[Shattered] Children 08

Chapter Five: A Cold, Hard Rain

The wind whipped around him, buffeting at his clothes and trying to infect him with its chill. It tossed his hair in his face but Sephiroth didn’t pay that any attention. He simply hunched his shoulders against the biting weather and stared with even more resolution at the memorial in front of him.

He found himself coming here more and more frequently, to the high bluff overlooking Fort Condor where he and the others had placed a memorial to someone very important to them all. They didn’t have anything to bury of Cloud. The best they could offer was a stone marker and a sword, similar in style to the blond’s, thrust in the ground behind the grey rock etched with his name and length of life.

Sephiroth didn’t think it was nearly enough for a man who had given everything. For the longest time, Cloud had suffered and it was rather cruel of the gods to take away his happiness once he finally had it. Gilgamesh had tried to explain it to Sephiroth, but he didn’t feel like listening to heavenly bullshit. The blame was his and he knew it, he didn’t need anyone trying to tell him otherwise.

“You put your trust in me,” Sephiroth murmured, speaking not to himself but to an empty memorial. If anyone else were watching, they probably would think him mad. But he was alone, as he had wanted. There was no one to witness it.

“I think that perhaps that might have been a mistake on your part.”

He shifted his gaze to the side, thinking of the crater filled with battered buildings that was what remained of Midgar. Weeds and other vegetation were gradually starting to encroach but humans skirted the place. It was where Cloud had made his home and where he had given his life. It was the place Sephiroth should have protected and didn’t.

“I think that maybe you chose the wrong hero to believe in,” he added, a brief smile flickering to his lips at the memory that had finally chosen to return, reminding him of the bits of happiness he had in the past.

Zack,” Sephiroth sighed with exasperation, looking at the First-Class SOLDIER who had somehow morphed himself into his best friend. “You know that I can’t. It would look as if I am favoring a cadet.”

From his perch on the General’s desk, the dark-haired man tried his famous pout that Sephiroth had proven time and time again he was already immune to. “Just this once?” he pleaded, fluttering his eyelashes. “The kid practically worships you. And he’s not that bad except his confidence could use a boost.”

I’m not here to boost confidences,” Sephiroth reminded him, pausing next to his desk to lift a paper and scan the contents absentmindedly. “ShinRa doesn’t need a soldier too afraid to lift his sword in combat.”

Zack rolled his eyes, scoffing. “You’re just spitting ShinRa back at me, buddy. You don’t believe that bullshit anymore than I do.”

It’s the truth,” Sephiroth insisted before waving the document under his friend’s nose. “Isn’t there someplace you should be?” he asked pointedly, shoving it towards his best friend.

Scowling, Zack snagged the paper from the General’s hands. “You’re positively evil,” he countered, though coming from him it sounded affectionate. He then gave one last-ditch effort. “Come on, Seph. Meet him. What could it hurt?”

Sephiroth shot Zack a look that spoke volumes without him having to open his mouth at all. It wasn’t quite the cold glare that could make half an army quiver in its boots but it was effective enough. And almost playful, if Zack dared call it that.

The shorter male held up his hands and backed towards the door. “Fine, fine. I’ll stop pushing.” He reached behind him and put one hand on the knob, turning it. “But don’t forget. Cloud Strife! He’s in Bunk D.”

Zack,” Sephiroth warned, slipping around his desk.

Got it!” Zack chirped with a sloppy salute. “Off to train the kiddies. See ya, Seph.” He slipped out the door as energetically as he had entered, closing it shut behind him.

Sephiroth shook his head and lowered himself into his seat, powering up his computer with a simple press of the button. The machine zoomed to life with a speed that always surprised him and before long, he was checking his in box, scanning missives from the other departments. There was another request from Heidegger, but nothing a Second-Class couldn’t handle.

Dr. Hojo was insisting on another follow-up, Sephiroth pretended he hadn’t seen it. He knew there was only so long he could avoid the greasy-haired man but the more time he put between now and then the better.

He sifted through some of the paperwork on his desk, all of the boring accouterments that went with being General of ShinRa’s army. He hadn’t ever realized how stifling the silence in his office was, never really paid any attention to it. But with Zack’s energy gone, it was almost… dead.

And he couldn’t deny that he was considering it, as an excuse to get out of his office. He had to admit he was curious about the young man that Zack had taken a liking to.

Sephiroth sighed and reached for his phone, dialing Diana, Heidegger’s secretary since he had no desire to speak to the horsey man himself. She picked up, efficient as always, on the first ring.

Where are the cadets today?” he asked, leaving no room for pleasantries.

There was no hesitation in her response, well-accustomed to his clipped demands. “At the training center, General, sir.”

Thank you.” He hung up the phone without another word and contemplated for just a few minutes more. What could it hurt to at least take a look? Nothing, truthfully. And as General, it was only part of his duties to examine the recruits.

With that decided, Sephiroth rose to his feet and headed out of his office. The sounds of the compound immediately assaulted him as if his door had been some sort of barrier against civilization and life. Orders being relayed. Wooden swords striking one another. Hand-to-hand combat. Mechanical work on the many vehicles.

He was surrounded by ShinRa.

Luckily, he wasn’t that far from the training grounds and arrived relatively quickly, hovering on the edges near the shadows so as not to be noticed. He didn’t want to deal with any fans or sycophantic lower officers. Instead, bright green eyes casually scanned the practicing cadets, looking for the one his best friend had described.

And then he saw him. Just a tiny thing. Blond hair, big blue eyes, almost looked like a girl. He was sparring against another cadet nearly twice his size and getting his ass handed to him in no gentle manner. Sephiroth watched the boy get knocked down three times, striking the dusty dirt harshly and coming up again each time, wiping away the blood and charging again.

Over and over, the cycle continued. Despite having bloody fingers and bloody lips and black bruises, the boy kept rising.

Determination.

Sephiroth couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to have something so hopeful as that. He didn’t have determination. He did what he was told. He was strong enough that it didn’t matter. He didn’t care what happened to himself. He didn’t need determination.

A thoughtful, slightly disturbed look crossed over the General’s face as he turned and headed back to his office, troubled by the thoughts. He didn’t know what Zack expected from him.

Sephiroth shook his head, sighing softly at the memory as he looked at the huge sword, one he would have never believed Cloud capable of even lifting. But he supposed that the mako and the experiments did much in making that possible. He never would have wished his fate on anyone else.

“I’m surprised I remember that,” Sephiroth commented. “They’re coming a lot more lately, the memories, I mean. I think I finally remember who you are.”

The part of what he was to Cloud remained unsaid, that ever present current of confusion that had finally been laid to rest.

I don’t see what you see in him,” Sephiroth told Zack as they walked away from the mess, having just eaten. He had to choke down his food and it gurgled unpleasantly in his belly. “He’s too small for his age. All those in his recruitment class are almost twice his size.”

Zack was adamant. “But he has potential!” the other SOLDIER declared with a thumbs-up and a smile. Then he paused and peered at his friend. “So you did go and see him?”

The General rolled his eyes, a decidedly juvenile response, but Zack tended to bring that out in him. “I did not speak to him if that is what you are asking. I merely wanted to see what had inspired you to plead to me.”

The other male snorted in his usual fashion. “I don’t believe you,” he replied before abruptly changing the subject. “We have a mission coming up, don’t we? To Nibelheim?”

Sephiroth was quick to sense what his friend was alluding to. “No, Zack.”

But you were ordered to bring a few cadets with you, weren’t you?” Zack wheedled in his best pleading tone that promised it would eventually turn to whining. “Since it would be so easy and all. Why not take him?”

Must I bring up the favoritism point again?”

Zack pursed his lips and suddenly darted in front of the General, attempting to look stern as he planted both hands on his hips. “How long have I known you?” he demanded.

The pride of ShinRa sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Longer than I think my sanity can handle sometimes.”

Exactly!” the younger man declared as if Sephiroth had truly made some valid point. “So I believe that entitles me to a favor or two.”

Sephiroth peered through his fingers. “Twenty,” he corrected. “This would be the twentieth favor you have asked me for.”

Ah, come on, Seph – wait, you kept count?”

The General shook his head and stepped past his idiotic friend. “I don’t have the patience to deal with you today. My brain is already hurting from the foolishness,” he muttered under his breath knowing that Zack wouldn’t even take offense to his dismissal. That sort of thing rolled off the other man’s back like water.

He managed to count to three before Zack caught up to him. “All I’m saying is, let him come. It will make his day. He worships you.”

So do half the recruits we bring in every day.”

Cloud’s different,” Zack insisted, crystalline blue eyes practically brimming with his determination. This was one topic he wasn’t going to let die easily. “He l- he wants to be just like you.”

Sephiroth sighed. What was it about Zack? Taking in broken humans like one took in discarded pets? Anyone would take one look at Sephiroth and the frosty, powerful exterior that he was and turn their noses. Plenty had, out of fear or respect or self-preservation, he didn’t know. But no one in their right mind ever dared make a friend out of him. Until Zack came along, proving that he was not entirely untouchable.

He should have higher aspirations than to become me,” Sephiroth muttered, feeling that old bitterness for his lot in life creeping up on him again. “I wouldn’t wish my existence on anyone.”

Wisely, his friend chose silence over more pleadings as they headed back towards the dorms and by proxy, Sephiroth’s quarters. With tentative plans to train, retrieving the Masamune was necessary. After all, Sephiroth had promised Zack he would spar with him and well… he would get that kicked puppy look if he broke his promise.

Sometimes, Zack could make him feel guilty without doing anything at all. There were times that Sephiroth wondered if he wasn’t just a bit in love with his best friend. But considering that he didn’t even know the meaning of the word, he thought maybe his assumption was a bit absurd.

Still, he trusted Zack… and whatever Zack thought to bring his way.

Finally, Sephiroth inhaled quietly. “I will meet him.”

The other SOLDIER’s eyes lit up immediately but Sephiroth held up a hand to stop the inevitable glomping. “I didn’t say he would come on the mission, but I will, at least, meet with him.”

Zack grinned, a slow sliding and knowing curve of his lips. “You won’t regret it.”

Blinking out of that vivid memory, Sephiroth shook his head, fingers curling into a fist. “I should have,” he claimed to the air, the wind ruffling his hair in his face and bringing with it a slight chill. “I should regret it. I never should have brought you along. Either of you. Sometimes I even wonder if Hojo didn’t plan it that way, knowing how close Zack was getting to his experiment.”

A stab of pain suddenly shot through his left arm, piercing and blazing bullets. He winced, right hand automatically gripping where the Geostigma pulsed and throbbed beneath his touch. It felt as if needles were stabbing into him, a set of thin, fine teeth chomping through his flesh. The pain radiated from his arm up along his back, causing him to hunch slightly as he rode out the tremors.

It was coming more and more often these days, the pain intensifying with each attack. The stigma itself was spreading at faster rate as well. He didn’t know how much longer he would be allowed to live. And every time it awoke, he heard her voice, the one he had been trying to block out constantly with little success.

He could feel her in his veins, whispering sibilantly across his mind. A continuous call to her side. A continuous litany of murmurs that he couldn’t ignore. He even heard her in his dreams, saw her beckoning, watched as she showed him all the reasons he should hate the humans.

‘They were family,’ Jenova would tell him. She belonged with him and he with her and they with those that were like him, with those that understood.

He was doing his best to block her out, but a part of him didn’t want to. Because the pain also brought with it memories that had been previously forgotten. Though he hated the nightmares he suffered, he was grateful for every cherished remembrances. They were enough to give him strength to fight just a bit more.

The slim, rather short soldier twitched, hiding behind Zack and yet trying to be bold and stand up straight. It was slightly amusing to Sephiroth and he rose to his feet, shooting his friend a bemused look. Cloud was incredibly skinny and small, pretty much feminine in appearance.

Yet, his big blue eyes were looking up at Sephiroth with such admiration that even the General was momentarily taken aback. He was used to receiving stares of awe and appreciation, of being on the receiving end of lust and desire. But this… he couldn’t begin to describe the look in Cloud’s eyes. It was so innocent and pure, but yet also needy and desperate. It was so much more than the deadness he saw in his own gaze.

It threw him entirely off balance.

He tore his eyes away from the young recruit and forced them on his best friend. “When I said that I would meet with him, I didn’t mean within the next twenty minutes,” Sephiroth responded dryly.

Zack shrugged as if he hadn’t heard Sephiroth speak at all.

Meanwhile, Cloud managed to both gasp and gape all at the same time. “You asked him?” he demanded the younger first-class, momentarily forgetting his fear and admiration for sake of his indignation. “Zack!”

The dark-haired man grinned and ruffled Cloud’s hair, messing up blond spikes. “Ah, come on, Spike. Don’t be mad. I did it for you.”

Sephiroth recognized that placating tone. It was one Zack had used on him often enough.

A blush burned high on the cadet’s cheek. “You know that I…” he trailed off, looking with embarrassment at Sephiroth from the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry, General, sir. I- I didn’t know.”

He waved him off. “I’m sure we both have someone to blame for it,” he responded, staring pointedly at Zack who appeared much too full of himself and not the least bit repentant.

You’ll both be thanking me later,” Zack assured them, ruffling Cloud’s hair again though the cadet ducked out from it with an ease that proved he had done it often.

Zack!” He was scowling, finally showing some of that backbone that Zack had always claimed he had.

The younger first-class simply laughed and winked at Sephiroth, far too proud of himself.

For the first time in a long while, Sephiroth allowed a smile to flit onto his lips. It all seemed so simple then, despite what he was suffering from then. Moments of happiness before everything exploded around them in a sea of flames and ShinRa betrayal.

He could remember Cloud with greater ease now and it was easier to recognize the look he had seen in bright blue eyes for what it was. Unrivaled devotion and admiration, all mixed with an adolescent crush that somehow grown into love. Sephiroth still couldn’t understand how one could love like that.

“I didn’t deserve it,” he murmured softly, releasing his throbbing arm and reaching out, brushing his fingers lightly across the hilt of the sword. “Nor would I have even known what to do with it.”

The metal was cool to the touch, rough from constant use and still just a bit stained. Sephiroth let his hand drop back down to his side.

“I won’t fail again,” he commented, something a bit like determination alighting in his eyes. “I’ll protect them. No matter what it costs me.”

With that, he turned away from the memories and headed back towards Odin, planning on returning to Rocket Town where he owed Denzel a visit. And perhaps he might even find it in him to make amends with Tseng. He didn’t know how much longer he had after all, thanks to the Geostigma.

Best to use well what time he had left.


The smell of old parchment, musty and covered with dust, floated thickly in the air, causing Tseng to wrinkle his nose in disgust. He hated the basement of the ShinRa mansion, from his first memories of the place, to even now. Just stepping foot in the building that had been a cause of pain for many of his friends was enough to send his mood dipping downwards, despite the presence of the children.

It would have been too easy for them to find Sephiroth but he supposed he couldn’t begrudge their hope. After a brief check of the entire abandoned lab, they had determined that the former General wasn’t there. But that didn’t stop the two young ones from wanting to wait, if only for a bit. Tseng allowed it, taking the opportunity to rifle through a few stacks of old journals and reports in hopes of discovering what, exactly, Sephiroth was looking for.

He supposed if he were that desperate to discover Sephiroth’s location he could always use the tracer. But a part of him wanted an excuse to stick his nose in Sephiroth’s research, trying to find what had been haunting his lover.

A fresh wave of pain assaulted Tseng, skating across the front of his mind, reminding him precisely how difficult it was becoming to hold up his shields against the plethora of unpleasant memories lingering around the mansion basement.

He snapped the journal he was scanning with a snort of disgust and moved to slide it back on the shelf, his fingers brushing across a few other spines.

‘I can’t take anymore. Let the darkness consume me. What… voices?’

Tseng jerked, his fingers recoiling as thoughts that weren’t his own invaded his mind. Here in the basement, where there was so much sadness and hatred and loathing and darkness, it was so much easier for them to pierce through. He hated it, hated them, hated Hojo. It churned his stomach, leaving him dizzy and out of sorts.

He had nearly snapped at Marlene when she touched him on the arm. Just a bare grasp and he had snatched his hand away as if she were poison. The look of hurt and confusion in her eyes nearly made him come undone.

Gleaming off the pale light. Bitter and acrid odor. Water dripping in a far corner, the only sound to pierce the night surrounding him.

There was so much pain in this building that he wanted to do nothing more than burn it to ground, destroying all the agonizing ghosts with it. He wanted to erase all the proof of Hojo’s dementia.

Tseng chanced a glance at the children, just to assure himself of their safety. The basement wasn’t the best place for them to be after all. But they were playing some sort of game in the corner, something with a bouncing ball and small metal spikes. He thought he recognized it as something Elena had given them a while back.

Then he heard it. The creak of hinges, the sound of booted feet on crumbling and cracking stone, echoing in an dusty, empty hallway. Someone was coming their way.

With the naivety that only children could possess, both Marlene and Denzel jerked to their feet, the joy in the boy’s face almost painful to see. “Sephiroth!” he exclaimed, scrambling towards the doorway in an attempt to meet his adoptive father.

Tseng’s senses prickled, a sense of dread trickling down his spine. He didn’t think that Sephiroth was the one that was coming.

Before either of them could get past him, his arms shot out and he grabbed both children, pulling them back towards him despite their protests. It was just in time. The door shot open, nearly slamming against the wall behind it as a man Tseng did not recognize stepped into laboratory.

He sucked in a breath, however, at the stranger’s appearance. He could have been Sephiroth’s younger brother with the same startling green eyes and silver hair. The Turk’s every sense screamed danger.

Tseng straightened and abruptly pushed both Denzel and Marlene behind them, towards the long hallway that connected towards the small room that served as an office. “Get back,” he ordered under his breath, stepping in front of their startled forms.

“B-but,” Denzel tried to protest, his eyes flickering past the Wutaiian and towards the stranger.

Silver eyes were hard as they glanced over his shoulder. “Do it,” Tseng repeated, his tone leaving little for argument.

Blinking in his distress, Denzel merely jerked his head in a nod and backed towards the hall, dragging Marlene with him.

Their interaction, however, attracted the stranger’s attention, causing the man to swivel his head in Tseng’s direction. A grin stretched across his lips. “Wanna play?” he asked, oddly enough, gesturing with a black, gloved hand towards the Turk Commander.

Confusion flooded the Turk as his blood began to run cold.

The stranger stepped forward and his boots crunched on something, likely a fallen test tube. He looked down, lifting a foot to stare at the smashed object. A grimace marred his otherwise attractive face.

“Eh?”

Silver eyes narrowed as Tseng’s hand dropped near his Tenken. “Who are you?” he demanded, his voice echoing in the basement. His distaste for the strange man made him wary.

“I guess that’s a no,” the other man responded, disregarding the Turk’s query and thumbing his nose. “Then, where’s Mother?”

He barely bit back on his gasp. Mother? Was this man looking for Jenova? Did this have anything to do with what he had sent Zack and Elena to check out at the crater?

“There’s no one here,” Tseng replied slowly, regaining control of himself. “You should leave.” His fingers curled around the hilt of Kasai Tenken(1).

The stranger tapped his chin as if considering before the grin on his face widened. “Umm, no! Nii-chan wouldn’t like it if I left without having a little fun.”

Tseng didn’t like the sound of that one bit. He took a step forward, prompting Marlene to gasp behind him. “Stay back!” he reiterated before drawing both weapons in a smooth motion and darting forward. Best to make a preemptive strike after all.

The other man cracked his knuckles and a silver blur suddenly flashed forward. Swords met gauntlet with a fierce clang that rattled up the Turk’s arm. He didn’t wait for a battle of strength, choosing to spin away from his opponent and kick out with an agile foot. The stranger deftly avoided the move, speeding forward with a blinding pace until he abruptly disappeared.

Tseng blinked in utter shock before his opponent suddenly appeared behind him, the whoosh of air his only warning. He whirled to block the attack aimed for his unprotected back, sword meeting fist once more, as he slashed out with Koori Tenken. The attack skirted off of the man’s shoulder, slicing through the leather but going no deeper. It had been too shallow and off balance.

Without breaking stride, his opponent merely grinned, his free fist flying forward and slamming into Tseng’s lower abdomen. The Turk grunted, stumbling backwards a few steps. Yet, he quickly regained his balance, fingers tightening on his swords as he…

…screamed when the needle poked through his skin with a harsh jab, shoving more and more of the burning liquid into his veins. He wanted to cry ‘stop’ but he couldn’t because his voice had long gone hoarse from prior screaming. But it hurt so much.

Loz!”

He heard his brother call for him, tears thick in his voice. He had to protect him, but he couldn’t break free. He couldn’t get to him. He couldn’t do anything.

A palm slammed into the side of his head, rattling his thoughts. It was a silent demand for him to be still as…

… a fist suddenly slammed into Tseng’s stomach, throwing all the air out of him in a single blow. The Wutaiian staggered, attempting to blink away the sudden assault of memory.

Loz. His opponent’s name was Loz.

“Mr. Tseng!” He heard Marlene call his name as a fresh wave of pain assaulted his senses.

His heart skipped a beat in fear that she would dive into the fray and put herself in danger. “Stay back!” he practically screamed, a cough immediately following. He struggled to regain his breath, absently wiping blood from where had bitten his lip.

Of all times for his shields to fall, now was the absolute worst. He couldn’t concentrate against the influx of memories and emotions. It made his mind spin and even at that moment, he had to blink away a dizzy haze.

Loz didn’t seem to care that his opponent was struggling. He merely smirked and cracked his knuckles, his voice a mockery of Tseng’s skills. “Hardly a challenge,” he scoffed and darted forward, eating the few steps between in the blink of an eye.

Tseng managed to get his arm up in time to stop the first blow, though it jarred his arm. He forced himself to fight through the churning in his gut, nimbly shooting under Loz’s broad reach and for once, grateful for his smaller stature. He twisted Kasai Tenken upwards, managing to cut a rather deep slice across his opponent’s cheek when Loz avoided a killing blow at the loss possible second. Blood welled up immediately but Tseng didn’t bother to stick around and see. He quickly darted out of Loz’s reach with a sharp backleap.

The Sephiroth look-a-like wasn’t willing to let his prey escape, however. Using that same odd flash-step as before, he appeared in front of Tseng with a barrage of fists. A rapid succession of blows, sword to gauntlet, quickly followed with rattling clangs. The Turk was pushed backwards against Loz’s greater strength.

His hips collided with a desk, rattling it hard enough to cause something to crash to the ground and shatter, spilling a viscous, green liquid…

... all around him, trying to swallow him whole. He hated the burning pain, the constant prickle as he breathed it in without somehow drowning. It made his stomach churn and his eyes burn.

He could see out of his glass prison, see that damned creep scientist puttering around, could see Zack trapped in the same way as he. It kept fading in and out but he knew, he knew what true agony was. There was nothing he could do. Not for Zack. And not to save himself from the…

…sudden ringing in his ears as he was thrown against a bookcase, shelves collapsing in a spray of dust. Tseng crumpled to the floor, books crashing down on top of him painfully. Laughter echoed in the basement as he panted, struggling to rise to his feet.

“Ah!” Tseng gasped as his shoulder abruptly jerked, fire racing through his arms. Something felt as if it had snapped and he lost his grip on Koori Tenken, the sword clattering to the floor. He thought that maybe he had dislocated his shoulder, but he couldn’t be sure.

Still, he couldn’t afford to let himself be beaten. Marlene and Denzel were counting on him. Gritting his teeth against the pain and foregoing use of his other sword, Tseng staggered from the bookcase.

Loz had simply been standing there, watching him with amusement writ into painfully familiar features. “Oh?” the man said, turning back towards hiim with another crack of his joints. “Not dead yet? I’ll have to fix that.”

Tseng’s head jerked up at that proclamation, and he threw out a spell without thinking. Flare exploded in Loz’s face and the stranger stumbled, coughing in the resulting blaze and smoke. Without regard to his own pain, Tseng darted forward, slashing at Loz with his sword.

The other man jerked back to avoid it, the tip of the blade just managing to cut through the leather and barely bite into the flesh beneath. Without pausing to assess damage, Tseng gestured and cast again, an Aero ripping angrily through the basement. The winds slammed into Loz, knocking him from his feet and throwing him backwards. He collided with a large glass tube, still full of a gurgling green liquid. It abruptly shattered and he landed amongst the debris, liquid spilling all around him.

Adrenaline rush gone, Tseng shuddered and suddenly dropped to one knee. He was barely able to hold onto his sword as the full extent of his injuries attacked him all at once, other arm hanging limply on his side.

“Mr. Tseng!” The pitter-patter of feet as both children rushed to his hide, heedless of the danger.

He ground his teeth. “I’m fine,” Tseng gritted out, despite the swirl of memories pounding through his skull. He tried to rise on a shaky knee. “We need to get out of here.”

Marlene’s big, brown eyes were swimming with concern. “But your arm…”

“I’ll be fine.” He was running out of energy to encourage them and wishing whole-heartedly that he had picked something a bit more than attack magic. A Heal would really come in handy about now. “Denzel, can you get my sword?”

The boy nodded, his eyes still wide with fear, and turned towards the bookcase. But he only managed two steps before a sound pierced the silence, causing him to pause mid-stride. It was a phone ringing and Tseng knew the obnoxious noise wasn’t his PHS.

Silver eyes shifted towards the destruction, only to blink in shock as Loz rose from the ground, calmly brushing glass from his leather. He seemed none the worse for wear except for a small cut on his forehead. One hand was even digging into his pocket to pull out his phone, seemingly ignoring the others in the room.

“Yo?… She’s not here… I’m not crying!”

The Turk felt an even greater urge to be suddenly absent. He backed away, uncertainty rising strong within. Both children drew near to him, the search for his sword forgotten. Was Loz just as unstoppable as Sephiroth had been once? Or, worse, was he even stronger?

Like a predator sensing the eminent escape of his prey, mako green eyes swung their way. “I understand. I’ll bring them back.”

Loz flipped his phone shut and stalked towards Tseng, the Wutaiian automatically drawing both Marlene and Denzel behind him protectively. He grasped the Kasai Tenken, trying to push away the pain radiating from his other shoulder.

“Let’s continue,” Loz suggested playfully and suddenly drew the weapon from the sheath on his thigh, one that Tseng hadn’t even noticed.

To his surprise, the bladed thing was actually a gun.

Choking back his cry of shock, Tseng raised his sword and blocked the bullet. He quickly tossed out a spell in counter-attack, but it completely bypassed Loz, the other man flash-stepping forwards. A flare exploded against the wall behind Loz as he jerked his fist forward, slamming it and the gauntlet attached to it into Tseng’s gut. Breath whooshed out of the Turk and before he could draw another, something on that gauntlet snapped out and electricity raced through his entire body.

He choked on empty air, neck snapping as the pain struck him full force, most of his nerves short-circuiting.

“Mr. Tseng!”

Through a haze of agony, he couldn’t distinguish one child from the other. His knees weakened beneath him and he crumpled, only to draw up short when leather-covered fingers wrapped around his throat. Loz’ other hand reached for his katana, snapping the blade in a ridiculously easy motion. Tseng didn’t even have time to mourn the loss before the pieces were being tossed carelessly to the side. That… that weapon was irreplaceable. There was none other like it on Gaia!

A sudden surge of anger granted him strength. He lifted a leg, kicking out at Loz and managing to strike him in the side. Loz grunted and tightened his grip on Tseng’s throat, cutting off his meager air supply. His free hand found Tseng’s injured shoulder and gripped tightly, digging into the shattered bone.

The world went white with pain. Tseng screamed, his entire body drawing taut as more than just Loz’s attacks warred against him. Now there were images and smells and sights and sounds and feelings that weren’t his own. Old pains not related to him. Pains that belonged to Loz, his fear and shame. It rocketed through him to join that of reality.

The Turk’s fingers scrabbled uselessly on Loz’s arm, trying in vain for release. Tseng couldn’t even concentrate enough to summon a spell.

Thwock!

Silver eyes blinked in surprise as something struck Loz upside the head. The man started, turning his attention to the source of his pain. Tseng’s blood froze in his veins when he noticed Denzel, determination in the kid’s face and his arms filled with materia. How in the hell had the kid gotten it? And where from?

Loz harrumphed and abruptly discarded Tseng.

“No!” the Turk gasped out, trying to scramble forward on a broken shoulder. Until a booted foot slammed into his ribs and he coughed, blood flecking his lips. He watched with horror as Loz turned away from him, advancing on the children.

“Sephiroth…” Denzel murmured, fear filling his brown eyes.

He would not fail him in this!

“Run!” Tseng choked and dragged himself up, throwing a random spell from his arsenal at Loz’s back. He didn’t care what, so long as it attracted the other man’s attention. More blood spilled from his mouth as he hacked, something shifting wetly inside of him.

Ribs. The bastard had broken some of his ribs.

Flare exploded against Loz’s back and he whirled, face screwing up with anger. On the edge of hazy, fading vision, Tseng saw the man return his attentions to him. Thank Kami. Despite the dizziness, if the children were safe, then he didn’t care what happened to him.

Knees like jelly, Tseng tried to rise to his feet but they refused to obey his order. Loz drew closer, cracking his knuckles.

…Someone. Please save me. Anyone…

A thought not his own. A scared child from years past.

And then the darkness hit.


“It’s going to rain soon.”

Reis looked up as she finished the last strains of one of her favorite pieces, lowering her bow and violin so that she didn’t strain herself. “You think so?” she asked her visitor, the young man perched so comfortably on the edge of the roof.

She had worried at first that he would fall off. But he always seemed to have perfect balance, even when the winds were at their strongest. She didn’t question his affinity for high places, considering it was the first place they had met. Besides there was something of alluring interest about this man, despite the fact that he was so obviously younger than her, though not by much.

He nodded, draping one leg over the edge and balancing his arm on his knee, tilting his head up to the sky. “The sky smells of thunder.”

Reis grinned, a small chuckle escaping her lips. “You sound like an old man when you say things like that.”

He turned towards her, green eyes surprisingly soft. “Not too old I hope.”

She shook her head, setting her bow on the music stand and reaching down for her violin case. “I can’t even guess,” she commented, placing her prized instrument back into its case. If it was going to rain, she didn’t want to risk it getting even the slightest bit damp.

“I haven’t seen you in awhile.”

Yazoo shrugged elegantly, long strands of silver hair sliding over a shoulder. “I’ve been keeping busy.”

“With your brothers right?” she asked, seeking confirmation.

She knew that Yazoo had no family except for his two siblings, one younger and one older, but had only met Kadaj as of recently. Thus the reason she, out of all the others, was the only one who knew of Archer’s secret.

Truth be told, she had only known the man for about three months, not long after giving birth to Revan. For relaxation purposes, Reis had taken to playing her violin on the roof top, letting the wind carry away her music. Sometimes her brother and his husband came to listen to her, but mostly, she cherished the solitude.

It was one such time when she had played the last strands of Oceano that she heard the quiet sounds of clapping. Reis had turned to see a stranger perched on the ledge, watching her intently. At the time, she had assumed the young man was working for her brother and the WRO. It wasn’t until later that he had explained he was merely passing by and had climbed up the fire escape.

He called her a siren, luring him with her beautiful music.

It was probably the first time Reis could remember every blushing so brightly.

Since then, he stopped by from time to time, listening to her play or engaging in idle chatter. She had even gone to lunch with him a few times, finding Yazoo to be both charming and intelligent. That he resembled Sephiroth had never really struck her as something to be concerned about.

Yazoo made a noncommittal sound in his throat, drawing her attention back towards him. “Un. Family matters you could say,” he responded, answering her earlier question.

She smiled, thinking of her brother and little Revan. “I understand completely.” Reis tilted her head upwards, gazing at the sky and the cloud’s rapidly gathering. “Since a storm is coming, you’ll give me a hand carrying my things inside?” The wind was picking up in intensity, cold and refreshing as it whooshed against her face.

He looked over at her and nodded, sliding gracefully from the ledge in one movement. His booted feet didn’t even make a sound against the cement as the leather creaked slightly. The change in attire had surprised her at first, since before he usually dressed casually, but she hadn’t asked any questions. It wasn’t any of her business.

“Grab the stand and chair for me, please,” she ordered efficiently, swinging her violin case over one shoulder.

She gathered up her music sheets in her free hand, inwardly glad that she wouldn’t be forced to make several trips. The air was beginning to smell thickly of rain. He shrugged, reaching to fold down the stand as he had seen her do many times before.

“Do you boss your brother around as well?” he asked teasingly. She had told him of a bit of her family but left out all the details, just as he had done for her. It was a strange game they were playing, sharing and leaving out so much of the truths.

Reis smiled and shook her head, holding the roof door open so that he could precede her since his burdens were more unwieldy and bulky. “I’m the youngest,” she answered, her voice echoing in the stairwell. “It’s only fair. Since he was born first and all.”

“Youngest. Oldest. I wouldn’t know,” Yazoo responded, his tone almost wistful as he followed her down the stairs. “I’ve always been stuck in the middle.”

“The middle’s not so bad,” Reis responded, winking at him over her shoulder as she added, “it just depends on what you’re stuck between.”

The faint blush that stained his cheeks was quite endearing and well worth her rather bold attempt at teasing.

They hit the landing then and she shoved open the door with her hips, gesturing for him to follow after her onto the topmost floor. She had insisted on getting the highest floor while allowing Reeve and his family and his job to take the one below. She had wanted to be the closest to the roof since it was her favorite place to practice without worrying about bothering other residents.

They emerged into a small room which led directly into what was essentially her living room. A massive window lined one entire hall, giving her a clear view of the sea and Junon while the kitchen could be seen through a wide bar lining another wall. To their left, a hallway stretched with her bedroom and bathroom while a smaller corridor led to the front entryway and door. It was more than suitable for her tastes.

“You can set that stuff down anywhere,” Reis directed as she stepped into her living room, laying her violin case very carefully on the fluff of her favorite chair, perched very near to the large window. The music sheets, however, she laid on top of the piano which was set up on a small platform in direct view of the window. The instrument was a Baby Grand, a recent gift from her brother, and one of her absolute favorites.

Yazoo did as instructed, his boots silenced by the thick carpet as he set her folded up chair against the wall and put her music stand beside it. “I didn’t know you had a piano,” he commented, tucking a loose strand of hair from his face behind his ear.

Considering that he had never set foot inside her apartment, it was a valid observation. Their encounters had never gone further than the rooftop or the occasional trip to the coffee shop where she had come to learn he had quite the sweet tooth. She often asked him if he’d like any coffee with his sugar.

“Violin isn’t the only instrument I know,” Reis responded with a smile, sliding into the glossy seat with ease. Deft fingers lifted up the corner, setting it back into its groove. Black and white keys gleamed up at her, already well used but still shining like new.

Yazoo hovered near, beside the seat but not taking it. His gaze flickered over the piano. “What else?” the man asked, his fingers trailing over the top of the instrument, almost longingly.

She watched him carefully before answering, tapping her chin in thought. “Hmm. Flute. Cello.” Reis made a face of distaste. “Harp,” she added, thinking of the stringed contraption her mother had forced on her.

The doctor then scooted over, making room on the bench. She patted the empty space beside her, a silent request for him to take the seat.

Something flickered in green eyes before he lowered himself into the seat, watching her movements intently. Smiling, Reis lifted her fingers and placed them on the keys, beginning to play something soft and sultry, one of her favorite pieces.

“I blank out when I play piano,” she explained after a moment, her fingers moving almost mindlessly over the black and white keys. “I don’t really have to think about it anymore. But the motions are comforting.”

Silence settled between them as she let her mind wander, her fingers mindlessly continuing the soft tune, not unlike a lullaby. Then, to her surprise, hands rose, slowly and almost tentatively, to join her on the keys. It was a perfect complement to her tune.

Reis blinked, ceasing her movements in surprise. He stopped almost immediately but she encouraged him with a look and he continued as she folded her own hands in her lap. With her song missing, he gradually altered his playing to become a more dominant tune, a bit mournful but nonetheless beautiful.

“You didn’t tell me you played,” Reis commented with some awe, watching his pale and elegant fingers move in a steady rhythm. The song itself was something she had never heard and he played it without music sheets, causing her to believe it was entirely original.

He was quiet for a moment. “It is not something I usually share,” came the quiet response, rife with something unnameable.

“It’s beautiful,” Reis breathed, ignoring the emotions flittering on the air. Instead, she closed her eyes and took in every rise and fall of the music, letting it flow through her. It was truly a magnificent piece.

From under a fall of silver hair, constantly slipping into his eyes, Yazoo chanced a glance at her. He didn’t think he had seen anyone more beautiful.

Abruptly, a sound pierced through the soft tunes and Reis’ eyes snapped open in momentary confusion. “Ah, hell,” she swore under her breath, her gaze flickering past him to the table where her cell phone laid.

The music cut off as Reis swung her legs over the bench and padded over to the phone, scooping it up. “Tuesti-sensei, here,” she chirped into the receiver.

Yazoo was polite enough to attempt not listening as he ran his fingers over the keys one last time before closing the lid. He rose to his feet, slipping on his gloves as his mind briefly returned to the past. To the one gift that woman had left for him.

Tifa had been the one to teach him how to play on a day when she had been bored and he still recovering from what the lab had done to him. It hadn’t taken long considering his intelligence. Yazoo’d had a fascination with music ever since, and all she had done was teach him the basics. It was a guilty pleasure of sorts that he didn’t dare admit to either of his brothers. Though he had the suspicion he could probably convince Loz.

“I’m sorry, Yazoo,” Reis said, disturbing him from his reverie. “One of my patients called and has a bit of an emergency so I have to go.”

He glanced at the clock on her wall, Jenova choosing that moment to stir inside of him. She raked across his brain, furious that he had attempted to block him and he barely withheld the outward wince. One gloved hand clenched into a fist but luckily, he was at an angle from Reis and she couldn’t see it.

There was something he was supposed to be doing after all, no matter how much he wanted to run from it.

“It’s fine,” Yazoo responded with a smile dredged up from somewhere, tucking his hair behind his ears once more. “I did barge in on you after all.”

Amber eyes studied him for a moment before she smiled and reached for her wrist, sliding something off of it. Reis stepped forward, grabbing his hand and placing something in his palm.

He looked down at the small ring of fabric curiously. “What’s this?”

She pointed demonstratively at his head. “Either cut it off or pull it back, hmm? It might help. Though I would hate to see you lose that lovely hair.”

Understanding filtered through. “Thanks,” he replied, warmed by the sentiment. Yazoo snapped the tie around his wrist for later use.

“No problem.” He was quickly becoming attracted to that smile she always seemed so willing to dole out. “You want me to walk you out?”

He shook his head. “No, I’ll just…” he trailed off, gesturing vaguely behind him towards the roof door. Considering her brother’s protectiveness, as she had explained, he didn’t want to risk being caught by the man.

“All right. We’ll have to catch dinner sometime,” Reis said, shrugging into her jacket and sliding her keys into her pocket, visibly in a rush. “Bye, Yazoo.”

She was out the door and gone before he could even stop her, his goodbye said to a closed door and an empty apartment.

Yazoo knew he should have said more, maybe even convinced himself to say what he had been holding in his heart as of late. This was probably the last chance he had at true sanity, the last time he could block off the siren before she consumed him completely.

As if agreeing with him, Jenova raked across his brain again, turning his thoughts to a mush of agony. He winced, his gloved hand coming to his forehead in an attempt to stave off the pain. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the bright red tie around his wrist. It was a mild comfort.

Yazoo gritted his teeth. “Yes, Mother,” he muttered under his breath.

He bit his lip against her call and glanced one last time at the piano before heading for the roof. It was easier for him to sneak around by using the upper levels.

It had been nice, that sense of normalcy for however short it was. He only wished it didn’t have to end that soon.

He wished he could have held onto that dream for just a little while longer.

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