[Shattered] Children 23

Chapter Fifteen: A Bittersweet Requiem

Aeris cooed softly to Midori, her little girl unexpectedly fussy tonight. She rocked the infant in her arms, pacing back and forth across the bedroom floor. Midori had always been sensitive and even Aeris could feel the tension in the air. She’d heard little about the battle since Reeve and Reno had sent Revan with Reis to her. All she knew was from scattered television reports and that wasn’t enough.

She worried. About Sephiroth. About Denzel. About Zack. About everyone who composed her family. They were all fighting out there without her. And all she could do was sit at home, hoping and praying that they would be safe. That their deities would protect them. Aeris didn’t know if she could handle losing anyone else precious to her.

Midori whined again and Aeris tucked the blankets tighter around her small form. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” she murmured, though she wasn’t even sure of that herself.

No doubt Midori could feel the bloodshed that vibrated throughout Gaia. And if she was anything like her mother, she could hear the Ancient’s and the voice of the planet, both vibrating with agony.

Aeris sighed and lowered herself to the bed, sitting down to ease the cramp of muscles in her arm. Midori was growing by the day, and as such, grew heavier. Aeris could swing a heavy staff with the best of them, but holding an infant required a different kind of strength. The bed squeaked noticeably, but Aeris only paid it half a mind.

It was times like these that she really missed Cloud a lot. No doubt he would have been able to hold Midori with ease, with that mako strength he had always hated.

Above her, the sound of water on tiles suddenly pierced the soft quiet. It was raining. Strange, she hadn’t heard that it would rain today. Aeris glanced towards the window, finding that it was still bright outside. Clouds hadn’t covered the sun. Ah, the strangeness of weather on this planet, never quite the same after the various battles the surface had suffered.

She closed her eyes, rocking Midori in her arms, and listened to the steady rhythm. There was no wind pushing against her shutters, strangely enough, but the gentle fall of the rain was soothing. The sound appeared to be comforting her daughter as well, as Midori gradually stopped making noise and twitching restlessly, only to calm in her arms. A relief.

Through the soft cadence, Aeris heard a footstep, nothing unusual considering that she had opened her home to a few refugees – Reis and Revan. She looked up anyways, just in case either of her guests needed something, only to still in absolute surprise. Jade eyes widened with disbelief, her breath catching in her throat.

“I’m home,” Cloud said, a soft smile on his face as he lifted a hand in greeting, looking unchanged for all the months he had been dead.

Aeris rose to her feet, unconsciously squeezing Midori a bit tighter and causing her daughter to complain loudly. “Cloud? How… what…?” Words failed her, as they rarely did, and she felt the tears prickle hotly at the back of her eyes. She begged herself not to lose control, and she begged the gods that this wasn’t a dream.

“I don’t have long,” he answered, stepping into the room and moving towards her. “Just until the rain stops.”

She swallowed thickly, confused. “The rain?”

Cloud nodded, pulling her into his arms and Aeris sucked in a breath, his body radiating warmth, his scent unchanged. “The rest of Holy’s power, and the final gift of the Ancients. To clean away Jenova’s poison.”

Geostigma. It didn’t need to be said aloud. Aeris understood all too well and she was relieved. She didn’t know how she was going to handle watching her friends degenerate around her, watching Sephiroth fall apart, unable to help Denzel. And it had hurt when there was nothing her abilities, her connection with the Ancients, could do.

She leaned her head against his chest, relishing in the familiarity and feeling a stab of longing in her heart. “I wish you could stay.”

“You know why I can’t,” he replied, rubbing his hands down her back. “But they let me come so I could see Midori. Just this once.”

Aeris pulled back, lifting a hand to cup his cheek, rubbing her fingers over a face she would never forget. He was the Cloud she knew, and yet different. Softer somehow, more confident. As if he were no longer pieces of a scattered past, but whole and hale. Had protecting them mattered that much to him?

“Yes, it did,” Cloud answered, as though hearing her unspoken question, and he lowered his head, slanting his lips over hers.

The reality of the moment crashed over her when their mouths touched and Aeris sighed into the sweet kiss, wishing that it wasn’t for this scattered bit of time alone. It would be harder to return to a life of loneliness after this, yet, she wouldn’t abandon the chance either. She couldn’t.

Her hand slipped down to cradle Midori and Cloud drew back from the kiss, turning his gaze towards their daughter. His features softened even further, love entering his eyes. He lifted a hesitant hand, gently touching his fingers over the crown of Midori’s head.

“She’s beautiful,” he murmured, in a voice thick with emotion. “She looks just like you.”

Heart clenching, Aeris swallowed down rising tears. “But she has your eyes,” Aeris corrected with a quiet laugh, even as Midori opened her eyes, showcasing her beautiful heterochromatic irises.

“And your smile,” Cloud commented even as Midori seemed to grin up at him, hands reaching.

Aeris took that as an invitation and pushed Midori into her husband’s arms, though it was clear Cloud was hesitant to hold the infant. Likely out of fear of dropping her more than anything else. She was precious to the both of them. But Aeris silently directed him on where to place his hands and soon Cloud was cradling her properly.

She watched as Cloud gazed adoringly at their daughter, gently tracing her features. Midori cooed in his arms, reaching up to grasp his finger tightly.

Aeris smiled. “She knows you, even if she has never met you.”

“Then she’s definitely her mother’s daughter,” Cloud returned amusedly, sadness crossing his expression. “I wish I could stay. To see her grow. She’ll be beautiful. And strong.”

She stepped closer to husband and daughter, her palm on Midori’s head as she looked up at her husband. “If not for you, Midori and I both might not be here today.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Cloud said softly, looking pained. “I don’t regret that choice.”

“That’s fine. Because I’d do it for you. If we had only been stronger-”

He shook his head, cutting her off with a sharp glance. “No, Aeris, it was what I wanted to do. Trust me on this. Knowing you two are safe was the only thing that kept the anger and bitterness away.”

Aeris was not satisfied. She wanted her husband back, even if she understood why it couldn’t happen. It didn’t seem fair to her, but then, life had proven itself time and time again to lack equity. What the planet had suffered was a prime example. She bit back a sigh, feeling her heart clench.

And above them, the sound of the rain gradually trickled away, until it was only a faint drizzle, and even that lightening. The short moment had drifted into nothingness and Cloud kissed Midori on the forehead, returning his daughter to her mother’s arms. She didn’t want to say goodbye, and Midori didn’t either, seeming to sense the rising emotions. She fidgeted again, whimpering audibly.

“Time’s up,” Cloud said, his boyish smile lacking in cheer. “Though I guess we should be grateful we had this much, huh?”

She chewed on her bottom lip, not wanting to say goodbye for a second time. The first had been hard enough, and even then it had been against her will. She hadn’t thought rationally back then, but she hadn’t wanted to leave Cloud. Hephaestion had made that choice for her – the better in the end – but once again, she had no choice in letting him leave her. The thought that the world seemed to despise their happiness crossed her mind, before she shook away the petty consideration. There were others who had suffered just as much, if not more.

Even as Aeris looked, however, she could see Cloud fading away on the edges, as though he really were just a spirit here to visit. And to think, she had dared deny his death even if only briefly.

“You’re leaving me again,” she said, and if it came out a bit broken, neither of them spoke a word about it. “It’s not-”

He kissed her, his lips tasting like light, cutting off her childish statement. “No, it’s not,” Cloud replied against her mouth. “I love you both. Remember that.”

Aeris clutched Midori to her, feeling as if her heart was breaking all over again. This was almost too cruel. “And we love you.”

She last saw Cloud smile before he faded completely from her eyes, in perfect tune with the last raindrop falling. Silence swept through her ears and Aeris couldn’t stop the tears that slipped from her eyes. She dropped back onto the bed, holding her daughter close to her, Midori seeming to sense her mother’s distress.

It hurt. By the gods, it hurt so much.

“It’s rainin’ again,” Cid commented, grunting as he hauled the unconscious Loz onto the back of his motorcycle. The boy was heavy as hell and his lover wasn’t doing a damn thing to help.

Beside him, Vincent gazed up into the sky, one hand out to catch the soft, cool droplets. “Something has happened,” he murmured, even more certain as an unexpected tingle raced through his body, easing the flashes of pain that rippled across his skin.

There was another grunt as Reno hefted Yazoo from his shoulder to the back of his bike, the young man bruised but otherwise alive. And it had not been easy. “What makes ya say that, yo?” he asked, looking in desperate need of a cigarette, much like Cid.

Vincent shook his head, holstering his gun. “I can’t hear her anymore.”

“Her?”

“Jenova,” Vincent clarified, casually reaching for his cloak and shucking it off, rolling up the sleeves of his mangled left hand to the surprise of both men. It was well-known that Vincent didn’t like baring himself in public. But if his suspicions held true…

And they did. Before his very eyes, the malignant poison of the Geostigma seemed to evaporate from his skin with every tap of rain, rising up in black tendrils only to vanish. Vincent clenched and flexed his fingers, surprised at their returned mobility.

“Her presence is gone.”

“Holy shit,” Cid breathed, suddenly crowding close and grabbing Vincent’s arm, running his fingers carefully over the vanishing bruise. “What the hell…?”

Vincent wished he had the answers, but not even he could explain this. He tilted his head back, grey eyes searching the blue sky from which the rain inexplicably fell. Somehow, he thought that the planet had something to do with this. The planet, the Ancients… Cloud. Why he felt the blond’s presence, he wasn’t sure. But Vincent had a sense that somehow, Cloud was involved.

He closed his eyes, letting the rain streak down his face, into his hair. Letting it trickle across his skin, cool and soothing, soaking his clothes. Tickling at his lower back where the dark, garish Geostigma had sunk into his skin, frightening Cid more and more each day. Vincent couldn’t see it, but he knew that the bruise was turning to ash, just like the one on his wrist.

“That’s just a bit freaky,” Reno muttered, and Vincent glanced at him, watching as he rubbed fingers over a mark on the side of his neck, one that his long hair had been hiding.

He’d nearly forgotten that Reno suffered from Geostigma as well, though the extent of his infection had not been nearly as advanced. It had touched so many of them.

“Why’s this happenin’?” the Turk wondered aloud, speaking for Vincent and Cid both.

“Who cares?” Cid retorted, looking as if he wanted to jump Vincent then and there in the street out of sheer joy alone. “It’s getting rid of the damned poison. That’s all I care about.”

The sound of Reno’s phone ringing broke through the lingering noise of rain falling, streaking down their skin and clothes. Vincent looked beyond Cid’s subtle groping disguised as examination as the Turk answered the cell, bringing it up to his ears. His grin split his face, the caller obviously someone he wanted to hear from.

“Hey, babe. Two out of three are bound and secured,” Reno answered with that famous lazy drawl and half-evident swagger as he moved back towards his bike. “And the healin’ rain took care of the rest. Just waiting on-”

His words abruptly ended, filling the air with silence. Even Cid noticed, his eyes directed towards the Turk.

What?”

Vincent didn’t like the tone Reno’s voice had suddenly taken – a mixture of horror and surprise. Utter disbelief, mixed with pain. It didn’t help that the Turk had abruptly paled, making the tattoos on his cheeks stand out starkly against his skin. Clearly, it wasn’t good news, and Vincent unconsciously drew closer to Cid, who’s expression had darkened as well.

They listened, unrepentant, to one side of the conversation.

“I…” Reno lifted a frustrated hand, roughly raking it through his hair. “Yeah, we’ll be right there. I promise.”

Shoulders slumping, Reno ended the call. His hand dropped to his side, the cell phone dangling loosely. Vincent’s uneasy feeling grew until he was certain the information would only sadden them.

“Well,” Cid prompted when the moment stretched longer than his lack of patience suited, and displaying his usual lack of tact. “What is it?”

“They found Elena and Marlene,” Reno answered without turning, scraping a hand down his face and drawing in a slow, unsteady breath. “They were crushed by a building when that summon attacked.”

Vincent felt something squeezing his chest, pushing on his lungs. It twittered nervously in his belly, and he knew that if the news affected him that greatly, it must have rattled through Reno’s emotions like a heated blade.

Beside him, Cid cursed lowly, his face darkening with anger. Blue eyes darted towards their captives in an instant, hardening resolutely. “Then what the hell are we keepin’ these brats for?” He jerked a thumb towards the unconscious brothers. “We should just get rid of them.”

Reno’s hand clenched around his PHS, making the plastic creak ominously. “If it were up to me, we would,” he answered, and turned, his eyes red but his face dry. “But it’s not.”

“Reeve wants them alive,” Vincent realized aloud, having half-suspected that for himself. Though what the president had planned, Vincent could only guess. It became difficult for him to fully believe one way or the other, only able to think of Elena and Marlene gone to them in a flash.

Not only that, but Sephiroth preferred that the brothers not be killed as well. Perhaps it was because he saw himself in them. Maybe Sephiroth thought he could save them, just as someone had tried to save him.

Vincent wondered, in that moment, how Sephiroth fared against Kadaj. Obviously, something had happened otherwise Vincent wouldn’t have felt Jenova vanishing, but what exactly? Concern rippled through him.

Cid snorted, lifting a hand to his goggles and then dropping it abortively when he remembered that he didn’t carry cigarettes anymore. “Reeve and his damn hero complex,” he muttered, displeased but letting the matter slide for now. “Then let’s go before either of these brats wake up.”

“You do that,” Vincent replied, knowing he was about to give his lover yet another reason to curse. “I”m going to find Sephiroth.”

Before Cid or Reno could protest – there was not room for him on either of their bikes anyways – Vincent stepped back and melted into his Galian form. Bones and sinew shifting with minimal pain, talons sprouting from his fingers, fur spreading dark and full over him. Power flooded through his body, his senses becoming more attune, and all of this without the annoying cackle of demonic laughter in the back of his mind.

Whatever Kami had done before giving him the black materia had eased the transformation process. He rarely – if ever – suffered from the pain of it and the demi-deities didn’t speak to him. He finally felt as if is body was his own, completely under his control.

Cid’s face was a mask of annoyance, prompting Vincent to take a massive leap to the nearest rooftop. He was sure he would hear it from the irate pilot later – Cid still didn’t much like him leaving off on his own. But Vincent was not to be held back, and soon his lover would come to understand that.

He leapt to the next building, following the lines of the streetway and relying on his intuition to guide him. Sephiroth and Kadaj had been heading out of Junon, towards the road to Fort Condor. If he hurried, he might find them.

He wondered what had become of the youngest brother, and a part of him worried for Sephiroth. The same part that still wavered in confusion. Was Sephiroth his son? Was he not? It didn’t really matter. He was Lucrecia’s child and akin to Vincent in that he was Hojo’s chewtoy. For that reason alone, Vincent worried.

He had to see for himself.

“Kadaj!”

The boy went limp in Sephiroth’s arms, the lifted hand dropping back to his side as his eyes fluttered closed. He had only murmured one thing before falling into unconsciousness. Alarmed, Sephiroth shook him, fearing another death on his conscience. He hadn’t wanted to kill the boy. He had wanted to save him. Had he failed that, too?

Something fell onto Kadaj’s forehead, clear as it streaked down his face. Rain? Sephiroth looked up, another droplet plopping right onto his cheek. Cool and restoring, slithering under his clothes and over his body. He could hear it pinging across the ground, falling from an endless blue sky. Sephiroth half-expected to see Cloud somewhere around him as before, but no, nothing was there.

Why was it raining then?

He closed his eyes, letting it fall softly against him. It trickled over Kadaj’s face as well, though the younger man didn’t stir, feeling lifeless in Sephiroth’s arms. To him, the rain felt too much like cold tears tracking down his cheeks. Was death truly the only escape for them?

He felt it then, a swell of power trickling over him and through his senses. Nothing but pure magic, growing by the minute. Sephiroth glanced down at Kadaj’s slack expression, and found that the boy’s body had taken on the defining glow of materia in use, despite his unconscious state. A gentle luminescence surrounded him.

Not a good sign.

Kadaj didn’t move as Sephiroth checked him for accessories or secondary weapons. The boy wore none and his sword was in shattered pieces scattered across the ground. Where had he equipped the materia? What medium had he used? Magic required an intermediary unless…

Sephiroth shook his head. No, it was supposed to be impossible. Not even he had been capable of taking the materia directly into his body, not even with his massive levels of Jenova and mako. It was the one experiment Hojo had failed to successfully complete amid numerous other achievements.

But that was years ago, a rational voice whispered. Who knew what madness Hojo had perfected in that short time. And Kadaj – despite being very similar to him – was obviously quite different. More powerful in some ways. The impossible had become probable and Sephiroth shuddered to think of what he must have suffered at Hojo’s hands.

Swallowing thickly, Sephiroth feared he had an idea where to look. At least, if Kadaj’s twitching fingers were anything to go by. He peeled the leather from Kadak’s right hand, and pushed up the length of the dark sleeve. His suspicions were confirmed when he caught sight of varying shades of color glowing beneath pale skin.

The materia – there had to be at least a dozen of them – radiated color to the same rhythm as Kadaj’s heart. And grew brighter with each passing moment, a startling blend of red and green, blue and purple, yellow like the sun encompassing them all. Just what had the boy shoved into his body? His arm felt unnaturally hot to the touch, and Sephiroth couldn’t identify the myriad materia within their fleshy prison.

In his unconscious state, Kadaj couldn’t control them, and it became more apparent with each passing moment. The materia had activated themselves somehow, trying to cast when there was no hand to guide them. It wouldn’t be long before the power summoned would be too much for his body to contain.

It didn’t take a genius to figure what would happen next – an explosion of Ultima magnitude. And Sephiroth didn’t know how to stop it. He couldn’t remove the materia as it was as much a part of Kadaj’s body as his hair or eyes. Only Kadaj could take them out.

Sephiroth grasped Kadaj’s face in one hand, turning it towards him. “Kadaj!” he called out loudly, giving the boy a light shake. “Kadaj!”

He didn’t stir, didn’t make a sound, his face ashen and lips bloodless. Kadaj’s heartbeat had slowed, his breathing nearly nonexistent. And time was running out.

Feet pounded across the dirt, crunching over gravel.

“Sephiroth!”

“Kadaj!”

Archer and Tseng both, with Zack not far behind them, having finally caught up. The terrain here was difficult for landing a helicopter, thus the delay. Sephiroth wished they had been delayed further. They needed to be away from here. Far away. He didn’t know how large the explosion would be, and Sephiroth couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t protect them. Urgency clenched in his gut.

“Stay back!” he shouted, half rising from his kneeling position before falling back, unwilling to lose his grip on Kadaj. He thought that if he let go, he would be doing more than letting Kadaj die. Emotions flooded through Sephiroth, surprising himself with the intensity of them.

The three men skidded to an abrupt stop, their instincts recognizing the command in his tone. They were men of the military through and through and never had Sephiroth been more grateful for that then in that moment.

The press of magic in the air grew until it was stifling. Electricity trickled across his skin, light at first, and then intensifying. Sephiroth winced, the feeling like a thousand needles dancing over him.

Zack took a step forward, but at a look from Sephiroth, he didn’t move again. Still, it was obvious that he didn’t quite know what to do, his blue eyes surveying the scene of a recent battle, Sephiroth himself still covered in numerous wounds.

“Sephiroth, what’s going on?”

He shook his head, mentally searching his materia stores for a Shield, a Barrier, anything to contain the blast. There was no time to explain, no time for anything. He could feel the materia swelling around him, the varying energies crackling one against each other, growing in strength. He could sense the tension between each small orb and blood rushed through Sephiroth’s ears. His heart pumped but he couldn’t seem to abandon Kadaj. He wouldn’t. They were too much alike.

His friends, his companions, must have sensed his intent because Tseng shouted as Archer darted forward, a desperate edge in his violet eyes.

Sephiroth didn’t hesitate, throwing up the strongest shield in his arsenal. It rippled between them, a thick barrier that wouldn’t easily shatter. Archer beat his fists uselessly against it, his gaze for Kadaj alone. Zack didn’t understand and Sephiroth met Tseng’s eyes in silent apology, even as the magic crackled around him.

It spat fire and spilled ice across his legs. Wind tore through the confined space, whipping at Sephiroth’s hair. Electricity danced through the air. The very earth trembled. And then Sephiroth’s world went white.

He floated, surrounded by warmth, soft emotions. Sephiroth wasn’t sure what to do with such peace. He wanted to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t budge. It didn’t seem so bad, he reasoned. It smelled fresh and clean here, like new spring, or early morning out in Icicle before…

Well, best not to think about that. He felt sleep tugging at him, luring him into its tender embrace, and something wisplike drifted across his outflung fingers. Gently calling, telling him to rest. It was okay, it said, for him to sleep.

“Sephiroth.” A voice, thick with amusement, called to him.

He thought he recognized that voice.

His eyes snapped open, surprisingly easy this time, and Sephiroth found that he wasn’t floating, not anymore. In fact, he was somewhere familiar. A field of flowers, green and white scattered all around him. A sky floating above, so perilously blue that he thought he would drown in it. The same blue as a certain pair of eyes that sparkled down on him mischievously.

“What are you doing here?” Cloud asked, spiky hair waving in a light breeze, sun shining right behind him in a halo.

It had to be a dream.

“I…” Speechless yet again, Sephiroth looked around. Just an empty field, as far as the eyes could see. Flowers dancing to their own beat.

His eyes fell to himself. No battle clothes, no weapon, injuries gone. He fingered hair that had returned to its normal silver, touched his cheek where the gash caused by the Masamune had vanished.

“Am I dead?”

Cloud just smiled at him, and honestly, Sephiroth couldn’t remember seeing that sort of soft smile from Cloud before. “Not yet. You’re a little too early for that.”

“Early?”

“To be here.”

Cloud wasn’t making any sense, but then, when had any of them relied on logic. Both he and Cloud shared that, the inability to cling to sanity. And then Sephiroth remembered, and the shame promptly colored his cheeks. He looked away, to the safety of the fields.

“I should be here,” he returned, fingers free of scars and tattoos reaching for a flower, gently tapping over unmarred white petals. “I never should have been given the second chance. It should be yours.”

“We’re not the ones to decide that,” Cloud informed him, sounding far too wise for it to be Cloud, but someone else merely taking Cloud’s form. “Don’t you think you’ve suffered enough?”

“Don’t you?” Sephiroth retorted, and the feeling returned, closing on his chest, squeezing his lungs. It banked behind his eyelids. “You have a family left behind. A wife and a daughter. You should be with them.”

Cloud’s shadow fell over him, blocking the sun, forcing Sephiroth to look at him. “And what of the things you’ve left behind? The people who need you.”

He resisted the urge to snort. Cloud didn’t deserve such crude behavior. Sephiroth was under no illusions. Even those who cared would be better off without him.

“Especially now, Sephiroth.”

He stilled at the sound of the familiar voice that was most definitely not Cloud. Sephiroth slipped his gaze past the blond, something squeezing his throat at the sight of the two that approached, neither of them strangers.

“Mr. Sephiroth!” Little arms immediately circled his waist, Marlene squeezing him tightly, looking bright and cheerful in her flowery sun-dress, her hair in loose falls over her shoulders.

“Marlene?” He couldn’t hide the shock or the despair in his reaction. “Why are you here? What happened?”

Elena lifted a hand, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “It’s not your fault,” she answered instead, looking radiant in a dress of her own, something that Sephiroth had never seen her wearing before. “So don’t go thinking it is, or I might have to hurt you.”

“I’m sorry,” Marlene murmured, looking up at Sephiroth with glimmering brown eyes. “I shouldn’t have run away. Please don’t be mad.”

His ungloved hand landed on her head, stroking back her hair. “I’m not angry,” Sephiroth reassured, the grief rising thickly in his chest. “I promise.”

Their presence here could only mean one thing. That they, like him, had perished in that battle. And the thought made something go cold inside of him. Elena said not to think of it as his fault, but how could he not?

He looked to Cloud, accusation behind his eyes. “And you say that I am the one who doesn’t belong here? What kind of justice is this?”

“If you don’t return, who will be there for Zack? For Tseng?” Elena demanded, capturing his attention, her voice lacking the anger he would have expected. “Who will protect those boys when the others want blood?”

“Boys?” Confused, Sephiroth could only glance from one adult to the other as Marlene finally released her clinging hold on him, grabbing his hand instead.

The little girl squeezed his fingers. “It’s not their fault,” Marlene urged passionately. “So don’t hate them, Mr. Sephiroth. They just wanted to be loved like anyone else. And they need someone to protect them.”

“I don’t-”

“Kadaj, Yazoo, and Loz,” Elena clarified, taking Marlene’s hand in hers and squeezing it tightly. Marlene drew to her side, clinging to her sundress, the look in her eyes full of unimaginable sorrow. “Those boys have no one but you.”

Sephiroth reeled, bewildered by their request. “But… it is their fault, isn’t it? All of this, you being here, shouldn’t you hate them?”

Unexpectedly, it was Marlene who answered, her words full of kindness. “You didn’t hear him, Mr. Sephiroth. You don’t know what hurts Kadaj. But I did. He was trying so hard, just like you. And he just needed some help, someone to be there for him.”

Her passion seeped into his senses, chasing away lingering feelings of doubt in himself. Sephiroth had wanted to help them, the three brothers, and had worried that it would feel like a betrayal to his friends, the people who had supported him. But then, it would seem like betraying himself if he abandoned the brothers to their fate.

“We want you to remember who your real family is,” Cloud inserted softly, the three of them standing there and resembling something holy and without taint. “Not defined by blood or birth, but by the connections you share.”

Once again, Cloud didn’t sound like Cloud at all. But someone else. Someone wiser and more knowledgeable, untouched by the scars of life. He looked like Cloud all the same, and Sephiroth found himself wanting to believe, here in this imaginary sanctuary. Here in this promised land.

Marlene looked up at him, innocence in her eyes. “So don’t worry about us. Okay? I’m not alone. And Cloud isn’t and Elena isn’t, because we’re here together. Just one thing though?”

Sephiroth felt something clench inside of him, and he swallowed it down, kneeling so that he could look the little girl in the eyes. Despite her words, he couldn’t help the guilt. It washed over and through him, bathing him in regret. So many things he could have done different, so many ways he should have protected her.

“Anything,” he replied, because he couldn’t consider himself a man if he couldn’t follow through with whatever her last request was.

She smiled at him, practically sparkling. “Make Mr. Tseng happy, okay? He deserves to smile.”

Sephiroth lay a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it comfortingly. “I will do my utmost best. I care for him as well.”

Relief and joy filled the young girl’s eyes, nearly beaming at him. “That’s all I wanted. Thanks, Mr. Sephiroth! And you be happy, too. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am. Whatever you say,” And he tried a smile, but it was thin at best. Heat banked behind his eyes, but he blinked it back, wishing there was something more he could do.

Elena sighed. “All right, brat. Time’s short so let me speak to Sephiroth for a minute,” she said, her words causing Sephiroth to stand and catch her eyes, brown glistening with unshed tears. Trying to be strong.

“You can’t leave him behind,” Sephiroth said quietly, thinking that it just wasn’t fair. Not at all. He wasn’t blind. He knew of the feelings between his best friend and Elena.

And where she had told herself she wouldn’t weep, Elena couldn’t help the tear that tracked down her cheeks. “I never told him I loved him. At least, not honestly,” she whispered back, fingers tightening around Marlene’s hand briefly. “We never… there was always someone else we had to watch out for.” She paused, taking a breath. “It was foolish, wasn’t it? For two people like us to always believe we would have a tomorrow?”

“Elena…”

She shook her head, swiping the back of her free hand over her eyes and wiping away the few tears that had escaped. “This time, I think it’s Zack that will need you, Sephiroth. Zack and Tseng both. I’m counting on you to take care of them.”

“I can barely take care of myself.”

“I think you are stronger than you give yourself credit.” Elena tucked a lock of blond hair behind her ear, a light wind rising and stirring all around them, sweet and warm. All too comfortable, making Sephiroth want to stay. “And tell him… tell him I would have stayed. And that it’s okay.”

Sephiroth couldn’t take it anymore, his hands clenching into fists. “This is what you call fair?” he demanded, speaking to Cloud and Elena, speaking to this place around them and whatever deity decided that he or she governed it. “It’s not right! It’s not-”

“Don’t you think it’s time you forgive yourself?” Cloud interrupted, his eyes holding so much knowledge, so much familiarity. As if he understood Sephiroth’s plight. “You’ve bled for us for two years, even now willing to give your last. Isn’t it enough?”

Speechless, Sephiroth wasn’t sure how to respond. Two years? It wasn’t nearly enough! At least, not to his guilty eyes. In less than that he had managed to ruin the lives of so many people. He could give his life a thousand times over and it would never be enough. That sort of stain could not be so easily erased.

Cloud stepped forward, until he was a bare step in front of Sephiroth, easily within reaching distance. “We forgave you a long time ago. I think it’s time you just let go and wake up.”

His surroundings were already blurring on the edges, the sweet scent of the flowers slowly vanishing, the sun not as warm. Just as before when he’d been in that dreamlike place and he hadn’t been able to feel any of the sensations, he was numb to them now. As if he weren’t truly here, but only dreaming of it. He was being rejected again.

“You’re not for this place,” Cloud continued, regardless of Sephiroth’s willingness to accept it. Elena and Marlene were smiling at him, and even the look in Cloud’s eyes was a soft sort of sadness. “But don’t worry, you’ll be back. We all will. So go, Sephiroth. People are waiting for you. Don’t make them grieve any more than they have to.”

He lifted a hand, and Sephiroth wanted to back away from it. But his feet were glued to the ground beneath him, they wouldn’t obey his commands. He could only watch as Cloud gave him what seemed to be a gentle push, his palm heavy against Sephiroth’s chest. He fell backwards and landed on nothing but empty air, staring up at a blue, blue sky that slowly grew farther away.

Sephiroth woke to darkness, staring at the digital readout on a clock. It was three in the morning, the date unknown. Light filtered from beneath the door, loaning a dim glow to the room that helped identify his surroundings. Home. He was home.

And strangely warm.

Feeling as if he hadn’t moved in weeks, Sephiroth slowly turned over, finding Tseng curled up in the bed next to him. The Wutaiian was fast asleep, his hair loose around his face, his breathing deep and even. That, at least, explained the warmth. Sephiroth lifted a hand, but fell short of actually touching his lover, pulling it back towards himself.

Elena was dead. Marlene was gone. He’d left Cloud behind.

He covered his face, trying to calm himself through stuttering, uneven breaths. Sephiroth felt stretched, worn incredibly thin. Jenova was gone, or at least it seemed so. He should celebrate. But at what cost? Yet again, his own struggles had caused sorrow to others.

And they were still gone.

He chewed on his bottom lip, feeling the heat behind his eyes. He was supposed to be stronger than this. Sephiroth struggled to remember the emotionless bastard Hojo had created, but he had been thoroughly decimated by his relationships with his friends in the past months. He couldn’t seem to call on that coldness anymore.

Sephiroth turned, fully intending to roll over and off the bed, otherwise his distress would disturb Tseng, who so obviously needed the rest. Even Sephiroth could see the lines of fatigue and stress in his lover’s face. But a hand shot out of the darkness, curling around his upper arm and stopping him from leaving.

He glanced over his shoulder, finding Tseng looking at him, his gaze unreadable. He didn’t say anything, and Sephiroth didn’t either, feeling a part of himself crumbling. The urge to escape was strong, but the urge to stay was even stronger and Sephiroth abandoned his intentions to leave, allowing Tseng to pull him into a warm embrace. He was larger than the Turk, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter.

He pressed his face into Tseng’s throat, could smell the other man’s sweat and cologne, so familiar to him. And his fingers clenched in Tseng’s shirt, a bevy of emotions and thoughts crashing over and through him. Sephiroth was certain that his body shook, though he would deny it aloud. He was supposed to be stronger than this.

“It’s not your fault,” Tseng murmured quietly, Sephiroth able to feel the vibration of the Turk’s words against his skin.

He would have wondered how Tseng knew his thoughts, only to remember the gift his lover still tried to deny. Sephiroth didn’t answer, refusing to agree or disagree. He wanted to believe Tseng, but Sephiroth knew the truth. He knew where to place the blame.

He kept quiet, allowing himself to bathe in Tseng’s kindness, to curl up next to his lover and simply soak up the comfort. Just this once, he promised himself. He would escape from reality for this instance, until tomorrow came and he would have to face everything. For now, however, there was this moment.


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