[Shattered] Children 24

Chapter Sixteen: Perfect Dirge

The fingers trailing through his hair should have felt soothing, but Sephiroth couldn’t relax. He could still see their faces so clearly in his mind, sorrowful and forgiving. Telling him he couldn’t stay, that he was needed here for some reason. The battle had long ended, and Sephiroth was sure the aftermath needed to be handled.

Junon lay in shambles no doubt, and there were heaps of rubble to be searched for the injured or deceased. Elena and Marlene were gone, and Barret was going to be furious, always worse in his grief. So many things needed to be dealt with. He couldn’t afford to linger here in this comfort.

Tseng must have sensed his sudden restlessness because the slow touch ceased, the Turk commander breathing out a soft sigh. “I don’t have any answers either,” he said into the silence of the room. “Whatever that was knocked me out too, and I regained consciousness after you.”

Did he know about Elena and Marlene, Sephiroth wondered? In the madness that was the battle, everyone running in different directions for different objections, did Tseng know?

How long had passed? The time told him nothing without a reference to a date. How long had he lingered in that other world, unwilling to leave but not allowed to stay. His heart gave a careful pang at that. There was too much for him here to be ready to die, yet Sephiroth wasn’t sure he deserved this gift.

“I had a dream,” Sephiroth said quietly, feeling like he had to tell someone and Tseng was the best candidate right now. “Or maybe it was real. I don’t honestly know.

Behind him, Tseng shifted, pulling his body up until he leaned against the headboard. Sephiroth rolled to face him, wincing as he turned on his injured shoulder. Strangely, it wasn’t healing as fast as it usually would. Interesting.

“A dream?” Tseng prompted.

He lifted his arm, covering his eyes with it, trying to recall the details as though he would ever forget. Warm air over his face. Spring in the air. The scent of flowers.

“Cloud was there,” Sephiroth answered, remembering the heat of the sun on his face. The blue of the sky. “He said I didn’t belong there.”

“Where?”

Sephiroth fell silent, considering the answer. “I don’t know. The promised land maybe? He said I had to come back and then…” He trailed off, uncertain if he should talk about the other visitors. He didn’t know what Tseng’s reaction would be.

Tseng shifted and the headboard squeaked noisily, the bed in dire need of replacement. Sephiroth had never bothered much about it. He rarely slept in it after all. Perhaps it was time he started.

“Elena and Marlene… they were there, too.”

His words fell into a stunned silence and Sephiroth lowered his arm, glancing at his lover. Tseng had drawn absolutely still, his face expressionless. He paused, took a breath, and obviously struggled to draw the right words.

“I had a feeling,” Tseng began, hand clenching as he draped it over his knee, trying to control himself in ways that Sephiroth understood all too well. “I had an idea but…”

“I want to say that it was just a dream,” Sephiroth continued, something squeezing inside of his chest, trying to steal his breath. “But it was too real to dismiss. I’m sorry, Tseng.”

The look Tseng tossed him was thin at best. “What are you apologizing for?”

He wasn’t entirely sure of the answer to that, just knowing that he felt it had to be done. For not protecting Marlene? For trying to do things on his own? For not knowing how to comfort his lover? For so many things…

Tseng didn’t really wait for his answer, slinging his feet over the side of the bed and rising to his feet. He gathered his loose hair into a ponytail with quick, efficient movements, adjusting his clothing, reaching for his suit jacket, obviously preparing to leave. And despite the early (or late) hour depending on how one wanted to look at it, Sephiroth decided it was time that he rose as well.

Behind the curtains, he could see the sun rising slowly, a dim, blue glow piercing the thin cloth. Sephiroth sucked in a slow breath, sliding off the bed himself. His head spun at the abrupt change in position, but he didn’t appear to be too injured. He wondered what had happened between now and then, even as he sought out his boots and such. The Murasame had been laid to the side, but Sephiroth felt no urge to sheathe it at the moment.

He’d had enough of fighting.

“We should see what we have missed,” Tseng said, already moving towards the door. “I can’t find my phone so we’ll have to use the old fashioned way.”

Sephiroth didn’t have good enough reason to argue, so he didn’t. He wanted to suggest that Tseng not dive immediately into business, that he give himself time to absorb what happened to Elena and Marlene. But what did he know about grief? Sephiroth knew his own reaction would be to lose himself into work, hoping that being busy would keep him from thinking about all the things he didn’t need or want to remember.

Dragging a hand through his hair in an effort to tame the wild strands, Sephiroth considered himself ready for the public and followed Tseng out the door. The apartment sounded deserted, most of the lights off or dimmed. Zack’s door was wide open, showing that it lacked a resident. Sephiroth wondered where his best friend was, and how Zack was taking Elena’s death.

He and Tseng left the apartment in silence, stepping out into the main hallway of the building. Living near the WRO headquarters had its perks, Sephiroth supposed. They crossed a short walkway connecting the two buildings and found themselves in the massive structure that served as home to the World Regenesis Organization.

Already on the seventh floor as a result, a quick elevator ride upwards took them to the thirtieth level. Offices and resting rooms began here and continued up the next twenty or so floors with the president’s office at the very top. But they would have to get into a different elevator from the thirtieth floor, a safety precaution.

In the silence between them, Sephiroth remembered that he and Tseng had a lot of unresolved tensions. To be fair, they were all on Sephiroth’s side. His reluctance, his fears, his issues. And Tseng was the only one patiently waiting while Sephiroth was too afraid to make up his mind. Too unsure he actually deserved this.

He owed Tseng his answer. And for the first time in his existence, Sephiroth felt he was ready to make it. That dark spot in the back of his mind, one that had always seeped such black poison into his thoughts, had all but vanished. Now it was just a shadowy place, dusted with cobwebs, housing only the memories he’d rather forget. Jenova was absolutely, completely gone, and his only enemy now was himself.

The elevator donged lowly, an electronic voice announcing the floor. Somewhere around sixty-one. A few floors below Reeve’s obviously, but still in the hub of business. It was likely that some of their friends were milling about here. In any case, it was a good place to start looking.

Sephiroth and Tseng disembarked, stepping into the quiet and still hallway. This early in the morning, the usual gophers and daily paper-pushers hadn’t arrived yet. It would be a couple hours yet before it truly started stirring, provided that the WRO employees had not suffered from the sudden, violent attack on Junon.

Tseng walked a few paces ahead of him and Sephiroth watched his lover from the back, shoulders tight and held together. Black hair swinging behind him like a pendulum from the tight ponytail.

And the words fell from Sephiroth’s lips before he knew entirely what he was saying. “Tseng?”

The Turk paused, glancing over his shoulder, and Sephiroth too, had drawn to a halt. One ebony brow lifted in question, the silence of the hall seeming to swallow them whole.

“Yes?”

Sephiroth fidgeted, a fact which surprised him more than anything. The old Sephiroth, the General, would have never fidgeted. But then, the General would have never connected with another human being either. The former Sephiroth wouldn’t have had emotions, and wouldn’t be interested in expressing them.

He swallowed thickly, the memories knocking at the door to his control. But it was time to face them. “I believe that I am ready to talk, if you are still inclined to listen,” he explained, for his benefit and Tseng’s own.

He knew that right now, it was probably Tseng who needed to talk the most. But he hoped that by proving being open himself, Tseng would learn to trust him. Would learn to let go just a little bit on his side as well.

Tseng turned fully, so that they faced each other, eyes meeting. “You…?”

“Things are changing – have changed,” Sephiroth corrected, feeling a heat steal into his cheeks that didn’t belong. How could he be this awkward? “I am not the sort of man who spends his life fleeing from his problems. I don’t intend to start now.”

“Then…?”

He shifted his weight. “I want to put the past where it belongs, in the past,” Sephiroth added, and dared take a step closer, surrounded by the spicy, enticing scent that he’d learned to associate with Tseng over the last year and more. “I’m tired of letting my memories control me.”

He held his breath, thinking to do something that was rare in their relationship – he was going to kiss Tseng first. He planned to be bold, to be brave, to actively seek what he wanted rather than wait for it to chase after him.

And Sephiroth hoped that wherever fate had taken her, Jenova was squalling in outrage, lashing in her confines.

Sephiroth leaned down, and was much relieved when – despite surely realizing his intent – Tseng did not avoid him. Their lips touched, a brief, mostly chaste kiss before Sephiroth pressed steadily onwards. His tongue flicked across Tseng’s lips and he melded their mouths together, sharing breaths. He felt a familiar stirring in his groan, a lazy heat rising through his body and causing flutters of anticipation through him.

Somehow, this one simple kiss seemed a hell of a lot more complicated.

Tseng returned the kiss with as much passion, proving that despite his emotional state, all was not lost between them. Sephiroth had not ruined their relationship completely. Something eased within the former general with that realization.

He ended the kiss, the feel of Tseng’s lips on his lingering long afterwards. He met silvery eyes with a renewed strong. “Will you still have me?”

“I never said that I wouldn’t,” Tseng replied, the shadows circling his eyes that much more visible this close. “I told you before, Sephiroth. I had waited ten years. A little bit longer wouldn’t kill me.”

Relieved, Sephiroth couldn’t resist another kiss. He pressed his lips against Tseng’s, breathed in that familiar erotic scent, and felt a strange calm settling through him. As though something had finally clicked into place when it had been wavering in disorder for far too long.

Tseng drew back this time, and his gaze shifted away. “As much as I could like to continue, this is neither the best time or place.”

The former general winced. “My timing is less than perfect,” he admitted with a bit of dismay for the lack of his own tact. “But it was necessary.”

A faint smile, just a shadow of the usual joy he would see in such a grin, curved Tseng’s lips. “That it was. And I am glad for the reassurance. For now, however, there is yet work to be done.”

Reminded of their true reason for coming here, Sephiroth inclined his head. “We should probably head straight up to Reeve’s office. Cut out the search in between.”

“Knowing Reeve, he’ll be there rather than anywhere else,” Tseng agreed.

They moved down the silent hallways, the elevator dinging down the hall behind them. Not too much a cause for concern. Passing by several empty rooms, boots echoing on the floor, the building had never seemed more desolate.

“Sephiroth!”

He paused, breath locking in his throat at the sound of that familiar growl. Sephiroth turned, guilt crashing over him weightily, trying to bear him to the ground. He couldn’t and wouldn’t run, merely met the rushing force face onwards, let Barret’s fingers curl in his clothing and slam him against the wall.

It cracked from the force of the blow, and the breath that had been caught whooshed out of Sephiroth. His skull smacked against the wall, dizzying him, but he kept his senses, meeting enraged brown eyes evenly. Tseng moved to interfere, but Sephiroth shook his head, not wanting to draw Barret’s ire to Tseng as well.

They were both to blame, but Sephiroth most of all.

Footsteps echoed down the hall. Reinforcements arriving. But Sephiroth wanted to let Barret speak his piece first. He owed the man that much. Something precious to him had been stolen and Sephiroth hadn’t protected Marlene like he promised. If Barret wanted blood, Sephiroth would give it to him. The echoing guilt inside him demanded it.

“I would apologize if I thought it would ease your grief,” Sephiroth said, holding his own against a man who much taller, and much larger than him. He was strong enough to break Barret’s grip, but was reluctant to do so. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Barret snarled, eyes flashing with rage, hands twisting Sephiroth’s shirt all the tighter. “Yeah, ya don’t mean to fuck up people’s lives, but ya do it anyways, doncha? Just like yer father, fuckin’ up everythin’ ya touch.”

To Sephiroth’s credit, his mind didn’t immediately shatter at the reference to Hojo. He went cold, shivers racing down his spine, but he firmed his lips, holding his composure. Something had changed in him, he wasn’t sure what, he wished he could put finger on it. But even though Barret’s words made him pale, made the sense of blame rise even thicker, he didn’t falter.

Sephiroth swallowed, making no moves to dislodge Barret’s grip. “I will not deny my part in this, but I will not allow you to compare me to that man either. He and I are nothing similar. This was not done out of malice and if I could have given my life to save her, I would have.”

“And Sephiroth is not the only one to blame,” Tseng interjected heatedly, silver eyes flashing with fire even as he winced, the force of the emotions in the hallway crowding at his thoughts. Invading where his own feelings had weakened his mental barriers. “We all are. Marlene is only a child. And as adults, we are all responsible for her care.”

Sephiroth looked at his lover, and felt his own conscience attacking him from all angles, rising up in his throat. Tseng was just as torn by this loss as Barret, even if he didn’t show it outwardly. And yet here he was, trying to protect Sephiroth when he should be just as angry. Had he time to grieve either?

“No one is to blame!” A voice cried from the end of the hall, prompting all three men to see Elmyra approaching, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “If we start tossing fault around, what good will it do? We should be grieving, not attacking each other!”

“I wouldn’t have to grieve if it weren’t for him,” Barret hissed, his large body shaking with emotion, eyes bloodshot and ringed by dark circles. It was obvious he hadn’t slept in some time. In fact, Elmyra looked much the same, pale and fragile in her sorrow.

Sephiroth wished he hadn’t played a part in taking their happiness from them. But he’d been so caught up in his own troubles, he hadn’t watched over them like he should have, as Cloud had asked him to do. And Marlene had been the one to fall, she and Elena both. Why didn’t he protect them?

“There’s nothing I can do to ease your grief,” Sephiroth said, even if the weight of Barret’s fists against his chest was getting a bit uncomfortable. “So do what you will if you think it will lighten your pain.”

Barret’s face twisted into a mask of anger and grief, and he looked trapped between the two emotions, wanting to both cry and scream all at once. As if he knew that violence wouldn’t help the issue, but didn’t know any other way to react. And Sephiroth felt that he understood that. He was as useless at expressing his own emotions.

Hands came out of nowhere, reinforcements if you will, and they grabbed Barret, forcing him to let go of Sephiroth. They didn’t even realize that Barret’s grip had already loosened, something like defeat echoing in Barret’s eyes. He slumped backwards, allowing them to push him away, head hanging.

“Fighting isn’t going to solve anything,” Archer argued, grasping onto Barret’s right arm with a strength that surprised nearly everyone in the room.

“And neither is blaming Sephiroth,” Nanaki added, one hand restraining Barret’s other arm as though it were nothing. “Blame doesn’t help anything, Barret. And it’s not fair to attack his weaknesses like that.”

“Sephy!”

And then a small missile in the form of a child crashed against Sephiroth, face streaked with tears burrowing against Sephiroth’s belly as arms wrapped around him. Yuffie shrugged helplessly, Denzel having torn himself from her grasp.

“He wanted to see you,” she said, but she didn’t seem too apologetic. As though it were just the natural order of things and Sephiroth should succumb to the boy’s affection already.

Sephiroth sighed, sagging against the wall. One hand lifted, resting on Denzel’s hair, stroking it gently. Denzel’s tiny hands clutched into his shirt, refusing to let go, his voice a mumble of words lost to the layers of cloth.

Tseng was the first to break the tense silence, his eyes downcast as his hands visibly clenched and unclenched under the tide of conflicting emotions. “I think that Marlene would be furious if she saw us adults acting like this. She would stomp her feet and declare that we all needed to get along because fighting is silly.” His breath hitched, but he shook his head.

“Tseng…” Elmyra murmured, her hands clasped as though trying to hold herself together.

“He’s right,” Yuffie interjected loudly, planting herself between Sephiroth and Barret as though her small presence were that much of a barrier. “Enough. I can understand being angry and wanting to throw blame, but really, you’re not doing anything but making it hurt more.”

Barret’s jaw twisted, visibly clenching his teeth, and he tore out of Nanaki and Archer’s hold. He glared at Sephiroth, only to turn and stalk down the hall without uttering another word. Shoulders set and tense with emotion, anger clear in every twitch. Sephiroth could only watch him go, his own shoulders feeling as if they would buckle under an imagined weight.

Elmyra followed after him, her hand gently taking his and saying something softly. It wasn’t clear if there was a response, but the fact that Barret didn’t rebuff her comfort was a good indicator. He wasn’t insane with grief, just a father who had lost something precious to him.

Archer dragged fingers through his hair, looking a bit shaken. “I actually came to deliver a message,” he muttered, just as tired and drawn as the rest of them. “Reeve wanted you to know that Loz, Yazoo, and Kadaj are all still alive, just currently imprisoned,” he finished, catching Sephiroth’s eyes.

Well, that explained Cloud’s vague message. Sephiroth couldn’t explain the surge of relief that flowed through him. Maybe he could still save them.

“He’s letting them live?” Nanaki asked, surprise in his tone. He must not have heard the news. Apparently the president was keeping it pretty close to his chest.

Archer winced, holding up his hands. “He’s waiting until we are all capable of making a rational decision, which, judging by Barret right now and Tseng-” He added with a pointed look at the Turk Commander. “- is not possible right now.”

“I feel a little sorry for them,” Yuffie murmured. “Though most of this is their fault. Well, not just most, pretty much all of it.”

“Jenova has a part to play as well,” Sephiroth inserted, and surprised himself by how sharply the statement emerged. It was like they discussed himself, and he didn’t like how it made something in his belly squirm. “Don’t forget that.”

Tseng sharply turned away from the lot of them, every step controlled. “I have somewhere to be. Sort it out amongst yourselves,” he muttered, not sounding a bit like himself.

Sephiroth was torn between following, knowing the turmoil that Tseng must suffer, and taking care of the child clinging to his front.

Archer sighed, raking a hand through his hair and looking as if he’d rather be anywhere but there in the corridor with all the heavy emotions still hanging around. “Yeah, Zack’s not much better than Tseng, Sephiroth. So make some time for him, okay?” he suggested, throwing a wave over his shoulder. And then he, too, was gone, following after Tseng but taking a different turn.

“Where is Zack?” Sephiroth asked of the two remaining, Nanaki and Yuffie exchanging a glance.

“Last I saw, he was at the training center,” Yuffie explained, gesturing vaguely. “Do you need me to take Denzel or…?”

At the hands that practically bruised skin in an attempt to tighten their grip, Sephiroth shook his head. “No, I’ll take care of him. Thanks for watching him for me.”

“No problem.” Yuffie waved goodbye, linking arms with her… boyfriend? Were they really that far along? Sephiroth needed to pay more attention to that sort of thing. “And for what it’s worth, we don’t blame you, Sephiroth.”

He felt a bit of the tightness in his chest ease. “It’s worth more than you know.”

They left with another fleeting wave, leaving Denzel and Sephiroth alone in the corridor. Biting back a sigh, Sephiroth kneeled down, unwilling to actually pick up Denzel. The boy was a lot heavier – and taller – than he used to be. Children sure grew fast. It seemed such a simple concept but one he hadn’t realized before.

A tear-streaked face gradually came into view, red and puffy from crying. And as Sephiroth brushed back bangs, he felt another loud surge of relief. The dark bruise that had been steadily spreading across the boy’s forehead was gone. Not even a trace of it remained.

He felt a small smile on his face as he carefully traced his fingers across the spot where it had been. “The Geostigma is gone,” Sephiroth murmured. “That’s great.”

“I guess so,” Denzel sniffled, noisily swiping the back of his hand over his messy face, a mixture of tears and snot. Unattractive, but such was the way when dealing with children. “You came back.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Sephiroth returned, digging his free hand in his pocket and looking for the handkerchief he usually kept shoved in there somewhere, for dabbing at the occasional wound. It came out a little rumpled, but still useful and he dabbed at the boy’s messy face. “I wouldn’t leave you behind.”

Denzel rubbed at his eyes again. “Marlene didn’t,” he said, voice thick with emotion, and then the tears started up again. “She was looking for me and she didn’t come back. Everyone wants ta blame you, but it’s all my fault. Not yours.”

“Denzel…” Sephiroth sighed and pulled the boy into his arms, letting him sob shakily as he clung to Sephiroth’s clothes once again. “It’s not yours either. It’s no one’s fault, okay? Not yours. Not mine. Just really bad luck. Please don’t blame yourself.”

“She’s my best friend,” Denzel cried, though it came out muffled and less than clear, Sephiroth was able to interpret his words. “I miss her already. I miss her so much.”

Sephiroth felt his heart clench painfully in his chest. And he wish he knew better what to do. What magical words to say to make the pain disappear. Denzel cried and the most Sephiroth could do was pick the boy up, making it easier to carry him somewhere else. The hallway wasn’t exactly the best place for this. The last thing he needed was for some idiot to go screaming down the hall that the big, bad Sephiroth had stooped as low as picking on children.

Denzel clung to him with a tenacity that surprised Sephiroth, and once he found an empty resting room they could use, he attempted to detach Denzel to no avail. So Sephiroth just tugged off his coat, kicked off his boots and crawled onto the bed himself, Denzel propped up in his lap. Fearing the child would get cold, he tugged a blanket over Denzel’s shoulders and let him weep.

He felt utterly useless but it was the only thing he could do. He trailed his fingers through brown hair soothingly and let the boy dampen his shirt beyond saving. If his being here was what mattered to Denzel, than stay Sephiroth would.

For being imprisoned, it certainly didn’t feel as such. His room was well-lit and comfortable, the bathroom behind a closed door. He was fed three square meals a day and the television would have provided entertainment if news detailing his own exploits weren’t the only shows to be found. If not for the shackles on his wrists and ankles – entirely electronic – Kadaj might have thought himself staying in a hotel.

Only he wasn’t. He’d been imprisoned by the president of the WRO and his lackeys. Kadaj couldn’t find it in him to be angry by that truth. They had every right. And it was ironic that his so-called enemies gave him better treatment in confinement, then his own kamibedamned father in freedom.

Truthfully, the fact that he was alive surprised him more than anything. Alive and whole without a trace of Jenova’s dark presence. He hated that a part of him felt as if something were desperately missing. And he wondered how long his life would last before his enemies decided they were through with him. That he would be much better served dead than alive.

Kadaj worried for his brothers as well. No one would tell him anything, whether they were alive or dead. Though a part of him was sure that they were. He could still feel them – for lack of a better word. And they were his brothers. No way they were dead if he lived.

The outside world had ceased to exist to him. There were just these four walls, this one bed, that connecting bathroom, and a steady stream of meals brought by a soldier’s face who continued to change. He looked out the window to gray mornings gleaming off stone buildings, with evidence of destruction on the far edge. And each sight sent a stabbing pain through him.

All his fault.

He wondered if Archer made it through the battle. Kadaj had heard nothing from him since the last time they saw each other and Kadaj had been half out of his mind, more Jenova than human. He wondered if Archer even cared anymore. But then, that would be foolish. It would take a truly stupid man to shed worry over a remnant like Kadaj. He didn’t deserve to wonder for such happiness.

Kadaj lifted a hand, looking at his fingers. No leather gloves. They’d taken away all his leather, not that he would particularly miss it. A child’s hands, or at least that’s what he’d always thought, were it not for the scars and the callouses, the evidence of lines. He was alive, but what would become of him?

There was a click and Kadaj flicked worried eyes towards the door. It was too early for lunch and the doctor had come with breakfast. His senses tensed, not as apt as they used to be. But Kadaj would gladly lose that if it meant being rid of her.

The door opened and Kadaj felt his breath catch in his throat, his eyes widening with surprise. “Archer?”

The older man said nothing, simply stepped inside and let the door shut behind him. He wasted no time in crossing the floor, giving Kadaj no choice as he pulled the younger man into his arms. The scent of bath soap and metal washed over Kadaj, who had suddenly started trembling. Or perhaps that was his imagination.

“Idiot,” Archer muttered, his arms squeezing tightly. “Think you’re so strong. You’re just a kid.”

Kadaj swallowed thickly. “That’s a trap in itself, to think of me like a kid, you cradle robber,” he returned, and it was a common joke between them, one that pulled out a thin laugh. “What else was I supposed to do?”

“Said something. Anything,” Archer responded, his voice thick. “I could have helped. Instead, I stumbled around looking like an idiot, fighting for something I wasn’t sure I believed in.”

“There was nothing you could have done.”

Archer pulled away suddenly, his hands finding their way to Kadaj’s face, gripping him gently, forcing their eyes to meet. “You don’t know that,” he said fiercely and only then did Kadaj realize how very tired Archer seemed, his fatigue showing his age where it hadn’t before. “You didn’t even bother to try.”

“Yeah, well, history’s made a pretty clear example of what happens when I try,” Kadaj retorted, unable to help the bitterness. It wasn’t that easy for him to trust, Archer should understand at least that much.

A flurry of emotions crossed the engineer’s face and suddenly, Kadaj was being kissed, lips sealing over his own desperately. He didn’t struggle, surprised by the onslaught and a part of him, more than glad for it. He had thought he would never see Archer again. Touch him. Talk to him. Know what it meant to connect to another human being.

From the start, Kadaj hadn’t understood his attraction to Archer. The man was twenty years older than him, with a heart that was twenty years younger than his age. He was optimistic and kind, honest and straightforward, with a heroic streak a mile wide. And yet, unlucky in love as well.

He had only ever treated Kadaj as a child as far as Kadaj would let him. He didn’t pry, didn’t ask questions, knew when to stop pushing just from conversation alone. He was attractive in his own way, Kadaj had seen the looks other people had given him, but it was more his mind that was interesting.

When had it started? Could he pinpoint the moment when exasperation became curiosity became interest became want became need?

Kadaj’s hands moved of their own accord, one wrapping around Archer and pulling him closer, the other tangling in black hair to deepen the kiss. He tasted like sweet chewing gum and anise, like sorrow and relief mixed all into one. And Kadaj clung to him like a swimmer lost at sea, finding that one piece of debris.

Fingers trailed across his face, brushing back his hair before the hand lowered, wrapping around his back and keeping it near. Archer wasn’t much taller than him, but sometimes, Kadaj hated that difference as much as he wallowed in it. He felt wrapped in comfort, even as a part of him screamed to run away because it was peace, and he wasn’t supposed to desire that.

But Jenova was gone. What was stopping him?

Archer pulled back to trail a few short kisses across Kadaj’s jawline and to his neck, just below his ear. And there his forehead settled on Kadaj’s shoulder, breathing softly, warm air wafting against Kadaj’s bare skin.

“I can’t do it again,” Archer murmured, surprising Kadaj with the revelation. “I can’t and I won’t. I’ve lost too much already.”

“Archer…”

“I mean it,” he continued fiercely, hold tightening. “If you’re going to leave, just do me the favor of killing me first.”

Eyes wide, Kadaj pulled back, forcing Archer to look at him. “What the hell kind of attitude is that?” he demanded, horrified by the very idea of it. He didn’t want to kill another human being again, if he could help it, much less his lover’s. Kadaj had enough blood on his hands.

“It sounds crazy, I know,” Archer muttered harshly, his violet eyes taking on an odd gleam. “But I’ve been abandoned twice, and the first was my fault alone. I won’t go through it again. I don’t have that kind of strength.”

At a loss for words, Kadaj was felt with an incredible urge to strike his lover. Indeed, his body shook with the desire to do so. He restrained, violence not the best answer in this situation.

“You are an idiot,” he said instead, pulling away from Archer, only to grab his hand and drag him along to the bed. He was tired, the fatigue pulling at his limbs, but he was unwilling to betray his weakness. “What’s up with that defeatist attitude? I thought you were smarter than that?”

Before Archer could respond, Kadaj used his unhumanlike strength to toss his elder lover onto the bed and Kadaj crawled after him, pressing against every hard line and angle. Archer hadn’t bathed since battle, and smelled like it. Smoke and electricity and lingering traces of magic and fire, steel and blood. A smell that Kadaj was too familiar with, that should bother him, but didn’t.

“What the hell happened to holding on and never letting go?”

Archer wrapped an arm around him, holding their bodies tight together. Confusion swam in his eyes. “You’re saying…?”

“But then, if you find it so easy to just let me walk away, then perhaps it doesn’t mean anything to you at all,” Kadaj added before crashing his lips over Archer’s, sealing their mouths together.

Heat and comfort, passion and want, all swirling through him. Kadaj wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted, but he knew that Archer drove him past the edge of rationality. Even from when they first met, he had been inexplicably drawn to the engineer. Now was no different. He had this second chance, and it would be impolite to waste it, even if he didn’t deserve it.

Need danced across Kadaj’s skin, igniting a fire he hadn’t quenched in what seemed like a long time. A small moan echoed in the back of his throat and he pressed Archer, wanting and needing more. It didn’t take much to convince the older man to participate. A shift of his hips, wandering hands, a low noise and Archer fought to take control, finding his courage once again.

And Kadaj let him. There was plenty chance for conversation later. Plenty of time for discussion and arguing and answers and “what will we do from here”. Right now, he just wanted to be reminded of the reason he had fought Jenova for so long. He just wanted to live.

Sephiroth’s hand was going numb, but he was reluctant to take it back. Denzel still clung desperately to it. Holding his breath, Sephiroth peered at the little boy’s face, hoping that he had fallen into sleep. His breathing seemed even, and his eyelids didn’t flutter as Sephiroth carefully extracted his stolen arm.

It had taken the better part of an hour for Denzel’s exhaustion to become stronger than his grief. And even then, Sephiroth couldn’t be sure the child would sleep peacefully. Who knew what would haunt his dreams after such a day?

Sliding to the edge of the bed, Sephiroth ran a tired hand through his hair, and was alarmed by the amount of tremble in his fingers. When was the last time he had truly slept? Ate? Rested for more than a minute? Sephiroth honestly couldn’t remember. Sometime before he found out about the three brothers? Or even longer before that? Exhaustion seeped into every pore, but he couldn’t rest yet.

There were others he had to see, that could possibly need him, and that was a different feeling for him. Someone needing him.

Sephiroth crept from the room with one final glance to make sure Denzel was actually sleeping, and then he slipped into the hallway. Silence greeted his ears, even more deserted than before, and he wondered where to even begin looking. He needed to talk to Zack, but he didn’t want to leave Denzel entirely alone either.

Fortune smiled upon him, because at that moment, Elmyra passed and Sephiroth desperately hoped that she wasn’t busy. And that she didn’t hate him as much as her husband did.

He called out to her softly, not wanting to disturb her as she hadn’t noticed him yet, lost to her thoughts. “Elmyra?”

Aeris’ adoptive mother paused, finally realizing his presence. “Sephiroth?”

“Are you busy?”

She surreptitiously wiped at her eyes, offering him a shaky smile. “At the moment, no. I was just walking to clear my head. As such things go.”

Relieved that she didn’t seem to display any animosity for him, Sephiroth stepped a little further into the hall, keeping the door cracked behind him. “I was hoping I could bother you for a favor?”

“Something to do would help ease my restlessness,” she replied, her hands twining together in front of her, the dark circles surely rivaling his own.

“Denzel is sleeping in the room. Would you watch after him for me? I don’t want him to wake up alone.”

Elmyra nodded, her features softening in sympathy. Mother and daughter were very much alike. “Of course. Though I’m sure he’ll want to see you as soon as he wakes.”

“I’ll do my best to return before then,” Sephiroth assured her, unable to express his gratitude. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Zack is, would you?”

Moving to the doorway, Elmyra hummed thoughtfully. “He was heading to the lower levels when I saw him a few hours ago. Perhaps back to your apartment then?”

“Perhaps. Thank you, Elmyra.” Sephiroth gave her his best rendition of a smile and turned towards the elevator.

Back to their apartment? Somehow, Sephiroth doubted that. Zack’s usual response to being troubled was to climb to the highest place he could find. Which meant Sephiroth would check the roof. But if he was heading down, then there was only one other place he would go and it was not their apartment. Zack was amazingly predictable, and in all the years they spent together, Sephiroth felt he understood a little something about his best friend.

Stepping inside, he punched the button for the ground level. If not high above the clouds, then Zack would be scraping through the dirt, submitting his body to punishment after punishment. Sephiroth was sure he’d be at the training grounds.

On the proper floor, which consisted only of various training facilities, Sephiroth steered towards the practice arena. The sound of thumping traveled to his ears long before he actually saw Zack. He pushed open the main doors, stepping into the large open space, and found Zack as the only person present.

He looked as tired as Sephiroth felt, the dark shadows under his eyes deep and sunken. Ruthlessly pounding at a punching bag, Zack had obviously been at it for some time. He didn’t immediately notice Sephiroth, only recognizing him when Sephiroth stepped out onto the floor, unable to mask his footsteps.

Zack’s fist hit the bag one last time before he bounced back a pace, removing his gloves and stretching out his fingers. “Seph,” he greeted, though he lacked his usual enthusiasm.

He wasted no time on pleasantries. “How long have you been at this?”

Zack shrugged, swiping a hand over his sweating forehead before moving to replace his gloves, tightening first one and then the other. “I don’t know. An hour, maybe two?”

“Have you eaten?”

“Have you?”

Sephiroth paused, reminding himself that Zack only got particularly belligerent when he didn’t want to show weakness. “Not yet. We should get lunch.”

The other man halted, only to stare at him as if he’d grown three heads and started spitting a different element from each fanged mouth. “And that, right there, would be a major switch in our roles, General.”

He twisted his jaw. “I’m not allowed to worry about my friends?”

Sighing, Zack moved away from the punching bag, perhaps realizing that Sephiroth wasn’t going to give up. He yanked off one glove and tossed it aside, reaching for the other. “I didn’t say that Seph. It was just weird.”

He watched as Zack pulled off the other glove, every motion sharp and controlled. As though he struggled to keep hold of himself and this was the only way he knew how. The languid ease which Zack usually carried himself was gone, replaced with a cold control that Sephiroth knew all too well.

It was the same he had adapted as the General.

“Zack-”

Blue eyes cut at him aggressively, narrowing. “Sephiroth, I swear ta all things Holy that if you apologize to me, I’m going to hurt you.”

Surprised that Zack could read him so well, Sephiroth halted in the middle of the step he had prepared to take, hands curling at his sides. “There is some fault-”

“There is none!” Zack growled out, slashing a hand through the air as he crossed the distance between them with an angry stalk, his face pale from restrained motion. “No fault, no blame, and if you start with that self-hatred shit, I’m going to punch you. And I’ll enjoy it.”

If they weren’t best friends, Sephiroth might have been alarmed by that. But even he could see the pain in Zack’s eyes. He was grieving and this was the only way he would handle it. More than that, guilt had somehow invaded his grief, making it deeper and more acrid.

Sephiroth wasn’t the one with self-hatred here, it was Zack, and it was strange that he was the one to spot it for once.

He lowered his gaze. “Elena said that, too.”

Zack’s head whipped towards him. “What the fuck’re you talking about?” he demanded, his hands curling in Sephiroth’s shirt in a move so reminiscent of Barret. Only this move wasn’t out of anger or malice, but pure desperation.

His grammar really suffered when he was emotional and Sephiroth forced himself to speak, even if the words felt heavy on his tongue. “I had a dream. Or maybe it was real, I don’t know. Cloud was there, but more importantly, Elena and Marlene were there, too. And Elena told me that if I blamed myself, she would hurt me.” A small, fond smile twitched his lips. “I believed her.”

Zack made a strangled sound, eyes glistening with unshed emotion. “A dream?”

“Something like that. She wanted me to tell you that she would have stayed,” Sephiroth continued, something sitting heavy on his chest as he felt the shudder wrack through his best friend, grip loosening as a tremble took over his body. “And that it’s okay. Though I don’t know what she meant by the latter.”

His gaze fell, Zack’s head slumping downwards. His fingers tightened, white-knuckled. “Okay?” he repeated, voice barely a whisper. “How the fuck is it okay?”

Sephiroth stirred into action, reaching for his best friend, but Zack tore away from him, movements jerky and angered. His voice thick with sorrow. “It’s not okay,” he repeated, though it was more of a shout this time, and Sephiroth had the feeling Zack wasn’t just talking to him, but to her as well, wherever she was.

He raked his hands through his hair, a nearly vicious motion. “I never gave her anything,” Zack continued sharply, pacing across the floor. “Not one-hundred percent of anything! So tell me, how is it okay?”

His own heart breaking, Sephiroth once again felt useless. “Zack, you and she are much the same in that you freely give yourselves to others. You can’t be blamed for that anymore than she can.”

Zack shook his head. “Regret always comes when it’s too late to do anything about it,” he muttered shakily, furious with himself above all else.

“Did you love her?” The question slipped out before he could stop it, and Sephiroth wished he’d had enough foresight to avoid it.

“I don’t know,” Zack answered, calmer than he had been before. “I should have. But I don’t know if I did. She deserved it.”

Ah, that explained the flashes of guilt then. Zack was angry at himself for not giving Elena his heart when he felt he should have. But even Sephiroth knew it was wrong to try and force emotion. Strange that Zack, who understood so much, could not fully settle matters of the heart.

“Zack, if there’s anything-”

“No,” his best friend interrupted, shaking his head almost violently. “No, I just… I need to be alone.”

Sephiroth hesitated, reluctant to do so. He couldn’t just leave when Zack looked like he was about to fall apart. “Zack…” His speech fell short, unsure of the proper words needed in such a situation.

Blue eyes looked at him, darkened in grief. “Please, Seph. I don’t… I just need a little bit to myself. Then I’ll let you comfort me.”

“A role change if I ever saw one,” Sephiroth murmured, but nodded anyways, already turning away.

Someone, please tell me what to do.

Behind him, there was the sound of a violent thud, chains snapping all at once, both followed by a vicious thud. And when he turned to look, the punching bag had been ripped from its chains, falling to the ground. Zack stood over the damage, hands hanging loosely at his sides, gaze focused on the far wall.

And Sephiroth knew that he was far, far out of his league with this. He needed help, and as Zack couldn’t give him advice, he would have to seek it from someone else. And he believed he knew just the person.

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