The WEAPON's hide was as hard as the stone it resembled, making weapons skid harmlessly across its surface. The sand under their feet was constantly shifting, upsetting any sense of balance or leverage as they kept trying so hard to kill the damn thing, and at odd, sudden angles the sun would reflect blindingly off the ocean and glass-riddled sand. It smelled like saltwater and human sweat, rotting seaweed and heated metal.
Aeris' staff had been striking just as powerfully as the other weapons, but she quickly had to fall back to cast all the healing she could as the WEAPON made the ground shudder dangerously, the enormous limbs lashing out unpredictably. Sephiroth was drawing on his materia at their highest possible levels until they threatened to crack under the strain, expression utterly cool and focused, while Cloud twisted and ducked under the spells as though he could predict every one of Sephiroth's actions.
Zack had automatically found himself falling into step with Angeal, the man that had taught him all he knew, who had built him up from a half-tamed teenager to a SOLDIER. Zack may have been the one now wielding the Buster and Angeal just a mundane copy of it, and maybe they'd never go back to the easy relationship they had before, but Zack was almost glad for this battle because it meant having Angeal at his back one more time. He took a heavy blow from the WEAPON and thudded hard into the beach, but then he was immediately getting back up and tossing a toothy grin in Angeal's direction, I'm fine, keep going, we can win this.
Everyone was startled into ducking for cover when the ground suddenly split into three long scars. The force of Cloud's shiny new sword hitting the earth cracked stone, tossed sand high into the air, and broke open the WEAPON's armor with an earsplitting shriek.
"Oh shit," said Zack eloquently, ears ringing.
The WEAPON flailed wildly, roaring in such a deep tone that they could all feel it vibrating in their chests. Face grim, eyes intent, Cloud landed like a cat and rushed back towards the WEAPON with a sudden burst of feathers from his shoulders. Sephiroth's voice was harsh as he cast spells so fast they practically tumbled over one another, Zack wondering dazedly how he hadn't yet passed out as he braced himself for Cloud's impact.
Cloud never got to the WEAPON. Instead it was Angeal who got there first, using the monster's distraction and ducking under a thrashing limb so he could shove his sword into the soft flesh underneath the cracked armor.
He didn't dodge the second limb, though.
At first the soldiers in Junon cheered upon their return, but then one by one they fell silent. Sephiroth hardly noticed, seeing only the bloody body in Zack's arms, the broken expression on Zack's face, their pyrrhic victory over the unmoving mass of the Emerald WEAPON dominating the shoreline behind them.
"Zack!" yelled Elena, who was hurrying towards them as quickly as her still-healing body was able, and then stopped in her tracks so abruptly she nearly fell on her face.
"We won," said Zack, with his voice splitting down the middle. In the corner of his eye, Sephiroth saw Cloud and Aeris exchange a look before Aeris put a hand on Zack's back and Cloud discretely took Sephiroth's hand, squeezing tightly, unflinching when Sephiroth squeezed back hard enough to fracture bone.
Cloud said, all gentle authority, "Elena, call the guard. Get the medics down here ASAP," so Zack doesn't stay with Angeal's body longer than absolutely necessary, he didn't add. Elena blinked a few times before shaking herself back and picking up her PHS with a terse, "Of course, right away."
Sephiroth wasn't even out of his twenties but he felt as old as the dirt filling the mass graves of ancient soldiers.
They managed to get themselves to the military headquarters. Two officers reached out to take Angeal's body, but Zack snarled, probably not even realizing he was, and it took Aeris' soft touch to his shoulder and a few murmured words for him to pause for a long moment before letting Angeal go. Sephiroth watched as he became the last of Jenova's little triumvirate, watched as Zack's world crumbled, and thought, I could burn the world for this.
Cloud's hand tightened painfully around his own and Sephiroth looked over at him, startled to see Cloud's blue eyes narrowed and edged in green. Never that.
Sephiroth willingly let himself be relegated to a quiet corner while Elena bossed around the part-terrified, part-grieving, part-harried soldiers. Cloud borrowed her PHS and moved towards Sephiroth, away from all the noise, to dial a number. He talked secretively, occasionally glancing back at the rest of the commotion, and Sephiroth suddenly realized that Cloud was trying to keep the noise of panicking people to a dull roar as he spoke with Vincent.
"The WEAPON in Junon is down," he murmured, "but we can't get to the one by the Gold Saucer. It's still asleep."
Sephiroth wished he didn't know how Cloud knew that with such bone-deep certainty.
"…Ah. Midgar hasn't completely fallen. We'll see what we can do here."
"Thank you," said Cloud, his voice a little shaky, and hung up. His eyes caught Sephiroth's and Sephiroth thought of pressing his face against a firm chest, wrapped up safe in someone's arms, white feathers hiding him from the rest of the world.
"They've got some officer's quarters cleared out, guys," Elena called out, and even though it was barely noon the party drifted apart, retreating to lick their wounds. Everything happened on the other side of thick, frosted glass, time skipping, and then Sephiroth found himself sitting on the edge of a bed in the utilitarian space of a soldier's quarters. There were hands on his knees, Cloud's hands, a surprisingly lucid Cloud looking up at him from where he kneeled on the floor repeating, "Sephiroth. Sephiroth."
"Cloud," he replied softly, because at least Cloud was still there and actually looking at him. Touching him. Still breathing.
"Come here," said Cloud, standing up and taking Sephiroth's hands to tug him gently to his feet. He pulled Sephiroth toward the small attached bathroom while walking backwards. "Come on."
He didn't say, It'll be okay, because with Genesis dead and Angeal having martyred himself Sephiroth was now the last of his kind, and if anyone understood what that actually meant then it was Cloud. He didn't say much of anything, really, just stripped Sephiroth of blood- and sweat-stained clothes and pushed him into the shower, which was apparently becoming something of a tradition between them. There was emptiness in a corner of his mind, the lack of something he'd hardly known was even there, and he didn't realize he was shaking slightly until Cloud pressed himself against him. He could hate Angeal with the sort of bottomless intensity that sometimes blindsided him.
"What do we do now?" he asked, lost, and felt Cloud huff a humorless laugh that clearly wondered why Sephiroth would ask him, of all people, because seriously, it wasn't too long ago that he probably wouldn't have been able to find his way out of a paper bag. That darkness was still threatening to crawl over him so Sephiroth wrapped his arms tightly around Cloud, so tightly that ribs creaked, and leaned down to bite at Cloud's lips. Teeth clacked and it wasn't very pleasant, less a kiss and more a desperate need to remind himself that maybe he was technically the last of his kind but he wasn't alone.
This probably wasn't a good idea, given all the trauma and madness and everything apocalyptic, but sometimes even a monster needed the humanness of a warm body stretching long against his own, scarred hands tightening in his hair and the growing hardness of a cock against his thigh. Cloud growled low in his throat and Sephiroth tightened his grip on bony hips, leaving bruises that would heal by morning, wishing he could burrow into the smaller body and make room for himself around that rapidly-beating heart. He imagined he could feel an echo of fingers digging into his own hips and teeth biting his lower lip nearly bloody, realized they were echoes of Cloud's impressions, want and mine and a sense of sorrow of which Sephiroth couldn't quite pin down the cause.
He crowded Cloud up against the shower wall so that the shower spray was beating against his shoulder blades, a thigh between Cloud's slimmer ones, shivering as Cloud untangled one of his hands from Sephiroth's hair and wrapped a hand around him. Cloud's grip was firm and unhesitant because he was in Sephiroth's head, after all, or maybe Sephiroth was in his, he couldn't really tell the difference anymore.
It didn't take long before he came, come streaking Cloud's belly, and a moment later Cloud's grip in his hair tightened to the point of pain as he let out a nearly-silent gasp. Sephiroth rested his forehead against Cloud's and closed his eyes, breathing harshly, and Cloud held on and didn't let go until the shower had long gone cold.
Later that night, in bed and both of them sleepless despite everything, Cloud said, "Garmr."
"Bless you," Sephiroth said reflexively, then, "What?"
"My sword. I think I'll call it Garmr."
"What does it mean?"
Cloud just smiled sadly. Sephiroth wrapped himself tighter around Cloud, burying his face in the wild mess of hair as Cloud's nose pressed into the curve of his neck, their limbs wrapped around one another in a fair impression of clingy octopuses. He never really thought much about his childhood, or tried not to, but he could hazily remember feeling like this: the warmth of another person, the feel of carefully controlled strength in a body that would protect him from the world if it could, the knowledge that he could fight out of more than just a sense of duty.
He finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion, dimly aware that Cloud was still awake, staring unseeingly at the early afternoon sunlight painted on the far wall. He slept deeply enough that he stirred but didn't wake when Cloud slipped out of bed and reached for his clothes.
Zack was lying curled on his side, dead asleep with his face pressed against Aeris' thigh. Aeris leaned against the headboard, one hand in Zack's hair and the other worrying the materia on her necklace, when Cloud paused in the doorway and just looked. It took Aeris a few minutes to notice him lurking.
"Oh! Cloud, are you all right?"
"Peachy," he said, not unkindly. His eyes were drawn to Zack, whose mind gave off a confused knot of exhaustion and grief. It was underscored by the dull roar of the Planet that kept trying to get his attention, which he was resolutely ignoring. "How is he?"
Aeris looked down at Zack, petting his mussed hair. "I think everything is finally catching up with him. With all of us, really. There may be only two WEAPONs left, but there's already been so much loss that it's hard to believe that there's going to be a good ending."
Cloud crossed the room and sat gingerly on the edge of bed, trying not to disturb Zack, and hesitantly reached out. Aeris immediately took his hand without removing the one she still had tangled in Zack's hair, and Cloud said, "He was always there for me, sometimes to the point of stupidity." Aeris huffed a quiet laugh. "Everything will be all right. I'll make sure."
"What do you mean? How?"
Cloud didn't respond, just slid his hand from hers and rested it on Zack's shoulder. He could feel its warmth through the fabric of Zack's filthy uniform, strong enough to hold up the weight of the world.
"Is it very much different, now?"
The sudden question redirected his attention, but the sheer compassion in her eyes was almost enough to make him look away again. Not for the first time he wondered where she found so much of it, if she maybe swallowed back her own feelings of jealousy or anger or disappointment more often than anyone would've guessed. "What?"
"Zack hasn't told me too much because he thinks it's your choice to share, but the little I've heard from him, and you, and the Planet – "
"You're not used to lying to me, are you?" Cloud winced and looked away. "No, no, it's okay, it just means that, well, you and Zack don't hide things very well, and I was wondering how…different things are now."
Aeris seemed so young sometimes, though he didn't know if it was because he was technically that much older than she was or because circumstances had changed just enough to change her. He gave her a true, unreserved smile and answered, "A lot of it's different, of course, but the most important things…those aren't. I came back for you and I don't regret that."
There wasn't much to say after that, and for a long time Cloud sat there with two of the people who had most shaped him. He would finally be able to repay his debt.
In the evening, Fenrir somehow escaped the Highwind and infiltrated the Junon military base, scaring the shit out of a number of soldiers and generally causing an uproar. During the chaos, Cloud disappeared without a trace except for a last wisp of sorrow breathing through Sephiroth.
"No," he gasped, stumbling against the doorframe of his borrowed quarters. The noise of panicked people had shaken him awake, and when he had instinctively reached out an arm he found only cold, empty space on the other side of the bed. He saw Aeris looking worriedly out the door of her own quarters and demanded, "Where is he?"
"Cloud?" As if Sephiroth would've been asking about anyone else. "I thought he was with you."
"No," he repeated, unsure if he was answering Aeris or still in denial. "Something's wrong, he's going to do something irrevocably stupid."
"You may want to put some pants on first," she said. Sephiroth looked down and thought, Well, she isn't wrong, and rummaged around for the pants he'd kicked off the night before. He pulled them on so quickly he nearly hurt himself, then pulled on a general's straight posture and cold efficiency as he strode down towards central command. Surrounded by nervous soldiers stood Elena, who had a hand buried in the damn wolf's scruff, and Nanaki, who patiently stood guard in the hallway and kept an unruffled eye on Fenrir.
"Where is he?" he snapped out, the sharp crack of ice, and Elena flinched before she could stop herself.
There was something too intense in his voice, too possessive, and he felt again the grief of Angeal's death barely twelve hours ago, the horror of what was done to Cloud just a handful of days ago, and couldn't decide if all this was the fault of ShinRa or the Planet. (Both could be destroyed, though, couldn't they?)
"He's not here," Elena said carefully. "We've been working on clean-up and crowd control here all day and he never came in."
There were shadows under Elena's eyes and her bandages could do with some rewrapping; on another day, Sephiroth might have been sympathetic. "Check the security cameras."
Elena called over four grunts and pointed them in the direction of the security room: Watch every fucking second, I want to know exactly where he went. Sephiroth spent the next hour or so pacing and making the soldiers nervous, hardly noticing when the call for dinner came and went. The officers were disgruntled at being usurped but knew better than to argue with Turks or SOLDIERs, and without a target for his turmoil Sephiroth just turned things over and over in his head, wondering where he went wrong, what he could have done to keep Angeal – steady, brilliant Angeal, how could he have done this to them, Genesis was supposed to be the selfish one –
"We've set up a quarantine area around the WEAPON, but we've already had to arrest a handful of treasure hunters trying to get close," a Regular reported to Elena. "The power plant engineers estimate that the grid is about halfway repaired and that power should be restored to the rest of the city by dawn tomorrow."
Sephiroth hadn't known the grid had taken damage in the first place.
"Have you heard from Midgar?" asked Elena.
"They're requesting additional men to help with emergency relief, as is Mideel," the soldier went on, and that was about the time Sephiroth left, heading towards the beach where the WEAPON's enormous carapace still loomed, still having enough presence of mind to know that bad things were going to happen if he didn't find something with which to distract himself.
It turned out that the clean-up crews needed the WEAPON to be divided into smaller, more manageable pieces. Sephiroth was more than willing to offer up the Masamune's services, and if those pieces turned out a little (a lot) smaller than they needed to be, no one was going to say anything. It was hot, sweaty work in the longest hours of the afternoon, and also lonely, since no one was quite brave enough to stand near Sephiroth, not that Sephiroth himself would've ever admitted it, and he could read the tracks in the sand well enough to know exactly where Angeal's spine had been crushed under the WEAPON's limb. Why are you never here when I need you most, Cloud, he wanted to scream, and kept his expression carefully calm as he cracked through another section of exoskeleton.
The small conference room was blessedly quiet in the few minutes before other people began arriving. Zack put his head on his arms on the table and took a few deep breaths, picking up the faintly floral scent that always seemed to cling to Aeris no matter where she was, the chemical smell of the industrial carpet and boot polish. Beside him sat Sephiroth, who was so carefully composed and expressionless that he may as well have been a thousand miles away. Elena, Nanaki, Cid, and Yuffie ranged around the far curve of the table; of everyone that had been there in the beginning, these were the only people who remained.
"I managed to get a hold of Reeve. Assuming we're still alive in a few days, Angeal will be given a funeral with full military honors," said Elena quietly, knowing it was a cold comfort.
"Good," said Zack firmly, because however their relationship may have started to fray at the end, it didn't change the fact that, for a while, Angeal had been one of the best men Zack had ever known.
"So…now what?" asked Yuffie.
"We head north."
Everyone turned to look at Sephiroth, who still looked as impassive as ever. The remoteness of his expression was enough to betray how twisted up inside he was.
"What's in the north?" prompted Nanaki, and Sephiroth replied, "Cloud."
"We've spent an awful lot of time chasing after that kid," Cid pointed out, not unfairly.
"He said there were two WEAPONs left," Aeris broke in suddenly, "but the only one I remember him mentioning specifically is the one by the Gold Saucer. Where's the other one?"
There was a long silence in which people exchanged questioning looks that quickly turned more alarmed. Nanaki finally asked, "Is there any way to track these things without him? Sephiroth?"
"I don't know," Sephiroth admitted, and Zack's mind started racing, trying to figure why Cloud hadn't told them this last, vital bit of information. Cloud had just as much to lose as anyone else, if not more, and once Elena, Sephiroth, Zack, and Aeris had managed to worm their way past his ridiculous tendency towards martyrdom he hadn't hesitated to accept their help.
"No new reports of death and destruction have come in since this morning after, uh, you guys took down Emerald," Elena said, trying but not particularly succeeding in sounding delicate. "Maybe it's also asleep?"
Zack said, "But we can't count on it. Like Cloud said, once the Planet builds up momentum it's almost impossible to stop, especially with the mako reactors still running and pissing it off."
"I remember Cloud mentioning that to Reeve, something about North Corel and its coal mining being a possible alternative. I think Reeve's been working on it, but with Midgar in the state it's in…"
"Our first priority is the WEAPONs, the mako reactors second," Sephiroth told them decisively.
"With his connection to the Planet, Cloud may know something we don't," offered Aeris. "There may be a reason he left so abruptly for the north."
"Then why wouldn't he have said anything?" Elena retorted, visibly angry. "I thought he was over pulling this kind of bullshit."
"Something's changed," said Aeris, her voice sounding off, and when Zack turned to her, he found her staring into the middle distance, looking more…Ancient-ish than usual. "He's lost everything before and he's afraid of it happening again. It's something he thinks only he can do."
Zack stood and leaned over with his hands on the table, meeting the eye of every person present. "Here's what we're going to do: first, someone's going to call Vincent or Reeve and see what's going on with the reactors. We'll also see if there's some way to get troops together to take down the other WEAPON. Then Cid, you're going to take Sephiroth, Aeris, and I up north to wherever Cloud is and either stop whatever idiotic plan he's got or make it better. If there really is a way to stop the Planet's momentum, we'll find it."
"But," Elena started, and Zack interrupted, "No. We need you here. You're still hurt, but more importantly you've already got everything running here. We need people to hold down the fort, we can't afford to direct all our resources towards a single chance."
Huh. He was starting to sound like one of the Firsts. Damn growing up.
After that, everyone parted ways. Elena returned to the center of Junon's military base, pulling her rank as a Turk around her as a shield. Yuffie, who promised to kick 'Reeve-whoever-he-was' in the ass if she needed to, and Nanaki, who understandably needed to feel useful, decided to head back to Midgar. Zack, Aeris, Sephiroth, and Cid returned to the freshly-resupplied Highwind to face what felt like the last act of this whole, terrible war.
Daylight disappeared unnaturally quickly as Cloud walked farther into the gloom. The temperature dropped and the air felt charged, like licking a battery, except instead of dissipating the sharp shock of electricity crawled over his skin and seeped into his bones. It was disturbingly quiet, his footsteps echoing over uneven stone walls with the distant, unseen dripping of water and the thicker plop of mako.
Home, the cave walls whispered.
Everything felt like it came to him two degrees removed. He walked down, deeper, in something like a haze, terror and relief and regret and happiness playing discordantly on his heart. For the first time in more years than he could count, Cloud let himself remember: a time when he wished the dead could come back and then they did, but all wrong and twisted; his own mother, who never quite got it right but who loved as fiercely as a dragon in her own way; a young boy in a lab, so earnest and so lonely, who looked at Cloud like he was someone worth more than the sum of his broken memories; Aeris and Zack, sharing a conspiratorial smile, untouched by bullets or betrayal.
At this point, he figured he was allowed a level of sentimentality worthy of Yuffie's soaps. It was better than dwelling on the sensation of ripping skin on his shoulder blades, even though the flesh remained entirely whole, and the long, strong limbs stretching out to either side so that the cold air could sift through the feathers. It was better than dwelling on the sensation that he left a bit more of his remaining humanity in the small air currents stirred up by his wings, in the pools of each step behind him.
Victory at all costs. The slow bleeding from parasites; burning the parasites to save the host. Fighting until the last pack member dies. WEAPON.
"I think you're the thing that's given me the worst complex," Cloud muttered to the Planet, trying to shake off the mental impressions by focusing on putting one foot steadily in front of the other. He forced himself not to think how this was going to affect Sephiroth. It seemed all he knew how to do was break promises.
"We managed to get a hold of both North Corel and Cosmo Canyon," Vincent's voice crackled over the PHS. "They're putting together a team to take on the Ruby WEAPON by the Gold Saucer. They'll be able to reach it far more quickly than we can cross the ocean, especially without the Highwind."
"Thank you," said Aeris, half-watching Cid grumble as he steered, half-watching Zack and Sephiroth standing together at the front of the observation deck. SOLDIERs always burned more brightly in her sixth sense than most people. Somewhere, very distantly, she thought she could feel Cloud as a small but intense flicker of the same icy burn as mako.
At night, she and Zack sat on their shared bunk with a two-foot space between them. "I don't know what to do," he admitted, so far from his usual cheerful confidence that her heart ached for him, and she replied, "You're stronger than you think."
He didn't smile, but he did manage several hours of sleep that night. She stayed up a while longer, feeling like her body was twice as heavy but reminding herself that they couldn't afford to have her give in to the sorrow and grief in her own heart, that right now she needed to be as much a foundation for everyone as the Planet's bones. Later, when the storm has passed.
It took two days before Sephiroth, who'd spent almost every waking moment standing stone-faced on the observation deck, said, "We're close."
Aeris looked out onto icy, barren tundra that stretched out long and flat with only a few sudden, jagged stone ranges breaking up the monotony. The center was dominated by a breathtakingly huge ring of broken rock that sliced up the sky in grey puzzle pieces, circling a crater that scarred the earth so deeply its bottom was just a hole of darkness. She was desperately grateful, not for the first time, that the Highwind's deck had a solid ceiling and floor that didn't leave it all open to the emptiness of the sky.
"Well," Zack said after a moment, "at least it matches the mood."
Aeris snorted. Sephiroth just stared ahead intently and ignored them.
There was no way for the Highwind to land anywhere near enough to the crater that they wouldn't have to go through several hours of climbing over sharp rock that would probably cause a lethal infection in the slightest cut, so Cid hovered over the crater as low as he safely could.
"Hope you ain't afraid of heights," he quipped as some of the crew opened a lower hatch and rolled out the longest rope ladder that Aeris had ever seen. She leaned over the hatch opening and watched the end of the ladder dangle about ten feet over a wide ledge.
"Guess we'll find out," she said faintly.
She, Zack, and Sephiroth each took a knapsack packed with water, some food, and as many potions and elixirs as they could stuff into them. There was no way to know how long it would take to find Cloud, assuming Sephiroth's directions were correct in the first place, or what they would encounter. Before they started the frankly terrifying climb down, Aeris stood in front of Cid and clasped one of his hands in both of hers.
"Thank you, Cid," she said somberly.
"Someone promised me upgrades," he replied, gruff, manfully pretending that the tips of his ears weren't turning red.
Sephiroth went first, Masamune slung in easy reach over his shoulder, and Aeris followed, trying very hard not to think about how the grey sky yawned so huge and so empty above them.
"Aeris?" came Zack's voice, his heavy boots a few feet above her head. Her eyes were so focused on the ropes in front of her face that she didn't realize she'd frozen in place until a hand pressed lightly against her ankle. While her boot was too thick to feel the touch itself, the pressure was enough.
"Miss Gainsborough," Sephiroth said gently, "the ledge is not far. I will not let you fall."
He sounded so reasonable, so calm; no wonder he could get through to Cloud when Cloud was looking at a pencil like it was going to take off a finger. "Aeris," she corrected him. She shivered, and it wasn't just because of the cold air insinuating itself through her dress.
"Call me Aeris and I'll think about climbing down in the next month or so."
Zack barked out a short laugh above her and, when Aeris glanced down, she caught the slightest suggestion of a possible smile in the near future on Sephiroth's face. She considered making a comment on being the filling in an attractive SOLDIER sandwich, but she knew that it was the nerves talking and managed to unclench her hands just enough to finish climbing.
Sephiroth landed on the ledge with a light thump and immediately reached up to put his hands around Aeris' waist – dear gods, they practically covered her lower torso, he could literally break her in half without effort – and lift her down. When Zack joined them, she may have held his hand hard enough to actually leave bruises. Sephiroth waved, and the rope ladder was pulled back up as the Highwind slowly turned away.
"The radios have all been checked, we should be good to go when we get back up," said Zack, obviously firm in the belief that they would be getting back, with Cloud, if they had to tie him up and let Sephiroth carry him in a way so humiliating he would never think of pulling the martyr on them again.
"When I checked a few months ago, ShinRa reported this area as heavily infested with monsters. We'll proceed with stealth and try to avoid as many as possible. We don't want to waste time." Because gods knew what kind of bullshit Cloud was planning.
Despite herself, Aeris felt the tension in her body loosen as they descended into the gloom. The too-open sky was quickly blocked out by the jagged peaks, the weirdly diffused daylight dimming to a more natural darkness. When stone curved under their feet and arched over their heads, the Planet settled more heavily under her heart, so present she could almost pluck its words right out of the air. Mako ran thick through the chilly air.
Sephiroth led the way, spine so straight and shoulders so tense that Aeris half-expected to hear something snap, with a Fire materia activated just enough to cast gentle light without releasing the spell. Zack brought up the rear with another Fire materia in one hand, the other hand resting on the Buster.
"You know I don't need to be protected, right?" she asked pointedly, and Zack replied, "Obviously," but didn't switch positions. Aeris considered arguing the point, saw the tightness of grief and worry in the lines around his eyes, and let it drop.
In the beginning it was easy to avoid monsters; the scraping of claws against stone and echoes of odd growls told them when to press themselves more deeply into the shadows and slip silently past, sometimes edging dangerously close to the sheer drop. The first time they actually encountered one, it was because Zack tripped over the cavern's uneven floor and stumbled out of cover, and the monster barely had time to snarl before the Masamune sent its head rolling across the rock and over the edge into darkness. Aeris leaned over and counted to eight seconds before she heard a wet thunk.
"I'm guessing, what, two hundred-fifty, three hundred meters?"
A few hours in and they were down a water bottle and two MREs. The worst wound they'd suffered was a minor burn to Aeris' hand, hardly worse than the slice opened up on Zack's cheek by a chip of stone, and Aeris was feeling cautiously optimistic that, hey, this really could turn out all right.
Eventually they came to a crossroads. The light from the two materia wasn't enough to see very far down either tunnel and no slight wind came through to betray a distant exit to the outside world. For all intents and purposes, there was nothing that told them which tunnel led to Cloud and not an agonizing death, not even Aeris' Planet-whispering magic.
"Flip a coin?" Zack finally volunteered.
"You two take the right, I'll take the left," said Sephiroth decisively.
Zack and Aeris exchanged glances behind his back. "You sure that's a good idea?" Zack tried, as diplomatic as he could be. "We don't know what's at the end of either of these tunnels, it'd be better not to split up and divide our strength. I know you've seen a few sci-fi horror movies, I was there to blackmail you into it."
"We can't afford the risk of taking the wrong tunnel. We don't know how much time we have before Cloud does something stupid or the last WEAPON wreaks unspeakable damage. Splitting up guarantees that at least one person will reach our goal."
Seriously, how could he sound so reasonable all the time.
"Sephiroth – "
"That's an order, Lieutenant."
Aeris winced at Zack's tone when he replied, "With all due respect, sir, you can take your protocol and shove it up your ass. This isn't a military operation and – "
"Zack," Sephiroth snapped, "I know. I know." He fell silent for a moment, then went on quietly, "I don't want to take the chance."
Zack would've kept arguing, but they were wasting precious time. "Compromise," she broke in, "we split up but the radios stay on at all times, and if you find Cloud and you don't call us then I will find a way to make you regret it, SOLDIER or not."
"Yes, ma'am," Sephiroth said automatically, which was rather gratifying, and she nodded at him officiously as she took Zack's hand and tugged him towards one of the tunnels.
As soon as he was out of the others' sight, Sephiroth sheathed the Masamune and followed his Cloud-sense deeper into the tunnel. It sloped downwards, sometimes so steeply that he had to slide carefully down damp, mossy stone without careening off the next ledge, and occasionally the ceiling ran so low that he had to walk with his shoulders hunched.
He was starting to wonder if he'd sent Zack and Aeris down the correct tunnel when it suddenly opened up into an echoing cavern and the uneven path under his feet took a steep drop and spiraled down towards a green mako spring. The spring was so large, so flooded, that green light rippled eerily over the walls. He stared at the way the light drowned out the red glow of his Fire materia, which he allowed to fade back into dormancy when he suddenly remembered he wasn't here to admire earth's natural wonders. It was so green, though, and all around him, settling over his skin as naturally as the mako showers once did and making his blood sing.
The voices drifting through the air didn't belong to the Lifestream at all; they came from one of several other tunnel entrances, dark holes cut into the green glow of the mako spring, and before Zack and Aeris could appear Sephiroth stepped forward without a second thought. The mako held up under his weight for a moment before suddenly giving way, swallowing him up with increasing speed with burning-cold pinpricks against his skin, even through his clothes, and just before it closed over his head he heard, "Sephiroth – !"
It felt like dying.
The Calamity. One of the fallen ones.
He's not the enemy, said Cloud across the years, and in the spaces between words and regret Sephiroth heard, I am.
The Planet was burning and he was the last living thing in the world. The blue sky went up in flames and broke open into an endless void, and the stars fell.
Sephiroth stood in a place that had no discernible walls or ceiling or boundaries of any real kind, the Masamune in his hand even though he didn't remember drawing it. Dim light effused through the space in odd ways, creating small eddies of light and shadow that mimicked the play of glowing mako against glass.
Cloud stood facing him with only a short distance between them. He was in a pair of black cargo pants and a sleeveless turtleneck that Sephiroth hadn't seen in over a decade, the hilt of an enormous sword poking over one shoulder and the two wings arching gracefully on either side making him look like he'd stepped right out of a childhood memory or a comic book. The last time Sephiroth had seen him, they were naked and pressed close, Cloud's eyes completely focused and unguarded for the first time Sephiroth could remember. Now, the thoughts that tried to come out as words just died between Sephiroth's teeth.
"This isn't the first time this has happened," Cloud said when the silence stretched too long. He looked down at himself and then back at Sephiroth. "The Planet is showing you how you remember me best, I think. I guess it isn't that hard when someone is more Lifestream than human."
"Is that what this is, coming here? Self-pity?" Sephiroth asked quietly, and Cloud flinched and frowned, confused. "All these years you've been fighting and now, when we're so close to being done, you're just going to give up?"
"I'm a WEAPON, Sephiroth," said Cloud, "and the only way to win now is to stop fighting."
The hand holding the Masamune felt cold despite its glove. "Why? Hojo and Jenova are dead and ShinRa is essentially gone, what – "
Cloud's soft laugh was an ugly sound. "ShinRa was only part of the Planet's problem. The reactors still exist. The Lifestream is still slowly bleeding out. The WEAPONs have all been activated. You can't suddenly stop a sword mid-swing, you can only slow it down and hope it doesn't cut you in half."
"But if you refuse to do anything – "
"Then the reactors will still all explode and the Lifestream will probably be weaponized again. It would work about as well as it did when I tried to say no to you," Cloud replied. When Sephiroth blanched, Cloud hissed between his teeth and shook his head, saying, "No, that's not what I – that wasn't you, I know that, I'm sorry."
(Cloud still clearly remembered what it was like to think that his mind was his own and he was free only to find out that he was wrong, so wrong, and the people he loved were the ones who paid for that mistake.)
"Why here?" Sephiroth looked around where they were so deep inside the crater that for all he knew they were at the heart of the Planet. "Some attempt at poetic justice?"
"It's one of the two places where the Lifestream is nearest to the surface and the Crater was closer than Mideel," said Cloud dryly. "But that works too. I tried taking your advice, you know. Stepping back and thinking about what a stranger would do in my place and what kind of advice I'd give him."
"Did it help?" Sephiroth prompted.
"Not in the least."
Sephiroth snorted, and Cloud smiled, and for a moment everything was okay. It didn't last.
"Even though it's a shitty thing to do, I'm glad it's you."
For a split second, not for the first time, Sephiroth hated Cloud. "I'm not going to kill you."
Cloud drew Garmr and held it in a neutral position, neither offensive nor defensive. "I tried to do the right thing with you and still fucked it up. I'm sorry, Sephiroth."
"Cloud – "
Cloud was fast. Sephiroth barely had time to get the Masamune up and keep Garmr from cutting him in half, the clash of two blades ringing out across the cavern, the momentum sending reverberations through his hands and into his arms. He tried to shove Cloud backwards, but Cloud just bent with the motion and came back with flared wings and another jarring strike.
"Cloud," Sephiroth tried again, voice cracking, which had never happened to him before, and Cloud neatly sidestepped him and brought Garmr around in a smooth arc that would've severed Sephiroth's spine if he hadn't twisted neatly out of the way. A distracting whisper of oh god what am I doing that wasn't his own nearly cost Sephiroth a block; his body was moving thoughtlessly through the familiar steps of a fight, and a starburst of pain in his right shoulder blade burst open in a mess of bone and black feathers.
It was a little like sparring with Genesis and Angeal, the way that their respective wingspans turned their movements into wide, arcing flows of air current and momentum. And it was nothing at all like sparring with Genesis and Angeal, the way Sephiroth couldn't always tell where he ended and Cloud began and the fact that Cloud knew Sephiroth's fighting style better than Sephiroth himself. Sephiroth would step left and Cloud would already be moving right, wings snapping out to help him turn on a fine pointe and come up under Sephiroth's guard, except that Sephiroth would have already stepped back several paces to bring the Masamune back between them.
It wasn't until their eyes met over crossed blades, nearly nose to nose, that Sephiroth realized that Cloud's eyes were so bright less because of the mako and more because those were tears, dear gods – and then Cloud stepped back, left himself wide open, and so many years of fight-or-die meant that the Masamune had pierced Cloud's chest and come out the other side before Sephiroth could think, No.
Cloud's weight was a stone that held the world in place and petrified Sephiroth's hands around the Masamune. Garmr clattered to the stone floor.
"Cloud," Sephiroth breathed, and Cloud smiled again, gripped the Masamune's razor-sharp blade with both hands and pulled himself closer, gasping as the sword slid so easily through his flesh. The worst part was that there was no blood, no sign that everything had gone wrong until the blade finally sliced through Cloud's gloves into his palms. The feathers that once hid a scared little kid from monsters began drifting away like snow.
"Stop," Sephiroth choked out, but time didn't stop or rewind for him. The Masamune was so sharp that he couldn't even feel much resistance as Cloud forced it farther through his ribs. Blood slowly bloomed over Cloud's lips, finally, probably a collapsing lung, too much damage even for his inhuman body to keep up –
Cloud reached out a torn hand and pressed it against Sephiroth's chest, immediately smearing blood over his white shirt. He opened his mouth to say something, but his body slumped, head falling forward against Sephiroth's shoulder, and the only thing holding his body upright was the sword in his heart and Sephiroth himself.
Sephiroth's knees hit the ground hard. He couldn't even pull out the Masamune because it was too long, and he couldn't push Cloud away, so he knelt there with Cloud's body in his arms and the Masamune's hilt filling the space between them. He would never know what Cloud had been going to say.
A pair of booted, running footsteps behind him. A desperate, "Sephiroth!" that he didn't hear over the dead heartbeat in his ears. He buried his face in wild yellow hair and murmured, "You said everything would be okay."
The sight of Sephiroth cradling Cloud with the Masamune sticking out several feet past Cloud's spine seared itself permanently into Zack's brain. Mako still clung to Zack's skin after the fall through the fountain – and if taking Aeris' word that jumping into a gods-damned mako fountain was the right thing to do wasn't true love he didn't know what was – and he dimly heard Aeris' horrified gasp through the ringing in his ears and the pounding of his feet as he sprinted forward.
He slowed to a stop a few feet away, taking in the blood smeared over Sephiroth's clothes, Cloud's lips, Cloud's palms, the awkward angle of the Masamune between (through) them.
"Oh," murmured Aeris.
Sephiroth was silent.