Summary: After an explosion goes off too close to Cloud, he loses his hearing. But in the battle that preceded the injury did he lose something more?
Warnings: Offscreen death, mentions of failed CPR
A/N: This is a stand alone short that took me far too long to finish. It’s a somewhat harsh one, I’m afraid…(and poorly edited)
Zack’s apartment held none of the familiar warmth Cloud had come to associate it with. Cloud squinted at the world, his brows twisted and his vision blurred by tears. The ringing in his ears was unabating, even though he knew that at this point it was entirely internal. “Tinnitus from acoustic trauma” the doctor had written on a piece of paper. Cloud had barely been able to focus on the writing, and hadn’t managed to bring himself to care.
Zack led him back to the bedroom, his hand warm on Cloud’s back. His lips were moving whenever Cloud looked over at him, but he could only hear the softest muffled sounds, as though Zack were trying to talk to him underwater. The bomb had been too loud. Cloud hadn’t managed to pay attention well enough to know if his hearing would come back. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted it too.
He hadn’t been able to save anyone. In the deepest part of himself, he was glad that he’d been hurt. It was only fitting.
He sat on the bed when Zack pushed lightly on his shoulder, and gazed blearily as the Soldier pulled out the pad of paper the doctor had given him, scribbling on it swiftly.
‘I’m going to make you some tea. Try to rest, okay?’ The writing said, followed by a little doodle of a heart and a cartoonish sleeping face.
Cloud didn’t smile. He couldn’t. He cast Zack a doleful look, taking the pencil from his hand and scrawling his reply rather than trying to speak.
‘Go away Zack.’
He shoved the pad and pencil towards Zack, turning over on the bed to better ignore his best friend. The guilt coiling inside him only built at his own harsh response, but he couldn’t face Zack’s relentless optimism and affection. Not now.
A warm hand rested over his shoulder for a moment, but Cloud shrugged it off, curling in on himself. The hand retreated, and Cloud was left alone. It was a long time before he snuck a glance over his shoulder. Zack was gone.
The way his chest tightened at that fact was completely irrational and Cloud knew it. Zack was only respecting his wishes, after all. He had no right to feel so abandoned.
He curled up tight on the bed and covered his mouth with a hand, hoping desperately that he was succeeding in silencing the shuddering tear-choked breaths escaping him.
He stayed there, lost in guilt and memory. If he had been faster, or better… If he’d been a little stronger… If it had been someone else instead of him, maybe everything could have been averted.
When fingers brushed over his arm, Cloud jumped, jolted out of his guilt violently. He jerked away from the touch, whirling, ready to glare at Zack for all he was worth. His rage flickered and vanished when his gaze met cool green eyes and a solemn presence that was nothing like Zack’s warmth and enthusiasm. Cloud’s mouth went dry automatically at the sight of the General. He’d met him four times before, had even spoken with him—held entire conversations—but he had not been prepared to face him over this.
Sephiroth gazed at him a long moment, then sat slowly on the edge of the bed, pulling out the notebook Zack had been carrying. His gaze never left Cloud even as he wrote, his left hand sure and quick as he jotted down neatly spelled words. When he handed the notebook to Cloud, the trooper took it in both hands. When General Sephiroth handed you something, you took it.
‘They tell me you refused a restore in medical.’ The note read, succinct and perfectly scribed, despite the apparent inattention of the man writing it.
‘I don’t want it.’ Cloud wrote back, offering the book briskly, averting his eyes and hoping Sephiroth left soon. He didn’t want to cry in front of the General. Zack must have called him in. Cloud’s face felt like it was burning in shame. Sephiroth must have known about his failure by now.
One pale silver eyebrow lifted as Sephiroth took the note from him without more than glancing at it. He sat there a long moment before writing back to him.
‘CPR is rarely effective. Even in ideal circumstances the chance of the victim recovering is infinitesimal.’
Cloud barely managed to read the whole sentence. His entire body was shaking with tension. His lips tightened, and he shoved the unwelcome words away, pushing Sephiroth’s hand back towards himself. The ringing in his ears got louder as he fought back tears. He ducked his chin, his hands twisting into the covers surrounding him, just to have something to hang onto.
"I had to try," Cloud choked. His voice was barely audible even to himself, wavering and strangely pitched, but his eyes were too foggy with tears to write. "Zack would have tried. You would have…"
Sephiroth interrupted him with a sharp gesture. Cloud flinched, but the General just took Cloud’s chin in hand and lifted his head, forcing him to make eye contact. Then Sephiroth gravely shook his head, so slowly it barely set his arching bangs in motion. Cloud felt something go cold inside himself at the look on Sephiroth’s face, even through the fog of tears.
Sephiroth turned back to the paper between them and started writing. Cloud watched the words appear on the page with a sick, terrible finality.
‘I rarely stop for the wounded, and never for the dead.’ He wrote. ‘I know the fundamentals of CPR, but I have never attempted it, and doubt I ever will.’
"What?" Cloud whispered, or tried to. He wasn’t sure he made a sound, but Sephiroth answered anyway.
'If I had stopped for every body in Wutai, we would have been destroyed before the war ended. It is why we started assigning the helmets in the first place. So that Soldiers would stop trying to tend to one another based on personal attachment.'
Cloud’s fingers clenched in the covers. He trembled, thinking of the faceless bodies of infantrymen on the battlefield. It must have been a massacre. And Sephiroth—his HERO—had never stopped to help them.
He drew a breath, unsure what he would say, or even if it would be intelligible through his tears and deafness. But he stopped at the look on Sephiroth’s face. The man was regarding him with a blank, sad expression in his eyes, as though all the life had been drained out of him.
He mouthed something, but Cloud shook his head at him. He could no more read his lips than he could hear him. It was one thing to divine Zack’s words from his animated features, but Sephiroth’s lips barely moved when he spoke, and his gestures and facial expression gave nothing away.
Sephiroth looked down at the paper instead, writing slowly.
‘I am not a hero. I am a warrior. Zachary is a hero. And so are you, for trying despite the odds.’
Cloud took the pencil from him almost before he finished writing. His fingers shook as he added a sloppy question under Sephiroth’s grim statement.
‘Could I have saved him if I’d done better?’
His mind was still repeating all their instruction. Roughly one hundred beats per minute to the heart, firm pressure, but careful of breaking ribs, pause to check for breathing and heartbeat, continue, skip the breathing into lungs, wait for medical assistance, except assistance never came—only a barrage of fire from the enemy, knocking him away from his friend’s body and leaving his ears ringing and his brain dazed and his body immobile…
Sephiroth’s hands cupped his cheeks, and Cloud blinked back to reality, finding the man staring intently at him, a frown on his features. Cloud took a shaking breath, then another, tears cascading down his cheeks. Only when he was breathing steadily again did the frown smooth off Sephiroth’s features. He brushed his fingers over Cloud’s cheek and drew his attention down to the page.
'No one could have helped him.'
Cloud shattered right then and there. He collapsed over the notebook, sobbing his anguish and sorrow. He could still feel the other trooper’s still chest under his shaking hands as he tried to gather his strength to start CPR. Could still see the trail of blood leaking from his parted lips as he forced his still chest into motion. Could still see the glazed horror in his eyes.
Sephiroth’s hand rested lightly on his back, unmoving, but present. Cloud lay there, sobbing like a child until he couldn’t stomach it anymore. He choked in a breath, forcing the tide of emotions back. He sat up slowly, wiping the tears off his face, and received an approving nod from Sephiroth for it. The man’s eyebrows were slightly furrowed. It was hard to tell if the expression was distaste or concern, and Cloud found himself internally split, uncertain about the intent of the look.
The General removed his hand, lifting the notebook again, writing steadily as Cloud tried to calm his shaking. When Sephiroth placed it between them, Cloud didn’t shy away from reading it. He braced himself for what words it might hold, and found himself confused for a moment. It wasn’t what he’d expected to read.
‘Denying yourself care does no good for anyone.’
Cloud fumbled for the pencil, adding a shaky question mark under the words rather than trying to reply coherently.
Sephiroth caught his eyes again, and lifted his arm, indicating his bracer. One of his matera glowed softly as the General awakened it with a touch of his long-fingered hand. Cloud flinched at the sight of the restore, biting his lip. Sephiroth made no move to cast on him, though. He sat still, waiting, and Cloud caught a breath, realizing that just like Zack and the medics, Sephiroth wouldn’t force him to accept the healing. But the expectant look on the General’s face and the words glaring up at him from the page made Cloud question his motivation to refuse.
Finally, he lowered his head and nodded. Before he’d even finished the motion, he felt the tingling of a healing spell wash over him. He shuddered as his ears popped, a rush of sound coming with the restore. He shuddered, feeling sick to his stomach, but he didn’t let himself show the weakness he felt.
“Very good.” Sephiroth praised, his voice low and quiet. It rang perfectly clearly in Cloud’s ears.
“How do you live with it?” Cloud whispered, his voice shaking, but suddenly audible again. He winced at how fragile he sounded.
“With not attempting to revive those killed in battle?” Sephiroth asked, his voice dull and blank. “I have no option, Cloud. If I were to tie myself up in those thoughts, I would be unable to help my men who are still standing.”
Cloud lifted his eyes to Sephiroth’s grim face, watching him lower his hand from casting the restore, sitting still on the bedside.
“You were foolish to try.” Sephiroth whispered, his voice soft. The words stung, but Sephiroth’s expression remained calm and strangely gentle. “You stood a better chance of putting yourself in danger than anything.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Cloud whispered. “I just couldn’t…”
“I did not say I blamed you.” Sephiroth shifted slightly on the bed, as though he were awkward. “Or that it was wrong of you to want to help. But you stood a very real chance of being killed yourself by stopping to help. And removing your helmet to provide CPR made it that much more likely that you too would fall. You have taken the required emergency rescue class, have you not?”
“Yes sir.” Cloud croaked.
“It’s Sephiroth.” The man corrected gently. “We are both off the clock. Tell me the first rule you learned, Cloud.”
“D…” Cloud trailed off, the words feeling like they were gagging him as he spoke them. “Don’t add to the pile of bodies…”
“That’s right.” Sephiroth murmured. “It was heroic of you to try and help your friend. It was the decent, kind, human thing to do.” His inflection on the word ‘human’ felt wrong somehow, but Cloud couldn’t find the breath or the strength to ask him why.
“I’m supposed to just let people die, then.” He choked. “To just walk past their bodies.”
“Yes.” Sephiroth said, his voice firm and low. “You are not a medic. You are a Trooper, and you will one day be a Soldier. Your job is not to help the fallen. It is to protect those who are still standing. Do you understand, Cloud?”
“I’m sorry.” Cloud whispered.
“Don’t be.” Sephiroth replied, touching his hand to Cloud’s hair, the motion far gentler and less familiar than Zack’s rough, affectionate noogies. “You were very brave, Cloud, and very kind. I have no doubt now that you will be a fine Soldier, and save many lives in doing so. For now, you must rest.”
“Yes sir.” Cloud whispered, ducking his face and hiding it behind his hands to hide the tears on his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I know a Soldier shouldn’t cry…”
“Why not?” Sephiroth asked softly. “There is strength too in sorrow. Accept it. Let it happen. And then, when you are ready, move on from it.”
Cloud’s chest tightened, but he nodded solemnly in acceptance of Sephiroth’s words. He jerked his head up when The man rested a blanket over his shoulders, but he froze only for a moment before letting himself lie back on the bed, curling on his side to hide his face in his pillow. He ached in sorrow, but somehow the guilt had settled. If Sephiroth said there was nothing he could have done, Cloud had to believe him.
Sephiroth left Cloud once the young man had cried himself to an almost peaceful sleep. He didn’t close the door all the way, just in case he or Zack were needed. He entered the kitchen with slow, measured steps, thinking over what he’d learned.
“How is he?” Zack asked eagerly the moment Sephiroth entered the room.
“Sleeping.” Sephiroth replied slowly. “He seems to have achieved at least some level of peace.”
“Oh, man.” Zack whispered, leaning against the counter and wiping a hand over his face. He looked unusually tired. Sephiroth had seen him more energetic heading into surgery to have shrapnel removed from his abdomen.
“Why did you call me?” Sephiroth asked, his voice low. “You surely would have been more reassuring.”
“I wasn’t the right person for that job.” Zack replied with a small shrug. “I know a thing or two about guilt, but…”
“But?” Sephiroth prompted, seeing Zack trying to work out how to phrase it.
“He didn’t need optimism or comfort.” Zack said after a moment. “He needed someone blunt and direct. I’m guessing you told him the truth.”
“Of course.” Sephiroth said blankly. “But you are just as well equipped to do so.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t.” Zack said softly. “I’m too good at reading people, Seph. And I’m way too interested in making Cloud happy. And sometimes he needs that, sure. Sometimes everyone does. Doesn’t mean that it’s the right answer to everything. He trusts you, he respects the hell out of you, and he’ll believe that you’re telling him the truth and not trying to make him feel better.”
Sephiroth lifted an eyebrow. “You mean to tell me you used me because Cloud knows that I am blunt and have no interpersonal skills?”
“Yeah, basically.” Zack gave him a grin that was only a little sheepish. “And you have interpersonal skills, Sephiroth. They just stem from a backbone of reality that Cloud needed tonight.”
“I see.” Sephiroth said, looking to the floor for a moment as he filed the new information away.
“Sorry,” Zack said after a moment of silence. “It just wasn’t doing him any good to lie there feeling guilty…”
“I’m glad.” Sephiroth corrected with a small shake of his head. “It is not often that I can be of use to someone suffering.”
“Aw, don’t say that.” Zack said with a frown.
“I was not of any use to you.” Sephiroth argued, lifting unwavering eyes to Zack.
The First paused, hesitating for the first time. He looked around his kitchen, appearing to consider. His eyes flickered to everything in the room that was not Sephiroth before they finally returned.
‘You stuck around.” He offered eventually. “I don’t think there was anything anyone could do better than that to help me.”
Sephiroth nodded in acceptance, and said no more.
“Anyway.” Zack said after a moment. “I’m sure he’ll be better after sleeping. Thanks for coming down, Seph. I know you were probably getting ready for bed. I’ll keep an eye on him from here.”
Sephiroth nodded, turning away from his friend. Then he paused, considering. Something in his chest was giving that unfamiliar pang again as the thought of tear-filled blue eyes and an almost unintelligible voice, wavering in misery over his perceived failure. He took a slow breath and turned back to face Zack.
“If it is no trouble.” He said slowly, feeling out every word as he spoke it, “I would rather stay.”
Zack blinked at him in surprise, his hands stilling where he’d been pulling a bag of potato chips out of his cabinet. He finished the motion slowly, his eyes fixed on Sephiroth. Then a warm smile crossed his face, filled with the look Sephiroth associated with approval. His heart warmed despite himself at the perceived success of his impulse.
“Of course, man.” Zack said, smiling warmly. “My home is yours and all. Wanna watch movies while we wait for him to wake up?”
“Alright.” Sephiroth conceded, blinking when Zack tossed him the bag of chips.
“Cool.” The younger First said, seeming to perk up by the moment. “And I know you’re super awkward about friendship stuff, so I’ll talk you through how to help him out over the next couple days. Sound good?”
“Yes.” Sephiroth whispered, startled by how relieved the simple words made him feel. “Thank you.”
He took mental notes as Zack blabbered about the emotions Cloud would experience, and how Sephiroth ought to react to them. He noted the exact turns of phrase Zack used to ensure that he was neither lying to nor hurting Cloud.
It was only after they’d settled in to watch the movie, with Zack munching on his chips and drinking a bottle of beer that Sephiroth realized this was the first time in a long time the two of them had spent more than a few minutes together off the clock. He found himself relaxing with the constant stream of babble.
In the morning, he would be ready to face the shaken trooper. And hopefully, between himself and Zack, they could help get their youngest friend to a point where he was strong enough to save the lives he so desperately wanted to.