Sephiroth's creases were precise, sword-sharp, perfect, but somehow they weren't coming together as the models he knew. Monsters flew from his fingers, from recognizable dragons and Malboros to otherworldly horrors, their geometry indecipherable to him.
"Let us help you." The daimyo who'd captured him sat down at his side, his clothes as neatly creased as the origami models Sephiroth was desperately trying to produce. "Shinra has twisted your mind, young one. Until you are free of them your hands will only produce twisted works."
Sephiroth made another crease with a swift, vicious movement. The model fell from his hands: a misshapen angel, an orb set in its guts and a blind totem at its head.
"Young one," the daimyo repeated. His voice was infinitely compassionate, but his hand when he reached out to halt Sephiroth's frantic folding dripped blood.
Sephiroth groaned and turned his face to the sofa cushion. This nightmare had been mild as nightmares went, but it still didn't leave him feeling rested. Head pounding, eyes feeling like they'd been sandpapered, he stumbled to his feet and lurched for the kettle.
Two mugs of coffee later and he was feeling - vaguely human again. Human enough to wonder whether it was only the children's interest in origami that had sent his subconscious wandering to Wutai, and his brief experience as a teenage prisoner of war. Handling his memories as gingerly as he would broken glass, Sephiroth wandered outside.
And saw Cloud standing before him, the younger man's muscular shoulders tight with rage.
He coiled. His hands were empty, he had no Materia; for a moment he wished even for the blasted Hardedge, before he saw that Cloud wasn't glaring at him but through him. "Look at the door," Cloud ordered shortly, and Sephiroth obeyed.
In the night, someone had vandalized Aeris's church, painting on it a crude representation of the weapon that had taken her life.
Sephiroth's throat went dry. "Turks?" he rasped.
"Doesn't seem like their style," Cloud admitted, coming forward. Sephiroth moved aside to give him room, and also to try to convince his overactive threat-assessment that Cloud meant him no harm. "Did you hear anything?"
Sephiroth's heart, halfway to calmness, started thumping against his sternum again. "No," he admitted, and met Cloud's wide-eyed look with one of his own. "Even asleep, I should have-" Sephiroth started before his mind caught up with him again.
Jenova is no longer within me. My pupils are a normal shape. What if I have lost more than I knew?
Cloud's mind was already racing ahead, dismissing the question of Sephiroth's senses to focus on more practical matters. "Okay. Tifa can probably ask around, someone has to know something. I don't wanna involve the police, but - dammit, people are gonna see this, I'll have to make a report." Both hands dug through his hair, leaving it even more in disarray. "Dammit," Cloud repeated.
Sephiroth found his shoulders creeping up around ear level, and forced them back down again - it was his presence that was making things so complicated for Cloud, but until he was in a position to live elsewhere, he had to focus on one practical solution at a time. Letting his anxiety rule him wouldn't gain him Cloud's trust. "May I borrow some cleaning supplies in the meantime?" he asked.
Cloud gave him a resentful blink - he'd gone and interrupted a perfectly good panic loop. "What for?"
Sephiroth turned his gaze to the crude depiction of Masamune, glared at it. "That," he said firmly, "has to go."
Sephiroth spent the morning scrubbing the graffiti off Aeris's church, but it wasn't enough. Traces of the paint remained in the wood. A couple of curious teenagers tried to enter that afternoon, peering through the windows and rattling the newly-barred door; Sephiroth hid in the bell tower until they gave up. Marlene and Denzel were quieter and more clingy when they visited him after school, which set off alarm bells under his skin but he endured it for their sake. They told him what they overheard Tifa telling Cloud - that her customers were abuzz with rumors that the Silver General had returned, some of them flattering, others rather less so - and what Cloud had told Tifa in turn - that more Masamune marks had appeared in the area.
Sephiroth had told Marlene and Denzel nothing in return; the words racing around and around his brain weren't fit to share with anyone, much less children. Perhaps he should have found something to say, something reassuring - something Zack might have said - for a few days later, Denzel got into a fight at school.
Sephiroth didn't hear about it until the next day. Both children were kept from the church that evening, leaving Sephiroth only with a faint crinkle of sympathy from Cloud when he brought dinner and coffee. The next morning Marlene alone came to see him, and swinging between rage and tears, told him what had happened.
"Cloud and your teacher are correct," Sephiroth told her dutifully, when her tirade dissolved into tear-stained clinging. "He shouldn't have resorted to punching, nor you to name-calling. But - I am grateful to have defenders."
"It wasn't you," Marlene hissed through her tears, and tightened her arms fiercely around him. "None of it was you. This-" she rocked into him with all the strength in her tiny body - "is the real Sephiroth!"
The real Sephiroth. He wondered if such a creature existed, and what that creature had done to earn the faith of Barret Wallace's daughter and a boy orphaned by Meteor.
"Thank you," was all he could think to say, and Marlene hugged him fiercely again. May this be enough this time.
Denzel was released from his punishment - 'grounding,' a concept Marlene had to explain as Sephiroth's childhood punishments had had nothing in common with it - the next day. The bruises on his face and arms were going yellow and green under his tan skin, and Sephiroth examined them professionally and offered advice on how to shield himself next time.
"You're teaching me how to fight?" Denzel asked dubiously, though he copied the stance Sephiroth showed him readily enough.
"Not at all - this is strictly defensive." Sephiroth adjusted Denzel's stance, reminding himself to be gentle - this was a child, not a recruit. "You were expecting me to lecture you?"
Denzel's dubious eyes said he was expecting just that, and Sephiroth hid a smile. "I have no authority to do so," he explained, "even if I wanted to. Besides - you've served out your sentence. Correct?"
"...yeah," Denzel admitted, starting to smile again.
"Good." Sephiroth nodded. "I'm better at practical solutions anyway. Shift your weight forward a bit." Denzel did so. "Good. Just like that. Marlene, do you want to try?"
Marlene, seated by Aeris's flower patch, lit up like the sun. She hopped to her feet and raced to them, throwing herself into the same stance as Denzel with more enthusiasm than skill. She wiggled impatiently when Sephiroth corrected her stance, and Sephiroth wondered if he had ever been so eager as a boy.
"Right. Now, I'm going to show you the block slowly. Follow what I do."
Sephiroth met Cloud at the door when he came to collect the children. "Cloud," he began, his stomach in knots - well aware that this was the first time he'd approached Cloud on his own initiative. "I think it's time for another bounty. A long-range one."
Cloud pressed his lips together, knowing immediately what Sephiroth referred to. "Yeah," he agreed. "I'll talk to Reeve."
"Thank you." Sephiroth nodded to him, and turned to accept good-night hugs from Marlene and Denzel.
Gleipnir was unabashedly and uncomplicatedly happy to see him, nearly leaping the fence when Sephiroth passed by the paddock and joyfully beaking at him all over when Sephiroth finally got within range to be beaked. Sephiroth buried his fingers in the soft green feathers, breathed in his scent and murmured the big green's name.
"He's been doing well in his training," Chole volunteered, Gleipnir's tack in her hands and her knees obscured by nearly a dozen leggy chicks peeping for attention. Gleipnir dipped his beak to them to say hello as Sephiroth stared at them, wondering how long it'd been since he'd seen a chick, much less been afforded the chance to handle one.
"If you wanted Gleipnir to breed," Chole offered, and Sephiroth snapped out of his maudlin reverie.
Chole nodded to Gleipnir. "Greens are rare," she pointed out as Gleipnir tilted his head to fix Sephiroth with one bright, curious eye. "His chicks won't be show birds, since his pedigree can't be verified, but he's a great bird by any rubric and he's excellent with the chicks. He'd make a wonderful father."
It was the longest speech Sephiroth had heard from the young woman. "You've devoted some thought to this," he observed.
Chole's smile was brief, but the warmth stayed in her eyes as she replied. "I don't think about anything else, really. That's what my brother says. Anyway," she forged ahead, "you don't need to answer right away, but if you're willing to put Gleipnir to stud, my father's already said he'll adjust the price of your stable rental accordingly."
That speech sounded rehearsed, and Sephiroth imagined that money was one of those things Chole's brother thought she didn't think about. "I'll consider it," he promised. "I don't know where I'll be by next year's mating season, but if I decide to breed him, you'll be the first ones I call." Chole smiled again, and helped Sephiroth with Gleipnir's tack.
When Chole had gone, Sephiroth eyed Gleipnir. "And just whom have you been courting," he demanded. Gleipnir fluffed out his feathers proudly and trilled. "Cheeky bird. I ought to demote you."
Well, demotions for flirting with strange hens would have to wait. Cloud was looking at him meaningfully from the paddock fence, and Sephiroth had a bounty to collect.
He was lying on his back on a lab table, strapped down tightly like they hadn't had to do since he was a boy. He moved - testing the straps, not trying to break them - as Hojo leaned over him, his usual fog-headed frown deepening into a true scowl.
"What a disappointment," he muttered.
Sephiroth found he couldn't speak, couldn't even close his eyes as Hojo laid out the tools he needed. "Do you know how much you've set me back, boy?" he groused, syringes lining up like soldiers next to clamps, tongs, scalpels. "Centuries, at least. Maybe even millenia. I had such high hopes." The smell of antiseptic and Mako reached Sephiroth, making him flinch despite himself. "If I'd known how defective you'd be at the end, I would have terminated you and started over with Subject C."
A low snarl thundered through the air, one Hojo didn't seem to notice. Sephiroth searched the darkness, let out a low breath of relief at the glow of violet eyes in the dark. Zack. Then this was a dream.
Explained the darkness in the room, really. Lab protocol insisted that operating arenas be brightly-lit.
He saw Zack as a shadow on shadow, pacing back and forth about the edge of the room as Hojo continued to angrily prepare. He could read frustration in the lupine stalk, as easily as if Zack were human-shaped. Clearly Zack wanted to intervene, and couldn't. Sephiroth wanted to tell him it was all right, that it was enough that he was here, that there was nothing to be done, and that this scenario was too familiar for him to hold any terror.
The cold sting of alcohol touched his inner elbow, and Sephiroth knew that last to be a lie after all. His muscles locked, Zack's howl ringing in his ears as a needle filled with all his deepest fears pricked his skin-
Sephiroth jerked awake and instantly had a faceful of feathers, a sleepy Gleipnir lifting his head with a grumpy wark. "Sorry," he mumbled, tucking his arms around himself, and Gleipnir mumbled himself back to sleep.
Sorry, Zack, he thought, and lay back down. The ship around him rumbled and rocked, evidence of a restless sea beyond the blank metal walls that surrounded him. He'd never suffered from motion sickness, but tonight his stomach roiled like the angry sea and he had no hope of getting back to sleep.
The Corel Mountains were as verdant and rich with life as Sephiroth remembered from his last mission to the area over a decade ago. He'd followed Cloud through these mountains on their way from Rocket Town, of course, but he hadn't been in any mental state to admire the scenery then. Now, as Gleipnir picked his way deftly along the steep mountain trails overlooking Corel Valley, Sephiroth took in everything he could of the lay of the land.
The settlements had expanded and contracted and expanded again since his day, but the area still mostly belonged to the wildlife: the trail he and Gleipnir were on was a Bagnadrana trail, vegetation stomped flat underneath them and the trees on either side showing damaged bark and splintered branches. Tracks under Gleipnir's claws told Sephiroth of the presence of foxes, deer, and marten; a scorched tree was evidence of a Needle Kiss, and Sephiroth pulled Gleipnir up to study it thoughtfully. The lightning-using monster birds were a common sight in this area, but not this far from civilization; they, like many magic-capable monsters, fed partially on Mako, and so were drawn to reactors and the pipelines that spread outward from them. That a Needle Kiss had ventured so far away from human settlements meant that possibly there was a Mako fountain in the area, and with the Corel reactor inoperative the Needle Kiss population had found it necessary to change its habits.
Which might be a problem, because Needle Kiss seemed to have a special murderous fixation on Sephiroth. The last time he'd been in the area on a mission-
Gleipnir paused, sensing the sudden tension in his rider. Sephiroth forced himself to breathe until the headache subsided and his vision unblurred, grateful for his mount's sensitivity and patience while he was too preoccupied by pain to even curse. "Good bird," he murmured when he could speak again, patting Gleipnir's neck feathers, and nudged him into motion again.
This, he reflected, could be a problem if it happened in battle. So far the headaches only came when he thought about certain aspects of his past, which was unlikely when he was concentrating on fighting, but if those parameters changed...
...well, if they changed, he'd have to think of another way to earn gil to pay back Cloud and Tifa, that was all. Perhaps selling peppers at a market stall.
Gleipnir paused again at the inelegant snort that escaped Sephiroth then. "Wark?"
"I'm fine, Gleipnir." Sephiroth pressed a gloved hand to his face, swallowing his chortles with minimal success. "Let's keep going."
Their target was a Wolfmeister - another armored and armed monster, rare even in its normal mountainous stomping grounds, but a menace when its path crossed with that of humans, and Reeve had been wise to put up a bounty mission as soon as signs of the creature had been discovered. Sephiroth was equipped with another of Cloud's swords, one with a mythril-reinforced edge - Hardedge having suffered quite a respectable dent. "Try not to drop this one off any cliffs," Cloud had told him, and Sephiroth wanted to feel resentment except he could see that Cloud was trying not to laugh.
"I make no promises," he'd answered, grave as a judge, and got an amused scoff as his reward.
The mythril saber was a much more acceptable weapon in any case, and Cloud had seen fit to add an unmastered Gravity materia to Sephiroth's previous allotment of Restore and Barrier. Sephiroth was almost confident as he rode further along the trail, his mind already flying ahead to the time after the battle when he would contact Cloud with the news that the job was done. Wolfmeisters were powerful creatures, but solitary and fairly stupid. He could handle this.
Gleipnir trotted past another scorched tree, this one nearly split in half, and Sephiroth amended that thought. Provided I avoid the lightning birds.
Sephiroth bent over Gleipnir's neck as the bird sprinted, wings spread for balance. Behind them a half-dozen Needle Kiss swooped, filling the air with crackles of hot, sharp energy. He had failed to avoid the lightning birds. Oh, Shiva, how he had failed.
Zack would be laughing at me right now.
Gleipnir was a sure-footed bird, even in panic; he took the last hundred yards of scrubby mountain path in four long strides and leaped the low cliff onto the railroad tracks without a hint of a stumble. Sephiroth clung to his saddle as Gleipnir scrambled down the tracks, swearing under his breath, acutely feeling the lack of a sword with Masamune's reach or, failing that, attack magic that could handle multiple targets. Even the loss of potency that the basic war magics suffered when wielded against multiple foes would have been acceptable right then, if only to weaken and discourage the monsters. Sephiroth risked a look back - he saw only sharp beaks and murderous intent, and one of them swooping upward, beak pointing upward like a lightning rod.
Sephiroth threw his weight to the side, forcing Gleipnir to turn sharply. Lightning struck where they'd been, swift and deadly as a new-forged blade, and he felt Gleipnir's ribs contract under his legs as the bird shrieked in terror. This couldn't go on, for Gleipnir's sake - he wasn't a warbird, he had no place in battle!
"Gleipnir," he shouted, "run," and he threw himself out of the saddle.
No time to glance around to see if his bird would obey. Sephiroth hit the ground and rolled, gravel and sand biting into his skin, and came up with sword drawn and legs already in motion, charging into the flock before they could fully register the change in their prey's direction. Cloud's mythril blade was sharp still, despite the signs of hard use, and despite not being as long as Sephiroth would have liked it was still long enough to bisect two of the Needle Kiss before the rest could scatter out of his range.
"SOLDIER and Midgar!" he roared, just to keep their attention on him, and firmly denied himself permisson to think neither of those things exists anymore thanks to me.
The flock - the two-thirds of it left - shrilled in response, wheeling around to target him. The air spat with lightning, strikes he could neither deflect nor dodge, and Sephiroth took the blows with a tight grimace and both hands locked around the mythril blade's hilt. Electrocution hurt just as much as he remembered. The birds' attacks were driving him back, toward the cliff's edge, and Sephiroth let it happen: if he charged them, they'd simply fly out of reach, but monsters grew bold when they thought their kill was at hand. Crack, went the lightning against his bones, and Sephiroth hissed through the pain and waited for his opening. Crack, hiss. His sword was out and ready. Why weren't they charging?
Some irrational impulse made him glance down. Waiting for him at the bottom of the cliff, massive cleavers upraised, were four Wolfmeisters.
Lightning hit him like a chocobo's kick and Sephiroth lost purchase with the ground. They're not supposed to do that! his mind protested as he fell, a child's wail of unfair mingling with the baffled outrage of a monster scholar. Their behavior patterns couldn't have changed this much this quickly!
Well. Evidently they could and they had, and in the meantime the ground was coming up awfully fast. Time to do something about that.
Barrier softened some of the impact of landing, but even so Sephiroth's bones jarred and his teeth rattled as he landed in a three-point crouch, one gloved fist to the earth and the other still gripping tight to Cloud's mythril blade. The earth thundered as the Wolfmeisters charged. No, Sephiroth mouthed, breathless, and surged up with a wide crescent slash that scored against heavy red armor. Another slash and the Wolfmeisters were falling back, metal clanking and clattering against stone. Expecting an easier meal, were we? Sephiroth thought, and reached into the sword for the magic hidden there.
Gravity fought him, harder to grasp than Restore or Barrier, spells that yearned to cherish and protect. Yet Sephiroth's greatest strength had always been his mastery of magic, even before acquiring the sword that had become his trademark. His mind grasped the knot of darkness that seethed heavily at the center of the Materia and he gestured at the nearest Wolfmeister. The spell slammed into the monster mid-charge, knocking it to the earth amid a squeal of bending armor plating. The spell wouldn't kill the creature - Gravity rarely did - but the heavy beast wouldn't be getting up any time soon. Sephiroth turned, sword held before him, and cast a second spell, and a third, the ground shaking beneath him as the behemoths fell.
The fourth did not try to close the distance. Instead it lifted its cleaver skyward, and Sephiroth swore and leaped aside just as a lightning-strike of blue energy hit the ground where he'd been. His path took him within reach of the first Wolfmeister, who'd struggled to one knee - just recovered enough to lash out, cleaver's edge glinting in the light. Sephiroth whipped his blade up hard, clang, and lashed out with his hand already full of dense power pulled from the heart of the Planet.
Gravity fired. The Wolfmeister went flying.
The blowback launched Sephiroth into the air and he used it, finding his balance in landing and using the momentum he had to leap sword-first into the path of Wolfmeister number two. The blade cleaved into the gap between chestplates with a horrible screech, echoed when Sephiroth pulled it free ahead of the monster's death throes.
Two left. He wasn't out of danger yet.
The pair of Wolfmeisters left still flanked him, though, and they were doing something else they shouldn't have known to do: coordinating their attack. They lifted their cleavers again, summoning the energy bursts they were feared for. Sephiroth felt the prickle against his skin like the edge of a pair of blades and knew he'd never be able to dodge both. He folded, thrusting the strongest Barrier he could muster into the air over him, knowing that it would do precious little against energy blasts.
His spell sketched a rainbow umbrella over him, not a dull silver one, and the twin blasts of Atomic Ray scattered harmlessly over its surface like raindrops.
Sephiroth took only a single breath, a gasp of disbelief - of delight - and with the spell humming a smug note of protect in his mind he charged again, turning his back fearlessly on the monster to his right to close the distance with the other. Energy fell around him, clashing like thunder, singeing the ground around his boots. Heedless, Sephiroth leaped, haloed with blue sparks, his sword humming with magic and his own wordless roar.
The monster's armor, already weakened by Gravity, crumpled under Sephiroth's blade. Its cleaver slipped from segmented fingers and thudded into the dirt. With a harsh breath, Sephiroth braced his boot on the monster's hip and yanked his sword free, pushing the monster backward with the same motion so its corpse would fall backward rather than on him. Sword in hand, monster's ichor slowly evaporating from the blade and his rainbow shield glowing around him, Sephiroth turned to face the last monster standing.
The Wolfmeister's face was masked and armored, and had no expression. Yet in its stance as it stepped back Sephiroth read hesitancy and fear, as clearly as if it were human. It stepped back again, clearly wanting distance between it and this bigger monster, and pulled its energy together for a final energy-burst attack.
Sephiroth wasn't about to let it live that long, and he didn't need to close the distance. His fist filled with power and he cradled it only a moment before throwing it, the purple-black orb of Gravity lancing across to engulf the Wolfmeister in magic like a crushing fist.
When the spell spent itself, the Wolfmeister was on its hands and knees and Sephiroth was there, sword upraised. It had only the time to lift one hand before Sephiroth struck its head from its body.
Mission complete. Sephiroth wobbled, hanging onto his balance by his fingertips. Had he been this godsdamned tired after battles before his death? I'm out of practice, he berated himself, dragging himself back toward the cliffs to check that the other three were well and truly dead. He forgot about the rainbow shield over his head, courtesy of a Materia that had apparently experienced a mid-battle growth spurt, until it split a bolt of electricity out of nowhere and faded, its strength spent. Sephiroth jumped, spinning with sword lifted - there, high atop the cliff, perched several dark feathered figures watching him with murder in their eyes. The Needle Kiss. Too much to hope they'd flown away.
Maybe they were trying to finish him off. Maybe they were just trying to drive him off so they could feast on the corpses he had made. Either way, Sephiroth wasn't about to let them be. He grimly recast his shield spell and lifted his sword, determined to finish what he started.
The first Needle Kiss spread its wings - and a bright blue laser skewered it, sending it plummeting to Earth in a trail of burning feathers. The other three scattered with shrieks of alarm and fury, only to be cut down with unerring precision and ruthlessness by the same laser, wielded by a man who even as Sephiroth stared in disbelief was folding his gun-arm away into a cybernetic hand.
"Gettin' rusty, General?" said Barret Wallace.
"You're not the first to make that observation," Sephiroth answered dryly, finding a convenient stump and plopping down on it and laying down his borrowed sword. The less he could look like a threat to this man, the better. "...thank you for the assist," he added in a lower tone.
Barret shifted. "Wasn't for you," he gruffed. "I was just helpin' out a bird."
Sephiroth lifted his head, startled as the bushes behind Barret exploded out in a cloud of frantic green feathers and a strident "WARK!"
Gleipnir almost bowled him off his seat entirely. Before Sephiroth quite regained his equilibrium, Gleipnir peered at him closely from one eye, then the other, then reared up and pecked him firmly on the crown.
"Wark," Gleipnir scolded, and settled in for a grumbling, feather-poofed preening session. Sephiroth glanced Barret's way without moving his head - the man was openly snickering at him.
Sephiroth sighed. "Understood, Gleipnir," he said, patting the bird's shoulder. "Thank you for fetching help. I'll be more careful next time." Gleipnir grumble-crooned around his mouthful of hair, not mollified but well on the way.
He felt Barret's approach and held still for it, too tired to defend himself if the man were of a mind to berate him again as he had in Rocket Town. Instead he leaned against a tree with a sigh, regarding the pair with his arms crossed - the contrast between brown flesh and silver metal was startling, when Sephiroth dared a glance up. "So," Barret grunted, "that your mission done with?"
Sephiroth's gaze was drawn to the nearest dead Wolfmeister, its broken pieces mingling with those of its - siblings? Children? Hunting party? Beyond it, he could see the signs of their passage leading into the trees, the opposite way from where Barret and Gleipnir had come from. He sighed. "No. Upon review, I'm afraid not."
Sephiroth nodded to the Wolfmeister corpse. "If there had been only one, I would have killed it and assumed my mission to be complete. But there were four." Gleipnir warbled worriedly over his head, and Sephiroth absently reached out to pat his feathers. "Their habits have clearly changed. I can't assume anything - I have to confirm that there are no more of them in the area."
Barret was silent a moment, but Sephiroth could see his gaze travel downslope, toward what he assumed was Barret's hometown. "So what are you gonna do?" the other man asked.
Gleipnir had finally let up on Sephiroth's hair enough that he could stand up, one hand resting on the bird's shoulder. "I have to find their nest."