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A Long Road To Destiny

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If not for the high probability that there were fiends in the water, Cloud might have been tempted to throw himself overboard and swim for it the moment land came into view. Actually he was tempted anyway, he just wasn't - quite - desperate enough to try it. He clung to the rail and willed the island to approach faster, trying not to throw up. Again. Not that there was anything left in his stomach to lose, but bringing up bile hurt.

"Who ever heard of an Al Bhed that gets seasick?" he heard a crew member comment to another behind him.

"I still say it's suspicious that he wants to go to Besaid," the other replied. "I can't believe the captain let him on the ship."

Cloud flushed and ignored them, as he had ignored all such comments since the moment he'd boarded. Since the day he'd left home, actually, but it got worse the closer he got to his goal. An Al Bhed travelling throughout Spira was hardly an unusual sight, but one bound for the home of the first aeon was rare indeed. He couldn't exactly lie about his destination to these sailors; this ferry didn't go anywhere except between Kilika and Besaid.

And there it was, rising up out of the ocean like a tropical jewel, covered in lush greenery with the occasional ruin poking up here and there out of the trees. The beaches that surrounded it were so white against the cerulean blue of the ocean they were almost blinding. Cloud had never seen anything so beautiful in his life, and not just because it meant he'd soon be back on solid ground again. In just a few minutes he would reach the end of more than a month of exhausting travel, the dream he'd been striving towards for nearly ten years now.

Of course, if he succeeded, he was going to have to turn around and go right back again, but this time he'd be making the journey as a summoner. Everyone who had ever laughed at him, ever picked on him for his damned Al Bhed eyes, ever told him there was no place in the world for someone neither properly Al Bhed nor Spiran - they would all have to eat their words. He'd show them he was more than just worthless trash.

"Docking complete, captain," the first mate reported. "We can start letting the passengers off, now."

Those were the magic words Cloud had been waiting for. He heard a couple of snickers as he bolted for the gangplank, but they were easier to ignore than usual. All he cared about was the beautiful, wonderful, blessedly solid land only a few feet away.

Standing on the shore was bliss. Reaching the cool shade of the trees overhanging the path to the village was even better. Raised on a mountainside that was half-frozen even in the warmest part of summer, Cloud could never have imagined any place could get so hot. Kilika had been bad enough, but Besaid was ridiculous.

When he crested a hill and the village came into view below him, he forgot all about the heat. There it was, rising up like a giant stone shepherd with a flock of tents and huts; the temple of Besaid, home of the first aeon. The start of every summoner's pilgrimage since Sin had first appeared. Here, if he could prove that he was right and the fayth would accept a half-Al Bhed summoner, Cloud would begin his own journey.

But first he had to convince the priests to let him into the temple.

He kept his eyes on his feet as he made his way into the village. There were some blond Spirans, and here in the islands they weren't as rare as further inland. He suspected there was more Al Bhed blood in the islander population than the prejudiced Spirans were willing to admit. Cloud was dressed like a Spiran, and he knew the only accent he had was that of the Calm Lands, where he'd been raised. If he could just keep anyone from seeing his blasted eyes, he might be able to fool them into thinking he was truly one of them.

Excited whispers sprang up all around as people took note of him, and at first Cloud thought his ploy had failed. He cringed, waiting for the first angry shout - which hopefully would come soon enough before the first angry fist that he'd be able to turn tail and run. But as he strained his ears, he realized that the word being repeated over and over was not 'Al Bhed', but 'summoner'.

Some of the tension drained from his shoulders. Of course. Here, at the start of the summoner's journey, the people must be used to seeing potential summoners come and go. Now that Sin and its spawn were rampaging once more, not many people were risking the dangerous ocean voyages. So any stranger to this tiny village would almost certainly be either a summoner candidate or a guardian.

As he approached the temple the door swung open, revealing a kindly-looking priest of Yevon. Cloud kept his eyes down as he made the obeisance, pretending to be even shier than he actually was. The priest returned the bow, and smiled at him. "Have you come for the Trial, my son?"

"Yes, maester," Cloud replied, ducking his head a little further. For once he was grateful that his hair had gotten too long during his journey, since his spiky bangs helped to hide his face.

"Where is your guardian?"

Cloud bit his lip, and chose his words carefully. "I've had to come a long way, maester. I didn't want to risk anyone else's life before I knew if I would even succeed. I'm sure once I've proved myself, I'll find a guardian." Maybe. If there was anyone out there crazy enough to agree to guard a half-Al Bhed. Cloud had a sneaking suspicion he would be the first summoner to complete the journey without a guardian, as well as the first one with Al Bhed blood.

"Ah." That seemed to satisfy the priest, at least. "Very selfless of you, my son. There are those who desire to be guardians but have no summoner; they often come here to wait for candidates who might need them. I believe there is one in residence this very moment. He arrived yesterday. But come. First you must face the Trial."

Relieved that it apparently wasn't completely bizarre to arrive with no guardian, Cloud followed the priest into the temple. His eyes widened, and he looked around with a sense of awe. There was a tiny little chapel dedicated to Yevon in Nibelheim, but this was the first time he'd ever been inside a proper temple. The one in Bevelle undoubtedly put this one to shame, but Besaid's temple was more than enough to impress a country boy like Cloud. Surrounding the central room like a ring of stone guardians were statues of every High Summoner who had come from Besaid. Arching above them were much larger statues of Lady Yunalesca and Sir Zaon, the first summoner and guardian. The statues were beautifully worked, every detail lovingly picked out and brought to life in the stone. The oldest statues looked a little worn, as if they'd been polished so often the stone was starting to wear away, but somehow that just made them appear even more perfect.

The priest turned to say something, and a shocked look crossed the old man's face. Too late Cloud realized he'd lifted his head to get a better view of the room, and revealed his eyes.

He spun and tried to bolt, but the priest was fast for his age. He managed to get a hand on Cloud's collar and jerked him half off his feet. "Heathen!" the priest thundered. "How dare you set foot in a temple of Yevon?"

Cloud twisted frantically, trying to slide out of his tunic. He only succeeded in tangling himself so his arms were bound, making it that much easier for the priest to hold him. Worse, the yelling was attracting the attention of the other priests, who were converging on them from other parts of the temple.

"An Al Bhed!" one of the acolytes exclaimed, skidding to a halt as he got a good look at Cloud. "What's he doing here?"

Boiling over with shame and fury, Cloud glared for all he was worth. "I'm not hurting anything by being here, damn it. I'm only half Al Bhed!"

They weren't listening. Two more acolytes grabbed at him, pinning him securely in place. The old man shook him roughly, like a dog with a cactuar. "You seek to defile our temple, is that it?" he demanded.

"No! I just want to take the Trial," Cloud spat.

There were gasps from the group of priests, and he saw at least one make the holy obeisance like a reflexive attempt to ward off his heresy. "Planning to sabotage the Trial, no doubt," one said grimly.

"Or desecrate the Chamber of the Fayth," the old priest agreed. "Throw him out, and be certain he doesn't get back in."

Cloud growled, but didn't bother to defend himself further. The fucking Spirans were all alike; they took one look at his damned eyes and assumed he had to be up to no good.

The junior priests and acolytes were not gentle as they 'escorted' him to the door. More than one took the chance to punch, kick, or otherwise hurt him, taunting him all the while. He refused to give them the satisfaction of responding in any way. That was a lesson he'd learned the hard way, from the bullies at home in Nibelheim. But when they literally threw him out the door he landed awkwardly against the stairs, and Cloud couldn't quite stifle a cry as he felt something in his arm snap.

He lay stunned for a long moment, gasping for air as pain and the heat pressed down on him. He felt like he was being smothered, as if there wasn't enough room in his body for air and his despair at the same time. All around him he could hear shocked whispers turning to angry mutters as the priests informed the villagers of their version of events.

Cloud wanted very badly to cry. Not only had he failed to become a summoner, not only was he now too broke and injured to even be able to crawl home again, but if he was very lucky he was about to have a mob of angry Spirans out for his blood. Well, at least that would solve the problem of what to do next, since they'd likely rip him to pieces for 'defiling the temple'.

The same pride that kept his burning eyes from spilling over also forced him to his feet. By the fayth, he would at least face the bastards like a man, not the coward they liked to call him. Swaying with pain and exhaustion, he spat at the temple. "Bnazitelat yccrumac!" he shouted hoarsely, lapsing into Al Bhed as he sometimes did when he was too angry to think in Spiran. "Cuhc uv y ceh clyma yht y lyldiyn!"

"Okay, I got the gist of most of that," an amused tenor said from behind him. "But what's banizlat mean?"

"Bnazitelat," a deeper voice corrected him. "It means 'prejudiced'."

Surprised to hear someone speaking his language with no discernable accent, Cloud turned. To his further surprise both men before him were obviously Spiran. One, dark-haired and broad-shouldered, looked oddly familiar, though Cloud was certain they'd never met. The other, taller and more solemn than his companion, had a face much too young for the pure silver colour of his long hair.

A guardian and summoner, or Cloud would eat his sword. He was probably about to eat their swords. Grimly he braced himself and glared, daring them to do their worst. Let them strike the first blow. The rest of the village would follow soon enough.

The dark one winced and gestured at his arm. "Ouch. That looks painful. Hey, Seph, you gonna do something about that, or make me waste a hi-potion?"

A cool green glow settled over Cloud's body, and the pain in his arm vanished. Startled, he stared at the taller man, who was murmuring the last words to a cura spell under his breath. Gingerly Cloud flexed his hand, then bent his arm, testing it. There was no pain, not so much as a twinge. When he reached up to wipe the blood from his mouth he found the cuts and swelling there had vanished as well, along with the bruising that had been threatening to force his eye shut.

All that with a cura? Most of the healers Cloud had ever met would have needed to cast curaga to heal that much with a single spell. Cloud was awed.

"Better?" the brunet asked. "What was that all about, anyway? The priests here seemed nice enough when I talked to them yesterday. They sure as fayth didn't break anything throwing me out!"

"You're not Al Bhed, Zack," the tall man pointed out with a sigh that said he was used to having to state the obvious for his companion.

"Well, no. But still... hey, can you even understand us?" The man, Zack, was looking at him in concern. Cloud hadn't found his tongue yet, too shocked by the rescue from an entirely unexpected quarter. "Uh, crap, I don't think he speaks Spiran. The only Al Bhed I know is rude. Seph?"

"Lyh oui ihtancdyht ic?" Seph asked. As before, his accent was flawless.

Finally Cloud managed to remember how to talk. "I'm an Al Bhed who was just thrown out of a temple of Yevon. Most Spirans would have left me to rot, at best. What does a summoner and his guardian care about me?"

Zack blinked, and grinned. "Oh. I guess you do speak Spiran. Well, good. That makes this a lot easier."

"I am not a summoner," Seph demurred. "But that is beside the point. Why were you trying to enter the temple?"

Cloud's crushing defeat got the best of him, and he spoke without thinking. "To sabotage it, obviously. To defile it with my evil and unholy presence. Because I certainly can't think of ten better ways to accomplish that than just walking in and..."

Black spots ate at his vision, and Cloud lost track of what he was saying. Cure spells were useful, but they still required some energy from the one affected, and this one had pushed him past already strained limits. Distantly he was aware of a concerned voice, but his knees had gone weak and it took everything he had just to stay on his feet. Strong hands braced him by the shoulders, nudging him to sit. Cloud obeyed gratefully, ending up with his head between his knees as he fought just to breathe.

When his vision cleared he found both of the strangers crouched next to him. "Take it easy, kid," Zack said gently. "We're not the bad guys, okay?"

"When was the last time you ate?" Seph asked, frowning.

"In Luca," Cloud mumbled, ducking his head in embarrassment. When Zack made a shocked noise, Cloud gave a half-shrug that ended with his shoulders hunched. "I get seasick. I couldn't keep anything down."

"A seasick Al Bhed? Wow, that's a new one." Zack looked bemused. "Tell you what. How about I buy lunch, and you can tell us your story when you're not all cranky and fainting from hunger? Never saw a situation that didn't look better when you're sitting on the outside of a good meal."

Cloud would have liked to protest that he didn't want charity. However much he might not want it, unfortunately, he did need it. The last of his gil had bought him passage on the ship to Besaid, and he was too weak to fight fiends to earn more. Assuming he wouldn't pass out in the middle of a battle, like he had just now. At least it seemed as if these two Spirans genuinely wanted to help him, for whatever bizarre reason.

"Fine. But I don't owe you anything," he said, wanting to make that clear. The fayth alone knew what these two wanted from him. They had to want something. Nobody was nice to an Al Bhed just for the hell of it. He'd learned that lesson all too well in his life.

"Paranoid little bastard, isn't he?" Zack remarked to Seph, clearly amused. "No, you don't owe us anything. C'mon, let's get some food into you."

There weren't exactly a lot of options for buying food; Besaid was such a tiny village that the only reason there were services for travellers at all was because of the temple. Zack managed to cajole a young mother into selling him some fried balls of fish paste and coconut. Every time she cast a suspicious look at Cloud, Zack would smile and distract her by flirting, making her blush. Something about his smile made Cloud certain he recognized the man, but he couldn't figure out how for the life of him.

Zack had been right about one thing, at least; with more than his fair share of the fish balls in his stomach, Cloud found he suddenly had a much brighter outlook on life. The mob had been deflected, he wasn't injured, and for the first time in days he wasn't either starving, or sick, or both.

"So?" Zack asked, watching with that amused smile still on his face as Cloud polished off the last of the food. "What's your name, kid? You gonna tell us your story, or do we have to start making guesses? Because I'm warning you, I've got a hell of an imagination."

"And an amazing ability to embarrass people in the most spectacular way with your conjectures," Seph commented drily. "I suggest you not put him to the test," he added to Cloud.

His mouth twitching with a desire to smile despite himself, Cloud ducked his head. "My name is Cloud. I came here to take the Trial," he admitted, braced for the cry of outrage that would surely follow.

It never came. "Huh," Zack said, sounding intrigued. "I didn't think there were any Al Bhed who followed Yevon."

"He's part Spiran," Seph said.

"How can you tell?" Both Cloud and Zack stared at him in surprise. Then they blinked at each other, startled by their perfect unison. Cloud shook his head. He knew he looked like a full-blood Al Bhed. Hadn't people been calling him a bastard and his mother a whore his whole life, for just that reason? She swore she had never been with anyone but his father, but Cloud was probably the only person in the entire village who actually believed her.

Seph raised an eyebrow at them. "He has blue eyes," he pointed out. "Pureblood Al Bhed always have green eyes. It's subtle, but unmistakeable if you know what to look for. Was one of your grandparents Spiran?"

"Two of them, actually," Cloud said, unable to keep a touch of bitterness out of his voice. "My father was Spiran. So my mother claims, but..." He looked up at Seph shyly. "You're the first person who's ever been able to tell." Maybe his faith in his mother wasn't so misplaced after all. He tried to remember the Al Bhed he'd met on his journey here, but he couldn't recall noticing their eye colour. He'd seen blond hair and the distinctive swirled pupils, and hadn't needed to look any further. He flushed, realizing he'd behaved exactly like one of the Spirans he hated so much for judging him by his eyes. "Do they really all have green eyes?"

"Wouldn't you know?" Zack asked him curiously.

Cloud shrugged. "Until a month ago the only other Al Bhed I'd ever seen was my mother. She has green eyes, but how was I supposed to know it wasn't just her?"

"So you were raised Spiran," Zack exclaimed in the tone of one who has just had a revelation. "That explains the clothes and the lack of accent. And the seasickness, I guess." He smiled, taking the bite out of his teasing words. "And that's why you follow Yevon. Makes sense. Must be hard on you, though."

"Don't get me wrong," Cloud corrected him, eyes narrowed. "I grew up in a Spiran village, but my mother raised me to be smart enough not to believe anything on blind faith. I don't follow Yevon and I do think you're all nuts for sitting around, hoping to someday be 'good enough' that Sin won't return. But I'm Spiran enough that I respect the Summoner's Choice, and I think if one person is willing to sacrifice themselves to buy everyone else a little time to breathe, they should be honoured."

"You don't believe in Yevon, but you want to be a summoner?" Zack stared at him. "You realize that's a total contradiction, don't you?"

Cloud sighed. "I thought... maybe if a half Al Bhed became a summoner, it would make both groups stop arguing over religious differences and start working together to find a real solution. Instead of just doing the same things over and over again, creating more and more hostilities between the races."

"A noble sentiment. Unfortunately for you, Al Bhed are indeed forbidden from setting foot in any of Yevon's temples." Seph frowned. "However, any Spiran who wishes to attempt the Trials may do so. As a half Spiran, you should fall into that category."

"He oughta know," Zack told Cloud. "I think he's got every temple rule and precept memorized."

Curious, Cloud studied the tall man. He wasn't dressed as a priest, and claimed not to be a summoner. Yet he knew so much about Yevon, and there was a sort of... otherworldly aura to him, as if there was a part of his attention fixed on a world nobody else could see. Cloud knew that look; he saw it in his own eyes sometimes when he caught an unexpected glimpse of his reflection in a pond or window. And it had been on the face of every High Summoner's statue in the temple.

"I think perhaps I'll just go have a chat with the priests," Seph said as he rose, a determined glint in his eyes. "Remind them of some of the tenets of their own faith. I believe you two have private matters to discuss."

"Huh? We do?" Confused, Cloud watched him walk away.

"I think I know what he means," Zack said. "I'm gonna take a wild guess that you don't have a guardian yet?"

Cloud snorted. "Are you kidding me? Who in their right mind would guard an Al Bhed summoner?"

"Well, me for one, though I'll admit people have accused me of not being in my right mind before this," Zack informed him cheerfully. "Lucky for you, I happen to be a guardian in need of a summoner. Works out nicely, I think."

"You... what?" Cloud stared at him, certain he'd misunderstood. "You're offering to be my guardian? You don't even know me!"

"I wouldn't know any other summoner I happen to meet here, either," Zack pointed out. "I like your attitude. You've got guts, and heart. And I know you're doing this for a good reason, which is more than I can say for the glory hounds."

Cloud flushed. He might say he had lofty and noble reasons for sacrificing himself as a summoner - and he did, on some level. But the true reason he was doing this was to prove that everyone who had ever called him a loser was wrong. Including himself.

"Do you realize what you're letting yourself in for?" he asked. "These priests won't be the last to call me a heretic and throw me out. Spirans and Al Bhed will be trying to stop me, maybe even hurt me, for stepping all over their beliefs. They'll call you a traitor."

"You're facing all that and worse. If you can handle it, so can I," Zack insisted. "So what do you say?"

Cloud was totally at a loss. This ran completely counter to everything he'd ever learned about people. Zack seemed sincere. If he had an ulterior motive or hidden agenda, he was the best damned liar Cloud had ever met.

"I'd be crazy to say no," he finally replied, shaking his head. "But I won't hold it against you when you come to your senses later."

"Not gonna happen. I don't have any senses to come to, at least if you believe Seph and my mentor." Zack stood and clapped him on the shoulder. "Now, c'mon, Seph's probably got those priests nicely cowed by now."

They found Seph on his way back to them, looking very pleased with himself. He raised an eyebrow when he saw them walking together. "You've come to an agreement, then? Excellent. I believe you'll find the priests have had a change of heart. They're in a much more tolerant and welcoming mood, now." He inclined his head to Cloud in a respectful nod. "Luck has little to do with the success of a summoner, so I will simply wish the blessings of the fayth upon you, Lord Cloud."

Cloud sputtered and blushed. "I'm not a summoner yet," he protested. "I haven't earned that title." He didn't think he'd ever get used to hearing people call him that. Assuming anybody other than these two crazy Spirans bothered.

"I have faith in you," Seph said with a small smile. "Take care of him, Zack."

"Yes, sir!" Zack gave him a Crusader's salute, though the solemnity of the gesture was somewhat ruined by his huge grin. Seph waved them off, and headed for the path to the beach.

"Who is he?" Cloud asked Zack under his breath as they walked to the temple.

"Seph? He's, well... Seph." Zack shrugged helplessly. "He doesn't like to talk about his past, much. I spent a year in the Crusaders, and my commanding officer was an old friend of his. Angeal introduced us when he took me under his wing, and then Seph and I just sort of stuck together after I left." Zack sighed and looked rueful. "I convinced him to come with me to keep me company while I waited to find a summoner because I was kinda hoping to talk him into coming along. He needs something to make him feel useful, like his life is worthwhile. Obviously Yevon had other plans, though. Or he wouldn't have dumped you so blatantly into my path. Might as well have had a glowing sign over your head."

Cloud wasn't sure he much liked the idea of Yevon messing with his life, even if it had won him a guardian and entry to the temple. But he decided it wasn't worth arguing the point. The last thing he wanted to do was alienate Zack now by starting a religious argument.

He couldn't stop himself from tensing up as they walked into the temple. Zack hitched his sword harness a little higher, making it easier for him to get at the hilt of the huge broadsword slung across his back. It was a subtle gesture, nothing the priests could object to, but Zack might as well have shouted that he would back Cloud against the priests.

Despite himself Cloud was touched by the obvious and unquestioning support. He still had to wonder about Zack's sanity, but he no longer doubted the man's sincerity.

The acolytes glaring at them from the wings noticed, too. They hesitated, then turned their backs, deliberately ignoring Cloud and his new guardian. That was more than fine with Cloud, who was just as happy not to have to deal with them again. There was no sign of the old priest, either.

"I hope you know the way to the Trial, because I don't have a clue and I don't think they're going to show us," Cloud whispered.

Zack glanced around, then pointed at an open staircase ending at a closed door. "Up there, if this is the same layout as Kilika temple. You first, Lord Cloud."

"Don't you start," Cloud grumbled. Zack only laughed at him in response.

Nobody stopped them as they headed up the stairs, but past the first door they found only an empty room with four solid walls. Cloud halted, looking around in confusion. "Is this the wrong place?"

"I think maybe it's the start of the Trial," Zack said. "Let's just poke around a bit."

It took them some trial and error to work their way through the ensuing maze of spheres and invisible hallways. Cloud was awed all over again by the blatant and prolific use of magic. Seeing people cast the occasional esuna or fira spell was one thing. This was something else again.

As they rode the large platform down into the depths of the temple, the quality of the air around them changed. It felt almost electric, so pure it hurt to breathe, like standing at the top of the world's tallest mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm. A high, sweet voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once sang the Hymn of the Fayth. It was the most beautiful thing Cloud had ever heard, and he closed his eyes so he could absorb himself in it.

"...oud? Cloud? Hey, Cloud! Wake up!"

Someone shook him by the shoulder, snapping him out of the hypnotic effect of the music. Dazed, Cloud flailed, and nearly struck Zack by accident. When he realized it was his new guardian holding him and not an enemy or a bully, he calmed slightly, but he was very confused to find himself sitting on the floor in the middle of the elevator. Hadn't he been standing a moment ago?

"Hey, you okay?" Zack asked him, concerned. "You zoned out on me, there. Thought I'd lost you for a second. What was that all about?"

"Sorry, I just..." Shaken, Cloud rubbed a hand across his eyes. "It's the Hymn. It's so beautiful, I guess I... got lost in it." That had only happened to him once before, when he'd been a young boy. That it would happen now seemed to confirm his suspicions about the nature of the fayth. He was certain they would never hurt him, but it was still disturbing.

"Hymn?" Zack looked baffled. "What Hymn?"

"What Hymn?" Cloud stared at him. It wasn't as loud as it had been a moment before, but it was definitely still there, the soprano voice soaring like a bird in the sky. "The one someone is singing right now."

"I don't hear anything," Zack informed him uneasily. "It's dead silent down here. We must be way underground."

"But... but..." Cloud didn't know what to say. The song was so clear to him that it felt like the singer must be right behind him, just out of sight. How could Zack not hear it?

"Maybe it's a summoner thing," Zack suggested, offering him a hand up. "I don't have the aptitude for it, that's why I'm a guardian instead of a summoner myself. Can't be good at everything, I guess." He grinned. "Besides, I'd rather be around to enjoy being a hero once the journey is done, I'll admit it."

"Maybe," Cloud agreed, subdued. He looked around, and found they were in a large room with walls of carved stone. The elevator behind them and a broad staircase ahead were the only obvious exits. He decided he might as well try the visible one before searching for more hidden passages.

He was halfway up the stairs when he realized Zack wasn't following him. "Aren't you coming?" he asked, turning to look back over his shoulder in concern. Zack hadn't already changed his mind about being his guardian, had he? Had Cloud's little space out moment upset him that much?

Zack shook his head, but he didn't look like he was having second thoughts. "That's the Chamber of the Fayth up there," he said. "Nobody but the summoner is allowed inside. I have to wait out here. You're on your own, kid. Good luck."

On his own? Cloud panicked. What if there were more stupid puzzles inside? He'd needed Zack's help to get through the first set of Trials. What if there were traps, or fiends? What good was a guardian supposed to be if he was waiting around outside?

Reason reasserted itself. Gritting his teeth, Cloud turned and marched up the stairs, not allowing himself to look back. An hour ago he'd thought he would have to do all of this by himself, with no guardian at all. To whine now that it wasn't fair to deprive him of his guardian was ridiculous. He could do this.

He would do this.

He'd half expected to find the door locked by another puzzle, but it opened easily at his touch. When he stepped inside it snapped closed behind him again, abruptly enough to make him jump. Gingerly he tested it and wasn't really surprised to find that now it was locked.

"Great," he muttered, speaking aloud to keep himself company. "Just great. I guess that was my last chance to change my mind." Not that he planned to, but it was always nice to have the option of escape. Being cornered like this made him nervous.

His eyes were slowly adjusting to the muted light, and he surveyed the room. What illumination there was came from the eerie glow of the complicated glyph inscribed in the centre of the floor. Beneath it he thought he could see something, like a statue of some kind. There were no other exits, no sign of spheres or other glyphs to activate.

Approaching the glyph, he bowed and held his hands before him in the traditional prayer. Then his mind blanked. What was he supposed to do now? Was there some ritual or spell he was supposed to perform? Most apprentice summoners trained for years in a temple before attempting this, but that hadn't exactly been an option in his case.

Reminding himself of a promise he still had to keep, Cloud took a deep breath and drew strength from the Hymn. "I know I'm not a normal summoner," he said awkwardly. "I don't know all the rituals and frills, or how to be properly pious, or whatever. But I need your help. Uh, please." Not sure what else to do, he made the obeisance again.

"So. You've made it this far."

The voice matched the soprano still singing the Hymn, and when Cloud looked up he found a young girl standing on the glyph, watching him. She wasn't transparent or floating or any of the other traditional ghostly qualities, but the edges of her form were indistinct as if he was looking at her through water or flawed glass. There was also a sort of glow around her, like pyreflies so thick he couldn't see any one individual.

Cloud had seen something like this once, long ago. He stared at her, feeling both awed and vindicated. "It is you," he breathed out. "I'm not crazy." Nobody had ever believed his wild story of the fayth who'd saved his life on the frozen slopes of Mt. Gagazet. He'd soon stopped telling anyone, wary of being labelled insane. But he'd never forgotten the events of that day.

"You've made it this far," she repeated, tilting her head and studying him solemnly. "But can you go the distance? Can you do what needs to be done? It won't be easy."

"I know. The Spirans and the Al Bhed are both going to hate me." Cloud clenched his fists. "I'll do whatever it takes."

"Then take my power if you can, if you dare, child of two worlds. Prove that you have earned the right to be a summoner. Show me that you have the strength of will we need from you."

She reached out towards him, her expression challenging. Cloud felt a deep sense of foreboding, but he stepped forward to take her hands. His only other choice was to run away, and that was no choice at all.

Power slammed into him the moment his skin touched hers. It felt like he was frying inside his own skin, and he couldn't stop himself from screaming in agony. She gripped his hands tight to keep him from pulling away, and poured her essence into him until he was sure he would burst.

He screamed until his throat was raw, and then he screamed some more. Tears streamed down his face, but he was hardly aware of them through the haze of agony consuming him.

The Spirans had been right after all; the fayth would not accept an Al Bhed summoner. Cloud didn't know why this one had suddenly rejected him, but he was going to die here, alone and unmourned, and he had only himself to blame.

Chapter Text

Cloud wasn't sure when the fayth released him. At some point he was vaguely aware that he'd fallen to his knees and was hunched in on himself, arms wrapped around him as if to help keep him from exploding. The raw energy pouring through his system was too much for him to handle, too much for anyone to handle. It was like he'd swallowed the whole universe, and now it was trying to expand inside him.

He struggled to hang on to himself, clinging with metaphorical teeth and nails to life. He forgot about his desire to bring the Al Bhed and Spirans together, forgot about his need to prove that he wasn't useless. There was no room in his brain for thought, only a primitive will to survive driving him to fight through the pain.

Slowly, so slowly he'd have screamed in frustration if he hadn't already been screaming in agony, the searing pulse of power began to subside. After some indefinable amount of time, Cloud was able to stop screaming long enough to gasp for breath. Seconds or centuries later awareness of the world outside his skin returned as the pain eased. The air in the Chamber felt blessedly cool against his over-sensitive body.

Cloud forced his eyes open, panting for air and trying to stop the shaking in his body. The fayth had vanished, the Hymn continuing as if nothing had happened, but it had left an invisible mark on Cloud. Deep inside him he could feel something resonating to the Hymn, something very large and very powerful.

He had no idea what had just happened. Surely not all summoners went through this! He'd nearly died, and he still wasn't sure if he'd passed or failed the test. Or if it had been a test at all, and not just the fayth trying to kill him for his presumption.

He tried to get to his feet, and nearly cracked his head open on the floor when his knees gave out on him instead. If he'd thought he was physically exhausted and emotionally drained before he'd entered the temple, it was nothing compared to how he felt right now. He desperately hoped Zack hadn't gone wandering off, because he didn't think he'd make it very far on his own. How long had it been?

After a moment to rest and gather his wits, he managed to half crawl, half drag himself over to the nearest wall. With that for support he somehow made it to his feet, and lurched over to the door. He touched it, and nothing happened. Trembling, he pushed at it with all the strength he had left, and still nothing happened. It remained locked, and there was no other way out.

"You couldn't kill me, so you're going to keep me here until I starve to death?" he cried out, pounding weakly at the door. "Why did you send me here if it was just to die?"

He swayed as power rose abruptly within him. Ghostly feathers brushed against the inside of his skin, making him shiver. A momentary harmony joined the melody of the Hymn, and the whole chamber resonated with it. The door slid open smoothly, as if it had never resisted him at all. Trying not to cry with relief, Cloud staggered out into the larger chamber beyond.

Zack was still there, practicing headshots against the wall with a blitzball that he'd produced from somewhere. He missed the next shot when he caught side of Cloud, his eyes going comically wide. "Cloud! Are you okay? What happened, did it not work?"

Cloud opened his mouth, but nothing emerged past his abused throat but a croak. He shook his head, and that proved to be a mistake. The world spun with the motion, and kept spinning even after he made himself stay still.

Strong arms caught and supported him, lowering him gently until he could sit on the stairs. For the second time that day Cloud realized he could hear Zack talking to him as if from a great distance, sounding concerned. "...kay? Cloud? Hey, answer me! Damn it, what the hell happened in there?"

"I don't know," Cloud croaked, then coughed weakly. Zack grabbed a canteen and unscrewed the cap, holding it to Cloud's lips. Gratefully Cloud gulped down the contents, the cool water helping to ease some of the rawness in his throat from the screaming. "How long was I in there?"

"Eight minutes and thirty-five seconds ," Zack replied, shocking him. "I didn't expect to see you for hours yet. Seph warned me some summoners stay in the chamber for a day or more. Did it refuse you after all?"

"I'm not sure," Cloud said slowly. He pressed a shaking hand against his chest, where it still felt like there was something more inside him than there had been before. "I can't tell if it was testing me, or just mocking me and trying to kill me." He coughed again, and groaned. "Either way, it's over."

Zack brushed his bangs back off his sweaty brow, looking worried. "I think we'd better get you back upstairs. I should've brought a potion or something with me, but most of my equipment is still back in the temple's guest quarters. C'mon."

Cloud tried to find the strength to protest that he couldn't walk yet, but it seemed Zack had other ideas anyway. The guardian slung one of Cloud's arms over his shoulder and wrapped his own arm around Cloud's waist, then hauled him to his feet. In that position most of Cloud's weight was supported by Zack, and all he had to do was stumble along beside the bigger man.

"I know you're not supposed to talk about what happened in there," Zack said, subdued. "And I won't ask. But... do you really think it was trying to kill you? I couldn't hear a thing from out here, but you sure sound half dead."

"Yes. No. I don't know." Cloud rested his head against Zack's shoulder. It was oddly comforting to have the man there next to him, supporting him. Nobody but his mother had ever been this close to him before, and she wasn't a physically affectionate person. Not that she didn't love him, she just didn't show it by touching him. "Still sure you want to be my guardian?"

"Yeah." Zack didn't say anything else, but the conviction in his voice was firm enough that he didn't need to.

The priests were lurking in the vicinity of the main chapel above, ostensibly cleaning or performing other tasks but all of them jumped the moment the door opened and Zack carried Cloud through. They looked first shocked, then smug as they saw the state Cloud was in. It wasn't hard to tell they believed he had failed utterly.

Stung, Cloud somehow found the strength to pull away from Zack and stand on his own. He was still a little unsteady, enough that Zack had to help him with a hand on his shoulder as they descended the stairs, but he managed. How often had he seen that look in the eyes of the people of Nibelheim? They all took every chance they could find to ridicule him and call him a failure, to tell him that he wasn't good enough to be one of them.

There was only one person who wasn't waiting in anticipation of his failure. Seph frowned when he saw them, and strode across the room to meet them. "What happened? Could you not get through the Trial?"

"Nope, we made it through no problem," Zack said. Cloud let his guardian tell the story, since he needed all his strength for walking. "He went into the chamber, then staggered right back out again a few minutes later, looking like he'd been battling Sin for days. Is that normal?"

"No," Seph said, studying him curiously. Cloud flushed, but did his best to ignore it. "No, it's not. Summoners are often drained when they leave the chamber, sometimes even to the point of collapse, but I've never heard of one being injured."

"I told you it was folly." The high priest stepped out of an alcove, scowling at the three of them. "No Al Bhed could ever become a summoner. I only hope you have not so drastically offended the fayth that it will refuse to treat with other apprentice summoners for a time. Let this be a lesson for you, heathen."

The new power inside Cloud stirred, and his own anger rose to match it. A furious sort of restlessness overtook him, and he was seized with the need to do something. Without thinking about what he was doing he turned and stormed out of the temple. "Watch," he snarled back over his shoulder at the priest. "And eat your words."

When he stopped he found himself at the centre of a tiled area just in front of the temple. The mosaic pattern of the stones was the same as the glyph in the chamber of the fayth, and for the briefest instant he thought he could see the little girl standing there, smiling at him. Then the power rose up inside him, a huge feathered beast fighting and clawing to burst free. Cloud thrust a fist into the air, throwing his head back and screaming his defiance of the priests and all their petty prejudices.

Something screamed back at him from high above, and a shaft of pure light speared down through the clouds. Something large and solid burst through after it, spiralling rapidly towards the ground. At the last possible moment it snapped out its massive wings and slowed, landing beside him with a violent thump. It screamed again, the piercing cry of a hunting raptor, wings canted back and head extended to its limit.

Cloud had never seen anything like it, but there could be no doubting what it was. Besaid's aeon, the first milestone in the summoner's journey. It had come to his call, marking him as a true summoner, no matter his race.

He could hear shocked whispers around him, but all his attention was on the aeon. It - she, there was no mistaking her femininity despite the alien nature of her form - cocked her head at him. She trilled softly in the back of her throat, a sound of welcome and apology. "It's okay," he assured her, losing his heart utterly as he stared into her beautiful, too-intelligent eyes. She looked... sad. "I forgive you. I don't know why you did it this way, but it's okay." Hesitantly he reached up and ran his fingers through the feathers just behind her crest. She crooned and lowered her head so he could reach more easily, and he grinned and scratched harder.

"Wow," a soft voice said from just behind him. He looked over his shoulder to see Zack hovering a respectful distance away, with all the villagers and priests ranged out much further behind him. "Wow, she's gorgeous. Guess you did it after all, huh? I knew you would." He smiled, and Cloud actually believed that he meant it. "So what's your name, beautiful?" He addressed his last words directly to the aeon, and she chirped at him. Cloud experienced a wash of amusement, and realized it was coming from the aeon. His own feelings echoed hers. It seemed Zack would flirt with anything female, not just pretty Spiran girls.

"Jymavun," he answered for her, the name appearing in his mind. "Her name is Jymavun. You should go," he added, a little shyly. "Someone might need you." He remembered hearing somewhere that only one incarnation of a particular aeon could exist in the world at any given moment. While he kept her here to show off, another summoner elsewhere might be dying.

She made a sound remarkably like a chocobo's wark, then stepped back and fanned her wings. Cloud and Zack hastily got out of the way, and she launched herself into the sky with a powerful thrust of her hind legs. In moments she was gone, faded away into nothing like the spirit she truly was.

"Well," Zack said, and patted his shoulder. "That's that. Nobody can argue that you can't be a summoner, now."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed, still watching the place where Jymavun had disappeared. Deep in his heart he could feel the aeon's power still pulsing, slowly settling into something his body could handle without pain.

His life would never be the same again.

The bonfire crackled and roared, the flames leaping into the night sky. Showers of sparks like a swarm of pyreflies danced and spun around it. Cloud kept well away, wary of the flames and preferring to stay as much out of sight as possible. Standing near the fire would just make him a more visible target.

The bonfire appeared to be the only thing enjoying the celebration. Even the music was lacklustre, as if the players would rather be doing anything else. The Spirans gathered around were subdued, clustered together in tight little knots, whispering among themselves and casting nervous glances at Cloud when they spotted him. He wondered what exactly they thought he was going to do. Summon Jymavun to rain destruction down on them? Raze the temple in a fit of heretic rage?

Not that he wasn't a little more tempted every time he caught one of those sidelong glances.

"This is bullshit."

Cloud jumped, and turned to find that Zack had appeared beside him. For such a big man he was remarkably good at being stealthy, and as far as Cloud could tell, he wasn't even doing it on purpose.

"What is?" he asked, uneasy. He'd known Zack less than a day, but he already knew that the dark, brooding expression the man wore now was unusual. Was Zack mad at him? Had he done something wrong, broken yet another unspoken law of Yevon that he didn't even know about?

"This." Zack gestured at the crowd, his movements short and choppy. "They should be dancing, singing, welcoming you! A new summoner is always something to be celebrated. In Kilika we have a huge party every time someone masters our temple's aeon, and we're not even the start of the journey."

Cloud shrugged. He hadn't expected anything different. They weren't stoning him or chasing him off the island, at least. That had to count as a step in the right direction. "I told you this would happen. Nobody is going to be happy about an Al Bhed summoner. It's only going to get worse from here." He looked away from Zack, and fought to keep his voice casual. "Sure you don't want to change your mind?"

Zack snorted. "Not if Lady Yunalesca herself walked up and asked me to be her guardian." He clapped Cloud on the shoulder, and let his hand rest there, squeezing gently. "This just makes me all the more determined to go with you. If nothing else, somebody's gotta remind you that not all Spirans are prejudiced assholes."

He smiled, and Cloud flushed. He had been starting to feel that way, he realized. But even in Nibelheim there had been a few people who had been kind to him. Tifa, first and foremost. There had been random strangers on the road here who had given him shelter or a ride, Spiran as well as Al Bhed. And now there were Zack and Seph, who championed him as if there was nothing strange about him, as if it was the only choice they could have made.

"Where's Seph?" he asked, reminded of the other man's existence. The enigmatic man had vanished at some point while Cloud was absorbed with Jymavun, and Cloud hadn't seen him since.

"Oh, brooding somewhere, probably." Zack shrugged. "He does that a lot. Don't worry, it's not you. I think this place holds a lot of memories for him, and they're not all good."

Cloud nodded. He knew how that could work, all too well. As long as he knew it wasn't something he'd done to drive Seph away, he would leave the man to his own thoughts.

Looking around at the villagers, he sighed. "How soon do you think I can sneak away? Without offending anyone more than I already do just by existing, I mean." He was already tired of the suspicious, fearful looks. He knew he was going to be seeing a lot more of them before he reached Zanarkand, but that didn't mean he had to voluntarily remain here to be stared at right now.

"Oh, you could probably plead exhaustion any t..."


Perhaps it was an inbred survival instinct, or perhaps it was just grim experience. Everyone over the age of ten whirled to face the source of the shout, even though most of them shouldn't have been able to hear over the music and roar of the bonfire. They all stood frozen for a long moment, disbelieving.

Rising up out of the ocean behind the temple was a huge, solid mass. Cloud stared at it, baffled by the fact that he couldn't find a head or tail. Then he realized that what he was looking at was just a fin, like the dorsal fins on the dolphins who had followed the ferries. He swallowed hard and shivered. He'd heard stories of the monster all his life, but this was the first time he'd ever actually seen it. It was an honour he'd just as soon have forgone.

Gravity seemed to reverse itself. First small, light things began to float upwards, then larger objects. People started screaming and running for shelter, snatching up children and shoving other people out of the way. Many headed straight for the temple as the sturdiest structure in the village. Cloud heard the sound of breaking branches in the trees, and some of the smaller buildings were starting to tear themselves to pieces. A small child was dragged right off the ground, shrieking, and its mother lunged for it frantically.

"Crusaders, to arms!" called the same deep voice that had cried the warning. Cloud finally spotted Seph standing on the roof of the temple, his hair flying around him like a beautiful silver banner. He showed no signs of panic, only a calm, assured presence. "Gather on the beach, half circle formation. We will repel the fiends from there. Civilians, take shelter in the temple!" He turned and leapt down from the side of the temple that faced the beach, and the moonlight flashed off the long blade of a sword held in his left hand.

Already a swarm of dark shapes were detaching from the fin, flying through the air to land out of sight behind the temple. Cloud heard a screech and a man's battle roar, and he knew Seph had engaged the first of the fiends.

"Anyone who can handle a weapon of any kind, form line behind the Crusaders," Zack shouted, his voice somehow pitched to carry over the chaos, just as Seph's had been. "Fishing spears, nets, slings, I don't care. You!" He pointed at a group of people in matching yellow clothing, who were helping people get to the temple. "Aurochs. Grab your blitzballs and get down there. You should be able to kick hard enough to at least stun them for a minute. Anything that buys the Crusaders time to kill them is worth it!"

The players of the Besaid Aurochs hesitated, looking at each other uncertainly. "Should we oughtta be listenin' to him?" one of them asked hesitantly.

The man in the captain's uniform shrugged. "He sound like he knows what he doin', ya? Better dan doin' nothin'. Aurochs, move out!"

"Cloud, c'mon, we gotta get down there," Zack urged him, tugging at his arm.

Nodding, Cloud followed him around the temple. As he ran he grabbed for the short sword hanging from his belt. He wasn't exactly a trained fighter, but he'd survived the journey here. The sword was one he'd gotten from a fiend along the way, and it was poisoned, which helped a lot.

To his surprise, Zack shook his head and gestured at Cloud's sword. "No, forget about the fiends. Keeping them off your back is my job. You need to summon and try to chase Sin away from the island, or we'll be overwhelmed eventually."

"Chase off Sin?" Cloud's voice squeaked, and he'd have been embarrassed if he wasn't too busy being panicked. "With just the first aeon? Are you crazy?"

"You don't have to kill it, just drive it away," Zack insisted. "Hurry!"

They'd reached the beach, and it was a scene of utter chaos. Crusaders battling Sin scales seemed to be everywhere, and more scales were trying to edge around their flanks. Civilians, including the Aurochs, were holding those ones at bay. Seph was at the head of the battle, long sword flashing and hair swirling around him as he spun and slashed. Scales fell before him in waves, killed before they ever came close enough to attack him.

Cloud closed his eyes to try to concentrate, but he couldn't block out the noise and the smell. People were screaming and shouting, the fiends were voicing inhuman shrieks, and above it all rose Seph's commanding voice backed by Zack's shouted orders. The stench of blood and ichor was heavy in the air, like a rotten perfume that made Cloud want to gag. Sin's deadly gravity still pulled at him, threatening to drag him right off his feet.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to ignore it all and reached for the core of power that now lived inside him. He could feel Jymavun resonating with something, as if she was responding to the presence of Sin. Softly, drifting over the clamour of the battlefield, he thought he heard the Hymn of the Fayth. He used that to help him focus, humming along with it under his breath.

Power surged inside him, and once more he thrust his fist up into the air. A beam of light cut through the night sky, and Jymavun fell screaming out of the heavens right behind it.

The world around him seemed to fade away, colours bleeding out and sounds softening as he if he was experiencing everything through a layer of gauze. In contrast both Jymavun and Sin were bright and sharp, looming large in his vision and the only things he could truly focus on. He felt Jymavun's thoughts merge with his own, alien and yet comforting at the same time. She screamed her rage at the monster, and turned her dive into a shallow arc that sent her speeding towards Sin.

Cloud's spirit soared out across the water with Jymavun, marvelling at the sensation of flight as the air rippled over her feathers. She swerved abruptly to dodge a piece of debris, then ducked under another, fighting for every inch she got closer to Sin. The fierce winds pulled at her, trying to suck her into the vortex of destruction that swirled around Sin.

Finally she reached the monster itself. Alternately hovering and darting through the air, she clawed at it and buffeted it with her powerful wings. Though Cloud could see that she was doing damage to the tough hide, Sin seemed oblivious to her efforts. Lurking below the surface of the water, he could just make out the creature's true bulk. It was massive, like a mountain come to life. Cloud despaired. How could he ever hope to beat that? Let alone do so with only the first aeon.

Jymavun backwinged and hovered, power building before her as she concentrated all of her energy. A beam of light so bright it seared Cloud's eyes all the way from shore lanced out, strafing across the side of the monster.

This attack it noticed. With a sound of rage like nothing that could ever come from the throat of something natural, Sin reared up farther out of the water. Too late Cloud and Jymavun saw the tentacle lash out straight towards her.

Jymavun tried to dodge, but Sin was unbelievably fast for something so huge. The tentacle caught her squarely across her body, and the aeon exploded in a shower of pyreflies.

Jerked abruptly back into his own body, Cloud screamed in shared agony. It felt like he was dying, nearly as horrible as when the fayth had poured her power into him. He fell to his knees, clutching at his chest. Frantically he searched inside himself for a trace of that power. Surely it wasn't truly dead? Was it only his own that would suffer the consequences of his rash attack on Sin, or would every summoner lose access to Besaid's aeon?

The sound of screaming nearby reminded him that Sin wasn't the only opponent he had to worry about. He opened his eyes just in time to see a blitzball headed straight for his face at high speed. Cloud yelped and ducked reflexively, but he was too slow to hope to avoid it. Someone flung a hand between him and the ball, catching it neatly an instant before it would have made contact, saving him from a broken nose or worse.

He looked up to see Zack holding the ball in one hand, his giant sword in the other as if it weighed no more than a chocobo feather. "Hey, watch what you're aiming at!" his guardian yelled at two nearby Aurochs. Tossing the ball up, he executed a spinning kick that sent it blazing straight at a Sin scale, hard enough to knock the fiend over. Two more fiends immediately launched themselves at him. Zack got in front of him, wielding his sword with the same careless ease with which he'd handled the blitzball.

Cloud fumbled for his own sword, knowing it was hopeless. Without an aeon to fight Sin, they were surely doomed.

Sin voiced its inhuman roar once more, and the pull of the cyclone increased as if in response. Cloud looked towards the ocean, certain he was about to see his own death crashing down on him.

Instead he saw what had to be an aeon flying high above the water, racing towards Sin like an arrow launched from a crossbow. It was far larger than Jymavun, a mighty dragon to her graceful gryphon. Even from this distance Cloud could feel the power resonating from it. Throbbing in his eardrums he could hear the Hymn of the Fayth, so strong he couldn't even be certain whether the voice was male or female.

A massive wheel spun over its back, and power built so quickly Cloud's head ached with it. Like Jymavun its weapon was a breath attack, a beam of light bright enough to tear the heavens in two. It followed the same path Jymavun's attack had taken, but instead of merely scoring deeper into the monster's flesh it sliced the top of the fin clean off.

Sin screamed in pain and fury, and turned away from the island. Slowly it sank beneath the water once more, and the maelstrom of debris above it began to settle. There were still scales scattered over the beach, but a few ragged cheers were already breaking out among the embattled Crusaders and villagers.

"Look out!"

Something hard hit Cloud from behind, throwing him to the ground and knocking the wind out of him. He flailed, thinking that a fiend had somehow gotten past Zack to get at him while he was distracted by the aeon. There was a soft, meaty thud above him, and the coppery tang of blood filled the air. He heard a soft 'oof', and then the weight on him seemed to increase exponentially.

He squirmed, and managed to get his head and arms out from under whatever was on him. When he craned his neck around to look, he found Zack slumped over him, protecting him with his own body. A handful of deadly looking spines protruded from his back, and Cloud could feel something warm and wet dripping down onto his back.

"Zack!" Frantic with worry, Cloud wrenched himself the rest of the way out from beneath his guardian. Zack didn't so much as twitch, out cold. Cloud hoped he was only unconscious. From the looks of it, the spines were only the latest wounds the man had taken.

Movement caught his eyes, and he looked up to find a Sin scale looming over them. Its wings shone with an eerie glow, and its menacing aura was unmistakeable. Cloud groped for his sword, and cursed when he realized it was still trapped under Zack's body. He snatched at the hilt of Zack's sword, but it was literally too heavy for him to lift.

The light of the scale's wings began to flicker ominously.

Chapter Text

Cloud scrambled to his feet, desperate to do anything he could to protect Zack. Maybe if he could just focus the Sin scale's attention on him, he could run and draw it away from his vulnerable guardian.

"Hey!" he shouted, waving his arms to attract its attention. "Ujan rana, ikmo!"

It took a step towards him and lowered its head, canting its wings forward. Cloud paled. A dozen lethal looking spines quivered between its feathers, ready to launch. He doubted he would fare any better against them than Zack had.

Light flashed off a thin arc of metal as it slashed through the air. It cut the scale in two so cleanly that it took the fiend a moment to realize it was dead. Under less dire circumstances Cloud might have laughed at the shocked expression it wore as pyreflies drifted up from its disintegrating body.

Seph swept his blade sharply through the air to shake the ichor off it, and tossed a bit of fluff at Zack. The unconscious man stirred, groaning, and Cloud recognized the item as a phoenix down. He'd heard of them, but he'd never seen one before.

"Saving his life at the cost of your own is the correct sentiment for a guardian, but try to save it for truly dire circumstances," Seph advised Zack dryly. "Sacrificing yourself at the start of the journey won't do much to help him make it as far as Zanarkand."

"I'll keep that in mind, thanks," Zack rasped, equally dry. He pushed himself into a sitting position and winced, testing each limb gingerly. He was still obviously injured, and still wavering on the verge of collapse. Cloud wished there was something he could do.

As if reading his mind, Seph turned to him next. "Since you didn't heal yourself earlier, I assume you are either too drained or don't know any spells advanced enough?" Seph asked Cloud. He gestured and murmured a spell, and Zack's injuries vanished.

Cloud ducked his head and mumbled an affirmative. The truth was that he didn't know any spells, not even the most basic cure. He knew summoners were traditionally white mages as well, but surely there were exceptions? Or perhaps this was just another way in which he failed as a summoner. The hollow ache in his chest was accusation enough that he didn't have what it took.

Seph simply nodded, accepting his reply at face value. He held out a satchel full of small bottles. "Take these around to the injured, then. Zack, do you have yours?"

"Yeah. You gonna go help the civilians?" Zack asked, subdued.

"Yes. Join me there when you've dealt with the combatants." Seph turned and headed for the front of the temple.

Cloud surveyed the battlefield, for the first time able to really pay attention to what was going on around him. The dead and dying lay scattered over the beach, with the living wandering among them like lost souls. Cloud saw one man whose arm had been ripped off bleeding out on the sand, while another who had lost an eye was trying helplessly to staunch the wound. The smell of blood was so thick in the air Cloud could taste it, a rank copper tang in his nose and throat, mixed with the scents of vomit, excrement, and an indefinable stench that Cloud could only label as 'Sin'.

Cloud swallowed hard, wanting to vomit himself. There was a part of him that had always pictured battle as being exciting, even glorious. He'd imagined himself triumphing over Sin and all the fiends, a mighty warrior and summoner. He'd never imagined anything but the fiends dying, however, or the sound of people moaning in agony or coughing out their last breaths. He'd certainly never pictured himself as a helpless bystander who could do almost nothing to help those suffering. Suddenly battling Sin didn't seem so glorious after all.

"Give the potions to people who need them to survive," Zack told him. "Don't waste them on people who will survive until morning without, or who are so badly hurt they'd need more than one to survive at all. Understand?" He gave Cloud a grim look. "I know it's hard when people are hurting, but it's the only way to save as many people as we can. You have to be ruthless. Can I trust you?"

Feeling numb, Cloud nodded. Zack patted him on the back and moved out among the injured, pulling out his own bag of potions.

Cloud turned and walked the other way down the beach. At first people ignored him, absorbed in their own pain. He struggled to look at them objectively, trying to decide who to give the healing potions to. Would that person die without it? Would this one die even with it? It was such a hard line to walk, when all he could see was blood, and all he could hear was the cries of the dying.

He stopped next to a man whose leg had been savaged. It was one of the civilians, with no armour to protect him from the damage the scales could inflict. Someone had tied a rough tourniquet above the wound, keeping the man from bleeding to death, but Cloud could see it wouldn't work for long. On the other hand, it was the only major wound visible, so if it was healed enough to stop bleeding the man would probably survive.

Good enough. Cloud knelt next to the man, and fumbled a potion out of the bag. The injured man was only barely conscious, and Cloud had to coax him to swallow the potion. Once he had it down, though, the magic-laced liquid swiftly went to work. Cloud could see the flesh repairing itself, right before his eyes.

"Wha..." The man roused a bit, and stared at his leg in shock. "How... oh! Thank..." he glanced at Cloud, stared right into his eyes, and gulped. Cloud bit his lip to keep from scowling, knowing the stranger was hesitating to give thanks because he was Al Bhed.

"Don't mention it," Cloud said gruffly, standing and turning away to look for the next person he could help. The Spirans might not be as grateful to be rescued by an Al Bhed as they would be to be saved by one of their own, but at least he could feel like he was making an important difference.

Others had noticed that the man he'd helped had gotten up. "Please, it hurts," one of the Aurochs whimpered, reaching out towards him. "Help me, please."

"My hand, I'll lose my hand, give me those!" demanded one of the Crusaders, less politely.

"I don't have enough for everyone," Cloud said, backing up nervously and clutching the satchel to his chest. Hands grabbed at him as people tried to snatch the bag away, and he yanked it up out of their reach. More people were looking his way, drawn by the clamour rising around him. Those who were mobile were converging on him, and Cloud didn't like the look in their eyes. Desperation and anger were never a good combination, especially when they were aimed at an Al Bhed by a Spiran.

"Zack," he called, trying to turn so that nobody was coming at him from behind. That just gave them the idea to start circling. He groped for his sword and swore under his breath when he remembered it was still lying on the ground where Zack had knocked him over. Realizing he was unarmed, the men closing in on him looked eager.

"Zack!" Cloud tried hard not to panic. He reached inside himself in what was already becoming a reflex, but there was still only the hollow ache where Jymavun's power should have been.


Zack was suddenly beside him, and the approaching men looked much less certain of their victory. "Enough of that," Zack scolded them. "Crusaders, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You know how triage works. Now get out there and help the civilians."

Several of the men, the ones whose armour marked them as Crusaders, looked sheepish or apologetic. A few even murmured 'Yes, sir' or saluted Zack briefly. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief as they backed off, and drew the civilians with them.

"Maybe you'd better stick with me," Zack said. He ran a hand through his spiky hair, apparently oblivious to the ichor, blood and grime on his glove. He looked tired and pained, and Cloud wondered if Seph's spell had really healed him completely.

Cloud nodded glumly, embarrassed all over again that he couldn't even be trusted to handle a simple task like handing out potions to the injured. Was he going to need Zack to babysit him for every little step through his whole journey? They'd kill each other before they ever got near Zanarkand. He had to learn to stand on his own.

For now, though, Zack was right that he was better off staying with his guardian, and not just for his own benefit. As they moved together among the wounded, Cloud tried to make sure he was the one doing all the heavy lifting and other physical tasks. Zack gave him a wry smile that said he'd noticed, but didn't object.

Cloud was grateful that his guardian let him get away with it. For one thing, concentrating on taking care of the older man meant he wasn't poking at the hollow place inside him, or paying too much attention to the horrible injuries they were tending to. By the time they reached the end of the beach Cloud knew that battle was anything but glorious. He saw more blood in that hour than he'd ever seen before in all his life combined, and he never, ever wanted to see the inside of anyone's body again.

When the last of the potions had been drunk and the last bandage administered, Zack stretched until his back cracked, groaning. "All right, that's as much as we can do for this lot. Let's go see if we can help Seph with the civilians."

Cloud nodded, though he was a little reluctant to face even more wounded people. At least here on the beach there were no dying children.

They helped a pair of Crusaders limp around the temple, back to the common area. Cloud flinched and bit back a cry when he saw what was left of the village. To say it was utter chaos was understating the matter. Most of the homes and shops had been destroyed, with only rubble and debris left to mark what had been someone's entire life. Trees had been torn up by the roots, huge boulders wrenched out of the ground. Even the temple had taken damage, the graceful arches of the roof broken and scarred. The scent of sap from the smashed trees mingled with the stench of blood and burning things. Fires raged everywhere, no doubt started when the bonfire had been scattered in every direction by Sin's gravitational pull.

Cloud flinched away from the heat and crackle of the fires. He thought he could hear screaming from within them, but he was fairly certain it was only a memory. These fires were starting to burn out now, finding little to sustain them once the seasoned wood of the huts was gone. Anyone caught in them would have died while he was still on the beach.

Crews were working to dig survivors out of the rubble. Everyone wore a shocked, numb expression, as if they simply couldn't process this much horror and so their brains had shut down to protect them. Cloud imagined a similar expression was probably on his own face. It certainly matched how he was feeling.

He moved to help one of the rescue crews, grabbing a broken timbre and helping another man haul it away, heedless of the splinters it drove into his skin. Vaguely he was aware that Zack had gone to join a bucket brigade working to put out the last of the fires.

Cloud wasn't certain how long they worked. The first few people he helped to rescue were alive, though one of them died in the arms of the man who pulled her out of the ruin. After that, they were simply uncovering more bodies to be placed at the end of a silent row outside the temple. Cloud didn't even try to keep count. He didn't really want to know.

Someone passed around a bucket of fresh water and a ladle. Cloud drank, trying not to be too greedy. When he handed the bucket off to the man he'd been helping to carry things, however, their eyes met briefly for the first time.

The man, one of the priests judging by his clothing, blinked twice at him and then seemed to realize who he was looking at. "You!" He dropped the bucket and stepped back, one hand lifted to point accusingly at Cloud. "This is your fault. Sin came because you profaned the temple!"

"What?" Stunned by the completely unexpected accusation and already exhausted beyond tolerance by the events of the day, Cloud couldn't find the wits to do more than gape at the man.

"But Sin always targets the temples," someone protested hesitantly.

"What drew it here, tonight?" another woman argued. "There haven't been sightings anywhere near here!"

"It was the heresy of a non-believer coercing the fayth into granting him an aeon that drew Sin to us," the priest insisted, the light of fanaticism burning in his eyes. Others murmured agreement, a rising swell of angry mutters and shouts.

For the third time that day Cloud found himself facing the beginnings of a mob, gathering around him. He cast a frantic look around, searching for Zack, but there was no sign of his guardian this time.

"The priests are right," a man cried. "You're a heretic. How can you bring anything but evil to Yevon's faithful?"

The first stone caught Cloud from behind, smashing into his shoulder hard enough to leave a bone bruise. He staggered, biting his lip to keep from crying out. That would only egg them on, as he knew far too well.

"Enough!" Seph's voice was deep enough to rumble like thunder, an ominous warning of the storm to come. Anger flashed in his eyes like the lightning to accompany the thunder. He stepped into the centre of the crowd, one hand on his hilt in a clear threat, and stood near Cloud in a way that made it plain he was supporting the Al Bhed.

"Is this the kindness that Yevon teaches?" he demanded. "Is this the goodwill and tolerance that will win Spira free from Sin for all time? If you wonder at the cause of Sin's appearance here tonight, look first to your own actions. Your bigotry and prejudice are more likely to be at fault than any summoner, no matter their race."

A few people had the grace to look shamed. Unfortunately it was obvious that most of the crowd was simply looking for an easy target to blame. "Yevon's teachings hardly apply to one who blasphemes the very fayth itself," the priest shouted.

Seph's scowl deepened. "I suggest you reconsider your words, sir, and quickly. Or perhaps you have no wish to have the sending performed for your loved ones?"

More people backed away from the priest, looking alarmed. Cloud felt the blood drain from his face, and he fought off panic. "Seph," he whispered urgently, trying to get the man's attention without drawing the focus of the crowd back to him. Defusing the mob by reminding them that only a summoner could perform the sending was all well and good... as long as the summoner could actually perform the sending.

The priest appeared to be thinking along the same lines, or perhaps he simply saw the look on Cloud's face. "Can he even perform it?" he scoffed, gesturing rudely at Cloud. "No temple would train one such as he. Even if he does know the ritual, a sending performed by a heathen would be worse than useless!"

People were muttering again, now afraid that their loved ones would all end up as fiends for lack of a proper sending. Cloud saw Zack shoving his way through the tightly packed crowd, but he didn't think this was a problem his guardian could protect him from.

"Seph," he whispered again, tugging at the man's sleeve to get his attention. Seph's eyes flicked briefly to him, acknowledging him, before returning to stare down the crowd. "Seph, I have no idea how to perform a sending," Cloud all but squeaked. "I'm as likely to turn them into fiends as send them to the Farplane." And doing that would surely turn the islanders against him once and for all.

Seph closed his eyes briefly, and looked resigned. When he opened them again, he focused his gaze on the priest once more. "Lord Cloud is not the only summoner on the island," he said, his voice soft but no less menacing for the lack of volume. "I am perfectly capable of performing the sending, and if you doubt my ability, I suggest you contact your superiors in Bevelle and ask them for my references. However I find your attitudes and continuing hostility towards a summoner to be offensive and highly distasteful. Frankly I'm not certain the people of Besaid deserve the protection or guidance of any summoner, if this is how you treat one."

Now the voices in the crowd were alarmed, crying out for forgiveness and begging him to reconsider. Seph stood there like a regal statue, apparently unmoved by their pleas, still watching the priest.

The man looked first at Seph, then at Cloud, then back to Seph. He swallowed visibly, and made the obeisance to them both. "Forgive me," he said, his voice trembling with the effort it took him to speak politely. "I am overwrought. Perhaps I have even been affected by Sin's toxins. I spoke without thinking."

"Convenient," Zack muttered as he finally reached Cloud. He spoke loud enough for Seph and Cloud to hear him, but not for his voice to reach anyone else. "I hate how people use Sin's toxin as an excuse for bad behaviour. Sorry, Cloud, I didn't realize you'd gotten so far away from me."

Seph inclined his head slightly to acknowledge Zack, and finally nodded at the priest. "Very well. Place the dead near the docks. I will perform the sending over the water." Cries of relief and thanks came from the villagers. Seph ignored them all, turning to stalk away, gesturing at Zack and Cloud to follow him.

The moment they were out of sight of the crowd, he turned on Zack. "Fiends and Sin are not the only dangers to a summoner," he said, his voice rumbling dangerously again. "A guardian must never, ever leave his summoner unprotected, let alone allow the summoner out of his sight. I'm disappointed in you, Zack."

Zack blanched, then flushed and hung his head. "I know, you're right," he said, subdued. "I'm sorry. I was so focused on helping the villagers..."

"That's no excuse." Seph was as implacable with Zack as he had been with the priest. "A guardian's first duty is to his summoner, always. Especially considering these people had already demonstrated a willingness to harm your summoner."

"Don't be mad at him," Cloud protested. The last thing he wanted was to become a thorn in the friendship these two obviously shared. Zack would only come to resent him that much sooner. "Sin was gone, and the fiends were dead. Rescuing people and putting out the fires was more important..."

"No, he's right, Cloud," Zack said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder and smiling apologetically. "I deserved that scolding. I won't forget again." He looked at Seph, his expression almost sad. "You're really going to do the sending?"

"Someone must." Seph shrugged and looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the subject.

"It was you who summoned the aeon out there," Cloud realized. "But... I don't understand. You said you weren't a summoner. That was Bevelle's aeon, wasn't it? You have them all already. Can't you just go straight to Zanarkand and stop Sin?"

"I am no longer willing to sacrifice myself for the good of the people of Spira," Seph said. "Frankly I don't believe they deserve it. Perhaps living with Sin's punishment for a time would teach them to value what they have more." He turned and walked away while Cloud was still trying to absorb that boggling statement.

Zack squeezed his shoulder, then released him. "C'mon. You'll want to see this. We'll have to get training for you somehow, I guess. People are going to want you to perform the sending."

Cloud followed him as they both trailed after Seph. "You knew he was a summoner," he said, still confused. "Why aren't you his guardian?"

"Well, I was sort of hoping to be," Zack admitted. "Like I told you earlier, I dragged him with me this far because I thought maybe being here would inspire him again, remind him of why he did it the first time."

"How can anyone stop being a summoner?" Cloud wanted to know.

Zack looked sombre. "Do you know what happens to a summoner who doesn't become High Summoner, when the calm comes?"

"I never really thought about it." Cloud frowned, turning it over in his mind. "I suppose people still need sendings performed and that sort of thing."

"They do, but they're not as worried about it when Sin's not around," Zack said. "Most of the dead can be trusted to make their own way to the Farplane without Sin to corrupt them. See, the thing is, people are stupid. You should know that better than anyone." He sighed. "Summoners who don't make it as far as Zanarkand are considered 'failed' summoners, by almost everyone from the lowest village idiot to the highest maester. People would much rather ridicule others for not achieving a goal they can't even aspire to, than honour someone for not quite making a sacrifice."

"Failed?" Cloud repeated, shocked. He stopped short on the path, staring at Zack in disbelief. "How can anyone think that? All summoners are willing to risk their lives to make the journey, to sacrifice themselves at the end to protect the rest of the world. Even if they never go further than Besaid, they're still heroes!"

Zack smiled at him. "I'm glad to hear you say that," he said. "Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks so. Now maybe if we can just convince Seph that the whole world isn't ranged against him, he'll lose some of that bitterness he's always carrying around."

Seph was waiting for them at the foot of the docks. "Watch, and learn what you can," he commanded Cloud softly. "Someday you may need to do this yourself. It's not difficult, and you can't 'screw it up'. It is simply a matter of willing the souls to move on to the Farplane where they belong. Every summoner has a different ritual."

"I doubt anyone will ever want me to perform a sending, any more than the villagers here did," Cloud said. He touched his still aching chest, and looked down. "Besides, I'm... not sure I actually qualify as a summoner anymore. I lost the aeon. I think... Sin..." He choked on a sob, unable to make himself finish the words.

"What?" Zack looked shocked, then dismayed. "Oh, shit. I never even thought of that. Uh, maybe you can go back and talk to the fayth again?"

The thought of going back and trying to survive that agonizing ordeal again made Cloud blanch. Bad enough that he might well have to deal with similar treatment from the rest of the fayth. He really didn't want to have to repeat the experience more often than he absolutely had to.

"There's no need to go to such an extreme," Seph assured him, much to Cloud's relief. "Aeons do occasionally fall in battle, just as people do." He gestured at a glowing blue sphere just at the head of the pass to the village. "Do you know what these are?"

Cloud shook his head. "I saw them all over the place when I was travelling. I figured they were to mark the path, like a beacon or something."

"They serve that purpose as well, but their primary function is healing." Seph smiled slightly. "Just touching one will restore your health and energy. They are ancient machina, approved by Yevon for the use of travellers. Touch it."

"They heal you?" Cloud stared at it, feeling dismayed and foolish. How often had he staggered by one of these spheres, barely able to stay on his feet after an encounter with a fiend? "But I'm not injured now."

"You are not, but your aeon is," Seph told him. "These spheres are the only practical method to heal an aeon. It is rather difficult to pour a potion down their throat."

Zack clutched his chest and staggered dramatically. "Did you just make a joke? Look out, the world's gonna end."

Ignoring him, Cloud focused on the sphere, hardly daring to allow himself to hope. When he touched it he felt the tingling sweep of energy pass over him, just like having a cure spell cast on him. It sank into the hollow inside him.

Suddenly Jymavun was there again. Cloud actually gasped with relief as he felt the strong, steady pulse of her power. Before he realized what was happening tears welled up in his eyes, all the terror and pain and grief of the day catching up to him. He fought them down, not wanting to cry like a little baby in front of his guardian and the man who had given him back his hope - twice, now. It was almost enough to make him believe in Yevon's kind guidance.

"That's better. Now, watch what I do," Seph repeated. He patted Cloud gently on the shoulder as he walked back towards the dock, and Cloud saw a look of deep sympathy and understanding in his eyes. Presumably he, too, knew the pain of losing an aeon, even if he'd known from the start that they could be healed.

Cloud and Zack trailed after him, stopping a respectful distance from the end of the pier. In the dim glow of the setting moon Cloud could just make out the blur of dark shapes lurking beneath the water. At first he thought they were fiends, but after a moment he realized they were the bodies of the dead.

"Watch," Zack said quietly. As if he'd needed to tell Cloud to do so. Cloud could hardly tear his eyes away, and he felt breathless with anticipation.

Seph waited until all the villagers, priests and Crusaders had gathered around the end of the dock near the shore. Then, to Cloud's utter astonishment, Seph stepped off the dock and onto the water, as easily as if he was walking over solid ground. He stopped when he stood directly over the bodies, and paused for a moment with his eyes closed, his long sword held before him like an offering to Yevon.

Then he began to dance.

'Dance' was the only word Cloud could find to describe it, although the motions were clearly meant to be a pattern of strike, parry and block. Seph moved with the leaping grace and beauty of a dolphin, ghosting over the surface as fluidly as if he was made of water himself. Moonlight flashed off the long arc of his blade as it whistled through the air, almost too fast for the eye to follow. His silver hair swirled around him in counterpoint harmony to the motions of the sword, and the soft splash of his feet over the water kept time.

Cloud watched in awe as pyreflies began to rise from the bodies of the dead beneath the water. First one, then three, then a dozen; until a cloud of them floated so thick over the surface it was hard to see Seph.

Finally Seph executed one last spinning jump and thrust his blade straight into the air. The pyreflies seemed caught by the momentum of the gesture, swirling up and around him until they disappeared into the night sky, blending into the shining light of the stars.

A burning sensation in his chest confused Cloud for a moment, until he realized that he'd literally forgotten to breathe. He gasped for air, trying not to be too obvious about it, but Zack gave him an amused look. "He's something else, isn't he?" the guardian said.

"Can I be him when I grow up?" Cloud asked wistfully. He was - he hoped - not done growing just yet, but he knew he would never be able to pull off the aura of controlled power and lethal grace that Seph wore like a cloak. More importantly he didn't think he would ever have the confident poise and air of command that seemed inherent in Seph and made people want to follow him.

Zack laughed. "No, 'cause you're gonna be the High Summoner, remember?"

Cloud looked down, pressing one hand over the gentle pulse of Jymavun's power in his heart. "Maybe," he allowed, smiling slightly. "If he doesn't beat me to it once we convince him to believe in people again. He's got a head start, after all."

"Ha! That's the spirit." Zack slapped his back, and then turned to face Seph. The summoner had returned to the solid wood of the pier just a few feet away from them. There were tight lines around his eyes and mouth, and his steps seemed to drag just the tiniest bit. Zack lifted his hands and bowed in the traditional greeting from one of Yevon's faithful to a summoner. For once he didn't tease; there was nothing in his voice or expression but respect. "Lord Sephiroth."

"Sephiroth?" Cloud squeaked, staring. That was a name even he knew. Sephiroth had been the general of the Crusaders, the youngest ever to be granted that rank, before he'd left them to become a summoner himself. Everyone had expected Sephiroth to be the next High Summoner. Cloud had only been six when Sin had appeared the last time, but he remembered people speaking Sephiroth's name in excited whispers. Half of Nibelheim had travelled down the mountain to the Calm Lands to see him when he'd passed there.

Cloud had disobeyed his mother's order to stay at home, sneaking out to follow the other villagers down the mountain. His memories of that day were hazy, but he remembered being awed by the sheer presence of the summoner and his two powerful guardians.

And then Sephiroth had passed on to Mt. Gagazet, and vanished. Everyone assumed that he'd either died on Gagazet or in Zanarkand itself, as so many other summoners had. Another summoner had succeeded in defeating Sin less than a month later, but people still spoke of Sephiroth's loss in tones of grief and regret. And here the man was, standing right in front of him.

Belatedly Cloud realized he was just standing there like a fool, gaping at the man who had been the closest thing to a hero Cloud had ever had. His memory of seeing Sephiroth that day, of the way people had treated the man with respect and awe, had been one of his inspirations for becoming a summoner himself. Hastily he ducked his head and brought his hands together, bowing. This once he would make the obeisance and truly mean it with all his heart.

"Stop that, both of you." Sephiroth sounded irritated and uncomfortable, almost embarrassed. Cloud didn't have the courage to lift his head to see what the man's expression was. "Zack, I told you years ago, there's no need to call me that. It is a title I no longer have any wish to possess, and you are my friend."

Cloud dared to turn his head enough to see Zack, who had straightened. His guardian's expression was oddly sympathetic. "You may not want it, but you sure earned it tonight," Zack said, his smile gentle. "C'mon, shows of genuine respect from me are few and far between. Don't check the toes of a gift chocobo."

Sephiroth ignored Zack's teasing with no more than a long-suffering sigh in response. "Cloud, please, stand up. At the very least, as one summoner to another I no more outrank you than the moon outranks the sun."

"Nice analogy, Seph," Zack commented, tugging at a lock of Cloud's blond hair and giving Sephiroth's own silver mane a pointed glance. Sephiroth chuckled softly and inclined his head in acknowledgement of the comparison.

Hesitantly Cloud lifted his head, feeling as shy as he had when he'd once tried to ask Tifa on a date. His heart was pounding just as hard as it had then, but this time it was awe that caused his nerves rather than a crush. He felt like he suddenly didn't know how to speak to the man, as if he should be apologizing for having treating him so casually before.

"Lord Sephiroth," he started awkwardly. "I... I should thank you... I don't deserve... I mean..."

"Please, I beg you. Don't call me that," Sephiroth said. "The last thing I want is for people to realize that I am still alive and among them. I... am not that person any more. I am simply Seph, a former crusader - and former summoner, when I must be."

Cloud nearly swallowed his tongue, but he couldn't disobey a direct request. "All right... Seph. Um. Wh-what will you do now?"

"Come with you as far as Luca, I suppose," Sephiroth said reluctantly. "You need training, and I doubt you will find anyone else to give it to you. I can at least teach you the basic white magic spells by then, and explain the most important things you need to know about what is expected of a summoner."

"You're coming with us?" Zack lit up like the Blitzdome at night, his eyes hopeful.

"Only as far as Luca," Sephiroth repeated sternly. "Since I must return there, anyway, I might as well go with you."

Cloud bowed again, overwhelmed. Of all the people in Spira, he would be getting private lessons in being a summoner from Lord General Sephiroth. Not in his wildest dreams of becoming a summoner had he ever imagined anything like this.

"I won't disappoint you, sir," he promised fervently. "I'll do whatever it takes, I swear it." He would live up to Sephiroth's expectations of him if it killed him. He owed the man nothing less, after what Sephiroth had done for him this day.

Chapter Text

Zack was hanging over the railing, standing at the prow like an odd second figurehead, the wind of their passage ruffling his spiky hair and the spray off the bow leaving glittering drops of water on his skin. If Cloud hadn't already seen repeated examples of how agile his guardian was over the past two days, he'd have been worried about how far out the man was leaning. Zack could scramble over the ropes and masts as easily as any of the sailors. He strolled across the decks as if they were solid ground, though the seas had been fairly choppy on the two day trip between Besaid and Kilika.

If Cloud hadn't been so busy being sick the whole time, he might have hated his guardian for that easy competence. Any of the stunts Zack made look so easy would have landed Cloud in the water before he could say 'let's blitz'. As it was he could only cling to the rail with a death grip every time he had to lean over to throw up.

"Please tell me we're almost there," he begged miserably.

"I can see the peak from here," Zack assured him. "In a minute or two you'll be able to see the whole island. Look."

He pointed, and Cloud glanced forward. Sure enough the familiar conical shape of a volcano rose up out of the ocean's blue waters. Seeing it made Cloud feel a little better, and a little homesick. He was used to being surrounded by shapes like that, jagged peaks and smooth cones creating a skyline that was as unique as a snowflake. The endless flatness of the ocean disturbed him.

Unfortunately moving his eyes away from the steady line of the horizon made his nausea worse again. There was nothing left to bring up, but the bile burned in his throat until tears came to his eyes.

Zack patted his back. "You really weren't kidding about the seasickness, were you? We'd better spend a few days in Kilika resting up and getting you fed, or you're gonna waste away to nothing by the time we get to Luca."

When he was able to stop gagging, Cloud looked up at Zack and shook his head. "We can't afford it," he croaked.

"I've got some gil saved up, and there're fiends in the woods outside the temple. We should be able to make some gil hunting them," Zack assured him. "But that'll be just for supplies. Kilika is my hometown, and I've still got family here. Haven't spoken to them in a while, but I'm sure my mom and dad will let us crash there."

"Why haven't you spoken to them?" Cloud asked, studying his guardian curiously.

"Ran away from home to join the Crusaders," Zack said, shrugging. "Never quite had the courage to go home again and find out if I was forgiven. Not like they abused me or anything. Just, I never did take orders well. Always had to do things my own way, if you know what I mean."

"Which is why the Crusaders politely asked you leave after you'd been with them less than a year," Sephiroth said dryly as he joined them. "It was that or put you in charge, and the mere thought of you in a command position terrifies me. If nothing else, you'll want to make your peace with your family before we leave the island. A summoner's pilgrimage is dangerous, and not just for the summoner. Many guardians do not survive."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm gonna do it," Zack said. "What about you, Cloud? Got any loose ends you need to tie up before you go off to Zanarkand?"

"Yeah." Cloud fixed his eyes on the rapidly approaching shore. "Nibelheim is only a day off the path near the Calm Lands. I need to say goodbye to my mother." And show everyone that he was capable of making something of himself, but that felt like too petty a reason for a summoner to admit to. Wasn't he supposed to be some kind of shining light to the rest of Spira, now? Just being near Sephiroth made him feel like he had to live up to the image a summoner was supposed to project.

"Then we should certainly do that," Sephiroth agreed. "The purpose of the pilgrimage is not only for the summoner to pray at each temple, Cloud. It is to allow the summoner to put his mind at rest, deal with any issues that might cause him to feel regret. Do not be afraid to let yourself linger over things if you need to, or be momentarily distracted by them. So long as you always continue in the end, anything is permitted."

"Sounds good to me," Zack said, nodding. "C'mon, they're just about done docking. Let's get you back on solid ground."

"Is there any solid ground in Kilika?" Cloud asked wryly. What he remembered of the town from his brief stopover on the way to Besaid seemed to indicate otherwise. From the deck of the ship all he could see was an endless series of docks and huts built right over the water. There were nearly as many people swimming from one place to another as there were walking over the docks.

"Well, relatively solid," Zack acknowledged with a grin.

"There is land beyond the village," Sephiroth said as they headed down the gangway. "The mountain itself is surrounded by lush forest and the temple is built into the side of the volcano."

"Why build over the water, then?" Cloud wanted to know. The idea of spending more time than he absolutely had to anywhere near the water, let alone over it, was horrifying to him. The docks were easier to handle than the ship's deck, but Cloud was fairly certain he could still feel them swaying slightly beneath his feet.

"Mostly because in order to build on land we'd have had to cut half the forest down," Zack told him, leading the way further into the town. "Plus this way it's easier to keep the fiends out. It makes us a little more vulnerable to Sin, but..." He shrugged. "As we saw in Besaid, being on the island proper wouldn't save us, either."

People were starting to pay more attention to them as they moved away from the area frequented by tourists and summoners. Cloud automatically ducked his head to hide his eyes, trying not to draw anyone's notice, but then he realized he wasn't the one people were staring at. It was Zack they were pointing to and whispering about.

"Do they recognize you?" Cloud asked, puzzled. Zack's sleeveless shirt showed off the shoulder and upper arm tattoos that clearly marked him as an islander, though his clothes were Lucan in style. Surely that wasn't enough of a contrast to make people stare? Not with an Al Bhed dressed like a Calm Lander walking right next to him.

"Oh, probably." Zack shrugged. For some reason that made Sephiroth sigh and roll his eyes, and Zack grinned at him. "What?"

"I'm simply marvelling at the notion of you displaying modesty," Sephiroth said dryly. "An occasion to mark on the calendar, certainly."

"Hey, there's a difference between bragging to show off, and basking in well-deserved attention," Zack protested with a laugh.

Cloud felt like he was missing an important part of the conversation. He opened his mouth to ask, but before he could get the words out Zack lit up and pointed in excitement. "Hey, there it is!"

The hut he pointed to looked much like all the others around it, made of wood and decorated with bright woven banners. A woman was tending to the flowers that grew in boxes in front of the windows. She looked up, her attention drawn by Zack's shout, and did a double-take. "Zack? Is that you?" she gasped.

Zack rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a sheepish smile, coming to a stop. "Hey, mom."

"Zack!" she cried, and threw herself at him. He caught her in a hug and spun her around. She was laughing and crying at the same time.

Cloud was a little envious. His mother had never hugged him like that. Somehow he rather doubted his own homecoming would make his mother any more likely to be affectionate. He glanced at Sephiroth, and was surprised to see a wistful expression on the summoner's face as well. He tried to remember if he'd ever heard anything about Sephiroth's family, and couldn't. All he knew was that the man had been from Bevelle, though from the sounds of it he was living in Luca, now. Cloud didn't even know if his guardians were still alive.

"Where's dad?" Zack asked when his mother had finally calmed down.

"He's up working at the docks," Zack's mother replied. "With the summoners coming through again, the town elders wanted to make sure everything was in good repair." She looked troubled. "I don't think he's forgiven you just yet, honey. When we heard you'd left the Crusaders... he didn't take it well. As long as you were training to fight Sin I suppose he could console himself by telling people you'd left for good reasons, but..."

"Well, if that's all it takes, it's no problem," Zack said, laughing. "I may not be the next commander of the Crusaders, but I think being a guardian to the next High Summoner ought to rank right up there."

"Guardian?" Zack's mother looked shocked and delighted. "Sweetheart, that's wonderful! I'm so proud of you!" Predictably she turned and bowed to Sephiroth. Cloud decided there was no point in feeling hurt about it. Sephiroth just had the air of a summoner about him. Maybe in time Cloud would have it too, but he suspected people would always look to Sephiroth first.

"Uh, wrong summoner, ma." Zack sounded amused, but he was obviously trying hard to keep a straight face. "Seph's just along for the ride, to help us out. Cloud, stop trying to hide behind him and come say hi to my mom." When Cloud reluctantly stepped forward and mumbled a greeting, Zack slung an arm around his shoulder and ruffled his hair. "Mom, meet Lord Cloud, next High Summoner."

"Zack, that's not funny," she said, frowning. "It's not funny at all."

Startled by the unexpected change in her attitude, Cloud made the mistake of looking right at her. Her lips tightened into a white line when she got a good look at his eyes. His stomach sank, and he fought down a groan. Zack was so incredibly open-minded that he'd been expecting the man's parents to be the same way, but it seemed it was a trait Zack had picked up elsewhere.

"Huh?" Zack sounded bewildered. "Of course it's not funny, it's the truth."

"Zack..." Cloud bit his lip on his next words. He wanted to beg his guardian to leave well enough alone and just get the hell out of there before they caused a scene, but this was Zack's family. Cloud had no right to ask the man to just walk away from them.

"To think that my own son would pull such a prank," Zack's mother said, shaking her head and planting her hands on her hips. "It's disgraceful. Bad enough that you're consorting with an Al Bhed at all, but to try to pass him off as a summoner! What would your father say?"

Cloud ducked his head, though the damage was already done. He tried to back away, to leave Zack to argue with his mother in relative privacy, but Zack's hand tightened on his shoulder and held him in place. When Cloud glanced at him, he saw Zack's jaw was set in a determined expression that Cloud was rapidly becoming familiar with.

"It's not a prank, and it's certainly not disgraceful," Zack said. His voice was very tight and controlled. "He's a summoner. End of story. The fayth accepted him, and that's all that matters."

"Lies!" she gasped. "Al Bhed are not permitted to even set foot in the temples, everyone knows that. They're heretics, damning us all to an endless life of Sin because of their forbidden machina."

Cloud scrunched himself down a little more with every word, trying to get out of sight despite Zack's hand holding him in place. She was actually shaking with outrage now, pointing at him as her voice rose, drawing the attention of everyone nearby. Fervently he wished that becoming invisible was one of the powers granted to a summoner.

Another hand steadied his other shoulder, bracing him. "Perhaps we should leave you to discuss this with your mother alone, Zack," Sephiroth said. His voice was so low it practically rumbled. "Family matters are best dealt with in private."

Cloud shot the man a grateful look. He wasn't sure if Sephiroth had read his desire to sink into the ground, or if the former summoner found the confrontation distasteful for personal reasons. At this point Cloud was just about willing to kiss anyone who would get him out of this mess.

Zack snorted. "Is that supposed to be some kind of test? I did learn my lesson in Besaid, thank you. You're not his guardian, I am. Cloud doesn't go anywhere without me."

Sephiroth gave him a little approving smile, but Cloud wished Zack would let it go just this once. He would rather be just about anywhere but in the middle of this.

"We raised you to be a good, Yevon-fearing boy," Zack's mother proclaimed. "You were always too strong-willed for your own good, but no son of mine will ever participate in such heresy!"

Zack smiled grimly at her. "Then I guess I'm no son of yours, am I? C'mon, Cloud, Seph. Let's go. We've still got a temple to take by storm."

With that Zack turned and marched away, leaving his mother sputtering in shocked disbelief behind him. Cloud hesitated, trying to find some way to make it better, but there was nothing he could do.

"Come," Sephiroth repeated Zack's command, and pushed at Cloud's shoulder. Cloud stumbled for the first few steps, then got his feet under him and hurried to catch up with Zack. Behind them he could already hear the neighbours closing in, surrounding Zack's mother and demanding to know what was going on.

"Zack..." Cloud trailed off, not knowing what to say. How did you apologize for being the cause of someone getting disowned?

"Don't." Zack smiled at Cloud over his shoulder. His voice was firm but his smile wasn't, wobbling just slightly at the edges. It was obvious that he was trying to hide how much he was hurt, and that just made Cloud feel even worse. "This isn't your fault. I'd forgotten how devout my parents are. Though I don't remember them being this intolerant. I ran away from home because they wanted me to be a priest, did I tell you that? I suppose that should have warned me."

"But if you weren't..." Cloud started, still trying to make amends.

Zack stopped and turned, putting his hand over Cloud's mouth. "Don't even think about suggesting I find someone else to guard. I told you: stupidly prejudiced Spirans are not going to drive me off. Not even if they're my own family." He looked at Sephiroth. "Little help here, Seph? He's in awe of you. Maybe you can get it through his head."

Cloud blushed, and Sephiroth chuckled. "Zack is correct. If you do not wish to have him as your guardian any longer, that is one thing. But in all the time I have known Zack, I have never yet seen him give up on something he was determined to do. No matter the obstacles."

"Geez, Seph. You're gonna embarrass me, here." Zack's cheeks were lightly flushed under his tan, and he scratched his head. "Aren't you the one who's always insisting I don't need anyone else swelling my ego?" He turned to Cloud, one eyebrow lifted. "You do still want me as a guardian, right? This isn't some subtle way of telling me you don't want me anymore?"

"No! Of course I still want you," Cloud exclaimed. It had never even occurred to him that Zack would think he was attempting to get rid of him.

"Then quit trying to convince me to leave," Zack said with a touch of amused exasperation. "Now c'mon, we're wasting daylight and there're a lot of fiends between here and the temple."

Zack hadn't been kidding about the fiends. Cloud was out of breath and shaking with weariness by the time they reached the base of the stairs leading to the temple. If not for Sephiroth's white magic he'd never have made it that far.

"How do the villagers get back and forth?" he demanded, collapsing down to sit on a stone bench obviously placed there for that purpose.

"Generally they go in large groups, escorted by a squad of Crusaders," Sephiroth said. He went up the first set of steps in order to touch the blue sphere there to restore his magic, then returned to join them at the bottom.

Zack, the bastard, didn't even look winded. "This isn't so bad," he insisted. "How did you make it all the way from the Calm Lands?" He seemed to have mostly recovered from the argument with his mother, though there was regret and hurt lingering in the back of his eyes.

"Luck," Cloud replied, finally catching his breath. "And it wasn't so bloody hot out until I got as far as Luca. How can you live like this?" His clothes were soaked through with sweat, and he was willing to bet his face was the colour of a ripe tomato.

"Hot?" Zack looked astonished. "Are you kidding me? We're barely into spring! Half the islanders are still wearing winter clothes."

"Winter clothes?" Cloud repeated, staring right back at him. Zack was in a sleeveless shirt and pants, but almost everyone else Cloud had seen in Kilika and Besaid had been half dressed at best. "Zack, if they were wearing any less, most of them would be naked!"

"If a guy is wearing a shirt, that's winter clothing," Zack told him, laughing. "If anyone is wearing sleeves, it's gotta be freezing out."

"There is often snow on the ground all year round in the mountains around Gagazet, Zack," Sephiroth said. "To someone from that region your 'winters' are warmer than their summers. It took me years to become accustomed to Luca's heat, and Bevelle is far more temperate than the upper reaches of the Calm Lands."

"All year round?" Zack's eyes went impossibly wide. He looked at Cloud, disbelief written large on his face. "He's pulling my leg, isn't he?"

Cloud shrugged. "Nibelheim is below the snow line for at least a couple of months every year, but you don't have to go very far to find it again."

"Ugh." Zack shuddered. "Okay, now I'm reconsidering this guardian thing. I'm curious to see snow, but I don't want to have to deal with that much of it!"

"The pass over Gagazet is always covered in snow," Cloud informed him, daring to tease back. At least, he hoped Zack was only teasing. "And Lake Macalania is frozen solid year round, despite being in the lowlands."

"The fayth in Macalania is rather fond of ice," Sephiroth said, looking amused and almost fond. "I must say it was my favourite temple, despite the cold. It and its fayth are arguably the most beautiful."

"Great, I'm looking forward to it." Zack's tone said exactly the opposite of his words, and Cloud chuckled.

"Well, we won't get there any faster by sitting around here," Cloud said. He hauled himself to his feet with a groan, eyeing the seemingly endless stairs. "Let's go."

By the second landing he was out of breath. By the fourth he was sweating hard again, and wishing he was dressed like Zack even if it would make him feel naked. By the fifth he was more than ready to sit down again, and there was still no end in sight.

"Is this supposed to be some kind of punishment?" Cloud gasped, pausing briefly to pant for air. "Or is this just a practical joke you play on the summoners, and the real entrance is somewhere else?"

"Wimp," Zack teased him. "High Summoner Ohalland used to run up and down these stairs every day when he was training for blitzball. It's still one of the traditional drills the Beasts use."

"Fine. You run," Cloud said, bracing his hands against his knees and trying to get his wind back. "Eventually we'll catch up to wherever you've collapsed, and I'm sure Lord Sephiroth will be kind enough to heal you."

"You think I haven't done it before?" Zack asked him, grinning. "Running the stairs, I mean, not passing out from it."

"You know, if I weren't so grateful for you, I might hate you," Cloud said, sighing. "You're too perfect. And smug about it."

"Wait until we get to Luca," Sephiroth said as Zack laughed. "He's actually been quite pleasant to deal with on this trip."

By the time they neared the top Cloud was seriously starting to wonder if the whole thing was worth it. Between the climb and the steadily rising heat he was about ready to just keel over.

"Almost there," Zack coaxed him from the top. "Just one more flight, you can do it."

"At least I only have to go down the stairs when I'm exhausted from dealing with the fayth," Cloud muttered, forcing himself to take just a few more steps. Beside him Sephiroth chuckled.

They finally reached the top, and Cloud was able to look down at the temple itself. It lay at the far end of a natural depression, surrounded by columns topped by burning flames somehow trapped in crystals.

Cloud stared at the centre of the depression in disbelief. Almost the entire area was covered in more of the clear crystal, and it did nothing to obscure the massive fire burning just beneath the surface. The tongues of flame licked greedily at the crystal, as if they were searching for a weakness, hungry for the people strolling casually back and forth above.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Zack said, standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the area. "The flames appeared when Lord Ohalland brought the calm, and they've been burning ever since. Man, I've missed this place. Feels like coming home." He threw out his arms like he was trying to embrace the whole mountain, head tilted back to bask in the light and heat from the flames.

"Much as I would like to allow you to enjoy your homecoming, it would probably be best to move quickly," Sephiroth murmured regretfully. "The faster we proceed, the less likely we are to run into a confrontation. There are a great many people here."

"Yeah." Zack sighed and dropped his hands. "That is, assuming the priests don't decide to make a scene anyway. I'd like to think the Kilika Temple is more reasonable, but then I didn't expect my own mother to turn against me, either."

They moved forward, debating methods of convincing the priests to cooperate, should they prove reluctant. Cloud remained where he was, rooted to the stone, staring at the giant fire beneath the ground with a rising sense of panic and horror. They wanted him to walk over that? What if the fire found a way through to devour him? What if the crystal broke, and dropped him right into the heart of the flames?

He wasn't sure how long it took the others to notice that he hadn't followed them, because his sense of time was distorted by his strangling fear and it was hard to look at anything but the fire. One moment they weren't with him, and then suddenly they were, concerned voices and supporting hands only vaguely registering through his all-consuming horror.

Finally Sephiroth moved to stand between Cloud and the fire, breaking his line of sight. Cloud gasped and nearly collapsed, his shaking legs giving out on him. Only a quick grab by Zack kept him on his feet, and even then his guardian was the one supporting his weight.

"I can't," Cloud said, his throat so dry his voice emerged as a squeak. He tried to swallow, but there was no moisture in his mouth, either. The flames had sucked it away, eaten it up like they wanted to eat him up. "I can't, the... the f-f... I just can't."

"You're afraid of the fire." Sephiroth's deep voice was soft, and he made it a statement rather than a question. Cloud nodded anyway, burning with shame and embarrassment. He felt like a craven coward, like the useless trash the Spirans had always called him.

"Oh, boy. This could be an interesting Trial," he heard Zack say from behind him. "Look, Cloud, we don't have to walk over the flame to get in. We can just go around the edge, see? No problem."

Warily Cloud turned his head enough to see where Zack was pointing. Sure enough there was a stone ring around the crystal, wide enough for two to walk abreast. It passed under some of the smaller flame crystals, but compared to the main fire they were hardly even worth noticing. Cloud was fairly certain he could handle them.

Even so he fixed his eyes firmly on the back of Zack's belt as his guardian led the way. The brown leather was safe, even comforting. As long as he was watching it, he didn't have to see the hungry fires all around him.

"Steady," Sephiroth murmured. "There are more fires inside, but none of them will harm you. My word on it. This is the home of the aeon of fire, and the fayth likes to surround himself with them, that is all."

"I'm g-glad this wasn't the first temple," Cloud managed to say, trembling. "I might have changed my m-mind."

They made it into the cool, dim interior of the temple without any further problems, which Cloud counted as a success. The inside was indeed lit by more of the crystal fires, but they were scattered widely enough that Cloud could pass through them without feeling like one was surely about to drop on his head. There were people here and there, civilians as well as priests. Some were praying, but most were hard at work on the stone walls and floors, repairing and restoring them.

"Up there, same as Besaid," Zack said, pointing at the stairway to the Trial. Oddly, there was no priest waiting at the top to greet summoners and turn away the curious.

Taking a deep breath, Cloud nodded and began to climb. His legs protested being asked to go up yet more stairs, but he ignored them, focused on the ordeal to come. Another Trial, another fayth, another aeon; one step closer to Zanarkand.

A flustered-looking priest emerged from behind the door just as Cloud reached the top. The priest paused at the sight of him, seemed ready to say something unpleasant, and then appeared to change his mind. He bowed, his movements stiff. "Lord Cloud," he said, sounding like he had to force the words out. "Kilika Temple is honoured to receive a summoner, as always. The fayth is beyond. Yevon be with you."

Cloud eyed him nervously, waiting for the catch. The man said nothing further, still bowing to him, and finally Cloud returned the gesture.

He entered the antechamber of the Trial, feeling a little more optimistic. "Well, they let me in without a fight this time," he said as the door closed behind Zack and Sephiroth. Maybe now that he actually was a summoner, they wouldn't be as reluctant to allow him inside the temples.

"I don't like it," Zack said slowly, surprising Cloud. His brow was knitted, and he was frowning. "How did he know your name?"

Cloud blinked, startled. That hadn't even occurred to him.

"News of this nature travels quickly," Sephiroth pointed out, but he looked troubled as well.

"Going to my family first was a mistake." Zack shook his head. "We should have come straight here. Someone from the ship got here before we did, and warned them. Something smells as rotten as an ochu." He looked grimly at Sephiroth. "Is it possible they could have done something to sabotage the Trial?"

Cloud's eyes went wide, and Sephiroth's frown deepened. "If you're asking is it physically possible, the answer is yes," the tall summoner said. "If you're asking my opinion of whether they would stoop to such a level... well, my belief in the moral integrity of Yevon's faithful dropped sharply ten years ago, and has fallen even further in the last few days."

Cloud was floored. He wouldn't have been surprised if the priests had denied him entrance or even physically thrown him out again. But to let him in with a false smile on their faces, while having pulled something so underhanded, was beyond him. "How could they sabotage their own Trial? Doesn't that go against their precious teachings as well?"

"It never fails to amaze me what depths people will sink to when they believe they are the righteous ones," Sephiroth said.

"Great." Zack raked a hand through his hair, eyeing the entrance to the Trial warily. "If they'd stoop to messing with the Trial, I don't trust them not to have made it potentially fatal as well. It's supposed to be difficult. How are we going to know what belongs, and what's a trap?" He blinked, and looked at Sephiroth. "You've been through here before, right? Would you remember it well enough to be able to spot something out of place?"

"Only summoners and their guardians are permitted beyond this point, Zack," Sephiroth reminded him sternly.

Zack's jaw was set, and the look in his eyes was defiant. "Yeah, so? They cheated first. The game is rigged and the refs have all been bought, and I'm calling them on it. Besides, you are a summoner."

"I have no intention of addressing the fayth, so it would still be cheating," Seph said, but he looked like he was contemplating the idea.

"No." Cloud made his voice as firm as he could, considering it wanted to tremble with fury at what the priests had pulled. They both looked at him in surprise. "We'll do it the right way, or not at all," Cloud insisted. "We already have enough problems with people claiming that I'm cheating or forcing the fayth somehow. We'll manage."

Zack clapped him on the shoulder, and grinned. "That's the spirit. You're right; we shouldn't sink to their level."

Sephiroth was giving him the oddest look. If Cloud hadn't known better, he'd have thought it was pride and satisfaction. "There is one way I could accompany you without breaking any rules," Sephiroth said. "As your guardian. That is, if you would have me?" He raised an eyebrow at Cloud.

Zack's jaw dropped, and he stared at Sephiroth. Cloud would have done the same, except he was literally frozen in shock. Him? Lord General Sephiroth wanted to be his guardian?

"You... but... you're a summoner," Cloud sputtered, struggling to gather his scattered thoughts. "You should have a guardian, not be one!"

"You refuse, then?" Sephiroth said it as if it didn't matter one way or another to him, but there was an amused glint in his eyes as he watched Cloud.

"Wha... no, no! Of course I would have you," Cloud rushed to say. "But I don't... you shouldn't... Zack?" He looked pleadingly at his guardian.

"He's got a point, Seph," Zack said, sounding a little stunned. "Can you be both a summoner and a guardian?"

"There is nothing in the teachings of Yevon against it," Sephiroth said. He shrugged. "Truly, who better? This is not my pilgrimage, so the fact that I am a summoner is simply an indication of my power, not my purpose."

"Then yes," Cloud said, still not quite certain that this was actually happening. Had he passed out from the heat and exertion somewhere along the way, and this was all just a dream? "If you're sure. I would be honoured."

Zack pumped his fist in the blitzball sign of victory. "Yes! Not quite what I'd planned when I dragged you out of Luca, but I think this may be even better." This time Sephiroth's raised eyebrow was directed at Zack, who grinned in response, unrepentant.

"Then, let us proceed," Sephiroth said, gesturing at the entrance to the Trial. "Don't expect any hints, however."

"I wouldn't want them," Cloud said firmly. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, more determined than ever to live up to the honour Sephiroth was showing him.

The first puzzle seemed simple enough; there was a door with an empty sphere recess, and a glowing sphere in another recess in the wall. Confidently Cloud grabbed the Kilika sphere from the wall and inserted it into the door.

The solid door vanished, replaced by a net of fire. Cloud froze as the heat and light washed over him, the crackling echoing in his ears. He could smell the smoke and the fire itself, feel it biting into his flesh like a starving Nibelwolf. Above him he could hear his mother shrieking in agony, her voice nearly swallowed by the roar of the firestorm, his own screams of terror and pain blending with hers in terrible harmony. He couldn't breathe, the heat smothering and the smoke choking him, the fire consuming all the air. He welcomed the darkness that rose to consume him, preferring it to the hunger of the flames.

Chapter Text

Something fizzed over Cloud, a jolt of power that skittered over his nerves like a pyrefly over the Moonflow. He gasped and coughed, wondering why it was so easy to breathe. He remembered the searing pain of the cold air after the fire, remembered the way his lungs had shrieked in protest and every inch of his skin had throbbed with the pain of his burns. Why didn't he hurt now?

He opened his eyes, dazed, and found Zack and Sephiroth crouched over him. "I don't think it worked," Zack was saying, looking worried and fearful. "Maybe another phoenix down would help?"

"No, he's awake," Sephiroth murmured, and nodded at Cloud. Zack looked down at him, his expression relieved.

"Hey, kid. You okay? You gave us a hell of a scare, there," Zack murmured. He got one arm behind Cloud's shoulders and helped him to sit up. "Can you talk? What happened?"

Slowly memory returned. He wasn't in Nibelheim, and nothing was burning around him. The fire in the doorway was gone, and Sephiroth held the Kilika sphere that had caused it to appear. Shivering, Cloud looked away from it. "I'm okay," he croaked, though he felt anything but. "I'm sorry. I just... I'm sorry."

"You've been caught in a fire yourself," Sephiroth said, sounding certain. "That's why you're so frightened of it."

Miserably Cloud nodded. He knew his guardians deserved an explanation for his shameful behaviour, but it hurt to even think of talking about it. It was the worst memory he had, and just thinking of it was enough to bring the horror and pain crashing back down on him. Somehow he forced his voice to work, the words emerging shaky but understandable. "I was ten. There had been a drought that spring and summer, and even the snowmelt hadn't helped. A thunderstorm swept through in the middle of the night, and the whole area went up like kindling." He shuddered, and Zack rubbed his shoulder encouragingly.

"Most of the town burned to the ground," Cloud continued doggedly, fixing his gaze on the safe solidity of the stone floor in a vain attempt not to see the flames in his mind's eye. "The winds made it impossible to stop the fire before it spread. We lived on the outside of the village, and by the time it got to us..." He closed his eyes, unable to describe what it had been like when the fire had roared over their house, waking him in the night.

"Wait." Zack sounded confused, and Cloud glanced up to see him frowning. "If you were one of the last houses hit, there should have been plenty of time for someone to warn you to get out. How'd you get caught?" Grimly Cloud looked back at him, giving his guardian the full view of his damned eyes, and said nothing. Horror and outrage dawned on Zack's face. "They didn't. They just left you to die because you're Al Bhed?"

"Afterwards, they said they were too busy trying to stop the fire," Cloud said bitterly. "That they hadn't thought it would get as far as us. That they assumed we would hear the shouting, or that we had already gotten out. Some of them even meant it." Tifa had apologized to him later with tears in her eyes, saying she'd been too busy trying to help her sickly mother get out of their own home next door, and he'd believed that she at least had been sincere.

"You humble me," Sephiroth murmured, surprising Cloud. "You have suffered far more than I, and more cruelly. Yet you are determined to make this journey despite all the odds against you, while I stew in my bitterness and refuse to save them."

"Like Zack said, not all Spirans are prejudiced assholes," Cloud admitted, uncomfortable with the way Sephiroth was looking at him. "And I have a promise that I have to keep. Besides." He laughed, the sound containing little mirth, and finally admitted the truth. "A large part of why I'm doing this is so I can thumb my nose at all of them. It's just my own way of showing bitterness."

"And you'll do it, too," Zack said, patting his back. "You've made it this far, against worse odds than I thought. How did you survive the fire, though?"

"There's a former guardian who sometimes comes to my village, to help us with the fiends and to train anyone who wants to learn to defend themselves," Cloud told him. "Sir Zangan happened to be camping nearby that night, and he came running when he saw the flames. He used ice spells to put the fires out, and he healed us afterwards." He looked down at his arms, where the burns had been worst. Only the faintest of scars showed there now, thanks to Zangan's magic. Unfortunately his mother had been far more badly burned; she carried visible scars to this day, though Zangan had kept her from dying or being crippled. "If not for him, my mother and I probably wouldn't be alive now."

"I know of Sir Zangan," Sephiroth said. "I've heard nothing but good said of him, though I've never met him myself. I'm sure he would be proud of you, now."

"Maybe we'll run into him on the journey," Zack said. "I'd like to thank him, myself. After all," he grinned at Cloud. "If not for him, I'd be short one summoner. Are you able to keep going?"

Cloud looked at the doorway nervously. It was clear now, with no sign of the fire that had filled it only minutes before, but he didn't trust it. "What if it comes back while I'm walking through it?"

"It will not," Sephiroth assured him. "It is merely a test of courage. As I said before, the fayth's intention is to test you, not to harm you."

"But what if that's the part the priests sabotaged?" Cloud persisted, sweating at the thought. "What if they rigged it so it will come back?"

"He's got a point, Seph," Zack said. He stood, and eyed the doorway, then shrugged. "Oh, well. Only one way to find out, I guess."

Before Cloud could realize what he intended or do anything to stop him, Zack stepped through the doorway. Cloud shouted a belated protest, but no flames licked out at his guardian. Zack made it through to the other side completely unscathed.

"What?" Zack asked, turning back to laugh at Cloud's horror. "No big deal. Not like Seph couldn't have healed me if it had hit me. The fire wasn't that bad."

Cloud could only shake his head, his voice lost in his terror and relief.

"Are you trying to give your poor summoner a heart attack, Zack?" Sephiroth asked dryly. "You're supposed to be preserving his life, not attempting to cut it short." He offered Cloud a hand up.

Feeling embarrassed that he needed the help, Cloud accepted his hand and let Sephiroth pull him to his feet. He was still a little unsteady, but he managed to stand on his own with no further assistance.

Even with Zack's example it took every bit of courage Cloud had to make himself step through the doorway. Cloud couldn't shake the irrational fear that the fire was just waiting for him. Sephiroth's solid presence at his back helped, as did the encouraging smile Zack gave him from the other side.

And then he was through, no worse for wear. Nothing terrible had happened; there wasn't so much as a whiff of smoke. Cloud let himself breathe again, shoulders slumping with relief.

"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Zack said. "Just trust us to protect you, okay? That's our job."

"You make it sound so easy," Cloud said. He looked hopefully at Sephiroth. "I don't suppose that was the worst of it?" To his dismay, but not really to his surprise, Sephiroth shook his head. Cloud sighed. "I was afraid of that. All right, let's go."

Somehow Cloud managed to keep his composure for the most part, though it wasn't just the heat that had him sweating as they progressed through the Trial. When they reached a room with a pit filled with fire, his attempt to stay calm started to fall apart. He stared at the door on the far side, trying to find some way to get to it that didn't involve going through the pit. Of course there was probably a way to turn the fire off, but he wasn't sure he could bring himself to walk the length of that, knowing the flames might return at any moment.

Zack was studying the lines on the floor and walls, trying to figure out what each sphere recess powered. Sephiroth stood back impassively, letting them solve the puzzle but keeping a sharp eye out for anything that didn't belong.

"Okay," Zack said finally, approaching a glowing Kilika sphere set into the wall above the pit. "So all we have to do is... huh?" He tugged at the sphere again, then yanked. It didn't budge. "Is it supposed to do that?" he asked, scratching his head. "Because I'm pretty sure we need that one to go over there."

Sephiroth approached, frowning. "All the spheres should be movable," he said, pulling at it himself. The smooth surface offered no purchase, and he fared no better than Zack had.

Cloud's stomach sank. "Let me guess. That's the one that turns off the fire down there."

"Looks like it," Zack confirmed, sighing. "How were they planning to let the next summoner through, though?"

"Undoubtedly they have a solvent for whatever fixative it is they've used," Sephiroth said. "However, there is more than one way to put out a fire."

Cloud felt the tingle of rising energy, and a soprano voice sang the Hymn softly over the crackle of the fire. Another voice answered it, a deep thrum that somehow managed to give an impression of being opposed to the soprano despite being in perfect harmony.

Ice crystals swept over the surface of Sephiroth's sword, racing towards the point where they burst free into the air. A massive crystal formed right before the summoner, and Cloud blinked as he realized there was a blue-skinned woman trapped inside. This had to be Macalania's aeon, the queen of ice.

The crystal shattered abruptly, leaving her standing beside Sephiroth, inhumanly beautiful. They almost looked like they belonged together, with Sephiroth's ice-pale hair and skin. Cloud glanced at Zack, and found his other guardian staring at the aeon, clearly entranced.

Sephiroth inclined his head, the summoner acknowledging his aeon. "Tiphereth, if you would be so kind?"

She smiled at him, and Cloud heard Zack sigh in admiration. "Now that is a woman," Zack commented.

"Too much for you to handle," Cloud teased him, watching in fascination as the aeon gestured at the fire pit below. Ice crystals began to form there, and Cloud thought he could hear the deeper version of the Hymn vibrating in anger. Sizzling and cracking noises filled the air as the flames fought to melt the ice.

For a moment it looked like the fire would win. Then the aeon snapped her fingers and the whole room exploded in ice and frost. The flames sputtered and died, and the aeon looked smug.

"Thank you, my dear," Sephiroth murmured, smiling back at her. She flipped her hair over her shoulder, and winked deliberately at Cloud. Then she dissolved back into a cloud of pyreflies.

"Hey, Cloud, I think she likes you," Zack said, elbowing him.

"Ow. I hope she still feels the same way when we get to Macalania," Cloud said, rubbing his ribs.

"Worry first about the aeon you must face today," Sephiroth advised. "I'm afraid the fayth isn't likely to appreciate having his Trial interfered with by his opposite element. Zack, grab the Kilika sphere we left in the antechamber, we'll need it to open the door. Come quickly, the fire will return eventually."

That reminder nearly sent Cloud running in the other direction. He froze, heart hammering in his throat, panic at the thought of crossing the pit freezing his feet as surely as the aeon had frozen the fire.

"Steady," Zack said, pushing gently on his shoulder. "Just take it one step at a time, kid."

Somehow Cloud got his feet moving; first one, then the other, until the stairs down into the pit were before him. When he reached the bottom step panic got the better of him and he bolted, needing to get out of the place where the flames had been as quickly as possible. Thankfully in his fear he simply ran in the direction he'd already been facing, and so ended up crossing the pit without even being really aware of it.

Sephiroth caught him at the top of the stairs on the other side, or Cloud might well have brained himself running straight into the wall. Zack emerged right behind him, sphere in hand. Gulping for air, Cloud turned in Sephiroth's arms to look back. Frost still covered the stones of the passage, though he could see places where it was beginning to melt. They'd all made it safely across with time to spare.

"Not bad," Zack said, laughing. "Wish I'd had a timer on me. That was a hell of a sprint. Ever thought about training as a blitzer?"

Cloud blushed and shook his head. "I doubt the Psyches would have me. Anyway, I had other things I wanted to do." Not that he hadn't thought about it, but then what child growing up on Spira didn't imagine becoming a blitzball star?

"Well, if you ever change your mind - like, if someone else defeats Sin before we get there, I mean - think about it. The Psyches aren't the only team who would take you."

"Recruit him later, Zack," Sephiroth said. "For now, let him concentrate on the Trial and the fayth. We're not out of trouble until he has the aeon."

Reminded that he still had more of the Trial to face - not to mention that he was going to have to go through that pit a second time to get out - Cloud made himself focus. "I just hope the fayth isn't too irritated about us cheating," he said as they moved through the next door.

"Unfortunately Kilika's fayth is not known for his easy-going nature," Sephiroth said. "Better to hope that he places the blame where it belongs, on the priests who forced us to take that step."

"Nice job encouraging him, Seph," Zack said with a sympathetic grin as Cloud groaned.

Thankfully they reached the chamber of the fayth without running into any more traps. "Wonder what the priests think we're doing in here for so long," Zack chuckled. "Since they'll be assuming that we're stuck at the firepit."

"Likely they'll assume we're stubbornly attempting to find a way across," Sephiroth replied. He looked oddly uncomfortable, shifting restlessly, with a troubled expression on his face.

"Are you okay?" Cloud asked him, concerned. "You don't think they trapped the chamber, do you?"

"What?" Sephiroth blinked at him, and Cloud had to repeat his question. "Oh. No, I don't think they'd risk the direct wrath of the fayth," he said, shaking his head. "Forgive me, I am... preoccupied. Hod is restless, so close to his home."

It took Cloud a moment to realize that he was referring to his aeon, the piece of the Kilika fayth's power that he held within him. Cloud tried to imagine what it would be like to have that many aeons, and couldn't. Just having Jymavun's power made it feel like his skin wasn't quite big enough to hold him.

Well, he was about to find out what it was like to have at least two aeons, assuming this one didn't succeed in killing him where Besaid's had failed.

"This time I will wish you good luck, since we can only hope the fayth is reasonable," Zack said, smiling encouragingly. "So, good luck."

"Thanks," Cloud said, proud that his voice was only a little shaky. Once more he stepped inside a Chamber of the Fayth, letting the door close between him and his guardians. Out of curiosity, Cloud tested the door, and wasn't in the least surprised to find it locked.

"Looking for a way out already?"

Cloud spun, startled, and found the fayth already hovering over the buried statue. This one was a man around Zack's age, tall and strong with the muscles of a warrior, dressed not unlike some of the Crusaders Cloud had seen. He was watching Cloud with a derisive expression in his eyes that made Cloud's shoulders go tense. He'd seen that look from too many Spirans, especially recently. Was this fayth just another closed-minded, prejudiced asshole?

The fayth smiled, mocking him. "You don't have the guts to go all the way," the fayth declared. "I've seen your type before. Always looking for the escape route, 'just in case'. Always relying on others to do the hard work for you. You'll back out at the first sign of real difficulty."

Stung by the accusations, Cloud bit his lip to stop himself from saying anything rash. The fayth's words only hurt because they struck too close to home. He had been relying on Zack and Sephiroth too much.

On the other hand... "You have no idea what I've been through just to get this far," he said through gritted teeth. "Yes, I needed help, but that's why summoners have guardians. I'll make it if kills me."

The fayth's smile darkened, and Cloud gulped, regretting his rash promise. The fayth lifted a hand, palm up, and a ball of fire gathered between his fingers. "Prove it," he taunted softly. "Take my power, and prove yourself worthy, if you've got the guts."

Cloud eyed the flame nervously. It burned with all the colours of fire, so hot at the centre it was intensely white. He wanted to tell himself this was just a test of courage like the Trial, that it wouldn't truly harm him. Something in the fayth's eyes told him it wouldn't be that easy.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Cloud demanded, anguished. First Besaid, and now Kilika. Were they just taunting him with a dream he would never have?

"If you cannot handle the tests we give you, then you are not the champion we need," the fayth said scornfully. "You'll face far worse than this before the end."

Cloud looked again at the ball of fire, and swallowed hard. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to flee.

"Now, will you take my power and become a warrior for us? Or will you run home to hide behind your mama's skirts? I'll even make an exception for you and open the door," the fayth taunted him.

Cloud reached inside himself and touched the core of power that was his connection to Jymavun. She sent him a burst of wordless encouragement, and he clung to the memory of the moment when he'd first summoned her. The pain she'd put him through had been worth it in the end. He had to believe this would be, too.

Before he could change his mind - or perhaps come to his senses - Cloud reached out with both hands to grab at the fayth's power.

Agony shot through him, and the sickening scent of cooking meat filled the room. Cloud screamed and tried to yank his hands back, but the fire came with him. It sank slowly into his skin, filling his veins with acid.

Then it reached his heart, and Cloud discovered whole new levels of agony. He collapsed, his body completely out of his control as he writhed on the ground in pain. He couldn't feel his hands anymore, but if the horrible scent of burned meat was any indication, that was probably a mercy. He thought his heart was going to burst, and he wondered if it was burning too.

It went on and on, time stretching out and every second lasting an eternity of agony. It was worse than when he'd been caught in the fire as a child, a million times worse. At least then he'd passed out from pain and lack of air fairly quickly, and had been spared the full brunt of what had happened to him. This time something kept him from the oblivion of unconsciousness, forcing him to remain aware of everything that was happening to him.

Finally, as it had in Besaid, the fayth's power slowly began to settle inside him. Unlike in Besaid, however, this power had left true physical damage behind. Cloud retched with agony and the smell of his own burned flesh, curling up instinctively in a vain attempt to protect his damaged body.

"You'll do," he thought he heard the fayth murmur. "You just might be the one we need, after all." It released whatever grip it had on his mind, and Cloud was finally able to faint from the pain.

Cloud half roused when he felt the tingling energy of a life spell sweep over him. Unfortunately it healed him just enough that his body started registering the pain signals from his hands again, and he screamed with a voice already gone raw. Someone swore, and another spell was cast over him that plunged him back into the blessed oblivion of sleep.

The next time he woke, awareness came slowly, his mind fighting it out of a vague certainty that waking would be painful. Voices reached him through the haze of darkness, familiar and comforting.

"...can't be normal. Are they trying to kill him?"

"Summoners do die in prayer to the fayth, though it's very rare. But I cannot say I've ever heard of one being physically injured before." That was Sephiroth's voice, Cloud hazily identified.

"Are the priests right? Is what he's doing sacrilege?"

"If you doubt..."

"No. No, damn it, I don't doubt him. The priests are wrong, or he wouldn't have received the aeon at all. I'm just starting to doubt the sanity of the fayth!"

"Testing me," Cloud said, or tried to. It came out as an indistinct mumble. Reluctantly he forced his eyes open, and blinked blearily at Zack. In what was rapidly becoming a familiar sight, his guardian was watching over him with a worried expression.

"Hey, how're you feeling?" Zack asked when he saw that Cloud was awake.

"My hands..." Cloud was afraid to look at them. They weren't hurting, which could be a very bad sign.

"They seem to have healed well, but you should make certain you still have your full range of motion." Sephiroth's voice was far closer than Cloud had expected it to be, and he could feel the rumble in the wall he was leaning against. He looked up and realized to his incredible embarrassment that Sephiroth was carrying him like a little child.

Cloud felt his face go hot. "I can walk," he squeaked, mortified. How embarrassing that the man could carry him so easily. Cloud knew he wasn't exactly huge for his age, but he didn't think he was that scrawny.

"Your hands?" Sephiroth prompted, with no indication that he intended to set Cloud down.

Figuring that continuing to protest would only make him look sillier, Cloud obediently tried flexing his fingers. They felt a little stiff, but loosened up as he worked them. There wasn't even any scarring. "I think they're okay," he said, more relieved than words could possibly express. "Thank you."

"He shouldn't have needed to heal you in the first place," Zack burst out, gesturing angrily. "What the hell are they doing to you in there?"

"Testing me," Cloud repeated. "At least, that's what they said." He kept his eyes on his hands, still not really believing there was no damage. "Jymavun's fayth said she was testing my strength of will, and Evned's said he wanted to see my courage."

"You have the aeon, then," Sephiroth said. Cloud nodded. He could feel the heat of the new power within him, a seething flame next to Jymavun's calm energy. It was incredibly uncomfortable, and Cloud hoped it would settle in time and stop feeling quite so much like an actual fire burning inside him.

"Testing you? For what?" Zack looked at Sephiroth. "Is that normal?"

"It was not my experience, but I can't say whether it has ever happened before," Sephiroth replied, sounding troubled. "It isn't something that is discussed, even among summoners. The experience is intensely private."

"Well, that's useful." Zack sighed. "We'd better find somewhere to hole up for a few days, until you recover. Somehow I don't trust the priests enough to be willing to stay at the temple, and apparently my first plan was a bit optimistic."

Cloud grimaced at the reminder of the disastrous scene with Zack's mother. There was still a deep but lingering hurt in his guardian's eyes, and Cloud would have done just about anything to be able to erase it.

For the first time since waking, he actually looked beyond his guardians, and he blinked. He'd thought they were still in the temple, perhaps making their way back through the Trial, but they were well into the forest outside. He could see the gates to Kilika itself just ahead. "How did you get me out of there?" it occurred to him to ask.

"Few minutes after you went in, the door opened again," Zack explained. "Seph went in when you didn't appear, and carried you out again."

"It should not have happened," Sephiroth said. When Cloud glanced up at him, he looked perturbed. "The door is only supposed to open when the triumphant summoner approaches with his or her new aeon - or when the summoner dies. You were unconscious, but certainly not dead."

"Maybe they're not trying to kill me after all." Cloud rested his head against Sephiroth's shoulder, trying not to be too incredibly self-conscious about being carried. It felt like every eye was on them as they entered the village, people pointing and whispering behind their hands. Cloud knew it wasn't his imagination when Zack moved so that Cloud was mostly hidden between him and Sephiroth, protecting him from the stares.

"I'm starting to think it might be a good idea to head for Luca sooner rather than later," Zack muttered, his gaze flicking back and forth over the crowded docks. "At least there, people see lots of Al Bhed, even in the company of Spirans. Damn it, why does my mother have to be the biggest gossip on the island?" To Cloud's surprise Zack looked miserable. "I'm sorry, Cloud. This is my fault. I screwed up."

"Don't blame yourself," Cloud said. "You couldn't have known."

"He is right," Sephiroth added. "You cannot spend time regretting past mistakes when your attention needs to be in the present, guarding your summoner."

Zack shook his head and squared his shoulders, appearing to take heart from Sephiroth's words. "You're right. We'll just have to..."

"Rao, oui!"

Cloud turned automatically at the sound of his first language, and found three angry-looking men heading straight for them. Goggles hid their eyes, but even if they hadn't spoken Cloud would have known them for Al Bhed by the wetsuits they wore. "Is something wrong?" he asked in the same language, a little nervously. Had they heard the gossip and were coming to confront him for being a summoner?

To his surprise, their angry gestures were clearly aimed at Zack and Sephiroth. "Did you think we wouldn't notice you taking one of us if you dressed him up like a Spiran?" the first man demanded, still in Al Bhed.

"Don't worry, kid, we've got your back," a second one added directly to Cloud. "What happened to the rest of your shipmates? Are you hurt?"

"Uh..." Cloud gaped at them, floundering for something to say.

"You are under a mistaken impression, gentlemen," Sephiroth said, his voice dry and accent flawless. The Al Bhed all stared to see a Spiran speak their language so well, just as Cloud had done when Sephiroth first spoke to him.

Zack was looking back and forth between Sephiroth and the Al Bhed, one hand on his sword hilt though he hadn't drawn it yet. "Someone wanna translate for those of us who only swear in Al Bhed?" he asked with a sort of grim humour.

"They think you're, I don't know, kidnapping me or something," Cloud told him. "Seph, put me down, please."

This time Sephiroth obeyed, though Cloud was dismayed to find that his legs were still too shaky to support him. Sephiroth had to steady him with a hand around his waist. "These are my... my friends," Cloud said in Al Bhed, changing his wording at the last moment. Telling these men that Zack and Sephiroth were his guardians was probably not a good idea. "They're helping me, not hurting me."

The Al Bhed looked surprised, and a little contemptuous, but their hands dropped away from their weapons. Sephiroth made a subtle gesture at Zack, who let go of his sword with obvious reluctance.

"Friends with Spirans? And dressed like one, too," the first man said. "Are you trying to pretend to be one?"

The third man, silent until now, nudged the first and leaned over to whisper. Cloud caught the words 'blue eyes', and knew they'd finally noticed that he was part Spiran. "I'm dressed like this because these are my clothes," he said anyway. "But... thank you for trying to rescue me." He did appreciate the sentiment - these Al Bhed were strangers to him, yet they'd been willing to risk their lives to protect him from they'd believed was danger.

Without thinking about it, he made the sign of Yevon and bowed to them. It had become an automatic gesture over the last few days. He realized halfway through what he'd done, and mentally kicked himself, but completed the gesture. If nothing else, it would emphasize that he wasn't one of them.

Sure enough when he raised his head, he saw them turning away with disgusted looks. Cloud sighed and rubbed his eyes, reminding himself that he might as well get used to it. It had been a nice change to deal with friendly Al Bhed on the way to Besaid, but now they would look on him with the same distrust and contempt as the Spirans.

"That went well?" Zack said, his inflection making it a question.

"As much as could be hoped for," Sephiroth said as they moved towards the docks again. "Nobody is injured or dying. But I think you may be right about leaving the island sooner rather than later."

Another Al Bhed was running towards them, a young woman. This one took no notice of them, tearing past them and heading straight for the group they had just left. "Hey, guys!" Cloud heard her call in Al Bhed. "You'll never guess what I just heard. The Spirans are totally up in arms, claiming that an Al Bhed raided the temple and forced the fayth to make him a summoner!"

"Uh-oh," Cloud muttered, going tense.

"They may not realize it's us the rumour is referring to," Sephiroth replied quietly.

Cloud gave him an incredulous look, then glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough the leader of the Al Bhed group was staring after him with a thoughtful expression that was rapidly darkening into anger. The man turned away and started talking to the others, gesturing emphatically, but they were now too far away for Cloud to hear their words. "I don't think we're going to be that lucky."

"More trouble?" Zack asked, reaching for his sword again.

"Don't," Sephiroth said, waving him off. "Going for your weapon first will only incite violence. They've offered no threat as of yet. We need to teach you Al Bhed, or your lack of understanding could become a larger problem in the future."

"Yeah, sure, in all our spare time," Zack said wryly. "One of these days."

Cloud was still watching the group of Al Bhed, but to his surprise they made no move to follow him. "Looks like they're just going to let us go," he said, not quite sure he believed it. "Maybe they just figure I'm too Spiran to bother themselves with."

"Or perhaps they are wise enough not to believe every rumour they overhear from a Spiran," Sephiroth pointed out. "In any case, clearly the Kilikans are not likely to welcome our further presence here. We'd best inquire about passage to Luca."

"Damn it, I really wanted to give Cloud a chance to eat something," Zack sighed. "Well, I'll see what I can do about getting something to help with that seasickness. Seph, can you take him for the moment? I'll go on ahead and arrange things."

"That might be wise," Sephiroth agreed. "I can protect him for the moment. Go."

Zack saluted him briefly, then turned and dove straight into the water off the side of the dock. He cut through the water like a pro, weaving through the slower traffic, and was out of sight in seconds.

Cloud and Sephiroth continued to walk at a more sedate pace, Cloud keeping his head down so his eyes wouldn't be immediately obvious to anyone who glanced at him. "Maybe I should buy a hood or something, to hide my hair, too," he sighed.

"Perhaps, but I don't think you'll find such a thing here," Sephiroth said, chuckling softly. "As you pointed out earlier, Kilikans seem to believe that less is more where clothing is concerned. Don't worry too much, Cloud. People will adjust, once the rumours have spread and the idea isn't so new. The more aeons you control, the less they can possibly protest that you don't deserve to be a summoner."

Looking down at his hands once more, Cloud could only hope that the trend wouldn't continue. If the next fayth was even more difficult to deal with than Evned's had been, he was certain he wouldn't survive long enough to need to worry about what the Spirans' future reactions might be.

Chapter Text

Cloud clung to the railing, trying not to be too obvious about the desperation in his grip. The receding shore grew smaller and smaller behind them, leaving them alone in a vast expanse of ocean. Soon Kilika would be out of sight completely, and it would be a full day before Luca and the mainland came into view.

"Missing Kilika already?" Zack teased him. His guardian stood nearby, hands shading his eyes as he looked out over the sun-sparkled water. "If anyone should be getting homesick for it, it's me."

"It's 'homesickness' for solid land, not Kilika in particular," Cloud murmured. They'd forced him to eat breakfast early that morning, and he could feel it sloshing in his stomach as the ship rocked along. "At least it's nice and calm today."

"Yeah," Zack said, but he didn't sound like he really agreed. Cloud glanced up and found Zack frowning out at the sea, so calm it was like a mirror. The sky was clear and bright, with only the faintest hint of clouds on one horizon.

"Something wrong?" Sephiroth asked, apparently hearing the same note of worry in Zack's voice that Cloud had picked up. The other man was resting in the shade of the umbrella set up for that purpose, shielding his pale skin from the sun.

"It's a little too nice," Zack said, shaking his head. "You've heard the expression 'calm before the storm'? That's what this reminds me of. We're on the early side of hurricane season, but only barely. There have been storms this early in the past."

"If there was a storm coming, there would have been warning flags up and the captain wouldn't have weighed anchor. He knows the sea as well or better than you, Zack." Sephiroth seemed unconcerned, which reassured Cloud a bit.

"Yeah, I guess." Zack glanced at Cloud. "Don't worry, kid. Seph's right, the captain knows his business. And whatever else people say about the Al Bhed, they always warn us when there's a big storm coming."

"Was I being that obvious?" Cloud muttered, ducking his head. The thought of being at sea in a storm made him sweat nearly as bad as the fires in Kilika's temple had. He felt Evned stir within him at the thought, and quickly urged the aeon back down again. His control over it still wasn't perfect, and he didn't want to encourage it in any way.

"Only a little," Zack said, smiling at him. "How's your stomach? You look a little green around the gills. Oh!" He smacked his forehead, startling Cloud. "Geez, I almost forgot. Here, try these." He reached into his pocket and produced, of all things, a handful of tantal greens.

"Haha, very funny," Cloud said, glaring at him. "What do I look like, a chocobo?"

"Well, now that you mention it..." Zack eyed Cloud's spiky mop of bright yellow hair significantly. Cloud punched him, and his guardian laughed. "No, seriously. You don't eat them, you just chew on them. They help with seasickness." He offered them again, his expression eagerly sincere. Cloud eyed him warily, not quite trusting that it wasn't some kind of prank, but he could find no hint that Zack was secretly laughing at him.

"If you cannot trust your guardians, your journey is doomed to fail before it even begins," Sephiroth put in unexpectedly.

"I trust you both with my life," Cloud said, sighing and reaching for the greens. "I'm just not sure I trust him with my pride." Sephiroth smiled and inclined his head, acknowledging the point. "I'm just going to throw them up again, you know."

"Try them and see," was all Zack would say.

Cloud broke off a generous sprig and popped it in his mouth. It tasted... well, green. He couldn't come up with any other word for it. He chewed it, the tough fibres grinding but not really giving way beneath his teeth, producing a faint trickle of minty juice.

Almost immediately the worst of his nausea subsided. Cloud nearly choked in surprise, then coughed and chewed a little more vigorously. "It helps," he said, thrilled. "I wouldn't want to eat anything, but I'm not about to lose my breakfast anymore, either." The sensation still lingered, but it was much easier to ignore. Maybe this journey wouldn't be such a torment after all.

"I've got more than enough to last the whole trip," Zack declared. He looked justifiably smug. "Can't have our summoner wasting away to nothing before we even get to Luca! So, now that you're not clinging to the rail like a lifeline, want me to show you around the ship a little?"

"Yes, please!" Cloud agreed eagerly.

Sephiroth chuckled. "Yes, go help Zack run off some of his energy so he doesn't go stir-crazy. I'll stay here in the shade, thank you."

"Spoilsport," Zack laughed. "C'mon, Cloud. We'll leave old Sourpuss McLazybones here to his beauty sleep while we have some fun."

Instead of dragging out in an eternity of illness, the day flew by in a whirlwind of fun and new experiences. Cloud already knew that Zack was familiar with ships, but he hadn't realized how much his guardian knew about them. He also hadn't realized that Zack knew almost everyone on the ship at least by sight - and if he didn't already know them, he quickly charmed them into friendliness.

Zack showed him the massive paddles churning the water at the back of the boat, and took him down below to greet the chocobos who powered them by running endlessly in a set of giant wheels. Cloud got a tour of the bridge, and peeked into the room that held the huge gears connecting the paddles and the chocobo wheels. He even managed to eat a light lunch, which was arguably the highlight of the day.

"You look like you had fun," Sephiroth observed when they both returned, sun-flushed and windblown, to the top deck.

"I had no idea boats were so interesting," Cloud exclaimed. "I didn't even know there were chocobos, or anything. Zack knows everything." He'd developed a touch of hero-worship for his guardian over the course of the day. Which was only fair, really, considering the way he already idolized Sephiroth.

"The greens seem to have worked their promised magic," Sephiroth noted, smiling at him. "The wind has picked up, but the waves don't seem to be bothering you at all."

Surprised, Cloud looked out over the water and realized he was right. The earlier glass-smooth surface had vanished into a froth of small wavelets, and the boat was rocking quite a bit. Yet Cloud was still only a little nauseated, easily ignored. "Thanks, Zack," he said, the words warm and sincere. "I was really dreading this, but it's been a great day."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, no problem," Zack answered, distracted as he stared out over the water. The clouds were still sitting on the western horizon, but they were no longer a thin mist. Piles upon piles of them broke the line between water and sky, reaching in some places high enough to make Cloud feel dwarfed, and they were a dark grey in colour. Dim flashes lit the clouds from within at irregular intervals, and Cloud shivered as he realized it was lightning.

"Is it going to storm after all?" Cloud asked uneasily.

"Maybe, but I'm sure it's nothing," Zack said, obviously making an effort to sound reassuring. He turned away from the rail and clapped Cloud on the shoulder. "Let's go check out our quarters. You're the only summoner on the ship, so we get the reserved cabin all to ourselves."

"Reserved cabin?" Cloud repeated, surprised. He followed Zack back down the stairs, and this time Sephiroth came with them.

"Sure," Zack said. "This is one of the main ferries between Kilika and Luca, so they see lots of summoners between calms. As a courtesy they keep one cabin reserved if there's a summoner aboard." He stopped in front of a discreetly marked door and threw it open with a grin. "Ta-dah... what the fuck?"

The room within was complete chaos. Their bags - Zack's and Sephiroth's bags, really - had been brought down, and someone had torn into them and scattered their belongings everywhere. Almost everything had been broken, torn, or otherwise ruined. The bedding on the berths had been knotted together - and from the smell of it, someone had used it as a toilet as well. Written in what looked like charcoal across one wall was a single word: 'Heretic'.

Cloud stood there, gaping, torn between rage and humiliation. "I guess somebody noticed I'm Al Bhed," he said, his voice tight. He started to pick his way forward, hoping to at least salvage some of their equipment, but Sephiroth grabbed his arm and stopped him.

"Let the ship's crew take care of the mess," Sephiroth said quietly. "Zack, you stay here and watch over him while I speak to the captain. People who are willing to go this far might be tempted by an opportunity to act more directly, and they must still be on the ship somewhere."

"They won't get the chance," Zack promised, his eyes snapping with outrage. He shut the door again to block the worst of the stench, and gestured for Cloud to wait across the hall.

The ship's mate who hurried down the stairs a few minutes after Sephiroth's departure was pale and sweating, and looked oddly nervous. Cloud eyed him warily as he approached, but the man stopped just out of arm's reach and bowed to Cloud. "The captain sends his regrets and apologies, my l-lord summoner," he said, stumbling only a little over the title. "We'll clean up the mess right away, and he respectfully offers one of our other cabins for you tonight."

"And our belongings?" Sephiroth prompted, coming down behind the man.

The mate gulped and glanced over his shoulder at the former summoner. Cloud had to bite his lip on a laugh as he realized why the man was so anxious. It wasn't guilt, as he'd first thought, but rather an understandable and very healthy fear of Sephiroth's displeasure. Having seen the man deliver one scathing dressing-down in Besaid already, Cloud had a certain amount of sympathy for innocents caught in Sephiroth's fury.

"Anything we can fix or salvage we'll give to you in the morning," the sailor said. He hesitated, but when Sephiroth gave him a pointed look, he added unhappily, "Anything that needs replacement will be our own expense, of course."

"Thank you," Cloud said, doing his best to play the part of the dignified summoner. He even bowed to the man, making the sign of Yevon.

"The room in the far corner is unoccupied," the man said, pointing at the door furthest from the soiled cabin. "It's much smaller, but..."

"But we're just one summoner and a couple of guardians, not a whole big party," Zack said, apparently taking pity on the man. "We'll manage."

The room was indeed much smaller, with only four narrow hammocks slung from posts instead of berths built into the walls, and almost no room for luggage. Cloud could immediately see why the room was still empty; it was right next to the engine room, and he could hear the creaking of gears and the occasional strident 'wark' from the other side of the wall. The mate was eyeing him anxiously, looking like he expected a tantrum of some kind in response.

Cloud smiled. "It will be nice to be able to hear the birds," he said. "Practically like being at home." Obviously relieved that Cloud wasn't going to kick up a fuss, the mate bowed again and hurried off.

"Well," Zack said, leaning his sword against the wall before settling easily into one of the hammocks. "This isn't so bad, really. Could have been a lot..."

Cloud just barely managed to get a hand over his guardian's mouth in time to stop him from finishing the sentence. Unfortunately his hasty lunge also tipped the hammock over and dumped Zack out, getting them both tangled up in the process.

"Don't say it," Cloud scolded his bemused friend. Sephiroth, chuckling, moved to help untangle them. "Just don't ever say things like that. The universe is always happy to prove that you're right -things can always get worse."

The first real crash of thunder jolted Cloud out of a sound sleep. He flailed in the darkness, disoriented, and spilled right out of his hammock as the world tilted on its axis.

A strangled yelp came from Zack's direction, but anything he might have said was drowned out by a second peal of thunder, and then a third. Something crashed and shattered, and the tiny, flickering glow of the banked lantern abruptly became the bright light of full flame. Cloud smelled oil and smoke somewhere nearby, and fought off a surge of panic.

"Blizzara," Sephiroth snapped, and ice crystals smothered the flames. That left them in total darkness except for the intermittent flashes of lightning, but Cloud was grateful.

"What's going..." Cloud's question was cut off as the ship heaved again, and his stomach heaved with it. The calming effects of the greens had long since worn off, and he had to swallow a rush of bile.

"Looks like that storm hit after all," Zack shouted between crashes of thunder. "We must have set sail right before the warnings came in."

"Should we go up on deck and try to help?" Sephiroth called.

In the next flash, Cloud saw Zack shaking his head, his expression grim. "No, the best thing we can do now is stay out of the way. I just hope they got the sails furled in time."

"What happens if they didn't?" Cloud asked, fighting with his unhappy stomach. If Zack answered him, he missed it when the ship heaved again and tossed them all against the far wall of the cabin. Cloud landed on something soft, and heard a grunt from Sephiroth nearby. A moment later strong arms wrapped around his waist, and he blushed as he realized he'd landed on his guardian.

"Hold tight to me," Sephiroth shouted into his ear. Cloud nodded and clung to the bigger man. Sephiroth was tall enough to be able to brace his legs on the other wall of the narrow cabin, keeping them relatively secure. Somewhere not too far away Cloud could hear Zack muttering curses to himself, but he sounded determined rather than afraid.

On the other side of the wall Cloud could hear the frantic warking of the chocobos, and from somewhere above came the occasional shout and pounding feet of the sailors. The scent of brine and seaweed was overpowering, overlaid by the sharp smell of ozone.

Sephiroth's body was warm and solid beneath him. Cloud was desperately trying not to throw up on him. Fear, oddly enough, helped him to keep his dinner down, but it left him paralysed in exchange. He knew how to swim, but all his practicing had been in placid little mountain lakes and the calm expanse of the Moonflow. If the ship broke up and dumped them in the water, he was certain he would drown.

It took Cloud a moment to realize that the shaking he could feel wasn't a result of him shivering in terror, but rather the feel of the deck vibrating oddly beneath them. In the next lull of thunder he heard an odd, hollow groaning noise, followed by several sharp cracks like bones snapping. Though he'd never been terribly superstitious, to Cloud the noises sounded like a hungry ghost coming to pull them down to share its watery grave.

"Get against the outside wall, as fast as you can!" Zack shouted. Cloud had never heard him sound so panicked. "Seph, quick, the mainmast is coming down, it'll land right on top of us!"

Sephiroth's arms tightened around Cloud's waist, yanking him to one side as the bigger man rolled them over. The cracking became an ear-splitting crash, and Cloud gave an involuntary shout as the world seemed to explode into splinters.

He braced himself for the expected pain as the slivers drove into his flesh, but he felt only an odd, dull pressure in several places. When he opened his eyes cautiously, he saw the debris being slowed and deflected by what could only be the glow of a protect spell. It was over between one crash of thunder and the next, and then rain was pounding down on them from the new hole in the wall and roof.

The mast had come down just a little off centre, and crushed the cabin next to them while only tearing through the roof and one corner of their room. Cloud tried hard not to think about anyone who might have been on the other side of that wall. For that matter, if they'd still been in the cabin originally assigned to them, they'd probably have been crushed as well. Their unknown tormentor had unwittingly saved their lives.

The ship lurched again as it crested another wave, and what felt like a tonne of water crashed down on them through the hole. Caught by surprise, Cloud choked and sputtered, coughing as he came up into clear air again. The rain slammed hard against his exposed skin, and he could already feel the ship tilting up on the next wave.

"Here!" Zack shouted, and pressed something rough into Cloud's hands. "Tie this around your waist, then pass it around Seph!"

Belatedly Cloud realized that what he was holding was the long end of a piece of rope, scrounged from one of their hammocks by the feel of it. Zack had already tied it around himself, and held the other free end. Hastily Cloud wrapped the cord around his waist and knotted it a few times, then did the same for Sephiroth.

They had to pause again as another wave came roaring into the cabin. This time Cloud was able to get a good breath and hold it, so he wasn't flailing to try to get back to the air. In the eerie calm imposed by the water, the thunder crashes sounded distant and unreal. More clear was the same horrible groaning noise that had preceded the fall of the mast. There were no snapping sounds accompanying it, not yet, but Cloud had a sinking feeling it wouldn't take long.

They surfaced again, still tied together by the rope. "We need to get out of here," Zack shouted. "The whole cabin sounds like it's ready to collapse. Follow my lead, and try to stay out of the way of the sailors."

He waited for the next wave to come, then kicked off the floor and let himself be pulled out of the cabin through the ruined wall along with the receding water. Cloud was nearly yanked off his feet when the rope tugged sharply at his waist, but he swam after Zack as well as he could. Sephiroth followed right behind him, moving carefully to keep from getting his long sword snagged on any debris.

The pull of the water was strong, and before Cloud knew it they were out of the cabin. The rail was coming up fast, with nothing but open ocean beyond it. For a horrible moment Cloud thought that Zack had miscalculated and they would be swept right off the ship.

Then the rope at his waist pulled tight and halted his momentum, just as the water level dropped enough that he was able to get his head above water. Panting for air, he glanced back to see that Zack had caught the edge of the wall as he'd passed, and was holding them in place. "Quick, Seph!" Zack called his voice strained with the effort of holding against all their weight. "Tie the rope to the rail before the next wave comes!"

Sephiroth was already working before the last words had left Zack's mouth. In seconds he had lashed his end of the rope securely to the railing. On the next wave Zack let go and swam the short distance to the rail as well, and tied his free end on. Thus assured that they wouldn't be swept overboard, Cloud let himself breathe a sigh of relief.

Now he was able to turn his attention to the rest of the ship. Sailors ran frantically here and there, struggling with water-logged ropes and sails, to not much effect Cloud could see. The bridge had been ruined by the collapse of the mast as well, and there was no sign of the captain, but Cloud spotted the first mate shouting orders from the wheel.

A few other passengers were crawling out of the cabins or clinging to any solid surface. Cloud would have felt sorry for them, without two powerful guardians to help keep them safe, but he was too worried about their own safety.

"Should we summon?" he called to Sephiroth, uncertain. "There has to be something we can do!"

Sephiroth shook his head. "Aeons can do nothing against the forces of nature," he said grimly. "All we would accomplish would be to frighten the sailors, make them think that fiends or even Sin itself was nearby."

Cloud grimaced. He hadn't thought of that, but of course that would be the first thought to occur to most people. Summoners didn't call upon their aeons lightly.

"All we can do is pray," Zack said from his other side. "I know you don't believe in Yevon, but you might try invoking whatever power it is the Al Bhed do believe in. We can use all the help we can get."

If there were any Al Bhed gods, Cloud's mother had neglected to mention them to him. Instead he bowed his head and prayed fervently to the fayth, asking them to watch over him and his guardians. He thought he heard a faint echo of the hymn in response; perhaps it was Jymavun and Evned's way of comforting him.

The ship groaned and shuddered again as it climbed another huge wave. Cloud opened his eyes just in time to see the crest of the wave looming over them, the slope looking far too steep for the ship to climb. Somehow they made it over the top, but the ship canted oddly sideways as it slid down the other side.

The shouts of the crew took on a more frantic tenor, and Cloud saw Zack's hands go white-knuckled on the rail. "C'mon, get her turned, get her turned," Zack chanted, his eyes locked on the oncoming swell.

Cloud wasn't sure he actually wanted to know the answer, but morbid curiosity impelled him to ask. "What happens if the ship doesn't turn?"

It was Sephiroth who answered him. "If the wave hits us broadside - sideways, on the long axis of the ship - we will almost certainly be capsized."

Swallowing hard, Cloud returned to his prayers, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut after all.

He had no idea how far was 'far enough', but the crew must have managed it because the ship only rose and plunged and rose again, never rolling onto its side. Cloud was frankly too terrified to be sick, which was just as well or he'd probably have puked on both his guardians.

After what seemed a lifetime and a half of thunder and lightning and waves, the rain finally began to lighten. The wind stopped competing with the waves to try to knock them off the ship. When Cloud looked up again it was still storming, but although the waves were still high they no longer rose above the ship itself.

"Is it over?" he heard himself ask plaintively.

A passing crewmember overheard and stopped to answer him. "Almost. I think we're through the worst of it. Don't untie yourselves just yet, though."

"It's not a hurricane, is it?" Zack asked anxiously. "We're not just coming into the eye?"

"No, it seems to be just a really bad storm," the sailor assured them.

"Did we lose anybody?" Zack wanted to know.

"The captain died when the mast went down," the sailor confirmed. "Several of the passengers and crew as well. Nobody went overboard, thank Yevon."

"Lucky for you, eh Tiran?" Zack said with a relieved grin. "Never did meet a sailor that could swim worth a damn, but you're worse than most."

The man smiled back. "Hey, not everybody can be a blitz star," he joked in return. "Some of us actually do work to make a living."

He turned to go, and Cloud relaxed a little more. The fact that the man had talked to them for so long said better than words ever could that the worst danger was past. "You know him?" he asked Zack curiously.

"Yeah, his family lives like, three houses down from mine," Zack said. "He taught me to swim, actually, which is why I was teasing him. In a week I was swimming circles around him, poor guy."

Cloud laughed, and ended up with a mouthful of saltwater when another wave rose high enough over the side to splash him. He coughed and sputtered, and then Zack was the one laughing at him.

As if to mock them for relaxing, one last lightning bolt lashed down out of the sky, so white it was blinding. Cloud shouted in startled reflex, but he couldn't hear his own voice over the roar of thunder that accompanied the lightning. His ears rang even after the thunder faded, but not enough to block the cracking noise that was quickly joined by shouts and screams from the crew. Cloud looked over just in time to see the secondary mast crash to the deck, split almost perfectly in half by the lightning. The piece that remained standing was burning despite the rain pouring down on it, while the part that had fallen got caught in the next wave and was pulled overboard. One hapless crewman, pinned beneath it when it fell, was knocked over the side with it to disappear into the water.

"Man overboard!" somebody shouted, and ropes were immediately flung over the side. Even from where he stood Cloud could see it was hopeless. The ship was moving so fast that the drowning man was already out of reach of the ropes, and in moments they would leave him behind entirely. As he was swept past only a few feet from Cloud and his guardians, Cloud got a good look at the man's terrified face and recognized him as the same crewman who'd stopped to talk to them just minutes before.

Zack recognized him as well. "Tiran! Shit, I've gotta do something, he'll drown! Seph, watch Cloud, I'll be right back."

Before Cloud realized what he was planning, Zack drew a knife and hacked right through the thin cords binding him to Cloud and the railing. Cloud shouted and lunged for him, but his fingers closed on empty air as Zack scrambled up and over the rail in a controlled dive.

"Zack!" Cloud screamed, and only the rope around his own waist stopped him from mindlessly throwing himself after his guardian. A moment later Sephiroth had grabbed him firmly around the chest, keeping him in place.

"You can't go after him," Sephiroth said. His voice was grim, and when Cloud looked up at him, he saw the other man staring at the place where Zack had disappeared into the water with grief in his eyes.

"We have to do something, they'll get left behind," Cloud shouted, thrashing in Sephiroth's grip. Now that the first mindless panic was over he knew his guardian was right; throwing himself into the water wasn't going to accomplish anything but getting him drowned. But he couldn't just leave Zack to die.

"There's nothing we can do," Sephiroth insisted. "Zack is a remarkably strong swimmer; he may yet be able to catch up with the ship." Though his words were encouraging, his hopeless tone told Cloud he didn't believe it, either.

"No!" Though Cloud had only known them a few days, it already felt like Zack and Sephiroth were the most important people in his life. They'd been the first people to ever stand up for him, to really care about him and help him. Zack was the only person he'd ever met who could tease him and make him laugh, instead of leaving him feeling mocked and abused. Cloud was only just beginning to learn what friendship could really be like; he couldn't lose that now. He just couldn't.

His arms were pinned by Sephiroth, and there wasn't room to summon properly anyway. He threw back his head and screamed his defiance at the pounding storm and raging sea. "Jymavun!"

The shaft of light that pierced through the sky was far more dramatic against the storm than it had been on a sunny day. The clouds swirled around it like a vortex, and when Jymavun burst through it seemed like the aeon carried the sunlight with her. Cloud felt Sephiroth go rigid against his back, but all his concentration was on his aeon and he couldn't spare the thought to wonder why.

She came to hover beside the railing, her wings beating steadily against the twisting winds of the storm. "Help Zack," he begged her. He wasn't certain just what she could do, but it was better than standing there doing nothing.

She crooned at him and tugged at a lock of his water-logged hair with her massive beak, preening him like a little chick. Then she spread her wings wider still and did a flip in midair, streaking off behind the ship towards the place where Zack and the crewman had gone into the water. It was already far behind them, but when he strained Cloud thought he could just make out two dark heads bobbing in the water.

Jymavun overshot them and did a wingover, turning herself neatly. As she flew back to the ship she dipped low, her massive talons dragging through the water and sending up splashes of water on either side of her. Abruptly she lifted again, wings beating harder than ever but moving more slowly than before. Cloud bit back a sob of relief as he saw the two human-shaped burdens she clutched in her claws.

She flew over the deck and hovered again, just long enough to release the two men she carried. They came tumbling down to the deck, and she gave a piercing shriek that sounded to Cloud like laughter. Then she was gone again, dissolving into the rain in a swarm of pyreflies.

Sephiroth finally released Cloud, and there was just enough slack in the rope for him to kneel beside Zack. The older man was panting and looked a little dazed, staring at the place where the aeon had been. "So that's what flying is like," he said, his voice awed. "Wow." He blinked and focused on Cloud, and his expression softened. "Hey, kid, quit that." He reached up and touched Cloud's face, and only then did Cloud realize that some of the water on his cheeks was too warm to be rain. "I'd have been okay. Though I'm not ungrateful for the help!"

"Idiot," Cloud muttered, scrubbing at his face and trying to hide how very frightened he'd been. "You just... idiot! Do you realize how fast the ship is going?"

"Yeah, well, I kinda wasn't thinking about that when I jumped," Zack admitted sheepishly. "But really, I'd have managed." He glanced over Cloud's shoulder, and his eyes widened.

Nervously Cloud looked as well, and what he saw left him staring open-mouthed with amazement. Everyone on the ship but Zack and Sephiroth was bowing to him, their hands held in the attitude of prayer. The sailors in particular were bent nearly double, and Tiran was right down on his knees.

"Go back to your duties," Sephiroth called, his voice firm but not stern for once. "We are not out of danger yet." Another toss of the ship emphasized his words, and the sailors hastily scrambled to return to the work they had been doing to keep the ship on course. The other passengers milled together some distance from Cloud and his guardians, eyeing them and whispering among themselves. Resolutely Cloud turned his back on them, determined to ignore them.

"Hey, not that I'm not grateful or anything, but are they supposed to do that?" Zack asked in a low voice as he climbed shakily to his feet again. "The aeons, I mean. I thought you were only supposed to summon them in a battle?"

Cloud looked at him, dismayed. Was that why everyone was ogling him? Had he yet again broken another rule of summoning that he hadn't even known existed?

"It is not that it isn't permitted," Sephiroth said slowly, an odd look in his eyes as he studied Cloud. It wasn't the same sort of staring that the sailors and passengers were doing, but a softer and almost awed look. "Rather it is simply that most summoners cannot bring the aeons forth except in extreme circumstances, which usually means they are already engaged in battle. There have been some, most notably the majority of the high summoners, who were able to call on their aeons at will. I have only heard of a few throughout history who were capable of doing it without at least some semblance of a summoning ritual."

Cloud shifted uneasily, staring at his feet rather than meet that strange expression. He had an uncomfortable suspicion that Zack might be looking at him that way as well now, and he didn't want to confirm it.

Chapter Text

"You know I'd love to help you out, Zack, but I just don't have any space."

Cloud was impressed that Zack's smile didn't waver an inch. You'd never know by looking at him that they were getting desperate. This was the third inn they'd been turned away from. He was also impressed how many people Zack knew. So far he'd greeted everyone they'd talked to by name, and plenty of people in the streets had called out and waved to him.

Apparently Zack wasn't willing to leave things at a simple 'no' this time. "C'mon, all we really need is a couple of pallets on the floor," he wheedled. "Surely, with everyone packed with refugees from the storm, the authorities would look the other way about you having more people than you're allowed."


Seeing that the man was wavering, Zack went for the kill. "I'll even forget about that hundred gil you owe me from the last time I played coins with you," he promised.

For a moment Cloud thought it had worked. Then he made the mistake of taking a hopeful step forward, and drew the man's attention to him. Their eyes met, and the innkeeper's narrowed.

"Sorry," he said gruffly, the earlier warmth vanished from his voice. "Rules are the rules, and I'm full up."

Now Zack's smile did fade, and he looked like he was thinking about kicking up a fuss. Cloud grabbed his arm and tugged. "Let's just get out of here," he insisted, his eyes locked on the floor. It didn't take a genius to realize what had made the man go hostile, and once again he damned his Al Bhed eyes.

Zack allowed himself to be pulled away, but he clearly wasn't happy about it. "I don't get it," he burst out once they'd left the inn. "Bernie's had Al Bhed customers before, he's never had a problem with them. Hell, this is Luca! They're more accepted here than anywhere else on Spira."

"The attitude towards Al Bhed does seem to have soured since we left," Sephiroth commented.

A passing woman pushed rudely between Cloud and Sephiroth, nearly knocking Cloud over. Only the other summoner's quick grab for his shoulder kept him upright. All around Cloud could see people glaring at him. He ducked his head a little further, wishing there was some way he could hide his bright hair as well as his eyes.

"Hey, none of that." Zack nudged him. "You're a summoner. Be proud, don't hide."

"I'd rather not start a riot, thanks," Cloud muttered, peering up at his guardian through his bangs.

Zack laughed, but the sound was uneasy. "I don't think it's that bad. I just wish I knew what happened."

"It was the storm," an unfamiliar voice replied. "Or rather, the lack of warning about it." A woman emerged from the crowd, and Cloud's jaw dropped. She was wearing the unmistakeable purple and gold uniform of the Luca Goers, arguably the best Blitz team on Spira.

"Oh, hey Doram," Zack greeted her like an old friend as she joined them. "What do you mean, the storm? It's not like the Al Bhed caused it."

"No, but a lot of people were hurt or lost property or ships because there was no warning," Doram explained. Now more people were staring at them, but this time Cloud had a feeling it had more to do with the Blitz star strolling along beside them. "There's been a lot of angry grumbling over it, especially since none of them got caught." She gave Cloud a curious look, and he flushed and ducked his head again quickly, hoping she hadn't noticed his eyes yet. If the people of the city were even angrier with the Al Bhed than usual, the last thing he wanted was to stir up more trouble.

"None of them were caught that we are aware of," Sephiroth corrected, his deep voice soft but carrying over the crowd. "Likely they would be aware of the potential for backlash, and they'll be avoiding Spiran ports when possible for a time. Especially if they were already injured or their ships were damaged, and they might not be able to defend themselves."

"Huh. Could be." Doram looked thoughtful, and so did a few of the people around them. "At any rate, between the storm and the tournament there isn't a room to be had in all of Luca, especially while you're travelling with this cutie." She winked at Cloud, and he blushed. "Bet you regret giving up your apartment, hey Zack? How come you're back so soon? Come to your senses and decided to come back to us? Bikram will be so disappointed, he was just getting used to being captain."

Zack laughed. "Not a chance. I know it's hard to understand, but there are some things more important than Blitz. You guys will be fine, it's not like I won every game by myself."

Cloud stopped short in the middle of the street and stared at his guardian. "Wait. You're that Zack?" he exclaimed, his voice hardly more than a squeak. "The captain of the Goers?" Sweet Fayth, no wonder he'd kept thinking that Zack looked familiar! For that matter, no wonder that everyone in Luca seemed to know him. Cloud had a sphere of him at home in his bedroom, but it must have been an old picture. Zack's hair was much longer now, and he had a scar on one cheek that wasn't in the picture.

"Former captain," Zack corrected him, his grin widening. "I'm your guardian now, remember? I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out."

"But... but..." Cloud sputtered, unable to get the words out in his shock."But you can't leave Blitzball!

"I want to be a hero," Zack told him. He was trying to be solemn, but the twinkle in his eyes ruined the effect. "I can't do that as a Blitzer."

"I don't know about that," Cloud muttered, thinking about all the hours he'd spent poring over this man's Blitz stats, reviewing his games, or just staring at the sphere. That felt pretty close to hero-worship to him, and he was sure he wasn't the only one in Spira who felt that way.

Ifrit's flame, he was still adjusting to the idea of having Lord Sephiroth as a guardian. To find out that his other guardian was captain of the Goers - his mind threatened to shut down from the overload.

"Wait, so he's your summoner?" Doram asked, peering at Cloud with wide eyes. He tried to remember what Zack had said about being proud, and this time he kept his head up. Somehow he had to live up to the belief two such amazing people had in him. "You just can't do anything the easy way, can you? Wow, cute and a summoner. After the game, want me to show you around town? Zack's not a native, he doesn't know all the best places."

Cloud blushed so hotly he could feel it prickling at his cheeks, and he lost the battle to keep his eyes up. Zack laughed. "Give the poor kid a break, Doram. Don't you have enough notches on your belt?"

"Never," she replied, laughing as well. "You can't blame a girl for trying. Listen, why don't you come watch the game, and then crash in the Goers' barracks? There's plenty of room, most of us have places in town."

"Hey, that's a great idea!" Zack exclaimed, lighting up. "What do you think, Cloud? Wanna catch a game?"

Did he want to watch a real Blitz game? Was there anyone of any race who wouldn't jump at the chance? Gritting his teeth, Cloud forced himself to shake his head. "If we have time, we should go hunt some fiends," he said, hoping he didn't sound as reluctant as he felt. "We need to make some gil so we can resupply."

"We also need to rest, especially you," Zack countered. "You're still recovering from not eating on all those sea voyages."

"We have to get to D'jose as soon as possible," Cloud said stubbornly. "Sin won't wait around while I'm having fun."

Sephiroth put a hand on his shoulder. Cloud looked up, surprised. "The purpose of the Summoner's Journey is not only to gather the aeons," Sephiroth said softly. "It is also a chance for the summoner to make peace with his life, so that he may face the Final Summoning with no regrets. If it is something you would regret missing, then you should take the opportunity now while you can."

"C'mon, you know you wanna go," Zack teased him. "Don't make me drag you for your own good. I'll do it, you know I will."

"All right, all right!" Cloud gave in. It wasn't like they were pushing him to do something he didn't already want to. "If you're sure it's okay."

"Great! We're playing soon," Doram told him with a warm smile. "Keep an eye on me, I'll score a goal for you." She blew him a kiss, which made him go red again, and headed off into the crowd.

Cloud was still trying to melt into the ground, or maybe find a way to turn himself permanently invisible. "She didn't have to make fun of me like that," he muttered, rubbing at the prickling burn in his cheeks.

"Make fun of you?" Zack looked surprised when Cloud glanced at him. "When did she do that?"

"Saying that about showing me the night life," Cloud said, shaking his head. "And... and looking at me like that! I mean, obviously she realized I'm Al Bhed, or she wouldn't have made the comment about you doing things the hard way." As he knew only too well, good Spiran girls wouldn't look twice at an Al Bhed, no matter how 'cute' they thought he was.

Zack started to laugh, which made Cloud scowl at him. "It's not funny," Cloud protested, annoyed at his guardian. That only made the older man laugh harder, of course. "Zack! Stop it." Now Cloud was hurt as well as flustered.

"He's not laughing at you, Cloud," Sephiroth assured him. He was smiling as well. "If you were more familiar with Doram, you'd understand. Her flirting was in earnest. The fact that you are Al Bhed would not deter her in the least."

"She's dated at least three," Zack agreed, recovering. "And a Guado as well. No Ronso that I know of, but not for lack of trying - they just don't seem to be interested in human women."

"Oh." Cloud could feel the blush increasing, and his eyes went a little wide. A Guado? The only real difference between a Spiran and an Al Bhed was their eyes, but Guado were another story entirely. And the Ronso... Cloud couldn't even picture it. Ronso were huge.

"We might as well head for the 'Dome too," Zack said. "I can give you the tour while we wait for the game to start, if you want."

"Please?" Cloud felt a little shy about asking Zack to do things for him, now that he knew who the man was. But the offer seemed sincere, and it wasn't like Zack was a different person now than he had been before Cloud found out. He'd never once looked down on Cloud, or acted like he was anyone important.

They headed for the Blitzdome, where a crowd was already gathering in anticipation of the game. "Don't worry, we don't have to stand in line," Zack assured him. "I've got connections, and anyway you're a summoner, you rate special treatment." He winked, and Cloud shook his head.

"I'd rather not draw attention if I don't have to," Cloud said. "It's hard enough to get Spirans to accept me as a summoner without them already being mad at the Al Bhed."

"Don't worry so much," Zack said, heading around to a small side gate. He waved at the guard, who smiled in return and made no effort to prevent them from entering, though he was turning away anyone else who got near.

"Player's entrance," Zack explained, probably seeing Cloud's confused look. "Technically they shouldn't let me through anymore, but nobody's gonna object. So is there anything in particular you want to see?"

"The hall of fame?" Cloud suggested. "They take pictures of the teams that win the cups, right? Would they include the alternate players?"

"Sure." Zack turned left down a hall. "Alts often play quite a bit early on in a long tourney, so the regulars can save their strength for the final games. Someone in particular you're looking for?"

Cloud nodded, but his throat was too dry to explain. He realized he was clenching the hem of his shirt in his hands hard enough to distort the fabric, but he couldn't make himself stop.

They came to a long hallway, both sides of which held many spheres on stands. The spheres were permanently activated, with shining static pictures showing above them. The closest were the most recent, and Cloud saw Zack's familiar grin in quite a few places. He even spotted the same picture as his sphere at home, from when Zack had been chosen MVP in his rookie year.

"How long ago was the one you're looking for?" Zack asked, leading him along the hall towards the older spheres.

"Sixteen - no, seventeen years ago," Cloud managed to say. "The Calm Lands Calamities."

"That was the last year the Calm Lands team played, wasn't it?" Zack asked. "It was a shame there wasn't enough support to keep them going, they were a hell of a team. Here it is." He stopped in front of a large picture. "Someone from your town played?"

"My dad," Cloud said, his voice soft. "Strife. My uncle was on the Psyches that year, and Sysy met my dad when she came to cheer her brother on. Strife died before I was born, and I've never seen a picture of him. Sysy didn't have any, and his parents destroyed all of theirs when they disowned him for marrying an Al Bhed." He couldn't think of them as his grandparents, not when they'd never so much as acknowledged his existence the whole time he'd been alive.

He found his father's name on the list at the bottom, and counted across the row to find the right person. "There, third on the left. Don't look much like him, do I?" Cloud laughed bitterly. The man in the picture was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and strong features. He looked more like Zack's father than Cloud's. "Someone told me once that after he died, for a while it looked like his parents would reconcile with my mom, because I would be all they'd have left of him. Then I was born and I looked like a full-blood Al Bhed, and everyone said she must have cheated on him."

"Ouch." Zack winced, and studied the picture. "No, you don't really resemble him."

"You have his eyes," Sephiroth said quietly. Cloud turned and gave him a disbelieving look - it was his damned eyes that most clearly marked him as an Al Bhed. Sephiroth chuckled. "The colour," he explained. "His eyes are the same intense shade of blue as yours. It's an unusual colour, even for a Spiran."

"Hey, you're right!" Zack said. "Even my eyes don't look blue in a team photo, just in the close-ups. But you can see his no problem."

"Really?" Cloud turned back to the picture and looked more closely. Sure enough Strife's eyes were a piercing blue, the same colour Cloud saw every time he glimpsed his reflection but with a Spiran's single round pupil. In every other respect Cloud was like a masculine copy of his mother, but for the first time in his life he felt he had some connection to the mysterious stranger who had been his father.

"You can get a sphere of this shot at the gift shop," Zack told him. "I bet your mom would like to have a copy, too."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed, his voice slightly hoarse. He cleared his throat, and straightened his shoulders. He was half Spiran, and now he could prove it, and that meant he had every right to be a summoner. It also meant he wasn't the bastard everyone named him, and that his mother wasn't the slut they called her. Cloud had always believed in his mother, but the tiny seed of doubt he couldn't get rid of had been surprisingly heavy.

"Why don't I go purchase the sphere so that Zack doesn't get mobbed by fans," Sephiroth suggested. "We have enough gil since we won't need to pay for accommodations. The two of you can continue the tour."

"Sounds good," Zack agreed, saluting. "I'm sure you remember your way to the summoner's box. We'll meet you there."

The rest of the tour was a bit of a blur, as Cloud was still wrapped up in the joy of finally seeing a picture of his father. Zack took him around to the locker rooms and introduced him to the players that were there, which was a huge treat as well. But the most interesting part by far was when Zack took him underground to the huge room containing the machina that operated the 'Dome. The Al Bhed technicians who ran and maintained the machina greeted him warmly and were more than happy to explain the workings to him, though they were surprised to discover that he knew so little of the basic principles.

"Man, you get seasick and you don't know anything about machina," Zack teased as they left the room and headed up towards the stands. "You sure you don't want to rethink your claim of being part Al Bhed?"

"Sysy tried to explain machina to me, but she could only draw pictures and it was really confusing. I never really understood before why they were so fascinating to her," Cloud said with a smile. For once it didn't even bother him that he was neither fish nor fowl.

They found Sephiroth waiting as promised in the private box reserved for summoners. They had it to themselves, which Cloud was grateful for. Sephiroth solemnly offered him the sphere, and Cloud tucked it carefully into his bag, feeling like he was handling something precious. He would leave it for his mother when they passed through the Calm Lands. Maybe it would even be enough to make her forgive him for running away to become a summoner.

Watching the huge dome fill with water was another experience Cloud treasured, and he found himself even more grateful that his guardians had convinced him to watch the game. He still felt it was selfish of him, but the experience was more than worth the time it cost.

It was obvious from the moment the buzzer went off that the Goers weren't playing their best. Probably they were still thrown off by the absence of Zack, who spent the whole game shouting advice and tactics at his former teammates as if they could hear him. Cloud cheered himself hoarse anyway, and wasn't even disappointed when the Goers lost by one point.

"Well? What did you think?" Zack asked as they headed out of the 'Dome with the rest of the crowd. His grin said that he already knew the answer, but wanted to hear it from Cloud.

"It was amazing," Cloud said, putting as much sincere gratitude into his voice as he could. "Thank you so much, both of you."

Sephiroth smiled back and nodded, and Zack laughed and ruffled his hair. "Probably just as well we lost - otherwise the party tonight would be huge, and they'd be bugging you to stay and see the rest of the tournament as their good luck charm or something."

"One game was enough," Cloud said firmly. Not that he wouldn't have loved to stay and see the whole thing, but at least now he could continue on his journey without regretting the missed opportunity.

"Hey look, it's Zack!" someone shouted. Suddenly they were surrounded by a group of excited Blitz fans. "Zack, it's Zack!" "Why weren't you playing today?" "Zack, look over here!" "It's not true that you quit, right?" "You're the best player ever!" "You can't leave, we need you!"

The noise and chaos were overwhelming, and the circle around them was growing rapidly as the shouting attracted more attention. "Oops," Zack said, barely audible over the din. He looked sheepish. "Guess we should've waited until after the rest of the crowd had left. Sorry guys, I wasn't thinking."

"Zack, sign my ball?" a little boy near the front asked, holding up a blitzball. A dozen more people repeated the plea, and there were balls and pieces of paper being shoved at them from everywhere.

Zack smiled and took the first ball, scribbling his name on it quickly with a marker offered by someone else. "Yes, it's true that I'm leaving, at least for a while," he said as he continued to sign things. "The Goers will be fine without me for a season or two, they just need to hit their stride. I'm a guardian now! My job is to get Lord Cloud here," he nodded at Cloud, "all the way to Zanarkand, so he can defeat Sin and you can all watch Blitzball without having to be afraid. That's important too, right?"

There was a mix of cheering and booing. Zack laughed and handed back another ball, then announced, "That's it for today, guys." This time the chorus was all booing. "Hey, we got caught in the storm too, we need to rest up before we get moving to D'jose. Wave to the nice fans, Lord Cloud." He nudged Cloud and winked at him.

Startled, Cloud looked up at the crowd, now focused on him, and blanched. He'd never dealt well with being the centre of attention, and a mob of fans was awfully close to being just a mob.

"You'll have to get used to the attention eventually," Sephiroth told him, not unkindly. "You will draw more of it the further we go."

Gulping, Cloud nodded, and gave them all a weak smile and tentative bow. A few people cheered, but most of them looked confused. "Isn't he Al Bhed?" he heard someone remark, and he winced. People crowded a little closer, staring at him curiously.

"Look at his eyes." "He is!" "Mama, how can an Al Bhed be a summoner?" "What kind of joke is this?" The tone of the crowd was slowly turning hostile, and Cloud resisted the urge to edge behind one of his guardians. The damage was already done; hiding would only make them think he felt guilty.

Optimistic as ever, Zack seemed determined to try to salvage the situation. "He's half Spiran, and anyway what difference does it make?"

"It's sacrilege!" someone cried, and there were angry shouts of agreement. Cloud had a feeling he was going to be very tired of hearing that word by the time his journey was done.

"What is the matter with you people?" Zack demanded. "Cloud is willingly giving up his life to try to save your sorry necks, just like every other damn summoner! The hell difference does it make if his pupils are solid or not? For crying out loud, he's made it this far! He's got two aeons already, in record time, and..."

"Then he stole them!" someone cut him off angrily. There was a horrified and angry murmur at the notion, and Zack made a disgusted noise.

"It's true, I heard from my cousin in Kilika!" a young girl said. "He was in and out of the temple; he cheated in the trials and stole the aeon, he had to have! It's the Al Bhed trying to sabotage us again!"

More people shouted, the voices blending so that Cloud wasn't even sure what they were saying. He heard at least one angry comment about the storm, and it wasn't hard to tell where this was going. They were going to blame him for the damage of the storm, just as the people in Besaid had blamed him for Sin's attack. And this time Sephiroth couldn't calm them by threatening not to perform the sending.

"Forget it, Zack. Let's just go," Cloud shouted over the increasing noise. "You can't reason with them. They're nothing but prejudiced, racist... Spirans," he spat the epithet at the crowd the same way they were calling 'Al Bhed' to him.

"Yeah, if we can get out of here," Zack replied grimly. Looking around, Cloud realized what Zack had already seen - they were completely surrounded. Worse, they were still attracting more attention, and the mob continued to grow. Zack shifted and Sephiroth turned so they were back to back with Cloud sheltered between them, and both drew their swords. That caused at least a couple of people to reconsider, and opened up a clear space around them.

"We don't wish to hurt anyone, but we will defend our summoner," Sephiroth rumbled. "Think about what you are doing." A few more people dropped back, uncertain. Slowly a path opened as the Spirans backed away, though the crowd made no move to disperse.

"That's as good as we're gonna get. Quick, before they change their minds," Zack muttered, and moved forward into the gap. Cloud followed close behind, and Sephiroth kept the rear.

"Go home, Al Bhed," a woman called angrily. "Don't profane Yevon. Heretic!"

"Nylecd chupc," Cloud shouted back, starting to lose his grip on his temper. "Ku veht y ceh clyma yht cruja..."

"Okay, enough of that," Zack declared, clamping one hand over Cloud's mouth. "Most of them probably do understand about as much Al Bhed as I do, this is a port town."

"Rao!" The next shout came from behind the rest of the crowd, and Cloud's heart sank. "Fryd'c kuehk uh?"

"Oh, no," Cloud groaned. Either the Al Bhed technicians had left the 'Dome, or there were still some die-hard Psyches fans in the city. Hearing a Spiran mob shouting and someone replying in Al Bhed, of course they were going to weigh in on the fight. The Al Bhed protected their own... but when they realized who and what Cloud was, they might just decide to join in instead. "E's veha!" he shouted back, trying to head them off. "E tuh'd haat ramb!"

Far from reassuring the Al Bhed, all Cloud managed to do was convince them that there was another of their number in trouble, while at the same time further inciting the Spirans with this proof that he wasn't one of them. Fighting began to break out as the Al Bhed attempted to reach him to 'rescue' him, and the open path disappeared as the mob closed around them again.

Somebody threw the remains of their drink, soaking Zack's left side. Then somebody else threw a cactuar fruit, and it was followed by a rain of leftover food. Zack cursed and blocked what he could with his sword, but some got through to spatter on Cloud, staining his only shirt.

Then someone ran out of food, or just got nasty. A fist-sized rock flew out of the crowd and hit Zack on the head with a sickening crack. He dropped like he was made of stone himself, not even crying out, and sprawled motionless on the floor with his sword beside him.

"Zack!" Cloud shouted, terrified and furious. He drew his own sword and moved to stand over his guardian, so they couldn't continue to stone him while he was down.

Of course that meant there was nothing protecting Cloud from the rocks. One struck his hip, and another hit his upper arm hard enough that he nearly dropped his sword. "Enough! Ahuikr!" he cried, and swung wildly with his sword to try to open some space around him. He felt fire swirling inside him, Evned's fury rising to meet his. The power pulsed in his veins, demanding release, and at that moment Cloud was more than willing to set the aeon loose.

Then suddenly the aeon's presence was just... gone. Panicked, afraid he'd done something wrong, Cloud reached for Jymavun instead. She responded readily, and he sensed her appear high above him in the clouds.

There was a roar and an explosion of earth and fire in the open space behind the mob. Cloud hadn't actually seen Kilika's aeon before this, but there was no mistaking him. The Ifrit looked like he was half made of the flames that were Kilika's hallmark.

With a cry like an enraged falcon, Jymavun came spiralling out of the sky. She landed next to the Ifrit and mantled her wings, hissing at the crowd. Most of the people broke and ran. If one aeon's sudden appearance hadn't been enough to cow the Spirans, the addition of a second finished the job, especially since she was so visibly angry. It was rare to see an aeon outside of battle, and rarer still to see two at all. Summoners never travelled together.

"Mayja sa ymuha! Just... just leave me alone," Cloud shouted at them as they ran, barely remembering to speak Spiran so they would understand him. "I'm trying to save you, and I just want to be left alone." Jymavun shrieked again, making most people wince and cover their ears.

"Hod," Sephiroth called, and the fiery aeon moved so that he was between Jymavun and the crowd. She hissed at him, but Cloud wasn't so angry that he would order his aeon to attack another. He held her back with force of will, though the effort left him shaking.

"Temple problems will be dealt with by the temple," Sephiroth said, raising his voice. There were still people huddled in the shelter of the archways, trapped with the aeons between them and the exits. "It is not your place to pass judgement on a summoner, no matter his race. Remember that, lest you anger the fayth as well as their aeons."

He turned to Cloud and murmured, "Dismiss her. Now." His tone was cold, in direct contrast to the aeon he had summoned. His eyes were even colder, like frozen chips of jade.

Shivering, Cloud obeyed, the rest of his anger wilting in the face of Sephiroth's icy anger. Jymavun turned and preened his hair briefly, crooning in the back of her throat, before she disappeared in a shower of pyreflies. Hod vanished a moment later, leaving them alone and unprotected once more.

Sephiroth gestured at Zack, and the soothing green magic of a cure spell settled over him. Cloud flushed. Sephiroth had been teaching him white magic spells, but it hadn't even occurred to him to use one on his guardian. He really needed to work on making them a reflex rather than an afterthought.

Zack groaned and sat up, one hand pressed to his head where the rock had struck. "Ow. What the fuck?"

"Get up, we're leaving," Sephiroth ordered, his tone brooking no argument. Zack blinked and opened his mouth, then took a second look at Sephiroth's face and wisely said nothing. He scrambled back to his feet and grabbed his sword.

Sephiroth led the way out of the square, and turned towards the city. "Where...?" Zack started in surprise, but stopped himself when Sephiroth flicked a glance at him.

Cloud trailed behind them both, feeling like he'd done something horribly wrong and trying to figure out what it was. He hadn't started the fight, after all. Or was Sephiroth just that angry at the people in the mob, and he was taking it out on Zack and Cloud?

On the far side of the city there was a long staircase, and at the top was the beginning of a road. There were few other travellers, with Sin on the rampage, and shortly they were out of earshot of anyone else.

Only then did Sephiroth turn to Cloud, his expression shuttered. "Never, under any circumstances, summon an aeon in anger," he said. Beside him Zack sucked in a sharp breath and went pale, staring at Cloud with wide eyes. "A summoner should avoid any strong emotion, but anger is the worst. Under extreme circumstances, they can go berserk and you will lose control of them until they are too damaged to continue."

Cloud winced. He'd been angry at the mob, but an aeon on a rampage might have destroyed half of Luca. A lot of people who hadn't done anything to him would have been hurt.

"You were going to summon on a crowd of civilians?" Zack asked, looking shaken.

"Did summon," Sephiroth corrected him grimly. "Thankfully I managed to call Hod before Evned could respond to him, and Valefor's aeon is the most even tempered of them all, so Jymavun did no damage. Were we any further along the journey, the outcome of that fight would have been disastrous."

"So I'm not allowed to defend myself, or you?" Cloud exclaimed, both angry and ashamed. "If it's Spirans attacking instead of fiends, I should just stand there and let them stone us?"

"Nobody is suggesting that," Sephiroth said sharply. He paused, then sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I should have told you all of this before, but it simply didn't occur to me that you wouldn't know it. All potential summoners are trained from a young age to control their emotions. Cloud, if you had summoned Evned and things had gone very badly, Zack and I would have been killed as well."

Now it was Cloud's turn to go pale. The thought of Zack or Sephiroth being hurt or killed because of him was enough to make him want to break his staff and go home right now.

Zack turned to Sephiroth with a worried look. "How are you holding up? You haven't summoned in ten years, and that's the third time this week."

"If we press hard we should reach the inn at the halfway point shortly after nightfall," Sephiroth said, blatantly ignoring the question. "By then we should have defeated enough fiends to be able to resupply there. Today will be difficult, but I thought it best not to remain in Luca."

"Not after that," Zack agreed, grimacing. "Not with the attitude towards the Al Bhed as bad as it is now."

They walked in silence after that. There were a lot of fiends in the area, but Cloud fought with his sword, refusing to summon. Thankfully he didn't need to, although his new white magic spells got plenty of practice after all.

After a while Zack let Sephiroth take point, and dropped back beside Cloud. "Hey, don't kill yourself over it," he said, patting him on the shoulder. "You didn't know, and nothing happened. Next time you'll know better, right?" Cloud nodded miserably, and Zack smiled at him. "No worries."

"But he's so mad at me," Cloud muttered, glancing ahead at his other guardian. Sephiroth's back was ramrod straight, and though he'd had to cast poisona several times, he'd made no effort to teach Cloud the new spell. In fact he hadn't so much as glanced at Cloud since ending his lecture.

"He's not mad at you," Zack said, his words soft enough not to carry and his smile turning crooked. "I wasn't exactly paying attention at the time, but if I had to guess, I'd say you scared the shit out of him."

Cloud regarded Zack with astonishment. "Him? Scared? Because the aeon could have killed him?" That didn't seem to fit with Sephiroth's personality as far as he'd observed.

"Nah, he would've just had his aeon beat yours," Zack said. "He's scared because the aeon might've killed you - or the temple might well have called for your execution as a rogue summoner, if you'd hurt innocent people. For some definitions of 'innocent', anyway."

Cloud felt chilled. He hadn't known the temple had that kind of power, but it made sense. There was no rule that said all summoners had to be good, caring people. And the priests would certainly jump at any opportunity to rid themselves of him.

"He blames himself for not thinking to warn you," Zack continued. "You know those lectures about duty he's so good at giving us? It's because he practices on himself, ten times worse. It's not you he's mad at, it's him."

"But it's not his fault!" Cloud protested. "I'm the one who doesn't even know the first thing about how to be a summoner."

"Just don't take it personally, is all I'm saying." Zack shrugged, looking a little helpless. "He takes everything on his own shoulders, he always has. It's just the way he is."

"Then I'll just have to try harder," Cloud sighed. "So I'm not causing him more problems." Assuming his very existence wasn't what ended up causing the problem, like it already had. Of course, first they had to survive getting to D'jose, with no equipment but what they had on them. It was going to be a long trip.

Chapter Text

Cloud still felt drained and aching when he made his way to the common room of the travel agency the next day, but it was a vast improvement over the way he'd felt when they'd gone to sleep the night before. Struggling down the Highroad with no resources but their weapons and the clothes on their backs had not been a pleasant experience. Even Sephiroth had looked exhausted from all the healing spells he'd cast by the time they reached the travel agency.

At least Sephiroth had been speaking to him again, by the time they got to the inn. Cloud had been starting to worry that the former summoner might have changed his mind about being Cloud's guardian.

He glanced around, looking for Zack. Sephiroth had still been asleep in their room, but the Blitzer had been nowhere to be seen. He finally spotted his guardian sitting at a table, chatting animatedly with a pretty girl. She seemed to be enjoying the attention, judging by the way she was smiling back at him. Then again, Zack just had that effect on people, like a walking ray of sunshine. Cloud thought he'd smiled more since meeting Zack than in all the rest of his life combined.

Cloud turned away. He wouldn't interrupt. Surely he could handle getting some breakfast without Zack's help.

"Your guardian seems to be enjoying himself," Rin, the owner, said in Al Bhed as he handed Cloud a sandwich. He was the first Al Bhed Cloud hadn't felt nervous around since becoming a summoner. Not only had he greeted Sephiroth last night like his long-lost best friend, he hadn't so much as blinked when Cloud had been introduced.

"Zack's good at making friends," Cloud replied in the same language. "He managed to bring Seph and I under his spell."

"No mean feat, as I well know," Rin chuckled. "Enjoy your breakfast, young Cloud, and much luck on your journey."

"May your steps bring you Home again," Cloud replied. It was a farewell he'd heard from nearly every Al Bhed he'd met along the way to Besaid. Somehow, he rather doubted he would ever so much as lay eyes on Home himself.

"Cloud?" a familiar voice exclaimed. "Spirits of Yevon, is that you?"

Startled, Cloud turned to see a face every bit as familiar as the voice, though he'd never expected to see her here of all places. "Tifa?" he said, mirroring her astonished expression.

"It is you. I thought I recognized your voice," she said, and her wide smile said she was genuinely happy to see him. Something tight in Cloud's chest relaxed, and he was able to smile back at her.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, joining her at her table. "You're a long way from home."

"Look who's talking," she laughed. "At least I said goodbye to everyone before I left! I'm on my way to Besaid, of course."

"Besaid?" he repeated. There was really only one reason to go to the island, especially with Sin on the rampage. "You're going to be a guardian?"

"I am one already, actually," she said, her cheeks flushed pink with pleasure and pride. "We met in Bevelle. She's amazing, Cloud. She's High Summoner Ifalna's daughter, and she's going to be the next high summoner, I just know it."

"That's great," he said enthusiastically. "I know you've always dreamed about being a guardian, Tifa. I'm really happy for you." And to the daughter of the previous high summoner - that was as amazing as him having Zack and Sephiroth for his guardians.

"That's Aerith over there," Tifa said, nodding. Cloud glanced over his shoulder, and realized she was talking about the same girl Zack was flirting with. "She seems to be enjoying herself and I don't think that guy means any harm, so I figured I'd just stay over... sweet fayth." Her eyes widened, and her tone dropped abruptly to a strained whisper. "Is... is that who I think it is? It can't be."

"Huh?" Cloud looked again, and blinked. Then he realized he was being an idiot, because he knew exactly who she was reacting to. Despite his own shocking realization the day before, Cloud still had trouble remembering that people all over Spira would recognize Zack on sight.

"It is, it totally is," Tifa continued, sounding awed. "It's Zack, the captain of the Goers. Oh my gosh. What's he doing here, isn't it time for the league games to start?"

"He's not a Blitzer anymore," Cloud told her, amused by her reaction despite the fact that he'd done nearly the same thing himself. Or maybe because of that. "He quit to become a guardian."

"No, really?" Now Tifa's wide-eyed look was directed at Cloud. "Wow. Lucky summoner."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed, his smile soft and shy. "Definitely."

"Do you think... oh, I can't," Tifa said, biting her lip. "He must get so sick of people pestering him for autographs."

Despite himself Cloud snorted, and laughed. "Not that one. He's an attention hound," he said fondly, remembering the way Zack had played up to the crowd at the Blitzdome, before things had turned ugly.

"You don't know that," Tifa protested. "He's not even here as a Blitzer. I can't bother him."

"Okay. I'll do it for you," Cloud said, his grin widening. It was nice to be able to do something for her, he acknowledged to himself. And, if he was being honest, he was showing off a little. He turned to call over his shoulder, raising his voice. "Zack!"

"Cloud, what are you doing, stop it," Tifa whispered, horrified. "You're making a scene."

"It's okay," he assured her. "Zack," he called insistently, a little louder.

"What?" Zack protested, but the grin on his face as he turned told Cloud that he wasn't really irritated. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

Tifa looked like she was contemplating hiding under the table, or at least claiming she didn't know him. Cloud chuckled. "Stop flirting for five minutes and come here, there's someone I want to introduce you to."

Zack heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Duty calls," he said to the pretty girl, making mournfully pleading eyes at her. "Forgive me?"

She giggled, the sound warm and rich. "That's my guardian he wants to introduce you to, so I think perhaps I'd better go along and make sure you don't try your tricks on her."

"Tricks?" Zack protested, affecting a wounded look as they both moved to the table Cloud and Tifa were sharing. "I'm not pulling any tricks. Besides," he grinned. "Apparently Cloud's the one you have to watch. He moves way faster than I do. He only sat down like five minutes ago."

"Wha... Zack!" Cloud sputtered and blushed as he realized what the older man was implying.

Zack was laughing at him, of course. "You are so easy to get a rise out of, you know that? I'm not sure if you're more fun to tease than Seph because you actually react, or if he is because it's more of a challenge."

"Glad we can entertain you," Cloud grumbled. "Zack, this is Tifa. We grew up together," he added pointedly.

"Oh yeah?" Zack gave her a genuinely interested smile. "Nice to meet you then, Tifa."

She opened her mouth, but the only sound that came out was a squeak. Blushing, she cleared her throat and tried again. "Um. Nice to meet you, too."

Aerith tilted her head. "You're not usually shy," she said to her guardian, clearly puzzled.

"She's a Blitzball fan," Cloud explained with a grin that echoed more than a little of Zack's impish expression.

"Ah," Zack said, and smiled at Tifa again, adding a wink this time.

"Is that relevant?" Aerith asked. Zack choked and made a gesture as if she'd stabbed him through the heart.

"Geez, first Cloud didn't recognize me for a week, and now you don't even know who I am! I'm gonna get a complex," he complained.

"No, you'll just have some of your ego deflated," Cloud dared to tease back, earning him a grin. "Anyway, Tifa wanted your autograph but didn't want to bother you, so I said I'd ask."

"Hey, anything for a friend of Cloud's," Zack said. "Not that I'd have minded anyway. I'm always happy to talk to fans. I don't get the guys who let it go to their heads and start treating the fans badly. Without all of you who love to watch, we'd all have to find real work."

"Thank you," Tifa said, still looking a little overwhelmed but rapidly getting her feet back under her. "Where in the world did you meet Cloud, though?"

"Huh? In Besaid," Zack said, a bit absently as he scribbled his signature on a napkin.

"Besaid!" Tifa blinked. "Why were you in Besaid?" she asked Cloud.

"Long story," Cloud said, shrugging and glancing away. It was only now occurring to him that introducing Tifa to Zack wasn't the best way of keeping her from finding out what he was up to. Tifa had treated him better than the other kids in Nibelheim, but she'd still laughed at him when he'd told her that he wanted to be a summoner, years ago. He'd begun this journey partly with the intention of showing up everyone in Nibelheim, but he wasn't ready to face them just yet. He'd never expected to run into anyone he knew this soon.

Unfortunately, Tifa was much too perceptive. "But there's nothing in Besaid except..." She trailed off, and looked from Cloud to Zack and back again. "And now you're travelling with... are you a guardian?"

She looked shocked and almost appalled, which was enough to make Cloud really not want her to learn the truth. He didn't want to see the same look all the other Spirans had given him so far. Not from Tifa.

"Of course he's not a guardian, he's..." Zack hesitated a fraction of a second as Cloud threw him a panicked look and shook his head slightly. Smoothly, Zack finished, "He's just along for the company." Not exactly a lie, and it was enough to mollify Tifa. Cloud heaved a silent sigh of relief.

Sephiroth entered the room, glancing around for them, sword in hand and their packs on his shoulder. "There you are," he said when he spotted them, heading over. "Are you ready to continue? I've purchased additional supplies from Rin, there should be enough to see us through to D'jose."

"Just waiting on you," Zack said. The look on his face said he was planning to tease the other man for sleeping in, but before he could say anything else, Aerith gasped.

"Lord Sephiroth!" she exclaimed, and gave him the bow of respect from one summoner to another. She bowed deeply, obviously overawed.

"Sephiroth?" Tifa said, and her eyes went wide again.

Groaning, Cloud looked around quickly to see how much attention they were drawing. Thankfully the travel agency was empty save for the five of them and the owner, and he didn't seem the least bit interested in their little drama.

"Please, don't," Sephiroth said, sounding faintly pained. "I neither want nor deserve that sort of obeisance."

Slowly Aerith straightened, still looking stunned. "They told me you'd died on Gagazet," she murmured. "Why didn't you ever come home to Bevelle?"

Sephiroth blinked, and peered at her more closely. "Forgive me, lady summoner. Have we met?"

She giggled, her smile wide. "I'm not surprised you don't remember me," she said. "I was only seven when we last met. You taught me my very first cure spell."

"Lady Aerith?" Now it was Sephiroth's turn to look surprised. He recovered quickly, and gave her a small smile. "I do remember you, though you've certainly grown. Following in your mother's footsteps, I see."

"I've got some big shoes to fill," Aerith said, and laughed. "Though if you are journeying again, I think my chances of being High Summoner after her just dropped drastically."

Sephiroth shifted uncomfortably, and Cloud's heart sank. He was going to deny being a summoner as he always did, and then Tifa was going to want to know who their summoner was.

"Much as I hate to break up the reunion," Zack interrupted before Sephiroth could say anything. "If we wanna make it to D'jose by nightfall, we need to get moving."

"Yes, we should be on our way as well," Aerith agreed with a regretful smile. "It's a long walk to Luca."

"Why not just rent a chocobo?" Zack asked, surprised.

"There are none available, I'm afraid," Rin put in unexpectedly. "And I would recommend great caution while travelling the Highroad. There is a fiend lurking in the area, and it has eaten or frightened all the chocobos away."

"What?" Cloud exclaimed. "Nothing can outrun a chocobo."

"This thing corners them, apparently," Tifa said with a put-upon sigh. "We had to walk here from D'jose, but we didn't see any sign of the fiend."

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Zack asked, his eyes bright. "We need to go take this thing out before it starts hurting travellers, too!"

"You would have us hunt it down?" Sephiroth asked, one eyebrow raised. His tone sounded just a bit too carefully neutral to Cloud.

Zack seemed to sense a trap as well. "Huh? Uh, well... I mean, yeah. It needs to be dealt with, right?"

"And if your summoner is injured or killed in the process?" Sephiroth asked, still mild.

"I'd never let that happen," Zack declared, bristling.

Sephiroth sighed and shook his head, but there was a faint smile on his lips. "A guardian's job is to protect his summoner," he said, the words repeated so often it had become a litany. "A Crusader's job is to hunt down dangerous fiends. And you are?"

"A guardian," Zack said, a touch sheepishly. "Okay, I get the point. We'll leave the stupid thing alone."

"I know how you feel," Tifa said, smiling at him. "It does seem wrong to just ignore it. But I'd never forgive myself if Aerith got hurt because I wanted to play hero."

Zack winced, and chuckled ruefully. "Yeah, all right already, I surrender."

"Too bad we're going the other way," Tifa said as the five of them emerged into the bright morning light. "I would have liked the chance to catch up with you, Cloud."

She seemed sincere, and Cloud felt a flush sweeping over his cheeks. "At least we got to say hi," he said, a little shyly. In truth it felt more like 'goodbye' since he might never see her again, but either way he was grateful for the chance.

"Maybe we'll catch up to you later," Aerith said, smiling. She bowed again to Sephiroth, though she kept the gesture brief this time. "Good journey, Lord Sephiroth."

For a moment Cloud worried that Sephiroth would correct her about whose journey it was. Perhaps Zack sent him a silent signal, or perhaps the look on Cloud's face was enough, because Sephiroth only bowed in return and said, "And yours, Lady Aerith."

Cloud couldn't resist sneaking looks back over his shoulder, even after Tifa was out of sight around a bend in the road. He jumped when Zack patted him on the head, not having realized his guardian was so close.

"She's cute," Zack teased him, grin wide as usual. "Seems nice, too. You guys were just friends?"

Cloud shrugged, cursing his pale skin as he felt another blush rush over his face. "Tifa was the closest thing I had to a friend, anyway," he mumbled. "She never..."

A distant scream cut him off, and he whirled to face the way they'd come. A second scream followed the first, chased by a roar loud enough to make the ground tremble.

"Crap," Zack exclaimed, grabbing for his sword. "We've gotta..."

"Not our concern," Sephiroth said, holding up a hand. "It's up to her own guardian to..."

The third scream was a different voice, more of a terrified shout - a familiar shout. "Tifa!" Cloud exclaimed, and took off running.

"Looks like it's our problem now," he heard Zack say behind him, and then the sound of footsteps told him his guardians were following.

Cloud raced past the travel agency and caught up with Aerith and Tifa just around the bend. The fiend attacking them was huge, bigger than any Cloud had ever seen except Sin itself. Thankfully it was also slow, and Tifa was able to dodge its clumsy swings before moving in close to punch and kick at it.

Cloud skidded to a halt beside Aerith, lying crumpled on the ground at the edge of the road. Before he could say or do anything, magic welled up around her and he recognized the feel of a Cure.

With a shout Zack went charging past to slam his oversized sword into one of the fiend's arms. The Blitzer cursed when the blade skidded off the tough armour, hardly even making a dent.

"It's too strong, I can't seem to hurt it," Tifa said as Cloud fumbled for his own sword. He doubted he would fare any better than Zack or Tifa, but he didn't know any offensive spells and Aerith seemed to be managing the healing just fine on her own.

Sephiroth also had his sword held ready, but instead of attacking he extended his free hand towards the fiend. "If blows have no effect, let us see how it reacts to magic. Fira."

Fire blossomed around the fiend, flames licking hungrily at it. Cloud flinched and thought he saw Tifa do the same. The fiend liked the fire even less than they did. It screamed and fell over on its back, writhing on the ground.

"Now!" Zack exclaimed, and pounced on the fiend again. Tifa dove in past its flailing arms and landed a few solid blows of her own on its vulnerable mid-section.

Cloud managed one step towards the fiend before a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He looked back to see Sephiroth had taken a firm grip on his shirt, preventing him from joining the fight.

"You are a summoner now, not a swordsman," the older man said sternly, the same tone he used to lecture Zack about a guardian's duties. "Your place is not at the front of the battle."

Aerith was on her feet again, though she looked a little shaken. "Clearly, I need to learn some black magic as well as white," she murmured, and bowed again to Sephiroth. "Thank you, my L..."

A pained shriek cut her off, and Cloud's attention snapped back to the battle. The fiend had regained its feet; Zack was sprawled on the ground in front of it, fighting painfully to get back up again... and Tifa dangled from the fiend's massive fist, making helpless choking noises as it squeezed her mercilessly.

"Tifa!" Cloud's world narrowed until all he could see was her increasingly feeble struggles to get free, and all he could hear was her sobbing breath over the racing of his own heart. Fear cut deep into his heart, and he felt an answering power rising to meet the pain. With a wordless shout Cloud let that power pour through him, scorching him from the inside out.

The earth heaved, hard enough to stagger Cloud and send Zack to the ground again. A giant chunk of rock blasted out of the ground, and a burst of flame chased after it. Both struck the fiend, missing Tifa by inches.

With a roar of fury Evned launched a series of fireballs at the fiend, knocking it over once more. The moment it was vulnerable, he snatched Tifa out of its grasp, settling her on a precarious perch on his shoulder and supporting her with one hand. Tifa clung tightly to one of his horns, looking like she half expected to get a fireball in the face for committing sacrilege.

Dimly Cloud registered that Zack had scrambled out of the way, and he heard Aerith rushing through the words to a cure spell, presumably for Tifa. Sephiroth's hand had tightened on his shoulder, but the older summoner made no move to interfere.

Evned roared again, and quickly proved himself to be just as capable at fire spells as Sephiroth. In moments the fiend was reduced to a swarm of pyreflies, larger than Cloud had ever seen before.

"Everyone okay?" Zack called, glancing around as he shook his sword to clear it of clinging pyreflies.

"I think so," Tifa replied from where she was still sitting on Evned's shoulder. The aeon was tall enough that the bottom of her feet didn't even reach Zack's head. "I owe you my life," Tifa said, looking down at Sephiroth. She looked both shaken and awed, and Cloud couldn't blame her.

He also couldn't blame her for the mistake, and he half hoped his guardian would go along with it. To his dismay but not really his surprise, Sephiroth shook his head. "I am not the one you need to thank."

"That's true. I suppose it's rude to act like he can't understand me." Tifa smiled tentatively at the aeon, apparently misunderstanding Sephiroth's words. "Thank you, too. Um, could you put me down now, please?"

Evned rumbled contentedly in response to the thanks, but seemed to be in no hurry to let her down. Reluctantly Cloud stepped forward. "Thank you, Evned," he murmured, reaching out one hand to his aeon. He could feel the heat radiating off the massive body, as if the skin was only a container for a powerful fire burning within. "You can put her down. Gently."

The aeon made a sound remarkably like laughter. He leaned over enough to allow Tifa to jump down, then reached out to rest one huge hand on Cloud's head. The gesture was clearly one of affection, backed by the surge of approval he felt in his soul, and Cloud couldn't help but smile back. "Dryhg oui," he said again.

"What is it with the fayth trying to kill you, and the aeons treating you like a mascot or something?" Zack asked as Evned vanished in a mist of pyreflies. "Jymavun always preens you when you call her, too."

"They're not trying to kill me," Cloud said, rolling his eyes. "And Jymavun and Evned do not treat me like a mascot!"

"Wait." Tifa was staring at Cloud in shock and disbelief. "You're not seriously trying to say that was Cloud's aeon?"

Well, there was no getting out of it now. Cloud ducked his head and mumbled something, unwilling to face the look in her eyes. It was just as bad as he'd been afraid it would be.

"Is that really a problem?" Zack asked, one eyebrow raised. He walked over to stand next to Sephiroth, just behind Cloud, offering his tacit support. Cloud was grateful, because the look in Tifa's eyes was making him feel alone in a way he never had before.

"Of course it's a problem, he's an Al Bhed!" Tifa exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air.

"Half," Cloud muttered, the familiar argument sitting like a lump in his throat.

Tifa looked pained. "Cloud... you know nobody believes that except you." He finally looked up and glared at her. Tifa was the one person who hadn't made it clear she thought his mother was a liar. Not until now, anyway.

"Well, I think it's wonderful." Aerith had been staying out of it, but now she stepped forward. Her eyes were shining as she looked at Cloud. "Maybe an Al Bhed summoner is exactly what Spira needs, to shake us out of our rut. I can summon without a ritual, but you didn't even call his name!"

"He can do it outside of battle, too," Zack put in with a note of smug pride in his voice that made Cloud squirm. "He called Jymavun to save me when I went overboard in a storm."

"But you just said the fayth were trying to kill him," Tifa argued.

"They're not trying to kill me," Cloud repeated, exasperated. "Zack, we've been over this."

"Yeah, well, they're giving a disturbingly good impression of it," Zack replied, unrepentant.

"If they were truly unwilling, they would simply refuse him their power," Sephiroth said. "There is no way to coerce them. I do not understand why they are testing Cloud the way they are, but there is no doubt in my mind that he has the right to be a summoner. Else, I would not be his guardian."

This time Cloud's flush was one of pleasure and pride. That was the most blatant statement of support Sephiroth had yet made in his presence, and it made him feel warm all the way through.

Tifa was gaping, obviously too stunned to say anything. Cloud could hardly blame her for that. He still couldn't believe that Zack and Sephiroth were his guardians.

"Well, I can see I'm going to have to work hard if I want to beat you to Zanarkand," Aerith said, giving him a smile and a wink. "Thank you all for coming back to help us."

"Yes, thank you," Tifa agreed, though she still seemed somewhat dazed.

"No problem, but we'd better get moving if we're gonna reach D'jose by nightfall," Zack said, slipping his sword onto the harness at his back. "On the bright side, now we can ride the chocobos, so we actually have a chance of getting there today."

"We'll be spending enough time camping out as it is," Sephiroth agreed. "I will be just as happy to spend the night at the inn by the temple."

"Then, we'll meet you again further along the journey," Aerith said, and this time she gave Cloud the bow of respect. "Lord Cloud."

Startled, his return bow was a little jerky. "Lady Aerith."

Belatedly Tifa bowed as well - Cloud suspected Aerith might have nudged her. He wanted to say something, anything, to make things better between them again - but what could he possibly say? 'I'm sorry I tromped all over your religion'? It wasn't like he could promise not to do it again.

"Give her some time," Zack murmured as they walked away, putting a comforting arm around Cloud's shoulder. "You gave her a shock, but she strikes me as the adaptable type. Next time you see her, it'll be different."

"You really think so?" Cloud looked up at his guardian, who smiled back at him.

"If nothing else, I believe Lady Aerith will talk her around," Sephiroth said. "She bids fair to outstrip her mother. Lady Ifalna was one of the most tolerant and accepting people I have ever had the privilege of knowing."

"High praise," Zack commented, raising an eyebrow at him. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you had a crush. But if we don't want them to beat us to Zanarkand, we'd better get going on our own journey again.

They both looked at Cloud. He took one more wistful glance at Tifa, now just visible down the road.

Then he shouldered his pack and nodded. Whether Tifa ever accepted him as a summoner or not, Zack was right about one thing. He had a long way to go before he could rest.

Chapter Text

They were on the final approach to D'jose Temple when Cloud identified the odd scent that had been bothering him - ozone. Nobody who had ever crossed the Thunder Plains could possibly forget that stringent scent.

"Is it going to storm?" he asked in confusion, looking up at the sky. There wasn't a cloud in sight, so if there was an approaching thunderstorm it was a long way away.

It could be some kind of lightning fiend like the ones in the Thunder Plains, but there hadn't been anything like that on the Highroad so far. Besides, the chocobo had been calm since they'd taken the turn-off for D'jose, so there probably weren't any fiends around.

"There must be another summoner in the Chamber of the Fayth," Sephiroth said. "We will have to wait until they emerge."

"What does that have to do with whether there's a storm coming or not?" Zack asked, voicing Cloud's own confusion.

Then they turned the last corner and D'jose Temple came into sight, and Cloud didn't need to wonder anymore. He stared at the giant floating rocks that swirled around the temple, seemingly held in place by the bolts of lightning that crawled over and between them.

Soft cursing from behind him made Cloud turn to look at Zack. His guardian was staring at the temple as well, his face pale and tight. "What in Yevon's name is that?" Zack ended his stream of profanity, shifting uneasily in the saddle. The chocobo warked and danced in place, responding to the pressure Zack was putting on the reins.

"An ancient machina," Sephiroth said. "It only opens when a summoner addresses the fayth."

"Machina?" Zack went from white to faintly green. "There's machina in the temple?"

"You swim in a giant machina all the time," Cloud pointed out, a little surprised by the reaction. He'd have expected something like it from most other Spirans, but not a Blitzer.

"Yeah, but the dome doesn't have lightning spitting out of it," Zack said, his shoulders hunching at a particularly loud crackle.

"Ah. I should have known," Sephiroth said, chuckling softly. "If by some chance you were to die without being Sent, I'm sure you would become a water elemental."

Cloud blinked and had to stifle a snicker of his own. Of course Zack disliked lightning; it was the opposite element to water. The fact that his guardian was unnerved by the lightning made him feel a little better about his own petrifying fear of fire.

"Out of curiosity, how were you planning to handle crossing the Thunder Plains?" Cloud asked, swinging down out of the saddle. It warked at the other chocobos already in the enclosure, and trotted off to join them once Cloud had his bags.

"Uh. Right." The green tone in Zack's skin increased noticeably. "Can't we go around it?"

"Certainly, if we wish to add a week or more to our journey," Sephiroth replied. Judging by the look on Zack's face, he didn't think that was an unreasonable detour.

"There are lightning towers along the path," Cloud told his guardian, taking pity on him. "As long as you keep moving from one to the next, you won't get hit." Then again, if it had been the Fire Plains, Cloud knew wild chocobos couldn't have dragged him across it. "We'll go around if we have to."

"No." Zack straightened his shoulders, and his jaw tightened. "I'll manage. If you can walk through fire to get an aeon after everything you've been through, I can damned well walk through a little storm."

"It will not be a concern for some time to come," Sephiroth said. "In the meantime... ah." The floating rocks abruptly pulled in on the temple spire, and the lightning faded. "Excellent, the summoner has emerged. We will not have to wait."

"I suppose there's gonna be all kinds of lightning inside, too," Zack sighed, adjusting his harness as they entered the main part of the temple.

"Not as bad as the fire at Kilika," Sephiroth assured him.

"That's not saying much," Zack pointed out with a grimace, but he entered the temple without hesitation.

There was indeed lightning everywhere in the temple; even the illumination was provided by small balls of crackling lightning set in the walls. Cloud was impressed that Zack didn't flinch, even when he had to jump across a pit full of lightning with only a floating column to use as a landing point in the middle.

It wasn't until they came to the end of the Trial that they finally encountered the other summoner and guardians. It wasn't difficult to tell who was who - three men and a woman dressed in black and carrying an assortment of weapons closed into a protective group around their fifth the moment Cloud and his guardians came into sight.

"What d'you know, the competition's here," a lanky redhead drawled, looking them over with an insulting smirk. "You must've been sitting there staring at the rocks, yo. You got here fast."

"We were merely fortunate enough to arrive at an opportune moment," Sephiroth said, his voice and expression bland. If the other guardian's attitude bothered him, it didn't show.

Cloud wished he could be half that unflappable. The dismissive look in the redhead's eyes riled him, and he bit his lip to keep from snapping back. He struggled to remember what Sephiroth had said about keeping his temper.

Zack had no such need to keep a lid on his attitude, and he was already agitated from the Trial. "Sounds like you were in there a long time," he said, saccharine concern fairly dripping from his voice. "We'll just get out of your way so you can recover, then."

"Zack," Sephiroth said, his tone disapproving and a little long-suffering. Zack shrugged, clearly not bothered by the subtle rebuke.

"You'd better get out of our way, yo," the redhead said, his smile nasty. "You wouldn't want us thinking you were trying to eliminate the competition. We might get carried away dealing with you."

"Reno." Their summoner's tone was a fair match for Sephiroth's. "That's enough." He stepped forward from between his guardians, his gaze assessing. For a moment Cloud's heart leapt when he saw the man's hair was as gold as Cloud's own, but the other summoner's blue eyes had a Spiran's solid pupil.

Moreover when his eyes met Cloud's, his expression turned disdainful. Cloud's shoulders tightened. He'd met people like this man before - too high and mighty to admit that there might be Al Bhed blood somewhere in his family, and happy to prove how much better he was than those who did admit it.

"Your quality in guardians has dropped significantly since I saw you last, Lord Sephiroth," the man said with a cold smile. "An Al Bhed and a Blitzer? Hardly up to the standards of Sir Angeal and Sir Genesis. But then I suppose a failed summoner must take what he can."

Cloud bristled, and he thought he heard Zack growl. If anything, Sephiroth's demeanour only grew colder. "Lord Rufus," was all he said, with a sharp nod that only highlighted the fact that neither of them had made the summoner's bow. Then he pushed past the four guardians, seemingly unaware of the weapons they all still held ready.

"C'mon, kid, let's go show 'em what we're worth," Zack said, slinging an arm over Cloud's shoulder and heading after Sephiroth. Cloud noticed he positioned himself so he was between Cloud and the other group, though he made it look accidental.

Rufus smirked at them as they passed. This was the first time Cloud had encountered the attitude towards 'failed' summoners, though Zack had told him about it. If this was a sample of what Sephiroth had been dealing with for the last ten years, Cloud couldn't blame him for turning bitter.

"Who is that?" Cloud asked under his breath as he and Zack caught up to Sephiroth. "You'd think he was already high summoner, the way he acts." Aerith was High Summoner Ifalna's daughter, but she'd shown none of the arrogance that Rufus exhibited.

"Close," Zack murmured with a wry smile. "He's the son of Maester Shinra."

"Oh." Cloud turned to look back over his shoulder, but Rufus and his guardians were gone. Son of a maester - yes, that might well be enough to produce an attitude like that, though not to justify it.

"If you think he's bad, you should meet his old man," Zack continued. "With all due respect to the maesters, Shinra seems a lot more concerned with his own comfort than the spiritual wellbeing of Spira."

"Zack." Sephiroth sounded disapproving again, but Cloud thought the look in his eyes was resigned.

"It's not like I'm saying something that's not the truth," Zack said stubbornly. "And I wouldn't say it where anyone but the two of you could hear."

"Then that is all I can reasonably ask, I suppose," Sephiroth acknowledged with a sigh. "So long as you remember that your opinions no longer reflect only on yourself, but on your summoner as well."

"Don't worry, I am aware that we don't need even more reasons for the temple to be gunning for us," Zack said with a mock salute. "In the meantime - you ready, Cloud?"

Cloud took a deep breath, trying not to think about how much agony Evned's fayth had put him through. "No," he admitted. "But standing around thinking about it isn't going to help, so I might as well just do it."

"That's the spirit," Zack cheered, and slapped him on the back hard enough to stagger him. "Go get 'em."

Once again the door closed behind Cloud automatically, and this time he didn't bother to check it. As he approached the buried statue, the sound of the hymn became overwhelming and the light in the room changed as the fayth appeared. It was a man, dressed in clothes like a sailor might wear.

Where Kilika's fayth had immediately disdained him, D'jose's merely looked assessing. "You have the strength and the courage," he said. "But I do not believe you have the discipline." Cloud flushed, and the fayth raised an eyebrow at him. The scolding expression was so like Sephiroth's that it made Cloud hunch his shoulders. "You are too much ruled by the storm of your emotions. At the first pressure on your heart, or your temper, you will break and our hopes will shatter with you."

Cloud ground his teeth, knowing he was proving the fayth right and not knowing what he could possibly say in response. "Try me," he finally managed. "Give me the chance to prove you wrong, at least."

"As you wish." The fayth smiled, and held out his hand with the palm facing Cloud. "If you can take control from me, then I will serve you. If you cannot, I will destroy you." Before Cloud could say or do anything in response to the threat, there was a brilliant flash and a peal of thunder. The sharp scent of ozone filled the room, so thick Cloud found it difficult to breathe.

For a horrible moment Cloud thought the fayth had actually blinded and deafened him. Slowly his eyes cleared, and he wasn't surprised to find he was alone in the chamber once more. Stumbling towards the door with his ears still ringing, Cloud reached inside himself to find his new aeon. The power was there, crackling like living lightning, but it felt oddly separate from him.

"Cloud!" Zack exclaimed the moment the door opened, hurrying forward to meet him. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I... think so," Cloud said slowly. He lifted a hand to touch his chest, frowning. The new power was definitely not settling like Evned's and Jymavun's had.

That was when he realized what the difference was. "I don't know his name," he said, eyes wide. "He's there, but I don't know his name."

"Did he say anything to you?" Sephiroth asked. "Forgive me for asking, but it seems the fayth are not following customary traditions with you, so perhaps they will forgive me not following tradition as well."

"He said that I had to take control from him, and that I had no discipline," Cloud replied. "But then he didn't really do anything." The lightning flash had been startling and a little frightening, but hadn't felt like a test the way Evned and Jymavun had tested him.

Sephiroth was doing his best to look calm, but his brow was furrowed and there were tight lines around his mouth. "There is little we can do now, but hope that what power he has granted you is enough."

Well, Cloud had asked for a chance to prove himself, so presumably that was what he would get. He was just going to have to be very careful to control his emotions, especially his temper. Hopefully the aeon would eventually concede that he wasn't completely hopeless, and join with him properly.

Mercifully the priests were nowhere to be seen as they exited the trial. Cloud felt jittery and on edge, and he didn't think dealing with angry priests was what he needed right now. Unfortunately he'd forgotten that the priests weren't the only ones capable of riling him.

"What, did you change your mind?" someone asked as they passed through the outer door. Startled, Cloud looked towards the inn and saw the redheaded guardian from earlier, Reno. "Then again, I suppose you've already got 'em all, don't you. Why bother going to the temples at all, if you ain't gonna enter the chamber, yo?"

"What makes you think he didn't enter the chamber?" Zack countered.

Reno jerked his thumb at the top of the temple, smirking. "I was looking forward to seeing it open, yo. You disappointed me."

"You are mistaken on two counts," Sephiroth rumbled. "First, you did not see it open because you were too slow returning through the trial. Second, I am not the summoner in this party, merely a guardian." Cloud sighed. Sephiroth's earlier failure to correct Rufus' mistaken assumption had made him hope that maybe this once, Sephiroth would allow someone to believe that he was the summoner. But apparently that had simply been due to a reluctance to talk to Rufus any longer than necessary.

"Seph, I don't think you're capable of being 'merely' anything," Zack said with some humour.

"I heard the rumour that an Al Bhed was claiming to be a summoner," another of the guardians said, stepping out of the inn. "But I hadn't given it credence."

"You serious, Tseng?" Reno looked from him to Cloud, disbelieving. "That's why Rufus has been gettin' so much flak over his damned hair?"

"So it would seem." The newcomer gave Cloud an assessing look, rather like the look the fayth had bestowed on him. It wasn't a friendly expression, but it wasn't exactly unfriendly, either.

Cloud met his eyes, and refused to look down. "I'm half Spiran, and I've got every right to be a summoner."

"Perhaps you have the technical right," Rufus said, appearing in the doorway. "But do you have a moral right? Summoners are supposed to be Spira's hope, a guiding light through the darkness of Sin. You sow strife and discord with your very existence. Riots start wherever you go. Relations between the Spirans and the Al Bhed are worse than ever. What have you accomplished in your selfish pursuit of glory? Where is your 'right' to be a summoner?"

Cloud felt something warm trickle over his palm, and a moment later he registered the sting of pain. He'd dug his nails into his skin hard enough to draw blood. Within him he felt the new aeon stir, and he fought to contain his anger. It seemed even harder than usual. Rufus was like a combination of the worst traits of every Spiran who had ever mocked or disdained him through his whole life. Even glancing at his disdainful expression was enough to make Cloud's temper boil.

"The fayth give him the right," Zack argued heatedly. "Not only have they all accepted him in record time, the aeons come without him even needing to call them aloud."

"The fayth are dedicated to defeating Sin, not to Spira's best interests," Rufus said, not so much as glancing Zack's way. His gaze was locked on Cloud, mocking and abrasive. "Perhaps they feel you are a significant threat to Sin, but I say you are a more significant threat to Spira itself."

Cloud felt the hair on his body lifting, and his skin tingled. The scent of ozone was strong again, and he almost thought he could see a faint haze of lightning on the edges of his vision.

"Cloud. Do not let him upset you," Sephiroth said. His voice seemed distant and distorted, barely audible over the crackle of electricity in Cloud's ears.

For some reason he had no trouble understanding Rufus when the other blond spoke again. "Half-breed though you might be, you have no right to call yourself a summoner. All you accomplish is to bring chaos and anarchy, and you are making things more difficult for those of us who do have the right."

"I'm sorry that the Al Bhed blood you refuse to admit to is causing problems for you," Cloud spoke, taking a step towards him. Part of him was protesting, reminding him of the need for control, but he was too lost in his rising fury and the rush of electricity through his veins. It was as if his body was under someone else's control, and his rational self was only watching from within.

Rufus was glaring at him like an offended cat. "You are quite mistaken," he said, his words abrupt as if he was biting off the ends. "There is no Al Bhed blood in my family, and frankly I'm growing tired of hearing the allegation. You are making this difficult for all summoners, but you've made my journey particularly trying."

"Then let me fix it so nothing bothers you again," Cloud snarled. "I'll show you what right I have to be a summoner!"

"Cloud, you mustn't..."

Whatever else Sephiroth might have said was drowned out by a deafening crash of thunder as the world went white. Electricity crawled over Cloud's skin, and leapt to shock Sephiroth when he tried to physically restrain Cloud.

A strident neigh followed the thunder, and the ringing in Cloud's ears became the ring of hooves on stone. A massive unicorn came charging down out of the storm clouds that had appeared out of nowhere. He landed next to Cloud and reared, pawing at the air in Rufus' direction, screaming defiance.

"Cloud, don't," Zack shouted, trying to get past the aeon to reach Cloud. The aeon lashed out with his horn and forced him back. "You're giving them the excuse they need. Don't fall into the trap!"

Cloud was beyond caring about consequences. All he could think about was wiping the arrogant smirk off of Rufus' face. The need to prove himself was so intense it frightened the part of him that was still capable of thinking.

The aeon reared again, lightning building at the tip of his horn. Rufus' guardians were scrambling for their weapons and Rufus was rushing through a summoning ritual, but Cloud knew they wouldn't be in time to stop the spell.

With a shout Zack ducked under the flailing hooves and threw himself into the path of the spell, arms spread wide and his face tight with fear.

"No!" Cloud screamed, but it was too late. The world went white again, and the loudest crash of thunder yet made the ground rumble, throwing him to his knees.

Even so Cloud was sure he could hear Zack's agonized cry as the lightning struck him.

Chapter Text

The echo of Zack's scream rang in Cloud's ears even after the thunder had faded. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and he could think clearly again. "Zack. Zack!" he shouted frantically, but there was no response.

Choking on his sobs of grief, Cloud threw himself towards the aeon. Lightning blasted him the moment he made contact, and he cried out as he was flung away again. Was there no way for him to stop it? Why hadn't Sephiroth or Rufus summoned another aeon to fight it?

The aeon neighed again, and Cloud grimaced as he felt another surge of power building inside him. It was going to strike again, and there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.

Wait. If he could feel the power rising, did that mean it was coming from within him? Was there any way for him to cut it off?

Blocking his ears with his hands, Cloud squeezed his eyes shut and tried to concentrate. It was hard - he could still hear people shouting in panic and the angry screaming of the aeon. Reaching deep inside himself, he sought the source of the power the aeon was using.

Ramb sa, he begged Jymavun and Evned. Bmayca. Help me!

As if the aeon was angry at his attempt to block it, the lightning suddenly turned inward. Cloud screamed as bolt after bolt slammed into him, trying to tear him apart from the inside out. If you fail, I will destroy you from within, the fayth had said. It felt like he was making good on his promise.

Cloud didn't even care anymore if he died - knowing he was responsible for Zack's death had already killed his heart. But he refused to allow the aeon to use him to hurt anyone else, first. He forced himself to focus through the pain, through the grief, through the panic and confusion around him.

He found the flow of power, but stopping it was another matter. It was like trying to grab hold of a stream of water. Desperately Cloud struggled to contain it, to cap the flow. He felt Evned and Jymavun with him, steadying and supporting him but not actually interfering.

He could not give up. He could not lose. The aeon had already killed Zack, and next it might well kill Sephiroth. He had to stop it.

The pain stopped so abruptly that for a moment Cloud thought it really had killed him. He gasped and felt the air sear his lungs, and only then was he able to convince himself that he was still alive. Something snorted above him, and Cloud opened his eyes to find the aeon standing before him. It seemed calm now, head lowered so it could sniff his hair.

In his mind, Cloud heard the voice of the fayth. "Not bad," it said. "Perhaps you have the will we need after all. Remember this, and remember the consequences of losing control."

The aeon vanished, gone as if it had never been. Cloud thought he might be sick. Remember the consequences? How could he ever forget, when the lesson had come at the price of Zack's life?

Burying his face in his hands, Cloud tried not to sob as he waited for the final blow to fall. Surely by now Rufus had finished summoning and would blow him to pieces, or the man's guardians would kill him for daring to attack their summoner. Part of him hoped it would be the aeon - it seemed fitting for his life to end the same way he had ended Zack's. He wouldn't even blame Sephiroth for standing back and letting them, not after what Cloud had done.

Something warm loomed at his back, smelling of spice and magic. Terrified that D'jose's aeon had returned to wreak more havoc, Cloud jerked his head up. His view was blocked by a solid wall of leathery skin and feathers. After a confused moment Cloud realized Jymavun was standing behind him with her wings wrapped around him, protecting and sheltering him. She crooned in wordless concern, then unfolded her wings and planted her beak firmly in the small of his back. A tiny shove nearly flattened him, and he was forced to let her herd him towards Zack's body. She stayed behind him, and he realized she was shielding him from Rufus and his guardians.

Sephiroth was kneeling beside Zack, his hands spread and a look of intense concentration on his face as he poured magic over his fellow guardian. Cloud's heart leapt. Nobody wasted magic to heal a body the life had already fled. Certainly not that much of it. But that meant...

Zack coughed and thrashed weakly, and Sephiroth restrained him with a hand to the shoulder. Cloud threw himself at Zack, not believing his eyes until he felt the rise and fall of his guardian's chest beneath his own hands.

"Zack, rusa tavaht ic, are you okay?" he choked out, too distraught to pay attention to which language he was using. "I swear, I'll never summon again, just bmayca pa ugyo!"

"You know I can't understand half of that," Zack rasped. His voice was harsh and still full of pain, and it was the most beautiful sound Cloud had ever heard. "What do you mean, you'll never summon again? You're a summoner, stupid."

"Not if I have anything to say about it." Rufus sounded coldly furious, and Cloud looked up to see the other blond glaring at him from behind the wall of his guardians. Jymavun mantled her wings and hissed at him, but he didn't so much as flinch. "You're not just a threat to Spira, you're a menace. I'll see you stripped of your aeons and locked away in the dungeons of Bevelle for this."

"Why didn't you summon?" Cloud demanded. The threat didn't bother him - truly it was no more than what he deserved. "You could have stopped it, maybe even saved Zack. Why?"

"The aeons refused to answer my call," Sephiroth answered him, his eyes narrowed as he looked up from healing Zack. "I suspect the same was true of Lord Rufus."

Cloud gaped at them. The disgruntled look on Rufus' face said that Sephiroth was correct. "They wouldn't answer you? Any of them?"

"Not even Netzach, who has had no contact of any kind with you that I know of," Sephiroth said grimly. "Whatever it is that the fayth are trying to accomplish with you, it is plain they will brook no interference."

"Inciting the aeons to rebellion, attacking another summoner - Bevelle will have your head for this," Rufus said.

"I didn't incite anything, they did it themselves!" Cloud protested.

"Pay him no mind," Sephiroth advised. "He is a summoner, not a priest. As such he has no right or authority to do anything to you unless you pose a direct and immediate threat to the wellbeing of innocents. And," he raised his voice to be heard over Rufus' protests that Cloud was a danger. "Unless the rules for determining precedence among summoners has been altered in the last ten years, the fact that I possess all five aeons while Lord Rufus has only three means that I am the ranking summoner, and the decision lies in my hands."

"You're biased," Rufus accused. "You're his guardian, you cannot judge him."

"As are you," Sephiroth retorted. "Your personal grudge against Lord Cloud had already been well established previous to him summoning the aeon. As there are no other summoners present and we are equally biased, rank must determine the outcome."

Rufus looked so infuriated Cloud thought he might actually strike at Sephiroth. The older summoner merely stared him down, his expression cool and impassive, daring him to argue.

Rufus was the first to look away. "Elena. Reno. Gather out things and inform the innkeeper that we will not be staying after all. I will not sleep in the same building as an Al Bhed heretic. Rude, fetch the chocobos. Tseng, with me." He straightened his clothes and slung his staff across his back.

Then he looked straight at Cloud, and Cloud flinched back without meaning to. He'd been glared at with varying amounts of hatred and malice by Spirans over the years, but he'd never seen such venom. That it came from features nearly a mirror image of his own made it all the more unnerving.

"Don't think this is over," Rufus said, his voice poisonously soft. "Sephiroth may outrank me at the moment, but he is far from being the highest possible authority. I will see you stopped, for the good of all Spira."

With that he turned and snapped his fingers. His guardians gathered around him, bags and chocobos ready, and shortly all Cloud could see of them was the dust kicked up by their birds.

A punch to his shoulder brought his attention back to Zack. His guardian was still pale and sweating, and leaning on Sephiroth's arm in order to remain sitting upright. Even so the scolding look on his face made Cloud's shoulder's hunch. "What was that all about, huh? I know you've got a bit of a hate on for annoying Spirans and I don't blame you, but that was completely out of control. I've seen you lose your temper, but never like that."

"I..." Cloud's throat closed on the words, and he hung his head in shame. Saying 'the aeon made me do it' sounded like the worst kind of excuse.

"Out of control," Sephiroth repeated thoughtfully. "Didn't the fayth tell you that you would have to demonstrate control to him?"

"Take control from him," Cloud corrected miserably. "I asked him for a chance to prove myself. I never thought... if I'd known it would be like this..."

"Another test, huh?" Zack grimaced and pushed himself to his feet. He had to lean on Sephiroth to get there, but once up he was able to stand on his own. "Figures. Does this mean you passed?"

"Eqeuh." Cloud closed his eyes, trying not to sound as pained as he felt. That one short word had nearly cost him everything. "The aeon's name is Eqeuh."

"Then let us hope that means it will not attempt to test you again." Sephiroth sounded unhappy, though his face remained expressionless. "Zack, must I lecture you once more about a guardian's duties?"

"Huh?" Zack's eyes went wide. "What are you talking about? I was doing my duty!"

"Your job is to protect Cloud, not any other summoner, regardless of the danger they are in," Sephiroth said.

"I was protecting Cloud," Zack protested. "I was buying you time to summon so it wouldn't turn on him, and I was hoping the shock would snap him out of it. Besides, if worse came to worst, I figured they'd have less excuse to arrest him for the death of his own guardian than for killing the son of a maester."

Clearly taken aback, Sephiroth just blinked at him for a moment. Then he nodded and clasped Zack briefly on the shoulder. "I stand corrected. Carry on."

"Well, I still think he's an idiot," Cloud said, glaring at Zack and trying not to let his eyes water. "I thought you were dead, I've never been so scared in my life!" He didn't admit that he'd only wanted to die himself as a result - Sephiroth would no doubt only lecture him about a summoner's duty to Spira, and Zack would be horrified.

"Trust me, I've never been that scared in my life either," Zack said. "Getting hit by lightning is even less fun than I thought it would be. You look wiped, and no amount of cure magic is going to make me steady on my feet after that, so what say we just go hide in our room at the inn for a while?"

"That sounds like an excellent plan." Sephiroth gestured for Zack to go first - Cloud had a shrewd notion he wanted to be able to catch the other guardian if he collapsed. It also allowed him to hang back and speak to Cloud with a semblance of privacy.

"Odds are very good that one or both of us is going to sacrifice ourselves to save you," he murmured. "No high summoner has ever reached that status without losing at least one guardian." He let Cloud digest that shocking statement in silence for a moment. "If you are not prepared to make that sacrifice, turn back now."

Cloud took a deep breath, and looked him in the eyes. "I'm already the exception to just about every rule about summoners," he said. "I'll just have to be the exception to that one, too." Despite his brave words, his heart quailed. Not even one high summoner had failed to lose a guardian? He'd known the journey was dangerous, but only in his head. This knowledge struck him in the heart.

Zack turned and ruffled his hair, apparently not as oblivious to the conversation as Cloud had hoped. "That's the spirit," he said. "We'll show 'em all how it's supposed to be done. Tomorrow," he concluded as he held the door open for Cloud and Sephiroth to enter.

Dead silence fell the moment Cloud stepped over the threshold. Warily Cloud looked around, and found that almost all of the travellers gathered in the main room were staring at him like they expected him to demand an infant for his dinner. Those who weren't staring were pointedly ignoring him; so pointedly that Cloud almost thought he preferred the staring. At least that was an honest reaction. There weren't many people, but there were more than enough to intimidate Cloud.

Beside him Sephiroth had gone tense, and he heard Zack mutter something that sounded rude under his breath. Finally the innkeeper stepped forward to break the tension-filled stalemate. "We have no rooms available," he said, voice shaking a little. He couldn't seem to meet their eyes, and Cloud didn't miss the fact that he hadn't offered the bow to a summoner.

"That's bullshit," Zack said, his voice low. "Rufus and his four guardians left not ten minutes ago. Nobody's arrived since then but us."

Instead of intimidating the innkeeper by calling his bluff, Zack's words apparently served to strengthen the man's resolve. He raised his head and glared at them, defiant. "We have no rooms," he repeated more firmly.

"You..." Zack took a step forward, only to be halted by Sephiroth's hand on his chest.

"We won't trouble you, then," Sephiroth said, his voice frozen but polite. He nodded at the room in general, and then turned and stalked out of the room with regal grace, herding Zack and Cloud ahead of him.

"What the hell?" Zack burst out as the door closed behind them. Cloud was actually mildly impressed that Zack managed to hold his tongue until then. Not that the thin wooden barrier would prevent those inside from hearing the coming explosion, but it was at least less obviously confrontational.

"Perhaps it is just as well," Sephiroth said. He sounded weary, as if even he was having trouble believing his positive words. "This inn is too close to the temple, and doubtless the priests would have descended shortly."

"Yeah, but..."

Whatever further protest Zack might have made was brought up short as they reached the chocobo pens. A large 'closed' sign hung in plain view on the gate, and the proprietor was nowhere in sight.

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me!" Zack kicked the fence hard enough to crack the wooden post.

Cloud bit his lip and struggled not to give in to frustration or despair. "They were short on birds because of the fiend," he pointed out. "Maybe Rufus and his guardians took the only available fresh birds, and they really are closed."

"There's not that much daylight left," Zack said. "Without a bird we'll never make it to another inn."

"As they are generally spaced more than half a day's ride apart, we wouldn't make it before nightfall in any case," Sephiroth said. "Given that Rufus will undoubtedly be spreading rumours about us as he travels, our wisest course of action may be to return to Rin's to recover..."

"No." Cloud set his jaw and tried to look firm instead of petulantly stubborn. "We're not backtracking. What good would that do us? We can't stay there forever, and I doubt they'll be any happier to take us anywhere else no matter how long we wait. It will just give the rumours more time to spread and grow in the telling."

"Yeah, but you're still not completely recovered from the journey here," Zack argued, frowning. "We were supposed to stay longer in Luca and didn't manage that, either."

Cloud shook his head and started walking, taking the turn towards the Moonflow. If they wanted to stop him from moving forward, they would have to physically drag him away. After a moment he heard Zack sigh and follow him, and when he glanced back he saw Sephiroth matching his pace as well.

"Wouldn't it maybe be a better idea not to risk catching up to Rufus?" Zack tried.

"They're on birds," Cloud reminded him. "We'll never catch them on foot. Anyway, I refuse to let him intimidate me into following days behind him. I'll never be high summoner that way."

"How much damage can Rufus actually do?" Zack asked Sephiroth. "I mean, he is old man Shinra's only child, he must have some serious pull in the temples."

"He cannot change Yevon's precepts, so the only way for him to block Cloud from the temples would be to prove he has no Spiran ancestry. Obviously, that would be impossible." Sephiroth looked and sounded unruffled, but there was tension in his muscles that told Cloud he was more worried than he was letting on.

"What about having him declared a rogue summoner?" Zack persisted, brow furrowed.

"A possibility, but unlikely." Sephiroth inclined his head and smiled faintly. "As you so thoughtfully ensured the only casualty was not a civilian or another summoner..."

"See, I told you I was doing my job," Zack said, sticking his tongue out at Sephiroth.

"Anyway, not giving Rufus more time to spread nasty rumours about me seems like another good reason to keep moving forward," Cloud said.

"Agreed." There was reluctance lingering in Sephiroth's voice. "We should try to at least reach the shore of the Moonflow before we make camp, if we can. That should give us enough time tomorrow to catch the shoopuf, cross the Moonflow and make our way to Guadosalam."

That sounded like an awful lot of walking and most of it in the dark, but Cloud forbade himself to complain. It was his fault they had to do this, after all.

Soon the sun had set, and the fiends seemed to think darkness was an open invitation to attack. After the first few Zack was staggering, not having had a chance to recover from nearly dying, but the Blitzer never once complained. It shamed Cloud, both because it was a reminder of his guilt and because all he could seem to think about was how much his legs were aching and the way his feet had gone numb.

Then he realized that he shouldn't have been able to see Zack at all. The whole area was illuminated by a soft glow emanating from somewhere ahead of them. "Oh," he exclaimed, perking up as much as he could muster the energy for. "We're almost there."

"How can you tell?" Zack asked through a yawn. "Looks the same as every other patch of road we've passed."

"Yeah, that's how you know we're close," Cloud told him. "You can see it." The glow was growing stronger as they walked, and now he thought he could see it flickering. The water had to be right on the other side of the hill.

Zack looked rather adorably confused. "What are you... oh." They rounded the last bend and the huge river came into view. Pyreflies hovered in the air like a curtain of tiny lights, and the surface of the water was so smooth it reflected them perfectly. It made it look like there was no river at all, only an endless stream of pyreflies reaching up to the stars and down to the heart of Spira.

"Some say the best time to view the Moonflow is at sunset, when the pyreflies rise in dense clouds," Sephiroth said softly. "Personally I have always thought it was most beautiful at moments like this."

"No shit." Despite his irreverent words, Zack's voice held a distinct note of awe. "Okay, I'm impressed. I mean, I'd heard about it, but the stories don't do it justice. I didn't realize they'd be so bright."

"There are a lot more pyreflies than when I passed through here," Cloud commented.

"The ironic tragedy of the Moonflow," Sephiroth said, and made the bow of respect towards the water. "Its beauty is at its peak when Sin is on a rampage."

Cloud bowed his head. It was so easy to forget that all of those pretty flickering lights were actually life essence - of a person or an animal, it didn't really matter.

"Well, tragic or not, I think it's gorgeous," Zack said, still staring out over the water, entranced. "I could stand here for hours."

"I just want to soak my feet in the water," Cloud groaned. He'd been standing still long enough that the numbness had worn off, and now his feet hurt.

"Why don't I see about finding a good place to set up camp, while Zack keeps you company here?" Sephiroth suggested. His smile was indulgent. "Since we are in no rush to cross, as a summoner usually is upon reaching this point, you both might as well enjoy it while you can."

"But that's not fair to you," Cloud protested, though it took everything he had not to just kick off his boots and wade right in.

"I have seen it many times before," Sephiroth replied. "I crossed it often, before and after my journey. I will doubtless have the opportunity to see it again."

And Cloud wouldn't, was the unspoken conclusion. True enough, and Cloud wasn't going to keep arguing. He toed off his boots and waded into the shallows with a sigh of relief. A swarm of pyreflies scattered away, but after a moment they began to drift near again. Cloud studied them in fascination. He'd never seen so many from so close before.

"Shouldn't somebody Send them?" he asked.

"Summoners have tried, but they just keep drifting along," Zack told him. "Some people think this is where the Sent ones go, gathering on their way to the Farplane. The Moonflow does run straight to Guadosalam."

He waded in as well, deeper than Cloud, apparently not caring that he was soaking his shorts. He looked relaxed and happy for the first time since they'd left D'jose, which only made Cloud feel all the more guilty for his shameful loss of control. "Zack..."


"Huh?" Cloud blinked at him. Zack turned and gave him a wry smile.

"You were going to apologize, right? Don't. You have nothing to be sorry for. I knew when I signed on as a guardian that there was a good chance I was signing my death warrant. If my life is the price for you to become high summoner, I'll pay it gladly and be grateful you've still got Seph to watch over you."

"Don't say things like that!" Cloud burst out. "Don't you understand? You're the only real friend I've ever had, the first person who ever believed I was more than just an Al Bhed bastard. It would kill me to lose you, and if it was my fault, I don't think I could go on."

"Hey." Zack's voice was stern, but when Cloud met his eyes he found his guardian's expression was gentle. "Summoners have a lot of privileges, but giving up isn't one of them. Especially not for you. If you quit halfway, then everything that jerk said about your journey causing problems will be true. You've gotta go the distance, no matter what, so that people will understand that you do have the right."

Cloud lowered his eyes. Zack's words felt like physical weights pressing down on his chest, smothering him with the burden of responsibility. "What if I just don't make it?" he asked hoarsely. "What if I do everything right and just get beaten to it, like Sephiroth did? Won't I have caused even more problems?"

"Maybe, maybe not. If someone manages to destroy Sin even with a 'heretic' like you supposedly screwing everything up, then I think at least some people will be smart enough to figure out for themselves that you weren't sabotaging anything." Zack paused, and his voice took on a grim overtone. "Fact is, I don't think the fayth would be pushing you so hard if they weren't pretty damn sure you'd make it first."

Cloud doubted they had any way of being so certain, but if it comforted Zack to think so, he wouldn't argue. "I think I can promise not to give up if something... happens to you," he said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. "But not... not if it's my fault. My doing. If I can't even control myself well enough to not kill my own guardian, then Rufus is right. I don't deserve to be a summoner."

"Well, then we'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen. I doubt it'll ever be that close a call again," Zack said. "So you promise to keep going no matter what, and I'll promise to do everything in my power to always be there for you. Deal?"

Cloud looked up to find Zack's hand extended towards him, and a smile firmly on his face. Cloud searched his eyes for some sign of fear or reluctance - he'd nearly fried the man with his most feared element just a few hours ago, after all. But there was nothing in Zack's expression but sincere friendliness and determination.

Silently Cloud sent a prayer to the fayth for strength, and felt the three aeons within him rise in response. He could only hope that he possessed half the resolution and sheer goodness that Zack did. He could start by making the promise Zack needed to hear. "Deal," he agreed, stepping forward to reach for Zack's hand.

Something brushed against Cloud's leg just before their fingers touched, and he had a brief second to think 'oh, a fish' before it curled around his ankle and yanked. Abruptly he was underwater, with no chance to draw air or warn Zack.

He flailed wildly as the water closed over his head, but there was nothing to grab. Whatever had hold of his foot was dragging him steadily deeper into the centre of the Moonflow. Twisting, Cloud saw a many-legged fiend with baleful orange eyes glowering back at him. One thick, rope-like appendage was twined firmly around his leg.

Already Cloud's lungs were burning with the need for air. A sudden flurry of bubbles and churning water marked where Zack had dived beneath the surface, but the fiend had pulled Cloud out of his reach. Through the murky water Cloud could just barely make out the desperate expression on Zack's face as he swam hard towards Cloud.

He wasn't going to make it in time, Cloud realized with rising panic. The fiend was a faster swimmer than Zack, even dragging Cloud's dead weight along. The urge to inhale was almost overwhelming, and Cloud wasn't going to be able to fight the instinct to breathe much longer.

In desperation he fumbled his sword out of its sheath and tried to hack at the fiend's limb. He landed one solid blow that made the creature writhe, but it didn't cut deep enough to force it to let go.

In the back of his mind the aeons were clamouring for release, but Cloud forced them back down. Maybe Eqeuh was done testing him, but maybe he wasn't. Cloud didn't dare release any of them unless he was absolutely certain he could control them, not even to save his own life.

The burn in his lungs was growing unbearable. Cloud clamped his hand over his mouth and nose, but he knew it was a useless gesture. Power surged within him, and then drained out of him abruptly. The water churned madly as something massive splashed into the river. To Cloud's horror, Eqeuh appeared out of the bubbles, lightning already charging at the tip of his horn.

Eqeuh tossed his head, as if he was neighing, though the sound was distorted by the water beyond recognition. Cloud saw Zack throw his hands up as if to shield himself, and then the whole world was full of the crackling lash of electricity through the water.

The fiend thrashed and writhed, and finally released his ankle. Too late - Cloud's body rebelled, expelling what little air he did have in a rush of bubbles, and fighting to draw more to replace it. Water rushed in, stinging all the way down, and Cloud choked and thrashed. It was too reminiscent of smothering in smoke as his house burned down around him. The memory brought the ghost of pain along with it, and his body convulsed.

He had just enough time to contemplate the irony of his last thought being of fire when he was dying surrounded by water, and then he was aware of nothing at all.

Chapter Text

It hurt, oh sweet fayth it hurt - his lungs were burning, burning, burning up from the inside out. The smoke made him cough brutally hard, which only made it all the more painful. He'd have screamed in agony, if only he could draw breath.

"Cloud. Breathe, kid, c'mon. In and out. Easy, easy."

The voice was familiar, but far too deep to be his mother. The hand alternately rubbing and thumping his back was too big, too. Gasping for air as the coughing eased a bit, Cloud forced his streaming eyes open.

It was Zack's worried blue eyes that made the memory return - he wasn't burning alive, he'd nearly drowned. Cloud tried to croak out the older man's name, but only succeeded in setting off another coughing fit.

"Damn it, fuck, damned good time to be out of potions," Zack muttered, his face tight with worry. He saw that Cloud was looking at him, and forced a smile. "Hey, kid. Don't scare me like that! Some guardian I am, if I can't even rescue you from a fiend in my own element."

Cloud would have pointed out the obvious, that Zack had rescued him, but what little air he could get he needed for breathing. He just shook his head, struggling to stop the wracking coughs. He hadn't had a fit this bad in a long time, not since the first winter after the fire when he'd caught a cold while his lungs were still damaged from the smoke.

"Shit, I have got to learn some white magic," Zack said, rather helplessly. "Even a sucktastic cure spell would be better than no cure spell at all. Hang on, kid, I'm gonna get you to Seph."

Once again Cloud was forced to endure the indignity of being carried like an invalid by one of his guardians. He couldn't even manage to protest, and anything he said would have been a lie anyway. He couldn't walk on his own, not until he stopped coughing.

"How?" he managed to croak out.

Zack's answering smile was pinched. "I'm not sure whether to thank that new aeon of yours, or bitch him out. He saved your life, but damn near fried me again in the process. For the record, when you throw lightning in water, it doesn't much matter what you're actually aiming at."

"Eqeuh?" Cloud was appalled. "I didn't... I told them all not to come!"

"Well, that was stupid." Zack jostled him in lieu of smacking him, but gently. "You should have called one of 'em, that's what they're for."

"I was afraid they'd hurt someone again. And I was right." Cloud hung his head miserably.

"Didn't you just promise me not to throw your life away?" Zack scolded him. "Don't think I won't hold you to it just because we didn't shake on it. That means if you're in trouble, you summon, no matter what. Aha, there's the fire. Seph! Seph, get your ass out here, I need you."

The only reason Cloud could see the camp in the darkness was the tiny fire fitfully burning in a pit dug in front of the tent. Though there was more firewood piled nearby, the fire was nearly burned out. There was no sign of Sephiroth, nor did he appear in response to Zack's shout.

"He must've gone to gather more wood or something," Zack muttered. "Hang in there, kid."

"I'm not going to die," Cloud told him. Every word was easier than the one before, and he didn't feel like he was suffocating anymore. The coughing was easing on its own.

"How far did he go?" Zack was frowning as he made his way to the camp. "Seph!"

Cloud's attention was drawn by a flicker of firelight where no light should have been. "Zack, over there," he said, pointing.

Zack moved around the fire, and then they could both see the hilt of a sword lying on the ground behind the stacked wood. A few inches of blade were showing, which was what had reflected the light. "Masamune," Zack said grimly. "No way he'd have left camp without it. But there's no sign of a struggle. What the hell?"

"Zack, put me down," Cloud said, eyeing the gloom around the camp nervously. He couldn't see past the tiny ring of light cast by the fire - anything could have been concealed in the darkness beyond.

"Uh-uh, you're not recovered yet," Zack replied, also glancing warily around the area.

"If something attacks, you won't be able to fight without dropping me," Cloud pointed out, exasperated.

"Oh. Heh. Good point." Rather sheepishly Zack set him on his feet. He drew his sword, and Cloud reached for his only to find his sheath was empty. With a silent curse Cloud realized he must have dropped it in the river. He didn't have his boots, either, which would make it difficult for him to move.

Reluctantly he reached for his aeons, bringing Jymavun to the surface, ready to summon. Zack was right that he wasn't recovered enough to be fighting, but he also wasn't going to just sit there and let some fiend kill him with no resistance.

Assuming it had been a fiend at all. "Do you think it might have been Rufus?" Cloud asked, subdued. If the other summoner was behind Sephiroth's disappearance, then that made it Cloud's fault. Again.

"I dunno. I don't see any animal tracks, but there are human prints here that don't belong to Seph." Zack was crouched down, running his hand lightly over the ground.

Cloud moved to gingerly pick up masamune. The sword was far too long for him to use effectively, but he didn't want to just leave it lying there if they had to run for it. He frowned when he spotted something else hidden in the shadow of the tent.

"What's this?" he asked, picking up the object. It was made of metal, a round tube with one end capped. There were faint scratches on it, and a tiny dimple in the centre of the end. He'd never seen anything like it.

Zack glanced over, and his eyes widened. "That's a bullet casing. From a rifle," he explained when Cloud gave him a confused look. "They get spat out of the gun when it's fired, and left behind. Looks like I was wrong - there was a struggle after all."

"But... only the Al Bhed use rifles, don't they?" Cloud asked, baffled. "They're forbidden machina."

"Yeah," Zack confirmed. "And that doesn't make any sense at all."

Cloud looked at the casing in his hand, unsure what he should do with it. "So now what do we do?"

Sighing deeply, Zack scrubbed a hand through his damp hair and then over his face. When he looked up again, his expression was determined. "First, we see if any of the supplies were left behind, and get a potion or two into you. Second, we go back for your boots and see if we can find your sword. Third, we track them down. They can't have gone that far."

Tracking was a skill Cloud lacked even in daylight. Following a trail in the light of a half-full moon was almost impossible, especially since the Al Bhed were making efforts to muddle it. Zack seemed to be having a little better luck, but not much. Twice they lost the track entirely, and had to circle around until one of them found it again.

"What is Seph's history with the Al Bhed, anyway?" Cloud asked. "I've never met a Spiran who speaks it so fluently, and Rin treated him like his long-lost brother."

"He lived with them for more than five years," Zack explained, his voice somewhat muffled. He was bent nearly double to try to see the tracks. "He doesn't talk much about why, but I figure they were about the only people not treating him like sin spawn because he'd 'failed'. There was a brief attempt by the Crusaders and the Al Bhed to join forces; I met him then. I guess he'd decided that he wanted to rejoin the rest of Spira, because he went with me to Luca when I left. Ah, shit, I lost it again."

Straightening, Zack sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "I'd almost think he just went with them willingly, except I can't imagine why he wouldn't wait for us, or at least leave some sign of where he'd gone and why. He certainly wouldn't have let them foul the trail like this so we couldn't follow."

"But why would they... what, drug him and drag him off?" Cloud shook his head. "If they're mad because he's guardian to a heretic like me, you'd think they'd go after me, not him."

"Unless they are going after you, and they wanted him out of the line of fire first because they like him," Zack said. "Either way, we're in serious trouble. We're both exhausted and still recovering from nearly dying, and we don't have any potions or other items. You're probably too tired to cast anything, and I don't know any magic. Yevon knows what shape Seph's in."

"And if they get to their ship before we catch up, we've got almost no hope of finding them," Cloud added.

"Which is why I'm almost hoping they are after you, because then they won't take off with him," Zack said. "For now, all we can do is keep moving."

It felt like they must have walked half the length of the Moonflow, though Cloud was sure it was only a few miles. He was vaguely aware of it when Zack stopped abruptly and raised his fist, but his weary brain didn't process the unfamiliar signal until Zack grabbed him and physically stopped him from continuing. A quick hand over his mouth prevented Cloud from being able to ask what was going on.

After waiting a moment, probably to be certain Cloud understood the need for silence, Zack released him and pointed off to the left, towards the water. "Down there, see it?" he asked, his voice so low it barely reached Cloud.

There was a ship anchored out in the river, large enough to carry dozens of crew. Cloud had never seen anything like it. How could something made completely of metal float? And they had powered lights, not torches or lanterns.

"Al Bhed, without a doubt," Zack said grimly. "But why are they still here?"

"They're waiting for more people," Cloud realized. "Look, there's some smaller boats pulled up on shore."

"What, did they send out raiding parties or something?" Zack was frowning. "This doesn't make any sense at all."

"Seph's got to be on that ship somewhere," Cloud said. "How are we going to rescue him? There could be two dozen Al Bhed in there."

"All of them armed, probably expecting trouble, and a hell of a lot better rested than we are." Turning, Zack slid a few feet back down the hill they'd just climbed, so they were out of sight of the ship. He sat on the ground, back braced against a rock, and pinched the bridge of his nose. Even in the dim light Cloud could see the dark circles under the man's eyes, and the weary set of his shoulders.

Cloud looked away. It hurt too much to see Zack looking pinched, drawn, and defeated, knowing it was all his fault. The fayth alone knew what state Sephiroth might be in, and that was his fault, too. "So, how do we get him out of there?" Cloud prompted when Zack didn't seem inclined to say anything.

"We don't," Zack replied, his voice heavy. Cloud gaped at him. Zack opened his eyes and looked back at him, resigned and heartsick. "We don't rescue him. We can't. We're outnumbered and outgunned, and there's way too much risk to you."

"We can't just leave him there," Cloud protested, voice rising. A sharp gesture from Zack reminded him to lower his volume, but didn't stop him from continuing. "If it were one of us, he wouldn't let anything stop him from rescuing us."

"No, he wouldn't let anything stop him from rescuing you," Zack corrected him ruthlessly. "If I'd been the one taken, he'd be hauling you off to safety just as fast, and I'd be grateful to him for doing it. Guardians are expendable. The summoner isn't."

Despite his firm words, Zack's voice was shaking and he looked more miserable still. Cloud met his eyes, and saw both grief and determination there. Zack wasn't going to budge. "Don't make me knock you over the head and haul you off," Zack threatened. "C'mon, Cloud, it's what he'd want us to do and you know it. He'll be fine."

It was what Sephiroth would want and Cloud did know it, but he couldn't bring himself to just turn his back and walk away. What sort of person could turn their back on a friend and leave them in possible danger? It was obviously killing Zack to do it, but Cloud didn't have his guardian's strength. There had to be a way.

An insane thought occurred to him. Zack would hate it - Zack would forbid it, and rightly so. But Cloud knew that summoner or not, he simply could not live with himself if he left Sephiroth behind.

Before Zack could realize he was planning something, Cloud scrambled back up to the top of the hill. "Stay there," he hissed at his guardian when Zack made to follow him.

"Cloud? What in Yevon's name are you... Cloud!" Zack went from puzzled to frantic in three seconds flat, but Cloud was already sliding down the far side of the hill, out of reach and in sight of any lookouts the Al Bhed might have posted.

"Ahoy the ship," he called in Al Bhed, to draw their attention just in case they weren't keeping watch. "Is anyone there?"

"Who goes there?" someone demanded in the same language. There was an odd metallic clunking noise, which Cloud assumed was a weapon of some kind being readied.

He raised his hands to show they were empty. "I'm a friend, I'm Al Bhed, don't shoot."

Two men appeared on the deck of the ship, aiming their rifles at him over the expanse of the water. "Looks like a Spiran to me," one of them said, and spat into the water.

"Sounds Al Bhed, though," the other said, peering at Cloud doubtfully.

"Yeah, so did that summoner," the first growled. "Didn't make him any less Spiran."

Cloud willed himself not to react. A summoner who spoke fluent Al Bhed - surely they meant Sephiroth. "I'm half Al Bhed," he admitted. The more he stuck to the truth, the fewer lies he would have to avoid tripping over later. "I was raised in a Spiran town, but I'm sick and tired of being treated like some kind of animal just because my eyes are different."

That came out more bitter than he'd intended it to, and he hid a wince. Thank the fayth Zack didn't understand enough Al Bhed to follow the conversation. Cloud didn't want him to think he'd really decided to defect to the Al Bhed.

It could only help his case with the guards, though. The second one lowered his gun, but the first still looked suspicious. "And you just happened to run across us in the middle of nowhere, then?" he demanded.

"I was following the Moonflow to the sea," Cloud replied. "I figured if I stuck to the shore, I couldn't get lost and I'd run into an Al Bhed ship eventually. What are you doing this far up the Moonflow?"

"Why not just take the road straight to Luca?" the guard asked, ignoring Cloud's question. "It'd be faster and safer than braving the fiends."

"The Spirans are practically ready to form lynch mobs," Cloud said, allowing his very real frustration and anger at the prejudice to show. "Something about an Al Bhed heretic profaning the temples, and a storm we somehow caused. I'd rather take my chances with the fiends. At least nobody will call me a murderer when I kill them in self defence."

The second guard elbowed the first, jostling him hard enough to knock the gun away. "Aw, c'mon Pekc, give the poor kid a break. Half-blood or not, if they're treating him like shit because of it I'd say that makes him one of us."

"Oh, fine," Pekc grumbled, slinging his weapon onto his back. "You can go fetch him, if you like him so much."

The friendly guard brought one of the small boats to shore, while Cloud waited patiently. As he stepped aboard the tiny craft, he sent a silent apology to Zack, and hoped the older man would forgive him. For that matter, he hoped he'd be able to find his guardian again. There was every chance the ship would have moved elsewhere by the time he found and rescued Sephiroth. He looked back at the rapidly receding shoreline, but could see no indication of Zack's hiding spot.

The rest of the Al Bhed aboard met him with similarly mixed reactions. The ones who were friendly promptly hauled him off to the ship's stores to outfit him with 'proper' clothes, teasing him all the while about his Spiran attire.

"Why bother?" Fatka, the guard who'd brought him aboard, asked curiously. "Were you trying to pass for one of them? It'd never work unless you cover your eyes, and then they'd be suspicious anyway."

"Have you ever actually been to the mountains in the Calm Lands?" Cloud countered. "It's cold. I could either adopt the native gear or freeze."

"It's true, my mother's cousin runs a shop in the Calm Lands, he's always complaining about the cold," another laughed.

They offered him a pair of goggles, but Cloud turned them down. He wasn't used to wearing them, and he already felt alien enough in the tight wetsuit. Plus he was afraid that, dressed like an Al Bhed and with his blue eyes covered, Sephiroth wouldn't even recognize him. That would cause problems, later. He did take the rifle, though he'd never even seen one up close before. He hefted the unfamiliar weight awkwardly, not sure what he was supposed to do with it.

"Just point it at the enemy, and pull the trigger," Fatka told him, perhaps seeing his confusion. "And don't aim it at anyone else in the meantime, even if you're not holding the trigger." He slung his own rifle against his shoulder so it was pointed at the ceiling, as many of the others had done, and Cloud cautiously copied him.

They let him share their dinner, which was a loud, chaotic affair. By then the ship was moving, and Cloud could only pick at his meal. He'd lost the worst of his seasickness after the horror of the storm, but nerves were making up the difference.

"Eat up," Fatka exclaimed. He slapped Cloud on the back hard enough to make him choke. "You'll need your strength to deal with summoners and their stubborn guardians. Suicidal fools."

"Summoners?" Cloud struggled to make the question casual, and not show how very interested he was in the subject. "What have we got to do with summoners?"

"Well, that's the trick, see," Batsu said, leaning over the table. "We figure, if we can stop the summoners from reaching Zanarkand, then nobody can summon the final aeon, right? So Sin won't leave."

"And that's a good thing?" Cloud said, appalled. Surely the Al Bhed suffered from Sin's depredations, as much or more as the land-dwelling Spirans. How could they not want the Calm to come?

"Well, of course it's not a good thing, that's the point," Fatka said. "If they can't send their brainwashed sacrifices off to die to buy them a few years of peace, then maybe they'll stop sitting around smugly waiting to be 'good enough'. Maybe they'll get off their asses and actually do something about Sin, like we've been trying to do all along." His eyes shone with determination and enthusiasm.

The worst of it was that Cloud couldn't really argue with their logic. The Spirans were far too complacent about marching their summoners off to die. And they did sit around, not making any real effort to improve themselves or their situation. Maybe being forced to deal with Sin for a while would teach them some important lessons.

Except... "So you're killing the summoners before they can reach Zanarkand?" Cloud asked. Now the sick feeling in his stomach had nothing at all to do with seasickness.

"What do you take us for?" Fatka said, looking hurt. "Of course we're not killing them. Might as well let them go throw themselves at Sin, in that case."

"We're taking them hostage, and keeping them safe," Batsu explained as Cloud tried not to sigh too obviously in relief. "Once everyone is aboard again we'll take this lot to Home, then come back for another run."

"There're groups stationed all over Spira," Fatka said. "We can't let anyone slip through, or it will all have been for nothing."

"You'd better make sure the Spirans never find out," Cloud said, shuddering at the thought. "They'd turn on every Al Bhed. It would be a slaughter." The Al Bhed weren't being nearly careful enough to hide their involvement, as proved by Cloud's presence. If every summoner started disappearing and the Spirans even suspected the Al Bhed were behind it, it would make the riot he'd started in Luca look like a friendly picnic.

"You worry too much," Batsu said, laughing. "It's being taken care of. There's no reason the Spirans should ever know."

Cloud might have continued to argue the point, but Fatka stood and gestured him up as well. "Come on, if you're not going to finish eating that, I might as well give you the tour and show you where to bunk down. We'll get you on the duty roster starting tomorrow. Maybe they'll let you stand guard with me, and Pakc can go find someone else to harass."

The ship was a maze of metal corridors, and Cloud quickly became lost. "I'm never going to be able to find my way around in here," he complained. "How can such a big metal box stay up on the water, anyway?"

"You'd have to ask the machina engineers that one," Fatka said. "I only know enough to use the weapons. I'm sure they'd be happy to explain, they love babbling about their job, but don't expect to understand much of it. Ah, and here's where we keep the summoners. You won't see much of this area, unless they put you on guard duty down here."

At the bottom of the stairs they'd just descended there was a short corridor that ended in a door much like all the others Cloud had seen so far. There were two differences; one was the armed Al Bhed guard standing just in front of it, and the other was a box with numbers on it on the wall next to the door.

"Can I see them?" he asked hesitantly, not sure if just asking would make him look suspicious. Sure enough Fatka raised an eyebrow at him, and he winced. "It's just... I'm with you all the way, I really am. But I guess I'm Spiran enough to be worried about them, you know? I just want to see for myself that they're all right."

"Well, I suppose it can't hurt anything," Fatka said. "Sure, okay. Maybe you can even say something to reassure them."

"I doubt they'd believe anything that comes from one of us, whether it's in Spiran or not," Cloud said.

Fatka and the guard exchanged nods, and the guard turned to punch a series of numbers into the little box. Cloud strained to see the sequence, but the guard's body blocked his view. After a moment there was a beep, and the guard spun the wheel on the door and pulled it open.

Cloud peered curiously into the room. Half a dozen Spirans sat or lay on the bunks - including, to his great relief, Sephiroth tucked away in one corner. The expressions of the summoners ranged from Sephiroth's patient wariness, to bewilderment and fear, to frustration and outright anger.

"All of Spira's best and brightest, sent off to be sacrifices so that the peons don't have to suffer for a few years," Fatka said, his voice heavy. "And they go willingly to the slaughter, that's the worst part."

Cloud ducked his head, uncertain how to answer that. He was on his way to that very slaughter, after all. Perhaps he wasn't doing it for the usual reasons, but he was still doing it. And the Spirans hated him for it, so he didn't even earn the respect and honour these others had.

"It's hard to see your friends and family dying around you, and not want to do something to stop it," he finally murmured. "If I had the ability to try, I'd want to use it, too." That was the truth, as far as it went.

"Well, hopefully without the summoners to die for them, all the people who want to do something actually will," Fatka replied.

"And how many will die in the meantime?" Sephiroth asked in Al Bhed, opening his eyes and looking at them. Cloud flinched, but Sephiroth didn't react to the sight of him beyond a narrowing of his eyes.

"Fewer than will eventually die if we don't get rid of Sin once and for all," Fatka shot back. "In the meantime all of you poor bastards will be kept from committing suicide."

"That is not your choice to make," Sephiroth said.

"Last I checked, any other way people try to kill themselves, they get locked up for their own safety." Fatka raised an eyebrow at Cloud. "Seen enough?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Cloud wished there was some way he could reassure Sephiroth, tell him to be ready because Cloud intended to rescue him. He had no idea if Fatka spoke any Spiran, and he didn't know the hand code he'd sometimes seen Zack and Sephiroth use.

He turned away, hoping he'd get another look at the lock code as they closed the door, but to his dismay the guard merely swung the door shut and spun the wheel. That lock was going to be his biggest obstacle, and Cloud wasn't certain how to get around it. Wait until another summoner was brought in and the door was opened? But then there'd be a troop of armed Al Bhed escorting the summoner. Maybe he could get himself assigned to taking care of the summoners. They had to be giving them food and water, surely.

They hadn't gone three steps when there was a racket ahead on the stairs. "Release me at once," a familiar voice demanded in Spiran, and Cloud's heart sank. "Unhand me. How dare you! Do you have any idea who I am?"

Three Al Bhed came down the stairs, herding Rufus between them with their guns. The blond summoner was practically vibrating with all the offended dignity of an outraged coeurl. "Got another one?" Fatka asked cheerfully, apparently oblivious to Rufus' anger.

"Last one, I think," one of the guards replied. "Everyone's aboard now, and there's not much more space in the holding room. Glad I don't have to deal with this one much longer. He never shuts up."

Cloud gulped and flattened himself against the wall, keeping his eyes down. Rufus was so arrogant, surely he was the sort of Spiran who couldn't tell one Al Bhed from another. In Al Bhed clothes and gear, he probably wouldn't even recognize Cloud.

Of course his luck couldn't be that good. Rufus' eyes slid past him briefly, but then the other summoner did a double-take and stopped in the middle of the hall. "You! By Yevon, I should have known you'd be involved in this somehow. Traitor. But then, I suppose you're a traitor either way, aren't you?"

"Now what's he on about?" the leader of the guards asked, astonished.

"I think he's mistaking me for someone else," Cloud said, sweating. All it would take was for Rufus to say his name, and he would be revealed. Why hadn't he thought to give a fake name? He hadn't expected it to be a problem.

"Forget about a quick death, I'll see you rot in the dungeons of Besaid for this," Rufus said, flipping his bangs out of his face with an arrogant toss of his head. For all that he was a prisoner under guard, he might as well have been out for a voluntary stroll as far as his attitude went. He showed no signs of realizing that threatening one of the people with the guns might not be a good idea. He'd been issuing orders like he expected someone to actually follow them, too.

"I've never seen you before in my life," Cloud said in Spiran, trying to fake a combination of bewilderment and disdain.

"Don't play coy with me," Rufus retorted. "First you dare to attack me with an aeon, and now you kidnap me. Unbelievable."

"What's he saying?" one of the guards asked again.

Cloud debated lying, but if any of them spoke enough Spiran to catch him at it, he'd be in even more trouble. "Stupid Spiran can't even tell us apart," he said in disgust. "He's saying that I attacked him. With an aeon. Idiot."

There was muffled laughter from the others. Rufus clearly didn't understand what was being said, but he knew he was being mocked. Cloud also noticed that Fatka had relaxed slightly - because Cloud had told the truth? So he did speak some Spiran. Now Cloud was doubly glad he hadn't tried to say anything to Sephiroth.

"They won't even let us in their precious temples. How could one of us get an aeon?" scoffed a guard.

"Though there are all those rumours, about an Al Bhed heretic profaning Yevon..." another said. He gave Cloud a hard look.

Struck by inspiration, Cloud gestured at Rufus. "Want to bet me he's the source of the rumours? Look at him, we could practically be brothers. Ignorant Spirans probably think he's one of us."

"Heh, I won't take that bet," Fatka said. "You're probably right. That makes a lot more sense than the idea that one of us would become a summoner somehow."

"I don't know what you're getting out of this," Rufus growled at Cloud as the guards pushed him into motion again. "But I will make you pay for it ten times over."

"I don't even know you," Cloud repeated in Spiran. Now, if only the guards would hurry and get the summoner away before Rufus lowered himself to use Cloud's name.

Rufus opened his mouth again, but whatever he might have said was drowned out by the most ghastly wailing noise Cloud had ever heard. He winced and clapped his hands over his ears, and he wasn't the only one. "What is that?" he shouted, barely able to hear himself over the racket.

"That's the alarm, we're under attack. C'mon!" Fatka grabbed his arm and hauled him towards the stairs, as the guards hurried Rufus to the holding room.

The corridors were crowded, but everyone was heading in the same direction. When they emerged onto the upper deck, they found a crowd of confused, milling Al Bhed, and no sign of an attack.

"What's going on?" Fatka asked the nearest person.

"It's just one idiot," the other man said, snorting. "Swam out and tried to climb aboard, crazy bastard."

"Probably a guardian," a woman commented, turning to go back inside. "Only they would be that desperate to get at us. Gotta give him credit for getting this far, though."

"Eh, nothing to worry about then," Fatka said, shrugging. "The guards up here can handle... Cloud? Hey, where are you going?"

Ignoring him, Cloud pushed his way into the crowd, fighting the flow of people now heading back to their food. His heart felt like it was pounding in his throat, hard enough to choke him. Surely there was only one person crazy enough to try to swim the Moonflow. Not to mention only one guardian who knew where the stolen summoners were.

He broke through into the rapidly growing clear area on the deck, and sure enough Zack was kneeling on the hard metal, hands laced behind his neck and head bowed. Two guards had their rifles aimed at his chest, and a third held his oversized sword.

"So what do we do with him?" one of the riflemen asked.

The man holding the sword was the same suspicious guard that had wanted to turn Cloud away, Pakc. He shrugged, and spat at Zack's feet. "He's not a summoner, we don't need him. Just shoot him."

The sound of both guns cocking echoed over the water and nearly stopped Cloud's heart.

Chapter Text

"Shoot him."

Cloud didn't think he'd ever heard a sound louder than the two guns being cocked. Zack flinched and squeezed his eyes shut, probably anticipating the blow that would kill him.


All three guards turned to stare at him, and only then did Cloud realize the hysterical shout had come from his throat. Zack still had his eyes shut and shoulders hunched, but the shocked looks on the faces of the guards were rapidly turning to contempt and animosity.

Swallowing hard, Cloud scrambled to think of a way to salvage the situation. If they realized who he was, that he had come to rescue one of their stolen summoners, they'd shoot him just as fast as Zack. Maybe faster, for being a traitor.

"You can't kill him," he said, struggling to keep his voice firm. "He's doing his job, his duty. For all he knows, you kidnapped his summoner intending to hurt him. If you kill him for trying to protect his summoner, then you're no better than the ignorant, prejudiced Spirans."

Pakc sneered at him. "Showing your true colours already, halfblood?" Cloud bit his lip. The insult stung just as much coming from an Al Bhed as it had from the Spirans.

"No, he's right," Fatka said from behind him, startling Cloud. He turned to see the other man holding his rifle ready but aimed at the deck, looking at Zack thoughtfully. "This isn't some racist Spiran attacking us just because we're Al Bhed. If we kill him just because he's Spiran, what does that say about us?" There were uneasy murmurs of agreement from many of the others still on deck. Fatka raised his eyes and gave Pakc a challenging look.

Zack had opened his eyes as well, and was looking cautiously back and forth between Fatka and Pakc. It was clear from the blank, apprehensive expression on his face that he had no idea what was being said. His eyes passed right over Cloud without even hesitating.

Surprisingly, that hurt. Cloud realized he'd expected Zack not to be the sort of Spiran who couldn't tell one Al Bhed from another. So it had only been his Spiran clothing that made Cloud recognizable, and now that he was dressed like the others he was just part of the crowd? That meant Zack had never really looked past his race to see him, no matter what he said. The thought that Rufus had seen him better than Zack had was depressing.

"So you think we should let him go, to run home and tell everyone about the evil Al Bhed kidnapping their summoners?" Pakc said scornfully.

"Of course not. Put him in with the summoners." Fatka shrugged. "They'll probably be happier to have a guardian around, anyway, even if it's not their own." This time the cries of agreement from the others were louder.

Pakc looked around, and it was clear that he felt he was being forced to give way. "The captain is going to hear about this," he growled. "You're getting above yourself, Fatka."

"Fine with me," Fatka replied. "He'll agree with me and you know it. C'mon, kid, help me get him below with the others."

Startled at being called on, Cloud fumbled his rifle and nearly dropped it before he got it around to aim at Zack. He kept his finger well away from the trigger, but it still made him sweat. He jerked his head at the door, and Zack scrambled to his feet.

Cloud stayed back, covering Zack with his rifle and hoping the man wasn't going to try to break free. The last thing they needed was for Cloud to shoot him by accident, and he wasn't sure he could face the idea of Zack trying to hurt him, not realizing who he was.

Inside Fatka ducked through another door and down a set of stairs, heading for the summoner's holding room. Cloud tensed when he saw Zack glancing around, like the man was assessing his chances of escape.

Instead of attacking one of them, however, Zack waited until Fatka was facing away, then turned and look right at Cloud. There was a great deal of anger in his eyes, but there was also worry. You okay? he mouthed.

The hand that had been squeezing Cloud's heart let go so suddenly that he almost stumbled. Zack had recognized him. The lack of reaction earlier must have been for Cloud's protection, so the others wouldn't realize Zack knew him and wonder how. Dizzy with relief, Cloud nodded to say that he was fine. He should have known better. He should have trusted his guardian and friend.

Seph? Zack asked, but Cloud couldn't answer as they turned a corner and came in sight of the door guard. Well, they were probably about to see for themselves how Sephiroth was doing.

"Got another one," Fatka told the guard. "Kinda."

"We'd better head back soon, it's getting crowded in there," the guard replied, moving to punch in the combination. Cloud tried, but still couldn't see what the sequence was. There was a loud clunking sound, and then the guard spun the wheel set into the door and pulled it open.

Fatka gestured for Zack to enter. "Seph!" Zack exclaimed, heading straight for him. "Fuck, am I glad to see you in one piece. Thought I was out of a job for a while there. I mean, what good's a guardian with no summoner?"

Sephiroth frowned, and his gaze darted briefly to Cloud. Rufus was glaring at him from another corner, and the rest of the summoners were watching Zack with hopeful looks on their faces.

Glancing at the hall behind him, Cloud confirmed it was empty. The only Al Bhed present were Fatka and the door guard. He was never going to have a better chance - once that door closed, he'd have no way of getting it open again, and it was only a matter of time before Rufus gave him away.

Taking a deep breath, he steadied his hands. Then he swung his rifle around to aim at the guard outside the door. "Zack," he shouted, hoping his guardian would catch on and react quickly. If Fatka realized what was happening and turned his gun on Cloud, or on one of the helpless summoners, this would end badly.

He needn't have worried. Before the name was even out of his mouth, Zack had spun and grabbed for Fatka's rifle, forcing the barrel up towards the ceiling. Startled, Fatka struggled, but Zack was bigger and better muscled.

"Fatka, give him the gun," Cloud ordered in Al Bhed. "You, drop yours on the floor and kick it away from you," he added to the guard.

After a moment, Fatka released the weapon and raised his hands in surrender. He stared at Cloud, his eyes full of betrayal and accusation. "Cloud, what are you doing?"

"I'm sorry, I really am," Cloud apologized miserably. "I can't even say that I disagree with what you're all doing. Maybe the Spirans do need to be forced to act. You kidnapped the wrong person, though. I can't just stand by and let you lock Seph away."

"Pakc was right after all," Fatka said bitterly. "You might look like us, but you're one of them. Spiran."

"Never," Cloud insisted. "Everything I said about the way they treated me was true. But I was also telling the truth when I said that if I had a way to make a difference, I'd have to take it."

Fatka's eyes widened. Cloud thought it was in response to his words until Zack shouted, "Behind you!". Before he could react, the guard he'd foolishly forgotten about grabbed him and pinned his arms to his sides.

Something cold and metallic pressed against Cloud's neck, and he felt a stinging sensation followed by a trickle of warmth. "Drop the guns," the guard said in heavily accented Spiran. "Do it now, both of you, or he dies."

Cursing under his breath at his own stupidity, Cloud obediently let his gun clatter to the floor. But Zack held his steady, aimed just over Cloud's shoulder. "You really think you can kill him before I can shoot you?" he asked, his voice calm. "Last I checked, a bullet at this range is a lot faster than a knife."

"As if a Spiran would even know how to use our weapons," the guard scoffed.

Zack did something and the gun made the same clunking noise Cloud had heard before, then raised it to his shoulder so he could sight along it better. The guard went tense. "You think?" Zack said, smiling. It wasn't at all his normal friendly grin. "Wanna bet your life on it?"

"You could not be good enough to hit me and not him," the guard said, but he sounded much less certain this time.

"So let's say I miss, and you do kill him," Zack countered. "Then what? You've lost your hostage and really, really pissed off the guardian with the gun. Not to mention the half a dozen summoners in here, and I know for a fact at least one of them can summon without a ritual. Only reason he hasn't yet is 'cause he doesn't like killing people, but believe me when I say you do not want to see how he'll react to you killing Cloud."

There was a long pause, during which Cloud thought the guard might be struggling to understand the threats. "He will shoot," Sephiroth said in Al Bhed. "And if you kill Cloud he will have no reason to hold back. We don't wish anyone to be hurt, but we will take action if we must. Put down the knife."

Slowly the guard released Cloud, dropping the knife to clatter on the floor as he raised his hands. "Good choice," Zack said, lowering the rifle from his shoulder but still aiming the barrel at the guard. "I have really got to learn Al Bhed one of these days, this is getting silly. Now we just have to... hey, where'd the other one go?"

Too late Cloud realized that Fatka had sidled over to the door, unnoticed during the tension. Before anyone could stop him, the Al Bhed slapped his hand down on the wall outside and the harsh wail of the alarm rang through the ship, in a different rhythm than before.

"Shit. So much for sneaking out," Zack said. "You just made sure people are going to get hurt, thanks a lot. Let's move!"

Zack darted into the corridor and took up a position near the stairs, sighting upwards along his rifle. Sephiroth followed as Cloud scooped up the gun he'd dropped.

Rufus was right on Sephiroth's heels, but Cloud swung the gun around and blocked him from leaving. "What is the meaning of this?" the Spiran demanded, drawing himself up and staring down at Cloud.

There was a shout from the stairwell, followed by a burst of gunfire and a scream. "Move it, guys, I can't hold them for long," Zack called.

"Not you," Cloud told Rufus. He turned to look at the rest of the summoners. "Not any of you. I'm sorry, but none of us will get out if we try to take a big group. On my life, I swear the Al Bhed are not going to hurt you. They're trying to protect you."

"How dare..."

Another burst of gunfire, longer this time, drowned out whatever Rufus might have said. "I'm sorry," Cloud repeated, shouting to be heard. He looked at Fatka, hoping the other Al Bhed would forgive him someday. "Really, I'm sorry."

He slammed the door shut, cutting off the babble of protests from the Spirans and Al Bhed alike. A quick spin of the wheel and they were locked inside. Cloud hurried to join Zack and Sephiroth at the end of the hall.

"They've got us pinned," Zack told him. "But they can't get down the stairs to us, either. It's gonna come to who runs out of bullets first."

"Which will be us, as we have only three guns and no way to replenish our supply," Sephiroth said. "I don't suppose there's a hidden exit?"

"I don't exactly have the ship memorized, but I think if there was they'd have used it to hit us from behind by now," Cloud said. Had it all been for nothing? Now all three of them would be caught, and this time the Al Bhed probably would kill them.

"Couldn't an aeon barrel through them and open a path for us?" Zack asked. Cloud winced at the thought.

"We cannot summon in such close quarters, there is nowhere for the aeon to go," Sephiroth said. "However, there is nothing preventing us from using magic. Stand well back, both of you."

Cloud felt the hair on his arms rise, a sensation he was becoming distressingly familiar with. Zack cursed and turned pale, scrambling back so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet. A moment later a bright light came from the top of the stairs and thunder crashed, echoing back and forth from the metal walls. There was a chorus of screams and shouts from the Al Bhed above, and then silence.

"Al Bhed machina are invariably weak to lightning," Sephiroth noted. "The Al Bhed themselves don't tend to fare well against it, either."

"Can't imagine why," Zack muttered, wiping sweat off his brow. "Let's move, there'll be more."

They pelted up the steps and past the bodies littering the corridor. Zack was in the lead with his rifle at the ready and Sephiroth held the rear with another lightning spell on his lips. Cloud kept a tight grip on his own rifle, though he thought he was likely to miss more targets than he hit.

Two more small groups tried to ambush them, but Sephiroth and Zack made short work of them. At the door that led out onto the deck Zack paused, holding up one hand to hush them as he leaned in and tried to listen through the door.

"Well, something is out there," he said, grimacing. "I hear a machina, and it sounds big. Really big."

"Lightning," Sephiroth reiterated. "I will cast the spell, while Cloud can summon Eqeuh. Zack, you keep any individual Al Bhed pinned down with your rifle."

Cloud's stomach lurched at the thought of loosing his deadly aeon again, on a group of Al Bhed who were only doing their honest best to protect the summoners. "I'm not..."

"Get down," Zack cried, shoving himself away from the door. Sephiroth grabbed Cloud by the shoulders and pulled him back as well, just as something exploded against the door. The metal shrieked a protest and gave way, bowing inwards as if a huge fist had punched through it. A noise like vibrating thunder rang in the small space, and a hail of massive bullets bounced off the walls in all directions. Cloud ducked his head and shielded himself with his arm, though he was sure it wouldn't save him.

"Thundaga," Sephiroth shouted, and real thunder created a counterpoint to the gunfire. There were a few stunned cries from outside, and then Zack was running through the door, firing wildly.

Sephiroth followed him out, with Cloud close behind him. For a moment Cloud's view was blocked by Sephiroth's broad back, and then the man moved aside and Cloud got his first look at a true Al Bhed machina weapon.

It was huge, big enough to dwarf the gunners standing on the deck to either side of it. Perched on a seat in the middle of the contraption was another Al Bhed, who manipulated levers to make the machina work. It had two wide 'arms' that seemed to have a great many round objects in slots, as well as oversized guns in front.

It fired a brief burst at Zack, and then Cloud found out what the slots on the arms were for. Two of the round objects came flying out of each side, jets of flame propelling them through the air. They missed by a wide margin but exploded on impact, rocking the boat and knocking Cloud off his feet.

Sephiroth cast again, and the thunder spell seemed to short-circuit the machina briefly. While its operator swore and fought with the sparking controls, Zack took the opportunity to expertly pick off the other Al Bhed.

"Summon," Sephiroth commanded Cloud.

Eqeuh was close to the surface, eager to be released, but that very enthusiasm made Cloud wary. He looked at Zack, still grimly firing away despite the fact that he jumped every time thunder boomed. "No," Cloud replied, lifting his hands and casting a cure spell instead. He wasn't much of a mage, especially compared to Sephiroth, but at least if he could keep them healed then Sephiroth could concentrate on offensive magic.

"Cloud, what are you doing? Summon the damned thing," Zack shouted, dodging another missile. This one exploded against a pile of wooden crates, sending splinters flying everywhere.

Shaking his head stubbornly, Cloud cast cure again. Then to his dismay a strident neigh rang through the gunfire, and storm clouds abruptly blocked the stars above the ship. Panicked, Cloud reached for Eqeuh, but the aeon was no longer in his mind. This was the second time it had appeared even though he'd ordered it not to come. How could he ever hope to control it if he couldn't stop it from summoning itself?

But when the unicorn touched the deck, it was Sephiroth that he moved to stand beside. "Binah, if you please," Sephiroth said, as calmly as if he was inviting the aeon to tea.

Binah reared and lashed out with his hooves, power building at the tip of his horn. "No," Cloud cried, and threw himself forward. He had to stop it, had to save the Al Bhed.

Zack lunged and caught him by the shoulders, holding him back. "Are you crazy?" he shouted in Cloud's ear. "Trust me, you do not want to get between that thing and his targets!" Cloud couldn't have answered if he'd wanted to, as the aeon's attack came crashing down. Cloud felt Zack flinch, and the Al Bhed screamed.

As the brilliant light faded, Cloud saw the machina smoking and sparking madly, while the Al Bhed were lying sprawled on the deck. He didn't know if they were dead or just unconscious, but he wasn't sure it really mattered.

"Get him out of here," Zack said, shoving Cloud at Sephiroth. "Head for the far shore, I'll keep them from following you as long as I can." He took a few quick breaths that were more exhale than inhale, and then drew in more air than Cloud had ever seen anyone take at one time. He dropped the rifle and dove over the side, cutting the water cleanly.

"Can you swim?" Sephiroth asked, and Cloud nodded. "Good. Stay beneath the surface as long as you can. I'll be right behind you. Go!"

He pushed Cloud to the railing. Taking a deep gulp of air, Cloud scrambled up over the side and entered the river much less gracefully than Zack.

The water was clear enough that he quickly spotted Zack treading water a few feet away. Zack jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and then Cloud's view was obscured by a riot of bubbles as Sephiroth dove in. Cloud started swimming as hard as he could, fighting the current. The memory of the fiend that had nearly drowned him had him looking warily around, but there was no sign of it.

It seemed like only seconds before his lungs started to burn. The damage done by the water earlier flared up, and he had to fight the urge to cough. Reluctantly Cloud kicked his way back to the surface, half expecting to find himself facing an Al Bhed rifle.

Instead he was astonished to find he was well out of range, the ship growing tiny in the distance. Unfortunately most of that distance was because he'd been swept down the river, and he was going further with every moment. He swam a little harder, staying on the surface this time. After a moment Sephiroth surfaced as well, a few feet upstream and ahead of Cloud.

The shore seemed miles away, though when Cloud glanced back he saw the other side was further still. How wide was the Moonflow, anyway? Cloud had learned to swim in a placid little mountain pond that took no more than a few minutes to swim across, and he'd never had to deal with a current before. He was rapidly tiring, and the exhaustion of the day's events was telling.

At least this water wasn't a short step above ice. Gasping, trying not to swallow water every time he inhaled, Cloud struggled to keep going.

"Here," Sephiroth said, and shoved something at him. Cloud grabbed for it, and discovered it was a piece of a tree branch. It was large enough to keep him afloat, which meant he could concentrate on moving forward.

"Thanks," he said, embarrassed to need the help after he'd told Sephiroth he could swim. Then he realized the other man had a wood chunk of his own, and felt better. "What about Zack?" He looked around, but there was no sign of his other guardian.

"Zack will be fine," Sephiroth assured him. "There are several Blitzball techniques that allow one to poison or knock out an opponent, and I imagine they will work just as well against an enemy instead of a rival. I doubt we'll see him before we reach land, but it won't take him long to catch up. He swims much faster if he stays beneath the surface."

Cloud felt silly. Of course Zack would stay underwater. As a Blitzer he could hold his breath and swim hard for more than five minutes at a time. Unless some of those aboard the ship happened to be Psyches, the Al Bhed didn't stand a chance in the water against Zack.

He wasn't sure how long it took them to reach the shore. It felt like days, but there wasn't even a hint of dawn on the horizon when they wearily dragged themselves out of the water.

Immediately Sephiroth rounded on him. "What in the name of Yevon were you thinking? You cannot risk yourself like that. If they had realized who you were..."

"They didn't," Cloud argued. "And I couldn't just leave you there."

"Yes, you could and should have done exactly that," Sephiroth said grimly. "My only thought when they took me was gratitude that their error of identity would allow the two of you to get away safely. I am particularly disappointed that you were involved in such an absurd rescue attempt," he added, looking over Cloud's shoulder.

Cloud turned to see Zack just emerging from the water. The Blitzer was panting for air and nearly staggering with exhaustion - and with pain, Cloud realized in horror as he saw the dark stains spreading over Zack's clothes from his hip and shoulder.

Steadying himself against a tree, Zack looked back at Sephiroth with a blank expression and dead eyes. "You're lecturing the wrong guy, Seph. I'm not his guardian anymore."

Chapter Text

Halfway through a cure spell, Sephiroth tripped over the next word and the magic rising around him dissolved. He stared at Zack, looking as startled as Cloud felt. That didn't help Cloud convince himself that he'd misunderstood. "Explain yourself," Sephiroth demanded.

Zack shrugged, wringing out the bottom of his shirt, not looking either of them in the eyes. "You heard me."

"When did you decide this?" Cloud asked, heartbroken. Zack was leaving him? Had he finally decided that Cloud was more trouble than he was worth? Cloud wouldn't blame him, not after everything that had happened, but the thought of continuing without Zack by his side was devastating.

"You decided it," Zack retorted. "When you ran off on me like that, you made it clear you don't want me."

"But that's not what I..."

"You deliberately made it impossible for me to do my job," Zack interrupted him. "You forced my hand, Cloud."

Shrinking back, his shoulders hunched, Cloud looked from Zack to Sephiroth. His other guardian - his only guardian - was standing with his arms crossed, frowning. He didn't look happy, but he also didn't seem inclined to scold Zack about abandoning his duty as Cloud had hoped.

"But you came after us," Cloud said in a small voice, hating how childish he sounded but unable to make himself stop.

"Of course I did," Zack exclaimed, waving his hands. "You're my friends. Like hell I'd leave you alone in that situation. Not once I didn't have a duty forcing me to." He glared at Cloud. "You think it didn't damn near kill me to turn my back on Seph like that? I would never, never have done it if protecting you hadn't been more important!"

Cloud hung his head. "I couldn't just leave him there," he repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. "I don't care if it was the right thing to do, or my duty or whatever. I couldn't, not and live with myself afterwards."

"I told you before, you must be prepared to make sacrifices if necessary," Sephiroth said. His brow was furrowed and Cloud might have thought he was angry, but his eyes were dark with grief.

"Just because nobody has ever done it doesn't mean it can't be done," Cloud insisted.

Sephiroth opened his mouth as if to argue, but appeared to reconsider. He shook his head, looking away.

"Are you going to leave me, too?" Cloud asked, cursing silently when his voice broke on the question. He'd continue on alone if he had to, but he'd never be able to get into the temples at Macalania and Bevelle without Sephiroth backing him. Fayth, at the rate he was going, he wouldn't survive long enough to need to worry about it without his guardians.

Sephiroth sighed. "No. I have committed myself to your cause, and I will see it to the end." Cloud tried not to show how desperately relieved he was to hear those words.

"Don't make me into the bad guy here, damn it," Zack said. "I'm not abandoning you. I just can't take the responsibility to protect your life if you won't let me do my job."

"It should perhaps be noted that refusing to heed the counsel of his or her guardian is a common trait among summoners," Sephiroth said dryly. "It takes a high level of both stubborn will and selfless compassion to be a summoner, and I think it is not unrelated that guardians frequently suffer from ulcers and migraines."

Zack stared at him. "You're not saying you gave your guardians a hard time. You're like, the source of all lectures on duty and responsibility."

"I find myself with a rather different perspective on the situation now that I am seeing it from the guardian's point of view," Sephiroth said, his eyes distant and dark. "The fact is that Genesis and I crossed wills and sometimes even blades frequently. Perhaps I should say, 'constantly'. Angeal was caught quite firmly in the middle, trying to be the voice of reason."

Cloud tried to picture Sephiroth as a summoner, refusing to let his guardians protect him. It wasn't that difficult, actually, despite the older man's innate reserve and focus on duty. Sephiroth seemed like the sort of person who was much better at giving orders than taking them.

Zack looked from him to Sephiroth and back again, raking a hand through his drying hair. Finally he blew out an explosive breath. "All right. All right! I'm still your guardian. It's not like I wanted to leave in the first place. But I swear to Yevon, Cloud," he shook one finger at Cloud. "If you ever again pull a stunt like that, I'll kill you myself and save Sin the trouble. My heart damn near stopped when you jumped out and drew their attention. I've never been so scared in my life."

Cloud nodded vigorously. He had no idea if he would actually be able to keep the promise, but he'd have agreed to just about anything if it meant Zack wouldn't leave.

"Now that the matter is settled, we have other pressing concerns," Sephiroth said. "I do not believe the Al Bhed will continue to pursue us..."

"I really doubt it," Zack said, a touch smugly. "I'm pretty sure I put the fear of me into their swimmers, and they won't risk losing the ship or all those other summoners by coming in close to shore. For all they know we'll have raised the Spirans and be waiting for them with an army. Speaking of, why didn't we let the others out? I mean, obviously we couldn't have taken responsibility for all of them, but at least if you hadn't locked them in they'd have stood a chance of pulling their own escapes."

"Because they'd have raised the Spirans and be waiting with an army," Cloud repeated his words back to him. "And the further the story spread, the less the Spirans would care whether the Al Bhed they attack are actually involved in the kidnapping or not."

"Yeah, but... we have to warn people," Zack argued, frowning. "The other summoners need to know to watch out. And all those poor guardians need to know their summoners aren't dead."

"In this, I am forced to agree with Cloud," Sephiroth said reluctantly. "Tensions between the Spirans and the Al Bhed are already too high. If the summoners were coming to harm I would say the warning must be given, but the Al Bhed were quite careful not to hurt or mistreat any of us." Sephiroth shook his head. "My main concern at the moment is the state of our supplies. We have no gil, no items, and most importantly no weapons."

"Ugh, yeah." Zack grimaced. "Not that we're helpless. I can fight with my fists if I have to, you can use magic, and Cloud can summon."

"Can you summon?" Sephiroth asked, studying Cloud. "You were having trouble calling Eqeuh on the ship."

Cloud set his jaw. "I wasn't having trouble, I just refused to do it. I wasn't sure I could control him. Why is it horrible for me to summon on a Spiran mob that's trying to kill me, but okay for me to do it to a bunch of Al Bhed?"

"It's not the same thing," Zack said, though he had the grace to wince.

"Why not? Because the Al Bhed were better armed? They still had no chance against an aeon," Cloud argued.

"The objection was not that you were willing to summon against Spirans, but that you would have summoned in anger," Sephiroth said.

"Maybe that was your concern, but not Zack's," Cloud said. "He was shocked that I would set an aeon loose against helpless people. Helpless Spirans."

"But it's not..." Zack trailed off, brows knitted as he thought hard. Finally he sighed and looked sheepish. "No, I guess it is the same thing, isn't it? You're right, the Spirans were attacking you too. Even if they were less organized and less equipped to do it, they were still a threat. Forgive me?"

Cloud nodded wearily. He knew the apology was sincere, but he didn't think Zack had looked beyond the specific situation to grasp the deeper problem. He also didn't feel like arguing about it right now, though, so he let it go.

"There is still the issue of trust," Sephiroth said. "You must be able to trust your aeons implicitly. I thought the issue with Eqeuh was resolved, since he gave you his name?"

"Yeah, I thought so too until he summoned himself after I told him not to come," Cloud said.

"When was this?" Sephiroth asked, frowning.

"Right after you left us at the Moonflow," Zack told him. "A river fiend grabbed Cloud and yanked him under, and much as it grates me to admit it, the fiend was a faster swimmer than I am. I couldn't reach him until Eqeuh came along and shocked it."

"And nearly fried you again in the process," Cloud said, rubbing a hand over his face. His eyes were burning, his limbs were trembling with exhaustion, and his lungs were still threatening to start another coughing fit. More than anything he wanted to lie down and go to sleep, right where he stood.

"I have never heard of an aeon appearing with no summons at all," Sephiroth said slowly. "However, we have already seen that you can call them simply by wishing their presence. Though you may not have consciously desired it, fear of drowning most likely spurred your subconscious to draw on them for help."

"But I still couldn't control him," Cloud said miserably. "Not either of the times I've summoned him. I can't risk him hurting someone else."

Sephiroth still looked troubled, but before he could respond Zack broke in. "Guys, I know this is really important, but we're all done in. If I'm still your guardian, kid, then my next duty is to make sure you get some rest before you collapse."

"Look who's talking, you can hardly stay on your feet," Cloud retorted. "What happened, anyway?" He reached out to touch Zack's shoulder gingerly, and winced when his fingers came away sticky with fresh blood.

Sephiroth bit off a curse, startling both Cloud and Zack. "Forgive me, I'm more wearied than I thought," he murmured, and magic gathered around him again. The spell formed more slowly than Cloud was used to, as if the magic was sluggish in responding. Or as if Sephiroth was having trouble calling on it.

"No worries, even you've gotta be just about tapped out after all that casting today," Zack said. His expression of relief as the magic settled over him put the lie to his brave words. "Some bright bunny got the idea to just start shooting randomly into the water. I dove deep as soon as I realized what was happening, but they nicked me a couple of times."

The magic faded, but though the wounds were no longer bleeding they were still raw and painful-looking. "Seph?" Cloud looked sharply at the older man. Even Cura should have been enough to heal Zack completely.

Sephiroth shook his head. "I must rest," he admitted. "I can do no more."

Cloud reached for his own magical reserves, and cursed when he realized he was tapped out as well. "I can't cast either. I'm sorry, Zack."

"I told you, no worries," Zack insisted. "Just a few more scars to show off to the girls. Do we try to reach Guadosalam tonight? On the bright side, we got carried so far downriver we must be close."

"Quite frankly I think we may be best off to move just enough not to be visible from the water, and no further," Sephiroth said. "As it stands we can barely defend ourselves from any fiends we might encounter, and we have no gil to spend at the inn. Uncomfortable as it may be..."

"Sleeping with no shelter, not even a blanket, injured and totally helpless? Nah, it'll be like old times," Zack said, grinning at him. "All we're missing is the squad of bitching Crusaders and the sergeant trying to make things worse."

Sephiroth chuckled wearily. Cloud watched them and tried not to feel left out. There was so much about them he still didn't know, he realized, and so much they'd been through together that he had been no part of.

And that was part of why he couldn't leave one of them behind, no matter what. They would need each other all the more at the end, when he was gone.

"So, much as I hate to say it, I've been thinking," Zack said as they fought their way along the riverbank the next morning. Judging by the sun it was actually closer to afternoon, but they'd all been so exhausted they'd slept long past dawn.

"You hate to admit you've been thinking?" Cloud dared to tease him, and was delighted when Zack mimed a swipe at him and grinned.

"It is rather a remarkable occurance," Sephiroth murmured, a smile lighting his eyes.

"Hush, you. It happens occasionally," Zack protested. His playful expression faded too quickly, though, and the darkness in his eyes worried Cloud. "We might wanna reconsider resting in Guadosalam. Especially with Cloud dressed like that." He nodded at the Al Bhed wetsuit Cloud still wore, the only clothes he now owned.

"Why? The Guado have nothing against the Al Bhed, do they?" Cloud asked, surprised. He'd rather been looking forward to being in a city where nobody hated him just on principle.

"Not as such, no," Zack said. "But the Guado as a whole converted to Yevon just a few years ago, and the ones I've talked to about it are pretty fanatic. They haven't had enough time to pick up the dislike of the Al Bhed because of the machina issue, but I don't think they're gonna take to the idea of an Al Bhed summoner so well."

"The Guado are generally peaceful, and perhaps the most tolerant of the races of Spira, if a touch arrogant," Sephiroth said, frowning. "However, it is true that they now tend towards fanaticism. On the other hand, we must have some supplies, or we will not make it to the Travel Agency in the Thunder Plains."

"And we have to go through Guadosalam to reach the Thunder Plains at all, don't we?" Cloud said.

"Well, I don't think passing through quickly will cause any problems," Zack said. "But if we stay at the inn they'll start asking questions about why we're travelling with Sin on the loose. As for getting supplies, if I go in alone I think I can handle it. I know some of the Glories pretty well, and even if they're still in Luca for the tournament I'm sure their families will help me out."

"You have friends in every race on Spira, don't you?" Cloud asked, shaking his head. Zack was amazing that way. He just seemed to draw people to him. Maybe it was the way he treated everyone as people, with no care for what race they happened to be.

"Well, I'm not on friendly terms with any fiends," Zack said, laughing. "And I've never spoken to a fayth, though Jymavun seems kinda fond of me. Does that count?"

"Some days I think you could even befriend a fiend, given time enough," Sephiroth said. "Very well. We will travel through, and wait for you on the other side. Unfortunately weapons will be costly, but our highest priority must be a sword for you at the very least. We may not have enough left over to purchase new clothes for Cloud."

Cloud looked down at the wetsuit, playing with the zipper. He still felt alien and exposed in it, but he'd been thinking about it all night. "I don't want different clothes," he said finally. "I'm going to stay like this." Lifting his head, he gave his guardians a challenging look. "If I'm going to be an Al Bhed summoner, I might as well look like one. The only thing dressing like a Spiran does is make it seem like I'm hiding or ashamed."

"You sure?" Zack asked, raising an eyebrow. "You're gonna draw a lot more attention dressed like that. Not that I'm trying to argue you out of it, just pointing out the problems. Anyway, you're a Calm Lander," he added, recovering his grin. "Never did meet one of you lot that didn't think anything less than three layers was 'practically naked'."

"I do feel naked," Cloud mumbled, blushing. "And I know it will cause problems, especially if people find out what the Al Bhed are doing to the summoners. I just feel like maybe the Spirans really need to have their noses rubbed in the fact that an Al Bhed is trying to help them. That way if I do succeed, they won't be able to pretend later that I was really a Spiran all along."

"A valid point," Sephiroth said. "The temples would be forced to recognize you and include you in the list of High Summoners, but it would be very like the priests to focus on your Spiran heritage to the exclusion of all else. The difference in your eyes will not be as visible on a statue or a sphere image, but if you are wearing Al Bhed clothing they will not be able to forget that part of you."

"Admit it, you just wanna see the sour looks on their faces when they're forced to put a statue of someone in Al Bhed gear up in the temples," Zack teased. "I know I sure do. It is gonna make our job a little harder, but I think it'll be worth it for the end result."

Cloud nodded, grateful they were both willing to back him. Considering how much trouble he'd already caused them, he wouldn't have blamed them if they hadn't wanted to take on even more.

"Aha, here's the road," Zack exclaimed as he pushed between a couple of heavily-leafed trees. "And there's Guadosalam, hardly the length of the Blitzdome away. I told you we had to be close."

Breaking free onto the clear space of the road made travelling much easier, and they ran into fewer fiends as well. "Thank the fayth for whoever built the roads," Cloud said as they approached the entrance to the city. "Can you imagine if we had to slog through unbroken country like that to get anywhere?"

"They are leftover from before the war that created Sin, so the fayth may be exactly who you should be thanking," Sephiroth told him. "The Crusaders maintain them as best they can, so they are not as deteriorated as the rest of the ruins, but that they are still useful at all is a sign of the remarkable engineering the ancients were capable of."

"Wow, I hadn't realized they were that old," Zack said, looking down at the road as if surprised to see it beneath his feet. "I mean, I knew the Crusaders maintained them, but I sorta figured they'd built them as well. Damn."

"You should go ahead without us from here," Sephiroth said, surveying the branching roads that led past Guadosalam and deeper into it. "We'll wait at the entrance to the Thunder Plains for you."

"Gotcha," Zack saluted quickly. "It shouldn't take too long, and it might not even cost us much. Quite a few of the Glories owe me money."

"Just how much do you gamble?" Cloud wanted to know.

Zack winked at him. "Funny thing about Blitzers, we all seem to be addicted to Coins. Maybe 'cause we're not allowed to bet on the Blitz games. Also funny thing, most Blitzers suck at Coins."

"Go," Sephiroth shooed him. He rolled his eyes, surprising Cloud, who would have thought the gesture was too undignified for him. Then again, perhaps it was just a symptom of dealing with Zack for so long.

Zack turned to take the path that led into the city, while Sephiroth and Cloud continued along the main road that skirted the edge. "Have you been to the Farplane in Guadosalam?" Sephiroth asked as they passed by the bridge that led to it.

"No, I didn't stop on my way through the first time," Cloud said. "I thought about it - I wanted to see my dad. But now I have a picture of him, and he's the only one I'd want to look for. It seems kind of creepy, really." It made him shiver just to think about it. How horrible would it be to be one of the spirits called back, only able to look at your loved ones but not say anything to them?

"The Al Bhed believe the images we see in the Farplane are only reflections of our own memories," Sephiroth told him. "Most of them refuse to enter it. You might not even be able to see him at all, since he died before you were born."

"I think I like that theory better, actually. The dead should be able to stay at rest," Cloud said firmly. "And that means there's really no point to me going there. Have you?"

"Yes, several times," Sephiroth said, his eyes distant again. "I have seen my mother there, but I have not gone since before the last Calm began. There are some ghosts I would rather not face, even if they are only reflections."

Cloud wondered who it was that Sephiroth didn't want to see. He knew Angeal was still alive, or at least he had been when he'd introduced Zack to Sephiroth. Had Genesis died in a way Sephiroth regretted, and that was why Sephiroth was so adamant that Cloud needed to be prepared to make sacrifices?

It didn't seem right to ask. It was such a private question, and Cloud didn't want to pry. When all was said and done, he hadn't even known Sephiroth that long and he was still a little in awe of the man.

They reached the sloping path that led down to the Thunder Plains. Even before he saw the cave exit, Cloud could hear the thunder. By the time they reached level ground and the mouth of the cave, the rumbling was loud enough that it vibrated deep in Cloud's bones.

Cloud stared out over the expanse of the Thunder Plain, a little in awe. He'd seen it before, crossing in the opposite direction on his way to Besaid, but it was no less stunning for repeated exposure. "Oh, Zack isn't going to like this at all," he said, lifting a hand to protect his eyes from the bright flashes. "I think it's worse than last time I was here."

"The storm does ebb and flow, much like the tides," Sephiroth said. "Though I must admit I do believe this is the worst I've ever seen it as well."

"Just our luck," Cloud sighed. "Can't we ever get a break?"

"We are still alive, relatively uninjured, and moving forward," Sephiroth said. "At this point, I count that as a victory."

They stood in silence for a while, just watching the fury of the storm. Cloud thought he saw a few vague shapes drifting through the mist and the rain, often accompanied by smaller flashes of lightning. The fiends of the Thunder Plains were literally in their element, and happiest when the storm was worst.

"How long do you suppose Zack will take?" he asked after a while.

"It depends on how much difficulty he has gathering the items we require," Sephiroth replied. "We may be waiting quite a while."

"Or maybe not," Zack called from behind them. Cloud turned to see his guardian hurrying down the tunnel at a pace that was one short step from a run, his face drawn and tight. Cloud thought it was fear of the storm until he realized Zack was still too high up the path to be able to see it.

"That was fast," Cloud said, not sure that was a good sign.

"We need to get out of here, and we need to warn every Al Bhed on the way to do the same," Zack said. "Some of the guardians of the kidnapped summoners must've put their heads together and figured out what was going on. You were right, Cloud. They've raised all of Spira against the Al Bhed, and they're not... whoa!" Finally low enough to be able to see the Thunder Plains, Zack skidded to a halt and turned white. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. We're going through that?"

"You must have found some supplies, you're wearing a sword," Sephiroth said, ignoring Zack's reaction.

With a visible effort Zack shook himself free of the fascination of the storm, swallowing hard. "Uh. Yeah. One of my buddies on the Glories is benched with an injury, and he gave me his own sword and what food and potions he had on hand. Had to forgive him a pretty sizable IOU, but it was worth it. I didn't dare stick around any longer, there's a Crusader unit gearing up to march this way and if they see Cloud we're in deep shit."

"Crap. We'd better get moving." Cloud turned back towards the Plains, and winced as a lightning bolt struck not a hundred feet away. "If we can."

"Aren't those tower things supposed to be drawing the lightning away from the path?" Zack asked, gingerly approaching the tunnel mouth. "I mean, I'm no expert or anything, but I thought that was the theory."

"Yeah, they are," Cloud said, scanning the horizon. He could just barely make out the dark bulk of the nearest tower, occasionally backlit by a flash of lightning beyond. "I don't understand. They worked just fine when I passed through here. It was a little freaky, but there was a clear corridor all the way from one side to the other. Is it because the storm is so bad?"

"Perhaps," Sephiroth said, frowning as he shaded his eyes and peered through the rain as well. "Though I can't say it seems they are being struck more often than can be accounted for by their greater height. It must be an illusion. The towers have been working for hundreds of years."

"Doesn't that mean they're overdue for a breakdown?" Zack muttered, and Cloud could see the sweat on his brow. Even so, he hitched his sword higher on his back and stepped forward, taking point. "We'll just have to be careful, I guess."

The moment they moved out from under the overhang the rain pounded down on them relentlessly, and in seconds they were all soaked. Cloud was the best off, his Al Bhed wetsuit shedding the rain as easily as any other kind of water, but his hair was still plastered into his eyes, making it difficult to see.

They all jumped when a lightning bolt crashed to the ground just a few feet away. Cloud might not have had any particular fear of lightning, but it was hard not to be afraid when it was all around him like this. Oddly, Zack seemed to have lost the worst symptoms of his fear and was forging forward with a grimly determined look on his face, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed.

The first tower seemed miles away, though from what Cloud remembered they were scattered perhaps a hundred feet apart. At least the rain didn't hit them as hard once they reached its shadow, but from its foot Cloud could clearly tell that it wasn't being struck any more often than other high points in the Plains.

Sephiroth stepped forward and traced a hand over the control panel on the tower, frowning. "It's definitely not operational. I can't feel any vibration, and there are no lights. I learned a few things about machina while living with the Al Bhed, but this is far beyond my limited abilities."

Cloud studied the controls, but they meant nothing to him. "I suppose just poking at buttons and pulling levers at random is likely to make it worse, not better. So they are broken - or sabotaged?"

"Sabotaged?" Zack gave him a startled look. "Who in their right mind would break the towers? Half of Spira has to pass through here on a regular basis."

"Who normally maintains the towers?" Cloud asked pointedly.

"Huh? The Al Bhed, of course," Zack said, shrugging. He clearly hadn't made the obvious connection. "They've got a pretty strong presence in this area."

"And who is trying to stop any summoner from reaching Zanarkand?" Cloud persisted, exasperated. "What better way to do it than by making sure nobody can cross the Thunder Plains?"

"Oh. Oh!" Dismayed, Zack stared first at the tower, then out at the raging storm. "Crap, yeah, that makes sense. Uh. How far across is it?"

"Roughly two days travel, under normal circumstances," Sephiroth said grimly. "It may take rather longer, if we must dodge lightning strikes the whole way."

"Great. That's what I was afraid you were gonna say." Zack sighed and shoved his dripping bangs out of his eyes, looking out over the storm. "And we have to deal with the fiends. This is gonna be fun."

"We could turn back," Cloud suggested reluctantly. "We can still make it back to the entrance to Guadosalam easily enough, and from there we could circle around the Plains."

"No, we can't," Zack said, shaking his head. "The Crusaders are moving out, remember? If we don't get out of here soon, they'll catch up to us."

"On the positive side, they will have a much more difficult time crossing the Plains," Sephiroth said. "Metal armour does tend to attract the lightning. They may even decide to go around, which should give us plenty of time to get ahead of them. Besides, we must warn the Al Bhed settlement in the middle. That may even be the Crusaders' target."

"Well, standing here isn't getting us anything but soaked. More soaked," Zack corrected himself. "On second thought, I don't think that's possible."

"Sure it is," Cloud said. "We're not actually underwater."

"I'd rather be underwater," Zack retorted. "At least there the lightning wouldn't be aiming at us. Let's go."

Twice they had extremely close calls, once when fiends ambushed them and kept them in one place for too long, and once when Cloud tripped on a rock and fell flat on his face just in time to not be standing in the place where the lightning would have struck him. After that Zack stuck to his side like a burr, joking that the lightning would be drawn to him instead because he was taller. Considering he was still pale and tight-lipped, Cloud could only admire his bravery.

They were almost to the second tower when a series of lightning strikes blasted down around them in quick succession. Zack shouted and tackled Cloud to the ground, sheltering him with his own body, and Cloud heard Sephiroth cry out as well.

When nothing had struck them after a long moment, Zack cautiously pushed himself up again, allowing Cloud to sit up. "You okay?" Zack asked him, and Cloud nodded. "Shit, that was a close one. Seph?"

There was no answer. Zack and Cloud traded startled looks, then scanned the area around them hastily. It was hard to see past his own nose in the heavy rain and mists, but Cloud spotted Sephiroth first, a dark shadow crumpled on the ground a few feet away. "There!"

"Oh, fuck," Zack said, and scrambled over to the older man. Cloud was right on his heels, so he saw the singed line tracing its way down the back of Sephiroth's jacket before Zack turned him over.

From the front there was no visible damage, no apparent reason why Sephiroth didn't so much as twitch at the movement. Hastily Cloud cast Cure, wishing he knew the stronger spells. When nothing happened he tried again, but there was still no result. Zack's raised hand prevented him from trying a third time.

"Save your strength, he's out cold," Zack shouted over the rumble of thunder. "Cure's not gonna help, he needs a Life spell or a phoenix down. We don't have any. Have you learned...?" Cloud shook his head, and Zack cursed. "Damn it. Then we'll have to wait until he wakes up on his own. His breathing is fine and his heartbeat's steady, but if we don't get moving soon we're gonna get hit again. Here, grab his arm."

With each of them dragging the bigger man by one shoulder, they managed to haul him over the uneven ground to the base of the tower. That at least meant they wouldn't be struck again, but it left them completely stranded. "Should we just wait here until he wakes up?" Cloud asked. "We can't cross the whole distance dragging him like that. If the lightning doesn't get us, the fiends will."

Looking frustrated, Zack shook his head. "We don't dare stay put. The Crusaders could be right behind us. They'll probably be slowed down by the storm, but there's no guarantee they won't send a couple of fast-moving scouts ahead. The chocobo knights could probably barrel through here fast enough not to need to worry about the lightning, if they have any with them."

They both looked back the way they'd come, but there was no sign of anything but a few fiends in the distant mists. With visibility as bad as it was, they likely wouldn't see anything until the Crusaders were right on top of them. Cloud checked Sephiroth again, but the man showed no signs of waking.

"We have to carry him," Zack said, rather helplessly. "It's bad odds, but it's our only chance."

Lightning crashed again just ahead of them on the path, and it might as well have been a solid wall. Cloud shivered. There was no way they'd make it through.

Chapter Text

Zack managed to haul Sephiroth up and get the taller man draped over his shoulder, but already Cloud could see there were going to be problems. Even if Zack could drag Sephiroth all the way across the plains, that left him unable to fight the fiends or dodge the lightning. It was going to be up to Cloud to keep them safe, and that meant summoning.

"Nothing for it," Zack said, probably correctly interpreting Cloud's apprehensive expression. "Might as well get on with it. The sooner we start, the sooner it's over, right?"

"The sooner we die, you mean," Cloud muttered, but he kept his voice too low for Zack to hear him. No sense in dragging Zack down with his bad attitude, especially when Cloud could see the effort it was taking Zack to maintain his cheer.

The fiends didn't seem to mind the lightning at all. In fact they had a distinct tendency to set up ambushes. Cloud was certain he saw some of them get hit by the lightning and come away stronger than they'd started.

By the time they neared the next tower, Zack was panting and Cloud was growing dizzy from all the healing spells he'd cast. Evned was too damaged for him to summon again, and though Jymavun was giving her all, she was drooping noticeably.

It took Cloud a moment to realize that the irregular rumbling in the ground wasn't happening in time with the thunder crashes. He looked up just as Zack shouted a panicked warning, but it was already too late. The fiend was right on top of them.

It was massive, far larger than the one they'd faced on the Highroad, and it appeared to be an animated suit of solid metal armour. Its sword was as long as Zack and Cloud put together, and when it slammed the weapon down to bar their way, Cloud was nearly knocked off his feet.

"Fuck me, that thing is huge," Zack gasped. He ducked out from under Sephiroth, leaving the older man a crumpled heap on the ground, and scrambled for his sword.

Quickly Cloud reached for Jymavun, but she had hardly settled to the ground before the fiend smashed into her side with that oversized sword. She screamed in agony and dissolved into pyreflies, and Cloud staggered as he felt the resonance of her pain.

With a defiant shout Zack charged past him, swinging his sword over his head to get the hardest strike possible. The clash of metal on metal nearly drowned out the thunder as the fiend blocked with its own sword. Zack tried again and again, darting this way and that, but the fiend was so massive it didn't need to be fast. Its huge sword might as well have been a solid wall of metal.

Eqeuh pushed at Cloud's mind urgently, and he knew he didn't have a choice. Whether he trusted his newest aeon or not, if they wanted to survive the next five minutes, Eqeuh was their only hope.

"Get back," he shouted at Zack, and reached for the crackling energy of D'jose's aeon.

Unlike the dramatic entrances Jymavun and Evned had made, the storm that moved with Eqeuh was swallowed by the larger storm of the Thunder Plains. One moment there was nothing but the fiend and the lightning, and the next Eqeuh was charging down from the clouds, hooves pounding in time with the thunder.

Zack had moved to the side, but Eqeuh headed straight for him. He yelped and dove out of the way, and the unicorn reared and neighed in a way that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

Cloud had had just about enough of his new aeon's attitude. "Eqeuh," he called, putting all of his will behind the word.

A little to his surprise, Eqeuh dropped to all fours and trotted obediently to his side, dropping his head to whuffle into Cloud's hair. Cloud could still feel his amusement, but he seemed to have decided to behave for the moment.

"If you could maybe concentrate on killing the fiend instead of teasing Zack?" he asked dryly, and Eqeuh neighed.

All the hair rose on Cloud's arms, and he shivered as he felt the massive build-up of power once more. This time he got to see it put to its proper use - the magical attack lashed out at the fiend, knocking it back a few steps. Eqeuh followed the blast with a Thundara spell, though Cloud thought it might be a bit of overkill. At least this fiend didn't seem invigorated by lightning; it staggered and went down with a deafening crash of metal, and pyreflies began to rise from its body.

Lightning lanced out of the sky as if called by the thunder spell, drawn to the tallest object in the area - Eqeuh. Cloud instinctively braced himself for the shared pain of the impact, but to his surprise Eqeuh only pranced happily, the lightning seemingly absorbed by his horn.

"Well, nice to see someone is enjoying the storm," Zack muttered, eyeing the aeon warily as he moved to collect Sephiroth. "You charge me now and I'll hit you with the damned sword, hear me?"

Eqeuh gave his laughing neigh once more. "He's not going to do that," Cloud said firmly, glaring at his aeon. "Are you." He made it a statement rather than a question, but Eqeuh shook his head anyway.

"Why's he still here? Battle's over, isn't it?" Zack asked, hefting Sephiroth up onto his shoulder once more. "I suppose it saves time to just keep him with you, but aren't you supposed to let him go so someone else can use him?"

"Maybe the fiends aren't the only thing he can help us with," Cloud said, lifting his head to consider the lightning still flashing among the stormclouds. "Zack, he absorbs lightning, just like most of the fiends out here. What if we use him as a mobile lightning tower?"

Zack paused, and looked over at the aeon speculatively. "You think it'd work? Won't he just draw it all to us?"

Another crash came at nearly the same moment as the blinding flash, and once again it was drawn straight to Eqeuh. "Seems to be working just fine so far," Cloud said as his eyes began to clear. "We might even be able to drape Seph over his back, then you wouldn't have to carry him. Uh, if that's okay?" he added, looking anxiously at Eqeuh as it belatedly occurred to him that riding an aeon might be one of his heretical Al Bhed notions. But Evned hadn't seemed to mind carrying Tifa for a little while.

Eqeuh tossed his head and folded his legs, sinking down to sit on the ground where they would be able to reach his back. Between the two of them Cloud and Zack managed to get Sephiroth up onto the aeon, and they arranged themselves to walk on either side of Eqeuh so they could steady the older man.

Travelling that way they made far better time, not least because the fiends seemed a bit less inclined to want to ambush them. "Man, makes me wish we could always have an aeon with us," Zack said, his cheer greatly restored by their improved circumstances. He didn't even seem to mind needing to be so close to the aeon that seemed to take great delight in tormenting him, and Eqeuh was behaving himself.

"Yeah, me too," Cloud agreed, not just because it meant there were fewer fiends attacking them. He could always feel his aeons within him, of course - unless they'd been too badly damaged, as Evned and Jymavun now were - but having one of them beside him was reassuring. For someone who had spent the better part of his life alone and shunned, he now found himself with more support than he knew what to do with.

Still, he knew he couldn't be selfish. Keeping one with him all the time meant no other summoner would be able to call on their version of that aeon. It was one thing when they were truly needed, like Eqeuh at the moment, but another thing entirely when the only purpose was to make Cloud feel better.

They reached the midpoint before dark - not that Cloud could tell where the sun was above the thick stormclouds, but it didn't seem noticeably darker than it had when they'd started out. They saw the travel sphere first, the bright blue glow of it cutting through the dim light like the beacon it was. The relief Cloud felt when he touched it and felt Jymavun and Evned return to life within him was indescribable.

Zack brushed his hand over it as well, then grabbed Sephiroth's hand and pressed it to the sphere. Cloud was relieved when Sephiroth immediately groaned and stirred, the magic in the sphere restoring him to health.

Sitting up gingerly, Sephiroth pressed one hand to his head. "That was... not pleasant," he commented. "How did you manage to..." He trailed off as he appeared to realize exactly where he was, and stared at the aeon whose back he was still on. "Binah?"

Eqeuh shook his head, mane flying, and craned his neck to look back over his shoulder at Sephiroth. "It's Eqeuh," Cloud told him. "He agreed to carry you. It was the only way we could move you and avoid the lightning."

"Yeah, he's pretty handy to have around when he's not trying to kill me," Zack agreed with a sardonic smile, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall of the travel agency. Eqeuh snorted at him, and Zack made a rude gesture back. Cloud had to hide a smile when he felt Eqeuh's amusement through their bond. He was starting to think the problem between his guardian and his aeon was that they had a bit too much in common - Eqeuh was as fond of teasing others as Zack was.

"Don't antagonize him too much, Zack," Cloud said, doing a little teasing of his own. "We're going to need him again to cross the second half tomorrow."

"Who's antagonizing who?" Zack demanded, raising an eyebrow. Eqeuh only neighed again in laughter.

"My thanks," Sephiroth said to the aeon, sliding off his back and bowing. Eqeuh reared and pawed the air, and then vanished in a sparkle of pyreflies. When they cleared, Cloud saw that Sephiroth was giving him a very odd look. "They do behave unusually for you. I don't believe I've ever heard of Ixion allowing anyone to ride him, no matter the circumstances."

It was the same way he'd looked at Cloud when Jymavun had saved Zack from the water. Cloud didn't like it any better the second time. "Please, don't," he mumbled, shifting from foot to foot and focusing his gaze on the ground. "I've told you, I don't know why they treat me like they do. None of it makes any sense."

Zack clapped him on the back, then slung his arm around Cloud's shoulder in a friendly gesture. "Hey, don't let it get to you," he said. When Cloud looked up, he was relieved to see that at least his other guardian didn't seem to be regarding him in awe this time. "Seph's just jealous 'cause the aeons like you better. Right?" He grinned and winked at the older man.

"I am not jealous," Sephiroth said calmly, refusing to be ruffled. He also stopped staring at Cloud, much to Cloud's relief. "My apologies, Cloud. I don't mean to make you uncomfortable. Truly, I believe it is a good sign that they are so attached to you."

"Hey, if the normal aeons are going this far for him, imagine how powerful his final aeon is gonna be," Zack said, his eyes lighting up with excitement. "He's gonna kick Sin's ass so hard it'll be too scared to come back for a hundred years!"

To Cloud's surprise, Sephiroth's gaze went shuttered, and there was darkness lurking in his expression. He paused, as if he was contemplating saying something, but in the end he only shook his head and said, "I'm sure it will be something to see."

There was something Sephiroth wasn't telling him, Cloud was now certain of it. Something about the final aeon? But Sephiroth hadn't gotten that far, had he? Cloud looked up at his guardian, and wished he had the courage to ask outright. But it still felt too personal, too much like an old wound that he didn't want to tear open again. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Sephiroth.

All he could do was hope that his guardian would be able to tell him whatever it was, someday.

Inside the travel agency it was quiet, though not as empty as Cloud would have expected. "How did they get through the storm with the lightning towers not working?" he murmured as they shook as much water off their clothes as they could. Cloud was the best off, his wetsuit shedding the rain easily. "Or did they get trapped here when they stopped?"

"Some, perhaps, but most of these people live here at least part of the year," Sephiroth explained. "They run the agency, and make trips to bring in supplies and stock up."

"Well, well, if it isn't my two favourite summoners," a vaguely familiar voice said in Al Bhed. Cloud looked up to see Rin approaching them with a smile, and his jaw dropped. "I didn't expect to see you here so soon."

"How did you get here before us?" Cloud demanded, floored. "We didn't even stop in D'jose!"

Rin gave him a mysterious smile, and bowed. "There are a great many things about the Al Bhed that the Spirans are not aware of," he answered. "I see you have changed your appearance rather dramatically. I hardly recognized you."

Cloud flushed, and played with the zipper of the wetsuit, something that was fast becoming a nervous habit. "It's a long story," he muttered. He didn't think telling Rin that they'd trashed an entire ship full of Al Bhed was a good idea.

"Indeed, and I'm certain you are weary and hungry," Rin said, switching smoothly to Spiran for the benefit of Zack, who was watching them converse with a blank look. "Why don't we all have dinner, and you can tell me the details? My treat."

"Uncommon generosity from you," Sephiroth noted, tilting his head.

Rin only smiled. "Call it an apology, for the treatment you have received from my kinsfolk."

"You already know," Zack accused him, startled. "How is that even possible?"

"Al Bhed secrets, my friend," Rin told him. "Not all of the forbidden machina we have salvaged are weapons. Come, we will speak more in private."

He led them to what had to be his own quarters, a small suite of rooms in the back of the inn. A quick word with the inn's kitchen won them each a bowl of steaming, hearty stew, and they settled themselves around the table. Cloud dove into his bowl with an enthusiasm he could hardly remember feeling before. He wasn't sure if it was really that good, or if it was just that he'd had nothing but trail rations since they'd left the previous travel agency.

Had it really only been one night since then? It felt like a week, with all that had happened.

"I don't suppose you know anything about what happened to the lightning towers," Zack said between mouthfuls of his own dinner.

"It seemed a wise precaution," Rin said, and this time his smile was ironic. "When we heard rumours that the Crusaders were gearing up for a retaliatory strike against the Al Bhed, we chose a... non-confrontational option to defend ourselves."

"So it has nothing to do with stopping summoners from reaching Zanarkand?" Cloud asked, not convinced.

Rin gave him an approving look, like a teacher with a particularly bright student. "It does serve multiple purposes," he admitted. "Though the truly determined will take ship and sail around the long way."

"Yeah, through Al Bhed controlled waters," Zack snorted.

"I did not say it would be easy," Rin chuckled. "I am curious how you three made it through the storm."

"The Al Bhed are not the only ones with secrets," Sephiroth said mildly. "But I will say that if we figured out the solution, it will most likely occur to other summoners as well. Whether or not they will be able to implement it is another story." He gave Cloud a wry look. "Our summoner does seem to be rather unique in his affinity with his aeons."

Cloud flushed, and dragged his spoon through the stew, creating swirling patterns. "At least it won't help the Crusaders get through, either way."

"Yeah, there's no way a big group of armoured people is going to get past that storm," Zack agreed. "Though if they send the Chocobo Knights, I think they could probably punch through with a small force."

"And a small force is all they would need to take this facility," Sephiroth warned. "I would advise you and the others to find a better place to go to ground, Rin. This won't be safe much longer. There was a Crusaders unit moving out from Guadosalam as we left."

Rin sighed, and his customary smile fell away. It left him looking much older and wearier. "And so it continues," he murmured. "I wonder if it will ever end, this enmity between our peoples. So much hatred, for so little reason. We are not so different from you."

"Well, I think having an Al Bhed high summoner will be a pretty big step in the right direction," Zack said, patting Cloud on the shoulder.

Rin smiled thinly, but there was sadness in his eyes as he looked at Cloud. "I would rather the price was not quite so high. Surely there are better things one so talented could be doing with his life other than throwing it away."

"I'm not throwing it away," Cloud said stubbornly, meeting his gaze squarely. "No more than any Crusader or Al Bhed who dies fighting Sin and the fiends to protect the people he cares about. And if my death will bring peace between the Spirans and Al Bhed as well as bringing the Calm, so much the better."

Rin inclined his head. "Sadly, I already know from many years of discussions with Lord Sephiroth that I will not change your mind. As I am not one of those who is determined to interfere in the pilgrimages 'for the good of the summoner', we shall simply have to agree to disagree."

Despite himself Cloud relaxed on hearing that. He'd been half afraid that Rin would concoct some way to trap them here. It wouldn't have been difficult - all he would need to do was drug their food, either now or in the morning. Though surely Sephiroth wouldn't have brought them here, if he'd thought that might be the case. It seemed like he and Rin knew each other quite well.

"For the moment, please enjoy your dinners and rest here for the night," Rin encouraged them. "I'm sure you will have a better outlook on everything after a good night's sleep. Feel free to purchase anything you need before you leave, though I believe I will be closing the shop in order to pack up otherwise."

"You're not even gonna give us a discount, are you?" Zack asked him, rolling his eyes. His tone was good-humoured, though. "Mercenary merchant."

Rin spread his hands and assumed a wounded expression. "My friend, business is my lifeblood. If I were to give away my wares, even in desperate circumstances, I would go under and would not be there to provide services to the next traveller in need."

"We picked up a decent amount of gil fighting the fiends before Eqeuh chased them off," Cloud put in hastily. "Enough to buy some potions and phoenix downs, at least. We'll manage until we make it to Macalania."

"I'm sure we'll see you again further down the road," Sephiroth added dryly. "In the meantime, a good night's rest will undoubtedly serve us well."

"Then please, enjoy what hospitality circumstances allow me to offer," Rin said, gracious as always. "I only regret it could not be under more pleasant circumstances."

After getting only a few hours of sleep the night before, and that on hard ground while soaking wet and injured, Cloud greeted the sight of a warm, soft bed with unbridled enthusiasm. He still hadn't properly recovered from his testing at the hands of D'jose's fayth, let alone from everything that had happened since then. He was soundly asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.

It seemed like only minutes passed before a loud crash jerked him back out of slumber. He flailed against the sheets tangled around him, trying to force his eyes open despite the way it felt like they had been glued shut. Surely it couldn't be morning already?

"Found another one," someone shouted, and rough hands grabbed him by the shoulders. "Get up, you."

"Wha..." Cloud finally managed to pry his eyes open, and found himself looking up at a complete stranger - a very angry stranger, in full Crusaders armour.

"Move," the man barked, and hauled him out of the bed before he even realized what was happening.

He was thrown face down on the floor, hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Stunned, he just lay there for a moment, trying to make his groggy mind work properly. What was going on? Where were Zack and Sephiroth?

The man yanked his arms back and wrapped a rough piece of rope around them several times, tying the knots painfully tight. "On your feet," he was ordered, and half lifted up even as he scrambled to try to get his feet beneath him.

He couldn't seem to catch his balance - he wasn't sure if the Crusader was deliberately pushing him to make him stumble, or if he was just frustrated with the slow pace Cloud was setting. "Filthy Al Bhed," the Crusader snarled, and pushed one more time, harder still, just as they reached the end of the hall.

Cloud staggered through the door that led to the main room, and immediately was assaulted by a wall of sound. People were shouting and cursing in Al Bhed and Spiran, children and even some adults were wailing, and over it all was the continuous rumble of thunder, louder than it should have been because the door to the outside was propped open. No - it had been torn off its hinges, he realized in horror. Everywhere he looked there was a Crusader with a weapon, the lamplight and occasional lightning flashes gleaming off their armour.

The Crusaders had managed to make it across the Thunder Plains after all.

Chapter Text

The Crusader who had charge of Cloud pushed him again, forcing him to his knees at the end of a line of other Al Bhed who'd been tied the same way he had. It was odd to see so many Al Bhed without their trademark clothes or the goggles they almost all wore. The girl next to him was about his age, and she was crying quietly, tears running over her cheeks and her hair mussed from sleep.

"Hey, let him go," Cloud heard a familiar voice protest from the other side of the room. "Don't you touch him!"

He looked up hopefully, and scanned the room until he found both his guardians. It looked like they'd been sitting at a table near the door, probably assuming that since nobody would be able to get past them to reach the room where Cloud was sleeping, it was safe enough to leave him alone for a little while. They weren't tied up, nor were the few other Spirans in the room, though they were clearly under guard.

Sephiroth appeared to be in a heated discussion with one of the Crusaders, while another had a firm hand on Zack's arm and the other hand on his sword hilt, keeping Zack in place. Zack didn't look the least bit happy about the situation, especially when he saw Cloud.

"Zack," Cloud called back. "I'm okay, it's..."

Something hard struck him in the side of the face, and he choked on the rest of what he'd intended to say. "No talking," another Crusader ordered. Dazed, feeling like the whole side of his face was on fire, Cloud didn't realize what had happened until he saw the man draw his sword back. He'd backhanded Cloud with the pommel.

"You son of a..." Zack was pulling at the hold on his arm now, uncaring of the weapons being turned in his direction, eyes blazing as he glared at the Crusader that had struck Cloud. "How dare you?"

"Zack," Sephiroth said sharply. "You are making the situation worse. Calm down." Despite his cautionary words, the look in his eyes was icy as he glanced at the guard. "Strike him again, and there will be consequences. There was no call for that."

"I'll tell you just one more time," the woman he'd been talking to said, her tone impatient. "I cannot permit any interference from civilians. If you will just stay quiet and out of the way, you will be free to go with the other Spirans as soon as we're done."

"Yeah, well you're getting a little overzealous there, captain," Zack retorted. "The guy your lieutenant just knocked the teeth out of is half Spiran, and he's with us."

She glanced back at Cloud, her gaze cool and disdainful as she looked him over. He hadn't worn the wetsuit to sleep in, of course, and that left him dressed in just the thin, close-fitting shorts that they'd given him to wear beneath it. "Looks like an Al Bhed to me," she said dismissively. "He can argue his case with the magistrates when we reach the detention area. My orders are clear."

"You still have not told us precisely what those orders are, captain," Sephiroth rumbled, his voice low and dangerous. "I assume they do not include permission to interfere with a summoner on pilgrimage?"

She looked shocked. "Of course not. That would be sacrilege. Your pardon, my lord," she bowed to him briefly. "I didn't realize you were a summoner. You're free to go immediately, then. However, I still cannot permit you to obstruct my men in performing their duties."

"Which are...?" Sephiroth prompted her again.

She drew herself up stiffly. "My orders are to round up all the Al Bhed in the area and bring them to a secure location. They're being held for questioning, and for their own protection." She shook her head. "There are nasty rumours spreading that the Al Bhed have been kidnapping and killing summoners, and Bevelle Temple is afraid there may be riots if we don't get them out of reach quickly. I suggest you take care on your journey; we haven't caught all of them yet."

'For their own protection'. It sounded good on the surface, but it left a sour taste in Cloud's mouth. Why the restraints and the brutality, if it was for their own good?

"I am a guardian," Sephiroth corrected her, eyes narrowed. "Our summoner is the man your lieutenant just struck. You will release him at once, or I will not speak for the consequences."

"A summoner?" She turned to look at him again, disbelieving and just a little uncertain. "Surely not... you can't expect me to believe that. He's Al Bhed, just look at his eyes!"

"Captain, wasn't there a message from headquarters about an Al Bhed imposter running around claiming to be a summoner?" one of the other Crusaders asked.

Cloud ground his teeth, ignoring the resulting increased throbbing in his jaw. He'd have argued the point, or better yet just called one of his aeons and rendered the whole thing moot, but the lieutenant was still standing over him and looked like he was just waiting for an excuse to strike him again. Cloud didn't want to risk being knocked unconscious.

Besides, Zack was doing it for him, ever ready to jump fiercely to Cloud's defence. "He's not an imposter. Why would anybody even be stupid enough to claim that? Let alone someone with Al Bhed blood, nobody would believe it if he couldn't prove it. Fuck, all you have to do is ask him to summon an aeon, and you'll know for sure."

"In point of fact, the notice wasn't about an imposter," she said, now giving Cloud a distinctly unfriendly look. "It was about an Al Bhed who had coerced the fayth and assaulted Lord Rufus."

Cloud felt his heart stop for a moment, and he groaned. Fayth, he'd known that was going to come back to bite him in the ass.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Zack swore, the words heartfelt. "That arrogant little prick. Nobody assaulted anybody, Rufus is blowing it out of proportion because he got his pride hurt!"

"Zack," Sephiroth said sharply. "You're not helping."

"So you are the ones he meant," the captain said, her unfriendly look transferring to Zack. "We tried to reply and request more information, but were only able to contact his guardians, who said he'd gone missing immediately after encountering you." Her face hardened. "By the authority of Bevelle temple, I am placing you under arrest on suspicion of assaulting a summoner. You will be taken back to Bevelle and tried."

"Yeah, like that'll be a fair trial," Zack muttered. He looked as sick as Cloud felt. "The word of the son of Maester Shinra against a half Al Bhed summoner, a disgraced former summoner, and a discharged Crusader."

"Lieutenant, get the rest of them up and moving, single file," the captain ordered, reaching for two more pieces of rope, presumably for Zack and Sephiroth. "I'll take personal charge of these three. We'll take them all across to Bevelle."

"You cannot mean to march us across the length of the Plains at night," Rin objected. Cloud looked for him, and found him kneeling in another line, looking mussed but holding on to his dignity despite that. "If the fiends do not kill us, the lightning will."

"You should have thought of that before you disabled the towers," the captain replied ruthlessly. "On your feet."

Someone cried out, probably prodded by a Crusader when they weren't moving fast enough, and Rin's mouth tightened. "If I offer to send someone ahead to repair the towers, escorted by your men, will you cease to use physical force on us?" he asked quietly. "We are not resisting you, they simply do not understand the orders your men are giving them. There is no call for violence."

"So you are the ones that sabotaged them," she said with grim satisfaction. "Between that and harbouring these wanted men, I'd say you've pretty much given me the proof I need that you're all part of the terrorist group."

The Crusaders had the first line of Al Bhed on their feet now, tied together in a long chain by the ropes around their wrists. They prodded the man at the head of the line to move toward the door, and the rest of the line followed slowly.

A little girl, perhaps all of ten years old, cried out and lunged abruptly against the restraints. "Sysy," she sobbed, straining to reach a woman who was part of another line. "Sysy, E's clynat..."

"Back in place," a Crusader snapped, and boxed her across the ears. Not as hard as the lieutenant had struck Cloud earlier, and without the butt of his weapon weighting the blow, but it was enough to make her scream and cringe back from him.

"Stop it," Cloud shouted, not caring if he was earning himself another strike. "Stop it, she just wants her mother! They're scared, they don't even understand what you're saying." Sure enough the lieutenant swatted at him again, but Cloud was ready for it and he ducked beneath the strike, hearing the sword whistle through the air above his head. The man had been aiming to hit with the flat of his blade, this time - hard enough to knock him flat, from the sound of it.

"All right, that's it," Zack snarled, and there was a startled shout of pain from his side of the room. Cloud assumed it had come from the Crusader who'd been holding him.

The Al Bhed were crying out to each other and panicking again, some trying to fight the restraints and others just trying to hide from the wrath of the Crusaders. Cloud was struggling to remember what Sephiroth had told him about the consequences of summoning in anger, and the only reason he was able to hold his temper at all was the memory of the first time Eqeuh had appeared. If he summoned now, he didn't think he'd be able to control the contrary aeon, and he might well end up hurting or even killing the Al Bhed he was trying to protect.

"Netzach," Sephiroth snapped, thrusting one fist into the air before the captain could restrain him.

There was a roar from outside, and the ground shook beneath their feet as something landed heavily in front of the travel agency. Cloud couldn't see anything through the open doorway, but he could hear the shouts and even screams from the Crusaders outside, along with the high-pitched warking of panicked chocobos.

Wood and plaster groaned, reminding Cloud sickeningly of the sound the ship had made just before the mast had fallen. Dust and grit showered down all through the room, and then the ceiling was suddenly lifted away, exposing them all to the pounding rain. Looming over them was a massive creature with gleaming black and gold scales, and giant wings that looked like they were made of metal feathers. A wheel spun on its back, and the ground shook again as it roared.

Nearly all of the Crusaders made the bow of respect, many of them dropping to their knees in the process. The Al Bhed one and all cowered beneath whatever scant cover they could find. Awed, Cloud rose slowly to his feet and looked up into the eyes of the dragon. "Is that Bevelle's aeon?" he asked softly. He could feel the raw power the aeon radiated, even from this distance. How could anyone contain that?

"Bahamut, the oldest and most powerful of all the temple aeons," Zack confirmed. He bowed as well, and nudged the captain who had been standing beside him, staring with her mouth open.

Hastily the captain bowed, then turned to look at Sephiroth with wide eyes. "You said you weren't a summoner," she said, almost accusing.

"I said I was a guardian, and I am," Sephiroth replied. "There is no rule that says a former summoner cannot be guardian to a new one. That I have given up my pilgrimage does not mean I have relinquished my aeons."

Now that things were a little calmer and his temper wasn't quite so uncertain, Cloud felt more confident in his own ability to summon without it ending in bloody destruction. "Eqeuh," he called, more so the Crusaders would know he was the one who had summoned it than out of any need to speak aloud. He heard an answering neigh high in the clouds. A moment later the huge unicorn trotted down through the sky, tossing his head and sparking more lightning wherever his hooves rested. Beside the giant Netzach he looked much smaller, but still threatening.

Without any orders from Cloud, he trotted over to his summoner's side and lowered his horn. With careful precision he sliced through the ropes binding Cloud, setting his hands free. Wincing at the painful feeling of pins and needles as circulation returned, Cloud rubbed his hand and looked straight at the captain. "Let them go," he said. "All of them, let them go, and take your Crusaders somewhere far away from here. None of these people are involved with kidnapping the summoners. The only thing you're accomplishing by taking them prisoner is making certain the Spirans and the Al Bhed will never make peace!"

"I suggest you do as he says," Sephiroth said mildly, and Netzach's rumbling agreement echoed even over the thunder. "And perhaps you might like to reconsider the wisdom of following orders that might well result in the first outright war Spira has seen since the conception of Sin. At the very least, you ought to make certain you are attacking the correct people next time, and not just rounding up anyone who might have been involved."

"You can't be everywhere," she told them, seeming resigned more than angry. "And they'll catch you sooner or later. At the temples if nowhere else, unless you're planning to abandon your journey."

"No," Cloud shook his head stubbornly. "I'm going all the way to Zanarkand. I'll prove that an Al Bhed can do it, and maybe that will be enough to make people come to their senses. I won't let anything stop me."

"And neither will we," Zack agreed. Showing no sign of fear of the aeon that had tried to kill him less than a day before, he walked over and slung his arm around Cloud's neck, hefting his sword to rest in implied threat on his shoulder. "Let anything stop him, that is. So maybe you'd better warn your Crusader buddies not to make the attempt, because we'd rather not hurt anyone."

"Ask yourself this," Sephiroth said. "Why would the aeons serve two of us, if we were not on the path they wished us to take? Now go, before one or both of us lose our temper."

The threat made Cloud look at him, surprised, but it was hard to read past Sephiroth's closed expression. Was it a bluff? He'd never seen Sephiroth even come close to losing his temper, and Sephiroth was the one who'd lectured him about summoning in anger.

Then again, Sephiroth seemed uncommonly close to the Al Bhed, and Cloud already knew he hated to see anyone being bullied. That was how Cloud had met him, after all. Even he must have limits to his control.

"We'll go," the captain confirmed, turning to gesture for her men to release the Al Bhed. "Call off your aeons, please. They're going to stampede the chocobos in another minute."

Sephiroth gave Cloud a significant look. "Netzach," he murmured, and the massive dragon reared up on his hind legs and roared once more before vanishing into pyreflies.

"Eqeuh is staying," Cloud said, hoping he'd understood the meaning of that glance. He was reassured when Sephiroth nodded slightly. Probably Sephiroth wouldn't have been able to keep Netzach with him much longer, since they were no longer in danger, but it was better for it to seem otherwise.

Eqeuh snorted over his head and pawed the floor, striking more sparks. Having him there certainly seemed to encourage the Crusaders to pack up and leave quickly. Cloud followed them outside just to make sure they weren't trying to take anyone with them, and Eqeuh leaped over the wall to stay with him, unable to fit through the door.

The captain was now seated on a very nervous chocobo. It eyed Eqeuh and seemed to be considering bolting, but she controlled it with a firm hand. "Having resisted arrest and turned your aeons on my men here is not going to look good for you when you do come to trial," she told him, her chin still held high despite the fact that she was retreating. "It only reinforces Lord Rufus' claims that you are a rogue summoner."

"I'll deal with that when I come to it," Cloud said. "If it comes to it. Now, go."

She wheeled her bird around and spurred it into a run, and the rest of her squad followed close behind her. Eqeuh stamped the ground and whinnied, a challenging noise that made several of the birds wark and run faster, breaking formation. The aeon gave his laughing neigh and shook his head.

Cool energy flowed over Cloud's face, and he felt a little dizzy with relief as the throbbing ache in his jaw and cheek faded. He looked up to see Sephiroth standing next to him, frowning. "Brutes," the older man said, his tone scathing. "The bone was cracked. There was absolutely no call for such violence."

"They will be back," Rin said grimly, coming up beside them. The older Al Bhed was staring after the Crusaders, rubbing the marks where his wrists had been bound. "With reinforcements, and they will be angry. I did not take your warning about how fast they might move seriously enough," he added, inclining his head to Zack.

"Yeah, well, I didn't expect them to just attack without warning while most of us were sleeping, so we're even," Zack replied wryly. "Cloud, I'm sorry, I couldn't stop that asshole from going to search the rest of the inn. If we'd started fighting, they'd have killed the Al Bhed."

"It's okay," Cloud assured him. "Really, it is. They didn't hurt me, just scared the crap out of me." He yawned hard enough to crack his newly-healed jaw, and rubbed at his burning eyes. "Eqeuh, you can probably go, now. Thank you."

Snorting softly, Eqeuh nuzzled him nearly hard enough to knock him over, then vanished. "Does anyone else need healing?" Cloud asked Rin, worried. He wasn't the only one those Crusaders had been striking.

"Save your energy, my friends," Rin told them, though he nodded his thanks for the offer. "We can use the travel sphere to heal and give us the strength to make the journey. I think we will not be waiting for morning to leave, after all. If there is anything you would like to purchase, I suggest you do so now." He managed a thin smile. "At my usual rates, of course."

"Pff, even now he doesn't give us a discount," Zack said, shaking his head with mock disbelief. "Unbelievable."

Rin raised an eyebrow at him. "By all rights, I should be charging you for the repair of the roof," he pointed out with grim amusement. "Consider yourselves lucky."

"How are you going to get across the Plains in the middle of the night, with the towers broken?" Cloud wanted to know.

"I've already sent men ahead to repair them," Rin said. "And despite what I said earlier, the fiends will usually not attack such a large group. You are free to travel with us, of course, at least to the edge of the Thunder Plains."

"I think we'd better get moving sooner rather than later," Cloud said, thinking about how long it would take all these people to organize themselves, heal, and pack everything they wanted to take. "We won't be moving fast enough to run into those Crusaders, unless they stop at the edge of the Plains and wait for us. I want to get to Macalania temple before the rumours spread any further, if I can. I'd rather avoid a fight."

"Knowing how the Crusaders work, I don't think they'll lie in wait for us," Zack said, sheathing his sword. "They'll head to a base camp to make a report, then wait for orders. We should have enough time to squeak through, though I don't know what kind of reception might be waiting for us at Lake Macalania. The temples have their own guards, they don't just rely on the Crusaders, and they'll probably have been given that same notice from Rufus."

"Then by all means, do not wait on us," Rin said. He bowed formally, first to Cloud and then to Sephiroth. "Good journey, my friends. I hope it will be less eventful in the future than it has been until now."

"You and me both," Cloud said fervently.

Macalania Wood was just as beautiful as Cloud had remembered, and it was a relief to finally be out of the rain. They climbed one of the winding paths formed by the branches of the giant trees, and found a little niche where they could tuck themselves away to sleep for a few hours. Much as Cloud would have liked to keep going, they badly needed the rest. He tried not to mourn the loss of that nice, comfortable bed he'd enjoyed so briefly in the travel agency.

They were all stiff and still weary as they trudged up the path towards Lake Macalania. At least the air was fresh and invigorating, with a breeze that was just cool enough to counteract the heat of the sun peeking through the trees. It was hard for Cloud to believe that just a few days ago, he'd been sweltering in the smothering heat of the islands.

"Man it's freezing," Zack complained, shivering. He was still dressed in his islander clothes, the shorts and sleeveless shirt doing nothing to protect him from the chill. Cloud could see the goosebumps standing up over all of his exposed skin.

He couldn't resist teasing his guardian a little. "Are you kidding me? This is gorgeous. When it gets this warm, Calm Landers finally strip off the last of their jacket layers. Wait until we hit the snow, then it will be a little chilly."

Zack gave him a horrified look. "This feels warm to you? That wetsuit hardly covers any more than I'm wearing, and you're used to a lot more clothes."

Cloud grinned. "I did warn you, back when you were teasing me about the heat," he reminded the older man. "This is the height of summer, in the Calm Lands."

"Perhaps not quite," Sephiroth murmured with a smile of his own. "Early autumn, more like. I can smell the snow from here, we must be nearing the boundaries of the lake."

"Maybe it would be fall in the valley, but this is summer where I'm from," Cloud retorted. "It's colder up in the mountains." Sephiroth inclined his head, acknowledging the point.

"I'm glad it's not winter, then," Zack said, shivering again and rubbing his arms. "How can you smell snow? It's freshwater, not salt, isn't it?"

"Can't you smell it?" Cloud asked, surprised. He inhaled deeply, and the familiar stringent scent teased at his nose. "Seph's right, we must be getting close."

Closer than he had realized - they turned a corner, and found themselves at the end of the forest path, facing a large open valley. In the distance at the centre of the valley was the temple, the cool blue stone of the spire giving the illusion that it had been carved out of the ice. The whole area was blanketed in snow, almost right up to where they stood, though he could see it was thinner here. The sun still shone down with the bright warmth of summer, but it seemed to have no effect on the chill of the valley.

"Where's the lake?" Zack asked, looking around in confusion. "I thought it was near the temple. Is it on the other side?"

"That is the lake," Cloud told him, laughing. "The temple was built right in the middle of it. Even I know that."

"Macalania's fayth prefers the cold of winter, and has the power to ensure the waters never melt, even in the hottest summer," Sephiroth confirmed. "The ice is meters thick, and there are vast caverns below it. Many believe there are ruins down there as impressive as those hidden beneath the waters of the Moonflow, one of the lost cities of Spira."

"Unbelievable," Zack said, shaking his head. "What a horrible thing to do to perfectly good water. I'm so happy I live in the tropics."

It took them another hour to reach the temple, Zack's teeth chattering the whole way. He didn't complain, though, which impressed Cloud. Then again, he'd just crossed through the Thunder Plains despite being afraid of lightning, so maybe a little cold didn't seem all that bad as an alternative. Cloud made a mental note to be certain they purchased warm clothing and lots of blankets before they tackled Mount Gagazet. The ice and snow there was deadly cold even to a Calm Lander, and Zack would freeze before he'd gone three steps.

A little to his surprise, there were no signs of temple guards as they descended the icy steps to the entrance. Even more to his surprise, the door was hanging askew on its hinges, and showed signs of having been scorched recently. "Oh, that can't be good," he said, his heart sinking as he noted the distinctive pockmarks left behind by bullets from a gun.

Zack and Sephiroth traded grim looks, and Zack drew his sword as Sephiroth readied a spell. With Cloud between them, they cautiously went down the last few stairs and peered through the broken doorway.

Inside the air was smoky and there were more scorch marks on the stone. Dead and wounded priests and temple guards were everywhere - and here and there among the bodies were a few dressed in Al Bhed gear.

"Shit," Zack swore, eyes narrowed. "What were they thinking? How could they attack a temple?"

"Perhaps in retaliation for the way innocent Al Bhed are being herded off to a concentration camp," Sephiroth pointed out darkly. "Or perhaps it is just part of their mad quest to stop the summoners. Either way, this will not bode well for the treatment of those innocents being detained."

"This is ridiculous, it's getting completely out of control," Cloud groaned. "It's been less than two days!"

"There were probably already summoners going missing on their way to Besaid, before we ever encountered trouble," Zack pointed out unhappily. "And then there was that storm, and the rumours that the Al Bhed deliberately didn't warn us it was coming. Not to mention that disaster a few years ago, where the Al Bhed convinced the Crusaders to try their weapons and just about everybody died. Honestly, this has been brewing for a long, long time."

"My lord summoner," one of the priests said, approaching them and bowing. "Please, forgive us. As you can see, we are..." He caught sight of Cloud and stopped, his expression turning ugly.

"Don't," Cloud said wearily. "Please. We don't want to fight, or hurt anyone. I just want to take the Trial."

"If you allow us to proceed without difficulty, I will remain behind and help to heal everyone," Sephiroth added. "That is, with your permission?" He glanced at Cloud.

"Yes, of course," Cloud said gratefully. As little as he liked the priests of Yevon at the moment, he wouldn't wish this kind of suffering on anyone. And he knew Sephiroth would heal everyone, including any injured Al Bhed, where the priests might ignore them or even finish them off.

The priest glanced around, as if assessing his chances of driving them off if he did protest. There were only three of them and a great many priests and guards, but very few of the latter were able to stand, let alone fight. Even the priest talking to them was injured, the sleeve of his robe bloody.

"Very well," he said stiffly, apparently bowing to the inevitable. "You know the way." He gestured at the stairway leading up to the Trial door.

"Wanna lay odds on there being a full squad of Crusaders or fresh temple guards waiting by the time we come out?" Zack asked under his breath, sighing.

"Having me remain out here serves another purpose," Sephiroth pointed out, just as quietly. "I can keep watch for trouble. Guard him well, Zack. We already know the priests are not above sabotaging their own Trial."

Zack nodded, and Sephiroth turned away to help heal the worst of the wounded. With Zack solidly at his back, Cloud made his way up the steps and entered the Trial.

The Trial room seemed to have been carved of solid ice, which shouldn't have surprised him. Zack grumbled quietly, and slipped several times before he got the hang of the gliding walk needed to cross the icy surface. Thankfully the puzzle wasn't too difficult, and the room with the door to the Chamber of the Fayth was free of even a hint of ice and snow.

"Huh. I would've figured this would be the worst part," Zack commented, sighing with relief as they entered the marginally warmer room.

"Well, Seph did say that some summoners pray for a day or more," Cloud pointed out. "I suppose the fayth doesn't want the guardians getting frostbite."

"You ready?" Zack asked, clasping his shoulder.

Cloud tried not to imagine what this fayth might put him through. "As ready as I'll ever be. And Zack... thanks. I don't say it often enough."

Zack smiled, but swatted him lightly across the back of his head. "You don't thank your friends for being friends, stupid. Go on, get going."

You did if you were a half-breed outcast who'd never had a friend before, Cloud thought to himself, but he didn't say it. Gathering his courage, he stepped up to the door and waited for it to open.

Inside the air was cooler again, but still not frozen. The hymn ringing in his ears was beautiful, a rich woman's voice that carried even the highest notes sweetly. To his surprise, the fayth was already waiting for him, hovering over the statue in the centre of the tiny chamber.

She was dressed like a Calm Lander, in layers and layers of robes. Perhaps that was why she kept things so cold around her, so she wouldn't stifle in the heat, Cloud thought in amusement. She might have been a priestess; her robes looked a bit like those of the priests outside. But her expression was warm, and she had a hand outstretched to him in welcome.

"You have come so far, and seen such pain, child of two peoples," she said, her speaking voice just as beautiful as the singing that still continued. "Come, and rest for a moment with me. I will shelter you, and ease your cares."

He blinked, startled by the seemingly easy offer. "Um. Aren't you going to test me or something, first?" he asked cautiously.

Her smile turned sad. "So jaded and suspicious. I cannot blame you. My brethren have hurt you so badly."

Cloud bit his lip on a protest. They had hurt him, but he still believed it had been for his own good, somehow. Certainly it hadn't been out of any kind of malice. Even now he could feel Jymavun's love and Evned's respect, and the lesson of control Eqeuh had taught him would stay with him forever. Still, he didn't want to argue with her.

"Come, and sit at my feet," she coaxed him. "Let me cool the fires of your suffering."

There didn't seem to be any reason to continue hesitating. Her body was insubstantial, but he curled up against the crystal mound that protected her statue. She sank down to sit beside him, and he felt the ghostly touch of her hands threading through his hair. She petted him like a cat, short soothing strokes that made him feel cherished.

"Forget the cares of your journey," she said, her voice a soft lilt that blended with the hymn. "Forget the ugliness of anger and hatred and prejudice. Forget the battles and the bloodshed."

Despite himself, Cloud was growing drowsy. He was still exhausted after days of deprivation and fighting, drained despite the brief rests and the healing of the travel spheres. Other summoners took hours or even days in the chamber; was this why? Because the fayth soothed them and eased their cares, instead of testing them and pushing them far past their limits?

Surely it wouldn't hurt anything if he didn't emerge from the chamber in record time, for once.

"Yes, that's it," she crooned, her voice reminding him of the way his mother had sounded, when she'd rocked him to sleep as a little boy. "Let the ice numb the hurts. Let me take it all away."

Something was burning in his chest, a fiery sensation distinctly at odds with the cool touch of her hands. He tried to shift to get more comfortable, and was surprised to find it was difficult to move. A strange crackling noise reached his ears.

With an effort he opened his eyes again, and tried to lift his hand. It resisted, then seemed to break free of whatever was restraining him with another crackling sound. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing.

Tiny ice crystals traced over his hand, the skin beneath white and waxy-looking. He could hardly feel anything, he realized, and he couldn't move his fingers at all. Looking down, he saw more ice crystals creeping over his body, growing over the slick surface of his wetsuit, tinkling softly with each breath he took.

Too late, he remembered why you weren't ever supposed to fall asleep in the snow, and saw the trap for what it was.

Chapter Text

Cloud's breath misted in front of his face as he flailed, obscuring his view and forming tiny ice crystals on his eyelashes. "Why do you struggle so?" the fayth asked him. He'd half expected her to become angry, but her expression held only concern. As if he was a child fighting against taking the medicine that would cure him from a deadly illness. "Does it pain you? I can take that too, if you like."

Just that fast Cloud's body went completely numb. He could no longer feel the weight of the ice or the burn of cold air in his lungs. The only reason he knew he was still breathing at all was the vapour puffs in the air. Those were rapidly diminishing, a sign that his body temperature was dropping to match the ambient cold. If he didn't get out now, it would be too late. He'd nearly frozen to death once before, and though the fayth was making it a far less painful experience this time, he wasn't enjoying it any more the second go around.

He fought against the weariness that tried to drag him into deadly lethargy. The ice that coated him cracked and refroze and cracked again as he struggled to move his limbs. If he didn't start moving, didn't get warm blood flowing in his body again, he would be dead in minutes.

"Why do you resist?" the fayth asked him sadly. "This is your fate. I am only trying to make it as painless as possible. We owe you that much, for all you have done for us."

"I'm not done yet," Cloud grated out through lips that didn't want to move. "I can't die here."

"You kept your promise," she said, stroking her fingers over the frozen strands of his hair. "You've done everything you can. It's not your fault that the unrest in the world has created impossible odds against you. We do not blame you for the actions of the Al Bhed and the Spirans. You cannot win; you will only cause more strife and discord." She sighed. "It is not yet time for us to be free. They will kill you, or worse, if you persist. Let me take your burdens from you now, quickly and as painlessly as possible. Sleep, child of two worlds. I will watch over you."

Her words were seductive, calling out to the part of him that wailed that it was all hopeless, that he was struggling for nothing and would only make everything worse. Everything Rufus and the Crusaders had said came back to haunt him. Every taunt and jeer he'd suffered from the Spirans in Nibelheim before he'd learned to shut up about his dream ran through his mind. The Al Bhed hated him, the Spirans reviled him. Why was he still doing this?

Why was he fighting?

To keep a promise made to the fayth who had saved his life... but this fayth was telling him that they were releasing him from that promise, and his aeons weren't making any objections.

To prove to the people of Nibelheim that he was worth something... but they would react the same way every other Spiran had, calling him a heretic and saying he was coercing the fayth.

To make the Spirans realize that the Al Bhed were not the enemy... but his very existence had led to the beginning of a war between the two races.

To live up to Zack and Sephiroth's belief in him...

And there his mind stuck, because his guardians did believe in him, and they would never stop doing so. Giving up now would be throwing their belief back in their faces, would be rejecting all the help and support and yes, even friendship they had offered him.

"No," he insisted, struggling harder. "I don't care if it's doomed. I don't care if I suffer more in the end. I can't give up now. I can't!"

"Even if it means they will suffer more along with you?" she asked, as if she could read his mind. "Even if it means they will die, or worse?"

"I will find a way to protect them," Cloud growled. "So what if it's impossible? It's impossible for an Al Bhed to be a Summoner, too, but here I am. I'll break all the rules if I have to. I will do it, I will show everyone that I can do it, and I'll do it without sacrificing anyone!"

To his astonishment she started to laugh, a silvery sound like the wind through the icicles. "Such spirit. I honestly did not think you had it in you. Very well, then. With that much determination, it should not be all that difficult for you to escape my trap." Her eyes glittered at him with mischief and an edge of challenge.

Then she vanished, leaving him alone in the freezing stone room. Freezing, because the cold didn't vanish with her. Groaning, Cloud braced his feet against the floor and heaved his body, trying to break the ice that encased him.

It was unbelievable how thick it had already grown in just the few moments he'd been wrestling with his motivation. He couldn't budge it, couldn't move his limbs even a fraction of an inch, his muscles bunching and releasing in vain.

Panic was as lethal an enemy as the cold itself, he reminded himself grimly. He needed to think, to use his brain while it was still working. There had to be a way out, he was certain the fayth wouldn't have challenged him to find it if it didn't exist.

When realization finally struck him, he would have kicked himself if he could have. The elemental opposite to ice was fire. He had fire at his disposal, and for once the thought of using it didn't make his panic worse.

Reaching deep inside himself, he found the blazing spot near his heart where Evned lived. The aeon came roaring up inside him, and Cloud could sense his eagerness to get back at the queen of ice for the way she'd quenched the flames in his temple. It was all Cloud could do to hold him back, sharply reminding the aeon that he could not survive in the middle of a fireball, however quickly it might melt the ice.

Heat raced through his body, sweeping over him like an impossibly fast fever. It burned especially in the extremities of his limbs, where he was no doubt already suffering frost bite. Immediately he felt trickles of water running over his exposed skin, and it was almost unbearably warm.

Finally the distinctive sharp crack of breaking ice echoed in the room. He'd never thought he would be grateful to hear that noise, but this time he wasn't worried about falling through it into a half-frozen lake. Heaving again, this time he managed to breach the icy shell that threatened to become his tomb. Once he could move his arms he clawed at it, scrabbling over the smooth stone beyond for a handhold to pull himself free.

In a surprisingly short amount of time he found himself lying in a steaming puddle of water. As the puddle spread over the stone he could already see the edges starting to re-freeze, and he took that as a warning, forcing himself to his hands and knees and crawling away from the glyph that held the fayth.

The heat under his skin thankfully kept his soaking wetsuit from freezing again. His hands and feet still felt like numb blocks and would probably need healing, but considering the state he'd been left in at the Kilika temple, he counted himself pretty damned lucky.

When he reached the door he stretched out a shaking hand to touch it, and looked inside himself. Had he passed her test? Would she grant him her aeon, and release from the room?

Nestled beside Jymavun's gentle energy – as far from the heat of Evned and crackle of Eqeuh as it could be – he found a spot of frozen cold, hard as a diamond. "Crejy," he whispered through cracked and bleeding lips, and the door slid open.

Immediately hands grabbed at his arms, and he heard Zack's voice. "Well, you're moving under your own power, I suppose that's a plus. I take it from the look of agony on your face it's not going to be attacking me to make you prove yourself?" The older man was trying to make it into a joke, but when Cloud looked up at him, he could see the concern in his guardian's eyes. Worry for him, not for Zack's own well-being, despite the fact that Zack had nearly died last time.

"No, I already passed this one," Cloud croaked, letting Zack help him to his feet. "And hey, I'm only about a quarter dead, so that's a huge improvement over Kilika."

"Yeah, let's get you to Seph anyway... holy shit, Cloud, you're burning up!" Zack interrupted himself, eyes wide.

"It's Evned, not a fever," Cloud assured him hastily. "She tried to freeze me to death, I had to fight back. I think it would be better to keep the heat up until we get back to Seph."

"Well, I'm not gonna complain about having a living heater while we walk through the ice again," Zack said with his customary cheer as he slung Cloud's arm over his shoulder. If it was at all forced, Cloud couldn't detect it. "Four down, one to go! We're nearly there."

"The hardest part is still coming," Cloud reminded him, even as he clung to Zack more for the emotional support than the physical. This was the reason he was still fighting. No matter what happened, he couldn't let himself forget that.

"Nah, you already did the hardest part when you got to Besaid on your own," Zack said. "Now you've got help, so by definition it has to be easier. Right?"

"There's... something flawed in your logic," Cloud muttered, but his head was spinning with both cold and fever at once, and it was still far too difficult to think.

"I'll tell you what isn't easier, though," Zack said, sighing as they entered the Trial again. "Going through the damned Trial a second time, backwards, with a half-dead summoner hanging off you. Why do they make us do this? We've already been through it once to prove ourselves. This is just sadistic, is what it is."

"The fayth don't get much entertainment, I suppose," Cloud said, stumbling and sliding on the icy surface. "It would be cruel to deny them... ow!" he exclaimed as they both slipped and went down, and he bit his tongue.

It wasn't the last time they landed flat on their asses. Cloud's balance was off, and Zack had never learned the trick of walking over ice and snow. By the time they got out, they were both thoroughly bruised and winded, and the heat inside Cloud was threatening to scorch him alive. He was nervous that he might suffer real damage if he didn't release Evned soon - wasn't it possible for a bad fever to cook the patient's brain until there was nothing left but a vegetable? But cold could do just as much damage in its own way, and if frostbite actually killed his fingers and toes, a healer would be able to do nothing but remove the dead flesh in order to preserve what was left.

An acolyte in the main room of the temple reluctantly directed them to one of the back rooms when Zack asked where their third party member was. It didn't escape Cloud that though the man's robe was bloody, he was moving with no pain. Presumably Sephiroth had healed him. And still he was reluctant to help them?

"Seph!" Zack called the moment the former summoner was in sight. Sephiroth was kneeling at the side of a bed, and the room was stuffed full of wounded people. It seemed he'd demanded they be brought to him, probably so he wouldn't have to go too far from Cloud. "Come and heal him, will you? He's freezing and burning up at the same time."

"I'd say 'impressive' if I hadn't half expected something of the sort," Sephiroth said wryly as he moved to meet them, hands already outstretched and filled with healing magic. Cloud gasped as the spell settled over him and feeling returned to his damaged extremities. Gratefully he released Evned's heat, and by the time the spell was finished he was left feeling almost normal again.

Almost. Frowning, he pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and it still hurt where he'd bitten it. He could feel the bruises and aches from falling on the ice, too. "Are you that exhausted, or are you holding back to deal with the rest of the wounded?" he asked, concerned. If Sephiroth had drained his magic to nothing again, they would need to rest before continuing, and Cloud was fairly certain they didn't have the time. There didn't seem to be a restoration point in the temple, or if there was the priests hadn't bothered pointing it out to them.

"The latter," Sephiroth assured him. "Forgive me, I've been healing people just enough for them to be able to heal the rest of the way on their own with no difficulties, I suppose I automatically did the same with you. I can heal you completely..."

He reached out again, but Cloud shook his head and pushed his hands away. "No, you did the right thing. Bruises aren't going to make any difference to me right now, and it looks like there's a lot of people who need help." Glancing around again, he saw that all of the people in the room were blond. Well, that explained why they'd been gathered together like this - it wasn't for Sephiroth's convenience, it was so the priests could stand guard on the Al Bhed. He supposed he should be grateful they'd allowed Sephiroth to heal them at all, he thought bitterly.

"Cloud, you've learned the second level white magic now, haven't you?" Sephiroth asked him, and Cloud nodded. "If you're not too exhausted from your Trial, why don't you take over healing the less injured? We can do more that way - and it will be good for the priests to see you helping Spirans, just as it is good for the Al Bhed to see a Spiran helping them. Zack, stay with him."

For just a moment, Cloud wanted to object, to ask Sephiroth to let him heal the Al Bhed instead. He was still so angry at the priests, at the Spirans in general, for what they were doing to the Al Bhed. When he met Sephiroth's eyes, though, the older man simply looked back at him levelly, and Cloud finally hung his head in shame. Sephiroth was right. If they wanted this disaster between the races to ever end, he had to put his prejudices aside just as much as anyone else.

He wasn't sure if the priests outside were more scandalized or horrified when he went out and asked to be taken to the rest of the wounded. There was a whispered conference between three of them as Cloud shifted impatiently from foot to foot, and Zack grumbled under his breath. In the end sense seemed to prevail, because an acolyte led the two of them to a different back room.

This one was larger, and even more packed with bodies. Of course, Cloud realized, feeling a little sick. The Al Bhed would have taken as many of their injured with them as they could. Only the dying would be left behind, because they wouldn't want anyone to be captured. No wonder Sephiroth had insisted on starting with the Al Bhed.

The priests were less injured, probably because their own healers had already tended the worst of the wounds. Cloud tried to push up his sleeves automatically, but the skin-tight wetsuit wouldn't go anywhere. Shrugging, he moved in and reached out to the first person he came to, hands already glowing with energy. If his suit got bloody, he supposed it would be easy enough to wash it.

Soon enough the parade of injuries became a blur in his mind, as he healed one person after another. He tried to keep in mind what Sephiroth was doing, healing only the worst parts and leaving bruises and minor cuts to heal on their own, but it was hard. He didn't have Sephiroth's experience, and the magic just wanted to keep pouring out of him until there was nothing left for it to fix. Zack helped, pulling him away and steering him to the next person long before Cloud would have been able to back off.

He wasn't sure how many he'd healed, his head swimming with exhaustion and the after-effects of his Trial, when Zack blocked him from moving to the next one. "Zack?" Cloud mumbled, trying not to sway on his feet as he looked up at his guardian, who was frowning back at him in concern. "What is it?"

"Well, first of all, you're pretty much done in and I don't think you should try to heal anymore until we find a restore point or you can sleep to get your energy back," Zack said firmly.

"Yes... you shouldn't have pushed yourself so hard," Sephiroth's deep voice spoke from behind unexpectedly, and Cloud jumped. When he turned he found his other guardian in the doorway, accompanied by a young woman in acolyte's clothes. "I didn't mean for you to exhaust yourself."

"He's still a new healer, Seph, you know how they are," Zack said. "I've had to pull him away from everyone to stop him from draining himself until they're perfect."

To Cloud's astonishment, Sephiroth blushed, ever so faintly. "Yes, of course. Forgive me," he said. "It's been so long since my early days, and you have such control over your aeons, sometimes I forget that you're still nowhere near properly trained. However, we have another problem."

"The Crusaders are gathering on the lake outside the temple," the acolyte spoke for the first time. Her voice was soft, and she wouldn't meet Cloud's eyes, his gaze locked firmly on the floor. "The Maester ordered everyone to stay silent and let you leave; he said he didn't want any more conflict in the temple, but the Crusaders were welcome to you once you were off sacred ground."

Her eyes flicked up briefly to Cloud's, then down again miserably as she made the Bow to Cloud. "Lord Cloud, Lord Sephiroth, Sir Zack, please, forgive them. They are frightened, not thinking straight. People are afraid of change, of anything that is different. When I saw you working so hard to heal the injured, I knew that the stories about you couldn't be true. You are a true Summoner, Lord Cloud."

Startled, Cloud realized that it was shame that kept her from meeting his gaze, not a reluctance to look at his Al Bhed eyes. She made him feel bad for his earlier reluctance to heal the priests, and he hunched his shoulders and mumbled something she would hopefully take as thanks as he returned the Bow.

"If you will trust me, I know another way out of the temple," she said as he straightened. "There's another door near the Chamber of the Fayth, that leads outside. Only the priests know of it, of course. It was meant as an escape route in case something happened, the ice caved in or the path to the surface was otherwise blocked. They can't stop you from going back to the Trial, and once inside the Crusaders can't follow you. They'll have no reason to suspect that you know about the exit, so they won't be guarding the other end of the path."

"But how can we go down?" Zack protested, clearly baffled. "The Chamber of the Fayth must be way below the surface of the lake, we'd come out under water."

"Presumably not, since an emergency exit would not be of much value if everyone using it inevitably drowned," Sephiroth said. "Standing about discussing it will not get us anywhere. The sooner we begin, the sooner we will get through the Trial. Come. And thank you, Shelinda."

She bowed again. "It is my great honour to assist a Summoner in any way possible," she said humbly. "Please, accept it as a token that not all Spirans are against you, Lord Cloud."

Before Cloud could come up with something halfway intelligent to say in reply to that, she'd slipped out of the room. Through the door he heard her calling to the acolytes outside, saying something about needing more bandages and healing salve, drawing them away from the main room. After a moment Sephiroth nodded and opened the door, and the three of them hurried through the empty main room and back up to the Trial entrance.

For a third time Cloud and Zack made their way back through the Trial. At least it got easier every time, as they remembered the mistakes they'd made before. Zack was shivering again by the time they reached the heated room outside the Chamber, but otherwise they had no problems.

Once they made it that far, it wasn't difficult to find the smaller, undecorated door that was tucked off in one corner. On the other side was a short icy tunnel, and then...


Or, almost nothing. The tunnel turned a corner and suddenly the walls and ceiling were gone, leaving only a narrow path of ice that wound its way back up around the outside of the temple. All around them was nothing, a vast empty space with just a few massive ice pillars stretching up here and there in the distance.

Inching forward, Cloud looked up and saw the solid-looking roof of ice, far above them. Looking down showed him a relatively short drop to what looked like shallow water over stone beneath... and ruins.

Like the ruins buried beneath the waters of the Moonflow, they were clearly from the ancient days of Spira, when great cities had covered the planet. Most of these were so encased in ice they were almost unrecognizable as buildings. With a sense of awe, he wondered how many of those 'ice pillars' actually had stone towers at their hearts that had once housed people inside them.

"What... what is this place?" Zack asked, awe clear in his expression as he stared all around.

"One of the Lost Great Cities, from the looks of it," Sephiroth said, and even his voice was a little unsteady. "How much knowledge is lost in this tomb of ice? Nobody even knows for certain it exists."

"The priests do," Cloud pointed out quietly. He didn't think he'd sounded odd, but something in his voice apparently made both his guardians turn to look back at him. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and Zack looked unusually grim. "They must. This is their escape route, after all, it wouldn't do them much good if they didn't know it was here."

He took a step forward onto the icy path, staring at the isolated splendour all around him, trying to imagine what it might once have looked like as a city. "Besaid temple is surrounded by ruins. D'jose's temple is a relic. Obviously everyone knows that Zanarkand is a ruin. Does Kilika...?"

He looked at Zack, who nodded slowly. "Between the forest and the volcano they've been almost entirely buried, but everyone knows they're there," Zack said quietly.

"And now this." Cloud looked out around the frozen space of the lake again. There was a funny feeling in his chest, like something was binding him too tightly and preventing him from taking a deep breath. "What lies buried beneath Bevelle's temple, I wonder? Somehow I can't bring myself to believe it's the only exception. They've just hidden the ruins by building the city on top of them."

He wasn't surprised when Sephiroth looked troubled, but said nothing. So there was something there, and Sephiroth perhaps felt disloyal to his religion if he said anything about it? Cloud decided not to push the issue. He didn't want to trap his guardian in a conflict of beliefs.

The truth would be revealed soon enough, he had a feeling.

"Let's go," was all he said. "We won't accomplish anything by standing around here." Thankfully the path was roughened and not slippery at all, and also wider than it had first looked. It was a long way up to the top... and a longer way to fall from there.

He tried not to think about that as a possible metaphor for his entire life right now. Crejy's fayth had been right about one thing. It was only going to get harder from here, and it might very well be impossible for him to succeed.

Too bad he had to try anyway.

"The problem with the fact that you're a Summoner is that everyone in all of fucking Spira knows that you have to come to Bevelle at some point," Zack sighed mournfully. Lying on the branch path beside him, Cloud stared down at the only pass that led into Bevelle. It was barred by a high, thick wall of stone and metal, with massive metal doors guarded by Crusaders and temple guards both.

They were stopping everyone who approached, checking over some sort of papers the travellers carried and thoroughly searching both the people and any wagons or carts they had with them. Once or twice they seized someone, usually a blond though it was difficult to tell any more at that distance, and hustled them off under guard. Anyone suspected of having Al Bhed blood, presumably.

"Too bad we didn't know about that escape tunnel before we got to Macalania temple," Cloud grumbled. "We could've used it to get in without anyone realizing we'd been there, and then they'd be guarding that temple like this."

"Unfortunately I doubt the passage can be opened from the outside," Sephiroth pointed out. "Otherwise it would be foolish to have the entrance near the Chamber of the Fayth, lest outsiders discover it and sneak in. Regardless, I believe Bevelle would still be guarded this well. It is the seat of Yevon's power, after all."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Zack admitted. "Are you two sure he has to go in there? I mean, he's got all the other aeons. Isn't there a story that there used to be an extra one, a temple somewhere in the Calm Lands, that got destroyed?"

"The Lost Fayth, yes," Sephiroth nodded. "Records do indicate that hundreds of years ago there was another stop on the Summoner's Journey, but the temple was desecrated and the statue was either stolen or damaged beyond repair, stories vary. Either way, the aeon was lost and is no longer part of the journey."

"Let me guess," Cloud said, sighing. "Al Bhed destroyed it."

"That is the most common theory, yes," Sephiroth said. "I believe it was during another of their attempts to stop the Summoners from making their journeys. It does seem to be a common theme among their beliefs."

"And they wonder why the Spirans resent and fear them so much." Cloud shook his head, a little disgusted at both halves of his heritage at the moment. Not that it meant he thought the Spirans had the right to be rounding up the Al Bhed at swordpoint, but still. The Al Bhed couldn't claim to be entirely blameless in this mess.

The problem really was that plenty of individual Al Bhed were, in fact, completely blameless. But they were suffering for the actions of a few fanatics. Actions that might not even have been entirely in the wrong to start with.

Was there really no end to this disaster at all? Were they all doomed to just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, a never-ending rain of blood and suffering pouring over the world?

Grimacing, Cloud shook off his rapidly darkening thoughts. He was starting to get morbid. He'd already come up with one potential way of stopping all of this - becoming the High Summoner and proving that not all Al Bhed were evil. He needed to focus on that, not on how bad things were getting.

Unfortunately none of that had given him a brilliant idea about how to get through those well-guarded gates. "I kind of get the feeling that I really don't want to skip this part," he said. "Not going to a fayth that doesn't exist anymore is one thing. Deliberately not going to one just because it's a little difficult isn't going to go over well when I try to get the final aeon. Where is the temple, exactly? Could I, I don't know, get Jymavun to carry me over the city and drop me inside?"

"Unlikely. Physically possible, yes, but Bevelle has a guardian, a great flying wyrm called Evrae," Sephiroth said. "Even if Jymavun could carry all three of us, there is no way I can see that we could fight our way past it. And we would doubtless land in the centre of a troop of Crusaders and temple guards."

"Given the way they're searching people down there, Seph, I don't think we're going to be able to sneak in," Zack pointed out.

"They're searching civilians," Sephiroth agreed. "But not Crusaders and temple staff."

Zack's face lit up like Sephiroth had just described an absolutely genius plan to get them inside, but Cloud was still confused. And feeling a little left out, honestly, as he often did when his guardians seemed able to communicate without words. "What, you think we should steal uniforms and try to get in that way?" he hazarded a guess. "Do you really think that would work?"

"Not exactly," Sephiroth shook his head. "Stealing the uniforms runs the risk of someone finding those we stole them from, or noticing when they don't report in. But I do still have a few friends left in Bevelle, I believe."

"You think you can get Angeal to help, though?" Zack asked. "I mean, he is the head of the Crusaders, and they are kinda hunting us down at the moment, if you hadn't noticed. How are you even planning to get close to him?"

"Walk down there and give myself up, of course," Sephiroth said with no little humour, as Cloud gaped at him in horror. "Angeal has heard only the temple's side of the story. I am confident that I can get him to listen to me... and fairly certain that, having heard the entire story, he will be on our side. If not, you and Cloud will be free to continue on. And if this doesn't work, I do suggest that you continue past Bevelle, Cloud. I believe the fayth will understand and forgive you, given that you tried every plausible method to gain entry. Perhaps that has been the purpose of them testing you so harshly, to prepare you for the fact that you will not have carried out the full journey."

That hadn't occurred to Cloud, but it was certainly a possible explanation for the way the fayth had treated him each time. "All right," he agreed. "I feel like we have to make at least the one attempt, but I'll promise to keep going as long as you promise to do everything in your power to catch up with us."

Sephiroth gave him a tiny, crooked smile. "I could in good conscience do no less. Safe journey and may the blessings of Yevon go with you, Lord Cloud, Sir Zack. In case I do not manage to return."

"Hey, wait..." Zack protested, but Sephiroth was already gone, pushing himself over the edge of the ridge and sliding down the steeper side, rapidly approaching the guards on the trail below. "Damn it, he's as bad as you are," Zack swore as he watched the other guardian go. "Suddenly I feel sorry for Angeal and Sir Genesis. He must have been just as much of a handful as you are, if not more. C'mon, we need to get out of here before they send troops up to investigate where he came from."

They quickly made their way back down the trail towards Lake Macalania, turning off into the campsite they'd used the night before. It was a little clearing, sheltered from the main path by a thick screen of trees and bushes, accessible only from the tree path above. Crusaders looking for them could pass right by on the main trail a hundred feet away and never know they were there.

To pass the time as they waited for Sephiroth to return, Zack taught Cloud some of the basic Blitzball drills, coaching him until Cloud could kick the ball back and forth between them with relative ease. In return Cloud tried to expand Zack's limited Al Bhed vocabulary, since his guardian had repeatedly complained about not being able to understand conversations going on around him.

He was in the middle of attempting to correct Zack's truly horrible pronunciation, biting the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing, when Zack suddenly held up a hand and his eyes went grim. His other hand went to the hilt of his sword, and Cloud's laughter evaporated as his heart pounded in his chest.

A moment later he heard what had drawn Zack's attention - the sound of metal boots tramping along the path above them. "I'm telling you, there's a place near here where they could be hiding," he heard a male voice say faintly. "My cousin and I used to come out here to play, and there's a little space we turned into a kind of fort. There's only one way to get in, and no way to see it from the main path."

"What are the odds they'd have found the place, though?" another voice argued. "I mean, come on, we're way off our patrol route. We're gonna get in trouble if the sergeant finds out."

"Not if we catch the heretics first," the first voice said. "Now, where was the entrance? It was around here somewhere..."

Carefully Zack inched his sword out of its scabbard, easing it out so it wouldn't make any noise. Cloud fought the urge to hold his breath, forcing himself to breathe slowly and as quietly as possible instead, reaching inside for the power of his aeons and holding them at the ready. Maybe the Crusaders wouldn't find the entrance. Maybe their sergeant would come and get them in trouble before they made it this far. Maybe...

Too late, he realized their little fire was still burning, the light flickering brightly as night fell. He heard Zack's sharp intake of breath at the same time, and they both scrambled as quietly as possible to shove snow at it.

Too late. "Over here!" the second voice called urgently, from far too close above them. "I think I see light! Quick, call the Summoners!"

Grimly Zack and Cloud met each other's eyes, and then Zack moved to stand between Cloud and the entrance, sword raised. The moment the battle began, the noise would probably call a dozen other Crusaders and guards from all around. If there were other Summoners involved in the hunt, then Cloud's aeons wouldn't give them the edge they needed to escape.

But Cloud was damned if he wouldn't go down fighting.

Chapter Text

The heavy sound of booted feet on the wooden branch above them split, one of the Crusaders presumably going after the requested reinforcements. Zack looked back over his shoulder at Cloud. "Can you get the one running off before he reaches anyone else? Without attracting anyone else?" his guardian asked, voice a low whisper that barely reached Cloud.

A little helplessly, Cloud shrugged. Could he manage to stop someone he couldn't see, moving away from him at speed, without doing anything obvious and flashy enough to draw every Crusader for a league around? Well, he wouldn't know until he tried. He'd done other things with his Aeons that should have been impossible, largely because he didn't know they should be impossible. What was one more?

Zack seemed to feel that was good enough, or maybe it was just that he also realized the futility of the question, because he nodded sharply and moved swiftly into the trees near the entrance. He was so quiet that if Cloud hadn't been watching him he'd never have known the man was moving, somehow passing through the leaves and thick branches without making a sound.

Reaching inside himself for the power of his aeons, Cloud rapidly considered his choices. Jymavun and Eqeuh both had flashy summonings that were impossible to miss and would be visible to every Crusader in the area, leading the whole army straight down on top of them. This close to Lake Macalania, he had to assume the Crusaders would be outfitted with cold weather gear and fire spells, so Crejy probably wasn't the best choice.

That left one option, the aeon he was only marginally more willing to deal with than Eqeuh. Cloud swore he could hear the aeon laughing at him as he merged himself with its power.

Fire raced through his veins, and there was a deep rumbling that should have sounded like thunder but in no way could be mistaken for the signs of Eqeuh's summoning. Firmly Cloud held the image of what he wanted in his mind as he pulled on the energy, and though the ground shook subtly beneath him it didn't burst open to reveal Evned as it usually would have.

Instead the tremors raced away from him, heading for the path out of the glade. Zack had already engaged one of the Crusaders just a few feet up the first branch, swords ringing as they crashed together. An extra hard shake of the ground caused the branch to sway beneath the combatants, and somehow Zack managed to keep his feet as though he'd expected it, giving him a brief advantage over his opponent.

Then Cloud's consciousness flashed past them, rushing onwards to catch up to the Crusader who had run for help. The heavy metal armour the man wore was obviously slowing him down, and Evned caught him not too far along the branch. The rumbling increased and the earth beneath the tree shook, but instead of the usual explosion of rocks this time the aeon rose smoothly up, like a diver surfacing from water as the earth spilled away from his body.

The Crusader must have felt the tremors because he glanced over his shoulder and shouted in fright. Through the strange double vision Cloud shared with his aeons when he was controlling them directly, he saw the man's face go pale and his eyes widen, the knowledge of his own defeat shining in them even as he swept his sword around in a futile attempt to defend himself.

Evned's regular fire spells were far stronger than the equivalent spell cast by even the most powerful black mage, but his unique fire attack was absolutely devastating. Cloud didn't realize how devastating until the aeon unleashed it and the Crusader was literally incinerated, turning to ash before his eyes as the sparkles of pyreflies rose from the place where his body had been a moment before.

Vaguely Cloud heard a scream of terror and denial, and even more vaguely he was aware that the sound had come from his own throat, but most of his awareness was still tangled with the aeon's and so he felt a surge of satisfaction and triumph as well. The combination made him sick to his stomach, and some of that must have resonated through their bond because Evned grumbled at him in irritation.

Worse, although the massive branch that formed the path had withstood the attack better than fragile human flesh, there was a huge charred patch and the edges had burst into flame. Smaller branches and leaves nearby were withering in the heat as the moisture was sucked out of them, and a few began to catch fire as well. Horrified, Cloud realized that the entire forest might just burn to the ground if the result of Evned's attack was left to run unchecked.

He didn't even consciously dismiss the aeon, just reached instead for Crejy's power within himself. There was a brief struggle for dominance, and then ice crackled into being around Evned's body, encasing him in a split second. When the giant crystal burst again a moment later, it was Crejy who stood there in frozen splendour.

She took in the situation at a glance, her brow creasing in annoyance that Cloud felt through their bond, and snapped her fingers. Just as it had in the fire pit in Kilika's temple, more ice formed abruptly all over the burning branch, dousing the fires instantly. They both waited a moment to see if any of the surrounding dried branches would smoulder into flame, but when nothing further happened Crejy nodded once, satisfied, and dissipated into pyreflies.

Cloud was slammed back into full awareness of his own body, and the churning nausea in his gut tripled in strength as he became fully conscious of it. He just barely had time to lean over before he was violently ill, stomach heaving again and again as the memory of the look on the Crusader's face in the instant before the flame hit played over and over again in his mind's eye.

When he'd thought that Eqeuh had killed Zack he'd still been caught mostly in the grip of the aeon's power, and even afterwards the shock and grief had been overpowering. This was different, less personal but more horrifying in its very impersonality. He had just killed a man, a Spiran, ripped him apart down to the very core and scattered his soul in bright sparkles across the forest. Somewhere out there was probably someone, maybe several someones, who would mourn the man as intensely as Cloud had mourned for Zack, who would be just as heartbroken and shattered as he had felt then. He had done that, in the flash of an instant, in the briefest burst of his aeon's power.

Small wonder the priests and maesters of Yevon condemned any Summoner who turned on the peoples of Spira instead of the fiends. It was an abomination, a disgusting horror. And yet, what choice had he had?

Two things slowly made it through the nausea and shock. The first was a quiet sense of warmth deep inside him, which he identified after a moment as Jymavun and Crejy attempting to comfort him. He could feel their puzzlement at his reaction and their indifference to the death, so the attempt fell somewhat flat even as it made him shiver at the reminder that the aeons - and the fayth - were utterly alien and didn't view life and reality in the same way as corporeal beings.

The second thing was a cool sensation against the heat of his face and a soft voice murmuring in his ears. "Hey, it's okay, everything is all right," the voice said - Zack's voice, but gentler than Cloud could remember hearing it. "Just breathe, c'mon, deep breath in, there you go, now out again, that's it. And another, through the nose, it'll calm you down, I promise."

Reaching up with one trembling hand, Cloud discovered that the coolness was due to a bundle of cloth-wrapped snow that was being pressed against his cheeks and forehead. He took the snowpack from Zack and slid it around to the back of his neck instead, allowing him to look up at his guardian without losing the soothing sensation entirely.

Zack was looking back at him with sympathy written large on his expressive face. "Really, it's okay," his guardian said again. "No, don't be ashamed," he added, reaching out with strong fingers to catch Cloud's chin and prevent him from lowering his eyes. "There's no shame in reacting to death. More shame if you don't react, especially the first time. That was your first kill, wasn't it? First non-fiend, I mean."

Miserably Cloud nodded, unable to form words yet. Zack seemed to read the emotions in his expression anyway. He patted Cloud on the shoulder. "Most people are sick, the first time they kill someone," the older man told him. "Or if not actually sick, at least badly shaken. I was, you know. Threw up all over my partner, too. He was a Crusader on his third tour of duty, I can tell you, he wasn't exactly impressed by me. Said afterwards that it wasn't because I'd thrown up, just because I'd done it all over the only uniform he had that didn't need mending."

"You never did," Cloud croaked, disbelieving. Zack? Throwing up all over someone? Cloud couldn't picture it at all. Even in the worst situations, his guardian always seemed to be calm and cool and in control. Maybe not to Seph's level... and he certainly couldn't imagine Lord General Sephiroth being sick at his first kill, either.

"May Sin take me and turn me into a fiend if I lie," Zack swore solemnly. "It gets better, as horrible as that is to say. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe if we all got sick with the horror of it every time, there would be less strife and chaos in the world. But it does, so try to remember this moment. Don't forget how it felt this first time, and try not to ever let it become easy even if it does get easier. That's what separates the good men who are doing what is necessary from the killers, or at least, that's what Angeal told me. And I believe it."

"You've... killed a lot of people?" Cloud asked, surprised. Given Zack's reaction to the thought of Cloud turning his aeons against the mob of Spirans that had attacked them, he'd thought for sure that Zack had never killed anyone before. Granted, he hadn't hesitated to attack the Al Bhed on the ship, and now that Cloud thought about it some of them had doubtless been killed in the fighting, though he hadn't been aware of it in the chaos at the time. "But these were Spirans," he added, just in case that was the distinction.

"I've killed people from every race, including Spirans," Zack told him, shocking him. "What, did you think the Crusaders were only for fighting fiends? In the Calm, there aren't really many monsters to fight, you know. A squad or two in each city could handle things, if it were only that. They serve as law enforcement as well. I've fought raiders and highwayman, robbers and killers. It's true that you've shown me I'm not as good at being upset about other races as I am about Spirans," he added, clearly ashamed by the admission. "But even so, that first kill, the one I threw up over, that was a Ronso."

Taking Cloud by the upper arm, Zack helped him to his feet and urged him away from the mess he'd made, pushing him against a tree trunk to rest for a moment. Then Zack went back and started kicking dirt over the small puddle, covering the scent and sight of it. "I have to admit I got over that first kill pretty quickly, but then again, the Ronso was a rogue who had slaughtered a mixed Guado and Spiran travelling group that had passed through his territory the month before, so I could only feel so bad. This... this is the kind of killing that sticks with you a long time in your nightmares, though. These guys hadn't done anything to deserve this; they were just doing their job, in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He sighed and glanced to one side, and only then did Cloud realize there was a bloody, mangled body lying in a heap at the side of the entrance. He swallowed hard as his gorge threatened to rise again, and hastily turned away from the sight of it.

"You stay there and recover," Zack told him, probably seeing the way he'd turned green again. "I'll bury this poor bastard. He deserves better, but it's the least we can do. Thankfully they were way off their patrol route, so when they vanish nobody will be looking in this area for them. Doesn't seem like the battle attracted anyone else, either, so you'll have a chance to rest."

"No, I'll help," Cloud insisted, a little hoarsely but as firm as he could manage. He was unsteady on his feet when he pushed away from the tree, but not so much that he wouldn't be able to dig. "You're right, it's the least we can do. No, wait, shouldn't we Send him? The... the other one, he... well, there's nothing to bury. I saw the pyreflies, at least, so he's moved on to the Farplane."

"I can't Send anybody," Zack said, shrugging. "And it could be a while before Seph gets back, we can't leave him out in the open that long, it'll attract the fiends. Do you think you could do it?"

"Uh..." Cloud looked doubtfully at the body, and around at the tiny space available in the clearing. He didn't think he could manage anything close to the graceful dance of blade and body Sephiroth had used to Send the dead in Besaid. But maybe he didn't have to. Maybe it was just a matter of releasing the soul from the body, so it could travel on to the Farplane before it had a chance to fester and become resentful of the living.

If that was the case, then what had worked for the Crusader he'd killed should work for this one as well, even though he was already dead. "Stand back," Cloud cautioned Zack, and reached inside himself once more.

Evned surged to the forefront, eager to be released again. Cloud would have preferred Jymavun's gentler power of light, but her summoning would still draw too much attention to them. Reluctantly he called on Evned, and the ground shook once more as the aeon burst through it to stand beside him.

Cloud consulted briefly with his aeon through their wordless mental connection. Evned hadn't had time to regenerate enough power for the same attack that had vaporized the other Crusader, it turned out. But a third level fire spell worked well enough, burning the body to ash and releasing the pyreflies.

"Huh," Zack said, looking bemused as he watched the fire. "In Kilika we burn our dead during the Calm if there isn't a Summoner around to perform a Sending, sort of a way of dedicating the souls to the fayth and keeping the bodies from rotting at the same time. I don't think I've ever seen pyreflies, though. Maybe it has to be done by a Summoner. Or maybe this is just your way of doing the Sending. Seph did say it's different for every Summoner."

"Great. One more way fire can be inextricably linked to my life," Cloud sighed. "At least it means I have a way of doing it. Not that I think anybody will be asking me, but something tells me this may not be the last dead Crusader or priest I have to deal with. Now what?"

"Now we rest and do our best to recover," Zack said, clapping him on the shoulder once more and tugging him away from the ashes that were all that was left of the body. "I know you don't think you want to, but you should eat and sleep, you need the energy and it will help with the shock."

"How long should we wait for Seph?" Cloud asked as they headed back towards their own, completely ordinary and un-supernatural fire. His stomach churned at the thought of food and he couldn't imagine he'd ever be able to sleep again without dreaming of the look on the Crusader's face as he'd died, but Zack seemed to know what he was talking about when it came to this sort of thing, so he supposed he'd just have to try.

"If he's not back by mid-morning, we should head out," Zack said after a long moment of silence. "If he hasn't managed to convince Angeal by then, he's not going to. We can take the trail around Bevelle and head straight for the Calm Lands, and then you know your way around well enough from there to avoid the well travelled - and patrolled - routes, right?"

Cloud nodded, but his thoughts weren't on the Calm Lands just yet. "Do you really think he'll be able to convince the head of the Crusaders to help us?" he asked, settling gingerly back into a hollow near the fire. "I mean, the Crusaders aren't exactly our friends at this point. We've done an awful lot to alienate them, specifically. Beyond just what we've done to make all of Spira mad at me, I mean."

"Angeal's a good guy," Zack said softly, his eyes distant as he sat as well. "Sometimes he gets a little too caught up in his honour, but he's one of the best people I know. And Seph's important to him, they're really close, despite everything that's happened in the ten years since Angeal guarded Seph. If anyone in Bevelle will help us, it's Angeal... and if anyone can convince him to do it, it's Seph."

"I'm trying to decide if that's actually reassuring or not," Cloud said wryly. "Since it also means if this doesn't work out, we have no other options."

"No point in worrying about an opposing goal before it's scored," Zack insisted. "Eat up, and then get some rest. I'll take first watch; you're still exhausted from everything earlier."

"And you're not?" Cloud retorted. Zack was right, though, he was completely exhausted. As always, it seemed, visiting one of the fayth left him absolutely shattered afterwards, and that was without even accounting for the energy drain of summoning three times in a short space. Nightmares or not, sleep was probably inevitable at this point. And if everything went according to plan, he was going to have to face Bevelle's Trial tomorrow.

What would Bevelle's fayth have in store for him? Spirit, courage, control, resolve... what else could they test?

He was more than a little afraid to find out.

The clattering of armour woke him in the early hours of the morning. Disoriented, Cloud flailed, trying to remember where he was and why it was bad that he'd been asleep. He could see the faint light of false dawn through the trees. Had Zack not woken him for his turn on watch? But Zack was just as exhausted as he was...

Too late he remembered that Zack had woken him, just as a pair of armour-clad Crusaders slid down the last of the branches into their campsite. Apparently Cloud had fallen asleep again, dozing off sitting up against a tree trunk, and now they were both going to be captured for his inattention. "Zack," he shouted, franticly snatching at his sword. "Zack! Wake up!"

His short blade wasn't going to do much against trained and armoured Crusaders, he realized. He reached for the power inside him, but all of his aeons slid away from him in a way they'd never done before, refusing to allow him to summon them.

He had just one moment to panic before he understood why, as one of the 'Crusaders' flipped up his helmet visor and revealed himself to be none other than Sephiroth. "It's all right, Cloud," his guardian assured him. "You're not under attack."

On the other side of the clearing, Zack sighed and slung his sword across his back again. "Geez, Seph. Way to give me a heart attack. Angeal, is that you?"

"Who else would it be?" a deep voice asked, and the second Crusader pulled off his helmet to reveal a man roughly Sephiroth's age. He had dark hair and a grizzled face that looked like it had seen plenty of battles. He actually looked like Zack a bit, though Cloud thought it was more a similarity of colouring and stance than any family resemblance.

The stranger was studying him just as intently, he realized with a blush. "So," Sir Angeal, head of the Crusaders, said. "This is the Summoner who has all of Spira in an uproar? You didn't mention he was just a boy, Seph."

"Not so very much younger than we were, when we set off on our journey," Sephiroth murmured, moving forward to stir up the dying embers of the fire. "A fair bit less sheltered than I had been, it could be argued, though admittedly less trained."

"And with two powerful guardians utterly devoted to him despite all protests," Angeal murmured, an oddly haunted look in his eyes. "One a trained Crusader, and the other a Summoner candidate himself. I'd almost accuse you of setting it up, except I know you've never been the sort for pranks or cruel jokes."

"The similarities had not escaped me," Sephiroth said, and Cloud had never heard him sound so dry. "You needn't point them out, thank you. Regardless, his journey is far more than just a reflection of my own. We certainly never needed to deal with anything approaching this level of hostility and prejudice from the populace, let alone the temples."

"That much is true. Forgive me, Lord Cloud... I don't mean to suggest that I doubt Lord Sephiroth's word, but may I see you summon for myself?" Angeal addressed Cloud, suddenly formal. "If you need to, we can hunt a fiend, I'm sure there are some about..."

"That's not necessary," Cloud murmured, and held out his hand. This time when he reached inside him, the aeons came immediately to his call. He tried to pretend he wasn't relieved, even as he let Crejy's icy power flow through him and out through his extended hand.

The ice crystal formed just past the tips of his fingers, growing rapidly in size as the facets cleared to reveal the woman slumbering within. The sound of it shattering rang in the clearing, and when Cloud blinked frost from his lashes he saw the aeon standing next to him.

He hadn't realized until that moment just how tall she was. Inhuman in every sense of the word, for all that she was shaped like one, she towered over even Sephiroth. He could feel waves of cold coming from her blue skin, as if all the coldness in the world was trapped inside her and radiated outwards as it leaked from her pores.

"Well. You haven't lost a fragment of your beauty, Tiphereth," Angeal said, making the bow towards her. She smiled down at him, the crackle of her laughter ringing in the small space like the tinkle of falling icicles. "Ah, forgive me, I suppose you have another name...?" he glanced at Cloud, one eyebrow raised in inquiry.

Cloud had to stifle a laugh of his own. The expression was exactly the same as the one Sephiroth used for the same purpose. He wondered which of them had picked it up from the other, or if they'd developed it at the same time. "Her name is Crejy," he said, and released her with a wave of his hand. She blew him a kiss, then vanished in another shower of ice and snow.

"Crejy?" Angeal barked a laugh. "Al Bhed for Shiva. You're just determined to be heretical at every turn, aren't you?"

Blushing, Cloud ducked his head. Sephiroth had never said anything about the names of his aeons, so it hadn't actually occurred to him that other people would realize what they meant. "I don't exactly name them myself, Sir Angeal. Their names just... are inside me, somehow, when I gain their power. But yes, I figure if I'm going to be a heretic, I might as well be as much of one as I can be. There won't be much point in an Al Bhed becoming High Summoner if the priests can pretend that I was Spiran, afterwards."

"Is that why you're doing it? To end the conflict between our peoples?" Angeal asked him, his voice mild, but his eyes sharp.

"Between my peoples... I'm half Spiran," Cloud corrected him. He hesitated, then admitted, "I have a lot of reasons for doing it. Most of them aren't exactly noble. A lot of them don't really feel very important any more. At this point I just... have to. I have to finish what I started." He looked at Sephiroth and Zack, then touched his chest where he could feel the power of the aeons glowing within him. "A lot of people believe in me, and I won't let them down."

"Spoken like a true Summoner," Angeal said, apparently satisfied. "Stupidly selfless and aggravatingly cryptic all at once. For the record, I am here as Seph's former guardian, not as the head of the Crusaders. Although the Crusaders don't technically report to the temple, in all honesty I think I'd have a riot on my hands if I tried to go against the temple's orders right now. They've quite thoroughly vilified you."

"Great. Just what I needed to hear. So what are we doing?" Cloud looked at Sephiroth's uniform."I was right about stealing the uniforms and sneaking in, wasn't I?"

"Not at all," Angeal assured him. "I have every right to requisition these uniforms. It's not stealing in any way."

"Sneaking, however, is probably the correct verb," Sephiroth added, completely straight faced.

Zack snickered, and Cloud shook his head and threw up his hands. At the same time, he had to bite his lip on a snicker of his own. Angeal seemed so serious, he hadn't expected the man to have a sense of humour. Then again he'd been equally surprised the first time Sephiroth had teased him, and it was very much a similar sort of humour.

By the time they had all the gear on, the sun was fully up and the frosty air was starting to warm. Zack and Sephiroth were completely at ease in the armour, of course. Cloud was used to wearing lots of layers, but not to clothes that refused to bend in certain ways. He felt like he was clanking around and looked like a total imposter.

It didn't help that Zack was quietly trying not to laugh at him, one gauntleted hand over his mouth and his eyes sparkling over it. "Well, we'll just say you're a new recruit," he said quickly when he saw Cloud glaring at him. "There's always plenty of them clomping around, and I'd imagine recruitment is way up with Sin coming back."

"Yes, and there are large concentrations of them in Bevelle for training," Angeal confirmed. "Just keep your helmets on and visors down. You're all too recognizable for your own reasons. Stay close to me as we go through the gates, but once you're in the city you're on your own. Remember, if you're caught after we separate, there is little I'll be able to do to help you in an official capacity, so don't take any risks. Let's go."

They scrambled back up the branches to get out of the clearing. Cloud was embarrassed that he needed help from his guardians, unable to easily climb the trees with all the heavy metal on him. Once on relatively level ground he did a little better, but he found that he tired quickly.

By the time Bevelle's gates came into view, he was panting and sweating hard. The close confines of the helmet felt suffocating, and the air inside stank of old sweat and blood and less appealing things that he was trying not to identify. He desperately wished he could lift the visor and get just a brief gulp of fresh air, but he didn't dare.

With Angeal at the head of the group they were passed through the gates with no problems. They found themselves faced with a long corridor that, incongruously enough, had a river running along the center of it. Cloud understood why when he saw a shallow boat filled with people being poled along it, moving much faster than the scattered people walking along either side. He had to mentally shake his head. Trust the followers of Yevon to construct an entrance to the city so ridiculously grandiose that it required special transportation to make it feasible for use on a regular basis. He would never understand their apparent driving need to constantly prove how great and mighty they were to everyone around them.

After the second set of gates Angeal stepped aside, and Sephiroth paused to salute him by banging one fist to his breastplate, as Cloud had seen other Crusaders do. Zack followed suit and Cloud scrambled to do the same, and he thought he'd managed to at least do a half-credible job of echoing the gesture.

Angeal returned the salute with a solemn nod. "You three, head for the temple," he ordered them in a no-nonsense tone of command. "You're to relieve the squad stationed inside. Keep a sharp eye out for anything out of place. The rogue Summoner was last seen leaving Macalania Temple, and he's undoubtedly headed this way."

"Understood, sir," Sephiroth said, his deep voice muffled by the helmet. "Squad, move out." He made one of those gestures with his hand that was obviously meant to be a visual command, fist raised beside his head and then gesturing forward, and set off at a trot. Zack followed in perfect step with him, and Cloud clattered along behind them, trying his best to keep pace and failing miserably most of the time.

As the enormously vast city swallowed them up, Cloud glanced around surreptitiously. He tried hard not to gawk openly at the city around him, but it was difficult. Bevelle was huge, much bigger than Luca, and the buildings were both older and more ornate. There was hardly a square inch of undecorated surface that he could see, be it street, wall or rooftop. Crusaders and temple guards and priests were everywhere, in fact he didn't see a single person who didn't fall into one of those categories.

Swallowing hard, he edged a little closer to Sephiroth, determined not to get lost. If he was caught here, impersonating a Crusader, he had a feeling it would go very, very badly for him.

Chapter Text

The closer they got to the temple at the heart of the city, the harder Cloud's heart pounded inside his chest, until he was amazed it didn't beat against his breastplate like a metal drum. Every time they passed a Crusader or acolyte he felt cold sweat break out on his body, as he waited for someone to realize they were imposters and stop them.

Instead, the acolytes would nod their heads - if they deigned to acknowledge the party at all - and the Crusaders invariably saluted Sephiroth. After a while Cloud realized the other summoner had to be wearing some kind of rank insignia, but he didn't know enough about Crusader uniforms to recognize what it might be. Whatever rank Sephiroth was claiming, it must have been high enough that nobody was willing to stop and question them.

Then they turned a corner and the temple came into view, and his worries seemed miniscule and petty in comparison to the sight. It was a magnificent structure, with exquisite carvings over every inch and a tower that soared so high in the air it seemed to scrape the clouds. How had anyone even managed to build such a thing? There had to have been machina involved, surely. Cloud supposed if a priest wanted to use a machina, all they had to do was declare that it was on the list of permissible artefacts. They were the ones who decided what was allowed and what was 'too dangerous', after all.

Or maybe the tower predated Yevon's faith, and was one of the rare standing buildings left over from the ancients? That seemed more likely, on second thought. Sephiroth hadn't outright admitted there were ruins in Bevelle, but Cloud was certain they were here. There had been towers this tall or taller locked in the ice beneath Lake Macalania.

They marched straight up to the door. Well, Sephiroth and Zack marched, and Cloud did his best to keep time with them. The Crusaders on guard outside saluted Sephiroth and let them in without even questioning them, and Cloud dared to believe this might really work after all.

Inside were more stone carvings on the walls and even the floor. There was a round hole in the floor with a platform at one edge, and from where he stood Cloud couldn't see the bottom of the hole. Why would there be something like that in the front room of a temple? It didn't make any sense.

In front of the platform stood two more guards. Sephiroth returned their salutes, and nodded at them. "Gentlemen, you are relieved," he said, his voice stiff and formal.

"What? There must be some mistake, sir," one of the guards exclaimed. "We only went on duty a few hours ago."

"Commander Angeal is reassigning squads with rookies to inner city duties, to free up the experienced groups to search outside for the rogue summoner," Sephiroth said. "He was last seen leaving Macalania, so he must be getting close. Report to your captain for your new assignments."

"Yes, sir," they chorused, and saluted again. They turned and marched smartly towards the door, and Cloud held his breath. They could still realize there was something suspicious; they might wonder why the three newcomers were wearing their helmets, or wonder why there were three of them, or why an officer was working with a rookie at all...

Five more steps... two... one...

Then they were through the door and letting it close behind them, leaving Cloud and his guardians alone in the temple foyer. For long moments none of them moved or spoke, until finally Zack let out an explosive breath. "It worked," Zack gasped, pulling off his helmet. His normally spiky hair was plastered down with sweat, and for the first time Cloud realized Zack had been just as nervous about being caught as Cloud was.

"Let's move quickly, before someone comes in," Sephiroth agreed, and even his voice was subdued as he removed his helmet as well. "Keep your armour on and your helmets with you. We'll need them again to get out of the city."

"Won't we have to go past the priests to get to the Trial, though?" Cloud wondered, looking around for the door that must lead to the rest of the temple. "I mean, shouldn't we leave the helmets on until then? Though I guess they'll be suspicious of why Crusaders would be trying to get into the Trial in the first place. How are we going to get past them?"

"We already are," Sephiroth said, and there was a touch of good humour in his voice as he gestured at the platform over the pit. "This part of the temple is separate from the rest, to allow the summoners to avoid the bustle of the main area. Bevelle's temple is the heart of Spira, after all. There is a great deal of bureaucracy involved in government, and it can get quite hectic. The Trial is below."

"Below?" Zack walked closer to the edge of the pit, leaning over to look down. "How the heck are we supposed to get down there, fly down on Jymavun?"

Moving closer as well, Cloud saw there was some sort of rail that spiralled down the outside wall of the pit. Surely they weren't supposed to slide down it? They couldn't even reach the start of the rail, the platform was in the way. "It's a machina, isn't it?" he realized. "The platform moves."

"A machina?" Zack sounded surprised and uncomfortable, though he stepped onto the platform willingly enough. "In the heart of Bevelle temple?"

"You say that like you're surprised," Cloud retorted. "Haven't you figured it out yet? All the Trials involve machina, Zack. Moving spheres to complete circuits and send power to different places, even I can see that's more machine than magic."

"There is magic involved in the Trials as well, make no mistake," Sephiroth corrected him. He pushed a button on the control panel, and the platform began to glide smoothly downwards. "However there is no denying that machina are more common in the temples than the maesters would perhaps like secular Spirans to know. Here in Bevelle they are more prevalent - and more obvious - than anywhere else in Spira, save perhaps the Home of the Al Bhed."

"That makes no sense," Zack complained, and Cloud could see that he was truly disturbed by it. "Hell, the more I learn about Yevon and the fayth, the less sense any of it makes."

"You wanted to know how I could be a summoner if I don't believe in Yevon, when we first met," Cloud reminded him. "Now you're starting to understand."

"And yet you admitted you had never been in a temple prior to entering Besaid, as I recall," Sephiroth said, raising an eyebrow at him. "How is it you know more of the hidden side of Yevon's faith than most of its followers?"

"Besaid may have been the first temple I was ever in, but Jymavun's fayth wasn't the first of her kind that I'd encountered," Cloud replied. Sephiroth's other eyebrow shot up to join the first, but Cloud shook his head. He wasn't willing to say more than that, not yet.

They would understand soon enough, when they reached Gagazet. For now, he needed to concentrate on the Trial before him.

If Zack had been unhappy to see the machina elevator, he was downright dismayed at the sight of the Trial itself. Unlike the other temples, there had been no effort made to disguise the labyrinth of Bevelle for anything other than what it was, a series of machina walkways. The floors moved, preventing them from travelling in certain directions, and Cloud could see how a summoner's party might end up trapped in a repeating loop if they weren't careful.

"Just this once, I believe it would be best if we chose expediency over tradition," Sephiroth said. "I know the fastest path through, and we have no time to waste if we wish to avoid a fight on our way out. Hopefully, the fayth will understand and forgive you."

"Considering every step of this entire journey has been more of a Trial than any temple could put you through, I'd say it's only fair," Zack replied. He was clearly struggling to hold on to his normal good cheer, and Cloud appreciated that he made the effort to put aside his unease.

"I don't feel like it's 'cheating' at this point," Cloud agreed. "It's not like we're skipping the Trial entirely. Anyway, whatever the fayth puts me through will probably more than make up for any difficulties we miss in the Trial."

He was trying very hard not to think about just what this fayth might do to him. The previous experiences had been bad enough, and three times out of four had ended with somebody injured and nearly dying. How much more could they test him? What else was left?

With Sephiroth in the lead they made good time through the Trial. Cloud was quietly impressed that the older man remembered the path so well, since he presumably had only been through it once before, and that ten years ago. By the time they reached the Chamber of the Fayth, Zack seemed resigned to the presence of all the machina, at least.

Swallowing hard, Cloud faced the doorway to the Chamber, struggling not to show how he was shaking with nerves. Still, he jumped when Sephiroth put a hand on his shoulder.

"This is the last time you will have to face this," Sephiroth assured him. "Survive once more, and the worst is past."

"There's still the final aeon," Cloud reminded him, and was surprised when Sephiroth shook his head.

"The experience at Zanarkand is vastly different from any of the other temples," the other summoner told him. "I doubt the fayth there will test you so."

That was at least the second time Sephiroth had said something that hinted he'd made it to the end of the Summoner's Journey. Cloud hesitated, looking up at his guardian curiously. If Sephiroth had made it to Zanarkand, why wasn't he the High Summoner? Had Lady Ifalna simply beaten him to it? But Sephiroth and his guardians had passed through Mount Gagazet long before Ifalna had, everybody knew that.

Had Sephiroth decided that he didn't want to die, after all? But he'd as much as said that he hadn't lost his desire to protect the people of Spira until they'd turned on him for being a 'failed' summoner. So that didn't make sense either.

"Now is not the time," Sephiroth murmured to him, perhaps correctly divining the reasons behind Cloud's hesitation. "We must hurry. I promise, if we make it to Zanarkand and you still have questions, I will give a full explanation. But I think all will become clear on its own."

Knowing that his guardian was right and they didn't have the time to spare, Cloud nodded. He even managed to dredge up a real smile for the older man. "I don't tell you often enough how much of an honour it is to have you with me," he said, just as softly. "Or how much I appreciate everything you've done to teach and guide me. I'd never have made it this far without you."

Then, before the moment could become even more horridly sappy than it already was, he pushed open the door to the Chamber of the Fayth and stepped through.

As the door closed behind him, the air took on the hushed quality of a sealed room, and he was able to hear the Hymn clearly. The voice singing was high and pure - a boy's soprano, rather than a woman's, Cloud thought. He approached the mound in the centre of the room warily, and when he was a few feet away, a shining form appeared floating above it.

All of the fayth had been 'familiar' to Cloud in that they were all similar to the ones that had saved him on the freezing mountain. But this particular fayth was familiar in a more direct sense. "You!" Cloud exclaimed, startled to see the same boy who had offered a hand to pull him up out of the snow, so many years ago.

Back then, the boy had been about the same age as Cloud, and they'd been of a similar height. Now he had to look down to meet the fayth's eyes, and it was startling how young the boy seemed to him.

At least, until he looked into the 'boy's' eyes, and the shadows cast by his hood didn't even begin to explain the darkness of centuries looking back at Cloud. The fayth might have the body of a child, but he'd lived through more than a dozen adult men ever could.

"We meet again," the fayth agreed, with a faint smile. "It's good to see you well. You look much better than before."

"I think Crejy might disagree with you - her fayth seemed quite fond of me looking frostbitten," Cloud retorted without thinking. To his gratification, rather than being insulted, the fayth chuckled softly.

"Not truly," he contradicted Cloud. "She is happy you escaped her trap. Although she would certainly have granted you that painless sleep of death, if you had wished it."

"I keep my promises," Cloud replied firmly.

"I know," the fayth said. Was his answering smile faintly twisted, or was that Cloud's imagination? "And so that is the requirement I choose to make of you. A promise to be kept."

"A new promise?" Cloud had already promised them all that he would try to save them, as they had saved him. He'd kept that promise as best he could, becoming a summoner and taking the journey that had led him this far. Surely the test this fayth had for him couldn't be as simple as renewing that promise. Not when he'd already said he knew Cloud would keep his word.

For that matter, surely any promise couldn't be nasty enough to begin to compare to what all the other fayth had put him through. It couldn't be that simple. He couldn't help but think uneasily of the trap Eqeuh had laid for him.

As if reading his mind, the fayth chuckled again and said, "The others have already tested your limits in every meaningful way, and you've passed every test. For me to hurt you just to re-prove a point would be cruel and unnecessary. We can be merciless, but we are not intentionally cruel."

"What's the promise, then?" Cloud asked, still wary.

"The promise is simple," the fayth said. "Easy to make, though perhaps not so easy to keep. After all, if it were easy, anyone could have done it, and we would never have needed to test you to see if you would. You must promise to do what is necessary."

For a moment Cloud waited, expecting there to be more. But the fayth merely tucked his hands into his sleeves and stood there, watching Cloud with silent patience. "Do what is necessary?" Cloud repeated, uncertain. He wanted to be sure he understood what, exactly, he was promising. "What do you mean?"

"When the time comes, you'll understand," the fayth assured him. "The choice offered will be clear, although the path you need to take may not be. Swear to us that you will do what is necessary, and you will have my power, Child of Two Worlds." It wasn't the first time one of the fayth had called him that, or something like it, but this time Cloud could hear the capital letters, like it was a title.

"What does that even mean," Cloud muttered under his breath, and the fayth chuckled again. Still, he felt there was a trap here somewhere. The wording was so vague it had to be on purpose, and that could mean anything. What if doing what was 'necessary' was something awful? They wouldn't need him to promise, if it was something he would have done anyway. "Can't I just promise to do what's right?"

"What is 'right' is subjective," the fayth said. "It is right for the summoners to want to sacrifice themselves for the sake of all of Spira; it is right for the Al Bhed to want to save summoners and find another way; it is right for the Crusaders to try to stop the Al Bhed from capturing the summoners; it is right for..."

"Okay, okay, I get the idea," Cloud interrupted, wincing. "There's two sides to every story."

"Not at all. There are thousands of sides to a story, at least one for every person experiencing it," the fayth corrected him with a chiding tone that said Cloud was missing the point. "But this is your story. How it ends is up to you. Will you promise, and leave with my blessing and my power? Or will you refuse, and try to find another path to take."

That was hardly fair, because there were no other paths to take. Not for Cloud, not at this point. "What if I make the wrong choice?" he asked, desperate to be certain he was making the right choice now. "What if you're wrong and I don't recognize the choice at all?"

"Then your story will end, but ours will continue," the fayth said, shrugging. "You are not the first attempt we've made to influence our story. Whether you are the last is your choice."

Silence fell abruptly around them, and Cloud realized with a jolt that the Hymn had stopped. There was no sound at all except for his own breathing, not even the faint whisper of air moving through the room.

"On the life that we gave you, swear that you will do what is necessary," the fayth said, breaking the silence and making Cloud shiver.

There really was no other choice, was there? "I swear, on my life, I will do what is necessary," Cloud promised, voice rasping in his suddenly dry throat. He'd have prayed that he wouldn't regret it, but who would he direct the prayer to? Yevon had no care for him, and it was the fayth who wanted him to make the promise in the first place.

The Hymn began again, soft and sweet and yet oddly chilling. The boy vanished between one blink and the next, and then power slammed into Cloud. It was jolting, and he braced himself, but the experience wasn't painful. Just overwhelming, as the power kept coming and coming and coming until he thought he would burst with it. Pyrysid put all the other aeons to shame with his sheer level of power.

Yet the final aeon must be stronger still. Was this why summoners never survived the final summoning? Because it was just too much power for a mortal body to handle without burning out in the process?

The other aeons within him shifted, as if making room for Pyrysid to settle in the center of their circle. Finally Cloud felt like he could breathe again, and as he made his way back to the door his legs were only a little shaky.

The door opened even before he reached out to touch it, and he saw the surprised and wary faces of his guardians on the other side. Both of them seemed relieved to find Cloud apparently uninjured and moving under his own power, but then Zack winced faintly.

"Uh, should we be worried about what this one is going to make you do to prove yourself?" Zack asked, obviously trying to make a joke but not really succeeding in hiding the strain behind the words. Cloud couldn't blame him for that.

"No, I have him," Cloud assured the other two men. "Pyrysid said the others had already tested everything they needed to know, and any more would be needless cruelty. He just made me promise to 'do what's necessary', and said that I'd understand when I came to the choice."

"Typically cryptic of him," Sephiroth said with a faint sigh, and yet he was smiling slightly as he shook his head. "Bahamut fancies himself something of a leader among the fayth, from what I understand. I've often wondered if he feels that cultivating a mysterious air makes up for his apparent youth in getting the living to take him seriously. Certainly my Netzach seems to enjoy obfuscating his meaning as much as possible."

Cloud had to laugh, even as he felt a vague sense of affront from within him. Well, affront from Pyrysid, and amusement from the others, which seemed to indicate that the rest of the fayth felt Sephiroth wasn't far from the mark. Or maybe they were just laughing at the irony in Sephiroth's own words. 'Obfuscating'? Cloud didn't understand half of what came out of the man's mouth sometimes.

"Not to break up the after-game party or anything, but shouldn't we get moving?" Zack asked. "The longer we're down here, the more likely it is someone will realize we pulled a fast one with the guards. All it would take is one person coming to talk to the guards on duty in the temple, and realizing we're not up there."

"Yes, we should move on quickly," Sephiroth agreed, already leading the way back into the Trial. "Once out of the city, we should head for the Calm Lands and Mount Gagazet."

"No wait, Cloud, didn't you want to take a side trip to Nibelheim to see your mom?" Zack asked, glancing back at him.

"Let's concentrate on getting out of the city, first," Cloud said, trying not to sound as grim as he felt. "Then we can worry about whether we have time for a detour."

"Don't forget that it's important for you to end the journey with as few regrets as possible," Sephiroth reminded him gently.

"She might not even still be there, with Spiran feelings towards the Al Bhed being what they are right now," Cloud countered. "Anyway, it's not like she's going to be happy to find out what I've really been up to since I left home. If I'm trying to avoid regrets, sending one of you to tell her after I've become the High Summoner and ended the resentment between the races would probably be a better idea."

Neither of his guardians seemed to have much to say to that, though Zack did drop back beside him for a moment to give him a one-armed hug around the shoulders. Cloud was embarrassed that the older boy thought he needed the comfort, even as he welcomed the brief touch.

They made it up to the ground floor without further incident, and when the lobby proved to be as empty as when they'd left it, Cloud dared to hope they were actually going to get away with this. Pyrysid's fayth hadn't made him go through some kind of agonizing test, so maybe this was a sign that his luck was finally turning. It was about bloody time, after all. He'd been through more on this journey than any five other summoners combined, surely.

With only a brief pause to tug their helmets back on, Zack and Cloud fell into formation behind Sephiroth. Cloud's heart was pounding as hard as it had on the way in to the temple as Sephiroth pushed open the door. Reaching for his aeons for comfort, Cloud was confused when they seemed to slip away from his mental touch, oddly distant.

That was the only warning they had, before the door swung open all the way and revealed what was waiting for them outside.

At the bottom of the temple steps was a row of people who had to be summoners. If their elaborate robes hadn't given them away, the five aeons lined up behind them were a dead giveaway. Beyond that, what seemed like it must surely be the entirety of the Crusader army waited, lined up in ranks.

Cloud gasped, and groped for the hilt of his sword, even though he knew it was futile. Zack and Sephiroth had their swords out as well, but what could three swordsmen do against the entire might of Bevelle? With all five aeons already present with other summoners, Cloud and Sephiroth would be unable to call on their own, which was surely the point.

The summoner who stood in front of Bahamut's aeon stepped forward, and Cloud belatedly recognized Rufus' pale hair and angry blue eyes. "Cloud of Nibelheim, you are hereby charged with being a rogue summoner, being a danger to Spira, and inciting the Al Bhed to acts of rebellion and terrorism. You are also charged with the kidnapping of multiple other summoners, conspiracy to commit the murders of half a dozen priests of the temple of Macalania, and many other crimes. Give up, traitor. There is nowhere left for you to run, or hide, and you can't summon your corrupted aeons to save you this time."

Chapter Text

Even the jail cells were needlessly ornate in Bevelle. Cloud had all but laughed himself sick when he'd seen them for the first time; giant birdcages hanging from the ceiling of a cavernous room, each one big enough to hold half a dozen people standing in it, with graceful fluted bars and beautiful wrought iron tops. If his laughter held more than a little hysteria, he thought he was rather entitled.

Not that he was laughing any more. The tiled floor was cold and hard, and there was nothing to soften it when he sat or lay down. His bones ached, and his hips, shoulders and butt felt bruised, but there was only so much time he could spend standing up. It had been days, maybe a week or more, since he'd been thrown in here. With no windows, it was difficult to tell how much time was passing. Every so often the guards would come down the nearby walkway and shove a waterskin and sack of bread through the bars, but Cloud didn't know how often the meals were given.

Worst of all, he had no idea what was happening to Zack or Seph. They'd all been separated that first day, and he hadn't seen his guardians since. Cloud had tried asking the guards, and all he'd gotten for his trouble was a spear shoved through the bars at him and a grunted order to shut the hell up.

He had no idea how long he was going to be left in this place, or what would eventually happen to him. His aeons did their best to wordlessly comfort and console him, but something about the cage or the room prevented him from actually summoning them.

It was hard not to give in to rage, or despair. Cloud swung between the two extremes, sometimes clutching at the bars and ranting at the guards in a mixture of Spiran and Al Bhed, other times collapsing to sit with his knees tucked to his chest and face buried against them as he fought to hide the tears that escaped him.

It was the latter mood that held him when the door opened again. Food had been delivered not that long before, so the intrusion startled Cloud enough that he warily lifted his head, blinking to clear his watery eyes.

Somewhat to his dismay, though not really to his surprise, he found Lord Rufus looking down on him from the walkway. The Spiran's rich robes swirled around him in layers of silk, and his hands where he clutched at the rails were decorated with several gem-studded rings. His blond hair looked incongruously bright in the dim light of the room, and his blue eyes seemed to bore a hole straight through Cloud.

"Shouldn't you be on your way to Zanarkand?" Cloud asked, surprising himself a bit with the words. Rufus had been there when Cloud had been captured, and he'd summoned Bahamut at the time, so clearly he had all five aeons. Why was he still hanging around Bevelle? Just to see Cloud's fate? Was he that vindictively outraged?

Actually, on second thought, Cloud didn't think he'd put that past the other man at all.

Also to his surprise, Rufus not only answered him, he did it without a sneer. If anything his tone was speculative, or maybe calculating would be a better word. "Because I was twice your victim, I was required to remain and give testimony at your trial. There aren't many circumstances that can justify halting a Summoner's Journey, but the trial of a rogue summoner is apparently one of them. I'll be back on the road to Gagazet as soon as your sentence is carried out."

"Why are you so anxious to die?" Cloud said, pushing to his feet and coming to the side of the cage nearest Rufus. "If it's just for the fame, it's not like you can enjoy it after you're dead. If you were truly doing it for the sake of Spira, it wouldn't matter whether the High Summoner was you or someone else."

"Yet again, you demonstrate your ignorance of the deeper purpose behind the summoners," Rufus said. "We are meant to serve as a beacon of hope to all the races of Spira. We're figureheads, legends of a sort. Why do you think the High Summoners are so often the child of a maester or former High Summoner? People already revere us, look up to us. It is our duty to live up to those expectations."

"You just don't want to end up like Lord Sephiroth, considered a 'failed summoner' because you didn't make it there in time," Cloud snorted, hands clenched around the bars.

Instead of Rufus losing his temper as Cloud had expected, the other blond gave him a thin smile. "I won't deny it's hardly an appealing prospect. And I owe my guardians a great debt for their loyalty to and belief in me. I wish to repay them by living up to that belief, and granting them the honour of being the guardians of a High Summoner."

Leaning over the railing, Rufus' voice became poisonously soft. "But even if I do fail, at least I will know I haven't caused even a fraction of the strife and discord you've sown across Spira. You should be grateful you and your guardians all face execution for treason. It spares them the shame of having to live knowing the havoc they helped you wreak."

"Oh yeah? Who was the one who turned the Crusaders loose on all those Al Bhed," Cloud argued. "Rounding up a bunch of innocent merchants and families isn't going to stop the few fanatics from kidnapping summoners. It's just going to incite them to violence, when before they were trying to be as peaceful as possible! That's not my fault, it would have happened whether I started my journey or not."

He thought maybe the verbal jab had registered, because Rufus narrowed his eyes and said nothing in response. But Cloud didn't feel any better because he'd scored a point in a stupid argument with a spoiled Spiran summoner. Far from it, the reminder of the mess that was going on out there only depressed him further.

"Don't you see, if I can become High Summoner and stop Sin, it could help the Spirans and the Al Bhed to make peace," he pleaded. "If you stop me here, then you're right, all I'll have accomplished is causing problems. I have to finish it, or it's all worth nothing! The Al Bhed aren't your enemies. They never have been. Sin is."

"Pretty words, but words are worse than worthless," Rufus said. "Personally, I think it would only convince the Al Bhed to try all the harder to stop the Summoner's Journey next time, incensed that we had 'killed one of their own'. Perhaps they'd even destroy another temple, as they did with the Lost Fayth."

He gave an exaggerated shrug, and straightened. "At any rate, the decision has been made, and your sentence passed. It's the Via Purifico for you and your guardians. No one thrown down there has ever survived."

"Sentence passed? But there wasn't a trial yet!" Cloud protested, feeling the blood draining from his face. Now he was clutching at the bars for a different reason, needing the help to stay on his feet as his knees turned to jelly.

"Certainly there was. You didn't expect they'd let you testify on your own behalf, did you?" Rufus gave a short, mirthless laugh. "The maesters heard all the evidence, and made their decision."

"How is that justice?" Cloud demanded. "They only got one side of the story! It's not like there was anyone to speak up for me."

"You might be surprised," Rufus murmured. "Regardless, it's irrelevant. The maesters aren't concerned with justice, they care only for what's best for Spira. And at the moment, that's been determined to be your death."

"Then..." Cloud swallowed, and forced himself to say the words, without letting his voice shake. "Then let them kill me. If they really think that will fix anything. Seph and Zack weren't instigators, they only followed me! They didn't attack you at D'jose, and Seph and Zack were both captured by the Al Bhed as well. They haven't done anything wrong."

He might have been imagining it, but he thought Rufus' scowl lessened slightly when he begged for his guardians but not for himself. "It's out of my hands," the other summoner shook his head.

"Why did you come here, then? To gloat?" Cloud glared at him, hoping the terrified pounding of his heart wasn't obvious to the older man.

"Perhaps a little," Rufus acknowledged. "And I wanted to see how you would face the knowledge of your fate. Honestly, I thought you'd be more entertaining than this, and have some sort of break down. You have fortitude of character, at least."

That almost sounded like a compliment, in a backhanded way. Cloud didn't know whether to thank him or curse him out.

"Who defended me?" Cloud asked, as Rufus turned as if to go. "You said I'd be surprised."

"Sir Angeal, of course, was only to be expected, considering his close connection to Lord Sephiroth and the former Crusader Zack," Rufus told him. "Several members of the Luca Goers, primarily on Zack's behalf. However, the Lady Aerith and her guardian were quite adamant in championing you in particular, as were an acolyte named Shelinda and a handful of priests from Macalania you apparently healed, as well as some of the Besaid Aurochs who likewise felt they owed you a debt. And, oddly enough, the captain of the chocobo knights you ran off the Thunder Plains testified that you had been remarkably restrained."

Rufus was right; the list did shock Cloud. He hadn't realized any of the priests he'd encountered or the residents of Besaid had felt anything towards him but anger and blame, especially after everything that had happened. Now he felt doubly shamed for his initial reluctance to heal the priests in Macalania.

Yet still, it obviously hadn't been enough to sway the maesters. And why would he expect otherwise? Rufus had admitted that they weren't interested in justice, and they'd made up their minds that Cloud was a threat to the safety of Spira long before the trial had started. This had all just been for show.

"I suggest you prepare yourself. These are likely your last moments to compose yourself to face your sentence," Rufus said as he headed for the exit. "The Crusaders will doubtless be in momentarily to escort you to the Via Purifico." He paused at the door and turned back, studying Cloud once more. To Cloud's surprise, the other summoner inclined his head, like a very abbreviated bow. "A pity you're an Al Bhed, really. You might actually have made it all the way to Zanarkand, with that much sheer stubborn idiocy driving you."

Then he was gone, and Cloud was left alone once more. He hung on to the bars for the support, wanting to be on his feet with the guards came for him. He'd face his death with as much dignity as he could; it was the only form of defiance left to him.

At least, he hoped he would be able to do that. With the way his knees were shaking and his breath kept catching behind a knot in his throat that felt like bottled up tears, he was horribly afraid he would end up breaking down in the end.

Would they let him say goodbye to his guardians? Cloud would have liked to apologize to Zack and Seph for leading them to this fate, if nothing else. But he doubted the followers of Yevon had any intention of showing even that small a kindness to a 'heretic' like him. He wished he had some idea of what was coming. Rufus had said 'the Via Purifico' as if it should be obvious what that meant, and perhaps if he'd grown up as a proper follower of Yevon, Cloud might have understood. As it was, the possibilities that flashed through his mind were unnerving to say the least.

The wait between Rufus leaving and the arrival of the guards was so interminable Cloud had almost started to wonder if Rufus had been making the whole thing up, when the door finally opened again. The Crusaders who marched through were wearing fancier uniforms than anything Cloud had seen before, the metal polished to a mirror gloss that gleamed even in the dim light of the prison room. They marched inside, paused, and each took a large step to one side, holding the doors open.

Behind them came a much more imposing figure, and his armour made the other two look downright dull. Cloud wondered if it was supposed to be some sort of honour, that they were wearing their best uniforms to take him to his death. Or was it just another way for them to look down on him?

As the leader approached, Cloud was able to get a better look at him, and he was startled to recognize him. "Sir Angeal," he said, hoping his voice wasn't shaking as obviously as it sounded to him. "I didn't expect it to be you."

"I requested the duty. I felt it was my obligation, given my past relationship as Lord Sephiroth's guardian," Angeal explained solemnly. After a moment, he lowered his voice so that only Cloud would hear him. "Quite frankly, I wasn't certain anyone else would have remembered the concepts of chivalry and honour that are supposed to bind the Crusaders. You may have been sentenced as traitors, but you are still summoners and guardians, and deserve the respect that should command."

In other words, the guards might have taken the opportunity to deliver some 'justice' of their own before delivering him to whatever hellish place he'd been sent to, Cloud interpreted silently. He nodded his thanks, afraid if he spoke again his voice would break with fear.

Angeal shoved a plank out to connect the walkway to Cloud's cage, then unlocked and opened the door. As Cloud stepped out, Angeal supported his elbow with one hand, perhaps seeing how unsteady Cloud's legs were.

"I know they probably haven't been treating you well," the older man said, still keeping his voice soft, dark eyes flicking over Cloud as if scanning him for injuries. "Are you able to walk?"

"I'll manage," Cloud mumbled, ducking his head in embarrassment. He certainly didn't want to be carried - or worse, dragged.

"Do you still have contact with your aeons?" Angeal asked, surprising Cloud.

"I can feel them inside me, but I've been blocked from actually summoning," Cloud replied. "Does it matter? I mean... could the maesters take them from me? What happens to them if I die?"

"If you die, the energy of their spirits simply returns to the fayth in the form of pyreflies," Angeal assured him. "If they feel the pain of their summoner's death, I've never heard of it. Remember, many summoners die before they can ever reach Zanarkand - and the ones who do reach it, never survive." He gave Cloud a tight-lipped smile. "I don't know if they can take your aeons, but I was worried they might have found a way. Stay close to me, and don't despair."

Startled again by the unexpected words, Cloud looked up at the older man. But they'd come within hearing of the other Crusaders now, and Angeal said nothing more. His expression was stony and forbidding, to the point that Cloud almost wondered if he'd imagined that fleeting smile.

Faint hope dared to take root in his heart. Angeal was still loyal to Sephiroth in his heart of hearts, and he believed in Cloud. He'd said there wouldn't be anything he could do to help them if they were caught, not in his official capacity. But what could he be unofficially planning? If Cloud escaped under his watch, surely the wrath of Bevelle would fall on him. At the least he'd lose his position, and in the worst possible case, he might be tried and executed as a traitor himself.

The three Crusaders marched him through a maze of corridors, until Cloud was thoroughly lost and turned around. They went up and down so many stairs he wasn't even sure if they ended up higher or lower than where they'd started, let alone in what direction they'd ultimately gone. How big was this place?

Up ahead was another doorway with guards posted outside it. The men snapped to attention and saluted when they saw Angeal, but they also exchanged wary looks. "Commander?" one of them said. "I thought Maester Heidigger was conducting the executions."

"I asked for the chance to show Maester Shinra that my faith in Yevon has not faltered," Angeal replied. "Though it's true that one of the accused was my own summoner, that was ten years ago and much has changed since then. This seemed the best way to prove where my loyalties truly lie."

Still the two new guards hesitated, and now Cloud caught the two who'd come from his prison also looking at each other behind Angeal's back. "Are you refusing to follow the orders of your commanding officer?" Angeal snapped at them.

"Sir, no, sir," the two at the door replied in unison, pulling the doors open. But even as they did so, the guards behind Cloud were shifting position, slowly like they were trying to be subtle about their efforts to flank him.

"Damn, I'd hoped they'd stay cowed a bit longer than this," Angeal muttered, low enough that Cloud wasn't sure even he'd been meant to hear it.

Then, to the equal astonishment of Cloud and the Crusaders, Angeal spun and lashed out with a vicious punch at the guard on the left. The blow landed squarely on the man's chin, shoving him backwards until his helmeted head met the wall with a clang. He collapsed, stunned or unconscious, and Angeal turned on the man on the right side.

Belatedly Cloud jumped into the fray as well. He wasn't much of a hand-to-hand fighter, but he managed to trip one of his original guards as they rushed forward to help their friends. The Crusader hit the floor with a clatter loud enough to make Cloud's ears ring, and his friend turned back towards Cloud with one hand on his sword hilt.

Angeal was now locked in battle with the second of the new guards, both of them having drawn their weapons and their armour protecting them from any easily disabling blows. Cloud knew he would have no chance against his opponent unarmed... but he wasn't really unarmed, was he?

"Crejy!" he shouted, and reached for the power of his aeons. Now that he was no longer within whatever wards had been placed around his prison, they surged to meet him eagerly, as if apologizing for not having been able to help them before.

The now-familiar giant ice crystal formed between Cloud and the Crusader, who yelped and started to backpedal, apparently realizing the danger he was in. He wasn't fast enough, as Crejy shattered the crystal and the shards of ice went flying. Several of them struck the retreating guard and expanded rapidly, frost spreading and becoming ice as they raced to encase him.

"Don't kill him," Cloud ordered, wincing as the Crusader screamed. "Crejy, don't kill him! He's just doing his job." If the violence was ever going to end, then it had to start somewhere.

The aeon's shoulders lifted and dropped as she heaved a seemingly disappointed sigh, but the spreading ice stopped before it had covered the Crusader's face. A moment later Angeal thumped the man in the temple with the pommel of his sword, and the guard went crashing to the floor hard enough to crack the ice surrounding him.

"Nice work," Angeal said, and put a hand between Cloud's shoulders, pushing him forward. "Hurry, we haven't much time. The noise will bring others." Panting, and trying not to show how much even this small effort had strained his weakened resources, Cloud just nodded and followed him through the door.

Just ahead in the gloom he made out the dull gleam of metal, and realized he was looking at a whole wall made of bars, separating a series of tiny cells behind them. Two of the cells were occupied; Sephiroth looked up from where he'd been reading a book, and Zack jumped to his feet the moment he saw them approaching.

"About time you got here!" Zack exclaimed, and his joking tone couldn't quite cover the very real worry and relief in his voice. "I was starting to think they'd decided to just let us rot away down here instead of actually doing anything with us. Sweet fayth, Cloud, have they not been feeding you at all? You're skin and bones, worse than when we first met you!"

"You can worry about fattening him up once you're out of the city," Angeal replied, quickly sorting through a large ring of keys until he found the ones to unlock Zack and Sephiroth's cells. "There's a way station in the Calm Lands where you'll be able to get supplies. I was able to bring enough gil to reprovision you, but not the equipment itself."

"It would have been a bit difficult to explain why you were requisitioning extra weapons and tents in order to escort three prisoners to their death sentence," Sephiroth agreed, his tone dry but amused. "Thank you, old friend. You're risking everything for this. I must admit, I doubted you, and I apologize."

"I can't blame you for that," Angeal shook his head, and paused for a moment to meet Sephiroth's eyes. Something complex and indefinably sad passed between them, something Cloud knew he could probably never hope to understand, with the weight of more than a decade of history behind it. "I let you down once, and we all paid the price for it."

"It was I who failed you, not the other way around," Sephiroth demurred.

"Then make it up to me by ensuring this one makes it to Zanarkand," Angeal replied. "That's the only thing that's going to end this senseless escalation of violence before it becomes all out war."

"Aren't you coming with us?" Cloud blurted out. "I mean, it's not like you can stay here, right? That is, I'd be honoured if you would be my guardian, if you're willing."

Angeal gave him a very strange look, his expression a combination of wistfulness, regret, and horror. "The honour would be mine, but I'm afraid I must decline. Zanarkand is... a haunted place, for me. If I never set foot there again, it will be too soon. Quickly now, all of you. We'll have to fight our way out as it is."

Zack was already moving forward, and he'd reached the fallen bodies of the Crusaders. He snatched up one sword and tossed it to Sephiroth, then grabbed another for himself. Already the sound of shouting and clattering armour was echoing down the hall, approaching far too rapidly for Cloud's peace of mind. "Good thing you both can summon without needing a staff and a big long ritual," Zack said with forced cheerfulness. "We're going to need every advantage we can get. What's the fastest way out of here?"

"Up," Sephiroth answered with a grim smile, and gestured at the vaulted ceiling of the hall with his new weapon. "Cloud, are you strong enough to summon one of your flying aeons and hold it long enough for it to carry us out of here?"

"You can do that?" Angeal stared at Cloud, then shook his head and gave an abbreviated bow. "Impressive. I can see why Seph thinks you're worth returning to that cursed place."

If they'd had more time Cloud would have demanded to know what he meant by that - it was the second time in five minutes he'd mentioned Zanarkand in a negative light, and now he implied Sephiroth considered it the same way. But time was the one thing they didn't have.

"Pyrysid!" Cloud called, knowing that Jymavun was too small and light to be able to bear the weight of all three of them as she flew, and not certain Eqeuh could actually fly, even though he was summoned out of the sky.

Besides, Pyrysid's entrance would surely result in exactly the hole in the roof they were going to need in order to get out of here.

Sure enough he heard the dragon's roar first, and the whole building shook with it. The first of the Crusaders and temple guards had appeared around a corner, but the trembling of the floor beneath them sent them staggering. The shouting took on a new, terrified tenor that only increased when the ceiling exploded, showering chunks of masonry and marble all around them.

Pyrysid roared again, aiming his clear displeasure in the direction of the guards, before he landed between them and Cloud's group. His massive bulk filled the entire hallway; indeed, it was a tight squeeze for him to fit at all. Cloud hoped he'd be able to launch himself back up again, considering the way his wings were pinned to his sides at the moment.

"Go, go!" Zack ordered like the Blitzball captain he used to be, and linked his hands for Cloud to step on to get a boost up to the dragon's back. Once he was up, Cloud turned and offered a hand back down to help Zack scramble up as well. Sephiroth was already climbing up the beast's back leg, and Angeal...

Angeal was squeezing his way between Pyrysid and the wall, moving towards the front. "The guards have crossbows, flamethrowers, and Al Bhed guns," he shouted. "I'll hold them off as long as I can, but you must get out of range as quickly as possible. Beware the guardian!"

"Angeal, no!" Zack cried, trying to reach for him. "You'll die!"

"He's made his choice," Sephiroth said, restraining the younger man with a hand on his shoulder. "There's nowhere for him to go, if he's not willing to come with us, and he knows it. Don't waste his sacrifice." The last words were directed at Cloud, and the heavy sorrow in his voice made Cloud wince with sympathetic pain for his guardian.

"I failed in my duty to Lord Sephiroth ten years ago. If I'd been just a little more willing to sacrifice my own life as well as his... this is my chance to make up for that, and redeem my honour," Angeal said, saluting him since there wasn't room to bow. "Lord Cloud, Lord Sephiroth, Sir Zack. May the fayth watch over you all. Safe journey."

Then he was past Pyrysid, and he charged at the Crusaders and temple guards now massing into an attack formation at the end of the hall. They fired at him, bullets whining and flame blossoming from multiple places in the line, but Angeal barely flinched as he was hit. With a bellowing war cry Angeal barrelled right through the group, scattering them and disrupting their formation, then turned on them to slash at their vulnerable backs.

Some of the men turned to fight with Angeal, but more were regrouping and aiming for Cloud and his party. Though he knew there was no way for him to force Angeal to come with them, it still sat badly with Cloud to leave him behind to an almost certain death. Still, they had no choice.

"Pyrysid, fly!" Cloud commanded, and grabbed frantically for one of the many spikes in the dragon's scales as the aeon reared up on his hind legs, foreclaws scrabbling at the hole in the ceiling.

Then the aeon lunged upwards, and his wings snapped open the moment they cleared the roof. The wheel on his back spun over the heads of his passengers, seemingly unsupported by anything. Cloud could feel the power crackling over them, stinging like the lash of a thousand bees, and he clung to the scaly spike for dear life. It might be painful where he was, but it would be far worse if he let go and fell.

"Take us out of Bevelle! Get us away from the Crusaders," Cloud ordered. Below he heard the small explosions of guns going off, and heard faint whistling all around them as the bullets passed through the air. Some of them must surely have struck the aeon, but he didn't flinch and his bulk protected his passengers.

"We made it!" Zack gasped, his breathing sounding ragged as the speed of their passage through the air whipped the wind around them.

Cloud might have cheered their escape, but he looked at Sephiroth first, and something about the dark look on his other guardian's face stopped him. "Seph? Are you okay?" Of course, he realized with a grimace, it was probably just knowing that they'd left Angeal behind.

But Sephiroth shook his head. "It won't be as easy as this," he shouted over the wind. "Angeal bought us enough time that the gunners couldn't fire on us, but the Crusaders are far from the only defence this city has."

Beneath them Pyrysid's body shook as the great dragon roared again, almost as if he was agreeing with Sephiroth.

And ahead of them, from the centre of the city, something screeched in answer. The sound made all the hair rise on the back of Cloud's neck, and sent a sick feeling down his spine to the pit of his stomach.

"What in the name of all that's holy is that?" Zack cried, as something massive and long lifted slowly into the sky from where it had been curled around the central spire of the temple.

"You may recall I said it would be a bad idea for us to fly into the city in an attempt to get to the temple," Sephiroth said. "This would be why."

The monster ahead of them continued to rise into the air, until it was obvious it was every bit as large and massive as Pyrysid. Perhaps even larger. It screamed at them again, and Cloud had to fight the urge to let go and clamp his hands over his ears to protect them.

Sephiroth smiled grimly. "That is Evrae, the Great Wyrm, guardian of Bevelle. I always wished I could see it in action for myself. I suppose this is a case of 'be careful what you wish for'."

Chapter Text

When the monster spread its wings to fly at them, Cloud could see its wingspan was nearly the equal of its length. Considering its body resembled a snake with legs, the length of it was hardly inconsiderable. Pyrysid was more massive, but Cloud thought Evrae might be bigger.

"How are we supposed to fight that thing?" Zack demanded, his voice strained with obvious fear. "Even if we could get close enough to hit it with a sword, I don't think it would make much of an impact! Can we outfly it?"

Pyrysid was already struggling to do just that, arching into a dive that allowed him to trade height for speed, then pumping his wings when he was just a few body-lengths above the city. He was going so fast it was hard to breath, but when Cloud looked back over his shoulder, Evrae was gaining on them rapidly. Being lighter meant the wyrm could fly faster, and there was nothing they could do to slow it down.

"We'll have to use magic, and aeons," Sephiroth shouted. "Cloud, focus on using your aeon's breath attack whenever possible, it will do the most damage. But even between blasts, you should be able to draw on his ability to do black magic. I'll summon as well. Zack..."

"I'm not much use with black magic, but I know some status effect spells," Zack offered. "And I can make sure the two of you don't fall off the damned dragon."

"Slow it down if you can," Cloud said. Mentally he commanded Pyrysid to turn again, bringing the dragon around to face the wyrm. He felt power gathering around Sephiroth as well, and a moment later the crash of thunder heralded the arrival of D'jose's aeon.

"Binah!" Sephiroth cried out, and gestured towards Evrae. Lightning gathered at the tip of Binah's horn, and Cloud thought he heard Zack mutter a curse just before the power crackled through the air between the aeon and the wyrm.

Pryrysid roared, and pure energy blasted from his mouth to join Binah's lightning. To Cloud's horror, Evrae simply writhed in midair, impossibly agile, and corkscrewed around the blast to dodge it. "We need to flank it," Cloud said, and Sephiroth nodded.

Charging past them, Binah's hooves threw up tiny lightning bolts as they struck the seemingly solid air. Apparently he could truly fly, after a fashion, though Cloud still thought Pryrysid was the better choice to have carried them out of the temple.

Two discs of power shot from the unicorn to Evrae, and this time the attack actually connected. Not well, just catching the tip of the wyrm's tail, but it was enough to make Evrae hiss and bate his wings.

The hissing was more than just a sound, though. A cloud spewed forth from the wyrm's open mouth, and Cloud didn't like the look of it as it drifted through the air towards them. "Why do I get the feeling we don't want to breathe that?" he said, even as he commanded Pyrysid to dive beneath the vile looking patch of air.

"Evrae's attacks can poison you or even turn you to stone," Sephiroth replied. "If we do have the misfortune to fly into a cloud of it, try not to inhale. Thankfully, the farther it must travel through the air, the more the poison will disperse."

Despite everything, something about Sephiroth's words made Zack laugh. "Who knew blitz training would come in handy for fighting giant flying snakes? Dunno about you guys, but I can probably hold my breath longer than that thing can keep attacking."

Almost too late, Cloud saw Evrae's tail whipping around towards Binah's legs. He shouted a warning; he didn't know whether it was Sephiroth who heard him or the aeon himself, but Binah tried frantically to dodge. He managed to escape the worst of the damage, but the impact still sent him spinning through the sky, off balance and scrambling to keep from falling entirely.

Taking advantage of Evrae's focus on Binah, Pyrysid launched a quick series of devastating black magic attacks. At least, they would have been devastating if they had all connected, but after the first blast Evrae once again managed to dodge the rest.

"We have to pin it down," Zack said. "Flanking isn't enough, it just dodges by going up or down!"

"Unfortunately, we don't have a third summoner handy," Sephiroth replied. His long silver hair was blowing around him, alternately obscuring and uncovering his face. He looked unusually intent, even considering they were in the middle of a battle, his face strained and his green eyes shining even brighter than usual.

The reason why became obvious when Sephiroth snapped out the words to a Firaga spell, at the same moment Binah threw another lightning blast at Evrae. Cloud hastily ordered Pyrysid to cast another barrage of spells as well.

This time they managed to score a proper hit on Evrae, and the wyrm screamed in agony. It wasn't enough to stop it or even slow it much, unfortunately, but it did at least mean it was possible to hurt the damned thing.

"Damn, Seph, you can split your attention enough to summon and cast at the same time?" Zack said, clearly amazed. "I didn't know that. Here I thought Cloud was the precocious one."

"It would be somewhat easier if you weren't distracting me with chatter," Sephiroth pointed out, his voice rough. Pyrysid had to dodge to one side abruptly to keep them out of another poison cloud, and the older summoner nearly lost his grip on the dragon's back. Zack swore and lunged to grab at his belt, then clamped a hand on Cloud's belt for good measure.

If it was possible to summon and cast at the same time, could Cloud do it? Even if he could, though, he'd barely started to learn the first of the black magic spells. Nothing he could cast would be strong enough to hurt Evrae. And anyway, what they needed was a third angle of attack, not just more power coming from one side.

Could he summon more than one aeon? He'd never heard of such a thing being done, but it wouldn't be that different from splitting his attention to cast a spell as well, would it?

Well, he'd apparently managed to do several other things that were 'impossible' simply because he hadn't known they couldn't be done. He'd never know unless he tried.

Careful to keep part of his attention on his link with Pyrysid - the last thing they needed was for the dragon to dissolve beneath them and send them plummeting down to the ground far below - Cloud reached for the power of his other aeons. Eqeuh was unavailable, of course, but the other three pulsed eagerly within him.

There was only one choice he could make, really. "Jymavun!" he shouted, and thrust his fist into the air, feeling like he needed the focus of the gesture and her name to help him accomplish the impossible.

Power surged through him, pulling him in two directions at once, and for a horrible moment Cloud thought it might literally tear him apart. He screamed, but in the end it was the sky that tore itself open, not his skull. Bright light pierced the heavens as Besaid's aeon came plummeting through, falling in a spiralling path that ended when she snapped her wings open to hover just behind and above Evrae.

Now they had the third angle they needed to keep the wyrm pinned between their attacks, unable to dodge. "Do it! Everything you've got!" Cloud shouted, and felt the power gathering in Pyrysid. "Seph, do you hear me? On three!"

Sephiroth was sitting rigid, clutching at Pyrysid's scales, his wide eyes fixed on Jymavun with a shocked gaze. He didn't appear to hear Cloud's words at first, but Zack let go of his belt to smack him on the shoulder, and that appeared to jolt him back to reality. He glanced over at Cloud and nodded marginally.

The effort of trying to remember how to do something even as simple as count to three while simultaneously summoning two aeons was beyond Cloud, but Zack seemed to understand, because he started the count. "One." His voice held a note of command, like he was a Blitz captain again and ordering his players to do their drills. "Two."

The power build up was even worse than before, Cloud's mind straining to try to split his awareness between Pyrysid and Jymavun as they both charged their attacks, until he felt like he would surely go mad from it. It felt like ages passed, but finally Zack called the last number. "Three!"

Bolts of pure energy shot out from Cloud's two aeons, and powerful lightning crackled from Binah. All three attacks converged on Evrae at once, and the great wyrm had nowhere to go to escape. The blast made it scream in agony, a horrible whistling sound that Cloud thought would haunt him for the rest of his life. The sail-like wings were shredded, and Evrae twisted and clawed at nothing as it began to fall from the sky.

Feeling sick, Cloud released Jymavun before the power could truly drive him insane, or worse, make him pass out from the overload. He didn't know if Pyrysid would remain summoned if Cloud was unconscious, but he doubted it. Gasping for air, he coughed a little as he sprawled out over his remaining aeon's back. He felt the tug on his belt as Zack kept him in place, and was grateful for his guardian's foresight.

"Get us out of here," Cloud croaked, his voice as raw as if he'd been screaming through the whole final attack. Maybe he had been.

Obediently Pyrysid wheeled and headed away from the towers of Bevelle, aiming towards a large, open area Cloud could just see in the distance that had to be the Calm Lands. Cloud just let himself go limp, focusing on nothing but keeping Pyrysid solid beneath them now that the danger was past.

He didn't want to look up, partly because he was afraid of losing his grip on Pyrysid, but mostly because he was afraid he would see that look on Sephiroth's and Zack's faces again. The awed, reverent one, that made him feel like some kind of freak of nature instead of just a person too stubborn and ignorant to recognize the limits of what was possible.

Zack's grip on him changed, going from clutching at Cloud's belt to rubbing his back. "That was amazing," his guardian said. He sounded impressed, but not as worshipful as Cloud had been afraid of. "It's just one thing after another with you, isn't it? And people said I was a prodigy."

"Indeed," Sephiroth agreed. His tone was a bit more deferential than Zack's, but not much. Cloud dared to lift his head a little, and saw Sephiroth regarding him with a smile that was almost rueful. "Just when I think you cannot possibly surprise me any more. I begin to believe there may be nothing the aeons won't do for you. And likewise, I begin to believe that everything we think we know about them may be wrong."

"Eh, sometimes it just takes someone who doesn't know something can't be done to prove that it can," Zack said, and shrugged. "I mean, imagine how often the very first summoners must have heard 'it can't be done'."

"Well, I'm glad I can impress you both, but I don't know how much longer I can keep us in the air," Cloud admitted with a grimace. "My head is pounding and I feel like a squashed flan."

"You mean you're not invincible and infallible?" Zack teased him, and patted his shoulder. "Good, I was starting to feel inadequate! Perfect people make me nervous. Put us on the ground, then. I can carry you for a while. I'd say you've more than earned a rest."

"What you've accomplished already is more than impressive enough," Sephiroth added. "It will take Bevelle's forces some time to recover and organize themselves to come after us. With luck, we can be on Mount Gagazet before they manage it. No one but summoners and their guardians are permitted to set foot on the holy road over Gagazet, the Ronso ensure it. Even the Crusaders won't be able to pursue us past that point."

Wearily Cloud struggled to see through Pyrysid's eyes, since he didn't want to lean over far enough to get a good look at the ground through his own. The dragon's vision was distorted and strange, but after a few minutes of struggle Cloud realized he simply needed to tell the aeon to find a good place in the Calm Lands to set them down, and Pyrysid could find his own landing point.

Perhaps the aeon decided to take pity on them, because instead of diving he spiralled slowly down out of the sky, coming to a landing so gentle Cloud wasn't even certain they'd actually touched down for a moment. Sephiroth slid down first, followed quickly by Zack, and then they both reached up to help Cloud down as well.

For once, Cloud's pride decided to shut the hell up and just let him accept the help. He was exhausted and had a splitting headache, and every limb was trembling with the aftermath of fear. And perhaps with the effects of hunger and deprivation, he realized as the world spun dizzily around him and Zack had to catch him around the shoulders to keep him from collapsing completely.

The headache eased slightly as Pyrysid dissolved into pyreflies, and that was the only thing that let Cloud stay on his feet. "Didn't they feed you at all?" Zack demanded, shifting around until Cloud was draped over his back. Cloud's feet dangled halfway to the ground and he felt ridiculous getting a ride like a little child, but he had to admit it was pretty much the only way he was going anywhere right now.

"Bread and water," he murmured, as Sephiroth headed for the crest of the hill they'd landed next to, and Zack set out after him. "Which is more than we have with us now."

"We also don't have any armour or potions, and these ceremonial swords we grabbed from the guards honestly aren't worth the metal they're made from," Zack said, grimacing as he lifted his stolen weapon to study it closer. "These are going to break the first time we try to hit something with a tough hide. If the fiends attack..."

"If the fiends attack, for the moment my magic and aeons should be more than enough to handle them," Sephiroth interrupted him. "It seems they cared for us rather better than Cloud, and after a week's rest I'm at full strength. The fight with Evrae was tiring, but I'm far from exhausted."

"Good, because I think it's going to be all I can do to carry him," Zack said. "Not like I'm all that great in a fight without a decent sword anyway, or at least a blitzball to slam at the enemy. Angeal..." his voice caught on the name, and Cloud winced. After a moment Zack cleared his throat and forced himself to keep going. "Angeal said something about getting supplies?"

"I have the gil he provided for us," Sephiroth said. "If they haven't been chased off or rounded up already, there should be an Al Bhed supply station near the edge of the Calm Lands that we can purchase equipment at."

"I swear, if we run into Rin again, I'm going to shake him down for the magic teleporter he's obviously got hidden somewhere," Zack joked in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood.

Cloud wasn't sure where exactly in the Calm Lands they'd landed, but he was pretty sure it was closer to Bevelle than Gagazet. That meant they still had a lot of ground to cover, and they had to do it before the Chocobo Knights caught up to them. "Maybe we should stay in the foothills? Off the main path," he suggested.

"Not a bad thought, if you're confident of your ability to navigate," Sephiroth agreed. "I don't know this area well enough, unfortunately. It's far too easy to get lost in the badlands around the plateau of the Calm Lands."

"I need to see some kind of reference point to get my bearings, but then I should be able to get us to Gagazet without much trouble," Cloud said. "I couldn't see properly from Pyrysid's back, but I know the mountains around here like the back of my hand."

"If I'm not mistaken, we should be able to get a decent view of this area of the Calm Lands once we come around the next hill," Sephiroth assured him. "I know how to get to the way station, and from there, you can take over."

"I suppose we're not gonna have time to let him rest properly, if we want to stay ahead of the Crusaders," Zack sighed. "I swear, kid, it's like herding fish trying to take care of you sometimes."

"It's not like I'm trying to make it difficult on purpose," Cloud protested weakly. "Hey, I can rest when I'm dead, right?" He'd meant it to be a joke, but the words hung heavy in the air between them. Not only was it rubbing salt in the wound so soon after Angeal's sacrifice, it was a reminder that every step took them closer to Cloud's death.

"Assuming you actually live long enough to get to Zanarkand," Zack finally retorted with obviously exaggerated irritation. "Between the aeons and the Crusaders, some days I'm not sure what's going to kill you first. Strangely enough, the fiends are a distant third in the odds."

"Only because I have such good guardians," Cloud said, and he might have hugged Zack a little tighter than was strictly necessary to keep himself in place on the older man's back.

"And that sums up the relationship of every summoner with his or her guardians," Sephiroth said, a smile quirking at his lips.

As they skirted around the foothill that was blocking their view, the great grassy plain of the Calm Lands came slowly came into view. "Damn, it's like a green ocean," Zack exclaimed with a low whistle as the true scope of it became apparent. "It just goes on forever."

"Part of that is illusion," Sephiroth said, his voice taking on a faintly lecturing tone. "The plains are much longer than they are wide, but the great chasm at the far edge makes it appear far more vast than it truly is. Standing at the edge of it, seeing the massive scars left behind on the world, is the only real way to appreciate the enormity of Sin. The battle between it and Lady Yunalesca's final aeon..."

Abruptly Sephiroth stopped walking, and his voice trailed off at the same moment. He stared out over the plains with a shocked, haunted expression. "Seph?" Zack said, picking up his pace a little to come alongside. "Are you... sweet fayth, what is that?"

The hill fell away and became a cliff instead, letting them see the southern edge of the plain for the first time. Spread out over the ground like a creeping cancer was a dark blotch. From this distance it resembled an enormous ant colony, with tiny figures scurrying about everywhere. It was the flash of light off polished armour from the figures around the edges that finally let Cloud realize what he was seeing.

"The Al Bhed," he whispered, aghast. "It's all the Al Bhed they've rounded up, this is the camp they're taking them all to. They're being held prisoner."

"I didn't think there were that many Al Bhed in all of Spira!" Zack said, clearly disbelieving. "Even if they're grabbing every blond Spiran who might have a drop of Al Bhed blood, there's no way there could be so many of them."

"Home," Sephiroth said grimly. "The Crusaders have found Home."

"Huh? Your home is Bevelle, isn't it?" Zack said. "I don't think the Crusaders ever lost it, Seph."

"Not his home," Cloud corrected him miserably. "Just Home. The Al Bhed city. Seph's right, that's the only way they'd have found so many. I wonder if there's anything left, or if they destroyed it after they cleared it out so nobody else would be able to hide there."

He felt numb, in shock as if he'd suffered a wound, and his heart ached. All his life, his mother had told stories to him about the fabled Al Bhed city, where she'd lived before she'd come to Nibelheim with his father. It was the secret place the Al Bhed had built for themselves, so that the people without a country could have a Home to call their own at last, and no outsiders were ever permitted to know about it, let alone see it.

She'd always promised to take him to see it, one day. When the time was right, when he was just a little older, when they had enough gil to spare. He'd regretted the fact that becoming a summoner meant he would never have a chance to travel there, but from the looks of it, there probably wasn't much left to see.

"I didn't even know the Al Bhed had a city," Zack said, frowning. "I mean, isn't that their whole thing? That they don't have a homeland?"

"That's what they want people to believe, so nobody will hunt down their Home and destroy it again," Cloud replied. "At least, that's what Sysy always told me. How do you even know about it?" he asked Sephiroth.

"After all of Yevon's followers rejected me, it was the Al Bhed who took me in and made me feel worth something again," Sephiroth said softly, and the pain in his voice as he looked out over the internment camp was clear. "Rin knew me from my journey, and he vouched for me. He said that I was every bit as much a man without a home as the Al Bhed, and so Home was where I belonged. I lived there for nearly five years."

Now Cloud remembered that Sephiroth had mentioned spending years among the Al Bhed before. Cloud had assumed it was on a ship, because he'd thought they wouldn't tell even Sephiroth about Home, but apparently he'd been wrong. Then again, given the Al Bhed attitude toward the way the Spirans didn't value the lives of their summoners, Cloud could totally understand why they would take in a 'failed' summoner who'd lost his faith in Yevon.

"There's no way an Al Bhed waystation is still operating, not under these circumstances," Zack said, and grimaced. "It's possible the Crusaders would have taken it over, or given it to Spiran merchants - the summoners still have to cross the Calm Lands, and they'll still need supplies. But if we go down there, we'll be grabbed faster than you can say 'Let's Blitz'."

The view of the plains had at least given Cloud the opportunity to get his bearings. "We're not that far from Nibelheim," he realized. "If we can make it there, we can get supplies. It's so off the beaten path, it's entirely possible the anti-Al Bhed sentiment hasn't spread there." He paused to consider that for a moment, then sighed. "At least, not any more than was already there to start with. It might be smart for Sephiroth to pretend to be the summoner, just this once."

"Much as I dislike lying, or denying you the respect you're due, I think perhaps in this case I agree," Sephiroth nodded. "Though I hope you're planning to tell your mother the truth."

"Assuming she's even still there, with all this going on," Cloud muttered, looking back at the cancerous sprawl of the camp.

"Well, there's only one way to find out," Zack said, and hefted Cloud a little higher on his back. "The sooner we get going, the sooner we'll arrive. I want food, weapons, and warmer clothes before we go much further." He shivered, hard enough to make Cloud's teeth rattle. "Not necessarily in that order."

As Cloud had said, Nibelheim wasn't far from their landing point - as the fiend flew. On foot, trekking through the mountain passes with no equipment, no supplies, and entirely the wrong clothing, it might as well have been on the other side of the world.

Zack and Sephiroth traded off carrying Cloud, and after a while he insisted he was well enough to be able to walk on his own. The worst of the headache had faded, which left him much steadier on his feet. The sharp scents of pine and snow on the breeze that blew through the mountains helped as well, clearing his mind and feeling comfortably familiar. He'd come home at last; this was where he belonged, in a place where every inch of the skyline was unique and memorable, and every step he took upwards seemed to drop the temperature another degree.

The same brisk air and clean scents that comforted Cloud were making Zack utterly miserable, of course, and Cloud felt a little bad about that. Sephiroth finally shrugged out of his outer robe and offered it to Zack, and the islander took it without even a single joke, so Cloud knew it was bad. Hopefully, they really would be able to get some warmer clothes at Nibelheim, or there was no way they'd make it over the frozen slopes of Gagazet alive.

Finally, the green scent in the air changed subtly, and Cloud veered over to the edge of the path. "Aha!" he exclaimed, spotting what he was after, the unmistakeable spiky leaves nearly hidden by an evergreen bush at the side of the trail.

"Gysahl greens?" Zack asked incredulously. "You know those aren't edible for humans, right? Or are you feeling seasick all of a sudden?"

"They can be used to lure and tame wild chocobo," Sephiroth said, some of the grim weight seeming to lift from him. "We've been seeing tracks of them throughout the area, but I didn't realize the greens would grow so high in the mountains."

"Not naturally, but the traders who use these trails planted them all along the route," Cloud explained, gathering as much as he could find. "The paths are so steep and dangerous, especially at certain times of the year, they often lose a pack bird to lameness or even have one go over the edge. This way, they can lure another if they need to."

"Smart," Zack said, and bent to help him gather the greens. "Hope you know how to tame one into taking a rider without a saddle, though. I might be able to steer a ship in a pinch, but I can count the number of birds I've ridden on the fingers of one hand."

It took them the better part of an hour to lure in and tame three birds. Sephiroth used some kind of magic to calm them, though Cloud didn't recognize the spell at all. The wild birds remained restive, shifting from foot to foot and occasionally flapping their wings, but they finally allowed the three humans to climb onto their backs with makeshift reins woven of vines.

Riding a chocobo bareback turned out to be an experience in agony. Cloud hoped fervently it was one he'd never need to repeat. The bouncing motion of a running bird was bad enough even with a padded saddle to cushion the jouncing blows. Without that buffer, each step the bird took lifted Cloud off its back and slammed him back down again, his tailbone impacting with the bird's bony spine each time.

Still, the time they saved was more than worth it, as was the fact that the birds had no difficulty on the rough trails. Fiends tried to attack them a few times, but the chocobos were so fast and agile they had no difficulty avoiding the encounters.

They climbed higher and higher, until Zack and Sephiroth were both panting hard in the thin air. "Try to keep your breathing even, but deeper and faster," Cloud called to them, his words broken up by the stride of the chocobo. Even he was having a little trouble, his body having apparently adjusted somewhat to the much richer air closer to sea level. His mother had told him stories many times of how sick she had been when she'd first come to his father's hometown, a combination of her pregnancy with Cloud and the mountain air. He hoped it wouldn't hit Sephiroth or Zack nearly that hard.

At last, they crested yet another ridge and Nibelheim came into view ahead of them. It was a tiny hamlet, just a collection of houses tucked into a small mountain valley, next to a glacier-fed lake. From a distance it looked picturesque and perfect, right on the edge of the snow line, the chimneys of the houses sending thin columns of smoke drifting into the air. Every so often the wind would blow the smoke towards them, and the scent of burning cedar and pine made Cloud breathe a little deeper, trying to draw it in.

There was almost no sign left of the fire that had devastated the town years ago. The houses had all been rebuilt, the burned foundations and trees cleared away, until only someone who really knew what they were looking for would notice that the cleared area around the village was wider than it needed to be, and the trees at the edge of the forest much smaller and younger than the rest of the growth.

"The general store isn't much, but it's better than nothing," Cloud called to his companions. "If we're lucky they'll have gone on a supply run recently, the mountain passes are wide open at this time of year so they usually make the trip pretty frequently. Even if they haven't, they'll still have plenty of staples like journey bread, and there's not much call for swords and such up here so they tend to sit on the shelves."

"Which one is your house?" Zack asked curiously. Cloud pointed, and was a little dismayed to realize there was no sign of smoke rising from the chimney.

Well, there could be a lot of innocent reasons for that. It was late spring, and while the air felt cold to Cloud, that was probably just because he'd started to get used to the warmer weather of the lowlands. After Kilika's impossible heat, just about anything would feel cold by comparison. Maybe his mother was simply warm enough not to need a fire.

It didn't have to mean the Crusaders had come and dragged her away from their home. Cloud decided he was going to continue to believe the best until proven otherwise.

A few people recognized him as they rode in, and one or two even called out in surprise. He nodded and greeted the friendly ones by name, but nobody approached closely. Probably because they were all trying to figure out why he'd come back, and who the two people with him were. Well, they would all find out soon enough, though Cloud was quietly grateful Sephiroth had agreed to pretend to be their summoner. Even though it meant that Cloud wouldn't be able to rub his status as a summoner into all their faces the way he'd always wanted to, right now they just didn't need the problems that could stir up.

Besides, being a guardian was still a pretty prestigious position, especially if anybody recognized Sephiroth or Zack. Cloud smiled a little to himself, awed all over again by the company he kept these days.

Nobody stopped them as they passed through the main part of the village and stopped the chocobo just outside his house. "There's a rail we can tie them to," Cloud said, swinging his leg over the bird's back and dropping to the ground, trying not to wince as his rubbed-raw thighs protested. "We'll be able to get saddles at the store if we have enough extra gil, though it might not be worth it. We can't take the birds over Gagazet, they'd freeze before we got halfway up, so we'll have to let them go at the base anyway."

"My ass is pretty sure it's worth the gil even for a short trip," Zack replied dryly, and Cloud thought he heard Sephiroth cough in a way that sounded like he was covering a laugh.

Cloud fussed over tying his bird up, trying to make sure it had enough length to be able to graze a bit on the evergreen bushes around the house, while not being so long that the bird might tangle itself up. Finally he had to admit he was stalling, and he heaved a sigh and led the way to his front door.

He hesitated at the threshold, not sure if he should knock and wait for his mother to answer, or just go right in. It wasn't as if his mother was expecting him back, and if she had seen him coming up the road she'd be outside already, so he didn't want to shock her. At the same time, it seemed just wrong to knock on his own door like a stranger.

"Hey," Zack said, putting a supportive hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, kid. You can do this."

Sephiroth said nothing, but when Cloud glanced at the older man over his shoulder, Sephiroth nodded solemnly at him.

Squaring his shoulders, Cloud decided to compromise. He knocked twice on the door, but then immediately opened it and stepped through. "Sysy?" he called, grateful when his voice didn't waver. "Sysy, I'm home."

Chapter Text

"Sysy?" Cloud's voice seemed to ring through the empty front rooms, echoing as if he stood in a cavern. Maybe that was just the sound of his own pounding heartbeat drumming in his ears from nerves. "Are you home?"

There was a hollow quality to the air inside that made him shiver. He strained his ears, but there was no sound in answer, not even a creak of the floorboards from upstairs to tell him she was just too far to hear him.

"She's not here," he said, feeling numb. He knew when the shock wore off, he was going to freak out, but for the moment it hadn't sunk in.

"Hey, you don't know that means anything," Zack tried to cheer him. "Maybe she just went out to visit a friend."

"That would be a little more believable if she had any friends in Nibelheim," Cloud retorted, his voice shaking slightly. "She almost never leaves the house, especially since the fire. Though I guess she must have gone out to do the shopping herself, now that I'm gone."

"Why did she stay here so long, if she disliked it so much?" Sephiroth wanted to know.

A little helplessly, Cloud shrugged. "She mostly didn't want to talk about it," he said, moving further into the house. He wanted to see if he could find any signs of how long she'd been gone - and whether she'd been intending to leave or if she'd been forced. "I think when I was little she was worried about the dangers of travelling alone with a small child. We never had much money, so there's that, too. And she always said she wanted me to have a chance to know my father's heritage."

Kneeling in front of the stove, he opened the door to check the ashes. Inside it was stone cold, so she'd been gone for at least a full day, maybe more. "Honestly, I'm not sure she had anywhere else to go," he admitted as he climbed back to his feet, dusting his hands off. "From the way she talked about her family, I don't think they were any happier about her leaving to marry a Spiran than my father's family was about him marrying an Al Bhed. And this place was all she had left of him - she never really got over him."

Checking the cupboards and the icebox, he found that everything perishable was far beyond using. The bread was more green than brown, the vegetables were rotting, and the milk reeked in the way that only spoiled dairy products could. "She's been gone for a while," he concluded, and fear was starting to creep through the numbness. "If she was planning a journey, she'd have taken the perishable food with her, or maybe given it to Tifa's family, they've always been good to us."

"Surely someone in the village will know what happened to her," Sephiroth said. "If the Crusaders came here, it would have been a memorable event."

"I think that part isn't in much doubt at this point," Cloud said miserably. The thought of his poor mother, taken forcefully from her home and driven down the mountains to that awful containment camp in the Calm Lands, was almost more than he could handle. She'd never done anything wrong, and she would have been frightened out of her mind. She at least spoke Spiran well enough to be able to follow the orders of the Crusaders, but he doubted they'd have bothered to explain much, or reassure her.

"The real question is, were the Crusaders just checking every settlement on Spira for any sign of Al Bhed, or did someone in Nibelheim turn her in," he concluded, his fists clenching at the thought.

"I want to protest that no decent person would turn on a harmless neighbour like that, but after what you told me about the fire, I have to wonder how many of the people in Nibelheim fall into the 'decent person' category," Zack sighed.

"They're not all bad," Cloud was forced to defend them, though he felt a little strange doing it. "Most of them never actively wished us harm, I don't think."

"Unfortunately, it only takes one person to have told the Crusaders where to look for her," Sephiroth said. "Perhaps someone who truly believed it was the right thing to do, even. The Crusaders were claiming to be taking the Al Bhed in 'for their own protection', after all. For that matter, it might even have been for the best, in a twisted fashion. If news of the Al Bhed kidnapping summoners had reached this far, she might have become a victim of the very sort of mob the Crusaders claim they want to prevent."

That was true, as far as it went. Cloud could certainly believe that the same neighbours who'd allowed the firestorm to reach their house without warning might react badly to hearing stories that made it seem like the Al Bhed had turned on the Spirans. The fact that his mother couldn't possibly have had anything to do with it wouldn't matter if people were scared and upset enough.

"Maybe we should take the chance to rest up a little?" Zack suggested. "We've got the house, and I doubt the Crusaders will think to look for us up here. By the time someone here got down to Bevelle and brought reinforcements back, we'd be long gone." He tugged at the side of Cloud's wetsuit, which now hung loosely on his frame when it used to be skin-tight. "I don't think our week's vacation in Bevelle left you very rested."

"We'll need fresh supplies, but it's a good idea," Sephiroth agreed. "We can spend the gil we have on food, then Zack and I can spend a day or two hunting the fiends in the area to get enough for the rest of the equipment we'll need to survive Gagazet."

Cloud was torn. He did want to rest, badly, and he knew he needed it as well. At the same time, the drive to keep moving, to make sure he got to Zanarkand as soon as possible, was nearly overwhelming. Then, too, the thought of staying in his empty house, with reminders everywhere he looked that his mother was missing, was hardly appealing.

Still, he knew it was their best option. "Yeah, okay," he agreed grudgingly. "It's probably the best..."

There was a crash from the front of the house, followed by a dull thud. Zack jumped to place himself between Cloud and the source of the threat, and Sephiroth lifted his hands, the glow of a spell cascading over him, then flowing on to cover Zack and Cloud as well. A Protect spell of some kind, Cloud was pretty sure, or maybe Barrier.

Another crash, and this time Cloud was less startled, and able to identify the noise of a breaking window. "Someone is throwing things at the house," he exclaimed.

"Stay here," Sephiroth ordered, and headed towards the front of the house to investigate. Before he got more than a few steps, they heard the frantic warking of distressed chocobos, followed by a thundering noise Cloud recognized as the sound of the birds stampeding.

"Well, there go our rides," he said, and sighed. He moved to follow Sephiroth, but Zack put a hand out to stop him.

After a moment, Sephiroth returned looking grim, a large rock in his hands. "It appears someone who noticed your return isn't happy about it," he said, and tipped the rock to show them the message that had been hastily scrawled on it.


"You've got to be kidding me," Zack said, clearly incensed on Cloud's behalf. "What is wrong with these people? Cloud's lived here his whole life, they know him. And he came back with us in tow - we look like a summoner and guardian, you know we do. How does that mark him as a heretic?"

"That might actually be making it worse," Cloud said. "Remember how Tifa reacted to the idea of me as a guardian? They all know I don't believe in Yevon's teachings. Maybe staying here isn't such a great idea after all."

"Damn it," Zack swore, and pounded his fist against the counter. "This is bullshit. Can't you even catch a break in your own home?"

"A hero is rarely honoured on his own hearth," Sephiroth murmured, sounding like he was quoting someone. "As reluctant as I am to press on without getting a chance to recover, if they're throwing rocks now, they may start throwing worse later."

"Then we should get the supplies and get moving," Cloud said, and if his voice was a little thick with emotion, he decided he didn't really care anymore. "If we get a tent, we can find a random spot in the valleys between here and Gagazet to camp."

"I assume prices will be higher, this far off the trade routes, than they would have been at the way station in the Calm Lands," Sephiroth said, frowning. "I hope the gil Angeal was able to provide us will be enough for everything we need. I don't know what would be safe for us to scant on."

"Higher still when I'm the one buying," Cloud said wryly. "Tifa and I compared notes at one point, and they charge me and Sysy more than the rest of the town. Just one more way they were trying to run us out, I guess."

"Perhaps Zack should stay here with you, and I will buy the supplies alone," Sephiroth suggested. "That way, they won't know to invoke the higher tariff. Perhaps I'll even be able to convince them to give me a discount as a summoner; as I recall from my own journey, vendors were often happy to do so."

Cloud sighed, and heard Zack stifle a snort of amusement. "Spoken like a man from a city so big, you don't even know everyone on your street, let alone everyone who lives there. Seph, this is a small town, even compared to a backwater like Killika. Maybe every single person in Nibelheim doesn't know yet that Cloud is back and we came with him, but I'd bet every gil Angeal gave us that the first people to see us ran straight to the general store to spread the gossip."

"You'd win that bet," Cloud told him wryly. "Too bad there isn't anyone to take it, we could double our money. We might as well take our lumps and get it over with. Who knows? Between you being Zack of the Goers and him being Lord Sephiroth, maybe we'll still be able to persuade - or intimidate - them into giving us a fair price."

As predicted, they walked into the tiny store to find three people clustered around the counter, gossiping with the owner. All four looked up eagerly when the bell over the door rang, anticipating someone else to share the juicy rumour with. When they saw who had entered, they either scowled or looked away, depending on their personalities.

Someone had once told Cloud that the man who ran the general store, Durren, had been close friends with Cloud's father Strife. It probably explained why he'd always been so hostile to Cloud and his mother, since he undoubtedly believed Cloud's mother had cheated on Strife, just like everyone else in town.

Cloud really wished he had that sphere image of his father, to shove in all their faces and show them that he had his father's eyes, even if he'd inherited nothing else from the man. Then again, they probably wouldn't have believed him that all Al Bhed had green eyes.

Sephiroth was fully on his dignity, every inch the proud, regal summoner he'd once been. Cloud could see the flicker of distaste on his face amidst the disdain, and probably Zack could too, but only because they knew him well. "I require supplies and equipment. I trust you have cold weather gear sufficient to handle Mount Gagazet?"

It was probably a good thing that the villagers would be too stunned by the fact that they were talking to Sephiroth to notice that the three of them were woefully underequipped at the moment. None of them had the right clothes to deal with even the cold of Mount Nibelheim, nor were they carrying any weapons. Cloud wasn't sure how they could possibly explain the lack without admitting they'd been captured and held. Claim it was the Al Bhed who'd taken them, rather than the Crusaders?

"Gagazet?" The word caused a new round of murmurs among the gossips. Durren stepped forward, and cleared his throat. "Are you a summoner?"

"Indeed." Sephiroth looked down his nose at the man, and he really was looking down at him, since he towered over the portly villager by a good foot. "You may recall me from my previous journey. I am Lord Sephiroth."

Cloud had expected the name to invoke a flurry of comments, but the stunned silence they got instead was just as good. "Sephiroth?" one of them finally squeaked. "Lord General Sephiroth?"

"My lord, we... we don't get summoners up this way," Durren finally stammered, clearly flummoxed. He kept sneaking glances at Cloud, like he expected this was some kind of prank Cloud had set up. But Sephiroth was unmistakeable when he chose to be noticed, and now Cloud could see one of the others pointing at Zack and whispering urgently to his friends. "I'm not sure we have the kind of equipment you'd need, not at this time of year. The way station in the Calm Lands..."

"The Calm Lands are not precisely living up to their name, at the moment," Sephiroth sniffed. "There's been some fracas between the Crusaders and the Al Bhed. The way station has apparently been seized, and since I had already agreed to Cloud's request that we detour to see his mother, it seemed simplest to resupply here."

The villagers exchanged glances with each other at this confirmation that Cloud was truly a member of their party, not just someone who'd happened to be travelling in the same direction at the same time. He straightened his back and squared his shoulders a little, lifting his chin and staring them down, daring them to question or comment on it. He might not be able to claim his true status as a summoner, but they certainly couldn't call him a useless good-for-nothing now.

"I'll, uh, see what I have in storage in the way of winter gear," Durren said. "My regular travel supplies are on the shelves. We haven't had a trade caravan up here in a while, I thought it was strange, but if there's trouble on the plains that would explain it."

"I heard a lot of the routes have been shut down," one of the gossips declared. "My cousin tried to take a load of produce down to Bevelle, and he got stopped and inspected by the Crusaders three times - once going in, twice coming back."

"My wife's uncle said the Ronso have closed their gates," another added, eager to contribute to the tale. "Except to the summoners, I guess. I mean, they wouldn't stop them from going in, would they?"

Cloud's heart sank, and he exchanged a dismayed look with Zack. Sephiroth remained expressionless, but Cloud saw his hand close into a fist. The Ronso had closed their gates? Not that they let anybody but summoners, priests and the occasional trader into their lands at the best of times, but closing the gates meant they were being serious about keeping outsiders off their territory.

Spreading out, Cloud and Zack gathered what they could in the way of weapons and food from the store. Durren was telling the truth, the shelves were as bare as Cloud was used to seeing them in winter, when the passes were closed and traders couldn't get through. Then again, it wasn't like they had the gil to splurge on anything but trail bread and basic weapons, so it didn't make much difference that the nicer items were all gone. Durren shuffled back in with an armload of winter supplies, and Cloud hung back while Zack and Sephiroth tried to convince him to give them all of it for the meager amount of gil they had on them.

It was kind of impressive to watch them, actually. Sephiroth would glare with a look of outraged offense each time Durren named his initial price, and the little shopkeeper would visibly wilt and lower the amount. Then Zack would take over and haggle with him until he was probably reeling with it. Cloud suspected they'd probably operated this way together before, they were so smooth at it.

Even so, they left the shop with considerably less than they'd have liked to. They had enough food to last them a few days if they were careful, threadbare bedrolls and a worn tent. They'd saved a little by deciding Sephiroth and Cloud could rely on magic and their aeons for battles, so they'd only needed to get a sword for Zack. That left just enough for them to each get a set of fleece-lined coats, boots, pants, hats, and mittens. Cloud had insisted Zack buy an extra pair of knitted woolen trousers and shirt meant to go underneath his regular clothes, even though it meant taking a day's less rations.

"We can't seriously need this much clothing," Zack protested as they headed for the road out of town. "I mean, okay, I complained a lot in Macalania, but this is overkill even for me."

"At least we didn't have to spend gil on saddles," Cloud tried to look on the bright side, but it was difficult. They'd either have to walk the whole way to Gagazet, or catch more chocobos on the way, which would mean riding bareback again. He also swore he could feel the gazes of the villagers, both hostile and curious, locked on them as he left his home, probably for the last time ever.

"I wish we'd been able to get three times as much," Sephiroth replied, his voice tight. Zack looked at him in astonishment, and the older man shook his head. "Lake Macalania's cold is to Gagazet as the heat of Killika is to Macalania. Even in the height of summer, the frozen slopes of Gagazet are deadly. More summoners have met their end there than the entire rest of the Summoner's Journey combined, and it's not entirely due to the admittedly vicious fiends."

"We'll have to stay close together, maybe use fire spells to heat rocks or something and put them in our boots and pockets, and hopefully we won't lose anything to frostbite," Cloud agreed miserably. "Thankfully there's a place at the very top where we can take shelter and get warm out of the snow, or no summoner would ever make it across."

That made Sephiroth give him a sharp look. "How can you know that," he demanded. "Even the summoners aren't told as much, before they set out. Did Sir Zangan tell you?"

"There are still a few things I haven't told you guys, about why I'm doing this," Cloud admitted. "At first I didn't think you'd believe me - nobody else ever has. And then, well, things got kind of crazy and I didn't really have a chance. You'll understand when we get there, I promise."

When Sephiroth scowled at him and looked like he might demand further explanations, Cloud raised an eyebrow at him. "Unless you want to trade stories by explaining what all the hints you've been dropping about Zanarkand really mean?"

That shut his guardian up, though not without Sephiroth giving him a disgruntled look. Zack looked between the two of them, and sighed. "Well, if it makes anyone feel better, I don't have any deep dark secrets to share. Or even shallow, light secrets. In fact, I'm feeling downright left out, here. Should I make something up?"

"Unless you come up with a 'secret' to share that will give us an easy way past the Ronso, there's not much point," Sephiroth said, tacitly agreeing to leave it alone by changing the subject. "I should have expected they would close ranks. They are fiercely loyal followers of Yevon."

"Yeah, but that guy said they were still letting summoners through," Zack said.

"Doubtless the priests have given them our descriptions, Zack," Sephiroth pointed out. "They'll have been ordered to capture us and turn us over to the Crusaders if possible. Unfortunately, there is no other way to Gagazet."

"No other way involving roads, but if we catch more chocobos we can travel over some pretty rough terrain," Cloud said. "There's a goat trail, on the east side of the mountain, and it's not far from here." He smiled grimly. "Nibelheim kids used to dare each other to climb as far as they could, to prove they were the bravest."

"Used to?" Zack asked curiously.

"Until Tifa fell off a cliff and ended up in a coma for nearly a month," Cloud explained, and Zack winced. "They thought she was never going to wake up again. They also thought I had pushed her, but that's another issue. Thankfully, she woke up and was able to tell them I'd been trying to save her, or I think the village might just have formed a mob."

"Was this before or after the fire they didn't bother to wake you for?" Sephiroth asked, and Cloud knew he had seen the shape of the truth.

"Before," he answered anyway, and Zack made a pained sound that said he'd understood as well. "It doesn't matter, now. The point is, I know another way up, and it goes up far enough to connect to the main trail well beyond where the Ronso patrol. Of course, since it's not well travelled, it's rougher and colder and generally nastier than the road would have been."

"And we're already under-supplied for even the main road," Zack sighed. "Great. Well, there's nothing for it, I guess. It's still a better option than trying to fight our way through a gauntlet of Ronso. Those guys are huge, and I've never met one who wasn't a damned good fighter."

"Then we take our chances on the alternate path, and pray the fayth watch over us," Sephiroth agreed.

Cloud noticed it wasn't Yevon whose protection Sephiroth was praying to, anymore.

Finding the trail took a bit of effort, but Cloud located it at last just as the sun was going down. They decided to make camp for the night at the base of the mountain, and start out in the morning.

They also released the chocobos back into the wild. Although the birds could have easily handled the first part of the trail, Cloud knew it would only get steeper the farther up they went. Anyway, the poor things would freeze to death long before they reached the top. Better to release them down here, where they could make their way back to their home flocks.

The first part of the trail didn't seem nearly as difficult as Cloud had remembered. After a bit of thought, he realized that made sense. The last time he'd climbed this way, he'd been at least a foot shorter, and without much in the way of arm or grip strength. What was challenging to a small child wouldn't be nearly as hard for three grown men.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long before things got tricky. The route they were following might have been easy for the mountain goats who created it, but for humans it involved a lot of climbing up sheer rock faces. Rock climbing was a skill, and while Cloud had a decent amount of practice in it, neither Sephiroth nor Zack were very experienced. The difficulty increased exponentially when they passed above the snowline, and started having to deal with ice as well as rock.

Worse yet, Cloud would have sworn the fiends were deliberately waiting to ambush them when they were on the cliff faces, instead of anywhere with good footing. Zack did his best, but waving a sword around with one hand while clinging to an inch-wide ledge with the other wasn't exactly an effective offense. Cloud and Sephiroth had to take most of the burden of the fighting. At least fire was exceptionally effective against most of the fiends on the mountain.

Zack started shivering before they'd even reached the snowy areas. After the second icy cliff, his lips were blue with cold and his skin had started to take on the waxy look that Cloud knew meant it was being damaged by freezing temperatures. Sephiroth had also started shivering, and Cloud was feeling pretty cold himself. The wet suit made a surprisingly good under layer, but with only one outer layer it wasn't nearly enough to keep him properly insulated.

Every time the mountainside gave them a flat enough area to cluster together, Cloud summoned Evned and let the heat that radiated from the aeon warm them all a little. It made the biting winds feel even colder afterwards, but it was all that let them keep going.

At last, Cloud hauled himself up over the edge of yet another cliff, and found himself lying on a relatively broad, gently sloped area. The winds screamed down the side of the mountain, carrying enough snow to create near-whiteout conditions, but he could just make out what looked like a large, carved rock to one side of the ledge.

No, not a ledge... the road, he realized, recognizing one of the grave markers that littered the road up Gagazet. "We made it!" he called back down to Zack and Sephiroth. "Guys, we made it to the road!"

Sephiroth levered himself up beside Cloud, then turned back to offer Zack a hand up. Zack looked absolutely miserable, but he made a visible effort to smile at Cloud's declaration. "Awesome. Does that mean we're near the top?"

Taking a look around, Sephiroth appeared to be studying the area. "I'd estimate we're a little over halfway up," he said, and Cloud saw Zack's expression fall. "From here the path will be much easier to travel, but we're more likely to encounter fiends."

"Well, at least there's room to swing my sword, and somewhere for me to stand while I do it," Zack said with obviously forced cheer. "Movement keeps you warmer, right? So let's get moving."

Now the truly hellish nature of Gagazet made itself felt. In some areas they were wading through waist-deep drifts of snow, but Cloud actually preferred that to the long stretches where the wind whipped along the road fast enough that no snow could gather. The snow was insulating in a way, even though his boots quickly soaked through and left his feet feeling like solid blocks of unfeeling ice.

The fiends attacked in droves, and they were by far the most vicious and tough to kill monsters Cloud had yet encountered. Did the fiends get stronger the longer Sin was around? Or was it just that conditions on the mountain were so difficult that only the strongest of the fiends could survive here?

Cloud was reduced to plodding along in an almost trance-like state, focused on nothing except putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. If he could just keep moving forward, he knew eventually they would reach the top. He just had to keep moving, no matter what.

The whole experience made what Crejy's fayth had done to him in Macalania's temple feel like basking in the sun on a warm spring day. How had he ever survived this as a child? There hadn't been fiends back then, and he'd had warmer clothes, but it still should have killed him. He knew the fayth had saved his life, and he'd had nightmares of his frozen journey up the mountain for years, but either time had faded the memory of how bad it had truly been, or the eternal blizzard was worse now than it had been back then.

It wasn't until after yet another fight that Cloud looked around, intending to keep Evned out long enough for all three of them to warm up, and realized that Zack hadn't taken part in the fight. In fact, he didn't see his guardian at all. "Seph, where's Zack?" he asked, alarmed. Visibility was almost zero, Cloud could barely even make out Sephiroth standing a few feet away from him, so it was possible that Zack was just a little beyond him.

He had to repeat the question a second time, shouting over the wind, before Sephiroth blinked as if coming out of a daze. "What? He's right behind me," the older summoner said, and turned. Just as Cloud was starting to feel relieved, Sephiroth went stiff. "I thought he was right behind me," Sephiroth said, and raised his own voice. "Zack! Where are you, don't fall behind!"

"Zack! Zack, answer us!" Cloud added his voice to Sephiroth's. When he strained to hear an answer, all that reached him was the moan of the wind and the distant roar of a fiend. "Oh, no. Could he have taken a wrong turn? Does the path branch and I didn't notice?"

"There are a few dead ends, it's possible he got turned around," Sephiroth said, but his voice was grim. "He was still with us in the last fight, so he can't be far behind."

"We have to go back for him," Cloud said, and turned to forge his way back down the path. He'd sworn to himself that he wouldn't sacrifice either of his guardians, and that meant he couldn't just leave Zack, even if it would have been the smart thing to do.

Even if it meant Cloud's death, too.

Chapter Text

Every step Cloud took down the mountain path made him want to cry with the frustration of knowing he'd just have to climb back up again. Every extra moment they spent on the frozen slopes increased their chances of not making it to the top at all, and their odds had been pretty bad to start with. A horrible, nasty little part of Cloud wanted to just keep going, insisting that Zack was surely already dead if he'd been foolish enough to sit down to rest in the snow, and there was no point in Cloud and Sephiroth dying as well.

He did his best to ignore that internal voice, grateful that Sephiroth didn't try to talk him out of going back for Zack. He wasn't sure he could have won the argument with both himself and his guardian.

Cloud's voice quickly grew hoarse from shouting Zack's name into the wind, and his throat ached from breathing in air so cold it felt like razors slicing the tender flesh to ribbons. He might as well have saved his breath, because Zack never answered.

In the end, they literally tripped over Zack, otherwise they never would have found him. The islander had fallen to one side of the path, stretched out and already mostly covered by falling snow. His exposed skin was terrifyingly pale when they rolled him over, and his breath was hardly misting in the air.

"We must get him warm," Sephiroth said, and the green energy of a healing spell was already gathering around his hands.

Reaching deep inside, Cloud summoned Evned yet again. The fiery aeon complained bitterly at being dragged once more into the cold, but he came, and the heat he radiated quickly melted the snow around them.

For a horrible moment Cloud thought they were too late, but then Zack groaned and his eyes fluttered open. "What happened," Zack mumbled, his words slurred with cold.

"You passed out," Cloud told him, his voice tight. "I know you're exhausted, but Zack, you can't stop moving, you can't rest for even a moment."

"I'm so tired," Zack complained, and his words were faint. "I'm not even that cold any more, but I just want to sleep. Can't we make camp for a little while?"

"If you sleep, you will die," Sephiroth told him. "It's not much further."

"You've been saying that for like the last hour," Zack said. "I don't believe you any more. Can't we just keep Evned with us, like you did with Eqeuh on the Thunder Plains?"

Miserably Cloud shook his head. "On the Plains Eqeuh was literally in his element. Every lightning strike gave him power. Out here, Evned is suffering from the cold even more than we are. If I keep him out too long, he starts taking damage, and the power to heal him has to come from within me. I'll keel over if I try to keep him with us. I'm sorry."

Even now he could feel the drain on his energy, and he knew he'd have to release Evned again soon. Zack sighed, and closed his eyes again. "I can't. I'm so tired. You guys go on ahead of me, I'll catch up to you after just a few minutes to rest."

"No, Zack, you have to get up!" Cloud said, tugging at his arm. "I'm not leaving you behind, so if you don't get up, you're going to get me killed, too! C'mon, on your feet!"

Sephiroth grabbed Zack's other arm and pulled as well, and between the two of them they managed to get Zack on his feet. Unfortunately, it was clear he wasn't going to stay there long under his own power. "Can you carry him?" Cloud asked Sephiroth desperately. "I can keep the fiends off us, if you can just get him moving..."

He knew it was futile even before Sephiroth shook his head. "I'm not in much better shape," Sephiroth admitted, and then he said the words Cloud had been dreading. "It may not be possible to bring him with us if we want to survive..."

"No!" Cloud broke in fiercely. "No, I'm not leaving him to die! That is not an option. And don't tell me that I have to face the fact that I might have to make sacrifices. It isn't happening. I'll find a way to keep Evned with us, or you can keep casting fire spells, or something, but I'm not giving up. Not when we're so close."

Sephiroth opened his mouth, and the look on his face suggested he was about to deliver a lecture, but they were both distracted when the wind seemed to blow a new voice to them. "Hello!" someone shouted, far enough away that Cloud could barely be certain he was actually hearing words, and not just the whispers of the wind. "Is someone up there?"

"Another summoner's party?" Cloud exclaimed.

"If so, they may be as much a threat to us as the fiends or the cold," Sephiroth cautioned him.

"Yeah, but they also might be the only chance Zack has to survive," Cloud countered. He raised his voice, wincing as his already sore throat protested further. "Hey! Up here, can you hear me?"

The voice came again, a little closer and easier to make out this time. "I'm coming! Please, just stay there!"

The 'please' startled him, but Cloud understood why when two forms came around the switchback in the path just below them. One person was clearly supporting the other, both of them so bundled up it was hard to tell if they were male or female, or even if they were both Spiran.

"Please," the one hauling the other said, voice muffled by the layers of scarves wrapped around their face. Her face - she was close enough now that Cloud could tell the voice was female.

Female, and familiar. "Tifa?" he exclaimed, shocked.

Sure enough, the 'stranger' made a similar startled noise. "Cloud? Is that you? How in the name of Yevon did you get here ahead of us? How did you get here at all, I thought they were going to execute you for sure!"

She drew close enough that Cloud could see her companion was Lady Aerith, of course, and that the summoner was badly hurt. There was blood soaking through one side of her jacket, and considering how many layers it looked like she was bundled up in, she must have lost a lot of blood.

"Seph, help her!" Cloud ordered.

Sephiroth, of course, just gave him a dark look. "It is not our place..."

"Never mind the stupid rules, Seph," Cloud said impatiently. "They're friends, they stuck their own necks out to testify for me at the trial. And anyway, they will have all kinds of supplies! They're our best chance to save Zack."

Tifa had apparently drawn close enough to hear his last words. "We're out of potions, and I don't know any white magic, but we've got lots of food," she panted as she dragged Aerith's unresponsive body the last few feet between them. "If you can heal her, we'll split it with you."

That seemed to convinced Sephiroth, as he gestured for her to set Aerith down next to Zack, and leaned down to cast more healing magic over both of them. Cloud re-summoned Evned, heating up the area again, and Tifa gave a grateful sigh and crowded in close.

"Wow, that's handy, why didn't we think of that? Aerith can summon outside battle. Sweet fayth, Cloud, what are you wearing?" Tifa demanded, aghast as she got a good look at his scant - by Calm Lander standards - clothing. "You know better than that! All three of you don't have nearly enough layers, no wonder Zack is down."

"It was all we could afford," Cloud admitted, hanging his head. "They didn't exactly shower us with gil on our way out of Bevelle, Tifa. We escaped, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, pretty much."

"Oh." Her voice was small, and when he looked up at her, her expression was shamed. "Cloud... I'm really sorry. About everything, but especially about the way I acted before." She looked up at Evned, and grimaced. "You'd just saved my life, and there I was having a fit about an 'Al Bhed summoner'."

"You've reacted better than nearly every other Spiran in existence," Cloud snorted, looking towards the others. "Present company excepted, and they're pretty much the only exceptions."

"Yeah, but I know you," Tifa countered. "It's not like I believe you'd profane the temples, or coerce the fayth. Our whole lives I've watched everyone we know blame you and your mother for pretty much everything that's ever gone wrong, from accidental deaths to killer blizzards to the cows going dry. And now the whole world is doing the same thing to you. I'm ashamed I was part of that."

The strain of keeping Evned healed from the damage the cold was causing was too much, and Cloud had to release him again. He did his best not to shiver noticeably as the cold air swept back around them, but Tifa must have noticed, because she unwrapped her top layer and handed the jacket and scarf to him. He flushed, but took them gratefully.

"I really don't blame you," he assured her. "I'm only glad you've changed your mind. You've always been just about my only friend."

"Even if I hadn't already had some sense talked into me by Lady Aerith, I like to think I'd have come around when I saw the horrible way the priests were conducting your trial," she said, scowling at the memory. "That is not the behaviour we're taught will bring the world forgiveness and end Sin. I always thought the priests would be... well, holier than that."

There were so many things Cloud wanted to say to that - things about the fayth, and Yevon, and the whole endless cycle of it all. But he bit his tongue, because the last thing he wanted to do now was alienate her again. Just because she was mad at the priests didn't mean she was ready to turn against Yevon Himself.

"The priests are just people, when it all comes down to it," he said instead. "People can be corrupted, or just selfish. Sometimes the worst sins are committed by the people who think they're being the most righteous. I only hope it's not too late to stop the war between the Spirans and the Al Bhed."

"You've changed," Tifa said, giving him an odd half smile. "You used to be so shy, and you always seemed... I don't know, depressed. Even when I saw you before, on the road, it was like you were being dragged along by events as much as moving under your own power. Now you have strength and purpose. I guess being a summoner has been good for you."

That made Cloud laugh despite himself, a short, harsh sound. "Well, if I'd known all it would take is being driven nearly to death by the fayth, hunted and tormented by the priests, and watching the world tear itself apart over hatred and prejudice, I'd have done it years ago."

He regretted his words the moment he saw Tifa wince. "Sorry," it was his turn to apologize. "That came out sounding worse than I meant it to. I should have just said thank you."

The moment might have turned painfully awkward, but thankfully Aerith sighed and stirred, opening her eyes. She gasped when she saw Sephiroth kneeling over her, hand flying to cover her mouth. "Oh! Lord Sephiroth! What... where..."

"Your guardian managed to keep you alive until she reached us," Sephiroth said, offering her a hand up. "You're very lucky."

Zack was also on his feet and looking a little better, but the sickly pallor of his skin said it was only a temporary fix. "Hey, the more the merrier," he said, his voice a rasp that preceded a nasty coughing fit. "Don't suppose you know any spells to make it stop snowing?"

"Aerith, can you summon Michael?" Tifa broke in. "Cloud had Evned earlier, and he was keeping everything warm, but I guess it's too much of a drain to hold him."

"Yes, but I won't be able to keep him with me long either," Aerith said uncertainly.

"Nor can I hold Hod, not even a fraction as long as Cloud can," Sephiroth said, but he was smiling as he said it. "However, with you and I taking turns to give Cloud a chance to catch his breath between summons, I think we can keep the aeon active often enough to prevent us all from freezing. Especially if, as your guardian claimed, you have extra warm gear you can lend us."

"Travel together?" Aerith asked, eyes going wide. "Is that permitted? Of course we'll give you some equipment and supplies, it's the least we can do after you've saved us twice, but are we allowed to help each other that much?"

"If the aeons don't object, that means the fayth don't care," Cloud said firmly. "Any other 'rules' about the journey are imposed by the priests. At this point, I think I've broken just about every rule they have, so I'm not really worried about one more."

To his surprise, Aerith giggled a little, dimpling at him as she smiled. "I suppose that's true enough. I promise, when we reach Zanarkand, I'll let you try to get the final aeon first. I think it's important that you finish what you've started, and I'll be honoured to help you do it."

It didn't take long for them to divvy up the extra supplies Tifa and Aerith had carried with them. An extra woolen shirt and two more scarves did a lot to help Cloud feel warmer. So did the fact that they were able to summon Evned - or the equivalent aeons Sephiroth and Aerith carried - far more often with three of them sharing the energy drain. Zack still looked more than half frozen, but he was able to stay on his feet and keep moving with only a little help from Tifa. With five of them working together, they were able to make short work of the fiends as well.

When they finally broke through the end of the storm, it happened so abruptly it felt unnatural. Fog surrounded them, glowing faintly blue in an eerie way that lit the path, and in the suddenly quiet air the Hymn of the Fayth rang, soft but clear.

"The Hymn?" Aerith exclaimed, puzzled. "Why are we hearing the Hymn? Are we at Zanarkand already? I thought it was on the other side of the mountain, not the top."

Zack and Tifa exchanged a look, clearly baffled by her comment, but Sephiroth didn't look surprised. Well, he wouldn't, Cloud realized. He'd been here before, which meant he already knew what they were about to find. He did arch a brow at Cloud, who shrugged without a word.

Then they rounded a corner and found the fayth. Not just a fayth... dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, their twisted forms frozen forever into a carving that covered the cliff wall for nearly as far as the eye could see. The whole carving glowed blue, mist roiling off it to cover the path. The Hymn was still quiet, but so strong it seemed to vibrate right through Cloud's body, a thousand voices lifted in eternal harmony.

"What is this place?" Zack asked, staring at the carvings with a fascinated look on his face.

"These are the survivors of Zanarkand," Cloud told them. "Just like the fayth in the temples, they volunteered to protect Spira and all its peoples. They saved my life once, when I was lost on the mountain. They showed me what Zanarkand used to be, when it was more than just a ghost city. And they made me promise to come back, some day. As a summoner."

"These fayth are being used," Aerith said, reaching out to touch the carvings with one hand. "Someone is summoning with them... but so many! Is this the source of the final aeon? Is that how it has the power to beat Sin?"

"Wait, you mean we're too late?" Zack said. "Someone beat us to it? Damn it! Did we go through all this for nothing?"

"It is not the final aeon who calls upon their power," Sephiroth replied, his voice heavy, almost weary. "I don't know what is, exactly - it's not the sort of thing that has ever been properly studied, for the obvious reason that almost everyone who has ever seen it dies soon afterwards. But I have my suspicions."

"All those years ago... you told everyone the fayth had saved you, and everybody thought you'd just hallucinated in the cold," Tifa turned to Cloud, subdued. "I never believed you, either... I'm sorry. I seem to be apologizing a lot to you today, aren't I?"

"You didn't need to give the last apology, and you don't need to give this one," Cloud said firmly. "I mean it, Tifa. Even I doubted my sanity, sometimes. The story just made no sense, how could anyone possibly believe it? But when I saw Valefor's fayth in Besaid, I knew it was all true."

He looked up at Sephiroth, and saw the darkness in the older man's eyes. Cloud had suspicions about what these fayth were summoning as well. They'd told him their power was used to create a dream of Zanarkand That Was - but where was that dream? What being could possibly use that kind of power? Surely only Yevon Himself – or perhaps, Sin.

"We must keep moving," Sephiroth said, turning away from the glowing carvings. "Zanarkand isn't far, now." He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then rested one hand on Cloud's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Prepare yourself," he said softly, his voice meant for Cloud alone. "You must have the resolve to see this through to the end."

"I will," Cloud promised him, just as softly but no less fierce for lack of volume. "I've come this far. I can't let you - or the fayth - down now."

He tried very hard not to think about the fact that being so close to the end of his journey also meant being so close to the end of his life. He'd known going in that this would literally be the death of him.

He just had to make sure his death meant something.

The Lost City of Zanarkand turned out to be hauntingly beautiful, in a desolate way. The five of them approached it as the sun was setting in the west, and the pyreflies that streamed all around it shone faintly in the twilight. Cloud had seen the memory of the city in its prime, as recreated by the fayth, and if he squinted he could see the skeletal bones of that city in the ruins before him now.

Part of him wanted to suggest they stop and make camp, rest up for the night and make the final approach to the city in the light of day. But he knew that was a cop-out, the coward's way out. Better to get it over with, lest his resolve waver after all. It was hard enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other, knowing he was marching towards his death.

Oddly, it comforted him a little when he glanced over and saw that Aerith was visibly nervous as well. She caught him looking, and flashed him a shaky smile. Somehow he managed one of his own in return, and felt a connection with her in that moment. She'd offered to let him try first, but that still meant if he failed, it would be her turn to attempt to summon the final aeon, and then she would be the one to die.

Sephiroth was also looking pensive. That wasn't unusual for him, but there was a regretful quality to his brooding that wasn't normal. Cloud wanted badly to ask him what was on his mind, but he knew if Sephiroth had wanted to share the information, he would already have done so.

As Cloud stepped onto the broken road that led through the city, he heard voices coming from ahead of them, too distant for the words to be understood. He jumped, and picked up his pace. Had someone beaten them here after all?

Rounding a corner, he saw two figures ahead of him, apparently arguing. The young women were ghostly and pale; he could see the ruins right through them, and swarms of pyreflies obscured their edges. "If it might benefit the future of Spira, I will gladly give my life," he heard one of them declare. "It is the highest honour for which a guardian might ask. Use my life, Lady Yocun, and rid Spira of Sin." In the next moment they vanished entirely, and Cloud felt a shiver run down his spine.

"What was that?" Tifa exclaimed.

"There are more pyreflies here than everywhere else on Spira combined," Sephiroth informed them. "The whole city has effectively become an image sphere - and like a sphere, it records and replays events that have occurred within it. The more emotional the memory, the longer it will linger."

"She said 'Lady Yocun'," Aerith murmured, eyes wide. "High Summoner Yocun? What did she mean, 'use my life'?"

Sephiroth said nothing, but Cloud was getting a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.

At the center of the city was the shattered dome of a ruined blitz stadium. Cloud only knew what it was because it resembled the one in Luca, and because he'd seen it in the memory Zanarkand of the fayth. As they approached the entrance, three more ghostly figures appeared on the steps.

Somebody gasped - it might have been Cloud himself, but he couldn't be certain. These phantoms, he recognized. The real version of one of them was standing right beside him, and another had given his life to save Cloud just a few days before.

It was Sephiroth and his guardians, as they had been ten years before. They were visibly upset in different ways – frightened, angry, and distraught. Whatever it was they had faced in Zanarkand, it looked like it had been very bad, indeed.

Bad enough that Angeal had described it as a 'cursed' place. Bad enough that Sephiroth had warned him no summoner had ever become the High Summoner without losing at least one guardian – yet he clearly still had both of his here with him at this point.

Cloud tried very hard not to let his imagination run away with him, but it was difficult. Whatever it was that awaited them in Zanarkand, whatever the final fayth demanded of summoners, it was obviously very bad indeed.

Chapter Text

"How am I supposed to choose between you?" the ghostly Sephiroth demanded, visibly overwrought. It was strange to see him, not much older than Cloud was now, with his hair short enough that it didn't even brush his shoulders. "We've come all this way together."

"I'll do it," a younger Angeal declared, looking back and forth between his two companions. He was the one who looked frightened, though he appeared to be doing his best to hide it. "It... It will be my honour, my Lord."

"Your honour," the third ghost sneered - it must be Sir Genesis, Sephiroth's other guardian. "It's always all about your honour, isn't it? No, I'll do it. I gave up the chance to be a summoner myself in order to be a guardian instead. It's only right I get to be the one to help defeat Sin."

Sephiroth's ghost looked further upset by the declaration, but Angeal's looked... relieved? Was this what he'd meant about failing Sephiroth?

The phantoms vanished, and Cloud realized belatedly that he had his hands pressed to his mouth, his heart pounding so hard in his chest it felt like it was shaking his whole body. He looked up at Sephiroth, the real one, and his guardian's expression was pained as he stared at the spot where the ghosts had been.

"We look so young," Sephiroth murmured, the words probably not meant for anyone else to hear. "We were hardly more than children." He sighed, and rubbed at his eyes, visibly wearier than Cloud had ever seen him.

When he looked up again, it was straight at Cloud. "Go," he commanded, his tone stern but not unkind. "There is one more Trial to complete, and then everything will become clear."

Oddly, this Trial was one of the simpler ones Cloud had been through, almost more of a formality than anything else. Perhaps it was assumed that by the time a summoner reached Zanarkand, they'd already proven themselves. Or perhaps it was just having Aerith's clever mind and Tifa's insight turned on the problem as well.

At the end of the Trial they all rode the platform down together, but the moment Cloud stepped off, he knew something was wrong. "It's too quiet," he realized, edging forward in the dim light. "Where's the Hymn? The fayth is always singing the Hymn."

"Where is the fayth?" Aerith countered, coming up beside him and scanning the room. "I don't understand... this isn't an antechamber, this is the Chamber of the Fayth, but I don't see... wait, over there!"

She pointed, and a moment later Cloud saw it as well. It was a statue, carved in the shape of a twisted human form, just like all the other fayth statues had been. But this one was different. There was no glow of power about it, and the upper part of the statue was broken into pieces.

"Oh, no," Cloud exclaimed as he realized the extent of the damage. "Did the Al Bhed do this?" The thought was horrifying. He remembered Zack and Sephiroth telling him about the Lost Aeon, the fayth the Al Bhed had supposedly destroyed or stolen centuries ago. But to destroy the final aeon would be to lose all hope of ever being able to defeat Sin.

Then again, that was exactly what the Al Bhed wanted, wasn't it? To stop the summoners from being able to sacrifice themselves, and force the Spirans to find another way to end the cycle?

"That statue lost its power as a fayth long ago," a spectral voice said, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Pyreflies gathered, and the shape of a tall, statuesque woman with flowing hair slowly took form. "Fear not, summoner. I will bestow upon you that which you seek. The Final Summoning will be yours."

The pyreflies faded away again, leaving behind a woman who almost looked real enough to be alive. Only if he stared could Cloud make out the faint outlines of the stones in the wall behind her. She smiled beatifically at him.

"You must choose the one whom I will change," she told him. "The one who will become the fayth of the Final Summoning. There must be a bond, between chosen and summoner, for that is what the Final Summoning embodies." She made a sweeping gesture with her hands, encompassing the five of them and all the world beyond. "The bond between husband and wife, mother and child, or between friends. If the bond is strong enough, its light will conquer Sin."

"Isn't that... Lady Yunalesca?" Zack said, his voice strangled with shock. Cloud stared at him, then back at the phantom woman. It was true, she did look very much like the statues of the First Summoner that stood guard in every temple of Yevon.

"Indeed," the woman said. "A thousand years ago, I chose my husband Zaon as my fayth. Our bond was true, and I obtained the final aeon." She smiled again. "There is nothing to fear. You will soon be freed of worry and pain. Once you call the final aeon, your life will end. Death is the final and ultimate liberation."

It sounded like she was trying to be comforting, even encouraging. But Cloud couldn't stop the shudder that ran through him. He didn't want to die. He'd never wanted to die. If that was what was necessary, he would do it, but there was nothing about it that he would welcome.

"Will this end it all?" he demanded. "The fayth wanted me to become a summoner, because they said they wanted to rest at last. Is there something about my Final Summoning that will end the cycle?"

"Sin is eternal," Yunalesca said. "Every aeon that defeats it becomes Sin in its place. Thus is Sin reborn. It is an inevitable part of Spira's destiny. It is neverending."

"But if we atone for our crimes, Sin will stop coming back," Tifa protested.

"Can humanity even attain such purity?" Yunalesca asked.

"The teachings of Yevon state that we can exorcise Sin with complete atonement," Aerith insisted. "It has been our only hope all these years!"

"Hope is comforting," Yunalesca replied, her tone turning chiding, like a teacher scolding a slow student for not learning their lesson well enough. "It allows us to accept fate, however tragic it might be. Yevon's teachings and the Final Summoning give the people of Spira that hope. Without hope, they would drown in their sorrow. Now, choose. Who will be your fayth? Who will be the one to renew Spira's hope once more?"

Looking around, at his guardians and friends, Cloud tried frantically to find another way. He'd sworn to himself, over and over, that he would be the first summoner to make it without losing any of his guardians. Now he knew why Sephiroth had been so insistent that he prepare himself for the possibility. The older summoner had known the truth of the Final Summoning, and the cost involved in obtaining it. He'd been trying to warn Cloud, as much as he could.

"I... I need to think," Cloud said, desperate to buy himself some time. There had to be another answer! He couldn't let it end like this.

"Of course." Yunalesca inclined her head in a gracious sort of acknowledgement. "Choose well, and remember that it is the strength of your bond that will determine whether you succeed or fail in obtaining the final aeon. Call for me when you have made your choice."

She vanished like the other ghosts, though the swirl of pyreflies created by her leaving was so bright it lit up the whole chamber for a moment.

There was echoing silence for a long moment after she was gone. In the far distance Cloud could just make out the sound of water dripping, though the air where they stood was dry and smelled of dust. Everything about Zanarkand seemed ancient, and even though Cloud had seen the memory of it for himself. It was hard to imagine that a thriving city had stood here a thousand years ago.

"This can't be right," Aerith finally said, her voice faltering. "It will never end?"

"The cycle is eternal," Sephiroth said. "But does it truly matter? Even if the hope of it someday ending is false, the ten years of peace when the High Summoner brings the Calm is still true. Ten years of no fiends, of no Sin. Every summoner knows the likelihood of them being the one to bring the Eternal Calm is all but non-existent, but every summoner also feels that their sacrifice is worth it. Does it make a difference that the sacrifice is two lives instead of one?"

"Yes," Cloud insisted, hands clenching into fists as he struggled to put his feelings into words. "Yes it does make a difference. To be willing to sacrifice your own life is one thing. That's selfless. But to be willing to sacrifice someone else, that's just murder!"

"Doesn't that make all guardians murderers, then?" Tifa countered. "Since we're sacrificing our summoners? What gives you the right to decide it's okay to sacrifice yourself, but not for us to do it as well? I mean, obviously anyone who turned someone unwilling into a fayth would be killing them, but from what Yunalesca said I don't think it would even be possible to do with someone unwilling!"

As if her words had conjured them, the phantoms of the younger Sephiroth and Genesis appeared just a few feet away. Sephiroth and Genesis had their hands joined, and light shone where they touched, growing brighter with every moment. Cloud didn't know what the process was supposed to look like, but it seemed like something must surely be going wrong. The light flickered and wavered like fire in a high wind, and both Sephiroth and his guardian bore expressions of agony.

"Genesis!" the ghostly Sephiroth cried out. "Stop fighting me! This isn't a competition."

"Isn't it?" Genesis shouted in return. "Isn't that what our 'bond' has always been about?" Cloud could hear the sneer in his voice as he said 'bond'. "You've always been the best of us, the favourite, the ideal example of everything everyone else should aspire to be. You're a better Crusader than Angeal, and a better summoner than me. Not this time! I have all the aeons, and I've been on the same journey you have. We'll see who comes out on top, and let Lady Yunalesca decide who should be the aeon, and who should be the High Summoner!"

The light became too bright to look at, and Cloud had to turn his head away, blinking to clear his eyes of pained tears. There was a sharp pulse, and both Sephiroth and Genesis screamed.

And then suddenly there was nothing. The light was gone, and the ghosts with it.

Sephiroth, the real Sephiroth, made a pained noise and seemed to collapse sideways, reaching out to the wall to support himself. Cloud turned towards his guardian, startled and concerned. "Seph? Are you okay?"

"It was bad enough to live through it the first time," Sephiroth replied, his voice hardly more than a rasp. Cloud put a hand on his shoulder, concerned, and was shocked to feel the way the older man was trembling. "Seeing it from the outside... somehow, it's worse. I always knew he was jealous of me, but I believed our friendship transcended that."

"Of course you did," a harsh voice said, from somewhere behind them. "You always believed you were perfect, and you assumed the rest of us believed it as well. So how could we do anything but envy and love you?"

Pyreflies gathered once more, but it took Cloud a moment to be certain that the man who appeared was Genesis. In the end it was the way Sephiroth went rigid beneath Cloud's hand that made him sure, because the appearance of the apparition was so different from what he'd seen in the other two images.

This Genesis appeared to be almost a negative version of himself. All the colour had faded into black and white and grey, but his red hair had turned an unnatural shade of white. The most startling change was the huge black wing that extended from his left shoulder, with a wingspan as wide as Genesis was tall. If he'd had the right wing as well, he could have touched both sides of the Chamber with the wing tips at the same time.

The expression on his face was one of arrogance and disgust, and he was so focused on Sephiroth Cloud wasn't even certain the man was aware of any of the rest of them. Then Cloud realized he was being an idiot, because if this was just an image like the others, Genesis wasn't aware of any of them. It was just a memory being played out.

Only, it certainly seemed like Genesis was looking straight at Sephiroth. "You just couldn't resist returning, could you," the phantom taunted. "I notice you didn't bring Angeal with you this time. Found a fresh new crop of dewy-eyed worshippers, did you? People who won't question or fight with you, this time, so you'll have an easy time of becoming the High Summoner?"

"Not at all," Sephiroth replied wearily. "You were right about me, in the end. I was too arrogant, too assured of my own success. I learned that lesson, and I suppose I should thank you for teaching it to me. But it came at too high a price, old friend. I'd hoped you would have found peace by now. I never intended that you be left to suffer like this."

Genesis laughed, and spread his arms, his wing stretching to its full width. "The Lady Yunalesca is my goddess, and I serve and protect her with gladness. Yes, I have suffered, but my suffering has had a purpose. A better purpose than the one you denied me, all those years ago."

"You're an Unsent," Aerith exclaimed. When Cloud looked at her curiously, she explained, "Sometimes, when a person dies without being Sent, if they have an extraordinary will and sense of self, they hold their own form instead of becoming a fiend. I've heard of it, but I've never seen it before."

"I'm far more than a mere Unsent," Genesis told her, which at least answered the question of whether he was aware of the rest of them. His eyes hadn't moved from Sephiroth, though. "My soul, corrupted by vengeance, hath endured torment to find the end of the journey, in my own salvation and your eternal slumber."

Something about the way he said the words made it sound like he was quoting. Cloud didn't recognize the reference, but it certainly seemed appropriate for the moment.

Drawing his sword, Sephiroth set himself into a ready stance - the same one he'd started with when he danced to Send the spirits of the dead in Besaid, Cloud was pretty sure. "This ends now, Genesis. I should have returned to put you out of your misery long ago, but I suppose I was still being too selfish."

"You're right about one thing," Genesis snarled, and the expression of unholy rage on his face transformed his features into something inhuman. "This ends now! When I kill you, my transformation will be complete, and I will become a god!"

His wing swept forward, tossing dust and debris into their eyes. When Cloud managed to blink enough to clear his vision, he saw Genesis hovering above them, even though it should have been impossible for him to fly with only one wing.

"Pyrysid!" Cloud shouted, calling on the strength of his newest aeon. There was a roar above them, and it was a good thing the roof of the dome was already shattered, because Cloud was fairly certain the dragon would have destroyed it anyway as he spiralled out of the sky and down to Cloud. The ground shook as he landed, the wheel spinning over his back, and he roared again.

Genesis appeared undaunted by the challenge, and his laughter had a manic edge to it as he swept his wing forward once more, shouting something Cloud couldn't hear over Pyrysid. Feathers shot from the wing like bullets from a gun, almost too fast to see. Certainly too fast to avoid them, at least for Cloud; he took a solid shot to his left shoulder, and felt a stinging line on his right cheek where another must have just brushed him. They were razor sharp, it seemed.

Pyrysid shifted so his bulk was between Cloud and the phantom. He heard shuffling beside him, and saw that Aerith had taken refuge behind the dragon, as well. "He's certainly handy as a shield, isn't he?" she murmured, and winked at him as she cast a Cura on him. "You concentrate on summoning. Lord Sephiroth is handling the black magic, and I'll make sure everyone stays healed."

With most of his attention on Pyrysid, Cloud could only nod in response. He could see Tifa and Zack through the aeon's eyes, launching themselves at Genesis and trying to flank him, keeping him distracted enough with physical attacks that he wouldn't be able to block the magic ones, too.

Genesis had produced a sword from somewhere, a long blade that had been enamelled red (Cloud hoped it was just enamel). Magic raced down the length of it, tracing glowing red runes on the blade, and Cloud wasn't at all surprised when a fireball launched from the end of it. He saw Tifa flinch - she had nearly as much reason to be terrified of fire as he did, after all - but she charged at Genesis with no hesitation.

With a roar that made the ground tremble, Pyrysid started to charge up his breath attack. For some reason, that made Genesis laugh, and lift his sword to brandish it high over his head, pointing straight into the air. Gold energy flowed from the point of the blade, forming a symbol over their heads that was too large for Cloud to be able to tell what it said.

"Get down!" he heard Sephiroth shout, and he'd never heard his guardian sound so distressed. "Take cover, all of you!"

The phantom's spell went off before Pyrysid's attack could, sending blasts of radiant magic throughout the Chamber of the Fayth. The aeon's bulk protected Cloud once again, but just because his own body took no damage didn't mean he couldn't feel the impact of the spell's power. Cloud screamed as the blasts tore into Pyrysid, causing the aeon to roar once more, with agony this time instead of anger.

The damage was too great, and Pyrysid dissolved into pyreflies. Gasping for air, with tears streaming from his eyes and making it impossible to see the battleground, Cloud scrambled to summon Jymavun instead. She wasn't nearly as large as Pyrysid, but she could still provide some shelter.

Before he could summon her, the skies opened up above them, and he was startled to see Pyrysid once more. Or rather, some other incarnation of Bahamut's aeon; he assumed either Sephiroth or Aerith had summoned the dragon this time. Jymavun came right behind him, arrowing towards Cloud.

But the dragon landed beneath Genesis, facing Cloud and his friends, his mighty breath attack already charging. With a sinking feeling, Cloud remembered Genesis saying that he had also obtained all the aeons. Could an Unsent ghost summon? Apparently, the answer was yes.

"Jymavun!" Cloud shouted, and she charged her breath attack as well. The two aeons unleashed their power almost simultaneously, and Cloud once more had to scream in pain as the force of the blast ripped Jymavun into metaphysical pieces.

Strong hands grabbed Cloud by the shoulders and dragged him backwards, just before a chunk of what was left of the ceiling came crashing down right where his head had been. "Take cover, don't just rely on the aeons to protect you," Sephiroth scolded him.

"What about your aeons?" Cloud demanded. "Why aren't you summoning?" Sephiroth's spells were powerful, but with three aeons fighting they would surely be able to handle Genesis much better.

To his dismay, Sephiroth shook his head. "Whatever else he may be, Genesis is at least partly my aeon. I cannot control him, but neither can I summon another while he is here."

From somewhere above, he heard Jymavun's cry - presumably from Uriel, Aerith's version of Valefor. At least, Cloud certainly hoped Genesis wasn't capable of summoning more than one aeon at a time. Desperately Cloud reached for Crejy's power, hoping that all the fire Genesis was slinging around meant he would be weak to her ice powers.

Of course, the moment she appeared, Genesis targeted her with a massive blast of flame, and he was reminded that the weakness worked in both directions. Crejy screamed, a sound like ice shattering, and vanished beneath the flame.

"Fight fire with fire," Sephiroth advised him. "Evned will take strength from his fire attacks, not damage, and the aeon can then turn that power into fire spells on his Bahamut. I'll concentrate on ice spells to target Genesis."

A horrible headache was starting to pound in Cloud's temples, and he had a feeling he was probably pushing his limits too far, summoning a fourth time so quickly. But what else could he do? Lie there and die? Gritting his teeth, he pulled hard on Evned's power, and felt the ground rumble beneath him in a precursor to the aeon's appearance.

As Evned blasted from the floor, Aerith's aeon swooped in to take up a position behind him. Together they concentrated their attacks on the dragon, and finally managed to dissolve it into pyreflies. The pain of its death made Genesis stagger, and Zack and Tifa attempted to swarm him while he was distracted.

For just a moment, Cloud thought they surely had him. Then Genesis laughed and flapped his wing again, and the feathers tore at Zack and Tifa, pushing them back out of reach once more. Genesis snapped his fingers, and his version of Shiva appeared before him. She was more than fast and agile enough to put herself between Genesis and Sephiroth's barrage of ice spells, absorbing their power and turning them into her own ice attacks on Evned in turn.

Uriel tried vainly to protect Evned from the ice, but Cloud knew it was only a matter of time before the fire demon went down. Already Cloud was struggling to reach for Eqeuh's power, though he honestly wasn't sure he had a fifth summoning in him.

Genesis thrust his sword into the air once more, the golden power flowing from it to form that damned rune again. Cloud could have cried, if all his attention wasn't absorbed in trying to keep Evned clear of Shiva's attacks.

Once more he heard the roar of Bahamut, and the dragon came soaring down out of the sky. Had Sephiroth summoned after all? Cloud looked around frantically, but found his guardian bent over Tifa and Zack, his attention fully absorbed in healing them. Cloud had seen him cast and summon at the same time before, but surely he wouldn't be able to do it while casting such a powerful healing spell on two different people and with Genesis present.

It couldn't be Aerith's, because her Uriel, though battered and bleeding, was still helping to shield Evned.

Fayth save them all, could Genesis double-summon the way Cloud had in Bevelle? And cast his own massive magic attack at the same time?

"Zaleras!" a vaguely familiar voice shouted, from somewhere behind Cloud. He glanced over his shoulder, and yelped when he saw the dragon standing squarely in the doors that led out of the Blitzdome. It was blocking most of the light coming from beyond, but Cloud could just make out a human form dressed in pale robes standing next to one massive foreleg.

The aeon roared again, and this time the sound was simultaneous with him unleashing his devastating breath attack. For a horrible moment Cloud thought the power wave was aimed at him, and he ducked instinctively, even though he knew there was nothing he could possibly do to halt the attack.

Evned roared as well, but the sound was one of triumph. When Cloud - still alive and unscathed, a little to his own shock - peeked through his aeon's eyes, he saw that the blast wave had decimated Genesis' aeon and disrupted the phantom's own attack as well. Better yet, Genesis had been forced to land, half his wing seared off by the dragon.

"Cloud! Lady Aerith!" Sephiroth shouted. "Now, all of you, concentrate your attacks!"

Though he still wasn't entirely sure who their rescuer was, Cloud wasn't about to check the toes of a gift chocobo. He pushed himself upright, and concentrated fiercely on willing all his remaining power into his aeon. "Evned!" he called, his voice hoarse in a throat that felt dryer than a desert.

The fiery aeon scooped up a huge boulder from among the debris of the dome, and the rock seemed to ignite in his hands until it was a massive fireball. He launched the missile at Genesis, at the same time as Uriel and the stranger's dragon let loose their attacks as well.

Caught in the center of the triangle formed by the three attacks, Genesis didn't have a chance. He screamed, clawing at the air with his hands as if he could haul himself out of range by sheer force of will. One last pulse of power escaped him, strong enough to strike Cloud with the force of a brutal punch and set him on his ass. He gave a pained grunt - not so much from his own pain, but the blow had been the last straw for Evned, who dissolved back into pyreflies. Experiencing his fourth aeon death in such a short amount of time left Cloud reeling, and it was all he could not to start retching as well.

Where he found the energy to lift his head again, he honestly wasn't sure, but he managed it. The place where Genesis had stood was charred and blasted, with pyreflies swarming so thick they almost still looked solid, but Genesis himself was gone.

Glancing around, Cloud took hasty stock of his friends. Aerith looked shaken and exhausted, her aeon disappearing as well, but she was still on her feet. Tifa moved to get her shoulder under Aerith's, supporting her weary summoner. Straining his eyes, Cloud saw Zack kneeling next to Sephiroth, who appeared to have collapsed.

"Zack? Is he alive?" Cloud asked, and was grateful when he got a nod from his guardian in response.

Since it seemed like nobody else had the energy left, it was apparently up to him to deal with their rescuer. Cloud managed to push himself to his feet once more, and turned to face the doorway. "Thank you," he said, coughing a little when speaking scratched at his sore throat. "We owe you our lives."

"Don't thank me just yet," the stranger said, and took a few steps forward to move out from the shadows beneath his aeon. When he stepped forward, the light shone off his pale hair, and revealed the way he was glaring at Cloud.

"Rufus," Cloud gasped, dismayed. Fayth, could this situation get any worse?

"Zaleras!" The dragon roared once more in answer to his summoner's command, the ground shaking with the force of it. Rufus gave Cloud a thin-lipped smile that had no mirth behind it, and swung his staff into a ready position. "Nobody said this fight was done."

Chapter Text

Taken at face value, the situation shouldn't have been nearly so threatening. Cloud had three summoners and two guardians on his side, and if Rufus had brought his guardians he'd apparently left them outside. By sheer numbers, they ought to be able to take him down easily.

But Rufus was fresh and his aeon was unhurt. He had the only aeon currently summoned, and it was the most powerful of the five. Aerith's had been destroyed by the last power wave from Genesis as well, and while she could probably summon again, she likely couldn't do it before Rufus commanded his Zaleras to attack again. Sephiroth was down, unconscious or just badly injured, it didn't really matter, he wasn't going to be summoning any time soon.

As for Cloud himself... with Evned gone, he now had only Eqeuh left to call on, until he got a chance to heal them all at a travel sphere. Eqeuh wouldn't have much chance against Zaleras, assuming Cloud actually managed to find the energy to summon him. Tifa and Zack certainly wouldn't accomplish much, trying to fight an aeon with physical weapons.

In short, while they might not be outnumbered, they were severely outgunned.

Swallowing hard, Cloud forced himself to step forward. "Why help us at all, if you're going to take us down now?" he asked, grateful when his voice shook only a little. It was weariness that caused the tremor, though with his luck Rufus would assume it was fear.

"I know a fiend when I see one," Rufus replied, scornful. "That creature may once have been Sir Genesis, but it wasn't human anymore."

"He wasn't a fiend," Sephiroth's deep voice broke in. Surprised, Cloud looked back over his shoulder, and saw that Zack had helped the older man get to his feet. "He was an aeon."

"He was what?" Rufus seemed genuinely shocked, turning his head to stare at the spot where Genesis had been.

"An aeon," Sephiroth repeated. He looked weary, the kind of soul-deep weariness that went far beyond mere physical exhaustion. "My aeon, to be precise. My Final Summoning." He shook his head, his eyes haunted. "When I realized what sort of dark power he held, when I felt his rage at the world through our newly-formed bond, I knew I couldn't turn him loose on Spira. When he became Sin, he would have caused more destruction than any other Sin in history, I'm certain of it."

"When he became Sin?" Rufus repeated, eyes narrowing. "What nonsense is this?"

"Every summoner's Final Summoning comes from a bond formed by sacrificing one of their guardians," Aerith told him sadly. "The aeon created defeats Sin, and goes on to become Sin in its place. Lady Yunalesca herself told us the truth. Sin is eternal. We ensure its rebirth ourselves, each time we destroy it, a never-ending cycle."

Cloud was pretty sure if he'd been the one to try to explain, or even Sephiroth, Rufus would have called them liars and attacked. Apparently Aerith seemed a little more credible, even if she had thrown her lot in with Cloud, because Rufus just shook his head and looked stunned. "That's not possible," Rufus insisted.

"Neither is Sin itself, frankly, yet we accept its existence without question," Sephiroth replied dryly. He turned towards Cloud, and bowed his head. "Now you know the truth of my journey's end. In a way, I suppose I am indeed the 'failed summoner' so many named me. I can never be the High Summoner, because I dare not loose Genesis on the world." He lifted his head again, and met Cloud's eyes. Cloud had never seen him look so determined, nor intense. "Lord Cloud. It would be my honour if you would accept me as the aeon for your Final Summoning. You've restored my faith in people, given me back the ability to believe that some are still worth saving. Let me fulfil my own destiny at last, even as I fulfil yours."

"What?" Now it was Cloud's turn to be stunned. "No! Damn it, I'm not sacrificing anybody! Seeing what Genesis became just reinforces what I already believed - that this whole thing is the stupidest idea the followers of Yevon have ever come up with. I'm not continuing the cycle."

"Indeed you're not," Rufus said, contempt clear in his voice. "You've caused more than enough damage to Spira already. If you believe I'm going to allow you to walk out of here..."

"Oh, enough already!" Cloud lost his temper, and did something that was quite possibly the most reckless thing he'd ever done.

He stepped forward, lifting his head to meet the eyes of Rufus' aeon Zaleras. The great dragon snorted and tilted its head as well, gazing down at him with merciless eyes.

"If you want me to do this, then you're going to have to back me up, here," Cloud informed him, speaking to the fayth through the aeon. At least, he hoped he was. He had absolutely no idea if this was going to work, but he didn't know what else to try.

Zaleras opened his jaw, and Cloud felt his stomach sink. Had he made a mistake? Was the aeon about to blast him where he stood? Or maybe just eat him, that mouth was definitely big enough to snap him up whole and swallow him without chewing. He squared his shoulders, and refused to allow himself to appear intimidated.

Somewhere deep inside, he thought he heard Pyrysid chuckle quietly.

With another snort and a screech loud enough to make Cloud's ears ring, Zaleras snapped his teeth together, so close to Cloud's head he thought he might have lost a few hairs. Then suddenly, Cloud was surrounded by a swarm of rapidly dissipating pyreflies, and the aeon was gone.

"What in Yevon's name did you do?" Rufus demanded, clearly incensed. "Zaleras!" Nothing happened when he called his aeon's name, and Rufus scowled. "Shemhazai! Belias!"

Still nothing. Cloud laughed, though he hadn't intended to, and he stopped quickly when he realized he was starting to sound hysterical. "I keep telling you all, they want me to do this," he said, to his friends as much as to Rufus.

"Cloud, they want you to be High Summoner, that much is obvious," Zack scolded him. "That means you have to do it! Didn't Bevelle's fayth make you promise to do what was necessary? Don't you think this is exactly what he meant?"

"Yes, I do, but not the way you mean it," Cloud replied. The fayth had said that Cloud would know what the decision was when he'd reached it, and he couldn't imagine what it would be if not this. "Why would they need me to promise to do exactly what everyone else has always done? Why would they need me at all? They want me to end this, not become yet another cog in a mechanism that grinds on forever."

"And how exactly do you propose to end Sin if not with the Final Summoning?" Rufus asked him archly.

Well, that was the problem, wasn't it? "There has to be a way, or the fayth wouldn't be asking me to do it," he insisted. "The Final Summoning is the most powerful, obviously. But what about summoning all of the other aeons, together? Has anyone tried teaming up with other summoners? We've got four of us, here. And six guardians, if you count Rufus' four."

"It was attempted, early on," Sephiroth said slowly. "Though never with more than two that I know of."

"You're all insane," Rufus exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "The final aeon is far more powerful than even all five of the others combined. You're just going to get yourselves killed."

"What do you care?" Cloud challenged him. "Isn't that exactly what you and the rest of Yevon's followers want, for me to get myself killed? Afterwards you can all point and say that I was unable to 'corrupt' the Final Aeon, so I was stupid enough to try to fight Sin anyway and got what I deserved all along. It's even the truth, if you look at it the right way."

"Or I could simply do what I came here to do, obtain my own Final Summoning, defeat Sin, and have my guardians drag you back to Bevelle in chains again," Rufus said.

"Are you that eager to throw away the life of one of your guardians?" Aerith broke in. Her voice was gentle, but her expression was hard. "Do they mean so little to you? If so, you may not get the Final Summoning at all, if your bond is so weak. At least give us a chance to try. One day, that's all we ask."

"We?" Cloud was surprised by the way she included herself. He hadn't been certain she would agree to join him.

She smiled at him. "I can guarantee my death and Tifa's by doing it the traditional way, and be certain that Sin will return in ten years. Or I can help you, increase your chances of succeeding drastically, and have the possibility not only of surviving, but of defeating Sin forever. I know which option I prefer."

"Madness," Rufus said again, but Cloud thought he looked at least a little perturbed by Aerith's words. Or perhaps it was the thought of having to sacrifice the life of one of his guardians.

"One day," Cloud said, trying not to sound like he was begging. "Give us one day to try it my way. Whether we succeed or fail, it will be over quickly." When it seemed like Rufus was hesitating, Cloud took a stab in the dark. "Will your aeons even let you try for the Final Summoning right now? You've already seen for yourself that they're backing me."

Rufus growled at him, clearly unhappy, but he was backed into a corner and he knew it. "Twenty-four hours," he snapped. "Not one minute more, and the moment you go down, I'll be back here for my aeon whether the time is up or not."

"That's fair," Cloud acknowledged. "If we fail, then I wouldn't want you to wait a moment longer than necessary to destroy Sin."

With an angry gesture like he was trying to sever any connection between himself and Cloud's insanity, Rufus turned and stalked back out of the dome. Without Zaleras blocking the entire doorway, Cloud saw that a new structure had somehow appeared, taking up almost all the space in the courtyard beyond the doors.

"What is that?" Tifa murmured, moving to get a better view as Rufus made his way up a short ramp, and opened a door to the 'building'.

"That is an airship," Sephiroth said, and he sounded angry. He lifted his voice enough for Rufus to be able to hear him. "That technology belongs to the Al Bhed! Did you steal it when you raided Home?"

"That thing flies?" Zack asked, incensed. "Hey, that's cheating! You can't just fly over Gagazet, you're supposed to cross over it the hard way!"

"Must all summoners also swim from Besaid to Kilika to the mainland?" Rufus asked with a snort. "Should the use of chocobo be forbidden as well? The council of Yevon decreed it was more important for someone to get here to obtain the final aeon before you could corrupt its fayth as well." He gave Cloud an arch look. "If you make me regret defying them and giving you this chance, be certain you will regret it far more."

He stepped inside and slammed the door behind him, and a moment later the 'building' lifted off the ground with a great whooshing sound from above. Walking outside the dome, Cloud tipped his head back and shaded his eyes, and saw that the so-called airship was at least as large as the Blitzdome in Luca, perhaps even larger. "Is that a machina?" he asked.

"It's an artefact machina, salvaged by the Al Bhed and restored to usefulness," Sephiroth answered him, and he sounded bitter. "As I recall, it was renounced quite vigorously as forbidden machina by the priests when it was in the hands of the Al Bhed. Strange how it suddenly becomes acceptable when it is Yevon's followers who benefit from its use."

"While I agree that the attitudes of the priesthood towards the Al Bhed and machina are questionable at best, don't we have a larger problem to worry about at the moment?" Aerith cut in. "How are we going to defeat Sin? Do you really think three aeons will be enough to do it?"

"How are we even going to find it?" Tifa added. "Everyone knows it's attracted to the Final Summoning, but without that, it could be anywhere on Spira."

"Hey, guys? Maybe we're coming at this from the wrong angle," Zack said thoughtfully. "When I'm facing a killer goalie and a knot of protective defensemen, I don't try to bull my way through and score a direct hit on the goal. I send flanking players out, maybe use a sleep or stun shot to thin out the defense."

Cloud stared at him blankly, and he was pretty sure he wasn't the only one. "What does Blitzball strategy have to do with defeating Sin? I don't think flanking it is going to help much, considering it's larger than some islands."

"No, I'm just saying, we need to think outside the box, not go straight to the goal," Zack said. "There's gotta be some way to weaken it."

Something was nagging at Cloud. He felt like there was an obvious answer, staring him in the face, and he was unable to see it because he was looking at it from too close. What was he missing?

Well, what was different about him, compared to all the other summoners that had come before him? Why hadn't the fayth asked anyone else to end the cycle? It couldn't just be because he was half Al Bhed, could it? What difference did that make, aside from the political implications?

Was it just because they knew he'd be stubborn enough to refuse to sacrifice the life of someone other than himself? But most summoners were selfless. Given a chance to know that there had to be another option, surely most of them would want to do the right thing.

What did he know that they didn't?

"The fayth," he said abruptly, jerking his head around to stare at the peak of Gagazet, high above them. "The fayth on the mountain. We know power is being drawn from them, huge amounts of it. When they saved me as a kid, they showed me what it was for - to create a dream of Zanarkand as it was. But summoning creates something physical. Where is the memory Zanarkand? What is Sin, and where does it come from each time?"

"I have long suspected that Sin is either the summoner drawing on the power of those fayth, or the aeon summoned by them," Sephiroth agreed. "I didn't know about the memory of Zanarkand, but Sin is certainly big enough to contain a city within it."

"We need to talk to the fayth," Cloud said, certain he was on the right path now. "We need to go back up Gagazet."

"Oh, great," Zack groaned theatrically. "Because being nearly frozen to death once wasn't fun enough. Couldn't we go talk to one of the fayth in the temples, if you need to talk to one?"

"I don't think they're going to let us back into Bevelle, Zack, and nowhere else is close enough for us to get to in less than a day," Cloud pointed out, rolling his eyes. "Anyway the trip down this side of the mountain wasn't so bad, the caves weren't that cold."

"What about just asking Lady Yunalesca?" Tifa suggested. "If anybody would know exactly what's going on, surely she would."

"That would not be wise," Sephiroth said, shaking his head. "If my past experiences with her are anything to judge by, she tends to react poorly when things don't go as she expects them to. She wants summoners to follow the path set for them, to continue the cycle. When I refused to finish the Final Summoning, to complete the transformation for Genesis by giving my own life to fuel it, she grew rather... irate. Angeal was barely able to get us both out of Zanarkand alive."

"So telling her we intend to destroy the cycle completely probably wouldn't go over very well," Zack said.

"The fayth on Gagazet are the ones who started this by saving me all those years ago," Cloud insisted. "They're the ones who want this to end, so they're the ones who have the most to lose if I fail."

"But if they knew another way to stop the cycle, why wouldn't they have just told you about it?" Tifa wondered. "Or told any other summoner, for that matter?"

"I'm not sure they work like that," Cloud admitted. "They're not human any more, and they don't think like we do. They tend to be cryptic, and only give you answers if you know the right questions to ask."

"I think it's our best chance," Aerith agreed. "We need more information, and it sounds like the fayth are the only place we're going to get it."

"Well, if we're gonna go, we should get moving," Zack said. "We're swimming against the clock, here. No chance to score any goals in overtime, so we need to play hard while we can."

Standing in front of the eerily glowing fayth carvings once more, Cloud studied them as if the answer to his problem would be spelled out in the shapes of their twisted bodies. Nothing was immediately evident, and he wasn't quite sure how to go about asking.

"How did you talk to them when you were little?" Tifa asked him curiously.

"Honestly, I have no idea," Cloud admitted. "I remember I made it high enough to reach the place where the trail joins the main road up the mountain - there was a grave marker close by, for a fallen summoner. I figured if I read the name, that would be proof I'd made it that far, and then I could go back down... only I fell before I got to the marker. I have a hazy memory of a transparent boy offering me a hand up out of the snow, and when I took it, I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was standing in Zanarkand - the dream Zanarkand, and the fayth were with me. When I woke up for real, I was here, and the whole mountain had warmed enough for me to survive the trip back down."

"I remember hearing about that," Aerith exclaimed. "The Ronso reported it to the priests, and all of Bevelle was abuzz with rumours. Gagazet is always frozen, even in the deepest part of summer, but there was half a day where even the snow at the peak started melting. It froze again almost immediately, but nobody knew what it meant."

"Well, we could try knocking you out, I suppose," Zack joked, tapping his fist gently against Cloud's temple. "I know a few Blitz techniques that will put you out cold."

"Let's try the non-headache-inducing route first, please," Cloud replied dryly. "The power is in the fayth carvings themselves, right? So maybe..."

Cautiously he reached out to touch the nearest carving. The ghostly blue energy rose to meet his hand and engulf it, and he felt power race up from his fingers to spread through his whole body. The world spun and went black, and for a dizzying moment he had the sensation that he was hanging in the middle of a void, surrounded by nothing at all.

Then suddenly he was standing outside the same Blitzdome they'd just left behind in Zanarkand. Only this one was whole, and he could hear the noise of a huge crowd cheering inside, followed by the harsh sound of a buzzer. There was a game on, apparently.

Half wishing he had time to watch them play, Cloud turned and scanned the plaza outside the dome. There were people everywhere, chatting with each other and strolling along, but one stood out. A child-sized figure, dressed in enveloping robes with a hood pulled down so far Cloud couldn't see his face properly.

"Hello," Cloud said, and moved to meet Bevelle's fayth. "I thought it might be you."

"We meet again," Bahamut said, with a secretive little smile. "And once more, you've kept your promise."

"My friends think you were trying to get me to promise to become the High Summoner, you know," Cloud told him, a little sourly. "To 'do what's necessary'. You could have been clearer."

"It had to be your choice," Bahamut told him. "We can influence, but not coerce. It's all we can do to find the power even to do this much. We weren't created to interfere."

"You were created to provide the power to create this Zanarkand," Cloud said, just to be sure he understood. The fayth nodded. "Is this part of Sin?"

"Sin is the guardian," Bahamut told him. "After the dream Zanarkand was created, Yu Yevon wished to protect it. He gathered the pyreflies and summoned Sin, but its power was too great for him to control. It destroyed his mind, and left Sin with only his corrupted instincts to guide it."

"Then why does each new final aeon become Sin in turn?" Cloud asked.

Bahamut shrugged, and spread his hands. "Yu Yevon's spirit remains, and infects each new aeon. Eventually his power corrupts it, until it loses sight of its purpose and turns against Spira once more."

"That's why the Calms exist," Cloud realized. "It's the period where the most recent aeon isn't corrupt enough to start destroying things yet. So Sin does exist all the time - it's just focused on protecting Zanarkand when it hasn't gone crazy yet?"

"Essentially." Something about what he'd said seemed to amuse the fayth, but Cloud wasn't sure exactly what it was. At least Bahamut wasn't taking offense. Somehow, Cloud thought getting the fayth angry with him was a very bad idea.

"So, how do I stop it?" Cloud asked. Frustratingly, the fayth remained silent. "No, of course it can't be that easy," Cloud sighed.

"We're so tired of dreaming," Bahamut told him, and he sounded wistful. It was the same thing he'd said to Cloud as a child, when he'd asked Cloud to promise to become a summoner and return to them. "We'd like to rest, now."

"If... if Sin exists to defend the dream Zanarkand," Cloud tried to put the pieces together, "What happens if the dream Zanarkand doesn't exist anymore? If you stop dreaming?"

"Yu Yevon intended Sin to have a dual purpose," Bahamut said. "Guarding Zanarkand That Was, and making certain no cities grew too large or too dependent on technology. He wanted to ensure that the war that destroyed Zanarkand would never be repeated."

"And when he lost control, it only knew it was supposed to be attacking cities, so that's what it does," Cloud concluded with a sigh. A thousand years of death and destruction, all over a being that had been intended to protect the world. "So if the dream Zanarkand disappears, Sin would only have the one purpose left and go on an endless rampage?"

"Who can say for certain?" Bahamut shrugged again. "Without anyone to consciously control it, Sin will do as it pleases."

"Would destroying the fayth statues on Gagazet free the ones who are trapped into summoning the memory of Zanarkand?" Cloud asked, and this time Bahamut nodded. "What about the ones like you, in the temples? Even if we destroy Sin, I think the temples would object to us marching in to destroy their fayth."

"Without the power of the greater summoning to anchor us, we would be free as well," Bahamut assured him.

"Then that would keep my promise to you," Cloud worked through his thoughts aloud, "but if we failed to destroy Sin, Spira would have lost all its aeons, and any hope of continuing to bring the Calm." He stared at the ground, chewing his lip as he thought, and finally looked up at Bahamut again. "Can it be defeated?"

Again, the fayth simply nodded. Well, that was one weight off Cloud's mind, at any rate. If it was impossible to destroy Sin without the power of the Final Summoning, then freeing the fayth would be condemning all of Spira to slow, agonizing suicide. Cloud wanted to keep his promise to the fayth, but not at that kind of cost.

"Maybe the Al Bhed are right, and living without an easy way to let others sacrifice themselves to bring the Calm will force all the races to stop fighting and start working together to find a way to rid themselves of it," he said, hoping against hope that he was right, and Sin wouldn't just destroy everything.

The buzzer sounded again as another goal was scored, and the crowd in the Blitzdome roared in reaction. Cloud looked up at the beautiful structure, his heart squeezing. "Everything here will vanish," he realized. "All these people. They won't even know what happened."

"Their stories have continued for a thousand years after their deaths," Bahamut said. "All stories must come to an end in time."

Staring at the dome for another long moment, Cloud finally sigh and shook his head. "All right. How do I get back to the others?"

He blinked, and the dome was gone. All of Zanarkand was gone, he discovered when he looked around. He'd been left in a weightless black void, and the only sound was the pounding of his own heart.

No... not the only sound. Slowly he became aware of voices calling urgently in the distance.

"Cloud! Hey kid, up and at 'em. You're freaking me out, here."

"It is not your turn to get to fall into a coma, damn it. Trust me, it's not as much fun as it sounds."

"You must wake, Cloud. Come back to us now."

The sensation of weightlessness faded. Unfortunately, as he became more aware of the reality of his own body, he also started to become aware of how much his head hurt. He'd felt worse a few times, notably in Bevelle when he'd summoned two aeons at once - but not much worse.

"Ow," he muttered, and the voices around him exclaimed in response.

"Hey, he's back!" That was Zack's voice, and his guardian sounded relieved and jubilant. "C'mon, lazybones, we don't have all day for you to lie around basking in the sun. Up you get!"

Prying his eyes open, Cloud winced when sunlight seemed to pierce straight into the depths of his brain like spears of fiery agony. "What happened?"

"You passed out," Sephiroth told him.

"And nearly brained yourself on the carvings on the way down," Zack added, sounding far too cheerful about the prospect. "Magic wasn't doing anything to bring you back, and we were afraid to try touching the carvings too."

"Probably just as well," Cloud acknowledged, groaning as he shoved himself slowly into a sitting position. Hands at his shoulders helped him, and by the time he was more or less upright, the worst of the pain from the headache had faded.

"Were you able to speak to the fayth?" Aerith asked anxiously.

Looking up into the eyes of his friends and guardians, Cloud debated with himself. Should he tell them the truth about just how big a risk he was thinking about taking? They would be taking it too, they had a right to know what they were doing. But what if they refused? He couldn't possibly do it by himself.

They'd stayed with him this far, he finally decided. And as far as he knew, neither Sephiroth nor Zack had ever lied to him. He wasn't going to be the one to do it first.

So he gave a quick explanation of what Bahamut had told him about the nature of Sin. "I think we should destroy the fayth here, end the dream of Zanarkand," he concluded. "If we're lucky, that will cause Sin to fade away as well, its main purpose gone. If we're not lucky, well, at least it will probably come after us in retaliation, so finding it to fight it won't be hard."

"We'd have to be certain to defeat it before destroying the last of the fayth, or we'll lose our aeons as well," Aerith pointed out.

Cloud grimaced; he hadn't even thought of that, but she was right. The fayth of the temples would fade last, if he understood Bahamut correctly, but it still meant that if the fight dragged on for too long, they'd lose the ability to summon and Sin would be able to limp off and heal. Assuming it could heal. Well, why not? It was just pyreflies, after all, like any aeon. 'Damage' was caused more by draining it to the point where it couldn't hold on to its integrity, and time to recover would allow it to literally pull itself back together.

"Trapped for a thousand years, forced to watch as the world falls apart over and over again..." Tifa murmured, staring up at the carved wall with a haunted expression. "Surely they never thought it would be so long, when they agreed to do it. No wonder they're tired."

"Rufus is gonna be royally pissed when he realizes there is no more Final Summoning for him to get, if we fail," Zack snickered. Cloud thought the amusement was a little inappropriate, but he also couldn't help but find the thought funny as well.

"Are we doing this, then?" Cloud asked, looking them each in the eyes in turn. "Are you with me?"

One by one, they nodded, some with more enthusiasm than others. Sephiroth was the last, and the older man stared back at Cloud for a long moment, pensive.

"I cannot help but fear we will be leaving Spira defenseless," Sephiroth said. "Lady Yunalesca and Lord Zaon had to sacrifice themselves to create a way to stop Sin even for brief periods of time, and they were far more powerful and knowledgeable than anyone alive now. And yet, knowing what I do now about how it all came to be, it seems wrong to allow the cycle to continue forever."

He said nothing further for a long moment, and Cloud tried not to let his nervousness show. "Seph?" he finally prompted, still not looking away.

At last, Sephiroth nodded. "All things must come to an end eventually," he said, in an unknowing echo of Bahamut's words that made Cloud shiver in reaction. "Should the fayth grow weary enough, perhaps they would stop allowing us to borrow their power at all, and then we would be in far worse straits."

"Well, that's a cheerful thought," Zack said, and snorted. "Trust you to be the one to look on the bright side, Seph."

"All right," Cloud said, and pushed himself to his feet. He did his best to seem confident, hoping it wasn't obvious to the rest of them how terrified he actually was. If this failed or went wrong, then it would be his fault that Spira would have to live with Sin on a rampage for fayth only knew how long. Compared to that, what he'd 'accomplished' so far in the way of fucking up the world seemed like nothing.

"Tifa and Zack, you won't be able to hurt Sin at all, so you concentrate on taking out the fayth statues," he ordered. "Don't touch them with your bare skin, or you might get sucked into the dream Zanarkand like I was. Aerith, Sephiroth... it will be our job to keep Sin off them, when it appears, and do our best to destroy it."

Everyone nodded, and Cloud turned towards Zanarkand. If Sin came, it would probably be from that direction. "Let's do this," he said, and prayed he wasn't making the biggest mistake of his life. Of anyone's life.

Chapter Text

It was a good thing that the travel spheres could restore energy and aeons as well as healing physical hurts, or it probably would have been a week or more before Cloud could summon again after the fight with Genesis. Since he'd already proved that he could keep his aeons with him as long as he liked, Cloud summoned Pyrysid the moment Tifa and Zack started on the fayth statues. He felt a little better with the giant dragon standing by him, and he kept one hand on the rough skin of his massive front leg for comfort. The physical support was reassuring, but mostly it was that he wanted the fayth to know Cloud was truly keeping his promise.

Cloud hadn't even realized he'd been hearing the Hymn of the Fayth all along until Zack struck the first blow to the fayth, and the nearly sub-sonic harmony suddenly went off key. Wincing, Cloud glanced at Sephiroth and Aerith, and saw that they seemed pained as well. Zack and Tifa showed no signs of distress, so perhaps it was just as well that they were the ones Cloud had appointed to go after the fayth.

In far less time than should have been possible there was the sound of a discordant roar in the distance beyond Zanarkand, the sound clashing horribly with the Hymn. Before the echoes had faded, Sin rose up out of the sea beyond the shattered city.

And continued to rise, up and up and up until it dwarfed the city, until Cloud half thought it might dwarf the mountain. Finally it seemed to have heaved the bulk of its body onto land, and Cloud got a good look at it for the first time.

It looked vaguely - very vaguely - like the sphere images he'd seen of whales. Or maybe of a whale crossed with a mutant frog, with a massive body and back legs that were more like flippers, a long segmented tail, and front legs that were more claw than leg. It seemed to have a thousand eyes, and just behind its head were what looked like the ruins of buildings, half merged with the flesh. The dream Zanarkand? Or was it just symbolic of the destroyed city that had resulted in Sin's creation?

"Sweet fayth," he heard Aerith gasp. "It's enormous! How can there be enough pyreflies in all the world to create something that large?"

That was a good question, actually, and Cloud shuddered to think of the number of lives that must have gone into creating the monster. Even the entire population of Zanarkand didn't seem like it could possibly be enough. But there had been a huge war happening when Sin was created, hadn't there? So there would have been thousands of deaths, probably.

A bright ray of light pierced the clouds as Aerith summoned Uriel. The beautiful feathered gryphon launched itself straight at Sin's head, lashing out with her beam attack and making the monster roar again in pain.

Quickly Cloud ordered Pyrysid into the air, and the wind from the dragon's wings nearly knocked them all over. With his mind merged with Pyrysid, Cloud watched the ground as he swooped through the air at a dizzying speed. From this distance, the broken city of Zanarkand looked like a child's toy that had been stomped on in a fit of pique, or perhaps destroyed by an older bully. He winced mentally as Sin casually crushed one of the remaining buildings beneath its claws when it took a step towards Gagazet.

Hovering just out of reach of Sin, Pyrysid began to charge up his own breath attack, the giant wheel spinning faster and faster over his back. From the left he heard a strident neigh as Sephiroth's Binah appeared, followed by the odd chiming sound the unicorn's horns made striking the air. The scent of ozone was sharp in the air as lightning crackled around Binah's horn.

Uriel was launching black magic attacks now, powerful spells that would have decimated an ordinary fiend but barely made an impact on Sin. Cloud was simultaneously impressed and horrified; impressed because his Jymavun hadn't had a chance to learn any spells that strong, and horrified because they caused so little damage to Sin. Was this an impossible task after all?

But they had to try, they couldn't just give up now. Cloud did his best to firm his resolve as Pyrysid launched his attack. As it had when Sephiroth summoned Netzach in Besaid, the dragon's attack did more damage than the gryphon's, and Sin screamed once more as it lashed out in retaliation.

The three aeons danced through the air, impossibly graceful. In the back of his mind Cloud wished there was some way to record this battle on a sphere. Not only was it a momentous point in history, but the fight itself was oddly beautiful.

Darting in too close, Uriel was caught by surprised when Sin reared up on its hind legs and smashed at her with its claws. The aeon cried out as she dissolved into pyreflies, and vaguely Cloud was aware that Aerith had screamed as well.

Now only Pyrysid and Binah were left, and Cloud wondered frantically if he should dismiss Pyrysid and call Jymavun instead, allowing Aerith to summon her Metatron. Before he could make up his mind to do so, however, an ice crystal began to form on Binah's back. When it shattered to reveal Aerith's Gabriel, the blue-skinned woman was firmly astride the giant unicorn, and the two executed a double combo of their most powerful attacks at the same time.

In the distraction of gleefully watching the two aeons wreak havoc, Cloud allowed Pyrysid to drift within range of Sin's attacks. He cried out as the aeon was speared by two of Sin's claws, and then the monster spread its fingers and literally ripped Pyrysid apart.

Even as he gasped for air through the agony of feeling his aeon's death, Cloud was reaching for Jymavun's power. The gryphon screeched defiantly as she plunged through the stormy sky straight towards Sin, already launching her breath attack.

Almost despite himself, Cloud was starting to believe they could actually do this. They didn't have just three aeons to attack Sin with, as he'd initially been thinking when he counted three summoners. They had fifteen aeons, three of each. Perhaps the final aeon was ten times more powerful than any other, but was it more powerful than fifteen others?

Sin lashed out with its claws once more, and Cloud sent Jymavun dancing out of the way, the lithe aeon twisting and turning in mid-air in a way that surely wouldn't be possible for any physical being. He was vaguely aware that he was laughing in his own body, and Jymavun made a clucking sound that was almost a chuckle in response.

Beating her wings hard, Jymavun gained altitude rapidly. When she was high enough to touch the clouds, she turned and dove again, trading height for speed until she was almost too fast to see. Then she levelled out into a strafing run, charging her breath attack once more.

Before she could fire, the world suddenly seemed to flip upside down, and Jymavun went tumbling out of control. She struggled to right herself, and Cloud retreated further into her mind, letting her control her own movements since she understood how to fly much better than he did.

Only, nothing they did seemed to steady them. The world was still spinning around them, earth and water and sky trading places so rapidly Cloud was starting to feel seasick, and Jymavun couldn't seem to tell up from down.

They turned enough to catch sight of Binah, who also seemed to be struggling, but it wasn't until Cloud saw the way Gabriel was frantically clutching at the unicorn, trying not to be lifted right off his back, that Cloud finally understood what was happening.

Sin had control over gravity, something Cloud had seen for himself back on Besaid, but had forgotten about. Below them - Cloud knew it had to be below, even though at the moment it felt more like above - the remains of Zanarkand were tearing themselves to pieces, floating up towards Sin, caught in the monster's inexorable pull.

Once he understood what was happening and was able to convey it to Jymavun, his aeon had a little better luck at steadying herself. Somewhere he heard the roar of Bahamut's aeon, and knew that Binah or Gabriel had been destroyed and either Aerith or Sephiroth had re-summoned.

Except as Jymavun banked and came around to face Sin again, Cloud could clearly see both the unicorn and the ice queen, staggered but not down, launching black magic attacks of their respective elements at the monster. Had Aerith or Sephiroth double-summoned like Cloud had in Bevelle?

Another sound cut through the air, more like a screech than a roar. It sounded familiar, but Cloud couldn't place it as coming from one of the aeons, and it certainly hadn't come from Sin. Pulling Jymavun back, Cloud waited until she'd reached a place outside of Sin's gravity pull, then turned her to hover so he could scan the battlefield properly.

What he saw sent his heart leaping into his throat, but not in a bad way. The long, snakelike form swooping through the air from the south, wings stretched out to their full, impressive span, could only belong to one creature. Evrae, the guardian of Bevelle. From this distance Cloud couldn't tell whether it still had any damage from its battle with them, but it was obviously healed enough to fight again.

Behind it, looking small next to the massive wyrm, Bahamut's aeon launched off a bizarre-looking construction that must be the airship they'd seen Rufus leave Zanarkand in. Presumably, that meant the aeon was Zaleras.

"Looks like Lord Rufus decided to throw his lot in with us, after all," Aerith said, drawing some of Cloud's attention back to his own body.

"I wonder what made him change his mind?" Cloud wondered.

"I wonder how he ever convinced the council of Yevon to let him bring Evrae to the battle," Aerith countered, wide-eyed.

"Something tells me Rufus is more of an 'ask forgiveness, not permission' type," Zack laughed, the sound breathy as he panted for air. Glancing over, Cloud saw that he and Tifa had made significant inroads on the wall of carved fayth. Already a quarter of the wall was no longer glowing blue, and the dissonance in the Hymn was painful if Cloud let himself pay too much attention to it.

"He must be more powerful than I'd given him credit for, to be able to control Evrae and summon at the same time," Sephiroth said, his deep voice thoughtful. "Bringing Bevelle's guardian was a master stroke. It was designed to help protect Bevelle from Sin, and it can attack from great range, leaving it immune to Sin's gravity. It's not powerful enough to defeat Sin on its own, of course, but with twenty aeons helping..."

Twenty aeons, with the addition of Rufus' five. Cloud was almost dizzy with the thought. "We actually have a chance," he said, gleeful.

"Not if we don't concentrate on the fight," Aerith scolded them, and Cloud plunged his awareness into his aeon once more.

Jymavun willingly dove into the battle again, but he could feel how she was starting to flag. The effort of flying against Sin's gravity attacks was tremendous, and using her breath weapon took more energy still. Cloud had never learned any advanced black magic, so neither had she, and the breath weapon was the only attack she had that was even marginally effective.

Exhaustion slowed her down, and finally she was sucked into a gravity spell she couldn't fight her way out of. Cloud gasped for air reflexively, even though his body wasn't the one being literally squeezed to death. He managed to dismiss her an instant before she would have been crushed utterly, saving both of them from the agony of her death.

Pyrysid was already down and he couldn't summon Eqeuh with Sephiroth's Binah already in the air. No, wait - Cloud blinked a couple of times to clear his physical eyes, and realized he could see Besaid's aeon already reappearing in the sky. That had to be Sephiroth's Chesed, which meant the unicorn he could also see must be Aerith's Raphael. Either way, he couldn't call on Eqeuh, but Crejy was now available.

Not entirely certain it would work, Cloud mentally 'threw' her power towards the fight, and was relieved when the ice crystal began to form on the back of Zaleras instead of next to Cloud.

For a moment he thought Rufus was going to order his aeon to throw Cloud's off, but Crejy just laughed and patted the tough skin behind Zaleras' head, then snapped a Blizzaga spell at Sin's claw when it tried to swat Zaleras out of the air. Sin squalled in pain, and that seemed to convince Rufus - or perhaps just Zaleras - that Crejy was worth keeping around.

With Evrae darting around just out of Sin's reach, launching poisonous breath attacks at the monster, and four aeons blasting it with spells, Sin appeared to be losing ground fast. It was roaring almost constantly now, lashing out with physical attacks and gravity spells, but the aeons were learning fast and getting better at dodging both. Once again, Cloud began to hope they could actually win.

And once again, Sin dashed his hopes into the ground. Rearing back further to get out of range of most of the spells, Sin opened its giant mouth, and energy began to glow within its maw. Cloud knew the signs of a breath attack when he saw one, and he had a sinking feeling it was going to make Bahamut's attack look as effective as a child throwing pebbles.

Desperately he ordered Crejy to lash Sin with a barrage of spells and attacks, trying to take it down or at least distract it enough to prevent it from getting its attack off. The others were doing the same, but Sin paid little attention to them, and a moment later unleashed its attack.

To say that the effect was 'devastating' would have been a massive understatement. It felt like the whole world was trying to tear itself apart, the mountain shaking hard enough to throw Cloud off his feet and send huge boulders tumbling down the sides. The shockwave followed a moment later, causing more tremors and sending dust and debris flying through the air so fast even tiny pieces were painful when they struck flesh.

Coughing on the dust, Cloud rolled until he was face down on the mountain path, burying his face in his arms and trying to shelter his head. Through Crejy's eyes he saw the way the aeons were being sucked towards Sin's gaping maw, as if the monster was going to eat them. Zaleras was beating frantically with his wings, but gaining no ground at all.

As the monster's jaw began to close, Cloud dismissed Crejy hastily. He didn't know what would happen if the aeon was consumed - probably nothing, she'd just turn into pyreflies like she always did when 'killed' - but he didn't want to find out the hard way if he was wrong.

The tremors gradually grew weaker and further apart, and there was no sound of crashing boulders anymore. Cloud dared to lift his head, coughing again, and squinted to try to see through the haze of debris thrown into the air.

Sin still towered over Zanarkand, bleeding from a few wounds here and there, but none of them looked very debilitating, let alone potentially fatal. It roared once more, a note of triumph this time rather than pain, and Cloud despaired.

In the sky to one side, he could see the airship, with Evrae's long body wrapped tightly around it. Cloud wasn't sure if Evrae was trying to keep it afloat, or using the ship to keep itself afloat, but either way the wyrm was out of the battle for now. All the aeons had vanished, either dismissed or destroyed by the attack. And already, it looked like Sin might be gearing up to throw the same thing at them again.

For the first time, he truly understood how a battle with this creature could have caused the enormous rift in the Calm Lands. It was so destructive it could literally tear the world apart with its power. How could anyone hope to stand up to that? How powerful was the Final Summoning?

"Lord Rufus may have been correct," Sephiroth said, his words hoarse as he clearly struggled not to cough. "This is insanity."

"We can't just give up!" Cloud replied, though honestly he didn't see what else they could try. He still had Eqeuh and Evned left at full strength, but if they hadn't managed to damage the creature significantly yet, throwing a few more aeons at it probably wasn't going to do the job.

"There is still one possibility we haven't considered," Sephiroth said. His eyes were dark as he looked over the mountainside to Sin, and his expression was as hard as his voice. "I can complete my Final Summoning, sacrifice myself to give Genesis the power he needs to defeat Sin. It may be the only way we can take it down."

"But that will only delay the inevitable," Aerith protested. "With the fayth gone, in ten years when it returns there will be no one who has any chance of defeating it."

"Maybe, given that length of time with the knowledge that there will be no more summoners, the world will finally come together to find another solution to defeat it," Sephiroth said, and sighed. "I'm afraid at this point, buying time is the best we can do. We dare not leave it now - we've angered it, and I fear it may not cease rampaging until its fury is abated. There might be nothing left of Spira by the time it is done."

"No, there has to be another way," Cloud cried, but he knew he was starting to sound like a broken sphere, repeating the same words over and over again. This was the 'other way' that they'd tried, and they'd failed.

Why? Damn it, why was this happening? Surely this couldn't be what the fayth had wanted. Were they simply so weary of their dreaming that they didn't care if the world was destroyed as long as it meant they could rest? Cloud hadn't sensed anything malicious about any of the fayth - not even when they were trying to kill him, like Evned's.

If destroying the fayth on the mountainside wasn't the answer, then the question still remained: what was different about Cloud compared to every other summoner who'd ever lived? Why did the fayth think he could make the difference?

For that matter, why had they tested him so harshly? They'd pushed him to his limits and beyond, testing his will, his courage, his control, and his dedication to the cause. When he'd passed the tests, more than one of them had made comments about him being strong enough to be the person they needed.

Needed to what? What had they been preparing him to do, testing him to see if he was capable of? Summoning regular aeons to defeat Sin didn't require any more from him than any other summoner. Even the double-summoning he'd briefly managed still wouldn't be enough to put Sin down. Clearly they hadn't wanted him to continue the cycle by creating a Final Summoning, so he didn't need to be strong enough to control that.

What else was left that needed a summoner's power, but cranked to the maximum setting?

Staring up at Sin, Cloud had a sickening feeling he'd finally figured out the answer.

"I know what I have to do," he said, the words almost a whisper because he had to force them out through the lump in his throat.

Looking over at the others, his eyes widened when he saw the way pyreflies were gathering around Sephiroth. "Seph, no," he shouted, and threw himself at his friend and guardian. He knocked them both to the ground, jolting Sephiroth out of the concentration he needed to complete the ritual for the Final Summoning.

"Cloud, there is no other choice," Sephiroth said, pushing him away. "You must let me..."

"No," Cloud insisted again. "There's one more thing we haven't tried. I think I know what it was the fayth wanted me to do. What they were trying to prepare me for." He swallowed hard. "When it comes right down to it, Sin is just another aeon. I have to control it."

"What? Are you crazy?" Zack demanded. "Cloud, there's no way anyone could control that thing! Didn't you say trying to is what drove Yevon crazy?"

"I'm not going to be controlling it very long," Cloud countered. "Just enough to keep it from attacking you while you all destroy it. We were winning, until it pulled out that attack."

"You have to be granted an aeon's power by the fayth," Aerith protested. "You've never seen the fayth for Sin."

"Haven't I?" Cloud shook his head. "The fayth brought me to the dream Zanarkand. And that's the only real difference between me and every other summoner. They saw that I was stubborn enough to maybe be able to do what they wanted, so they brought me there to give me the chance."

Seeing that they were all ready to keep protesting, he forced himself to sound firm, even though he was shaking inside. "I have to try. Be ready, I don't know how long I'll be able to hold it."

Standing up seemed like a bad idea, since this was surely going to take all his concentration and then some. Cloud didn't want to end up collapsing and jarring himself out of a trance. He shifted around until he was sitting propped up against the rock wall, facing Sin. Inside, he felt his aeons stir, even Pyrysid who had been 'killed'. They sent him sensations of warmth, affection, and support, and he knew he was making the right decision.

Much as he had when he'd 'thrown' Crejy's power into the battle to summon her, Cloud focused on projecting his sense of self towards Sin. He was flailing around with no real idea of what he was doing, but it almost felt like his aeons were trying to guide him. He did his best to follow their lead, reaching out along the mental bridge they helped him to build, feeling as though he was being stretched like a rubber band at the snapping point.

He knew when he'd made contact, because it was like stepping abruptly into a cesspit. The energy that flowed over him was so negative and corrupted it was acidic, eating away at his sense of self. He could sense the almost overwhelming pull of the madness that drove Sin, the madness of what was left of Yu Yevon's spirit. It tried to suck him in, much like Sin's gravity spells sucked in its opponents and crushed them into pulp.

Fighting to keep his mind and will intact was the hardest thing Cloud had ever done, and that included all the excruciating tests the fayth had put him through. He thought he might be screaming, but he'd lost nearly all awareness of his own body. The pain was agonizing, digging mental fingers into his mind and soul and trying to tear him apart from the inside out.

Somehow, he hung on. Somehow, he gained control back, inch by painful inch. He exerted his will first over himself, then over the power around him, gathering it in and making it his own. He felt the remnants of Yu Yevon fighting back, trying to destroy him, but there was no conscious mind behind the power.

Cloud gave it that conscious mind. He grew aware of Sin itself, of the massive bulk of its body, and all the places it was injured. He felt the power the beast had gathered in preparation to launch its next attack, and he refused to allow it to release that power.

More pain slashed through him, again and again, from an outside source this time. The aeons, he realized, faintly able to see them through Sin's eyes. Sephiroth, Aerith, and Rufus were attacking again, taking advantage of Sin's inability to fight back while Cloud held it under control.

The only problem was, that control was tenuous at best, and Cloud didn't know how long he'd be able to hold it. Every attack the aeons made on Sin hurt him, and made it that much harder to hang on. They were damaging Sin, but slowly, and he was afraid his control would break before Sin's body did.

The gathered power within Sin burned like fire, adding another source of pain and distraction. The power wanted to be released, wanted to rend and destroy and decimate the world. Sin had nearly been ready to launch the attack again, and holding it in was agony. It wanted a target, and if Cloud didn't give it one, it might just explode anyway.

It was hard to process anything coherent through the effort it took to maintain control, but something about that last thought nagged at Cloud. The power wanted a target. Yu Yevon wanted that target to be the attacking aeons, or even Gagazet itself. What if Cloud gave it a different target?

Slowly, Cloud pulled his mind in tighter, deeper, burrowing into the depths of Sin's being. He pulled Sin's power in along with him, focusing it inwards instead of outwards. The moment Yu Yevon realized what he intended, the worst pain yet lashed at Cloud, struggling to sever his connection to the beast.

With a yell that translated into a deafening roar from Sin, Cloud finally allowed the power to burst free. The massive gravity attack went off again, but this time it was aimed into Sin, not away from it. The strength of it was crushing, sucking all the pyreflies that made up Sin into a central point, shredding what was left of Yu Yevon's will in the process.

Cloud felt himself being pulled in too, no matter how he struggled to free himself. He didn't know if Yu Yevon had latched on to him as a form of revenge, or if he'd just gone so deep into Sin he couldn't fight the pull of the gravity. The world seemed to compact around him like a room that was shrinking, growing tighter, and tighter, squeezing the life out of him.

Then something caught at him, bright hooks of pain digging into him and lifting him up. When he 'looked' he saw a shining afterimage of Jymavun, her claws closed securely around his incorporeal body, pulling him away from the epicenter of the gravity spell.

She quickly ran out of strength, but as her body began to dissolve into pyreflies that got sucked back towards the spell, strong hands closed around Cloud and pulled at him again. Evned gave him a grin that looked like more of a snarl, and shoved him farther still.

Teeth snapped shut on his arm, Eqeuh holding him the only way the unicorn could. It was painful, but Cloud welcomed the pain because he knew it was the only thing that could save him. With a neigh Eqeuh tossed his head, throwing Cloud upwards. From there it was Crejy's turn, and as she grabbed his hands and pulled him up again, she smiled and brushed her frozen lips against his.

Half afraid of how Pyrysid was going to grab him, Cloud looked beyond her and was startled to see the fayth instead. Bahamut stood on nothing, seemingly undisturbed by the chaos all around him caused by pyreflies and debris being sucked into Sin's spell. He caught Cloud's hand, and his seemed tiny in comparison, making Cloud wonder again how young the boy had been when he'd volunteered to be turned into the most powerful of the fayth.

"Thank you," Bahamut whispered in his ear, then pushed him away.

Cloud spun into blackness, feeling like he was almost dissolving into it. Maybe he was; maybe in this form he was made up of pyreflies like the aeons, and Sin's spell was pulling him apart. It didn't hurt any more, at least, and that was something.

Chapter Text

Something slammed into Cloud, light flaring so bright it hurt to look at, and the comforting numbness slipped away along with the blackness. Suddenly everything very definitely hurt... but it was a physical sort of pain, aches and bruises instead of mental agony. Dizzy from the shock of it, Cloud realized he was back inside his own body.

Frantic voices were calling his name, and he could feel the pop and fizz of cure magic flowing over his body. Groaning, Cloud forced his eyes open, and saw Aerith and Sephiroth leaning over him, both of them pouring white magic into him as fast as they could.

"Cloud!" Aerith exclaimed when she saw that Cloud was looking at them. "Thank the fayth, you're awake."

"We thought we'd lost you," Sephiroth said, letting his hands fell away from Cloud's forehead. "You were screaming like you were being tortured, and then when Sin suddenly collapsed in on itself, you went into convulsions and stopped breathing."

"Torture is pretty much what it felt like," Cloud agreed, wincing when his voice came out in a painful rasp. It felt like his throat had been torn to shreds. Well, it probably had been, if he'd been screaming that much. Though if the damage hadn't been healed after that much magic was cast on him, he was a little terrified of how badly injured he must have been to start with.

Now that the other two summoners had leaned back, he could see Tifa and Zack a little farther down the mountain path, arguing stridently with some of the guardians he'd seen with Rufus in D'jose. Cloud tried to call out to them, but all he managed was a horrible croak and a sensation like he was gargling with broken glass, so he decided being quiet was probably the best course of action for the moment.

"Hey! He's awake," Aerith called for him, and that at least got the guardians to stop fighting.

"Well, you sure know how to cause a ruckus, yo," the redhead in a suit said - Reno, Cloud thought he remembered Rufus calling him. "You seriously expect us to believe you just summoned Sin?"

Cloud tried to answer, and only managed to cough painfully. Once again magic settled over him, but this time when he looked up he saw Rufus standing beside his guardians, and the magic was coming from him. When he saw Cloud was staring at him incredulously, the blond summoner raised an eyebrow at him in a sardonic expression.

"It appears Lord Sephiroth and Lady Aerith have exhausted themselves, and I want to hear this explanation," Rufus told him.

That made Cloud laugh a little despite himself. "Well, thanks anyway," he said, and though his voice was still hoarse it didn't hurt nearly so much to speak. "I didn't summon Sin. I just... took control of it for a minute from Yu Yevon."

"So you can just steal anybody's aeon?" The dark-haired leader of Rufus' guardians, Tseng, wanted to know.

"I don't know, I never tried," Cloud retorted. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. There are no more aeons."

"Yeah, on account of your Blitzboy here and his lady friend destroying the fayth, yo," Reno said. "How was that a good idea, exactly?"

"Again, a question I'd like to hear the answer to myself," Rufus muttered darkly. "My aeons vanished the moment Sin was defeated. That's not supposed to happen. What if you're wrong about having defeated Sin forever, and it comes back in ten years? Spira will be helpless."

"It's not coming back." Cloud shuddered a little at the memory of the feeling as Sin was destroyed all around him. "Yu Yevon is gone with it, this time, and even if he wasn't gone, there's no final aeon for him to corrupt. Plus, with the fayth here finally at rest, there's no more dream Zanarkand for Sin to try to protect."

He looked Rufus square in the eyes, privately marvelling once again at how closely they resembled each other. Like Spiran and Al Bhed counterparts. "If you didn't believe Sin would be truly gone, why did you come back to help us?"

"Because, Yevon help us all, it looked like you might actually have a shot at doing it, with a little help," Rufus answered. He flipped his hair out of his face with a gesture that was both disdainful and a little arrogant. "Unlike certain other people, I've always had Spira's best interests at heart. And nobody can argue that Sin being gone for good isn't for the best for Spira."

"So who gets to be the High Summoner, yo?" Reno wanted to know.

"I'd say Cloud has a pretty good claim on it, seeing as he's the one who actually, you know, destroyed Sin," Zack said.

"Technically Lord Sephiroth is the only one who actually has the final aeon," Tifa pointed out helpfully. "I don't think you can actually be the High Summoner without having the Final Summoning."

"None of us are the High Summoner," Aerith said, her tone of voice brooking no argument. "If you think about it, we're the Last Summoners. That's a kind of honour all of its own."

"The Final Four," Zack mused. "Kinda has a nice ring to it."

"I can live with that," Cloud agreed, smiling a little.

There was an awkward pause, as they all stared at each other. "So, now what?" Rufus' female guardian asked - Cloud had never caught her name.

"Now we go home, I guess?" Tifa said, but it came out as a question.

Cloud grimaced. 'Home' certainly held no appeal for him. He'd never thought he would live past the end of his journey, so he hadn't bothered imagining a life after it was over, but he knew that if he never saw Nibelheim again it would be too soon.

"Well, the very first thing we need to do is put a stop to this stupid fighting between the Al Bhed and the Spirans," he said. "Not to mention, disband that awful 'containment camp'. And also, get Bevelle to stop trying to arrest me."

"I think I can do something about that last part," Rufus offered with a smirk. "I had to be rather firm with the council in order to take control of Evrae. My father seemed quite unwell, and I was forced to insist that he retire, leaving me to take up his place."

In other words, Rufus was now basically running Bevelle - and Cloud had handed him the perfect excuse for a takeover. Shaking his head, Cloud had to smile a little. "And will the council of Yevon stop persecuting the Al Bhed?"

"I may be able to cajole the priests into some sense, but I have little control over the Crusaders," Rufus told him. "They have a bit of a grudge against you, I'm afraid, and more of one against the Al Bhed."

"Well, there's one easy way to solve that," Zack said, and clapped Sephiroth on the shoulder. "With Angeal gone, they're short a leader. Every Crusader I ever talked to who was around when you were in charge said you were the best commander they'd ever had. What do you say, Lord General Sephiroth? Feel like taking up your position again?"

"I..." Sephiroth looked oddly hesitant, like he couldn't quite process the thought of it.

"You're probably just about the only Spiran the Al Bhed would ever believe isn't out to get them," Cloud pointed out. "They like and trust you, and that's going to go a long way in fixing this mess."

"I think that's a wonderful idea, if it's something you'd enjoy doing," Aerith said, clasping her hands together against her chest.

"Perhaps," Sephiroth agreed. "And yourself, Lady Aerith?"

"The peoples of Yevon will be in disarray and chaos, with the fayth vanishing," Aerith said. "More than that, they deserve to know the truth behind Sin, and what really led to its creation - and destruction. I think if I travel from temple to temple, talking to the priests and followers, it will help a lot." She looked at Rufus, and gave him a knowing smile that didn't quite manage to be a smirk. "Since Lord Rufus will be so busy taking care of matters of state at the higher levels, I'm sure he won't have time to tend to the needs of the common people as well."

And Rufus wouldn't be able to rewrite events to suit himself, with Aerith out there telling the truth to keep him honest, Cloud translated for himself. Not that he thought Rufus would necessarily try that, but there would probably be a lot of pressure from the rest of the council to heavily edit the story in their own favour.

"What about you, Cloud?" Tifa asked. "I mean, I guess you could become some kind of leader to the Al Bhed, to make sure they don't retaliate against the Spirans?"

"Yeah, right," Cloud snorted. "Like they'd have me. I may look like one of them, and I can talk to them in their language, but they're as foreign to me as they are to you in a lot of ways. And they can tell that, even aside from the fact that I was a summoner. I think it would stir up more trouble than it would solve. Sephiroth will fulfill that purpose just as well as the commander of the Crusaders, since they trust him."

"You could always take me up on that recruiting offer," Zack said. "I'm sure I can convince the Goers to take us both on. Or hey, for that matter, we could restart the Calm Lands Calamities! The Goers are doing fine without me, but I know tonnes of alts and people who would jump at the chance to be recruited, we could make a team no problem. What do you say, Tifa, you want in too?"

"Play on a Blitz team? Me? With you?" Tifa's eyes were so wide they seemed to dominate her face. "You don't even know if I can swim!"

"You're fast and agile, and you can hold your own and keep your head in a scrum, just like Cloud," Zack told her cheerfully. "The rest I can teach you. Just having you guys and me on the team will put butts in seats the first couple of seasons, and by then we'll be such a kick-ass team we'll have no trouble selling tickets to support the team."

It was all so overwhelming, Cloud didn't even know what to begin to think. He'd started this Journey partly to keep a promise, which he'd done, and also partly to prove to the world that he wasn't a loser. He supposed he'd done that, as well, but it was so hard to process. It was over - Sin was gone, there were no more aeons, there would be no more Summoner's Journey. He was a hero, more or less, though he didn't feel much like one at the moment. He felt like a battered, bewildered boy, with no real idea what to do with himself now.

Maybe that was how all heroes felt, really. After all, they were just people, too.

"Well, I know what I want to do first," he finally said.

"Oh yeah? What's that?" Zack asked curiously.

"A hot bath, followed by a hot meal, and a warm bed," Cloud said firmly. "And then I'm going to sleep for a week."

The rest could wait. He had his whole life to figure it out, after all. And good friends to help him along the way.

Standing to one side of the gates, Cloud watched as the crowds of Al Bhed slowly filed out of the containment camp. The people he saw looked gaunt and distrustful, but the hopeless looks they'd all worn when he'd first arrived with Sephiroth were starting to change. As the newly reinstated Lord General of the Crusaders, Sephiroth had addressed the camp in a brief speech promising all of them that they would be permitted to return to their homes, and wouldn't be molested or accosted again.

The fact that he'd delivered the speech in Al Bhed had more impact on the crowd than the promises themselves, Cloud was pretty sure. That, and having Rin make his way to the impromptu stage and publicly declare his belief in and support of Sephiroth.

Cloud had come along for two reasons. One, he wanted to see for himself that the camp was dispersed, with fair treatment to the beleaguered Al Bhed in the process. That part he was certainly satisfied about. Sephiroth had delivered a severe tongue lashing to the Crusaders involved in overseeing the camp, and made certain every one of them knew that any hand laid on an Al Bhed would be punished by Sephiroth personally. Somehow Sephiroth had even argued Rufus into returning the airship to its rightful owners - Cloud suspected blackmail or coercion, but he hadn't asked for the details, and Sephiroth hadn't volunteered them.

But his second purpose was the more important one, at least to him. Maybe that was selfish of him, to put his personal affairs ahead of the good of the race as a whole, but he really didn't care. He thought the world owed him this much, at least. His mother was in there, somewhere, and he needed to see for himself she was all right. Even if it meant she then denounced him for being a summoner.

He scanned the faces of the Al Bhed as they passed. More than a few looked at him curiously, standing there in a Calm Lander outer robe open over his Al Bhed wetsuit. Sephiroth had made a point of introducing Cloud as 'The one of the Final Four summoners who truly defeated Sin', though he hadn't forced Cloud to make a speech of his own, and it had raised more than a little curiosity among the Al Bhed. Cloud nodded in response to the looks, but didn't meet anyone's eyes long enough to encourage them to stop and ask him questions.

Just as he was starting to despair that she wasn't in the camp after all, there was a stir among the crowd. "Cloud?" a heartbreakingly familiar voice called. "Cloud, ec dryd oui?"

"Sysy!" he answered, feeling a huge weight lift off his shoulders. He jumped off the little stage and pushed his way into the crowd, calling in Al Bhed. "It's me, I'm here!"

Perhaps hearing his words, people started moving out of his way, a few of them giving him sympathetic looks. The moment his mother came into view, she ran towards him and threw herself into his arms, crying so hard he could barely understand her as she scolded him. "You bad boy! How could you run away from home like that, you had me so worried! When I couldn't find you in the camp, I thought the Spirans had surely killed you."

"Not for lack of trying," Cloud muttered under his breath, but he said it in Spiran so she - and the Al Bhed around them - wouldn't understand. Switching back to Al Bhed, he did his best to calm her. "Mama, I'm sorry. I didn't want to upset you, but I knew if I told you what I was planning to do, you'd try to talk me out of it. I did try to come back and tell you where I'd gone, but by then they'd already come to take you. I was worried about you, too."

"What you were planning to do?" She pulled back to arm's length, though she didn't let go of his shoulders, and studied him. "I don't understand. That man, the general, he said you were a summoner, what nonsense is this?"

This was it, the moment of truth. Cloud felt his shoulders hunching, and did his best to straighten them. He wasn't ashamed of what he'd done, far from it. He was just worried his mother wouldn't be able to accept his decisions. "I am a summoner, Mama," he told her. "It's what I left to do. I and my friends, including Lord General Sephiroth, we stopped Sin. Forever." He gave her a wry half smile. "Isn't that what the Al Bhed always said the Spirans should be doing? Trying to change things, instead of just doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result?"

Never mind that he'd had no intention of doing anything differently when he'd started on his journey. He'd expected to give his life just like every other summoner, and he'd only hoped that having a half Al Bhed High Summoner would help to bring the Spirans and Al Bhed together at last.

His journey had never been meant to end that way, he just hadn't known it until he reached the end of the road.

She stared at him, and he saw anger and denial flit through her eyes. For a moment, he really thought she was going to renounce him after all, maybe even disown him like Zack's mother had.

Then she shocked him by pulling him into a tight hug. "You are so much like your father," she told him, her voice choked. "He always refused to do anything the easy way. I swear, sometimes I thought he fell in love with me just because it was the hardest road he could have picked. His parents named him far too well."

It was the first time she'd ever said anything about him resembling his father, or really anything much about him at all. It had always seemed too painful for her to talk about Strife, so Cloud had never asked much. He hugged her back, and buried his face in her hair to inhale the familiar scent of her. It felt like coming home.

"More like him than you know," he had to laugh a little. "Zack - Sir Zack, I mean, my other guardian - he was the captain of the Goers, and now he's trying to convince me to restart the Calamities with him. What do you think? Can you stand having a Blitzer for a son as well as a husband?"

"Oh, Cloud. I'm so proud of you," she said, and he hugged her harder in response. "You father would be proud of you, too."

It was exactly what he'd dreamed of hearing, and feared he never would. In that moment Cloud realized that he really didn't care all that much anymore about everyone else's opinion of him. There would always be bigots and assholes who hated him for what he was - whether it was because of his Al Bhed blood, or his Spiran heritage, or the fact that he was a summoner, or even for playing Blitzball. His mother loved him and was proud of him. He had friends, good friends, who had literally gone to the end of the world with him and for him. No matter what happened, from this point on, nothing could ever take that away from him.

Really, what more could anyone ask for?