Author's note at the end. Because it's a long author's note :P
Though it would have been more beneficial to wait until the rain let up, Cloud refused to let them have that option. Instead, he charged straight out and headed up to the trail leading into the mountains in back of the mansion. Vincent shrugged his red cape up a little more before he too stepped into the driving rain, his expression not quite changing much.
Zack personally had a few more misgivings about this, but he couldn't let his friend and his…friend's friend go out there by themselves, so he followed. Maybe it was because he was 'told', but he just didn't feel the urgency. Sure, the story was horrific, but he didn't feel anything more than mild alarm. He trusted Sephiroth; he'd known the man since they were both teenagers in the war with Wutai. The man he knew would never be weak-willed enough to be controlled unless there were extreme circumstances.
Which by all accounts, in Cloud's other 'future', there were. Part of him wondered about the differences between what happened to create that future and the current present. Zack couldn't imagine that his other self would have acted any differently then than he did now. So if it wasn't him, what other million things could have contributed to Sephiroth going insane? It didn't make any sense to him, the idea that Sephiroth could just go around killing innocent people and wanting to destroy the planet not computing.
"Zack, hurry up!"
"I'm not a monkey like you; if I hurry, I'll slip and break my neck!" he shouted back, striving to get his voice over the howling of the wind through the mountains, the nearby caverns making it sound louder and more ominous than it really was. He honestly really hated it when his feelings were right about missions. This was becoming really complicated.
Vincent beckoned to them with a gold-colored metal arm, apparently deciding he wasn't going to raise his voice for the sake of being heard over a storm. Cloud hurried to his side, having an agility to him over the slippery rocks that Zack envied. It probably came from growing up in this environment, aided by the fact that he now had mako enhancing his system. It wasn't as easy for him.
They waited for him, though Cloud was fidgeting impatiently the whole while. What Vincent had found was a bridge. It was very old, the only things holding the planks of wood up being water-logged and decrepit looking ropes. It was swaying slightly in the rain. With his sight enhanced with years of mako injections, Zack could seen enough through rain over the distance and know that it wasn't going to last if one of them put even so much as one foot on there in this weather.
"I'm going to guess that's the fastest way there," Zack yelled to Cloud. A glum nod was his response, yellow spikes of hair so soaked that it was actually lying flat against his head. Even Zack's had not managed to withstand the barrage of water.
With a glare at the bridge, Cloud turned and led them into a nearby cavern. Zack didn't even have to blink to adjust to the gloom, considering how dark it was outside to begin with. Still, darkness didn't hide much with his sight and he glanced around, seeing that the cave was actually a convoluted system linking many like it, probably all throughout the mountain. The noise was cut significantly in roar, to be replaced by the wind's sound being somewhat more hollow and 'ghost-like'.
It didn't faze him.
Glad he didn't have to shout, Zack asked, "I hope you know the way through here. We could get lost for two weeks."
"I mapped out this whole place when I was younger and everything about Nibelheim is burned into my memory. I couldn't get us lost if I tried."
Vincent, Zack noted, didn't say much even when they didn't have to shout to be heard and Cloud seemed too tense, so not much was said as they traversed the inside of the mountain. He couldn't help going back over the wonderings of what had all gone so wrong in that other place Cloud was from. It seemed like one struggle after another, one huge pain dealt in small blows. No wonder Cloud was sometimes so quiet and sad when he thought he was unobserved. If he was thinking about that other time, it wasn't surprising. For all the bad stuff that Zack saw in the present, it wasn't anywhere like that.
They had half an hour of protection from the storm before they were back out in it again, Cloud leading them mercilessly on and not allowing a break. Zack was worried, he couldn't deny that; his friend's anxiety was infecting him. He wanted to find Sephiroth, but at the same time, he was absurdly confident that his General wouldn't succumb to anything of the sort, especially not after hearing that story.
The reactor loomed in the distance and Cloud put in a burst of speed, reaching it in record time through the storm. They were all sopping wet and Zack took a minute to shake out his hair when they stepped inside, though the amount of life within it didn't so much as twitch and remained flat against his skull and back.
Zack glanced to the left at the girl huddled, sitting on the floor and shivering. "So that's how Seph got here. He got himself a guide."
"At this time of night?"
It was the first time Vincent had spoken since leaving the mansion and Zack shrugged at him. "Seph is very persuasive. My guess is as soon as we were told what had happened in the Inn, he went out and asked where he could find a guide with the Innkeeper and got one all right."
Vincent had been told what had happened and Zack had noticed that when looking for an emotional response to note the eyes. During the second telling Cloud had been forced to do, the expression didn't change but Vincent's eyes would widen or narrow depending on what he felt for a split second. His calmness hadn't changed any, but Zack thought it was good to know that Hojo didn't break everything in the other man. He didn't need to be told what happened to Vincent; he could make a pretty damn good educated guess from his own experiences and what he saw in the labs.
"…you didn't write me to tell me you'd be coming to Nibelheim," Tifa finished, Zack blinking as he realized he'd tuned out the very short conversation. Cloud was clearly using will alone to stay in one place and not sprint to Sephiroth. Knowing what he did of their relationship, the story having been embellished during their time going through the mountain, he figured it was only because of a feeling of loyalty that kept him in one spot.
"Sorry Tifa, can't talk now."
Zack hurried after Cloud, throwing a nod to the bewildered girl and hearing the sounds of Vincent's metal shoes hit the metal walkway beneath their feet. For all that, Vincent moved far more quietly than he'd expected. In fact, he was almost silent incarnate.
Cloud continued, but both he and Vincent paused in the room they came to, peering into the little porthole-shaped window into the capsules. Zack felt his stomach turn a little at the sight and promised that as soon as they got back to ShinRa, he was going to talk to someone about this. Now he was beginning to understand why something might have started Sephiroth into reading on his own past and getting corrupted. To think you might have been one of these things…they looked like a mix between monster and man.
"…How could ShinRa continue to fund such a corrupt man that would make these things?"
Zack glanced at Vincent and frowned. "I don't think they know about this. At least Rufus ShinRa doesn't. If we're lucky, knowing how Rufus hates Hojo, we might get something done about it when we get back."
"Aren't you coming with us?"
Vincent only looked at him before they finally headed after Cloud. He wasn't sure if that silence meant the other man was thinking about going back or if he was most assuredly not going to. Had he been in Vincent's shoes, he'd be torn. He'd want to shred Hojo limb from limb for what he'd done, but at the same time, not want to be anywhere near the man who had caused him such harm.
"Oi, Seph!" Zack called, when his gaze spotted his friend in the heart of the reactor. Cloud was frozen in place, his face white as a sheet, and Zack felt his heart sink a little in worry when he saw why.
Sephiroth was standing in the middle of the walkway leading to a vat of some kind with a body in it. A body who's head was currently in his General's hands. That silver-haired head lifted to look at them and for once, Zack wished that Sephiroth used facial expressions more. Never before had he really disliked that 'poker' face of his friend's as he did now, because it never gave him any idea of what Sephiroth was thinking.
"Hey, uh…what are you doing?"
His hand shot out, remaining hidden behind Cloud in front of them, to grip Vincent's wrist and prevent it from moving. He'd seen the motion the other man had as he put his hand on the hilt of his gun. He was not about to let anyone go overboard until he was absolutely sure of what was going on. So far, all he saw was Sephiroth holding a head. That was it. No dead bodies and in fact, Tifa was completely unharmed with the exception of freezing cold from the storm. From Cloud's recount, she'd been sliced across the chest when this had happened 'before'.
Sephiroth glanced at Vincent, as if well aware of the motion the man had had to grip his gun, which Zack wouldn't have found surprising. His senses were ten times as keen as any SOLDIER in ShinRa…and now they knew why. With a shake of his head, Sephiroth knocked a few strands of wet hair from his eyes and lifted up the head in his hands.
Much to Zack's surprise, Cloud didn't make a sound. He didn't even reach for his weapon. One look at the tenseness of his neck and Zack knew right then that if Sephiroth had gone insane and they had to fight, it would be him by himself, with maybe Vincent's support. Cloud couldn't raise his hand to his lover, not now. His feelings, which at any other point would have been his strength, had become his weakness now. He'd be unable to do what was needed, unable to bear the pain a second time.
If it was needed.
It was a split second and they watched as Sephiroth tossed the head he held into the mako pit beneath them. Zack peered over the railing, having expected some sort of shriek or something from this 'Jenova' thing, but it was utter silence. Just a faint 'plop' sound as the head hit the mako far below them and sank, disappearing into the green. "Okay then…"
Sephiroth shrugged, his unreadable expression relaxing just a little. "Everything seemed to stem from 'Jenova' and revolving around her head. If there is no head, how can I go insane from it?"
Whatever feeling that had held Cloud as still as a statue shattered and the young man shot forward, all but throwing himself into his lover's arms. Zack grinned when he saw the surprised look on Sephiroth's face. Well, wasn't that…cute? He'd never seen Cloud actually cling to Sephiroth before, burying his face in that broad chest despite everyone being soaking wet.
"Are you all right, Cloud?"
When there was no answer forthcoming, Zack chuckled and let go of Vincent's wrist, only to put his hands in his pockets and casually lean against the railing. "He's been completely out of his mind with worry after you left and didn't tell us. He thought maybe by telling you, he'd either driven you insane or that you were going to break up with him."
That one definitely stumped Sephiroth, he could tell. "Break up with him? Why would I do that?"
"Gee, I dunno, Seph. Maybe because he had told us a story where he killed you three times? I mean, that sort of stuff doesn't exactly inspire romantic feelings in someone. Sort of kills the mood."
A faint smile touched chiseled features and Sephiroth wrapped his arms tightly around Cloud's shivering form. Whether he was shivering from cold or release of worry, Zack didn't know. He glanced at Vincent and looked to the door. There was a silent nod and they quietly stepped out to leave the two lovebirds some privacy.
For his part, Sephiroth felt bad for the fear he had caused Cloud, but he had honestly thought Zack would keep their friend busy for an hour or two and he'd be back before they were aware he was gone. It was a simple thing to find a guide, come to the reactor, get rid of the head, and go back, or so he thought.
"I apologize," he whispered.
"You should," Cloud agreed, the faintest of laughs coming out, but he knew that his boyfriend didn't find anything funny about this situation. "I thought…I thought you…Shit, I thought I'd failed again."
"Was it thinking you'd failed that made you fear?"
"Absolutely not!" Cloud shot back, finally lifting his head. Spirit filled blue eyes, a conviction that pushed any doubt Sephiroth had away. "It was because I didn't want to lose you!"
"My mistake," he said instead, feeling relaxed now that he knew that the Cloud in his arms was the same one he'd fallen in love with. He'd seen glimpses of this spirited and challenging Cloud before, but it was always buried beneath other things: shyness, worry, duty, even love. Away from the confines of ShinRa, in an area of the world that Cloud knew intimately and held such power with him and over him, it felt as if they were more equal than they'd ever been.
"Do you feel better?"
"That you don't have to hide any longer, or do it all yourself?"
Cloud paused, tilting his head as he thought about it. Eyes glanced around the reactor room, as if seeing it in an entirely new light. "You know," he commented. "I don't know what's going to happen now. Now that I don't…I feel lighter somehow. You'd think I'd feel heavier because I don't know what'll happen, but…"
"That's the way it should be, Cloud. Nobody should know what's going to happen before it does."
"Guess that means I'm like everybody else now, huh?"
"Not entirely. You have something no one else does."
Cloud looked at him in surprise. "What's that?"
Much to Sephiroth's surprise, Cloud started laughing and only hugged him harder. "That's so cheesy! But I like it anyway."
Sephiroth basked in the silence as the laughter died away and a relieved joy came back. He'd felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing unusual as he tossed the head into the mako. He didn't know what that would do, but if something untoward happened, they would just have to take care of it when it happened. Knowing what he did, Sephiroth didn't believe in worrying over something until it was clear that something was going to happen.
"We had best go before Zack comes back in to get us."
"Yeah." As they let go, Cloud's death grip not fazing Sephiroth much, there was a smile cast his way. "Sephiroth?"
Lips were placed on his and he happily gave himself up to the kiss. It was sweet, but promised of more and his gaze darkened in interest. "I love you."
"Hey you two!"
"Coming, Zack!" Cloud called when the black-haired man's interrupted their silence yet again.
Sephiroth watched him go, pausing to look behind him at the body still floating in the broken, clear container. The thought of that ugly carcass being his 'mother' made him shudder. Hearing what he'd done, at first he'd had a hard time believing it. Until he'd actually seen the corpse, it had just been a story. The fact that it was here like Cloud had said, looked exactly as he had said it would, had firmed his belief of his boyfriend's words.
Stepping out of the room, with a shrug of dismissal at the silent body, he watched Zack and Cloud in a playfight in the room beyond. Eyes calmly watched the blond and he couldn't help whispering a heartfelt 'Thank you'.
Okay, well...it's done. Yes, I am serious. Yes, I know you'll likely want more. I know I do. I was going to do smutness with Cloud and Seph, but it just didn't fit in the story and I've gotten to the point that I had wanted to be, the changed history.
I'm contemplating doing a sequel (haven't decided if I will), but if I did do one, it'd follow Vincent and likely Cid, because I am a definite VinxCid supporter. Might even throw in some Tseng/Rufus occasionally since I am a huge supporter of those two, they're so cute...in their own way. :P If I did one. There are vague ideas going around in my head. Nothing firm in terms of plot or anything, but just...an idea.
I've just about exhausted SephxCloud in my mind currently. I love them to death, but writing this story was like pulling teeth. I love to read about them, but writing them has somehow proven difficult for some reason. Or maybe it was just this story. Usually when I start a story and I get a rhythm, it just works. As those who read "Embodiment" know, I usually just am able to chuck out the chapters in a timely fashion. This fic nearly defeated me several times, to the point that there were actually months in between chapter updates, which I loathe doing to those that like my stuff and want to read it. I'm hoping that if I did a sequel, it wouldn't be so obstinate.
All in all, though, I'm extremely pleased at how well this story turned out. It's very much the story I had wanted to write, despite the trouble it gave me. The little chibis of Zack, Seph, and Cloud that sat on my head and shoulders giving me advice are a little wore out since I made them work so hard :P
And though I usually don't do this or say stuff like this, since I get my stories so quickly for the most part and people don't have to worry, I do apologize and thank you very much for sticking with this and supporting me. I really do hope this story was worth the wait (and despite my reservations, part of me hopes that I'll come up with something firm enough to write a sequel because I adore my VinxCid).