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Tightness. The impenetrable nature of an unnatural fog.

Fabric rustles around his legs as Cloud tries to move, wakefulness filtering through in fragments. It’s soft, silky, coasting over the bare skin of his legs like a gentle touch. 

It’s....certainly not the worn blanket he remembers going to sleep under.

The air around him is thick, suffused with an energy coursing through it. The sensation is muted, like the feeling of deep pressure on a fading bruise. It’s...pleasant, in the way picking at a scab is.

There’s a certain tightness around his ribs. It prods at Cloud’s consciousness, impossible to ignore, a lingering ache that sings of reality. 

He’s wearing a corset. 

Cloud blinks, and tries to remind himself of what really exists.

The corset...it’s virtually just like the one he remembers from Sector Six. Tight and unyielding, accompanied by the caress of a lilting voice and warm approving eyes. 

Nothing at all like the eyes which are staring at him now, cold and jade and lazy in their assuredness. He is the prey in this scenario, the unwitting and hapless fool who has been unfortunate enough to become ensnared.  

Or at least...that’s the feeling crawling across his skin, when he finally looks up to meet emerald eyes completely suffused by Mako.

Sephiroth stands with his arms loose at his sides, looking down his nose at where Cloud is sprawled out in a facsimile of repose. He looks eternally unchanging, as he ever does, and it’s debatable as to whether that fact makes Cloud feel any better about the situation or not.

He doesn’t have any weapon in hand, at least not yet, so Cloud takes that for the minute blessing it is.

“So.” Cloud goes to push himself to his feet, and instantly remembers how hard it is to breathe, let alone move wearing one of these things. “This is either your dream or mine, and I’m willing to bet it’s not yours.” For a dream, which this certainly must be, it’s a very convincing sensation.

Hmmm...First Tsurugi isn’t coming to hand either, so it’s also a very inconvenient dream. Despite the setbacks, when he finally rises to his feet, it’s to meet Sephiroth’s patented impassive stare with one of his own.

...if he’s a little out of breath, that’s between him and the pale white corset, thank you very much.

“I didn’t take you to have such inclinations, Cloud.” The voice, horribly familiar, creeps up his spine just as it ever does, both horribly warm and horribly cold. Cloud forcibly shoves the sensation away with an internal shrug.

Sephiroth’s face has yet to form into any identifiable expression other than what would appear to be slight confusion, so Cloud just rolls his eyes. “If it bothers you, then get the hell out of my head.”

As far as his dreams go, it’s not the worst. As far as his nightmares go, it’s positively idyllic. Sephiroth’s presence obviously takes it down a few notches, but we can’t have everything now, can we?

It’s been quite awhile, since he’s worn a gown like this. It’s...more than what he remembers it being. 

For him to have such a dream...

The dress is bone white, the color of nice teeth and freshwater pearls. The bodice is comprised of the aforementioned corset, and as it curls over his chest it turns to lace, encircling his neck with its dainty floral pattern. The sleeves are made of the same sheer lace, contrasting with the smooth pale silk of the long skirt. It hugs his hips slightly before flaring out, not quite a ball gown, but more of an evening dress. 

Or at least, those were terms that sounded vaguely right, from the astonishingly little he actually knows about high fashion. As far as dresses go, it’s not bad. It’s not... comfortable, or even easy to move it, but the way it feels around his body carries with it a certain tingle, something he can’t quite put a name to.

Sephiroth doesn’t seem to know what to think of it either. The other has yet to take his eyes off of Cloud’s form, and in any other context, Cloud might’ve made a smart remark about it. That said, it seems a little silly to argue with a Sephiroth who is likely nothing more than a remnant trace left in Cloud’s subconscious. 

It’s his own dream after all. It has to be. There’s no reason Sephiroth would know about his one night stint at the Honeybee Inn those three years ago, and it’s inconceivable the madman had managed to conjure the idea up on his own. The very thought of it is ridiculous, and a laugh tickles at the back of Cloud’s throat.

The realistic nature of the sensation strikes him once again, and he swallows hard. His dreams have been nothing less than real for years now. It is foolish to expect anything less, ever since his very humanity has been so twisted and toyed around with.

The faint and sonorous whisper in the back of his head that he has named ‘probably Sephiroth related’ is oddly quiet for once, not even rearing its head in it’s normal faint murmurs or hand tremors. He tries not to think too much of it.

“Is this sort of thing what you choose as a diversion?” Slowly, that same harsh and sickly smile spreads itself over Sephiroth’s face, as he gestures loosely to Cloud’s outfit. Cloud feels his eye twitch slightly in response. “I wouldn’t have thought it of you.”

Cloud crosses his arms over his lace covered chest. “You’re not even real. You’re just my head playing tricks on me.” With a huff, he turns away, instead casting his gaze into the nothingness that surrounds their two forms.

Despite the fact that there is no ‘floor’ or even ‘ceiling’ to speak of, in this cerebral undefined place, the heels of Sephiroth’s boots are still audible in their approach. The sound of his voice is barely more than a whisper. “Am I?” 

There must be invisible strings somewhere in Cloud’s mind, and he feels their tie to Sephiroth tug as if in a visceral sense. A side effect of the J-cells, or perhaps some other such mental link that was established at one point or another. The fact remains, the presence behind him is a whispering shadow, but it is a whispering shadow he knows as well as the back of his own hand.

The presence halts, directly behind Cloud, and again he marvels at how the rush of breath against the back of his neck feels so real. “Do you take me for yet another one of your nightmares?” There’s an oddly smug note to Sephiroth’s tone, but it rings familiar. 

Most of the things that Sephiroth does ring familiar, in an odd and empty kind of way, but Cloud elects to ignore that thought for the sake of his own sanity. “You are one of my nightmares. You’re everyone’s nightmare.”

He pauses, and amends the statement. “And the real Sephiroth wouldn’t care about what I was wearing when he tries to run me through.”

“How narrow minded of you.” The whispers in the back of Cloud’s mind kickstart with a vengeance as a leather-clad hand trails over the back of his waist. “Very bold assumptions, at any rate. You seem to flatter yourself that you know me quite well.”

With a sigh that’s born more of irritation than any real fear, Cloud reaches back and grabs the wandering hand before it can somehow manage to upset any of the corset’s lacings. “I know you well enough.”

“Do you?” The hand, when he grabs the wrist, does not move or struggle in his grasp. “Then tell me, Cloud. What is my favorite color?”

The utter inanity of the question blindsides him, and Cloud’s mind takes an extra two moments to process it at all. “...what?”

“Answer the question, Cloud. If you know me so well, it should be no trouble.” Sephiroth’s tone is utterly unruffled, but the taint of insanity has yet to creep into his voice, as it always inevitably does. 

Cloud swallows around the sudden rock in his throat.

What the hell even is this dream? Was Tifa trying out a bold new mixer last night? Even as he fumbles for an answer, the confusion only intensifies. “...black or blood red, or some shit like that.” 

“Wrong.” Sephiroth doesn’t bother to elaborate, and Cloud finds the wrist he was holding onto gently and efficiently extricated from his grasp. “I should think it obvious, but perhaps such things would go above your head.”

Glancing over his shoulder, the only sign of amusement on the madman’s face is the slight upturn to his lips. “I didn’t think you were the type to have a favorite color.”

“Then I must be a man of many surprises.” 

“You’re annoying, that’s what you are.”

It occurs to Cloud, in an odd moment of salience, that this is perhaps the longest conversation they’ve ever had without any swords involved. It makes his fingers twitch for First Tsurugi’s familiar hilt, anything to calm the sudden itch running up his spine.

Sephiroth’s smile only deepens, and something seizes in Cloud’s ribcage.

He laughs because that’s all he can think to do, empty and without any mirth. “Whatever. It’s not like it matters. This is a dream, that’s why you’re making even less sense than usual.”

“So you really think I’m merely a figment of your subconsciousness, do you?” There’s another slight brush of hands at his waist, and before Cloud can do anything about it, the ground under him moves very suddenly, and he finds himself tilted back into arms that are more powerful than many machines. “What a dark little mind you must have.”

Staring straight up like this there’s no way to avoid Sephiroth’s acid green stare, as it’s the only thing to look at save for the surrounding nothingness. Cloud stares back into the Mako-ridden eyes, almost without being able to help himself. 

It is some facsimile of a dance, some parody of a gentleman holding his partner in a dip. Suddenly, he can barely breathe.

“What do you-” Cloud stops, in order to take a breath. “What are you doing?” It comes out much more whispery than he would’ve liked.

Even if it’s his own dream, he’s displaying an utter lack of control over it. The only remaining option is...to play along for now. Just until he can wake up.

Sephiroth’s hands are secure against the small of his back, oddly warm against him through the combined leather and silk. The man’s hair falls around them like silver curtains, and suddenly there is no outside otherness to focus on, there is only Sephiroth.  

“To think.” And Sephiroth’s voice comes out slightly deeper than normal, making a shudder run up and down his spine. “To think that someone like you should become my antithesis.” 

Cloud scowls, as the only other option would be to continue hanging there in Sephiroth’s arms and wondering how exactly his subconscious has apparently gotten to the point of casting him as the heroine of a ten gil romance novel. “It’s incredible that this isn’t even the real you and you’re still so infuriating.”

“Cloud.” The same sickly sweet smile paints itself over Sephiroth’s lips, as if Cloud has said something funny and he’s indulging him by acting amused. “If you insist on continuing to be obtuse, I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet.”

It’s all he can do to stare up at the man with widened eyes. “...what the hell?” Just to prove he can, Cloud pushes against the hands holding him in place and attempts to stand up straight again. “You’re going to come into my head and tell me to shut up? That’s just--hhngh-”

Instead of standing up straight and having a good old fashioned stare down like Cloud was envisioning, Sephiroth merely adjusts his hold, twirling Cloud around to be flush against his chest in some parody of an embrace. “So you admit I’ve come from outside your head.”

His line of sight is directly at Sephiroth’s breastbone, and Cloud attempts to ignore the odd feeling in the pit of his stomach that rises up whenever he thinks about the fact that the erstwhile-general’s clavicles are literally above his eye level.

...pull it together.

Cloud grits his teeth. “It doesn’t matter. If you try to come back and hurt anyone else, you know what I’ll do to you.” Any Sephiroth is still Sephiroth, on some level. But the idea that this one specifically is the same original amalgamation of consciousness that has haunted him for years now…

It explains why the whispers in the back of his head had seemed so silent. They were anything but, the internal sound of the J-cells clamoring for reunion and home had been so loud he didn’t even register them. Panic flares at the base of his spine but it’s...it’s somehow…

Something flares at the base of his spine, at any rate.

Sephiroth smiles, slow like honey, sinuous as a snake. “There is no escape from me, Cloud. Wherever you are, I am always with you.” His voice is nothing more than a low rasp, something which echoes in the little space that’s left between them.

Cloud suddenly finds his breath gone again, but somehow it isn’t the corset’s fault this time.

It’s true what Sephiroth says, no matter what he does or doesn’t feel about it. They are horribly and irrevocably intertwined. So long as there is Cloud, there will be Sephiroth, centered and clinging to his chosen focal point of existence.

And as if the man curled around him can read his thoughts- “You will never be free of me, as long as you live.”

...It’s true.

When Cloud reaches for his voice, it’s nothing more than a shell of a whisper. “And when I die?” All he can do is continue to look up, into the cold emeralds that seem to look through his own eyes and straight into his thoughts.

For a moment, there is silence. Sephiroth’s smile widens.

“When you die, I will be there to catch you.”

It’s as if his heart is trying to thud it’s way out of his chest, straight through the bone and sinew and white lace, only to climb right into Sephiroth’s ribcage and finally attain some level of peace and quiet. Cloud’s lips part, as he stares up at his exoneration from any sense of mundanity.

“What is it that you want from me?” Steeling his shoulders, wits, and mental walls, Cloud sharpens his dumbfounded expression into a glare. “I’m not your vessel and I never will be again.”

“Oh, Cloud.” There’s almost a laugh in Sephiroth’s tone, if it could even be called that. “You’re much more than that.” For the first time since this exchange has begun, something manic sparkles in the feline eyes locked with his own.

It strikes him then, that he hasn’t made so much as a wriggle to be free of Sephiroth’s…’embrace’. Perhaps it’s the surreal nature that comes with being trapped in a dream. Perhaps it’s the nothingness around them. Perhaps it’s the corset. 

Perhaps...perhaps the leather clad arms encircling him make the whispers in the back of his skull feel well and truly sated for once.

Cloud grits his teeth. “You don’t know what I am.”

“Then tell me.” The look on Sephiroth’s face can only be described as a kind of lazy indulgence. “What is it that you are, Cloud Strife?”

“I’m-“ A thousand whispers collide in the back of his mind, roiling and bubbling with a million unsaid words, a million surges of tiny half-formed thought. 

There are no words. There are too many.

The breath in his lungs is whistled away again, as Sephiroth leans forward slightly, and a strand of hair like liquid mercury brushes against Cloud’s cheek.

“I’m alive.” It comes out as a whisper, but echoes like a shout in Cloud’s ears. “Despite everything, despite everything you’ve done, despite everything I’ve done, I’m alive. And when this dream ends I will still be alive.” 

Sephiroth’s smile is razor sharp. “So you begin to understand.” His eyes half close in a smirk, the lazy confidence of a predator who has achieved whatever it was they desired. 

It begins to feel as though he will never quite catch his breath, not at this rate. For a moment, Cloud leans into the dizzying sensation, and lets go. 

For a moment, everything blurs.

It’s unclear who moves first, or if anyone moves at all. At some point there simply ceases to be a distinction between ‘I’, and ‘he’ and ‘we’, and everything simply is. There is no ‘Cloud Strife’ and there is no ‘Sephiroth’, there is only the amalgamation the two have become. The back and forth and the in between, and the give and take when there is nothing to give and nothing to take.

Life and death, locked into a waltz without end.

And then the moment ends, and Cloud opens his eyes to stare breathlessly up into the face of a man who he had once admired and thrice killed. 

Sephiroth only stares back with an eerie clarity to his jade eyes. If anything they’ve leaned closer together, and Cloud finds that things like corsets and dreams and ‘shoulds’ and ‘should-nots’ feel very far away and inconsequential in the moment. 

Idol. Man. Less than man. More than man. Would-be god. Will-not-be god.

My nothing. My everything.

Before he can think too hard about any of it, Cloud braces himself against the solid planes of Sephiroth’s chest, pushes up onto his toes, and seals their mouths together.

Warm. Together. Reunion. Reunion.

Whole.

Any worries he might have had about the consequences of such an action are promptly swept away when Sephiroth’s mouth moves against his, the touch knowing and firm, like he can already tell exactly what Cloud wants from him without even having to ask.

Despite the fact it’s arguably the closest intimacy he’s achieved with a veritable demigod so far, Cloud can’t help but think that the way Sephiroth’s mouth trembles slightly against the brush of his teeth over his bottom lip is oddly...human. It’s enchanting in its contradiction, and like a man possessed he leans in closer, chasing it, desiring more.

The warm velvet that is Sephiroth’s mouth pressed against his hurries away all remaining thoughts. The waves rush forward to tear him away from the shore, and Cloud leans back and just lets them.

At some point or another, they end up sprawled on top of one another, a pile of limbs that hadn’t made much sense to begin with. Sephiroth’s knees are bracketing his hips, and Cloud’s hands are fisted in what feels like miles and miles of silver hair. There is no sound, other than the noise of their mouths and the sharp sounds of drawn breath.

The layers of unreality shudder at the strain.

With an air of devastating finality, Sephiroth slowly leans away, sitting up to look down at where Cloud is spread out underneath him, a mess of kiss-flushed lips and white silk. “It appears we have come to an impasse.”

Drowsily, Cloud blinks up at him in confusion. It takes an extra few seconds for his mind to kickstart back into working and exiting ‘kissed senseless by Sephiroth, because that’s a thing now apparently’ mode. “...what?”

“Not yet.” Whatever turmoil had briefly flashed over the man’s expression is gone, replaced by the usual smug serenity. “However, I will allow you another guess, should you desire it.”

Somewhat clumsily, Cloud attempts to sit up, but Sephiroth’s weight on his hips prevents him from getting any higher then pushing himself up to his elbows. “The hell are you talking about now?” It’s such an abrupt change of tone that his question comes out a little more snappish than he intended.

Sephiroth smiles again, a tiny upturn to the corners of his mouth. “Have you already forgotten?”

Cloud scowls in response. “Apparently so, you cryptic bast-” The rest of the phrase is promptly stolen away as Sephiroth leans down once again to quite literally steal the words off of his lips.

“I’ll indulge you.” The words are practically whispered directly into his mouth, but Cloud finds he can’t rightly say he’s particularly adverse to the sensation. “My-” and then the sentence is broken up so another kiss can be laid on the corner of Cloud’s mouth. “Favorite-” Another, left gently on his Cupid’s bow. “Color.” The third kiss is laid neatly across his mouth, and Cloud instinctively gasps up into the sensation.

It falls away all too quickly. Sephiroth’s thumb and forefinger rise up to hold Cloud’s chin in place, not that he can say he was thinking of moving it away anytime soon. “It’s a very particular shade of white, the color of bone, and of pearls.” 

Cloud can only stare, deep into blinding Mako green, and suddenly understand why some people feel compelled to write poetry.

“Sephiroth-!!”

When he reaches out his hand, there is nothing to greet him, and Cloud finds himself treated to the sight of his grey bedroom wall, safely in Seventh Heaven. The blankets are all twisted up between his legs, and somehow, his pillow had become tightly clutched to his chest at some point during the night.

It takes an ample few seconds for him to catch his breath, and try to wrap his mind around anything that took place. Groaning, Cloud drags a hand over his face. It’s probably time to get up anyway, and bug Tifa to see if she’d tried any new concoctions last night. For a dream like that, it had to have been something especially potent.

There are a multitude of feelings, swirling through his chest in a lilting waltz. He ignores them.

Cloud turns, moving to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. His whole body aches, but the ribs especially, most likely a result of being hunched over a desk for long hours recently. Cloud sighs, and resigns himself to a day of a constant crick in his back. Changing Fenrir’s oil will give him an excuse to not think about anything at all, but especially not about dreams that are better left unanalysed.

He goes to stand, and-

...hm?

There, in his lap, laying nonchalantly on top of the coverlet, is a single black feather.