurred to Cloud that he might have been chosen for any reason besides chance.
It seemed to make up for all the bad luck of the rest of his life.
He remembered lying still well after midnight, with the rain still flowing down the window and filling the room with watered-down streetlight. He wondered if maybe Zax picked one every night, to press warm underneath him and kiss and touch and slide into, to make fall in love with him. He couldn't know, then, that one day he would be able to count on his fingers the number of nights afterwards that he'd spent alone, and that Zax would come to get him whether it rained or not.
"You know, usually when someone looks like that they're gonna be at the bar all night."
Cloud stirred, the stiffness in his backside enough to tell him he'd been drifting. "Sorry. Musta dozed off for a sec."
It was raining in Costa del Sol. October. Beginning of the off-season, and late afternoon. The bar was empty. "You want a refill?" Zax tapped the empty glass with one finger, and Cloud rubbed at his eyes.
"No thanks," Cloud rubbed his eyes. "I'm fading out as it is."
Zax refilled the glass anyway, three fingers full of cool amber liquid, and drank it himself. The wind blew outside, rattling the shutters on the windows. "I think I'm gonna close up," Zax said, to the glass in his hand. "Nobody in town is coming out in this mess."
Cloud looked at the rain-spattered windows, and shivered. "I don't blame them. Although it is better than snow."
"I always wanted to live someplace warm." Zax dumped the ice into the sink behind the bar, washing the glass with quick efficient motions. "Gongaga never really got cold, but hell, that first winter in Midgar? Thought I was gonna die."
Cloud traced patterns on the sleek polished surface of the bar, looking for images in the wood grain.
"I noticed you haven't asked yet," Zax said, nudging the glass into place beside its fellows. "or did you just come all the way down here for the bourbon?"
Cloud looked up, and folded his hands. "How is he?"
Zax shrugged. "He's quiet. He goes out on the beach a lot, after dark, and just watches the water. He has nightmares--" Zax reached up to fidget with the tracking materia dangling around his neck, "--that is, we have nightmares, now and then."
Cloud looked up at the clean rows of glasses, the ceiling fan reflected a thousand times over, twirling on their surfaces. "but he hasn't--"
"No," Zax said. "He hasn't."
Cloud sighed. "I still don't know, Zax."
Zax leaned his elbows on the counter. "Do any of us, Kid?"
Cloud shook his head. "I guess not."
Zax pushed himself up, and made his way to the front door. He grunted, pulling down the large crossbeam that served as a lock. The neon sign in the window said 'Darklighter's' in bright mako green, and it glowed dimly for a moment after Zax clicked it off. "Listen, Cloud. I know you weren't too keen on this idea, but I think it's gonna be okay."
Cloud waved a hand around the bar. "You seem to be doing pretty well."
"Yeah, well, Tifa gave me a few pointers." Zax ruffled his hair, and yawned. "Listen, I don't suppose you've got a chocobo you could loan me? I'd like to make a trip, and I really don't want to hassle the Shinra for a ride."
"Sure." Cloud slithered off the bar stool. "I'll loan you Roni. Cid's coming through here next week, I'll have him drop him off."
"Thanks. And thanks for the villa, too. It's nicer than what I thought we'd get."
Cloud shrugged. "I wasn't using it. Hey, Zax. You never told me what Sephi-"
Zax, halfway up the stairs, shot him a sharp look.
"Sorry. You never told me what name he'd decided to go under."
"Right." Zax grinned. "He wasn't sure about it, but I told him I thought it suited him." Zax looked up the stairs, and Cloud saw his gaze move inward, as if he was looking north again. "Frost."
Who would be knocking at this hour, she had no idea. It was well past dark, and none of the neighbors were prone to visiting after nightfall. Her husband had fallen asleep in his chair, too tired to make it into bed, and she was just finishing the dishes and looking forward to a bit of a sit-down herself. She wiped her hands hastily on a dishtowel and hurried to the door, grumbling as she pulled the bolt back.
If it was that good for nothing boy from the shop again, she'd have to tell him that if he wanted welding done he'd best wait until morning, when the forge was open. Hard working people needed their rest, she thought, slinging back the door. Especially now, with all of them barely scraping a living--
The person on the doorstep was unfamiliar in the dark, an anonymous shape leaning heavily against the gate-post. Some drunk, more than likely, trying to come home to the wrong door.
"Now see here, young man," she said crisply, "I'll not have--"
"Ma?" the figure shifted, and the light from her meager hearth fell on the stranger's face, reflected strangely in his unnatural eyes.
Mrs. Darklighter gave a soft sort of scream and put her trembling hands to her mouth. "Merciful gods..."
Zax let his rucksack fall on the porch. "Um, I'm home."