There was just something in the air that said tomorrow was going to be the day a battle took place, and people were going to die. Sephiroth inhaled deeply – it was nice to find something familiar in this godforsaken place. Strife looked at him funny, but as he'd been doing that a lot since Sephiroth's victory dance over Hojo, it was easy to ignore.
Aeris joined the blond in staring at Sephiroth has if he'd taken a leaf out of Jenova's book and grown another head.
"What is so odd about demanding popcorn? I've got front row seats on those two," he pointed at the odd couple of one utterly perplexed Chocobo Head and one indecisive Whiny Girl.
Aeris took a deep breath, while the other three in the vicinity steeled themselves. "I don't believe you! How could you do such a thing?"
He blinked innocently at her. "What exactly do you think they'll end up doing?"
She turned a rather unattractive red and spluttered. "Isn't it obvious?"
Sephiroth turned slightly to share smirks with Zack. "Nope. Woman, bring me popcorn."
There was the sound of open palm meeting cheek. "Don't you have any sense of decency?"
"Aeris," he said pleasantly (though his eye was twitching at an incredible rate above the bright red mark splayed across his face). "The eve of a battle always yields top entertainment value in sappy declarations of love and irrelevant and humiliating confessions. Trust me, it's the only thing that makes it all worth it."
"...and if they do... you know?"
Zack seemed all set to stretch out Aeris' communication problems with a 'no-I'm-sure-I-don't-know' so he hastily interrupted, raising an eyebrow at her. "If Chocobo Head gets laid by the end of this night, I'm a donkey. Bring popcorn."
She scowled at him. "I don't think so. See you tomorrow, Eeyore. Some of us understand the meaning of the word 'privacy'."
He snorted. "You're tied with every conscious on the Planet, none of us have any privacy." Fortunately, she was out of earshot. He turned to the boy. "Strife, get popcorn. This should be entertaining."
It was extremely entertaining. Not that Strife – who had tried to bury his head in the Lifestream's non-existent sand to stop the humiliation – would agree, but Zack certainly did. Sephiroth managed two Zack-sized (e.g. mega-mega sized) buckets of spiritual popcorn, one large piece of candy-floss, one blatant (to anyone but the Chocobo Head) attempt to get Chocobo Head to just shut up and kiss like any normal person, three moments of nauseating self-pity, one bout of manfully (er… womanfully) suppressed tears and seven examples of humiliating, confession-skirting pieces of conversation on both sides before being violently sick.
He didn't much enjoy the look of frosty moral superiority on Aeris' face the next morning, but was buoyed by the fact that even she was reduced to smothering snorts of laughter by the time midday arrived. Sephiroth particularly liked the Ninja Brat's attempt on Chocobo Head's materia, while Zack voted Cid for 'Most Unlikely Pre-Battle Confession Ever', arguing that admitting you were a closet Loveless fan was far superior in the humiliating and pointless confession stakes than anything Chocobo Head or Whiny Girl had (thus far) managed. Aeris dropped the paper-thin façade of snootiness to giggle fondly over Vincent's creepy little monologue about gates of tomorrow and battles beneath the earth. Strife, on the other hand, grew worried over the adults' preoccupation with exchanging notes with the end of the world just one big chunk of rock away and hit Chocobo Head so hard he told his team to 'mosey'.
By the time Sephiroth had recovered his composure, it was too late. He looked up to discover Aeris watching him with an anticipatory gleam that meant inescapable trouble and/or humiliation was coming. It seemed to be happening terribly frequently these days. He wondered if he'd be in the same position if it were only the end of his career rather than his life coming up. Clearly, every malevolent force in the universe had saved up every moment of indignity due in his lifetime and reserved it for his last days.
"What now?" he said resignedly. Had President ShinRa still been alive he would have taken notes from Aeris on how to break Sephiroth's spirit.
"Now? We are going to discuss the Final Battle."
He closed his eyes. When you could hear capitalisation, the signs were not good.
"Or rather," she added musingly, "the Final Battles. Plural. And of course, what forms you'll be taking."
Sephiroth wrenched his eyes back open. She couldn't possibly have said what his ears insisted she'd said... "What?"
"The Final Battles," she repeated patiently. "Three of them. And the forms you're going to take for them. Now, I think perhaps a giant mutant for the first, failings of the flesh and earthly life and such. It's terribly irritating to see you looking perfect all the time…"
Sephiroth repeated himself with a little more vehemence: "What?" He rubbed his temples gently, before remembering headaches needed a body. "I don't know what among your garden plants you've been smoking, but I advise you to stop before you become the female equivalent of Zack. I am not participating in more than one bloody end-all battle, thank you very much."
"How should I put this?" Aeris mused rhetorically. Sephiroth's blackened and barely-functional heart sank to his boots.
"In Midgarian Standard and out loud would be a start," he said flatly, the sense of doom pressing ever heavier on his shoulders. "Otherwise, I have no preference."
She gave a scathing look that felt like an unpractised attempt at a glare to flay the skin off his bones. He gave her an irritatingly smug grin in response, knowing from long-ago first attempts at the selfsame glare she was attempting that nothing else was quite so exasperating as imperviousness. "Let me put it in terms you will understand then," she said. "You will do this, and in return I may refrain from tearing out your internal organs in alphabetical order."
"Allow me to give you my response in the simple vocabulary you apparently have great difficulty in understanding: no. I will not participate in more than one 'Final Battle', and I certainly will not participate in anything that requires me to become a mutant freak. I don't care what you try to do me; I was receiving death threats when you were still playing with dolls."
"Don't be silly," Aeris snapped. "Three battles, three forms. It's the way these things are done."
"...The end of the world arrives in Meteor form often, does it?" Sephiroth inquired mildly.
Aeris heaved a sigh of incomparable exasperation. "It's just the way things are, Sephiroth. Three is a powerful magical number; hence three battles in three different forms. If we're to do things exactly by the book we'd probably also do something with three different realms, you know, earth, sky, spirit, blah, blah. You know people, the more meaningless something is, the more meanings they interpret."
Sephiroth paused and considered his options. His decision was made considerably easier by the fact he didn't have any. He started burnishing the Masamune instead, determined to make it gleam so brightly it blinded everybody stupid enough to glance in his direction. A more intelligent being than Zack or Strife might have noted that he seemed to be treating the task more as an act of aggression which the Masamune should not survive rather than as a relaxation method. "While I understand I am to throw these battles for Chocobo Head and the continued survival of the human race, I'm hardly going to make it easy for them. There is absolutely no way he'll survive three battles."
Strife looked peeved at this blunt piece of truthfulness; Sephiroth patted his hair absently, then checked – as he did every time he touched Strife's hair, however infrequently that might be – if his hand required bandaging.
"Well, the third battle is entirely out of the physical realm, you understand." Aeris explained patiently. "And you are going to lose, and very easily."
Sephiroth opened his mouth to tell her in no uncertain terms just what exactly he thought of that idea. She smiled. He closed it again.
"Cloudy," he said haughtily to the (rather tattered and worn) doll as he stalked off, determined to pretend there wasn't a foregone conclusion, "It's time to take over the world!"
The final speeches fulfilled his expectations of an embarrassing spectacle. Fortunately, taking physical form again after so long in the Lifestream meant he was far too doped to comprehend them. Or understand much of anything of the first battle. He did wonder why there were three pieces of rock large enough to support groups of three people defying the laws of gravity, but as he himself considered gravity to be one of a number of suggested options, he quickly dismissed the thought to concentrate on why exactly he seemed to be missing legs. Again.
The first thing Sephiroth had the misfortune to notice about the second battle was the ecstatic choral music. He took it for granted that he would have a hymn just in praise of his brilliance and moved on. The second thing was a little odder.
He looked around, and noticed that his right arm had feathers.
"Holy Mother of God!" The horrified screech was just barely in the range of human hearing. "What the fuck happened to my arm?" There were several other exclamations that followed closely after this, but fortunately they were sufficiently muffled as to be indistinguishable. He waved the new arm experimentally. Dark feathers fluttered down. Then he made the mistake of following their shaky little flight paths, and discovered that somehow several pairs of wings had replaced his legs.
It is not every day you discover you have gained several new appendages, so Sephiroth may be forgiven for the utter incoherency of his next words.
"Spff," Sephiroth said, incredulously.
"Nngh," Sephiroth said, as he realised that he really was floating up and down unevenly in the air.
"Eeeh?" he managed at last, and hoped nervously that the wings knew what they were doing because he certainly didn't.
It was then, waving his one remaining human hand around frantically, he discovered the halo. And really, things just went from bad to worse from there.
The one consolation of losing that battle was that he also lost the feathers.
He glared at The Pink Thing That Was The Source Of All His Problems, still spitting out feathers and pretty sure he was going to be finding them in his clothes for years to come. She gave him an enthusiastic round of applause.
"Just what the hell," he spat, "do you call that?"
Aeris grinned delightedly. "I'm pretty sure that counts as hubris or something. I thought you'd like it." He glared at her. "Well, the rest of us enjoyed the show anyway."
"You broke just about every law of physics," he said, tipping a boot upside down and watching two knives, a long piece of coiled wire, a slim sheaf of crumpled gil notes, the keycard to President ShinRa's office and several downy feathers hit the ground.
"Psh," she said airily. "Like you don't every day? Besides, they're not laws exactly. More like sensible suggestions." She preened absently. Sephiroth – who now knew as he had never wanted to the meaning of 'preening' – glared. "Just one more battle to go and it'll all be over." She smiled beatifically in a way Sephiroth had long since learned meant she was lying.
He pulled a pinfeather from his waistband and stared at it. "... just... no more feathers."
"No," Aeris agreed serenely. "No feathers. No coat, either," she added under her breath as he walked off haughtily to the designated area to await Cloud's arrival.
Beside her, Zack struggled valiantly with the leather straps of Sephiroth's coat as was defeated by their impracticality. Giving up, he started twisting and turning, trying to imagine himself in a mirror, the edges of the coat dragging along the ground. "You know, I think leather suits me."
Aeris sent an indulgent look his way and ushered Strife to one side so that he could argue with Chocobo Head about the Three Part Final Battle Rule without Sephiroth hearing and realising it wasn't actually necessary for him to die a third time. Everything was going to plan. For the first time she understood the desire of the Forces of Evil to indulge in maniacal laughter.
She decided against it only because there was still one battle to go, a battle that relied heavily on Sephiroth's own willingness to be defeated and become part of the Lifestream – and Sephiroth was the greatest example of bloody-minded stubbornness she'd ever seen, he could make things extremely difficult if he had a mind to.
Sephiroth tapped his foot impatiently. He was actually looking forward to meeting Chocobo Head again. This fact, more than anything, confirmed to his mind at last just how very far he'd fallen. He was quite certain he'd once uttered something along the lines of 'If I never see him again it'll be an eternity too soon'. He paused. He might have been speaking of Strife. He was quite certain he'd never expressed such sentiments in regard to either Cloudy the doll or Cloud the chocobo (he was very fond of the bird, having never had the time to breed and race chocobos himself, and anyway, he'd made a fortune betting on him).
Somewhere far off, Strife appeared to be having vehement argument with thin air that contained much screaming and tears of frustration. The man known as Chocobo Head, apparently unaware of the Three-Part Final Battle Rule, started to walk away.
Sephiroth became terribly still for a long moment. Ice particles started to form in his hair. "You are NOT walking away from me, you chocobo headed little bastard!"
Inhabitants of the Lifestream on the same continent as the Northern Crater clapped their hands to their ears. Chocobo Head carried on walking.
Of all the indignities Sephiroth had suffered in his bizarre quest to take over the world for a haircut (and there had been many, many indignities) having Cloud Strife walk away from him in the middle of fight was the most exasperating, the most humiliating, the most utterly galling thing ever to occur to his ego. He was the Great Sephiroth, General of the most powerful armed forces in the world, considered a war deity in some truly backward provinces that have never even heard of ShinRa. And the featherhead walked away without a backward glance. It was an even greater insult than that brief period spent as Whiny Girl.
It was at this point that Strife sent him a memory of Chocobo Head neatly kitted out in a dress, wig and make-up, and Corneo ecstatically announcing that he chose "this healthy-looking girl!"
Sephiroth studied the image for a frozen second, before bursting into peals of stress-relieving maniacal laughter.
It did the trick. Chocobo Head had always been highly sensitive to laughter, he recalled.
Of course he recognised that his chances of living were that much higher if he stayed quiet and simply let him walk away, but at this point he was really quite desperate for it all to end and stop bothering him.
He smiled broadly when Chocobo Head came into view at last, and was gratified at the tight-lipped grin he received in return. If there was the fleeting urge to stick his tongue out, he blamed it on far too long spent around children (Zack being an adult only by default, and quite possibly not even that).
They stared at each other for a long moment. Chocobo Head would never know the effort of will that meant he got the first strike. By the time Sephiroth saw the glimmer of magic that preceded a limit break, he was quite sure he couldn't be more exhausted if they'd been battling for hours. Who knew fighting against one's better nature ( it would be a great service to the world to prevent idiots such as Chocobo Head breeding) was so draining? He would have tapped his foot impatiently, but there are some rules even the most maverick of villains couldn't go against, particularly with the end of the world involved. Namely, try to look like it mattered when the world started crumbling to pieces, especially if you were the one who started the whole business in the first place.
All further musings upon life, death, the apocalypse and why exactly was he naked to the waist were driven out of his mind by a very large, very sharp sword suddenly connecting with his body. Fifteen hits in quick succession didn't exactly allow much time for thought, but Omnislash, Sephiroth could just about admit without feelings of professional inadequacy, was quite simply one the most stunning limit breaks he'd ever had the fortune to see. If only he hadn't been on the receiving end of it.
As might be expected, he was a little too busy bleeding to death to think much after that.
Sephiroth hated, even more than knowing for absolutely certain at last that cutting his hair was a total impossibility, the knowledge that he understood Strife. It was singularly humiliating, as it not only implied that Sephiroth had the ability to connect and empathise with a human being, but also meant that he took it upon himself to lend an understandable cadence to the boy's more unintelligible speech. To be exact, he was Strife's unofficial spokesperson. This brought him more trouble than he would have imagined possible.
Sharing a wary look with Zack, he took a deep breath. "Aeris, I'm pretty sure the Lifestream swirling around the Chocobo Head serves some purpose aside from giving the mistaken impression that my blood-soaked soul is redeemed. What is it?"
"Can't you see I'm busy?" came the aggrieved shriek somewhere in the centre of the roiling mass of green as Aeris exerted all her power holding the Lifestream back until the planetary carbuncle known as Midgar was damaged beyond repair.
Sephiroth cringed, and forced himself to meet the damnably knowledge and ever so guileless eyes of Strife, which said incredibly clearly: you are so whipped.
Sephiroth silently replied that he'd like to see him go toe-to-toe with a pre-menstrual women, to which Strife smugly retorted that the joys of adulthood were his to bear, and was there something suspicious to be drawn from his avoidance of women?
Aeris stepped in at this point to prevent Sephiroth irreparably damaging an essential part of Chocobo Head's psyche, as Zack had his work cut out simply watching the bizarre non-verbal exchange in utter incomprehension. After demonstrating admirable understanding of the result of connecting a staff with certain areas of the male anatomy, she snarled that Chocobo Head expected some sort of acknowledgement for his hard work and victory, and as she didn't have time, could Sephiroth please reach down a hand before she finished the job and castrated him?
"Don't look so revolted," she snapped, correctly reading his expression as he contemplated the joys of self-mutilation and was it worth being an amputee just to avoid the chore? "Your fingers won't even brush, you big baby. No one will be able to tell the difference."
Thoughts of amputation were quickly replaced with moral outrage at the insinuation that anyone, even his beloved but oh-so dumb Chocobo Head, could possibly be stupid enough to mistake his arm for a woman's. However, he valued safety over his fatally wounded ego decided not to verbally protest against it, glaring instead.
"Sephiroth," she gritted out in a tone that could flay a Weapon, bring his former subordinates to muster twice as fast as he could and instantly laid to rest his burgeoning arguments about how she always wore those monstrous bracelets and that short-sleeved red jacket. "You remember our arrangement?"
He thought for a moment of protesting, but then had a long look at Aeris' expression and took second, third and fourth thoughts about doing so. "…Yes ma'am." He murmured weakly, carefully avoiding Zack's (malicious, no doubt) gaze. "May I try to maim him with the other one?" he suggested, without much hope.
"No you may not!" she screamed. "Just do it!"
He turned back, resigned to sacrifice the last minuscule remnants of his pitiful and ragged dignity on the altar of Aeris' whims. He'd so been hoping he could get through it with a microscopic amount intact. "Zack," he said desperately as his gaze fell upon his friend (making odd choking noises).
"Sorry, Seph," Zack responded guilelessly, straightening up, only the suspicious twitching at the corner of his mouth giving him away, "I value my life and ability to procreate."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I value it any less," he retorted, dignified. He promptly turned away to be able to cackle without the possibility of being throttled on the receiving end of Sephiroth's displeasure.
Sephiroth stared at his back, before reaching for the last option available to him. "...Strife."
The boy blinked innocently and waved an arm in front of his face. Even Chocobo Head wouldn't be fooled, Sephiroth had to admit. He closed his eyes in suffering and reached down a hand (and kicked Zack hard when he couldn't suppress a yelp of laughter).
"Aeris says the fluctuations in glow and mako strength will cause enough distortion to fool anyone, never mind him." Strife said, sitting next to him and tugging his discarded coat around him.
Sephiroth looked to Aeris' furious, fixated and ominously silent face, then turned back and stared at him. "No she didn't."
Strife ignored him, as most people seemed to do these days. "She also said, of course she could have brought her mother in or something, but you've been such an asshole she decided not to."
"Now wait just a–"
"Okay Sephiroth, you can go disinfect your arm with acid now."
Sephiroth stood up, tugged his coat away from around Strife's shoulders and stalked off with as much haughtiness as he could muster from the tiny part of him that wasn't planning to discover if it was possible to commit ritual suicide after you'd already died. He kicked Zack once more for good measure where he lay on the floor, convulsing with silent hiccups of laughter.
"...That was cruel, Aeris." The blond murmured quietly from where he clung to her skirts, watching Sephiroth stalk off.
"I know," she said smugly, before turning back and stepping over Zack to concentrate fully on when to release the Lifestream.
An Epilogue Of Sorts:
"It isn't a choice, Sephiroth."
"You know you're bored."
"I'll thank you not to tell me what I may or may not be. I am not participating in this- this farce."
"As if the big deal with Meteor was such much better,"
"What is the point?"
"Cloud gets a purpose. The Lifestream gets a break from you. That nasty disease is healed..."
"No. And you could deal with the Geostigma yourself, you lazy bitch. You just want to draw the agony out."
"Jenova is finally destroyed."
"You said that last time and what does Rufus have in a box? Three guesses, and the first two don't count."
"You can have a haircut."
"Jenova promised that and look how it ended."
"I don't break my promises."
"...Aeris, you're speaking to someone who knows you."
"Your remnants get haircuts."
"Do I want to ask?"
"Three. Naturally. You can compare and contrast."
"I think not."
"No. ...Get off the floor."
"You can have a huge fight with Cloud."
"He's reached Valentine levels of angst. He's no fun anymore."
"You know you've missed him."
"Missed him? How can I miss him if he won't go away? He spends all his time chatting to you. And you should really stop doing that while he's on that bike of his. I do not want him turning up here for several years. Preferably never, but for centuries at least."
"Aww, you know you want to see him again."
"...Why won't you go to the Promised Land and leave me alone?"
"I don't have a choice, do I?"
"Hey, Seph, I dare you when you show up to tell Cloud 'long time, no see' and give him the sexiest grin in your repertoire."
"...Because that's the standard greeting when meeting your mortal enemy again, Zack."
"So? If you do it I'll-"
"Wear a dress."
A/N: Two years and twenty chapters after I thought it'd be finished with it's finally... over?
...Now what do I do?