You'll have to forgive my liberties in this chapter - I'm disregarding the Sora vs. Sephiroth battle. It was optional and therefore not everyone did it, not to mention it wrecks certain plot points. The Keybearer will have to wait, I'm afraid...

Also, apologies for how long it took to update this. Damn writing slumps. I hate this chapter, actually, but it had to go up eventually...

Finally, I mangled the dialogue a bit, because the translation was short and boring and didn't really fit the mood I've created for the characters in the story. My bad, but at least I acknowledge that up front.

Title is from Megadeth's Symphony of Destruction. Very fitting song.

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Hollow Mausoleum

Akai Kitsune

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Chapter 5: Symphony of Destruction

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Darkness and light mingled with a kaleidoscope of colours for what seemed like an eternity, and when it finally faded, Sephiroth found himself standing - actually, physically standing - in the center of what appeared to be a large coliseum. His eyes narrowed; surely no one would be foolish enough to try to drag him into some kind of crude competition. A single challenger, perhaps.

Only two men would be so bold.

He looked up, and saw one of them approaching him from the other side of the ring.

If he was surprised, he didn't let it show. The boy was different, far different than the confused, angry child last seen in the fallen town of Radiant Garden. He'd found armor for himself, changed his clothes, and given some bizarre decoration to a sword he recognized as Zack's. The mako in his eyes mingled with a dark, angry glint, but that, more than anything, told Sephiroth something had changed; angry as he was, the boy ought to have charged him by now.

Different... no, the boy had improved.

He smiled, genuinely pleased for the first time in ages, and pulled the Masamune from his belt as Cloud halted at the other end of ring.

"We meet again at last," the boy called out to him, fist tightening on the hilt of his broadsword. "I've been looking for you."

And suddenly it felt as if it was the same, after all - matured though he may be, his intentions had never changed. "And I, you." More than you or I know. He kept the last thought silent, unwilling to give Cloud such an advantage. It was already troublesome that Cloud seemed to know how long it had been since their last meeting; worse still, it seemed that far more time had passed than he assumed.

He didn't ask aloud why Cloud was searching, but the question was clear in his expression, and the younger man tightened his fist around his sword. Zack's sword. "You... you're the darkness here. My darkness. As long as you exist, I can't escape it."

It was difficult not to laugh. Sephiroth lifted his hand, offering it out to his opponent, as if inviting him - whether to fight or submit, neither would say. "If that's true, then I will draw you into that darkness - forever deprived of the light." His smirk broadened, as Cloud's eyes narrowed, the giant broadsword lifted to lie between them. "An unending nightmare, just for you."

His challenge was met with a blaze of energy, and a scant second later Strife was charging across the arena towards him. Sephiroth met his attack with a flurry of movements, blocking each attack, gauging the would-be SOLDIER's strength. The boy looked older, which confused him more than the rest; if only a few weeks had passed at most, why was Strife so drastically changed? There was a strength in his gaze that only came through age, and his skills were far too polished. Something about him wasn't right - or, perhaps, was too right for a boy who'd been no more than sixteen the last time they'd crossed blades.

After a brief exchange, they both drew back, and as they did so, Sephiroth caught sight of a glint of darkness rising into a shape on his opponent's shoulder. Ebony leather melded together into sharp contours and graceful motion, flapping briefly to regain balance.

Cloud's wing. The Heartless wing.

When had the boy learned to summon it that way?!

He didn't have time to consider it; Cloud was rushing forward again, sword flashing. As the fight continued on, neither backing off or giving the other an advantage, he noticed that not only could the boy summon it - no, he was using it, and effectively at that. Whether for an extra boost of speed or added leverage, or sometimes even the slightest amount of flight to escape an attack that might have killed him otherwise... sometime between their previous meeting and now, he had learned an incredible amount of control over it.

Something was wrong. Cloud had had that wing for months after Nibelheim, and had still been but a fledgeling when the Garden fell. Suddenly, what felt like a week later, he had almost full control of its movements?

Again and again they spun, bodies twisting, first on the ground, and then into the air, their single wings and the darkness that fueled them enough to keep them aloft and soaring. Both swords continued to meet endlessly, as if the change in location caused no discomfort or trouble for the two wielding them. Sephiroth had long been used to flight, but never before had he seen Cloud use it so freely, so... well. It was as if something had taught him to-

... Impossible.

It was then that Sephiroth sensed it. Buried deep within the boy's consciousness, just enough to make its existence almost imperceptible, yet still so close it stirred the darkness that bound them like ripples in a jaded pond.

Zack's heart.

It was right there. His heart was right there.

Focusing on the presence of his former second-in-command now rather than the fight - Strife, while improved, was still laughable as an equal - he could sense the faint, yet unmistakable voice guiding Strife's movements, his reactions, his attacks, how to block and how to read the pattern of attack. Not everything; Strife had formed his own style, apparently, a more unrefined show of brutality and heavy-handed attacks, which was far more effective against slower foes with great physical strength, and of course he had somehow learned to use the wing, summoning it at will. Zack shared the habit of broad movements (the size of his sword had always required it) but he had never limited himself to just the weapon. Both strength and weakness in that, one of the SOLDIER's many failings. That and his troublesome loyalty...

His attention was drawn back to the battle as Cloud abruptly began to move faster, his sword a mere flicker of light now rather than the more obvious line of silver. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and he shifted his own pace to match it. Cloud was improving. It was both irritating and oddly uplifting to see his creation develop so clearly; it was visible in each exchanged blow. He wanted to kill the boy, yet he felt the old euphoria return, the promise of controlling one of his puppets again. And Mother had wanted him alive, so it wouldn't do to displease her.

Zack's heart, however... that could be problematic. Even in such a weakened state, he could still influence Strife, and that would only cause trouble when the time came to claim his doll. Before too much time passed, Zack would have to be removed.

How does one remove a single bound heart without damaging the other?

It bothered him that he was uncertain as to how Zack's heart had attached itself to Cloud in the first place. There were theories, of course, but he disliked the idea of having anything to do with it - as if he had something to truly regret, when nothing else affected him.

Still, he had been the one to bind their hearts together and link them to his own...

Which only brought him to the most troubling question: why had the heart moved to Strife, and not him?

"C'mon, we're friends. Trust me on this."

The voice startled him, and, coupled with another fierce lunge from Cloud, was enough to make him stagger back a step.

What-

"He's wide open. Move!"

Sephiroth's eyes shot up to watch Strife, glaring as he moved to attack again.

Strife was smirking, doing exactly what the interrupting voice had suggested. He knew. He -knew-!

Zack had been aiding Strife throughout the battle, and they both knew it.

That, more than anything, cemented Sephiroth's decision. He wasn't just going to defeat the boy. He was going to crush him. Crush him physically. Destroy him mentally. Slaughter the light and that traitor's heart and finally reclaim his puppet. Defiant willpower was tolerable because it was amusing, but this...

One did not smirk at one's master.

With a flare of energy, he met Strife's broadsword with the Masamune, sparks flying as two lengths of tempered steel ground together, both vying for the upper hand.

"Careful if you fall back. Don't give him an opening. ... And watch your stomach!"

Unexpectedly, Sephiroth laughed. And then leaned in, a dark smile on his lips as he whispered, "I can hear you."

Cloud stiffened, losing his focus for no more than a split second.

It was enough.

In a rush of air he was on the ground, the wrapped sword flung halfway across the ring. Stabbing downwards, Sephiroth delighted in the boy's cry as the tip of the sword ran clear through his shoulder and into the Heartless wing beneath it. "Oh, well played, Cloud," he murmured, mockingly familiar with the use of his first name. He enjoyed the way Strife's eyes darkened and decided to continue doing so. "You did well, for a failure. I'm sure Zack is proud. Are you?"

He twisted the blade, hearing Cloud's sharp intake of breath but not what he wanted to hear.

"You're insane," Cloud snapped, teeth clenching in an attempt to conceal his pain. His free hand lifted to yank Masamune back, but the former general was too fast, lashing out a heavy booted foot and catching his chin, knocking him senseless for a moment or two.

"Insane? Are all men who have true visions labeled as such? Do not lump me together with the likes of Hojo."

"Why... not?" Cloud retorted, working his jaw to regain feeling in it. "You've... earned it. You're exactly like him..."

The boy was goading him, and was steadily working towards his death. Why Zack wasn't stopping him was baffling. It occurred to him then that perhaps Strife hadn't known, and the smirk was only a show of the level of influence Zack had over him. Either way, the boy knew now, and that made it all infinitely more complicated.

Why, why wouldn't Mother speak to him?! He was free of that infernal room, wasn't he?

... Wasn't he?

Snarling inwardly, Sephiroth pulled Masamune free and shifted the blade to Cloud's neck before he could move. "What did she do?" he demanded, fighting to keep his voice level. It wouldn't do to lose control now. "What did that Ancient witch do?"

Cloud blinked, confusion mingling with his anger. "What did she- how the hell should I know?! And why should I tell you?"

Irritation flickered across Sephiroth's face before he hid it. Strife was a pathetic liar, and despite his threat, it seemed he truly didn't know. At the same time, he could hardly allow the boy to escape his wrath so easily.

"Useless," he muttered, loud enough for Strife to hear. "I would very much like to kill you now, but as you must know, Mother has plans for you. If you continue to be uncooperative, however, I will-"

"You can't," a voice cut in, and suddenly the world was fading into darkness once more. Sephiroth set free and angry growl, sword plunging forward to Cloud's heart - to wound, to kill, to silence, even he didn't know - but before he could even connect, the sword itself dissolved into nothing.

"You can't," came Zack's voice again, faint beneath Cloud's angry challenge to return and finish the battle. "You can't kill him here."

There was a surprising amount of confidence in the man's voice, and Sephiroth, again feeling that indignant irritation, snapped back, "Do not toy with me. You know he's weak - I could kill him here, or anywhere I please."

Zack had the gall to laugh at him. "Better luck next time, then." Quite abruptly, the presence was gone, and the arena with him.

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TBC
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Zack's fighting techniques are based on Last Order, because it is prettiful and so is he.

Why can Seph hear Zack as well, even though no one heard Kairi but Sora while she was in him? Easy. Their hearts are all connected, of course.

Cloud knowing about Zack: He had to find out sometime, right? And he went to Traverse Town pretty much right after this, and he knew there... I think a part of Cloud had realized it by then; Sephiroth just provided confirmation.

Next chapter: Three guesses what the third flower will be. The first two don't count. Oh, and there's that mystery voice to consider as well, isn't there...