The sky was streaked with color.
It was spectacular, strokes of blue-violet woven with the brilliant hues of clouds still lit to gold and pink as the sun set. Beyond the last arms of the light, stars began to come out into view. Already, the eastern horizon was deepening to black.
But no one on Olympus noticed.
All eyes were fixed on the two warriors in the arena. It was almost ridiculous; the tall, well-muscled General with his heavy fall of silver hair and his glossy black wing facing off against the boy who looked too small for his age. Yet they both breathed heavily, hands grasping the hilts of their respective blades, sweating with the effort of battle.
They had been fighting for nearly an hour, and this was their first respite in this fierce confrontation. Each had a goal: Sora, to beat Sephiroth and finally be deemed strong enough to take on the Darkness at its core. Sephiroth, to stand in his way until he was strong enough to win on his own.
The spectators held their breaths, causing one moment of perfect stillness. Then the two warriors clashed, and the fight began anew.
Sephiroth wanted to let the boy win. They had fought so many times, and each time he had sent Sora away with bruises all over the boy's body as well as his ego. But he couldn't hold back. Too much was at stake.
He cried out a spell, just dodging the Keyblade and rolling to the side. Sora twisted the blade and tried to catch him as he moved. The boy had improved immensely. No longer did his young arms swing the weapon in wild arcs. Now they were controlled strikes with purpose. Sephiroth recognized some of his own moves in his opponent's repertoire. He would have smiled, if he could have afforded a moment to admire the other's skill.
He came up to his feet, bringing Masamune with him to block a downward swing of the Keyblade. As his eyes met Sora's, however, he realized his mistake. The Keyblade was coming UP instead, and Sephiroth knew he couldn't block it in time.
Sora rushed, seeing the opening and taking it, turning it into an attack against which even Sephiroth couldn't defend. He drove the great General back, strike after strike, to score at last the final stroke that sent his adversary to one knee. As Sephiroth went down, all noise ceased, leaving Sora to stand in wonder.
It was a terrible and awesome sight, the slight boy looking uncertainly down at the fallen General. Sephiroth forced himself to stand. "Congratulations," he said softly, barely keeping himself upright. He could feel the last hit still, a harsh ache in his ribs. "You win."
Sora stood blinking at the older man, then looked down at his hands with a grin. He had to fight to keep from becoming cocky. It hit him suddenly, the importance of what he had been chosen to do. He bowed. "Thank you, Sir."
Allowing a smile of his own to curl his lips upward, Sephiroth replied, "You are welcome." He gave an ironic little bow. "I do not envy you your task."
Sora gulped, but said nothing.
A shout made them both look up to see the other fighters racing toward them, Ellie in the lead. Sephiroth waved her off, claiming that he was fine. "Go check on Sora first," he said, ignoring her unconvinced mutter. She did as he said. though, hugging the blushing hero. As the others clapped and whooped for joy, celebrating Sora's unexpected victory, Sephiroth slipped away to get his coat.
Gods, his body hurt.
He decided to ask Ellie to rub his back later, his lips quirking up at the thought. She would have some choice things to say on the matter when she found out just how much damage he'd actually taken. But that was what he liked about her; under her sharp words was an underlying, true concern for his safety. Right now, though, it was Sora's moment. "Gods grant that he's able to take this on," he murmured to himself.
Slow clapping sounded from a shadowy corner. "Well done," came Cloud's familiar voice. "I would never have thought to say this, but he just might do it." His voice held little inflection or hope, but still the words were there.
Sephiroth raised a brow. "High praise, indeed, from you. And if he does? What will you do then?"
The blond man blinked, some kind of rare emotion crossing his face. "I don't know."
Sephiroth looked over his shoulder at the others. They were so happy, expectant. Let them be, he thought, they need something to celebrate. Every muscle in his body hurt. "You could always go back, you know. Find the thing for which you search." He slung his sheathed blade over his shoulder and started away.
"I let her down more than once." Cloud took a deep breath and snapped out his wing. He leaned against the wall again, seemingly impassive.
"Hmph." Sephiroth turned. "This, from the man who told me to take the opportunity for a second chance?" he asked derisively. "Take your own advice, Strife."
A sharp, bitter exclamation came from Cloud. "Second chances have passed me by."
At that, the great General let out a hearty laugh. When Cloud scowled at him, he merely laughed harder. "And for me, it was not too late? Hel, Strife, you know better than that. I am the glass by which all others are measured. If I have not sinned enough, then certainly you have not."
"Failure perhaps is worse then a sin." Cloud sighed back, "After all, you and I—what are we? Just men. Let us see if this new hero can save us."
"And if he does? Will you then take your own advice?" A faint smile found its way to his face. "Would you take his success as a sign?"
Cloud Strife allowed himself to smile as well. He enjoyed the idea that, had anyone passed by and seen the two of them standing like that, they would have fainted dead away in shock. "Who knows?"
It might have been a carnival, by the air of pure delight that pervaded the place. Great, burly fighters hugged each other like brothers, telling each other, Sora has done it! Sora has locked Kingdom Hearts! Though everyone already knew, they continued to repeat the news. It was a balm for the fears they'd hidden for the past months.
They were going home! To Gaia, or Windslow, or the Planet. To Earth, to Terra, to Oceanus. They had made friends here, from other worlds. Everywhere men were shaking hands, clasping forearms, or simply slapping each other on the back, knowing they would likely never see each other again. But that paled against the knowledge that they would be going home!
Because Sora had done it. Sora had locked Kingdom Hearts.
Sephiroth walked through the clatter and confusion. Everyone was packing bags and shouting to each other, trying to race to the border before the worlds were inaccessible again. He noted how Ellie seemed to run in three directions at once, laughing and handing out bags of herbs and bandages for the journeys home.
His breath hitched a bit. She was excited about going back to Junon Harbor, and she expected that he would be happy as well. After all, the Planet was safe once again. Things were going to be put right.
He turned and walked to a more peaceful part of the arena. Cloud had gone already, off to find the person for whom he pined. That had been a good parting. Cloud hadn't said anything since the fight with Sora, but Sephiroth had noticed the change in his demeanor. There wassomething, in his student's brilliant blue eyes, that reminded him of the boy who had once cowered before him, and later stood against him. There was hope there, and he wished Strife well in his search for happiness.
He found his usual balcony to be free of the chaos that ruled elsewhere. Settling himself on the stone floor, he leaned back against a pillar, the black wing tucked out of the way. It was time to decide what to do next.
"I marked this day on my calendar, you know." Hercules's amiable voice came from behind him.
Sephiroth looked over his shoulder. "Oh?" His gaze returned to the bright vista beneath the Coliseum. It was a silent invitation for his...friend. The word still tasted strange, but he was becoming used to the idea. He liked Hercules, his bluff good nature and his friendly smile.
"Yeah. Oh, and I suppose I should add that Sora saved the worlds too." He winked, giving his best Hero Grin.
Sephiroth allowed a smile. "Do I really need to ask, or are you going to tell me anyway?"
"Well right now all it says is, 'An amazing event. Both Sephiroth AND Cloud have shown emotion!'" He laughed. "I suppose that Sora's achievement should be noted somewhere." He paused and added jokingly, "You know, underneath."
"It's not so difficult to believe, is it?" Sephiroth leaned his head back against the pillar and sighed. "I thought you were supervising the exodus," he said.
"Nah," the other man made himself comfortable in much the same way as Sephiroth. "Phil is better about that sort of thing. He's in his element, so I let him take over."
"Ah." They fell into a companiable silence, the sounds of the fighters barely reaching them here. After a moment, Sephiroth broke the stillness.
"Hercules...I..." He wanted to ask a favor, but was unsure about how to do it. The Great Sephiroth never asked, he just did whatever he wished.
But he was no longer the Great Sephiroth.
Herc sent him a knowing glance. "Gonna be kinda lonely without you."
Without looking at his friend, Sephiroth said softly, "You wouldn't mind if I stayed?" A thought struck him, and then his eyes did meet Herc's. "Just...don't tell Ellie."
"She wanted you to go home with her, didn't she?"
"Home." The word came out more bitterly than Sephiroth intended. "There is no home for me there."
"I killed too many people. I should be dead as it is, but not even the Lifestream of my world would keep me. I can not, and will not, go back to that place." He spoke with finality. "If you don't want me to stay, I will find some other place..."
"Now don't you go all mushy on me!" Herc said, growing serious. "I want you to stay. You're the only person I can't beat. Guy's gotta have a goal, y'know."
Relief flooded through Sephiroth. "Thank you, Hercules." He stretched out his wing and cocked his head. "It sounds like the furor is dying down. If you want to go say goodbye to the others..." his voice trailed off. "I think I'm going to go practice. No one should be in the arena now." And then I won't have to see Ellie disappearwon't have to tell her goodbye.
Hercules clasped Sephiroth's shoulder. "No. You made her cry once. Say goodbye like a man."
Sephiroth growled, angry because he knew his friend was right. "You don't think she'll feel worse if she tries to convince me to go with her and I turn her down? But fine. I'll go."
Hercules, mollified, merely smiled.
Each step that drew him nearer to Ellie felt heavier than the last. Sephiroth didn't want to say goodbye to her, but Herc was right. He had to do it. He owed that much to her, at least. He found her wrapping some of her rarer plants in leftover bandages and placing them into a basket. "Ellie?"
She beamed at him. "Seph!" Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, her eyes sparkling. A few stray locks of her hair had come free of her braid and now they framed her face. She looked more like a delighted girl than a woman nearing thirty.
His heart almost broke.
Jumping up, she hugged herself with glee. "Can you believe it? That this is really happening?"
He put his hands on her shoulders to keep her from bouncing. "Ellie, I need to tell you something. I'm not going."
She balked. "What?"
There was a sudden hush, as the remaining men realized a storm was coming—and it was going to break all over Sephiroth. He knew it, too, but he firmly stood his ground. "I'm not going," he repeated. "I'm staying here." He forced all the conviction he could into his voice.
Her quick eyes narrowed. "You weren't even going to tell me, were you?"
He looked at the ground, but said nothing.
"You—you—ox-headed, son of a—" Ellie fumed, casting the wrapping to the floor. "Oh, no, you don't! Look at me when I talk to you!" Her hands were planted firmly on her hips. "You were just going to let me go and be miserable without you? You selfish—" She made an inarticulate noise of frustration. "I—I—" She cared about him; she wanted to hold onto him. How could he even consider not telling her?
Perversely, Sephiroth couldn't help but feel a twinge of pleasure at her words. She was angry at him, yes, but she would miss him! She wanted him to come! Not that it had been any question, but it was still good to know she cared about him. He couldn't keep his expression from softening, even if it WOULD infuriate her more.
"Ohhh, you think this is CUTE?" She continued to storm at him. "Well, YES, I wanted you to come! I thought that in some damned corner of your damned male bull-headed brain that you wanted MY company!"
Her words rolled over and around him then, as he listened to what she was really saying. He loved her temper, the bite in her voice that said more than her words. Finally, he took her by the shoulders again and pulled her against him, grinning. His mouth silenced hers, ignoring her muffled surprise.
She was only able to raise a half-hearted protest. She tried to scowl at him, then closed her eyes, leaning into the embrace. He felt her relax and begin to kiss him back. When she had calmed, he pulled away to smirk down at her. She still glared at him, but the worst of her anger had passed.
"I do want your company, Ellie. I just can't go back to the Planet. You know that. It rejected me, but this place accepts me. I'm sorry." Genuine regret colored his voice. He stroked her hair back, the wing angling to hide them from some of the more curious men. "Go on. Go back to Junon. You have a life waiting for you there."
A shout went up. "The doorway is closing!" someone shouted. The remaining men burst into action, grabbing up their weapons and running for the exit.
"Please, Ellie." He frowned in worry. "You need to go."
She looked around at her things, still only half-packed, and laughed ruefully.
"Aren't you going to go?" He was growing worried. She didn't have much time.
Ellie grabbed the man by his collar and pulled him down to her. "Why the Hel would I leave you all alone?" she chuckled affectionately. "Who would stop you from being a lummox?" Before he could respond, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed HIM.
A great rush of air and magic swirled about them. It lifted his hair, fluttered in the feathers of his wing and caught at the filmy hem of her grey chiton. Then it was gone.
The doorway home was closed.
Ellie was still here with him.
"Ellie, I—" he began, only to be stopped by her lips on his. It was harder to pull away this time, but he managed to. "What about Junon?" He couldn't believe she'd stayed.
She shrugged. "It wouldn't have been the same if I knew you had stayed behind." She eyed the mess about them and sighed. "Though I don't look forward to picking all this up."
They stood there, amid the scattered belongings of a hundred men, surrounded by herbs and cast-off weapons. A laugh welled up within him. Amazing how it was becoming easier and easier to do that. He had never felt better, he decided. Second chance, exile, new life—whatever one called it, he was determined to make it work.
And this time, when he bent to capture her mouth again, the ground beneath their feet was solid.
AN: Many thanks as always to Drakonlily, writing partner and friend.
This is it, folks. The end of Valhalla. I hope you enjoyed it; please feel free to review. I also have this posted on my home site, with all my other fics.
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Thanks to all who have been reading this fic.