[Shattered] Children 12

Chapter Eight: The Shame of Defeat

The ride was mercifully brief, the wind preventing them from talking. Tseng enjoyed being so near to Sephiroth but, considering how tense things were between them, he was glad for the silence. Tseng wasn’t sure he was ready to try and brave a conversation with his lover.

They arrived at the airship within record time, Cid already having the loading platform waiting for them. Sephiroth parked Odin in his usual space and headed for the cockpit while Tseng went his separate way, towards the observation deck. He wasn’t given a second glance as he passed several of Cid’s crew, most of them accustomed to the Captain’s many and varied passengers.

By the time he had arrived at the deck, he felt the ship rise into the air, giving him the usual unsettling jump in his belly. It was something to which he never could get accustomed. He stepped onto the platform, wind whipping his hair around his face, and promptly reached for a tie to pull it back.

Luckily, it was deserted. He really didn’t want any observers. Hair sufficiently restrained, Tseng set his hand on the Yoshiyuki and drew it from its sheath. Silver eyes trained over the gleaming blade, testing the weight in his grasp. It was solid, a perfect counterbalance to Koori Tenken.

While he would miss the contrary elements of fire and ice he could pull from the entire set, he supposed the Yoshiyuki would be an adequate replacement.

Taking up a stance that he easily recalled from long months spent in training, Tseng gave the sword a few practice swings. It cleanly clove the air with a faint whistle, moving smoothly in his grasp. His lips twitched, nearly approaching a smile as he went through a series of maneuvers, trying to adapt to the different feel of the blade.

He soon drew Koori and went through several more practice moves, learning to blend the two blades until they swung as one. Koori and Yoshiyuki began to sing as they memorized each other, greeting and making acquaintances. Encouraging to blades to fight as one was oft like introducing two people with the intent of making friends. They had to find a common ground first.

Ten minutes into his normal routine – a route that normally took the better part of an hour – he felt his shoulder twinge. He paused, idly sheathing the Koori, and rubbed at the offended muscle. It was still a bit sore apparently, Aeris’ speed healing only able to bring him so much relief. He would have to fight through it, however. He couldn’t afford the weakness right now.

The Yoshiyuki went slightly limp in his grasp, dangling from his fingers as he tried to dig into the damaged muscle. It was an awkward position and Tseng had the feeling he was doing more harm than he was actually helping.

“Does it still hurt?”

Sephiroth’s voice came as a pleasant surprise. He dropped his hand, glancing over his shoulder to see the former General stepping out onto the deck.

“It’s stiff,” he corrected as Sephiroth approached. “But I’ll work it out.”

To his utmost surprise, the moment his lover was near enough, he lifted a hand and settled it on Tseng’s shoulder. Deft fingers massaged with surprising skill, kneading into the knotted muscle and easing tensions. It hurt like bloody hell, but it had the desired effect of getting rid of the stiffness.

Tseng idly sheathed his blade. “Thank you.”

A moment of silence followed that to his relief wasn’t the least bit awkward. Sephiroth’s emotions had finally muted, no longer swirls of torrential madness. Now they hovered near contemplation and quiet acceptance. The anger and irritation was gone, leaving Tseng to breathe a sigh of respite. His head would be free of painful ache, at least for the moment.

Sephiroth continued to massage his shoulder, long after the initial discomfort had faded, and was the first to speak. “I can’t talk about it right now,” he began quietly, voice a soft rumble. “If I do… no, I can’t afford that weakness.”

“It’s a weakness?”

“It’s a way in,” Sephiroth replied after another hesitation. “For her, I mean. The past. The things I don’t want to remember… they leave me open.”

The relief that flooded through Tseng should have made him guilty. But it didn’t, because he was merely comforted by the fact that Sephiroth was not intending to end their relationship. He turned, Sephiroth’s hand sliding from his shoulder and down his arm. Before Sephiroth could speak, Tseng curled his hand around the back of the man’s neck and dragged his head down for a kiss.

Hesitant at first, Sephiroth’s tongue finally met his, hot and spicy, curling and hungry. Their mouths joined eagerly, Sephiroth taking full part in the kiss. Tseng remembered how the former general had been a year ago, tentative and unsure, letting Tseng direct everything. Now, Sephiroth had found his own dominance, setting the Turk’s blood to boiling.

Sephiroth’s fingers tightened around Tseng’s arm, fulfilling the urge to draw the shorter man towards him. Their bodies came together as the kiss deepened, tongues tangling and lips smacking noisily. Tseng was absolutely certain he would never get enough of Sephiroth’s taste, a mix of something darkly spicy, like nutmeg or cinnamon. It sent trills down his spine.

Yet, this was not the place to be taking things further. With much reluctance, he drew away from the flavor of Sephiroth’s mouth.

“Fine,” he said, forcing the words out as his head floated in a satisfying wave of pleasure. “I won’t ask. But only if you don’t try to leave me behind and do this on your own.”

Green-grey eyes shifted to the side as Sephiroth exhaled. “You’re here already. It would be pointless to try and force you to stay on the ship.”

“Damn right.” Tseng lowered his hand, briefly squeezing Sephiroth’s shoulder. “We’re in this together now. You’re not alone.”

Sephiroth was quiet for a moment, as though absorbing this information. “I tend to forget that sometimes,” he said softly, face pinching in unwanted recollection. “I am so used to what that man has pressed on me that I forget I don’t have to push everyone away.”

“I thought Zack had already proven otherwise?”

He chuckled lightly, remembering those days all those years ago. “Zack gave me no choice in the matter,” he clarified, some of the darkness fading from his expression. “He forcibly inserted himself into my life and refused to let go.”

“Ah,” Tseng said with an inclination of his head. “I was a choice then.”

“Fishing for compliments?” Sephiroth posed in an amused tone, sliding his eyes back towards his lover. “I didn’t think you were the type.”

Tseng resisted the urge to roll his eyes, knowing it would have been juvenile. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting a little reassurance,” he stated logically.

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?”

Huffing, Tseng sought to change the subject. “Why did you come out here anyways? I thought you were talking with Highwind.”

Sephiroth’s smirk widened, which on him looked damn sexy. It made Tseng want to forget about the fact they were on the airship in plain view. “He’s more irritable than usual. I left him alone, cursing at his crew.”

“Likely worried about Valentine,” Tseng mused aloud, slipping into Commander mode, “though I don’t see why. He is more than capable of taking care of himself.”

Sephiroth shook his head, remembering certain events that had been described to him. “While I have the utmost faith in every Turk I know, it is different when it concerns one’s lover. A little worry is not to be unexpected.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The Turk Commander couldn’t help but wonder if Sephiroth ever worried about him and his safety. Probably not. The other man was probably sure that Tseng could more than adequately protect himself. No, Tseng did most of the worrying in their relationship. He was certain of it.

The Valenwind dipped slightly as it hit a bout of hard wind, attracting their attention. Sephiroth lifted his gaze, looking past Tseng and over his head to the approaching continent. Just past his sight, he could see the tips of the trees and the mist surrounding them, obscuring anything else.

“We’re nearly there.”

A noncommittal noise emerged from the Turk’s throat. “We had better get ready,” he responded, greatly disappointed that they didn’t have longer to simply talk like this. A rare moment of peace without the past cropping up or the undermined future.

Sephiroth nodded. “Yes.”

In the resulting pause, Tseng turned to leave. He hoped to raid Cid’s storehouse and locate something of a healing nature, or maybe even a defensive materia or two. His stock was packed with attack magic, and he knew it wouldn’t kill him to have a Cure or Heal, even if they were only low level.

However, before he could even finish moving, Sephiroth had grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Their lips met again, more deeply and encouraging than before. It was an assuring kiss, one of brief parting that implied there would be another meeting. It warmed something inside of Tseng, reassuring him that though all was not perfectly well between he and Sephiroth, it was not over.

They would work it out.

Sephiroth ended the kiss with a parting nip to Tseng’s bottom lip, gently unwinding his fingers from their stern hold. “I’ll join you in a moment,” he said lightly, though he licked his lips and his eyes were slightly glazed.

“I’ll be at Odin,” Tseng replied, already turning back towards the door.

Sephiroth watched him go, the look on his face unreadable. One hand fell to the Murasame at his side, gloved hand wrapping around a hilt that was becoming familiar to him once more.

Once Tseng was gone from his sight, he turned towards the approaching continent and forest, trying to ignore the trickle of dread that was spinning through him. In the back of his mind, Jenova ranted and raged at her defeat, yet also tried to croon softly, to whisper to him. He blocked it all.

Somehow, Sephiroth had the feeling it was going to be no simple rescue.


Kadaj smirked, sweeping his eyes over the gathered children, all those in Junon inflicted with the Geostigma. He could read the pain in their faces, but also the hope, the eagerness. They looked to him with innocent eyes, huddling together on the opposite side of the shore. Denzel, Sephiroth’s little brat was with them, but he had separated out Marlene.

She stood behind him with Loz. Even though she had no Geostigma, Kadaj was sure they could find some use for her. If anything, she would serve as hefty bait to attract Sephiroth. Both she and the brown-haired kid.

Inside, Mother was cooing in delight. She was purring at the sight of all the gathered young ones, able to feel the grind and pulse that their bodies emanated. The sickly sores and dark presence of her cells mixed with their Lifestream. It amused her.

As for Kadaj himself? Deep down, buried beneath layers Mother could not reach, his stomach churned with nausea. He hated himself a bit more with each passing moment. These children… they only wanted to be healed, to be made better, to live. But that wasn’t why they had been brought to this continent. That wasn’t why Mother had called them.

They had been swayed by pretty lies and empty promises. It wasn’t all that difficult to convince those who were in pain, who wanted to live. It had only taken a gentle voice, a fake sense of understanding. And they trusted so willingly, believed so easily.

Kadaj understood that. The wanting to be helped, the needing to be saved, he’d felt it himself in his younger years, crying by himself in the middle of the night, wishing for the pain to stop. Most of the children had the same look in their eyes that he knew he found in the mirror every day, when he dared to look.

In that same deep, hidden part of himself, far from Mother’s prying eyes, Kadaj wished he actually knew what would heal them. Maybe it could heal him, too. It was faint hope, barely managing to linger in the face of everything.

But then Mother would cackle and trace her nails down his brain and he would shudder. He would pull away from that safe portion of his heart and return to her commands, lest she find it and rip out what few happy memories he had. Of Kyle. Of being saved by that woman. Of a few precious moments of freedom.

Kadaj knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending. Not for he and his brothers. He would be grateful in the end if someone dealt them a quick death, a freedom from their trapped existences. Though, he knew, it was probably more than they deserved. Some acts did not deserve forgiveness. He had the feeling most of the atrocities he was committing and still had plans to perpetrate were of that kind.

His skull suddenly pulsed and Kadaj sucked in a heavy breath against the pain. Mother had noticed his brief pause and was not pleased. Steeling himself, Kadaj withdrew and plastered a smirk on his face. His eyes gleamed a bright green as he whirled towards the crowd of children, pacing back and forth on the shore of the pole.

They watched him with wary hope.

He had nothing but madness to give them.

“Mother has given me a very special gift!” Kadaj announced, a faint laugh spilling from his lips that mixed insanity and despair. “The power to fight… against a planet that torments humanity! Torments us!”

He knew he had their attention when a few shifted. Kadaj lowered his face, ignoring stabs of guilt in the part of him that remained human. He concentrated on his audience, four dozen or so children. Hopeful young ones. They would be smashed in Mother’s will.

“That’s right,” Kadaj crooned, dropping his tone to something coaxing and gentle, to encourage children to listen. “She gave this gift to all her children. You and I, who are brethren. Brothers and sisters chosen when we inherited Mother’s legacy from the Lifestream!”

He ignored the part of him that screamed of falsehood. Inherited? Not likely. Injected and bathed in it, forced into his blood stream, sinking into his skin. Like a dozen angry knives and a thousand piercing needles. Scalpels cutting and tests, so many tests. Inherited? Kadaj would have rather died than inherit anything like that.

He said none of this, of course, his lips instead continuing to spill blather that would sway their little innocent and hopeful minds. Mother fed him the words, fed them her intention.

“But… the planet doesn’t approve of that at all. It’s doing everything it can to hold us back.”

Kadaj paused, shaking his head before gesturing out towards the children with a faint hand. It was coaxing and soothing. See? This is me. I hold no danger, I am a friend. Come to me, oh innocent eyes. I bring you no harm. That was what the motion claimed.

Madness, all of it.

“That’s why it’s racking our bodies with pain,” he said harshly, reminding them of their agony, of the friends they had already lost. Some stirred at his harsh tone, but he didn’t stop. “That’s why the planet is filling our hearts with doubt. To trick us, to steal us away from Mother.”

He turned towards them, arms sweeping wide for effect. They watched him avidly, some bouncing on their heels. Kadaj’s eyes settled on Denzel just once, saw the indecision, the teeth chewing on a bottom lip. He had to coax this one, if no one else, to convince their brother to join as well.

“I will heal you,” Kadaj told them, watching as their eyes shimmered in gratitude. “With one step, I can heal you. And together, my brothers and sisters, together we shall go to Mother! Together!”

Lies! His heart screamed, the last part of him that remained human. Lies and deceit, you shameless creature.

Yes. He was shameless. Because he had sold his soul to the devil, if he’d ever had one to give. He was an experiment. Oh, human in the base sense of the word, but also a creature, a monster of Jenova and scientist blood. He had been crafted this way. So, beast he would become.

As if sensing his reluctance, Mother stirred. Her energy collected around him and he felt it, the black emittance of her hatred and fury. It thrummed through his body, in his fingertips, out through the tips of his hair. It writhed and coalesced.

Into the water, my child, Mother insisted. Show them the way.

And he could only obey.

His boots crunched over sand and rock both. Kadaj stepped forward, heading deeper and deeper into the crystal clear and cold depths. He could feel it even through the leather, stopping only when it reached his waist. He watched as the black spread from him as if he were tainting the water with his presence. It made sense after all. He was a creature; here it was pure. There, far beneath him, the Ancient City rested, radiating purity. He was defiling it.

Tell them, my son, Mother urged, louder this time, more pressing, enough that his tongue worked before words were on it. Tell them what to do.

Kadaj lifted his head, smirk never leaving his lips. “We will join as a family and strike back at the planet,” he said coolly, hands dropping to the still surface, fingers just barely dipping beneath.

They were listening. He had their full attention.

“Do as I do.”

They were watching.

Dipping his hands into the water, Kadaj cupped the darkened liquid and drew it up to his lips. He hesitated for only a minute before he drank of the contaminated water, the liquid sliding like oil down his throat.

His stomach instantly roiled at the metallic flavor, like fresh blood and agony, like the labs he had been saved from. It was like green mako, burning through his veins and the tearing of a beast’s claws in his skin. It took all Kadaj had to hide his cringe from Mother, returning to smirk.

When he looked up, the children moved as if entranced, following his lead. They moved into the water, splashes and ripples following in their wake. One by one, they drank of the water and he could feel their life forces thrumming with his, their spirits joining with Mother’s.

Denzel, who stood at the head of the pack, almost appeared to be hesitating. The fingers of one hand were wrapped around something that dangled from his neck. Silver metal of some kind, Kadaj did not know. He watched as the boy seemed to come to a decision, releasing the necklace.

Behind Kadaj, Marlene stirred. “Denzel, don’t,” she pleaded, but her voice was too soft for him to hear. Either that, or he purposefully ignored her.

Denzel’s hands dropped to the surface. Every move was slow and cautious. Hands dipped into the water, cupping the blackened liquid. He looked at it, weighed it, decided and pondered. The water didn’t even drip between his fingers, quivering in his grasp, just waiting for the decision to be made.

Kadaj watched as the boy brought the tainted liquid to his lips and began to drink, swallowing deeply. The Geostigma sore on his forehead seemed to ripple in appreciation, darkening faintly. Kadaj wondered if Mother’s plan at least eased their pain, made it easier to bear, or if her cells only took over their bodies, making them able to feel the agony and yet have no control. He knew how that was.

“Denzel,” Marlene whimpered, concern etched into her voice.

Kadaj didn’t dare turn around to look at her. He didn’t need his guilt any heavier. He mentally apologized to the girl.

Can’t you see? I haven’t any choice. None of us do. We are merely toy soldiers, dancing along to Mother’s whim.

Watching as the rest of the children drank and Marlene sobbed quietly behind him, Kadaj’s hand drew into a fist. He ignored Mother’s triumphant laugh, and the hollowness it all produced inside of him. The frost was creeping towards the part of his heart he had shoved aside. He fought to keep it warm.

Kadaj knew their brother was coming for them. After all, Mother was waiting.


Odin rumbled loudly as they shot between the silvery trees, frozen branches creaking in the passing wind. Tseng was glad for the rush of the air and the roar of the motor. It kept them from talking to each other. The awkwardness and gulf between them had only grown stronger and wider. Was it foolish of them to think it would work?

The talk on the airship had been helpful, but the fact remained that something hung between them. It took the form of Sephiroth’s past, events that he held no control over but still managed to shame him. It was a nasty Chocoboro, golden feathers and acidic breath that everyone wanted to pretend didn’t exist, even as it picked them off one by one.

Tseng wanted to help, but he didn’t think that was possible. Even for the two of them, he had no place in that. Besides, they had mutually agreed to concentrate on rescuing the children. Everything else would have to remain in the background, slowly seething and growing worse.

Biting back a moody sigh, Tseng pushed himself against the warmth of Sephiroth’s back, the chill of the rushing air attacking him. He forced himself to ignore the beginnings of arousal being that close to Sephiroth stirred within him. He couldn’t wait for all of the nonsense to be over so that he and Sephiroth could finally sit down and talk. Get everything out into the open.

Though he worried what might happen in the end. Would they have to fight another Sephiroth? Or worse, would they have to fight their Sephiroth, his lover? Would they be facing Jenova, or something worse? And these brothers, these three boys, what were they? Sion still hadn’t been able to find any research pertaining to their presence, and he suspected that it had all burned when Midgar was destroyed.

That would have been their luck.

“Shit!”

Sephiroth’s curse pierced the air in the same moment that he suddenly slammed on the brakes and jerked the handles. Tseng hung on for dear life as Odin abruptly twisted and sent them into a dangerous spiral. He felt Sephiroth’s muscles tighten and knew that he would have to act quick.

Tensing his own muscles, he took a deep breath and jumped, landing with cat-like agility on his feet several feet away. His knee threatened to buckle however, and it was only with great reflex that he kept his stance. Tseng jerked his head up, catching sight of Sephiroth leaping from the bike in the same fashion, landing with a crouch as his bike skittered off into the woods, crashing into a tree beyond their sight.

Heaving, Tseng finally saw what had forced them into that dangerous tumble. He straightened as children fell from the trees around them, completely surrounding him and Sephiroth. Tseng’s hands fell to his swords as he registered their blank expressions. They were the ones that had gone missing from Junon; he recognized a few faces from the files.

Nearby, he saw Sephiroth stiffen and shifted his gaze past the other man. A low growl emanated in Tseng’s throat as he caught sight of the silver-haired boy Kadaj, Loz noticeable only by his absence. Tseng wondered where the other two were, or what they might be plotting. These were the creatures that had tortured Elena and Zack, that had beaten him and stolen the children.

He searched the crowd for Denzel and Marlene but didn’t immediately see either. His fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword. Every sense screamed that something was wrong, that he should be on his guard.

“I’m glad you could make it,” Kadaj announced, striding forward as he twirled his double-bladed sword in his grasp.

He was completely ignoring Tseng’s presence, his gaze focused only on Sephiroth. A weaponless Sephiroth. The former General hadn’t had time to withdraw Murasame from its compartment before they were forced to abandon the bike.

“I only came for the children,” Sephiroth stated lowly, his movements matching Kadaj as they began to circle each other, looking, for all appearances, like siblings having an argument, “not for anything else you may think you can coax me into.”

Tseng swallowed thickly. He took a step closer to Sephiroth. Kadaj’s eyes shot his direction and just that one, poisoned look had him freezing in his tracks. Those eyes were silently telling him that this wasn’t his battle, that he was to stay out of a family quarrel. It froze his feet, set his nerves to numbness.

He didn’t draw Koori Tenken or Yoshiyuki as he intended, instead he was forced only to watch as his unarmed lover and a madman squared off.

Kadaj laughed, turning towards the children and gesturing broadly. “See this man?” he asked, motioning to Sephiroth, “He’s our brother.”

“I have no family,” Sephiroth growled, though he largely went unheard. He missed the barely stifled sound of hurt from the frozen Turk behind him.

The younger male turned towards him, a sneer decorating his lips as he shook his head, silver hair a curtain shielding his eyes. “But, alas, in our happy flock, he’s what you would call a black sheep.”

The strange sword was lifted, pointed directly at Sephiroth. “What say you, brother? Fight me with your fists? Save the children? Turn your back on your family?”

Sephiroth’s hands clenched into fists as he fought against the rising tide of Jenova inside of him. The proximity to Kadaj was only making her louder, her coaxing fiercer. She was trying to drag out his memories, show him all the reasons he should hate, and he was staggering.

He stared at the boy who could be his brother, recognizing the madness behind eyes that would have mirrored his own, once upon a time. “Fight her.” Sephiroth found himself saying, or more accurately, growling out the words. Because he had been in the boy’s position before, he knew what Kadaj was struggling against. “It’s not impossible.”

Something faltered briefly, a faint flicker across the kid’s irises before it was blinked away and the hard visage returned. The blade remained steady, unfaltering. “Your words cannot sway me, Brother,” Kadaj sneered, his face twisting into something ugly and unfeeling, full of hatred.

It was Jenova’s face. Sephiroth knew it all too well. It twisted memories inside of him, making his belly roil and twist uncomfortably. Her voice was a louder push and pull in the back of his mind and he feared he couldn’t ignore her for much longer. She was going to drag him down no matter what it took, even if she lost her precious pawns, because nothing mattered to Jenova, the harbinger of destruction, but chaos. Chaos and death. She was ten times more dangerous than Balaam could have ever been.

Sephiroth chanced another glance at his fallen bike and the sword he knew was still attached to it, inwardly calculating how long it would take for him to get to it. Tseng’s presence was on the back of his mind, and the children were there, a distraction and a worry. There were so many things to accomplish, and, with Jenova raking across his brain, he wondered if he could even manage one of them.

“Join us.” Kadaj urged, perhaps thinking that Sephiroth was merely indecisive. His lips quirked into a cruel grin. “Return to your mother.”

It was a lie, nothing but a pure, painful lie that he had been forced to endure his entire life. “She is not my mother,” Sephiroth growled beneath his breath, fingers clenching into fists. “She is nothing!”

Kadaj’s eyes widened visibly, Jenova flashing immediately within his irises and turning them a glowing jade. The sword jerked in his arm and Sephiroth danced out of the way, barely avoiding a nick in the throat. The threat, however, was evident in Kadaj’s clenched jaw. Tension rose thick and uncomfortable on the air.

The sound of small feet padding across the ground, sending tiny rocks skittering, suddenly broke through the quiet.

“Sephy! Mr. Tseng!”

Marlene’s voice.

Sephiroth swung his eyes toward her, watching the little girl run in the direction of the Turk. A sense of relief swept through him at seeing she was unharmed, but it was short-lived as he set sight on the two men dropping down behind Tseng. They could also be his brothers, the proclaimed Loz and Yazoo, he could only assume. Their lips were twisted in cruel grins even as Tseng whirled to face them.

The former general’s battle senses suddenly screamed at him, and it was only his quick thinking that saved him from a painful injury. He twisted to the side, deftly avoiding Kadaj’s jab towards his abdomen. The boy immediately regained his balance and dove for another harsh blow, and Sephiroth tossed a spell at him out of sheer reflex.

Jagged shards of ice flew from his fingers as he jerked to the side, throwing himself to the ground. Sephiroth rolled out of the way of Kadaj’s fierce strike, feeling the air whoosh around him from the intensity of the swipe. He was on his feet in a matter of seconds, unsurprised to find that the boy had easily dodged his hastily thrown magic. The ice had embedded itself in a nearby tree, luckily managing not to harm any of the children.

Sephiroth hastily attempted to scan the crowd, believing that if Marlene were there than Denzel must have been as well. But in the brief moment of respite he had been granted, he couldn’t spot the head of tousled brown hair anywhere. Then the second was gone as Kadaj hurtled towards him, blade at the ready.

“You are our brother!” the boy screamed, boots scraping across the ground and sword whistling through the air as he swung it.

The former General easily danced out of the way, recognizing that Kadaj was not trying to kill him. Jenova didn’t want him dead, after all. She only wanted his power. Kadaj was merely trying to keep him off balance and distracted, far away from his sword which would have evened the playing field.

Sephiroth could only wonder where Kadaj began and Jenova ended, so thickly had she stuck her claws in the young man’s brain.

Weapons came together somewhere outside of his sight, Tseng battling against both Yazoo and Loz. He caught glimpses of their fight, the flash of blades and the sound of limbs creaking and cracking. Bodies collided with the trees only to bounce forward and attack once more. Even magic was being flung, Tseng resorting to his materia when necessary.

Sephiroth raked his eyes through the gathered children, and then absolutely froze for a moment. He spied Denzel, standing there amongst the others and staring into nothing. His eyes were strangely blank and Sephiroth’s heart stuttered at the hint of green in normally brown depths.

What on Gaia had happened?

But Sephiroth lost that glimpse in the next second as he dodged another swing, turning to focus his attention on Kadaj. He could only hope that Marlene had done as asked and had run away.

He ducked backwards, dodging a fluid swing and mentally summed up his materia, wishing he’d had the foresight to equip something status-altering. Then again, it probably wouldn’t work on Kadaj, just as they didn’t work on himself.

“We are your family.” Kadaj hissed at him, steps measured and deliberate as his eyes flashed in constant flux. “You cannot possibly belong with them. They are human.” The contempt in his tone was all Jenova, words laced with hatred and disdain.

It was nothing Sephiroth hadn’t heard before, her own attempts at convincing him. “So are we,” he argued, wondering if his words could even pierce the madness.

When he had lost his own mind, not even Zack’s voice could get through to him. There had been nothing but destruction and insanity, a craving for blood and a desire to see everything burn.

Leather gloved fingers tightened around a hilt. “No, we are monsters.” Kadaj countered.

Despite not wanting to believe, the words made Sephiroth’s heart stutter. It all sounded so painfully familiar, as if he were being thrust so many years into the past. The same fears for himself, the same pains. They were welling up again. He had been asking himself if he belonged, if he truly deserved to live.

“Monsters,” Kadaj repeated, seemingly oblivious to Sephiroth’s inner turmoil. Or perhaps he was only stoking a flame. “And monsters like us should stick together. Family should be together!”

“I have no family!” Sephiroth yelled, trying to edge his way towards his sword even as Kadaj circled around him, anger lighting his eyes.

Not truly. His mother and father were dead to him, even if Lucrecia still existed somewhere in her corner of the world. He was as alone now as he had been then, with friendships that were dear, but couldn’t always be there. He was a failure of a friend and a lover. Sephiroth didn’t deserve to have family, and he understood that painfully well.

“You have us. And we need you, brother. Mother needs you,” Kadaj insisted, and for a moment in there, his words almost sounded like the truth.

It passed as quickly as it stabbed through Sephiroth’s emotions, leaving him reeling both mentally and physically. He dodged a wild swing that clearly wasn’t any attempt at being deadly and idly tossed out a medium-powered lightning spell. It whizzed past Kadaj, striking against an ice-white tree and cracking the trunk in half. There was a snap as the tree groaned and gradually began to fall.

“Jenova is only using you,” Sephiroth told the boy, gritting it out through clenched teeth.

On the edge of his conscious, he knew that Tseng was still fighting the other two brothers and fought against his concern. The Turk could handle himself, even if he did have two opponents. Sephiroth dodged to the left, getting closer and closer to his sword. Soon, it would no longer be a one-way battle.

The sound of Kadaj’s laughter dragged his attention back to the boy. It was high and loud, sounding just a bit insane.

“I know that!” Kadaj spat at him, darting closer and forcing Sephiroth to backpedal right into a tree. “But you know more than I how futile it is to fight her.” Something like regret and despair filled his tone and for a moment, Sephiroth saw a glimpse of the true Kadaj. “There’s no point in it at all.”

A cry of pain split the evening and Sephiroth’s head jerked, catching sight of Tseng who had been thrown into a tree with an angry snap, his hands held loosely onto his katana, blood streaming from a gash on his forehead. Even so, Tseng wasn’t completely losing. Loz was lapping at a cut on his arm, part of his leather ensemble shredded, while Yazoo frowned at singed hair, a definite limp in one leg. It was still obvious, though, that he wouldn’t be able to keep it up for much longer.

“We share a father,” Kadaj continued, his voice getting raspy and deep, almost as if he were being purposefully seductive, “we share Mother. What more do we need for family?”

Sephiroth stiffened, something inside of him curdling with nausea. “Hojo is your father?” he demanded, remembering all too well what he had suffered under that man.

The boy’s lips curled into an unattractive snarl, bits of his true persona slipping through. “Don’t say that man’s name!”

He lashed out with the hilt of his sword but Sephiroth moved quickly, capturing the arm in an instant. His fingers locked around Kadaj’s wrist and the boy’s sword dangled between them, reminding them of its dangerous presence.

“Aren’t you angry?” Kadaj demanded, his words proof that he wasn’t fighting Jenova too hard. “How they’ve treated you? What the planet has put you through? The pain?”

His free hand dropped to Sephiroth’s arm, as if he knew the Geostigma was there, bruising the skin. Kadaj squeezed, and though the pressure was weak, it was enough to cause Sephiroth pain. He clenched his teeth as the agony triggered everything else, a flash of Jenova in his mind.

Two more doses!”

But Professor, he can’t-“

Have you grown deaf? I said two more!”

Burning pain, ripping pain. Blood, he felt it dripping from him. He felt the agonizing pressure tearing through his body, and he was dirty, nothing that could ever be cleaned. Even if he boiled his body and tore out the memory, it would always be there, an oily reminder. He could taste the bitterness on his tongue.

Sephiroth jerked to reality with a gasp, bile rising in his throat and threatening to spill from his lips. His eyes rolled as his head lolled against the tree behind him. He could still feel Kadaj’s fingers digging into the Geostigma, sending more pain spiking through him.

Jenova cackled merrily in his mind, gleefully asking that he join her. The pain, it could end this quickly, my son, she told him. And, by the gods, a small part of him almost listened. A part of him was more than ready to give in.

“Sephy!”

Jerking from the reverie he had almost been drawn into, Sephiroth caught sight of Marlene standing nearby, little hands clenched into fists. She looked very worried and equally as frightened, tears brimming in her eyes.

“Run!” he shouted, prepping his own body for a counterattack against Kadaj. “Grab Denzel and run, Marlene!”

“But-”

“Go!”

She jumped with a squeak and darted into the bushes with a rustle of leaves. He would apologize later for being so harsh, provided that he survived, but at the moment he only cared about her safety. Yet, the other children still stood there, as still as statues, paying no attention to the falling trees or the battles, as if they were nothing but mindless puppets.

Then fingers were digging into his arm again and Kadaj was speaking. “Pay attention, dear brother,” he said slyly, voice like dripping poison, “this is where you lose your chance to choose.”

Uncertain what Kadaj meant by that, Sephiroth felt a flutter of worry surge up inside of him. He tightened his grip on Kadaj’s wrist, feeling the bones grind within his grasp, even as he pressed forward, putting the both of them off-balance. They stumbled away from the tree and Sephiroth snatched his arm free from Kadaj’s grasp, powering up another ice spell.

He had every intention of slamming it into Kadaj’s chest, but the boy twisted away at the last possible moment and it missed, careening off into a nearby tree. The rough twist jerked his arm free from Sephiroth and they were separated once more, chest heaving and battle humming through their veins.

“Denzel!” Tseng’s voice.

“I think, Brother, that our prey is trying to escape.” Another voice, likely one of the brother’s. Probably the long-haired one.

Sephiroth tried not to look, but his concern won out. He hastily dodged an attack as Kadaj sprang at him, and caught a glimpse of Tseng. The Turk was reeling from the combined effort of the two brothers, and a powerful blow from Loz sent the Turk falling backwards. He crashed heavily into the ground, coughing and sputtering as he struggled to draw in a breath.

The moment of distraction was all Kadaj needed.

The boy appeared out of nowhere, in a flash that was likely quickened by Haste. Kadaj smirked as his fist slammed into Sephiroth’s skull, causing sparks to fly across the former General’s vision. He reeled from the blow and was unable to block the next, which sent him collapsing to the ground. He landed harshly on his left arm and pain spiked through his body, adding to the disorientation.

Leather boots crunched over the ground, Kadaj appearing in front of him with blade raised. Sephiroth looked up at the boy who was his brother, half-expecting his death.

He wasn’t prepared for the crimson blur to appear out of nowhere, or the sudden pop-pop of a handgun. Kadaj threw himself to the side to avoid the bullets. Magic filled the air as an Aero ripped through the understory of the forest, forcing Yazoo and Loz away from their target.

The mysterious coalescence of scarlet didn’t take form, instead swirling towards an unconscious Tseng. The Turk didn’t move as he was slung over what might have been a shoulder beneath the blur of fabric. More bullets fired from a nearly imperceptible gun, forcing the three brothers backwards. The smear of crimson hurtled Sephiroth’s way, but he couldn’t even move.

He groaned as he felt himself being picked up, an arm slung over the opposite shoulder of his lover, dimly spotting long black hair and grey eyes. Valentine. What the hell was the man doing here? And how could he do that?

Sephiroth felt himself being half-carried, half-dragged away as another burst of magic filled the forest, accompanied by bullets. He recognized the roar of the gun now. It was Cerberus, a three-barreled rifle that was too powerful for a normal human to wield one-handed.

Vincent’s nearly monstrous strength and speed pulled them out of the battle before anyone could truly react, disappearing in another blur of carmine. The three brothers were left alone with their captives, despite how much Sephiroth wanted to return and finish what they’d started. The former General lost consciousness soon after, Jenova screaming obscenities in his brain, enraged that her chance had come and gone.

Left behind, Kadaj spat a curse and spun Souba back into its sheath. He watched the strange cerise apparition disappear into the night, against the backdrop of the full silver moon, and ground his teeth. There was no point in chasing after them. It didn’t matter, really, the true battle was yet to come.

Besides, he still had the children. With them, he would be able to invoke the Reunion and that was all that mattered. Jenova raged within him, her rage sending shocks of pain through his body. Kadaj was left with no choice but to endure.

Not much longer, now, and it would all be over. He ignored the stab of sorrow and regret that entered his heart, even as he rejoined his brothers to finalize their plans.

He had no time for either.

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