Embracing the Dark

She wore a black dress, the little temptress. It flowed behind her as she ran, always teasing. He followed eagerly, desperate to embrace her. Pale limbs, flowing hair and eyes that spoke more than they knew…She promised him peace, pleasure, a life that was his alone. He wanted what she promised, wanted all of her, but she kept running, faster than he would have thought such a lithe woman could. The field they ran on became a soft blur.

She led him into the shadow of the dark city, unafraid. He followed eagerly after her, running full speed around the dark labyrinth. He turned the grim corners, sure he would capture her at the next turn but each time the only thing he caught was a glimpse of her dark dress trailing in the wind. He laughed. She wanted to be caught, he knew it, and then she would lead him to the sweet, dark oblivion he desired.

He lunged forward and caught the hem of her dress before it fluttered out of sight. He heard her gasp and giggle around the dark corner. He spun quickly, his arms open to take hold of her. She smiled as he neared her. He could almost feel her. She reached out and touched his arms and his heart soared.

Then it sank fast. For a split second he thought he had tripped, but he felt himself falling much further than the ground lay. It was dark, wherever he fell, but he lost consciousness at some point during the fall into the void.

He returned to awareness with the memory of falling still in his veins. He gasped at finding himself in a desert, of all places. He lay on his back, sore from the fall. The sun was blindingly bright overhead. Briefly he wondered if the woman had drugged him. Of course she must have. She had lulled him with her sweet body, slipped him something and somehow dragged him out here, probably to die. She had probably stolen his wallet.

He sighed, unable to move. When was he going to learn? Chasing strange women, bedding them, leaving them…surely there had to be better diversions from life than that. Safer ones too, or at least pastimes that would not result in his being left for the vultures to pick over. There was one walking over to him right now.

Sephiroth stared at the thing, vaguely uneasy. It had beady, black eyes and a terrible hooked beak. It reminded him of someone, but he could not remember who. The bird must have been terribly old too. It was the most dried-up thing he had ever seen still living. And its tail feathers were grey. He had not known that birds could get old like that. The vulture stood near his shoulder and tilted its head to look at him.

Sephiroth wished he could summon the strength to move, but his body did not seem to be his own. He did not know what he would do if the bird started picking at his flesh while he was still alive. The vulture only watched him, though, and his unease grew. Exactly what was one supposed to expect from an observing carrion-eater? Whatever the possibilities were, Sephiroth had not counted speaking among them.

"What the hell happened to you, boy?"

Sephiroth winced. The thing's harsh voice was eerily familiar. The General turned away, unable to look the bird in its eye. He groaned as he did so and felt the breeze and the vulture flapped its wings at him.

"What's that?" The bird screeched and kept flapping. Sephiroth frowned and closed his eyes against the blinding light. He tried to clear his throat. The vulture was getting testy and something told the General that it was best not to mess with any talking bird that was not a parrot.

"Someone," he croaked, "Someone did this to me."

"Someone? Who?" The vulture brushed its wings over the man. Sephiroth twitched from the feeling. He did not want that thing's feathers all over his arms and face. He struggled to bat the thing away, but he could barely move. "Who did it?" The bird continued to screech.

"I don't know," Sephiroth groaned. "Some woman."

The vulture pulled back. Sephiroth opened one eye to look at it. The thing had tilted its head in that strange way again. The man was disgusted by the wrinkles on its featherless neck. He closed his eyes again and tried to slip into a welcome darkness. It did not work. He still heard the vulture outside his head. Its claws scratched the earth as it paced and it muttered continuously to itself. "Chasing after strange women, who knows who they are or where they've been? I offer him better ones, but he doesn't want my women. Don't know why. My women would never be out to kill him."

Sephiroth smirked. Who would want a vulture's women? They would be all wrinkly and feathered, beak-nosed and beady-eyed. He stifled laughter. If the vulture had human women they were probably picked clean.

The bird flapped again. "What the hell are you laughing at, boy?" Sephiroth could not help it. He burst out laughing in earnest, hard and long. He opened his eyes as he tried to draw breath but what came out next was a harsh yell. The vulture had put on a lab coat, a little vulture-sized lab coat. The General tried to back away. The bird shook its head at him.

"Honestly, boy, I don't know what to do with you. You don't even try to take care of yourself." It walked over to Sephiroth's side again and began brushing his arms and chest with its wings again. "If you won't look out for your own life maybe you should get an honor guard. You're ranked high enough to warrant it, and from the looks of things, you need it."

"Honor guard?" It was just another layer to Sephiroth's confusion. "It's a little late to be guarding my 'honor'."

"Don't be an ass, boy," the bird snapped. "You need someone to look out for your health while you're busy doing other things now. I've already called in that lieutenant of yours to see you back to your quarters. He was the only one I could think of at the moment." The vulture waddled out of the man's line of sight.

Sephiroth frowned. Did that buzzard actually expect him to spend all of his time with Zack? The General groaned. There went all his blessed silence and solitude. He wondered if he would really have to get a guard, or if he would at least be able to choose the person. The vulture came back with a stethoscope and began to check the man's heart. Sephiroth cringed as the instrument touched his skin. "That thing is cold, you know!"

"Sorry," the bird murmured. It rubbed the thing against its wingtips before placing it on the man's skin again. When it was satisfied, it dropped the stethoscope and pulled something out of the pocket of its lab coat. "This should clear up the rest of whatever it is in your system." Sephiroth bit back a cry as something sharp was jabbed into his arm. The vulture paid no mind. "You should take better care of yourself, you know. If something goes wrong, come see me. I can take care of you. No one else really can."

Sephiroth snorted. "Hell will freeze over before I get help from a buzzard like you." This ruffled some feathers.

"What the hell do you think you're doing now? Honestly, boy, I don't know why I bother!" The bird walked away into the bright white void. Sephiroth heard some commotion not too far away. There were voices, but he could not see the speakers and could not tell who was talking.

"Yes, he's over there. Take the wheelchair in the corner and get him out of my laboratory!" A dark shadow moved over Sephiroth and blocked the sunlight. No, it was not a shadow. Just Zack's big, prickly head. Sephiroth groaned.

"Wow, you really are out of it. Come on, sit up." Zack reached out and helped the General to rise. Sephiroth looked around, dazed and amazed. There was no desert, only the wide expanse of white tile in Hojo's laboratory. He shuddered and looked over to the corner of the room where, sure enough, Hojo himself was fiddling with a syringe. Sephiroth caught the man's gaze in a mirror. Hojo looked away quickly, but it was the soldier who shuddered. He tried to stand, eager to be anywhere but where he was, but his legs were still too rubbery to bear his weight.

Zack caught him before he fell and eased him into the wheelchair. The spiky-headed man leaned in closer as he settled his commander in. "Don't worry. That nut gives everybody the shakes." He grinned, winked, grabbed the wheelchair's handles and pushed Sephiroth out into the hallway.

Sephiroth counted the seconds as they went along. He got to seven before Zack broke the silence. "Sir, I was so shocked when I heard. Imagine if the troopers hadn't found you. What would have happened?"

Sephiroth rolled his eyes, though he knew the man could not see it. "Probably nothing. I would have woken up on my own eventually."

"Sir, you collapsed!" Zack almost sounded furious. "You should take better care of yourself. We need you."

"The war's over, Zack." The General's head slumped forward. "Nobody needs me." Nobody but the old buzzard back at the lab, anyway. Sephiroth laughed a little as the thought crossed his mind. He knew that beak had looked familiar. The laughter grew and he was soon rolling in his seat, helpless to hold it in.

"Um, Sephiroth?" Now Zack sounded worried. "Are you okay?"

Sephiroth waved him away. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Take me to my apartment, then get lost."

Zack pushed a little harder. "You really have no people skills at all, you know." Sephiroth did not deem the comment worthy of reply. As usual, Zack spoke up, unable to bear the cold silence. "Did Hojo at least explain what caused it?" Sephiroth frowned.

"That dried-up old hack doesn't have a clue what happened."

Zack pushed a bit slower as he thought. "Do you know what happened?"

"Of course I do. It was poison." The General would have been surprised at just how wide-eyed his first officer could get. Zack began to babble.

"Sir, that's serious! I mean, it's an assassination attempt, isn't it? Do you know what kind of poison it was? Did you see who did it? We have to launch a full-scale investigation! We need to get you a bodyguard!"

Sephiroth held up one hand and effectively silenced Zack. "There's no need. I know everything and nothing needs to be done about it." He studied his hand as if he were seeing it for the first time. Whatever Hojo had given him, his motor control was returning quickly enough.

"Sir," Zack interrupted his musing. "What happened?"

Sephiroth stilled in the chair and did not reply. He watched the doors fly by, heard the little squeak of the wheels, the light after-hours chatter far in the distance. He had counted to a hundred and seventy by the time Zack pushed him into the elevator. He sighed. That much patience coming from Zack should not go unrewarded. The man might become discouraged from it and then he would never shut up. Sephiroth let the elevator door close before he spoke.

"I did it myself."

"WHAT!" Of course, Zack would overreact. The dark-haired man spun the wheelchair around to look his commanding officer in the eye. "What do you mean you did it yourself? Was it an accident or…"

Sephiroth frowned. "There's no time in here for all your questions."

Zack swung out and hit the emergency stop switch with a mad, desperate grin on his face. "Plenty of time now, sir, and you don't even have to worry about anyone overhearing." Sephiroth began to regret his decision to speak to the man at all.

"It was no accident. I deliberately obtained a rare powder and put it in my coffee." He watched with interest as Zack's mouth moved but no sound came out. "Speechless, are you?"

"Sephiroth," Zack breathed out. "Why?"

The General shrugged. "No real reason. I wanted to see some pretty colors."

"You want to see pretty colors? Take an art class!" Zack raged, then shook his head in disbelief. "Do you have a death wish or something?" Sephiroth smiled darkly at the man. Zack leaned back against the door, apparently horrified. "Ifrit's ass, man, what is wrong with you?"

Sephiroth carefully schooled his expression to blankness and considered how much he was willing to tell the man. "There's nothing wrong with me."

"Like hell there isn't!" Zack's expression turned furious again. Sephiroth felt detached amusement at the situation. If nothing else, Zack's moods were fun to watch. "It's battle fatigue, isn't it? War depression." Sephiroth did not answer. Zack knelt down to look at him on eye level. "You're not alone in this, Sephiroth. You can get help. The company psychiatrists…"

"The psychiatrists are full of shit." Sephiroth cut the man off with venom. Zack stumbled at the quiet force of the words. "Take me to my apartment, Zack."

Sensing that the General was unwilling to say any more for the moment, Zack stood and released the switch. The elevator jerked before resuming its smooth glide towards the residential block of the building. For once, he had enough to keep him busy. He was silent as he wheeled Sephiroth the rest of the way and the General was grateful.

By the time they arrived at the door to Sephiroth's fairly new apartment, the man felt well enough to stand. He had to lean heavily on the door while he punched in his code, but he was able to enter on his own two feet. Zack followed him in. Sephiroth turned around and glared at him.

"What are you doing in here?"

Zack crossed his arms. "I'm staying here till I'm sure you're alright." The man showed no sign of moving and Sephiroth did not yet feel up to physically tossing the him out. He was exhausted and this battle was not worth fighting. Sephiroth turned away with a noncommittal sound.

"Alright!" Zack's grin was obvious in his voice. "Where's your TV?" Sephiroth sighed and pointed the way to the living room. Zack wandered down the corridor a bit, then looked over his shoulder. "Aren't you coming?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I want tea." He thought a bit, and vaguely remembered that guests were to be served. "Would you care to join me?"

Zack's brow tilted downward for a second as he considered. "Do you have beer?" Sephiroth shook his head. "Okay, tea it is then. Can you manage on your own?"

"I'm not an invalid, Zack." The General went into his tiny, barely-used kitchen, grateful that the room was hardly big enough for two people. He filled a pot with water from the sink. When he shut the faucet off, he heard the soft electric hum of the television being turned on. Sephiroth put the pot on the stove and turned on the gas, reminding himself not for the first time to request one of the newer electric models. It was so inconvenient having to remember where he had last put the matches.

They were not at the side of the stove where he usually kept them, or in the little cupboard above the sink. They were not in the large cupboard next to the cans of soup or the behind the large coffee bottle. Sephiroth frowned. He was too tired to think much about it, but he had promised Zack tea and he needed to find the matches.

Of course, if Zack was having tea, it would be the wrong time to try another dose of the poison. Sephiroth smirked. It was a good one, this time, the poison.. He hardly believed that any of them would really work. It had all become a game now, to see whether the deadly toxin or his tainted blood would win. So far, poison was not faring any better than rope or guns had, to make no mention of the little wrist-slashing fiasco. That last had only left him weak, with shrill screaming from the damnable bloodthirsty voice deep inside him and an awful mess to clean up in the bathroom.

He smiled a little as he continued to tear the little kitchen apart. He would have to find some way to get word to Wutai to tell that poor woman that she would be stuck with her gaijin danna till she could find a way to permanently dispose of him. She seemed to be onto something with this last poison though. He had almost caught the dark lady.

"Sephiroth? Are you okay in there?" Zack's voice broke his train of thought. "I smell gas."

"Then you shouldn't have had chili for lunch!" Sephiroth snapped and went back to hunting for the matches. Hojo's medicine was giving him a headache.

"Aw, that's mean, Sephiroth," Zack whined from the living room. Sephiroth ignored the man. He was more annoyed that he had just caught himself staring blankly into the bare refrigerator. The matches were not in there so there really was no reason to keep staring. Sephiroth slammed the fridge door shut and spun around to the stove again.

"I'm an idiot." He smacked his head and grinned at his silliness. He did not need matches. He approached the stove and snapped out a flare at his fingertips in the gas-filled room.

"Goddamn it, boy, are you trying to get yourself killed?" It was definitely Hojo this time, make no mistake. Sephiroth groaned and shielded his eyes from the bright lights. "You're lucky that soldier was there with you. He pulled you out of the blaze."

Sephiroth frowned. "What did he have to do that for? I'm fire-proof."

Hojo's eyes glittered with rage. "The blast threw you right through the wall. But who am I kidding? That shouldn't be a problem, considering how thick your skull is!" He turned away muttering again. "I should schedule more check-ups for Sephiroth, so I can see him more often."

Sephiroth frowned and sat up. He was a bit dizzy but at least he knew this time what he was seeing was real. Hojo truly was a nut, as Zack said, to want Sephiroth back after spending so many years muttering about 'shipping the boy out so he can be somebody else's headache'. The curtain next to Sephiroth's bed rattled as it was pulled back.

"Sephiroth, you're okay!" Zack was grinning despite the bandages on his forearms. He had more white bandages across one shoulder. Sephiroth assumed that he must have beat the door down with it. "What was it this time?" Zack asked, and his brown eyes glimmered, knowing.

Sephiroth headed off the inquiry with a small shake of his head and a surreptitious glance at Hojo. "It was an accident." Zack smiled. He seemed to accept that. Sephiroth frowned at the man. He had thought that the hallucinations were over, but something was strange about the man's face. "Zack," he began cautiously. "Where are your eyebrows?"

Zack gave him an odd look. "What do you mean where?" He reached up to touch his face. "Oh shit! My eyebrows!" Sephiroth breathed out in relief as he watched the man's fingers encounter smooth reddened skin.

Hojo grumbled from the corner. "They must have just gotten singed off in the fire. Don't make a fuss."

Zack went into hysterics. "Don't make a fuss? My girl's going to laugh her ass off when she sees this!"

Sephiroth stood with a smirk. Perhaps this life was not entirely his own, but until such time as he could successfully enter the void, or at least get as far away from Shinra as possible, this life was all he had, and sometimes it was not too bad.

-.-.-.-.-.-.-

Time: 4 hrs 42 mins

Assessment: A bit of a headache to write this one, Sephiroth's experimenting with death, Hojo showing some late paternal interest. May go further into Seph's friendship with Zack later.

gaijin – foreigner, danna – 'husband' of a geisha. Just intrigued by the thought of Seph keeping a woman.

Mission: 100 Percent Complete

Final Notes:

Thank you to everyone who read this! This was a really fun break from the extreme effort with respect to plot and description that I put into my other fic. I learned quite a few things while writing this and I have your feedback to thank.

This fic started out from the image in my mind of Sephiroth as a small child playing with lab mice. I also would like to think that despite the treatment we assume Hojo gave him, he retained some spark of innocence, life and defiance.

I had the most fun writing the end of the fourth chapter and the beginning of the fifth. I love yaoi and shounen ai but I don't like shocking people too much and I already have a rep for straight romance. There are some things I'm reluctant to bring up in mixed company, so to speak, so I'm glad I didn't completely blow anyone's socks off.

I really like chapter five and I am grateful you all weren't disturbed by Sephiroth's actions. I remember early on, people had no problem accepting that he was a brutal killer, maybe a bit of a sadist, but rape was a definite no-no. The backlash for even hinting at it was terrible (don't know why) and I am glad to see that things are more open in general now.

If I keep writing what I plan to write, I'm going to disturb people sooner or later anyhow, so it's good that this thing (and you all) helped me get over these silly hang-ups. I am not as disturbing as I feared.:D

I could say it a thousand times and it would not be enough, but once again, thank you, all of you!