As Sephiroth was completing his morning stretches, he heard Denzel's voice from outside the church doors. "Oh, hey, Mister Rude. Are you here to see Tifa?"
Sephiroth lurched to his feet even before the negative grunt reached his ears. Rude is Reno's partner, Cloud had told him. Turks, again!
He heaved the door open. Denzel jumped. The baldheaded man, broad shoulders filling out an impeccably tailored suit, did not. "General," he said to Sephiroth's accusing stare, and offered a slim white envelope.
Denzel took it when Sephiroth didn't. "What is it?" he asked, but Rude apparently decided that his job had been done and turned on his heel without another word.
Silence settled over the church courtyard. Denzel finally noticed Sephiroth was trembling. "...oh," he murmured, ducking his head. "Um. Here?"
The Shinra's envelope was a poor peace offering, but Sephiroth took it anyway, forced himself to take a deep breath and sank to one knee. "I apologize," he said to the boy's worried eyes. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't scare me," Denzel insisted with a frown. "You looked scared yourself."
Him, display an outward sign of fear? Denzel must have read the dismay in Sephiroth's face. "You get all-" he gestured, groping for words, then snapped his body ramrod-straight and painfully stiff like a recruit getting a thorough dressing-down. "Like that."
"Do I get that way often?" Sephiroth asked.
"Nnnooo..." Denzel squirmed. "When someone mentions Shinra or the Turks you do."
Sephiroth frowned. "I used to be better at hiding my emotions. I need to work on that."
The innocent question brought Sephiroth up short. Why? Well, it was obvious, wasn't it? You didn't go around showing you were afraid or angry all the time - but looking at Denzel's concerned face, Sephiroth wondered whether this was another area in which Hojo's twisted upbringing had rendered him different from other people.
"Where's Marlene?" he asked abruptly.
Denzel shrugged one shoulder. "Phone call with her papa."
...oh. He'd never seen one child without the other, but of course Denzel couldn't very well share Marlene's father with her. He wondered if the boy resented her, but Denzel didn't look angry or resentful. Perhaps in the end even Denzel and Marlene needed a break from each other, but the inner workings of friendship was something Sephiroth wasn't equipped to understand.
"...do you want to help me stretch?" he asked, and Denzel agreed affably enough. Sephiroth put the envelope aside for some time when he was emotionally prepared to deal with its contents.
A thorough stretching and a brutal workout later, Sephiroth was no more emotionally prepared than he'd been before, and Denzel had started to look worried. Then Tifa had called the boy back for lunch, and Sephiroth was left with his own inner dragons once more. He returned to the church and stared resentfully at the plain white envelope he'd cast aside.
Staring at it wasn't going to make it go away. He could throw it away unopened, but that would leave him without potentially valuable insight into what the Turks planned to do next. He couldn't afford to deceive himself, to take the easy path - yet opening that envelope felt like submitting to Shinra's control again.
Two sheets of paper fell into Sephiroth's hand. The first was a typed letter signed by Rufus's careless scrawl of a signature - this Sephiroth set aside. The second was a bank statement. Sephiroth caught his breath as he scanned down the lines. All the money he'd saved up before Nibelheim was there, including interest in the intervening decade, and at the top a single deposit of five hundred thousand gil. Under the Description column it read-
"That twit," Sephiroth hissed.
-it read facilitating the installation of President Rufus Shinra.
Sephiroth slapped the bank statement down on top of Rufus's letter, which he now had no intention of reading. Anger simmered through him, fast and bright, and Sephiroth squeezed his eyes shut and dug his knuckles into his thighs in an effort to restrain himself. Calm down. Do not get angry. Do not get angry. You cannot get angry, S, it's too dangerous.
Anger allowed Mother to control you.
Slowly, painfully, he brought himself back under his own command, shackling the anger within himself until the specter of losing control again no longer threatened. Left behind was the hollow emptiness he'd grown accustomed to, and new strength to the promise he'd already made himself - that he would never, ever work for the company that had enslaved him again. He stood, stalked away from the offending papers.
Beyond the nave was the bell tower, in worse shape than the rest of the church thanks to the rusted water tower that had fallen through its wall seemingly decades ago. The bell itself was gone. Sephiroth stood at the foot of the stairs and peered up as far as he could. Sunlight filtered through the broken windows at the top. If he could navigate past the treacherous-looking wooden stairs and balconies to the top, he'd have - some kind of overland view of Edge, probably. Not an unobstructed one, and maybe not the whole of the city, but it was a goal, and having a goal felt like a first gasp of clear air after emerging from Mako. Sephiroth set his boot on the first step. It creaked in protest as he shifted his weight onto it, but it held. Right. One step at a time.
The first staircase was easy enough - noisy, wobbly in places, but it didn't break under him. The landing was another story, all but destroyed by the water tower's intrusion and by age. Sephiroth had to pick his way along the outside edge until he could reach the water tower, then - taking a breath and a moment to calculate the angles and forces involved - leaped onto the metal surface, slid down and leaped again, throwing himself onto what was left of the landing in front of the second staircase. The wood gave way with a crack, and Sephiroth lunged, grunting as he landed full-length on the staircase proper. It creaked ominously but held together this time, and Sephiroth hauled himself up on the railing and continued on.
Compared to that, the holes in the second landing were easier to cross, and the landing itself was solid when it wasn't just plain gone. At the end of it, Sephiroth found a ladder, newer than the other structures in the bell tower, and followed it up to the rafters. He paused at the top to catch his breath, then straightened - carefully, as the ceiling was a touch low for him - and moved to the roof over the nave, where he could see glowing sunlight.
Here was the massive hole in the ceiling Sephiroth had noted from below. It yawned wide before him, and as the breeze lifted his hair, Sephiroth leaned an arm on the edge of the hole and just gazed out at the vista before him - for once, not a single thought of tactics was in his head.
The outer band of Edge splayed out before him, a riot of colors and textures - the people here had rebuilt out of whatever came to hand, though in the orderly layout of the streets Sephiroth thought he detected Executive Tuesti's influence. Beyond, a band of rough brown; beyond that, smooth, cool green fading into a distant blue sky. It was a view he never could have imagined from Midgar, even from the top of Shinra Tower - the Plate and the smog had always filled the landscape, drowning out everything else.
The old wound of Midgar glowered in his awareness, like a sword at the back of his neck. If he turned around, he could see what was left of it: a twisted ruin of metal rising over the landscape. He resolutely kept his back turned to it, and leaned out into the wind.
The wind caught at his hair, tossing it about. The breeze was cool and gentle and smelled of sandstone and metal and humans, the familiar tang of life. The sun was intensely warm on his face. Sephiroth caught his breath, blinking the sting of wind-tears out of his eyes.
If not all of the tears were from the wind, who was going to know?
Sephiroth turned to go back inside and saw, of all things, a ladder set against the outside wall he hadn't noticed - my situational awareness is slipping! - with a blond man ascending it. "So that's how you keep appearing in the rafters," he said when Cloud reached him.
Cloud shrugged. "Guess my secret's out. Got a couple of bounty missions from Reeve if you're interested."
"...oh. Yes - of course." Sephiroth shook his head sharply.
Cloud paused. "...nobody's making you do this," he said slowly.
"No, I know." Sephiroth blew out a breath. "I just - need to not be here. In Edge, for a while."
He saw Cloud's eyes narrow, and knew the other man wondered if the Demon General was losing his grip again. The worst part was, as the letter from Rufus Shinra flashed unbidden through his mind again, he couldn't swear that was no longer a possibility.
"It seems I am to become a hunter," Sephiroth said to the wolf half in his lap.
Zack's tail whisked, but halfheartedly. Violet eyes peered up at him, as if asking if that were a good thing.
"It's... a step forward," Sephiroth answered. "In which direction, I couldn't say." The wolf huffed and nosed at his gloved hands. Even in his dreams he always wore gloves. "I need a mission in order to function. That's how I was created. I can't live as humans do - existing for their own reasons."
Zack growled at him then, an unhappy disagreement. Sephiroth wondered if Zack objected to Sephiroth's characterization of humans, or his refusal to categorize himself as one, but in this form his old friend's ability to communicate was limited. Sephiroth didn't know exactly how the spirit of his dead friend entered his dreams at all, but he suspected that if he wanted to hear more than barks, growls and whines out of Zack he would need to have direct contact with the Lifestream - with Mako. Perhaps even full immersion.
Sephiroth had no intention of testing that theory, as much as he missed Zack. The Lifestream had claimed him before, and tried to rip him into shreds. It would have him again when he died.
"You'll be with me when I hunt, won't you?" he asked suddenly, that thought making him feel very cold and small. Zack surged up to nuzzle him, a mute promise that he would.
Cloud had business in Fort Condor, so he could accompany Sephiroth there, but he made it clear he wouldn't be joining him on the hunt itself. For the first time since he'd been found by the enigmatic Vincent Valentine, Sephiroth would be let off the leash.
...that is unkind, he scolded himself as he got out of Cloud's sidecar at the Kalm chocobo ranch. Yet he couldn't deny the flutter of anticipation that rose in him at the thought of being allowed to roam without his former victim/destroyer hovering over his shoulder.
At least Gleipnir was happy to see him.
"I hadn't forgotten about you," Sephiroth told the big green as Gleipnir warbled around his mouthful of Sephiroth's bangs. "Yes, good bird. Settle down now." Gleipnir did not settle down, but he let Sephiroth have his hair back and - with the skilled application of crest-scratches - was convinced to hold still long enough for Chole to bring out his tack and Sephiroth to saddle him up with the girl's help.
"Thank you," he told her quietly over Gleipnir's wing.
Chole's head dipped briefly. "He's a sweet bird." She never looked up from the straps she was easing into place, checking each one to make sure they wouldn't chafe, expertly moving with Gleipnir as he shifted from one restless clawed foot to the other. "We've been keeping him on a high-Mimett diet. He should have plenty of energy."
"I'll report back on his performance, and we can make any needed adjustments to his diet," Sephiroth promised, and that earned him the first direct smile from the young woman. She left them with a last gentle pat to Gleipnir's beak, and Sephiroth gathered up his reins. "Let's get going," he murmured, and Gleipnir warbled agreeably.
Cloud was waiting for him by his motorcycle, parked on the dirt track leading out of the ranch. Sephiroth paused, Gleipnir bristling faintly at his shoulder as his tenseness was communicated through the set of his shoulders. Cloud had his goggles on, his eyes hidden from view, and he was hunched over the bike like a protective gargoyle.
"I should... get going," Sephiroth offered hesitantly. Was Cloud waiting for a salute?
The blond head shook sharply. "I just - I'm not," he blurted, and Sephiroth found himself drifting forward. "It's not easy. Handing you one of my weapons."
...oh. "I can do without," Sephiroth said, turning, but Cloud was shaking his head again, quick and angry.
"No. I mean, yeah, you probably can kill a dragon with your bare hands, can't you? But - no." Cloud sucked in a breath. "I'm not sending you out there unarmed."
He opened the motorcycle's side panel. With a hiss of hydraulics, a small forest of heavy-sword handles rose into view, offering themselves to be used. Cloud's hands wrapped around one and hauled it free and for a moment its edge caught the sunlight-
-bright, painful flash-
"Sephiroth?" Cloud called sharply.
Sephiroth blinked the headache and tears away. "Where did you come by a Hardedge?" he forced out. "Or should I not ask?"
"Where do you think I got it?" Cloud walked around the motorcycle and offered it to him one-handed. "This is one I won't be too broken-up to lose, but it's in good condition."
Sephiroth stared at the blade - Shinra-issue, heavy as lead, and without a hint of grace or artistry. About as far away from Masamune as it was possible to get and still be considered a sword. Perhaps that was part of why Cloud chose it. He made himself reach out and wrap a hand around the hilt, taking the weight easily when Cloud let go.
He nearly dropped it when magic whispered against his skin: the minty tracery of a Cure and the even hum of a Barrier. Neither was anywhere near mastered, but - "You're letting me borrow your Materia too?" he blurted, lowering the massive sword.
Cloud had his shoulder turned to him; he shrugged carelessly. "I wouldn't hunt one of those things down without any Materia on me." Sephiroth only stared, and Cloud huffed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Quit looking at me like that. I haven't forgiven you but I'm not an asshole."
"I - no." Sephiroth shook his head. "I'm sorry. Thank you."
Cloud completely failed to acknowledge Sephiroth's words, which Sephiroth was fairly sure counted as acceptance. Gleipnir warbled low in his throat as Cloud shut his motorcycle's side panel and locked the big beast up. Nearby, Tyr loitered in his tack, crest flicking in interest when Cloud came toward him.
"We'd best get going too," Sephiroth murmured as Cloud clicked to his gold.
"Wark," Gleipnir agreed.
The Fort Condor reactor tower still stood tall over an expanse of wilderness, just as it had since Sephiroth could remember, but as he neared he could see one major difference: the great bird that had claimed the reactor as its perch was gone, and in its place a shelter of some kind had been built. A shrine? An extension?
Gleipnir stretched out his neck and peeped once, loudly - and was answered, a high chicklike cry echoing over the wild, scrubby Condor cliffs. Sephiroth reined Gleipnir in, staring as hard as he could at the tower. Had that cry come from there? Just what were the people of Fort Condor sheltering?
A shadow passed overhead, and in its wake silence fell like a heavy drape. Sephiroth stiffened. "Gleipnir," he whispered, dismounting. "Stay." Gleipnir shifted on his claws, crest lifting in the uncertain beginning of a threat display - he didn't like his rider's behavior, or this 'being left behind - again' business, clearly, but there was no question of riding him into battle. Gleipnir was a riding bird, not a trained warbird. Sephiroth put a hand to his beak, asserting his dominance. "Stay," he said again, and Gleipnir reluctantly slicked his crest back down. "I'll be back soon."
Gleipnir shifted again as Sephiroth turned away, but he stayed. Good bird.
Cloud's Hardedge was heavy against Sephiroth's back, throwing his balance off, making his movements more cautious. He kept his attention skyward, his mind ready to cast, even as he searched for evidence of his quarry. The reports Cloud had passed to him didn't give him much of a clue as to where to start looking, but a monster of the size Sephiroth was expecting couldn't help but leave signs. Claw marks - the remains of prey - a nest. A cliff-face nest, Sephiroth was sure. If he could find it, the rest would be simple. He kept moving.
He had hunted often, in Shinra's service. But he had never hunted alone like this - there had always been a troop squad assigned with him, or another SOLDIER. Zack - I wish I could see you.
Far away, Gleipnir called out a warning. A shadow drifted lazily overhead - circled - and came around again, and Sephiroth's breath caught. He lifted the Hardedge up and over his head.
The dragon rider's breath spilled over the thick metal, heating it, nearly blinding Sephiroth with the sting of hot prismatic plasma. Finally! he exulted, tracking the dragon as it swooped up and away. It wheeled, its rider using the scythe it held as a rudder to keep it on course, and came at him again. This time Sephiroth had a little more time to prepare. He wrapped himself in a protective layer of magic and set his feet against the earth, raising the Hardedge against the next attack. He'd say this for the giant brick of a sword: it worked equally well as a shield.
Metal rang against metal, the rider's scythe striking Sephiroth's weapon. Sephiroth turned as the dragon circled, testing his defenses again and again. Back one step, two... Sephiroth felt the cliff face at his back and drew in a breath as the scythe descended.
Hardedge sang a low, hoarse note as it swept the monster's weapon, pinning it point-down against the cliff, and Sephiroth seized hold of the shaft. The rider bucked against the sudden weight, struggling to keep its seat, but it wouldn't - couldn't - let go of its weapon. Sephiroth gritted his teeth and hauled, and the dragon rider's costume tore free of the hooks keeping it pinned to its mount's tack. The dragon escaped skyward; the rider fell, wrenching its scythe out of Hardedge's control on the way.
Riders could fight just as well on the ground as in the air, though they would never let their feet touch ground if they could help it. This one was clearly unhappy to find itself grounded: it moved as though disgusted by the dust, almost mincing as it shifted its grip on the long shaft of its scythe for ground fighting. The point swung before it, low to the ground, difficult to counter. Seeing the stance it took, Sephiroth could almost believe the monster was human.
The rider lunged. Sephiroth swung Hardedge before him, and metal rang against metal with such force that Sephiroth's very bones shook.
The hunt had become a duel. Sephiroth never would have let that much control of the encounter slip away before Jenova had sunk her teeth into him, but there was no space to berate himself. He counterattacked, surging forward into the rider's next swing, getting inside his enemy's guard. Hardedge rang with the impact of the rider's frantic attack, then it was swinging around to answer with an attack of its own, all of Sephiroth's power behind the swing. It hit the rider's head with a horrifying crack of metal and bone.
Sephiroth was off balance. He stumbled, planting Hardedge into the ground to keep from falling, as the rider went slack. The scythe slipped from its hand as it fell, slow and gentle. As it hit the ground, its broken helmet fell away in pieces.
Sephiroth's limbs, already shaking, turned to water - the face under the mask was misshapen with mutation and with the damage Hardedge had dealt it, but it was unmistakably his own.
Jenova, screamed his frantic, unmanageable thoughts. And, Cloud will be angry. And monster, I am a monster, no different from this thing I just killed-
Something slammed into his back, driving Hardedge into his gut and slashing through leather and skin alike. Blasted hells, he'd forgotten about the damn dragon.
Sephiroth sprawled and rolled, fighting to breathe. The dragon was wheeling around for another pass, murder in its eyes and the sharp curve of its armored beak. No time for a restorative spell - Sephiroth gritted his teeth and raised Hardedge before him, though his back screamed at him for it, and the dragon's claws wrapped around the metal instead of him. He'd expected the dragon to try to savage him on the ground, but instead the claws gripped tight and jerked Hardedge skyward, and Sephiroth with it.
There were many reasons Sephiroth could have given to not let go of that sword in that moment. Hardedge wasn't his to lose, for one. He didn't think of any of them then - just hung on with all his might.
The dragon didn't seem to notice at first. Leaving its rider behind, it climbed into the cold air, wings pulling powerfully against gravity. Sephiroth had one hand on the sword's hilt and one on the top of the blade, making him dangle awkwardly - and painfully - off the length of the sword. The wind whistled in his ears, whipped his braid about. He would have given an arm for any kind of attack Materia right then - with both hands occupied hanging on for dear life, he was helpless to strike at his enemy.
A familiar wark pierced the veil of panic. "Stay, Gleipnir!" Sephiroth shouted.
He had to survive this. He couldn't die in front of Gleipnir.
He let his hand slip off the hilt. A breathless moment when he was hanging on with only one hand, when any sudden change in direction could have dislodged him and sent him to his death, and then he had re-established his grip near the top of the blade and swung his legs up. His legs locked together around the base of the blade, and Sephiroth let out a breath of relief. Now he was getting somewhere. He shimmied up, blinking in the harsh cold wind, until he could reach out and seize the dragon's forelimb.
The dragon shrieked and banked, and Sephiroth almost laughed. Waited too long to drop me, did you? Hardedge swung away as the dragon let go of it to claw at Sephiroth, and Sephiroth used its weight clutched between his legs to further drag the beast off its course. Claws scraped over his head and shoulders, but the barrier magic Cloud had given him ensured the wounds were mere inconveniences, shallow ragged cuts in his skin. Sephiroth welcomed the pain, almost grinning with it - it sang through him with such sweet familiarity. He almost felt human.
Another two handholds and Sephiroth had ahold of the dragon's tack, out of reach of its flailing claws. Now he could retrieve Hardedge from between his knees and hold it properly - and wield it properly. The dragon finally turned its head to aim at him with its beaked, toothy mouth, though that took away the dragon's flight control and they started to circle around.
"Now," he harshed. "Let's end this."
The dragon shrilled. Sephiroth struck.
Brown stone and green scrub flashed by beneath them as Sephiroth crushed the dragon's striking head with repeated blows. The dragon's wings stiffened and its eyes rolled back. Blood streamed from its mouth, slashing across Sephiroth's face and hair scalding-hot. The dragon had ceased circling, its tail and wings straight and stiff: it was semiconscious, probably dying. Now he had a chance to force it down.
The ground below was still too far away. But there was still a chance... Sephiroth leaned away from the dragon's body, throwing his full weight and that of Hardedge into it. The dragon started to turn, the sky tilting dizzily until Fort Condor came into view. There. Sephiroth threw himself back against the dragon's side, wincing when his wounds protested. Now all he had to do was ride the dying dragon onto the top of the reactor. The wind howled past him, his throat burned, his eyes stung...
They were going to overshoot. Or worse, plow into that shed on top of the reactor. Sephiroth swung himself up as Fort Condor loomed closer, lifted Hardedge with an arm that screamed from his wounds and brought it down hard on the dragon's back.
The dragon convulsed soundlessly, its head snapping back. For a moment Sephiroth thought it would take flight again - but then they were dropping like a stone, the sky listing drunkenly in Sephiroth's vision. The reactor leaned into his sights, and Sephiroth, leaving nothing to chance, leaped for the roof.
Man and dragon landed together, a hopeless thudding tangle of flesh and bone and leather and metal, Hardedge more of a hindrance than a help until Sephiroth lost his grip on it at last. It went skidding across metal and stone and he prayed it wouldn't fall off the reactor entirely. That same metal and stone buffeted him as he tumbled to a stop.
For a moment he lay still, making sure he could still breathe. Everything hurt, but nothing said 'broken bone' to him, only bruises and cuts. The sky stopped spinning and came to rest overhead, endless blue taking on the dusky tone of evening. He was alive, and the hunt was over.
From across the platform, a door opened. Someone gasped, and the door slammed shut again.
I wonder what frightened them - the dragon or me.
The dragon's body lay on its side, still and crumpled, diminished in death. Sephiroth struggled to his feet -
he was going to be counting his bruises come morning! - and skirted around it carefully, looking for a telltale glint of metal. Nothing. Catching his breath, Sephiroth moved closer to the edge and peered over at the ground far below.
His vision wasn't as sharp at far distances as he remembered it being - though his memory was still as unreliable as his self-control - but he thought he saw a glint of hard metal near the base of the butte. He hissed a curse and withdrew. I'm sorry, Cloud.
He straightened, staggered against a wave of dizziness - that Cure would have been welcome right then, but he'd survive without it - and forced himself away from the edge. The dragon's corpse provided a shelter he could crouch behind, try to force his head back together. It was a post-battle crash, of the sort he hadn't experienced since he was a boy in Wutai. He was injured, he needed to report in, and all he could think of was I lost Cloud's sword.
He should find a way into the fort, ask to borrow a phone, but at that moment he'd have sooner faced down a dozen dragon riders than talk to a stranger. Sephiroth drew his knees up, closed his eyes, and focused on breathing. The crash would pass. The crash would pass.
Distress had given way to pained exhaustion by the time the sun started to sink, painting the sky pink and violet and gold. Sephiroth was in knots, physically and emotionally, when the door to the fort opened again.
A pause, during which Sephiroth held his breath tight. "...Sephiroth?"
"I'm here," Sephiroth called, and Cloud came around the dragon's corpse to survey him, squinting against the light. "I'm sorry," Sephiroth managed, "your sword went over the edge. I think I know where it is."
Cloud's eyes flickered over him, and Sephiroth was suddenly, painfully aware of what a mess he must look. He looked away, hiding his eyes from Cloud's. "What happened?" the younger man demanded.
Sephiroth's shoulders hunched. "I lost focus."
Cloud let out an irritated huff of breath, his boots scraping on the ground, and Sephiroth winced, all his mistakes scrolling through his head like a debrief in the aftermath of a bad mission. "Is the rider dead?" Cloud asked, and Sephiroth's throat slammed shut against a surge of bile as the rider's misshapen, familiar face flashed through his mind.
"Yes," he managed. "I'm not sure I can take you to where the corpse is, but it's dead."
"It's okay, I believe you. Come on, there's food downstairs."
Food. All right, Sephiroth thought he could manage facing strangers for food. He struggled to his feet, every movement a fresh agony until Cloud uncrossed his arms and extended his hands Sephiroth's way. Magic washed over him, the taste of mint left in its wake, and Sephiroth's wounds knit themselves up again. "Thank you," he said, and Cloud shuffled a moment before turning away and heading back toward the door. Sephiroth could do nothing but follow.
As they passed the makeshift shelter, Sephiroth heard something shuffle within, and a low, chicklike warble.