"Seph, is fighting monsters fun?"
Sephiroth paused mid-sweep to contemplate the question. Marlene was kneeling backwards on one of the pews, chin on her folded arms as she waited expectantly for his answer. "...why do you ask?" he said, laying his broom aside.
Marlene shrugged. "I dunno. You fight monsters and Cloud fights monsters and sometimes Tifa and Papa do too. So I just wondered."
Not contemplating her future career, then, which sent a strange flood of relief coursing through him. "I fight monsters because it's something I can do to contribute," he explained, taking up his broom again. Sand and dried leaf matter scattered before him with each whisk, whisk. "I'm good at it, and there's not much else I'm good at."
"That's not true," Marlene objected. "You're good at origami."
Sephiroth found himself smiling. "Thank you, Marlene." So far their attempts to come up with a moogle origami pattern hadn't produced anything but shapeless paper lumps, but he could still make chocobos like a champ. "But origami isn't as financially viable as monster hunting."
"It's dangerous, isn't it," Marlene murmured, and Sephiroth suddenly understood. Once again the broom was set aside, and Sephiroth left it behind to sit down beside Marlene. The small girl leaned against his side immediately. Sephiroth felt her sigh, and dared to rest his arm over her shoulders.
"It can be dangerous," he said, because he had no skill at lying and never had. "There may come a time when I or one of your guardians come back from a hunting trip injured. I promise I'll do my best to stay safe while I'm out there, but..." His hunt against the dragon rider flashed behind his eyes.
Marlene, picking up on even that small moment of tension, latched onto a fold of Sephiroth's shirt and clung there. "But what if you die?"
Oh, Marlene. Sephiroth closed his eyes against a faint prickle. "I won't die. I still have debts to pay."
...that was too much for a child. Sephiroth shook his head, tried to project the confidence and strength he'd had as the General, as much as he distrusted and pitied that blind, stupid fool in his past. "I have trained all my life to fight," he told her. "Only Cloud has ever bested me more than once. 'Second strongest person in the world' is nothing to take lightly, you know." Oh thank Odin, there was a smile flitting across Marlene's face. "I may be injured from time to time, but magic will heal me. And I will not die. Not when I know you and Denzel are waiting for me."
He wasn't sure he believed the words even as he spoke them, but... it didn't feel like a lie, either. Marlene hugged him tight and Sephiroth returned the hug, memorizing her warmth, the soft press of her fingertips and the scent of her shampoo.
"I found it!" Denzel, shouldering the church door open with his hands triumphantly clutching a battered box. "...oh."
"Denz!" Marlene reached out to him, making grabby-motions. "Hugs, then board games."
Marlene clearly had her priorities in order, if Denzel's blinding grin was any indication. He set the game down beside the door and ran to join them.
Days passed, Gleipnir returned to the ranch, and no word from Reeve about Scarlet. No word from his forensics team either, and Sephiroth found himself going on longer and longer jogs in the morning and afternoon to exhaust his jangling nerves. He could occupy himself on those jogs by marking the numbers and locations of new Masamune graffiti marks.
Neighborhood teenagers - some of whom were the artists of that graffiti, Sephiroth was sure - started to join him on his runs, appearing out of houses and alleys as he passed no matter how he changed up his route. ...Well, they tried. None of them could keep up with him, and he tried not to feel too smug about that. They were persistent, though, and he wasn't Cloud, able to talk them into giving up. All he could do was outrun them.
Cloud rolled his eyes when Sephiroth told him about it. "If it escalates," he promised, "let me know and I'll... something. Talk to their parents, I guess."
"Thank you." Sephiroth hesitated. "Do you know anything more about..."
"...nothing. Sorry." Cloud shook his head. "I'll keep you updated."
I'll keep you updated. Like theirs was a working relationship. Sephiroth nodded with a new hopefulness and returned to the church.
It was hard to wait, but if Cloud was willing to include him, he would be flawlessly patient.
A cold nose nudged his cheek, a whine pierced his rest, and Sephiroth roused. "What," he started.
Zack shoved his entire face into Sephiroth's neck and shoved, and Sephiroth sat up. They were in the church, amidst Aeris's flowers - had he fallen asleep there? - and the sickle moon was visible through the hole in the roof, silvering everything with its light. Zack's fur was frosted in it, twinkling as he paced in and out of the moonbeams filtering from the roof - moonlight, shadow, moonlight.
Sephiroth didn't question it. Wolf or human, Zack's signal of urgency was undeniable, and Sephiroth was never going to ignore it again. He rose to his feet. Zack pressed against him, whining, all but shouldering him toward the door. "All right, Zack, I'm going," he whispered, reaching to pat the great furry head of his friend-
-he was alone, and he stood on the outside of the church, the doors swinging shut gently behind him, in his pajamas and socks and no boots. He had no thought of going back for them, or for a weapon. Far off, something was calling.
It was such a very simple mind that barely brushed Sephiroth's, just an emptiness more profound than hunger, an emptiness that human flesh would only fuel, never fill. It struck him like lightning, brighter than moonlight, darker than hell, and he broke into a run from a cold start, ignoring the pound of the hard concrete on his heels. Nothing mattered but the mission: find the source of that call, and kill it.
It must have been well past midnight. The moon hung low, skimming the tops of the buildings to his right; no passersby lined the streets, so there were no witnesses to his flight. The convenience store was open, its light briefly bathing him as he passed; no place else was. Though he knew the direction the call was coming from, the unfamiliar streets of Edge confounded him, had him doubling back and circling blocks at an increasingly desperate jog until finally he found himself in what passed for Edge's poorer district, well within the shadow of the wreckage of Old Midgar. Here, that call whispered. Here, here, here.
Catching his breath, wishing for a weapon, Sephiroth took stock. The junkers' hovels were squat and drab, crowded together with no real order to them, which made the aggressively cheery red-roofed cottage stick out all the more. As Sephiroth watched, the building shifted on its foundation, edging away from him and deeper into a gap between two dwellings. A hum emanated from it, low and grinding, nothing of the jaw and throat of an animal in the sound.
They'd been endemic under the Plate, ten years ago - too much to hope, it seemed, that they had been wiped out by Meteor. Perhaps this one had migrated here from elsewhere, but - Sephiroth shook his head. Tracking the monster's path could come later. First he had to kill the thing.
One of the junker huts nearby had a garden in front - a small and humble patch of land, but their squash vines were flourishing. Sephiroth stole a few rocks from the surrounding drainage bed and retreated a bit back the way he'd come. He palmed a rock, took a steadying breath. "Over here, beast!"
The rock bounced off the cottage's window - it wasn't really glass after all - but it succeeded in getting the monster's attention. The Hell House jerked, shifting on its foundations, and juddered its way around so its front door (another illusion) was facing Sephiroth. The humming increased in volume. "That's right," Sephiroth goaded. "Come away from there." He lobbed another rock. This one bounced off his quarry's door and porch.
The monster gathered itself, and Sephiroth caught the briefest glimpse of something small moving behind it before it lurched toward him. Deal with that later, he told himself, for right then it was time to duck.
The Hell House's first missile sailed over his head, exploding on the street behind him close enough to singe the loose strands of hair that had come undone from his braid. He leaped forward as the roof lifted for another shot, closing the distance in two long strides to shoulder-check the monster right in the front door. The roof rattled and slammed shut again, and the thing moaned like it'd bitten its tongue. Sephiroth curled his leg up for a kick for good measure, but the Hell House shook itself violently and threw him off again. Sephiroth hissed as he regained his balance. He could kill this thing, but progress would be painfully slow. And, he reminded himself as the roof creaked open again, there were the surrounding houses to worry about. If he wasn't careful where he stood, someone was going to get a missile through their window.
He stepped to his left, shouted and threw another rock. The Hell House adjusted its aim.
This time the missile landed too close - it would have been right at his feet if he hadn't jumped. Sephiroth charged through the heat-haze and dust, not slowing one bit until he slammed into the front door again. The rebound knocked him halfway down the porch steps, but Sephiroth recovered quicker than the Hell House did and this time managed to get two kicks in before the monster shook him off.
He hissed, mostly to himself; his shoulder complained of the bruising treatment as he moved. The Hell House turned again to locate him, rattling ominously - and beyond it, Sephiroth saw the door to one of the junker houses swinging slowly open. Lights were coming on in some of the others, and at the windows - human figures, peering out in fear and awe and curiosity.
Too much to hope they'd sleep through all this, Sephiroth realized. "Stay inside!" he roared, and the door jerked closed again. "I hope they all have your sense," he muttered to whoever was behind that door, and backed up in a hurry as the Hell House's roof jerked open again, the red sheen of a missile's head barely visible in the black.
The call pulsed through him, so strong and sudden that he swayed on his feet. // come // fill me // you are me /////
Sephiroth's head snapped up, a desperate denial fading on his lips. In front of another of the junker houses, a boy stood, and even in his distracted state Sephiroth recognized him as one of the boys who'd chased him into Starcup Coffee. "Catch!" the boy shrilled, his voice cracking at the end, and cocked his arm back to lob something long and slim at him. Sephiroth put out his hand on instinct and caught the whatever-it-was an instant before the missile hit.
He might have been seriously hurt if the Hell House could aim for beans, but as it was he was only knocked down by the missile's impact a foot to his left. Scrambling to his feet, he gripped the sheath of the weapon he now held and tore it free, revealing -
The balance was wrong, it was too light, and the blade actually wobbled as it was unsheathed, but it was undeniably a display replica of his old signature weapon. "Don't worry, it's legit!" his benefactor crowed as Sephiroth held it gingerly before him. "The steel's been folded over two hundred times!"
"...are you serious?"
There was no time to question where the young man had gotten his ideas on katana forging. The Hell House's attention had turned, lurching toward the source of the shrill shout, and the sword-throwing boy at least had the sense to scramble the hell inside. "Hey! I'm your opponent!" Sephiroth yelled, and as he leaped to attack he forgot the sword in his hands was a replica. The General lashed out at his quarry, his form flawless, sword flashing like a streak of lightning in his hands to strike once, twice-
On the third stroke, the replica broke, half its length spinning away into darkness. Sephiroth swore and chucked the remainder into the Hell House's maw. The roof slammed shut on a rattle that sounded more like a choke. "Enjoy it, you horror," Sephiroth told it, and kicked it in the doorjamb for good measure. Here he was, back at square one.
Sephiroth was obeying the command before he clocked where it came from: the window of the same house that the sword-throwing boy had retreated into. An old woman leveled a shotgun over the windowsill, squinted down the barrel, and fired two shots that shone with magic enhancement. Both of them hit the Hell House's broad side, leaving frosted-over gouges in the not-wood paneling. The Hell House reeled, groaning like a foundering ship.
"Hah!" the shooter crowed.
More gunshots rang out, peppering the Hell House's hide. None of them flashed with magic like the old woman's, but clearly the people who lived here weren't content to cower in their houses while a relic of the old order beat the monster for them. Well, good. Sephiroth grinned as the House shook, shuffling back and forth in a futile attempt to escape the hail of bullets.
And abruptly jumped, and Sephiroth had enough time to think oh, hells before it landed and the shockwave blasted him back.
He kept his feet, but only just. As he blinked the dust out of his eyes, the transformed Hell House loomed out of the haze, moving much more smoothly on four articulated legs than on its foundations. Haphazard arms, one of them ending in a curved blade rather than the robotlike hands of the other two, arched up in threat. The head was held low, face pointing toward the ground, but it pointed unerringly at Sephiroth. The Hell House had transformed, and was no longer blind.
Around him, the junkers' huts sported cracked windows, and here and there a bit of metal plating dangled unmoored. The neighborhood gun-wielders had disappeared - all but the old woman, dragging herself dizzily upright by one tattered curtain and by the arm of her grandson, the replica-thrower. Or so Sephiroth presumed. He let out a relieved breath, sucked in another one and charged.
Sephiroth had to jump to hit the thing, but that was no hardship. The bony head of the transformed Hell House rocked with every flying knee-strike, its arms flailing uselessly as they tried to get past the House's own bulk to attack him. Sephiroth grinned fiercely as bone cracked with every strike. This was his element - if nothing else, Shinra had succeeded in producing an effective killer of monsters. Another couple of blows, he calculated as the monster moaned and staggered. He wasn't even worried when the monster shook him off and gathered itself.
Hell Houses were poorly designed, as monsters went. But they were fearsome in their own right, and being out of range of their arms or missiles was still no guarantee of safety.
So Sephiroth's thoughts went, as he dashed under the shadow of the midair Hell House bare seconds before it came down, a massive fiery shockwave buffeting his hair and clothes. "Ma'am," he called, "your shotgun!"
"No more bullets, son!" protested the old woman at the window. "We're not Shinra Military!"
Damn. "Your Materia, then!"
The Hell House was turning, sensing its prey had escaped its suicide drop. Sephiroth edged closer to her, extended a hand as she threw something hard and cold at him as hard as she could. It hit his palm and sank in, and he turned to the monster wreathed in frost.
War magic. He'd forgotten what it felt like. Not even Gravity could compare.
The beast's legs bent, preparing for another leap or a charge; Sephiroth targeted them first, spears of ice lancing through the mingled metal and flesh. The Hell House stumbled, its foundations hitting the street with a deafening thud, and listed helplessly backward. Sephiroth lifted his hand, bitter-cold power gathering to him.
The monster's face, normally fixed to face the ground, lifted into view. In shape it had the seeming of a human skull made ridiculously outsized, and sunk deep in the sockets its eyes glowed green, cut by cat-slit pupils.
////you are me /// you // are / me /
The magic flew, ripping more from him than he meant to give; but even as Sephiroth reeled, the bolt struck true, ripping the Hell House apart from within with spikes of ice. Sephiroth fell to the ground, shielding his face unthinkingly as the monster collapsed in a rain of ice shards and woody detritus.
Someone cheered. Sephiroth jerked upright, long years of training and experience taking over - that sound meant attention, and attention meant you do not show weakness. He got to his feet, wincing - only now did he realize how much his feet hurt. Running out here without boots had been a terrible idea.
You owe me for this, Zack.
The junkers were emerging, some of them poking at the Hell House carcass, others making a beeline for him. Sephiroth avoided them entirely, trying not to limp - and trying not to stride like a General - until he paused at the mouth of the alley the Hell House had been so interested in in the first place.
"It's safe now," he said.
A pile of newspaper shifted. A redheaded boy - dirty, skinny, and as barefoot as Sephiroth himself - emerged, glaring at him as though all of this was his fault, and perhaps the boy wasn't wrong. "Couldn't'a got me," he argued.
Sephiroth chose not to respond to that - no sense terrifying the child further. "Where are your parents?" he asked, and got a deeper glare in return. "...I'm sorry." Skinny shoulders lifted in a shrug. The boy stood and picked his way toward Sephiroth, skirting piles of newspaper and bags of recycling, and only when he took Sephiroth's proffered hand did he realize with a jolt that he was gloveless among strangers.
...funny how that distressed him more than the boots, but there was no help for it. Sephiroth drew the boy forth, careful to keep himself between the child and the gathered crowd. He could hear them murmuring, exclaiming Sephiroth, it's Sephiroth! already, and whatever was to come next - audulation or condemnation - the squinting, tense boy clinging to his hand didn't need to be exposed to it.
When someone finally spoke with him directly, though, it was neither of the reactions he was expecting. "Son, I'll be wanting that Materia back now."
He turned. The old lady from the window was lingering expectantly at his shoulder, her grandson at her elbow. "Of course," he said once he dredged up the words, and cupped his hands together to draw the crystal forth from his flesh. For some reason watching Materia emerge out of skin made some people queasy. "Thank you for the lend," he added as he handed the little green orb over.
"Hn." The woman eyed her Materia critically before stowing it in a pocket of her dressing gown. Sephiroth's professional instincts winced a little at such a potent weapon rattling around unsecured, but most people couldn't equip Materia directly like he could, and dressing gowns didn't come with bracers. "Well, one less of those eyesores, I say," she declared. "Though a pause to equip wouldn't go amiss next time."
A pointed look downward, and Sephiroth followed her gaze - yes, his feet really did look as dreadful as they felt. "I'm not usually so unprepared," he confessed.
The woman grinned at that. "We all have those days, young man. Now go on home, get some rest. We'll handle the cleanup in the morning."
The old woman gave him a satisfied nod and a pat on the arm before turning her gaze to his little foundling. Sephiroth watch her gaze go from assessing to quietly determined. "Well, lad?" she said, her voice easing into a gentler tone. "Are you coming?"
"Whuh." The boy jerked - had he been drowsing standing up? Blue eyes blinked up at Sephiroth, bewildered, but Sephiroth thought beyond the wariness he glimpsed a plea for guidance.
Sephiroth rather knew how he felt, as his mind went not to Cloud for once but to Tifa. She'd know exactly what to say to this hungry little boy. The only wisdom he could draw on was... "A warrior does not shun help when it's offered. Your first duty is to survive."
...the wisdom of war. Unfit for children, unfit for civilians - but while Sephiroth was still wincing at himself, the child nodded, squeezed his hand, and then let go of it to allow the old woman to tuck him against her faded dressing gown. Again, the woman gave Sephiroth an approving nod before turning away. "Right, show's over, you lot!" she scolded to the small crowd of witnesses behind her. "Back to bed. That includes you, Trev my lad."
"Just a second," the boy - Trev, apparently - answered, lingering as the other junkers grumbled and laughed themselves back to their homes. "Hey, about my sword..."
Oh, Odin preserve me. "I'll pay you back what it was worth."
"It's fine, it's fine," Trev protested quickly, hands waving. "Just, was gonna say - uh - sorry." His voice dropped to a near mumble.
Sephiroth let out a slow breath. He'd known far too many young people like this. "It was a fine impulse," he admitted. "Just - for the record..."
"Steel isn't folded two hundred times. Katanas are forged with between eight and twenty foldings, depending on the type - any more than that and the steel receives no benefit." He regretted the words as soon as he said them - Trev looked ready to sink into his slippers, and Sephiroth felt like an obnoxious know-it-all in a lab coat.
"Teach me to trust pamphlets from Gold Saucer, I guess," Trev muttered. "The guys are gonna make so much fun of me for this."
"Sometime tonight, young man!" came a scolding call from across the street.
"Ugh," Trev rolled his eyes and turned, following his grandmother's order with all the grace and dignity of a wet chocobo. "G'night, sir!" he called over his shoulder. "Ditch Cloud and come hang out with us sometime!"
As the last of the doors closed, Sephiroth was left alone with the remainder of the Hell House. It was lying on its side, head drooping limply from its neck. It almost didn't seem real like this - a jumble of inorganic trash rather than a once-living being. Its eye sockets were dark. Had Sephiroth imagined the green, glowing eyes, or the not-voice that had seared his mind the instant before he'd killed it?
He closed his eyes. Green flashed before him, hungry and inhuman. No, he couldn't be that lucky.
Sephiroth limped away as fast as he could, leaving the husk of Hell House behind.
"So let me get this straight. You ran outside in no boots, with no weapons, to fight a Hell House in the rough part of town at four in the morning?"
Sephiroth thought that over. "...strategically unsound in the light of day, I admit."
Cloud stared at him, a silent, flat 'why are you like this?' written in his eyes. Slowly, his face descended into his palm, trailing a long, hissed breath. "Oh-kay," he pronounced. "Let's just - let's just get this over with."
He was ruthless with the disinfectant, but Sephiroth had anticipated this and endured the sting, sitting very still on an upturned bucket in Tifa's mud room while Cloud attended every cut and bruise. As Cloud wrapped the stinging cuts in gauze, he thought to ask, "Why were you even out there in the first place?"
Sephiroth had his eyes fixed on his hands as he answered. "Zack alerted me." Cloud's hands paused. "In a dream," Sephiroth clarified as his stomach started to knot. "He visits me sometimes. In the shape of-"
"...a gray wolf." Cloud's voice was near a whisper. "With violet eyes."
Sephiroth dared a glance up. Cloud had his head tilted down, his eyebrows pulling together and his jaw tense - what he was concentrating on had nothing to do with Sephiroth's foot, he was sure. "Should I - not have said?" Sephiroth ventured.
Cloud sighed again, though it wasn't the exasperated hiss of a moment ago. "...I kind of wondered," he admitted, continuing with the bandages. "I see him too. Sometimes even when I'm awake. I thought I was going crazy again for a while," he admitted with a brief, bleak grin that faded into thoughtfulness like the sun dipping behind a cloud bank. "But I think - I think he was helping me put my head back together. Filling in some of what I'd lost. He's stopped showing up so much now that I don't get those white-out migraines anymore."
Sephiroth didn't answer, but Cloud must have felt that ripple of tension in his muscles - any deeper connection than that was too terrifying to contemplate. "...you too," he said, not a question. "How long?"
"Since emerging from the Lifestream. They've grown less frequent, but I don't know if that means some damage is healing or I've just - been trained by the flashes to avoid thinking about certain things." Sephiroth shrugged gingerly.
Cloud was silent for a moment. Then his face paled. "Dammit, you've been hunting monsters with this going on," he blurted.
"They don't happen when I'm fighting," Sephiroth protested, but Cloud was already standing, his hands restlessly clutching at the short end of bandage he was left with. "Cloud?"
"Four in the morning. No weapon. No Materia. No shoes," Cloud muttered. "And you've been having flashback migraines."
"I've faced worse in Wutai," Sephiroth muttered, rather too like a rebellious lieutenant for his own liking.
"It's the kind of thing Zack would've done," Cloud shot back.
Their brains stuttered to a halt in perfect sync. Cloud turned red at the cheeks and ears as he processed what had just come out of his mouth. Sephiroth covered his eyes, some of the same heat touching his own face. "I suppose I should take that as a compliment," he muttered into his palm.
"Zack, if you're listening, I didn't say that," Cloud grumbled, and Sephiroth sputtered.
"If he's listening, you're only egging him on," he pointed out.
Cloud shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips as Sephiroth continued to chortle. "I can dream."
Zack lounged half on Sephiroth's stomach, tail wagging furiously. "Don't start," Sephiroth warned, and the wolf rolled over to beam at him upside-down, paws in the air, not at all fooled by the sternness in Sephiroth's tone.
...quite rightly, Sephiroth admitted to himself. "Yes, well. Next time at least let me get my boots on first," he scolded gently, and Zack's tail went agreeably thump-thump. You got it, boss.