[Shattered] Dreams 48

Chapter Forty-Eight: The Madness that Burned a Town

As Valentine walked from the tunnel, leaving behind a woman with tears in her eyes and utter hopelessness in her expression, Sephiroth found himself watching it all with an impassivity that surprised him. Despite the ex-Turk’s inflammatory words and the apparent lover’s spat he had just witnessed, inside he felt numb, cold… like he had been frozen into place.

This was the chance he had been waiting for. To finally meet his true mother. The reason he had left Icicle after returning to life. And yet, now faced with this woman, a crying wretch of a creature with obviously no courage, he was sickened. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to deal with it. Unconsciously, he swallowed thickly, unable to remove his gaze from the brunette, who had features so much like his own.

When the last of the booted footsteps faded, she turned towards him, her eyes sweeping over his face. He could hear Zack shifting uncomfortably behind him, but he did not want his friend to leave. He did not want to face her alone.

And then more tears sprung to her already watery brown eyes as she took one step forward towards him, effectively encouraging him to take an unconscious step backwards. She paused but did not seem offended.

My boy,” she whispered softly. “My beautiful boy… you’re alive.” The last was stressed, her utter joy in that fact expressed visibly on her face.

No thanks to you,” came Zack’s voice, rife with anger and disgust.

Sephiroth turned his head swiftly, shooting his friend a glare that was both thankful and warning, if such a thing were even possible. But the other man shook his head and folded his arms over his chest. With a sigh, the former General returned to his mo- Lucrecia, he believed her name to be, slightly startled that in that moment, she had moved several steps closer.

When Vincent told me that you were dead, despite my dreams, I… I thought all hope was lost,” she continued, Zack’s words not stopping her in the slightest. “I thought I would never be able to make amends for my failure… that my baby boy was lost to me forever.”

I…” But his voice faltered. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say to her, if indeed he had anything. And his mind was filled with so many questions; he didn’t even know where to begin. Was he human? Or a monster? And his father, was he truly Hojo or was there some truth in the gunman’s insinuations? And what sort of person could choose to do the types of experiments that he had heard were conducted?

Brown eyes looked up at him imploringly, but he wasn’t exactly sure what this woman, this stranger wanted from him. “Sephiroth,” she began slowly, “I don’t know what to say… I… I still can’t believe this. I know you must hate me.”

He shook his head interrupting her. “I never knew you existed.”

For a moment, she was taken aback, confusion etched deeply into her features. She furrowed her brow. “What?”

Hojo told me my mother was Jenova… that I was an Ancient.” It was surprising to him how easy the words flowed, even presented with this woman. No matter how much he looked at her, he still couldn’t see his mother. He just saw a woman who was on her last vestiges of sanity.

Her face twisted up in anger. “He… lied?” Sephiroth wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, not from the indecision mixed with her fury.

He ignored her words, however, suddenly finding it in him to sort out the confusion and ask the questions that had been haunting him. Despite the sick feeling in his belly and the twisting of his barely understood emotions, he knew they had to be spoken aloud.

How could you?” he questioned, the words spoken quietly as he stared at the floor. “For what purpose would you experiment on your own child…” he trailed off, raising his eyes to meet hers. “To claim to be human? How COULD YOU?!” The last was yelled, seemingly torn from his throat in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. His hands clenched at his side, and his body trembled.

He felt Zack put a hand on his shoulder from behind, but even his friend’s soothing touch could not quell the rising fury, the rising anger and despair. Lucrecia recoiled from his voice, entire body pulling inwards.

I…”

Am I even human?” Sephiroth questioned again, voice tight with his emotion. “Or am I some monster? Do you even know what I suffered at Hojo’s hands? Do you even know the pain that I went through?”

It was for the good of everyone!” she protested, her own voice raising its volume. Fear settled in her eyes, and she truly began to wish for her death. “The Jenova cells were supposed to lead us to the Promised Land! Where everyone could be happy!”

Sephiroth bit his lip, actually drawing blood. “Look around you! Everything… everyone is war torn! I destroyed entire cities, murdered hundreds… thousands all because of these Jenova cells! Is anyone happy? Am I? Are you? Was your own madness worth it all?”

Tears began pouring from her eyes. “You don’t understand! I tried to save you. I honestly believed that what we were doing was right. I loved Hojo, and I loved you.”

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes as Zack squeezed his shoulder, taking that small measure of comfort. “Is Hojo my father?”

Her gaze dropped. “I honestly don’t know.” At his aggravated sigh, she choked back a sob. “But you are human, wholly and completely. Despite the Jenova cells you are human. Not a monster! Whatever you did, whatever had been done, it’s over now; it’s the past. We can live now… and be happy.”

Happy?” Sephiroth repeated, voice dropping dangerously low. “As if I could just ignore everything? Are you mad, woman?”

Woman?” She sagged, nearly dropping to the floor. “How I have dreamed of seeing you one day and you calling me mother. I longed to hear those words-”

Mossy eyes narrowed. “I have no mother. I may not know what family is or emotion really… but I know that love is not what has been done to me or – for that matter – what was done to Valentine.” A sudden thought struck him. “What happened thirty years ago? Why does he believe himself to be important in my life?”

At his words, Lucrecia sobbed and finally fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t…” she gasped out. “I still want to believe that it all had a purpose, that my pain and your pain… and even his pain were all for good.” She was pitiful, this wreck of a woman crying on the floor of a fluorescently lit cave. By all truths, she should have been dead, like other remnants of the past and other remains of Hojo’s insanity.

I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m so very sorry. I never wanted any of this to happen. I only wanted to help. I did it in the name of science… and for love.”

Love?” He sneered at the words coming from her mouth. He doubted she even understood what it meant. He turned his back to her, unable to bear the sight of her any longer.

This is what he had come to find? This is the mother he had hoped for? A family he hoped to have? It pained him, literally made him ache inside in a way he didn’t understand. It churned his stomach, filling him with anger and sadness… irritation.

I don’t want your love… not from what I’ve seen of it,” Sephiroth said quietly, looking up to see Zack watching him with a concerned stare. Even though he was usually vocal, his companion knew when to be silent. Though beneath his calm, thin lines of tension ran through his body, anger at what had been done to his best friend.

I don’t think I can ever understand you or that… that man,” he continued, despite the sobbing gasps he heard echoing around the cave. “Nor do I think I want to. I am certain Vincent can answer whatever questions I have left. As for you… if you truly want death I would suggest seeking the nearest Lifestream upwelling. It should be enough to pull the Jenova from your body.”

Sephiroth sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm his raging emotions as he headed for the exit of the cave. He wasn’t sure if he regretted finding the truth… or if he was glad to have some answers. He felt even more lost than before, especially knowing the cruelties that he had suffered. What had she done to save him? His own mother…

No, she was nothing more than the woman that had birthed him, and still, she hadn’t done anything. She had given him up to the arms of a madman without a second thought.

For the good of many, sacrifice a few. How very noble. It sickened him.

I’m sorry,” she said again, on a ragged whisper. “Please… don’t leave me alone.”

“Please, don’t leave me alone… that was the last she said to me. Was I any better than her by turning my back?” Sephiroth asked aloud, though it was entirely rhetorical. He was in the Turk quarters that had been given to Zack and him. He was standing in front of the large window in the living room, gaudy curtains thrown back to give him a great view of… a destroyed city and empty streets, papers and trash blowing in the polluted breeze.

Only a scant few hours earlier, he had met his birth mother in a cave beneath a waterfall. Now, he was an emotional wreck on the inside, staring out at a ruined Midgar. He couldn’t tell if this damage was his fault from six months past… or Balaam’s fault from just a few days prior. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure if it even mattered.

Placing blame never solved anything, and it certainly didn’t help when he shoved it all at her. Knowing who to hate for what had been done to him didn’t make it any easier to bear. And it hurt worse knowing it was his own flesh and blood. He couldn’t understand that or Lucrecia’s brand of love either. He didn’t even know if he could learn to care for anyone else. He certainly didn’t have any brilliant role models… or any kind of experience.

The relationship he had with Zack was something special, that much he had figured out. He had a love for his best friend, easily identified by how calm he could be around him, how soothing the dark-haired man was for his spirit. As a matter of fact, Zack had been his very first crush… way back when he had first started to actually have feelings. Learning to subjugate his emotions had been one of the first lessons Hojo had given him. To make him unfeeling, cold, so that he could kill without remorse but still be able to follow or give orders. As a result, when faced with the over-emotional cadets at ShinRa military Academy, Sephiroth had been lost.

He separated himself from them because he was unable to understand them. Zack was the first one to try and bridge the gap, coming up to him in the cafeteria one day and staying latched to his side until he “cracked” him. They quickly became best friends after that… more or less because the funny and easygoing soldier was so tenacious.

He didn’t understand what those other feelings he was getting were either. He had studied sexual reproduction in the academy, knew that it involved a man and woman. However, women weren’t exactly something Sephiroth understood. On the battlefield or a fight was one thing, but in a social situation, he was completely out of his depth.

Regardless, it had been a rather moot point. He had always found them to be fascinating and perhaps even attractive but in more of an abstract way, much the same way he thought his sword was mesmerizing. Sephiroth supposed that he liked them, but he would never want to take one home with him.

Still, his knowledge in the entire field didn’t extend very far. They hadn’t covered feelings for the same sex at the academy. In fact, it was still nearly taboo to be a homosexual in some parts of the world. Therefore, it wasn’t something that was explained or talked about.

One day and completely out of nowhere, he had kissed Zack, his best friend. He still wasn’t even sure why or how. True to his nature, the other man hadn’t gotten angry or tried to hurt him. He had just laughed it off and said that he didn’t swing that way. At least, Sephiroth had gotten a proper kiss out of the deal. Luckily, for Sephiroth, Zack was such a good friend that he had explained everything. And my… hadn’t that been an interesting conversation.

Regardless, once Sephiroth learned that it was not really accepted yet… he vowed to keep his lips to himself. Zack had even joked about it from time to time.

“You can’t really compare the two, Seph,” Zack inserted easily, momentarily interrupting his little trip down memory lane. “If it was up to me, she would have suffered far worse. Not that I’m the vindictive type or anything…”

Sephiroth chewed his lip in thought. “I always wanted a family, you know,” he said quietly. “Especially hearing all those stories you used to tell me about your parents. I just never thought I’d be unhappy with the one I have…”

Zack shook his head, rising to his feet to join his friend at the window. “They aren’t your family, Seph. Blood doesn’t make a home.” He put a hand on the older male’s shoulder. “Family is what you make of it… who you make of it.”

The former General smiled faintly. “When did you become so wise?”

The dark-haired man playfully knocked himself on the side of the head. “I’ve always had a brain up here, you know. I just pick and choose when I use it.”

But even his best friend’s playfulness was not enough to pull him from his place of mixed up emotions. He still felt like he was wound tighter than a corkscrew, his nerves stretched thin, and his emotions all twisted up and tossed about. His eyes roamed over the destroyed city again, unable to help the words that repeated through his mind.

‘I caused this.’ Even if that particular destroyed structure was lost by the past battle, the truth was that just on the other side, something else had been ruined by his touch. Without him realizing it, his body began to tremble, and his hands clenched at his side. Lucrecia told him he was human, not a monster… but with all the pain he had caused and all the harm they had done, he couldn’t help but wonder if being human was equated with being a monster.

“Seph.” Another squeeze of the hand on his shoulder, Zack nearly recoiling from the trembling he sensed in his friends’ turmoil filled body. “Sephiroth, you have to calm down.”

But the former General shrugged off the soothing touch, turning away from the window and beginning to pace across the room. “Calm down?” he repeated. “Calm down? How can I do that? Just calm down? When every time I close my eyes I see him standing over me with another needle filled with something to make me burn… or Cloud’s hometown and family a pit of smoking embers because of my rage, MY HANDS?” The last was roared in an uncharacteristic display of emotion.

Sephiroth was no longer looking at his friend or even really speaking to him, merely expressing what was running through his mind at the moment.

Those creatures in the tanks… the notes of a madman in the basement laboratory? Was it all true? Was he really a monster? Anger, bright and burning within him, an emotion so fierce that he couldn’t even recognize it began to blaze inside, creeping into every crevice of his soul.

That man, that beast… he recorded everything, the diary of a madman, the journal of psychopath. Every cruel idea, every last nuance of pain and sick, twisted pleasure. Dreams he had thought only nightmares contrived by the heart of a frightened child… shown to be real, to be true in all its sadistic horror. Weary and lost, weakened by mako, his own father! His own flesh and blood! It burned him; it was the last he could take. It made him ill, violently sick.

His stomach turned. He thought to throw up, to burn out his mouth, his body with the cleansing fire. But…

She called to him. “It is because of ShinRa that you have suffered, my child,” intoned the voice, one that had only started to speak to him. But she was a calm voice, soothing, and unlike Hojo, she never held back anything, always answered his questions. She claimed she was Jenova, his mother, but Sephiroth wasn’t sure.

Nibelheim… it has been hiding the truth from you. The residents here all work for ShinRa. They would die so that you don’t know the truth.”

More rage, eyes bright with the fury, body heating nearly past the capacity for understanding. His hand went to the hilt of the Masamune, but he hesitated. It was wrong; somehow, he knew that to take his revenge was against his nature. They were not Hojo. They were not the scientists with the needles or the vials of poison.

But they were there. They looked the other way. People always do that when ShinRa is concerned. You can’t honestly think that they didn’t hear your screams, do you?” Her voice, so sweet and gentle, provoking him yet bringing up valuable truths that he could not deny. “Surely, someone could have saved you… You saw the monsters in the reactor,” she continued, coaxing him, encouraging him to leave the mansion and head for the main part of town. “That would be your fate… but for a small trick of genetics, my son. Take me, and together, we can go to the Promised Land and be free.”

Free?” he repeated after her. The word was like an ignition. Freedom, something he had longed for. To get away from Hojo. To get away from the military, from being forced to kill. Freedom.

But they are in your way. Those who hurt you. Those who ignored your pain and hid their secrets. They lied to you, Sephiroth. Kill them. Make them pay. Burn them!”

Still, he faltered, anger and rage and sadness building up within him faster than he could recognize. His belly clenched painfully, and his hand spasmed on the hilt of the Masamune. He did not draw, however, mako eyes glazed, glancing from one silent building to the other.

They made you; they broke you! Hurt them, my child! Kill them, Sephiroth! Use your rage and burn them! Take your freedom!” Her voice, once soft and melodic, turned to an entrancing hiss, echoing within his head and mixing with the raging feelings. He gasped aloud and drew his Masamune without realizing it, already striding towards the sleeping and dark town.

If… if those dreams were real, if those nightmares had real form. Then perhaps the people he had seen, the haunting faces, they were real as well. Maybe they were the ones in the town… the ones that had hurt him.

Together, we can take over the world! Together, we can go to the Promised Land. Once Nibelheim is finished, nothing can stop us!”

He growled, anger coursing through him more furiously now. His very veins went aflame. Out of the corner of his eye, something moved and without thinking, he called forth the Flare magic of his materia, casting it quickly towards the movement. A building went up in flames, the acrid, bitter smoke filling his nostrils. Piercing screams soon followed but he was deaf to them, blind to everything.

Burn!” She laughed at him, an almost mocking sound. Or was she laughing with him? Was he laughing now? It was all so strange, like he was looking at his body from the outside.

Another flicker of movement.

Burn!”

Was that his own voice? Did he summon the fire without thought? That man, falling to the ground aflame… did he do that?

Mother…” No, not his voice. That was another’s. Someone else’s. It was all so confusing. His sword rose and fell of its own accord. He felt it slice through something, blood welling and spraying even as the blaze grew higher and higher around him. Yet, it did not touch him, as if he were immune to the fire.

Liars!” he hissed. “Murderers! Burn!” Anger, like acid pouring through his soul, burning him from the inside out. He couldn’t control it, the unstoppable rage. Every life he took, every building destroyed only fed his vengeance, only fed the fury. Only…

Smack! His head nearly reeled from the blow, but it brought him back to reality, albeit painfully. He blinked his eyes, finding he was staring at the plain white-washed walls. His right cheek stung, and his face felt warm and wet. Sephiroth felt something firm against his back, something trembling against his front… but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what had happened.

“Seph?”

Zack’s voice. That he recognized. Taking a deep breath, the former General cautiously swung his head, locking eyes with his onetime subordinate. Zack seemed scared, more scared than Sephiroth had ever seen him look, and worried as well. Concern was etched so deeply into his features that he appeared to have aged ten years or more.

“Zack?” His voice came out shaky and small, like a child’s, and that frightened him more than anything. Sephiroth trailed his gaze around, discovering that he was pressed up against the wall in their shared apartment, both of Zack’s hands shoving his shoulders with his full strength.

Visibly, the dark-haired man relaxed, relieved by the look of clarity that had returned to Sephiroth’s eyes. For the second time in his life, Zack had been afraid by the look on his friend’s face. It was so familiar… nearly the same madness that he had seen when Sephiroth razed Nibelheim to the ground five years prior. One minute, he was pacing across the ground, and the next he appeared to be reliving that memory, spouting nonsense that Zack couldn’t even understand.

And Zack had been scared… because he didn’t know if he was strong enough to hold down an insane Sephiroth… or if he even had it in him to kill his friend. Mossy eyes seemed to glow brightly, appearing their once mako green color with the hints of grey disappearing completely.

What if Jenova hadn’t been gone like they had all thought? What if the bitch was so ingrained in Sephiroth’s DNA that he would always have to fight her control?

One thing Zack knew for certain… he couldn’t afford to tell anyone else what had happened. Or they would kill his friend on the spot.

It was anger that caused Sephiroth to burn Nibelheim five years ago. And now, it seemed any sort of heavy emotion could unbalance him… or maybe it just required rage. Curse Hojo for what he had done to Sephiroth! But at least now, he seemed to return to his own mind.

Zack heaved a sigh of relief and leaned forward, resting his head on the former General’s shoulder. The tips of black spikes brushed against Sephiroth, but the older man didn’t complain.

“Ya scared me, Seph,” Zack admitted softly. “I didn’t know if I was going to have to fight you… again.” He could feel Sephiroth trembling beneath his forehead, and knew that his body was reacting in the same way. Now that the adrenaline rush was over, he found himself feeling strangely fatigued.

Yet, despite how difficult it was to remain friends with Sephiroth, Zack was not going to give up on him. No matter what he had to go through, he was determined to show Sephiroth what true humanity was like.

“There’s something wrong with me, Zack,” Sephiroth replied quietly, his voice heavy with defeat. “I’m not normal.”

Zack laughed, though it came out hollower than he would have liked. “No one’s normal, Seph. You just got a heavier dose of insanity than the rest of us. I mean, look at Reno… that boy’s as strange as they come, and he seems to be doing… okay. Well, I guess that’s the word you’d use.”

“Why can’t I hate her?” the former General questioned, again switching subjects. “I want to. I want to pretend as if she means nothing to me since I never knew her, but a part of me is disappointed… and I suppose sad. I just don’t understand.” He closed his eyes and laid his head against the wall. “I don’t know what I am supposed to do with these… emotions. I’m supposed to be a machine, Zack. I don’t know what to do with humanity.”

The spiky-haired man was well accustomed to Sephiroth’s change in topics. He didn’t even blink. He couldn’t imagine what someone would think if they were stumble into the room right now… not with Zack still holding the General against the wall with his head on the man’s shoulder. His body was pressed directly at Sephiroth’s, while the older man seemed to be in defeat.

“I don’t think anyone does, Seph.” Zack paused, searching for the right words to soothe his friend’s fears. “You can’t expect to be perfect or understand everything or even always make the right choices. You just gotta be and accept the consequences when they come along. You got a second chance now… most people can’t say that. As for not hating her… well, it’s just that blood thing. I don’t hate my blood father, despite what he did to me and my mom. I just can’t. And that right there proves that you know more than you think. If you were truly evil… you would be able to hate easily.” It was quite possibly the longest, most encouraging speech he had ever given, but Sephiroth had the knack for doing that, making him the sappiest person on Gaia.

Sephiroth was quiet for a moment, absorbing Zack’s words before smiling faintly and shaking his head. “Like always, you make absolutely no sense.” He paused before ruffling a gloved hand through dark spikes. “I’m surprised you put up with my insanity.”

Zack grinned, raising his head and backing off from the former General now that he was certain Sephiroth was back to himself. Familiar and sane, albeit confused, mossy-green eyes stared back at him, as well as a calm and collected face. The one twisted with anger and sorrow, hatred and fury, from before had been frightening.

“Tit for tat, Seph,” Zack returned easily. “I drive you crazy with my outrageous and flirtatious behavior… and you go a little nutso every once in a while. It’s give and take, buddy.”

Sephiroth shook his head, frowning slightly as he crossed his arms over his chest and stared out into the living room, taking his gaze away from Zack. “Except when I go ‘nutso’ – as you so elegantly put it – people die.”

“And no virgins are safe when Zack is on the prowl,” countered the dark-haired man easily, attempting to not allow his friend to sink back into self-pity.

The former General rolled his eyes. “I’m being serious, Zack.”

“Yeah?” questioned the former SOLDIER. “And so am I.” He tapped his head with one gloved finger. “I got voices in my head from the Planet… the same one that gave you a second chance. And if Gaia thought that you weren’t deserving of it, I’m sure I’d get the message loud and clear.” He winced slightly. “Sometimes a little too loudly and less clear, though.”

A silver brow was raised, a gesture that Sephiroth somehow managed to make elegant. “The only voices that don’t make any sense to me are yours,” he intoned with a hint of playfulness.

“Oh, sure, pick on me why don’t you? Everyone else does. Why, if it isn’t that blonde Turk telling me my skills are from the Stone Age, then it’s you insulting my intelligence.” Zack sighed, the noise a bit too loudly to be anything but playful aggravation.

“Blonde Turk?” Sephiroth questioned, suddenly feeling mischievous. “You know… for someone who aggravates you… you do spend a lot of time talking about her.” He cast a look at his friend out of the corner of his eye.

Crystalline eyes narrowed at him slightly in both confusion and amusement. “Are you implying that I have the hots for one rookie Turk? Is my Sephy trying to make a joke?”

The former General shrugged off-handedly. “I don’t know, Zack. You’re the one bringing shame upon the SOLDIER name.”

The spiky-haired one gaped for a moment, before clucking his tongue in playful annoyance. “You and her both will eat your words; I guarantee it.” He vowed before continuing, in an overly dramatic and prophetic voice. “One of these days the world’s gonna come to an end, and everyone’s going to be wondering: ‘where is Zack why won’t he come save us?’ And where will I be?”

Sephiroth shook his head and rubbed his temple with one finger, slipping out of Zack’s range with a smooth movement and heading towards the kitchen. He recognized his former subordinate’s mood. Though unschooled in human emotion, he was well versed in “Zack”, if there was such a thing. And right now, the younger man was working off his confusion and worry by being a complete idiot.

“I don’t know, Zack,” he returned. “Where will you be?” Booted footsteps on the floor gave him knowledge that his companion was following him.

The spiky-haired man went silent for a moment, ending his tirade and causing Sephiroth to glance over his shoulder. Zack was chewing on his lip in thought, his brow furrowed deeply.

“Well?” Sephiroth questioned.

Zack snorted. “As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“Ah. I shall wait with bated breath, then.”

“Don’t patronize me, Seph,” warned Zack as they wandered into the kitchen. He plopped down on a bar stool, eyes roaming over what little alcohol was in stock on the counter. The prior residents had kept it pretty well stocked; either that or ShinRa had made it mandatory. Perhaps now was a good time for a drink… even if the mako made it near impossible for them to get completely wasted.

Before he could voice his thought, however, a shot glass plunked down on the counter in front of him as Sephiroth took the seat next to him, already reaching for the scotch. In that much, they had the same tastes. Zack learned his from Lexas, the man he really considered his father. And he had been the one to introduce alcohol to his older friend.

Brandy was good; Whiskey was better. Scotch great… but it turned out that even Tequila was stronger than mako. Zack discovered that the hard way.

Never again. At least, he had promised himself that.

They downed a couple shots in silence before Zack decided to breach the topic that had been bugging him since after the conversation with Lucrecia and subsequent discussion with Vincent. “Do you really agree with him, then?” the spiky-haired man inquired. “Are you better not knowing?”

Sephiroth paused, drink halfway to his mouth as he considered his younger friend’s words. His mind recalled the conversation with Vincent, a much easier one than the fiasco with Lucrecia. It seemed once he was done meeting with the woman who had birthed him, the ex-Turk was more inclined to talk.

…”You said that after I met her… you would answer my questions,” Sephiroth said after about an hour of riding in tense silence. He wanted the answers while his mind was still fresh with her words, while he still had the patience and the sanity to deal with the truth.

Vincent inclined his head only slightly. “That I did. What do you wish to know?” He was so calm, even for a Turk. Sephiroth wondered if the man even broke.

You said you were there… when Lucrecia and Hojo chose to experiment with the Jenova cells. Yet, you don’t look any older than I. Please explain.”

The ex-Turk frowned, but answered the question anyway. “Technically, you could say that I am fifty-eight years old, for that is how long I have lived. Yet, due to my failure and my pride, Hojo did something to me, and for thirty long years I slept in stasis. I did not age.” He turned his gaze towards Sephiroth, gray eyes softening. “We are alike in many ways, Sephiroth. We share some of the same scars.”

What did he do?” Zack inquired, inserting himself easily into the conversation. He asked not only to slake his own curiosity but for Sephiroth’s sake as well. Sometimes, it helped knowing that one was not alone in their suffering.

He broke me,” Vincent answered softly, shifting his gaze to stare at the far horizon. “My body and my soul. There were countless injections of Jenova and mako, experiments not fit for dogs… and then the last straw, he forced into my body the four materia summons that contained the mythical Apocalypse Demons, though we know now them to be demi-gods. I don’t know how that was possible, or what Hojo did to bond them with my body, but the end result was that I became a monster.”

A realization and a memory both hit Sephiroth soundly in the skull, nearly so physical that he was knocked from the saddle. But he kept his balance even as he spoke aloud. “It was you,” he commented, training his gaze on the gunman. “You were the one who tore apart the wolves… the one that killed my mother.”

Vincent smiled, though it was sardonic. “So that was the story he told you? It was the same that he told me. That Lucrecia shot herself with my gun. That I killed her. Of course, I know now that never happened. Hojo only wanted to hurt me by saying such. And yes… that was me, though I scarce knew what was going on. I was half out of my mind back then with the drugs and the mako… and their voices arguing back and forth in my head.”

Why would Hojo do such things to you in the first place?” Zack wondered out loud, brow furrowed in confusion. Vincent was being surprisingly open and vocal… for that matter. From what he had heard, the gunman was usually private and withdrawn. So why so open with Sephiroth, the man he had killed six months prior? He had a feeling that next answer would solve many of his questions.

Another sardonic and grim smile. “Because I dared to touch what was his.”

Sephiroth frowned. “Lucrecia?”

The ex-Turk nodded. “I loved her once, a long time ago… before I knew of her betrayal and her lies.” He shook his head. “I thought I was protecting her when I confronted Hojo about the research. I thought I was saving the life of the woman I loved and the child that could have been mine… but instead, I had fallen into their trap.”

The… child? Then back in the crater? Those words…” Sephiroth trailed off, slightly stunned by the insinuations.

Lucrecia… a woman that would do anything for the one she claimed to love. Even sleep with another man only to return to the arms of her beloved later that night.” Vincent paused, grip unintentionally tightening on the reins and causing his chocobo to “kweh” in irritation. He loosened his hold apologetically and glanced over at Sephiroth. “It seems only Hojo truly knows which of us is your father, and I can’t trust his word. Every utterance that ever poured from his mouth was a lie.”

Sephiroth was, to put it mildly, shocked. It seemed that everything that had ever been told to him was possibly a lie. His mother was not Jenova, but a human woman named Lucrecia. He was not just a monster… he had emotions as well. And now, his father might not be Dr. Hojo, the insane scientist, but Vincent Valentine, the ex-Turk.

If you want, we can do a blood test,” the gunman murmured. “A simple procedure to determine the truth… but I do not think it is necessary.”

What do you mean?” Zack asked. “Do you know without a doubt, then?”

Vincent shook his head. “No, I just think that we are better off not knowing. For both our sakes. Otherwise, my guilt would be too much to bear… and his self-hatred would overwhelm him.”

Sephiroth blinked to clear away the memory, finishing off his drink with one quick swallow before responding. “I think Vincent is wise in this matter,” he said quietly. “It is a no-win situation for either of us.”

Zack frowned. “I’m afraid you are going to have to explain that to us non-broody people.”

The former General sighed, tracing nonsensical symbols on the counter top with a leather-covered finger. “If he were to find out that he was my father, he would feel even guiltier for not being able to prevent what happened, more so than what he felt at not being able to help an innocent. The burden of his remorse would increase and become so weighty, I’m not sure he would be able to carry it. Whereas, if I find out that Hojo is in fact my father, then I will feel all the more hatred for myself. In my blood, I would carry his taint… plus the knowledge that it was my own flesh and blood that caused me so much pain. At least this way, I can believe there is a chance, and so can he without making it final.”

Zack blinked at what was possibly the most words his friend had ever spoken, at one time and took another shot of the scotch. “Well, there is one upside to Hojo being your father,” he drawled.

Sephiroth raised a brow. “And that would be?”

The spiky-haired one laughed. “Look at it this way. If Vincent was your father… that would make Cid your step-father… mother… whatever!” He chuckled even louder at that, his mind filled with images of Sephiroth and Cid Highwind sitting down to have a heart to heart or going fishing together, of all things. In fact, that only made him laugh all the worse, clutching at the counter top lest he fall from his stool. His ever-so-vivid mind was conjuring up pictures… so many amusing pictures that he could hardly contain himself.

The former General frowned, not sure what his friend found so amusing. “You idiot,” he said with a shake of his head. “You’re making no sense.”

“Fishing!” Zack cackled as he struggled to catch his breath. He glanced over at his friend, the thought of him in a bright orange life vest and big-rimmed brown hat sending him into gales of laughter once again. “Can you-” Pant “-imagine?” he gasped out. “You? Fishing?”

Sephiroth’s mouth turned up into a true smile as he also began to laugh, working his own imagination until he could picture what had turned his gregarious friend into a fit of girlish giggling.

The great General Sephiroth fishing along side Mr. Cigarettes-and-Tea himself, indeed.

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