Author's Note: Wow, it's finally done. Thank you to everyone who left reviews. It's the icing on the cake to hear how much you enjoyed this. Without further delay, here it is, the final chapter.
Suggested listening: The Secret Machines. "You are Chains"
Suggested beverage: hot tea
"Nice to see you again, Seph." A wry grin. A simple toss of the head. A strand of dark hair grazing lips.
Standing breathless in a white room.
"Zack, am I dead?" Bare hands, bare arms, bare feet. No more armor touching skin. Shirt gone to make room for the wing. Shed.
A soft snort. "You always gotta be so special."
"My heart—" A palm against his chest. No sound, no movement. Nothing. "It's gone?" Silver hair sliding over eyes, head hanging. "I've lost it, then."
One, two, three, four…
"Hey, no, nothing like that." Hands on shoulders, propping him up. "It's not lost. Just a little broken."
...seven, eight, nine, ten…
A slip of eyelids. Glowing green. "How do I fix it?"
"They're working on it." Sharp white teeth flash. Honest. "Let them do their part."
Breathe, damn it!
A pair of warm arms. Pressing close in the stillness. No sound, no air.
"Thank you, Zack."
"No problem." Loosening grip. "That's what friends do."
…eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen…
A whisper: "It's time to open your eyes, Angel."
Leon gave a cry of frustration, continuing to press down on Sephiroth's chest. "Again: One, two, three—" He heard a rib crack under the pressure. "Damn!"
"Wait a moment," Cloud murmured, and Leon felt the bone reform under his fingertips.
"His healing factor's working again," the crew leader muttered, wiping his sweat-soaked bangs out of his face. "So why the hell won't he breathe?"
Cloud shook his head. "I don't know. Do it again." He tipped the silver-haired man's head back and pried his lips apart.
Leon straightened his arms and laced his fingers, pumping his hands over Sephiroth's heart again for fifteen beats. Cloud pinched the unconscious man's nose and covered his mouth with his own, forcing air into his lungs. Everyone stood over them and watched the proceedings helplessly. "Breathe, damn it!" Leon shouted at the motionless body on the ground.
"I don't understand," Aerith whispered. "Why won't my magic work?"
"He's beyond that now," King Mickey said softly, his hands still clasped around his Keyblade. "His body has changed, just like his heart."
"Wake up!" Cloud cried, pouring another breath of air into his mouth.
Sephiroth gasped, his heart constricting as it found its new beat. A burning sensation ran through his body with the air he dragged into his lungs. His all-green eyes opened, glowing smoothly beneath his thick lashes.
"No need to yell," he croaked. He put a hand to his head and his wing twitched slightly against Cloud's leg. "I'm right here."
Sephiroth sat on the edge of the table in the common room, running his hand over the silky white feathers that covered his wing. His eyes were still an unearthly solid green; he glanced at his reflection in the window with a frown.
"I don't understand," he said to the little mouse by his side. The others had gone to check on the town to be certain no Heartless had escaped them. Sephiroth was almost glad. He had so many questions for this pint-sized ruler, and though it was nice to have the others worry, if one more person grabbed him to make sure he was still alive, Sephiroth thought he'd go mad. He touched the white feathers again, rubbing them between his fingertips. "I'm not a human anymore?"
"Nope," the King said, swinging his feet. "Being human at all was just a short hiccup for ya, anyway. Now you're what you're meant to be: a creature of the Light."
Green pupil-less eyes slid to the Masamune leaning against the wall. Untold power. Incredible magic. A fierce heart. Colors looked brighter; the air tasted like it was charged with energy; there was no pain, no aching muscles from the battle.
No longer human.
"A creature of the Light?" Sephiroth shook his head, silver hair swinging. "But in the past, I was always allied with the Darkness."
King Mickey shrugged. "But before that, I hear ya weren't such a bad guy. Maybe a little lacking in the friend department, but ya got that covered now, right?"
The silver-haired man flexed his wing again, pondering its movement with a careful eye. "So what happens to me now?" he asked.
The mouse spread his gloved hands in a helpless gesture. "I was thinkin' you might come back to the castle with me. I have a need for a Guardian," he said, "if you're so inclined."
Sephiroth gave him a wry smile. "Me? Guarding the Light?"
"Sure!" Mickey said cheerfully. "Besides, Sora and Riku are gonna need a protector soon."
"Why?" Sephiroth's heart tripped at the thought of the boys in danger.
"Well, they're getting' older, you know." The mouse scratched behind one of his round ears. "And the older they get, the heavier their hearts might grow. We can't be lettin' the hearts of Keyblade Bearers weaken, can we?"
"You mean they might lose their strength?" Sephiroth asked.
Mickey nodded, tracing patterns on the tabletop with his fingertips. "In their home world, grown-ups have a tendency to forget their childhood adventures. They stop believin' in magic and all sorts of important things." He shivered dramatically. "Sora and Riku might grow up and lose all memory of us. If no one's around to protect them, that is."
Sephiroth chuckled. "I suppose I couldn't let that happen." He held his hand out to shake the King's. "I accept your offer. I will protect the Keyblade Bearers' hearts and the hearts of all your kingdom's citizens."
Mickey gave a high-pitched laugh. "That's great, fella. And your first lesson for the Bearers," he said with a raised eyebrow towards the front door, "should be about how rude eavesdroppin' can be."
The front door creaked open and the two boys' faces popped into view.
"Sorry," Riku said with a sheepish grin. "But we couldn't help it."
"Is Seph coming back to the islands with us?" Sora blurted out. "That's so cool!"
The King shook his head. "Sephiroth will reside at the castle; he can't very well go gallivantin' around Destiny Islands with one wing stickin' out of his back." Mickey smirked as Sora's shoulders drooped. "But," he continued, "you'll be able to contact him at any time. I promise."
"And could we maybe visit once in awhile?" Sora pleaded.
Mickey smiled and gave a nod.
"Would we really forget about everything? All the other worlds? Even you, Mickey?" Riku asked with a concerned frown.
"You won't," Sephiroth said firmly. "I'll make sure you won't."
Sora grinned and tossed his spiky bangs from his face. "You'll be the best Guardian ever, Seph. I know it."
The boy rushed forward to wrap his skinny arms around Sephiroth's waist. The silver-haired man froze for a moment, unsure of what to do, but his heart told him to return the embrace. So he did, enfolding Sora in his arms and wrapping his white wing around the boy by instinct.
Maybe, he thought, being an angel wouldn't be so hard.
"…and we can come visit you at the castle around Christmas time! And I'll bring you some of my mom's cooking; it's so good. She makes these biscuits with this cheese thing. And hey, maybe if the King says it's okay, Kairi can come with us and you can meet her!" Sora's rush of words came to a grinding halt when the frown appeared on Riku's face. "What? Don't you think she'd want to?" Sora asked with wide eyes.
"I don't know," Riku mumbled. "Maybe."
Sephiroth sighed, licking his sea salt ice cream. The three of them were sitting up on the roof watching the sunset. The ice cream had been Sora's idea, of course. To celebrate Sephiroth's victory, he had said. So here Sephiroth sat, a boy hero on either side, swinging their booted feet over the roof's brickwork and watching the sky turn orange.
Sora leaned over Sephiroth to scowl at his friend. "Of course Kairi would want to meet Seph. Why wouldn't she?"
Riku shrugged, turning his sea salt so it wouldn't drip blue onto his hand. "I didn't say that. I just said she might—"
"Children, please," Sephiroth muttered, rubbing his temple with his free hand. "You'll ruin the sunset."
"Sorry," the boys chorused, returning to their ice cream with grumbles. After only a few blissful minutes of silence, Riku said in his soft voice, "We'll bring her along next time. I know how much you must miss her."
"Well, she probably misses us more," Sora said, scratching his head. "The time goes faster for her, so it feels like we're gone longer."
"What do you mean, us?" Riku said with a glare. "It's you she worries about; you know that."
Sephiroth rolled his eyes, letting the two boys' words fly past him.
"That's not true," Sora growled, leaning over Sephiroth's lap to get a good look at Riku. "She cares about you, too. Why do you always get so mad when—?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Riku said, pointedly looking at the sunset and not at the brunette boy. "Just leave it alone."
Sora huffed in frustration and raked one hand through his unruly hair, grasping his melting ice cream with the other. "Look, Riku, I know you like Kairi. I don't care, so don't—"
"I like Kairi?" Riku exploded, his popsicle stick falling to the roof from his numb fingers. "I like her?"
"Why else would you side with the Darkness? You wanted to be the one to save her," Sora shouted, pointing an accusing finger in the other boy's face.
"You think I…?" Riku gave a gravelly laugh. "You're such a—"
"Oh, for the love of…" Sephiroth finally broke his silence, grabbing both boys by the scruff of the neck. "Would you both stop arguing for two seconds and just say what you really mean?"
Sora and Riku were jolted by an electrical burst from Sephiroth's hands, but the feeling wasn't painful. In fact, it was a bit calming. Their hearts traded emotions for a brief moment before Sephiroth pulled his hands away from them. Sora felt an aching despair in the pit of his stomach, the hopeless feeling of being in love without being loved back. And Riku's heart was twisted with the confusion of being pushed away, of never being able to touch the one he loved like he wanted.
They gasped, clutching their hands over their chests as if to hide the sudden wave of emotions buried there. Then their eyes widened when they realized they were feeling someone else's heart. And then, to realize who that heart belonged to…
Riku whispered, "We love each other." His deep green eyes glanced up at Sephiroth, their Guardian, the conduit of their hearts. "Don't we?"
"You're the last ones to figure it out," Sephiroth snorted.
Sora seemed to snap out of his daze and scrambled across Sephiroth to get to Riku. Both silver-haired men grabbed at him with surprised shouts since he was so close to the edge of the roof, but Sora wiggled out of their grasp. He pressed close against Riku, his arms wrapped around the other boy's neck so he could say in his ear, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. You're always getting mad with me, I didn't think…"
"I turned to the Darkness for you," Riku whispered back, clutching at Sora's shoulders as if he was going to fade away. "It was stupid, but I wanted to get Kairi back because I knew, I thought it would make you happy." He struggled to hold back the tears in his eyes, but one spilled down his pale cheek and onto Sora's jacket sleeve. "I just wanted you to be happy, Sora."
"I am happy," the Keyblade wielder said, smiling into Riku's neck.
Sephiroth ate the last bit of blue ice cream from his stick and looked up at the sky. The sunset really was stunning.
He left the rooftop soon afterward. He'd seen a lot of things today, but Sora and Riku's first kiss would not be one of them. Sephiroth allowed himself a small grin at the thought; those two were going to be interesting charges for him to look after. He let himself into the house, dim in the dying light.
He heard a sniff, as if someone was trying not to cry, and his heart knew it was Cloud. Sephiroth stepped into the kitchen and saw Cloud and Leon in the kitchen. The crew leader was holding Cloud, one arm around his waist, one draped over his shoulder. Cloud had his arms wrapped around his lover's neck, letting him bury his face in the crook of the blonde's shoulder.
Sephiroth swallowed; they both looked to be holding back tears. Adding the incident to the growing list of times he'd walked in on the couple, Sephiroth turned to leave in silence, but his wing (which he was still trying to get under control) chose that moment to strike out and overturn a cup on the counter. At the clattering noise, the two swordsmen looked up at him: a pair of glowing blue eyes next to stormy grey.
"Sorry," Sephiroth said quietly, moving to leave again.
"Wait," Leon called to him. The silver-haired man paused, turning back to face him. The brunette disentangled himself from Cloud's embrace. "I want to thank you, Seph," he said. "You saved Cloud's life today."
"You saved us all," Cloud added. "We were outnumbered; we would've never survived if you hadn't…"
"Why are you two so sad, then?" Sephiroth asked, blinking his otherworldly eyes, bright in the dark room.
"It's a relieved kind of crying, I swear," Leon said, swiping at his face with his gloved hand. He slung an arm around Cloud's shoulder and motioned for Sephiroth to fill the space between them. "A few years ago, I would never have even cried when I was alone. But now, it feels right to do it with people you trust."
Sephiroth raised his hands in protest. "No, that's fine. I don't need to…"
"Seph," Cloud sighed. "Please."
Were any other words so powerful? The one-winged angel dropped his gaze, stepping forward into the circle of their arms. He allowed them to pull him close, a sort of huddle. He expected it to be awkward, and though his heart beat faster, it didn't burst as he feared. Since Sephiroth was the tallest of the three, Leon tucked his brown head under his pointed chin. Cloud nestled against his broad chest. Sephiroth got the impression of a spiral, like a glowing light fell from his silver hair down through Leon and spilled to Cloud.
"I'm sorry," Leon whispered. "I know you love him."
Cloud's gloved hand tightened on his shoulder.
"The pain has gone away," Sephiroth said, watching a tear fall from his chin into Cloud's hair. "My heart has changed. Now it feels love for everything, it seems. Everyone in the kingdom, I can feel in my heart." He bowed his forehead against the tops of their heads. "I do love Cloud. But I also love you, Leon, and everyone else in the universe. This angel's heart can do nothing else."
"That's good," Cloud said, the relief evident in his voice. "That's wonderful."
Sephiroth's heart clenched; it was just a little, insignificant lie. It was true that his heart felt love for everyone now, but it wasn't uniform. There was still a bright spark in the corner of his heart that was reserved for Cloud. And nothing would ever replace it.
Sephiroth kept silent. He let the two men hold him.
Aerith sat on his bed and watched him pack his clothes. The shirts were going in a separate pile; with his wing, Sephiroth wouldn't be wearing them.
"They might be a little on the large side," he said, handing them to Aerith. "But maybe Cid or someone would like them."
"You won't be cold?" Aerith asked anxiously, eyeing his bare chest.
Sephiroth smiled. "No, Mother," he said, "I feel perfectly fine. I think my healing factor protects me from the elements."
"I don't see why you have to leave so soon," the girl said with a sad frown. "You've only been an angel for a day. Do they really need you at the castle now?"
"I have much to learn before I can be a Guardian," Sephiroth said, folding a pair of dark blue pants. "The King's mages also need to teach me to control my powers."
Aerith gave a sob, and Sephiroth put the clothing down on the dresser. "What's wrong?" he asked, sitting beside her with a hand on her shoulder.
"I'll miss you, stupid," she cried, hugging him with a fierce grip. "Promise me you'll visit?"
"Of course," he murmured, rocking her gently. "I'll come any chance I get."
There was a light knock on the doorframe. They looked up to see King Mickey standing there with Goofy and Donald, wearing sad smiles.
"I'm sorry, guys," the mouse said, "but the portal's gonna open soon, and unless we want to take a long flight home on a gummi ship, we need to get goin'."
Sephiroth sighed, stuffing the last few items into his borrowed rucksack. The last thing he took was the photograph that Cloud had given him; that was carefully placed between the pages of a thick book to keep it from bending. Before closing it, he took one more look at Zack's smiling face.
"I'm ready," Sephiroth said, snapping the book shut.
"Goodbye, goodbye," Sephiroth called, trying desperately to hug all the people who had come to the market square before the portal opened. All the townspeople who had prepared for battle yesterday came to see him off, as well as the entire crew. Yuffie and Tifa especially required big hugs.
"Don't forget to write," Yuffie said with a smile.
"And send pictures! I want to know what the castle looks like," Tifa said.
Cid and Vincent accepted stoic handshakes.
"If this whole Guardian business falls through," Cid said, "you always got a place here as an engineer, got it?"
"But if you're forced to work for this man," Vincent said with a raised eyebrow, "you can always turn mercenary like me."
"Understood," Sephiroth said with a grin. He stumbled forward a few steps as the force of two teenagers slammed into him from behind.
"We'll see you soon!" Sora promised, his arms wrapped around the man's waist.
"Thanks for everything," Riku said.
"Move it, boys," Aerith laughed, prying them from the silver-haired man. "I'm next in line." She gave him a hard embrace, squeezing her eyes shut. "Be safe," she said.
"I will," he said softly, placing a kiss on the top of her head. "You'll be in my thoughts everyday."
"Same here," she whispered, stepping back and wiping a lone tear from her face. "Not get out of here before I break down again."
Behind him, the portal was opening in the middle of the square. The King and his companions called Sephiroth over. He nodded, and gave the crowd one last glance. Cloud and Leon were on the edges, leaning against a low wall. Leon gave a smirk and jutted his chin towards the portal in a 'get going' gesture. Cloud raised his hand in a half-salute. Sephiroth saluted back before turning to the wide open portal.
"All set?" the King asked.
"Yes, everything is set," Sephiroth whispered, smiling to himself. He stepped through the doorway to the next world.