Notes: Thanks to Lisa for the plot help! I do love how this fic is coming. The ending of this chapter makes me squee. And there's still lots more to come!

Chapter Five

Aerith placed her hands on her hips as she surveyed the spare bedroom. This was a nice room, one that would surely meet with Sephiroth's approval. It was in a quiet part of the house, near Zack's room but far from where Kadaj and his brothers resided. It would not be a good thing for them to be too close.

But before anyone could use it, certain things would have to find new homes.

She turned, picking up a box to carry it out. It was amazing, how much pointless stuff could be collected in the Lifestream. Usually, if anything fell into it, it was destroyed altogether. But sometimes, such things rode the currents and ended up in places such as here. When that happened, Zack and Yazoo would gather them and bring them inside. She wondered sometimes what they were planning to do with them, if they just wanted mementos of Gaia or if they were planning to invent some odd thing. Zack always smirked and said he was not sure himself, but he would figure it out. And so they had been stored in this room for the time being. Well, now Zack and Yazoo would have to fit them into their rooms.

Zack had very interesting relationships with both Yazoo and Loz. With Yazoo, they had projects such as their scavenging, and sometimes they got into deep discussions. And with Loz, he enjoyed their frequent sparring sessions. It was a way for both of them to work out their excess energy.

With Kadaj . . . well, Zack did not seem to have as much contact with Kadaj. It was probably the most difficult, since Kadaj was sometimes the closest in personality to Sephiroth when he had gone mad. But still, Kadaj was his own person, and Zack was amused when Kadaj pranked the neighbors in various harmless yet annoying ways---such as hiding in their closet. Zack tried to not seem as though he was encouraging Kadaj, but it was not easy to hide his amusement.

She walked into the hall, going across it to Zack's room and leaving the box in the doorway. Then she turned, retracing her steps to what would soon be Sephiroth's room. There were still other boxes to move, and a lot of them were heavy. She sighed to herself. She might have to just push some of them across the floor to get them out.


She whirled at the voice. Loz was standing there, shifting uncomfortably. But when he saw Aerith's expression, and what still needed to be done, he seemed to grow confident.

"Can I help?"

A touched smile of relief came over Aerith's features. "Yes!" she said. "These boxes need to be moved."

Loz nodded, picking up the heaviest with ease and carrying it into the hall.

Aerith continued to smile, picking up a lighter box and following.

He reappeared on the floor of the hollow, marble temple, staring up at what was left of the ceiling. The ripples in the white seemed to go on and on, stretching into infinity. Just like his own insanity.

He closed his eyes again, concentrating his strength. The white wings were vanishing now, and he began to draw the black wing back into his body. He would not stay in this form. Zack was going to keep looking for him, and he would find the other. And Sephiroth was not about to run the risk of using Supernova on him again, no matter what his dark side said!

So many emotions had crashed together when he had seen Zack again. It had been so long . . . much too long. He had been amazed, stunned, even awed---while his darker self had felt cold amusement, sadism, and disgust. Zack should not have come, the voices had whispered endlessly. It was a fool's mission, and he had a fool's hope. Sephiroth should show him the truth, that the nonsense of "saving him" would not come to pass. He did not need to be saved. He had struggled to shut out that voice. He had struggled with all his might, but he had still failed. As a result, he had even used Supernova, seriously harming his dear friend.

Being hit himself with an attack from the Ice materia had been a small price to pay in order to stop Zack from hurting himself. And when Zack had then run over, horror in his eyes and his voice, Sephiroth had been hearing unwelcome whispers in his mind. Zack had assaulted him with the Ice materia, and he should be punished for it. But he had managed to overcome it that time. He had taken control of his body again, if only for a short time, and had teleported out.

Part of him wanted Zack to come. He longed to see a kind face again, to hear a compassionate voice. And another part of him said No! Zack must stay away at all costs. There was no telling what would be done to him if he came here, to Sephiroth's home turf, to try to get through to him. And a third part laughed and said that Zack should come, that he should get what was coming to him.

Sephiroth hated that part. It was abhorrent, that it was himself, it was his own soul that wished for injury to come to Zack, even while at the same time he could not bear the thought of hurting one who had been so dear to him. How had such a thing happened to him? How had his confusion metastasized into something so abominable? Zack would not be able to do anything for him, because one so lost could never be brought back. Even though Zack was firm in believing it would and could happen.

Zack was the same in so many ways to the SOLDIER he had been, from his unruly hair to his determination and his devotion to one who was floundering in the darkness. But he was different in some ways, too. He was weighed down with a heavy burden, unlike the carefree and cheerful young man who had been Sephiroth's second-in-command and his closest friend. Life and reality had settled in, and even though he still possessed hope, there was another part that knew that sometimes one's worst nightmares came true. He had not been able to do anything to save Sephiroth at Nibelheim.

Sephiroth was afflicted with those weights as well. What he had told Zack was true---he was no longer the good man who had been revered and loved. He was not worthy of kindness or compassion, even though he still longed for it so much that it had become a deep ache in his heart.

He was a god. He was above such things.

No! No, Zack was right. He was not a god. He never could be, not with his behavior. He was unsuited for any kind of power. If he had all the knowledge in the world, that alone would never make him a supreme being.

He opened his eyes again. Whenever the Safer form was undone, he found himself wearing the old clothes from his time as a SOLDIER---the black boots and pants, the coat . . . the off-white shoulder armor. Why had he kept them, anyway? They were not fitting for a deity.

But he liked them. They were comfortable. Maybe he still possessed them to remind him of a time when he had yet been human, when none of this had happened. Life had never been simple, per se, but it had been easier to cope with before he had succumbed to the madness.

It would be so easy to stay like this now, to just let the insanity swallow any remaining portions of "Seph" and to not hang on any longer. After so many years, the madness was as much a part of him as his existentialism and his pride. And Mother . . . Mother was always there. He could sense her even now, encouraging him, wanting him to destroy.

Jenova . . . was she really Mother? Could she be? Or was it another part of his delusion? Would a mother act like this? Would she want her son to give himself to the darkness and be lost? No . . . giving himself to the darkness would make him stronger. Jenova only wanted the best for him, and the stronger he was, the better he was. He would be the most powerful being who had ever lived on Gaia. He would cleanse the planet, and then he would rule over a new race---the Ancients reborn.

That was not what would happen. He would only destroy. Nothing would live on the planet then. And Zack . . . Zack was still there, in the back of his mind, insisting that he would not abandon his friend. Zack would be heartsick again if the planet was eliminated, if Meteor or some other disaster actually happened, and especially if Sephiroth caused it. He could not stand to see that look in Zack's eyes again.

Slowly he sat up, brushing the long bangs away from his eyes. He would not have to see it. He would not see Zack again. Zack would never reach this place. He would see that every possible way was blocked. Zack would not have the chance to speak to him again, to try to get through to his weaker self. He did not need Zack. He did not need anyone or anything except himself, and his knowledge, as he had told that fool!

No . . . Zack was his friend, his only friend. Seeing him again had further awakened that spark of sanity. In spite of himself, the meeting had given him some measure of hope and strength. And he would fight for that! He would fight for his mind. Jenova had no place in there. Neither did these thoughts of endless power and destruction and ruling over the planet! His hungering for such things was killing him inside, but he was yet alive.

It was going to stay that way. The Sephiroth who had grown so close to Zack would never have allowed such a thing as this to happen to him. Since he was not completely overcome, it was time to show the darkness that it was not his master.

Oh, but it was. He knew that, had known it for all these long years. And it would be much more beneficial to him to accept it as he had previously done, to allow it to sweep over him and carry him to new and greater things. His weaker side would never win! And neither would Zack.

He got to his feet, grasping at the edge of the marble bowl on its pedestal. When it was filled with water, it served as his guide as to what was happening on Gaia, and in the Lifestream. He had used it to monitor Zack's previous progress, and while gazing into it, he had controlled the image of Bizarro. He would look into it again now, to see what Zack was doing.

There he was, pressing forward through the wasteland. He was near to the palace now. It was so dry there, and he looked so exhausted and parched. Water was not a necessity for spirits, but Zack was very drained after the battle and would probably welcome some of the precious liquid. Sephiroth had plenty that he could give him. And he would, when Zack came there. He would give Zack the best reception he could.

Hmm. . . . All of that dry grass would probably catch fire easily. . . . What was he thinking? He could not deter Zack by setting the field ablaze! Well, why not? Let it be a warning to Zack to stay away. His weaker self could think of it as something being done for Zack's own good. He should not come here.

He passed his hand above the water, a dark smirk coming over his features. "I hope you don't mind the heat," he said.

The roaring came almost instantaneously. Zack whirled around, his eyes widening as the burning fields filled his vision. The fire was spreading much too fast, coming at him from all sides. And it was climbing higher with each passing second. Now it was far above his head. It was going to box him in! There was no way this could have happened without warning, unless it was being caused on purpose. And that meant one thing.

"Seph!" he called, coughing as he looked up at the sky. "Come on, I know you're watching! You've gotta make this stop!" He needed a materia to combat this. Fire would not be a good choice. Ice might work. The fire would melt the ice, but then the water could be used to extinguish the flames. But there was so much! The sole materia might not be able to stop it all, especially when Seph was the one responsible. Seph could make it worse any time he wished.

He plunged his hand into the bag, coughing again, as he stumbled ahead in the decreasing space. If the hungry flames on all sides met each other, then he would be toast. But Seph would not let it happen, would he? He would come back to himself enough that he would make the fire stop, if it came to that.

For once he drew out the Ice materia when he meant to. He would not be able to cast the strongest spell, but hopefully he could make it good enough to at least forge passage out of this inferno. Then, if Seph could just stop the rest of it . . . !

The ice attack flew at the fire, instantly melting down into a rain that began to pour over the flames. They flickered, beginning to shrink and burn out as Zack watched, holding his hand over his nose and mouth. Now there was a space big enough that he could escape! He dashed through, leaving the remainder of the fire behind him. The rain was putting it out.

He dropped the Ice materia back into the bag before reaching up to brush his wet hair out of his eyes. Surely Seph would not try that again. But was there anything else around he could use as weapons? Lavender eyes looked around at the shrubs, tumbleweeds, and jagged cliffs. Man, those rocks were not pleasant-looking. If Seph wanted to, he could . . .

Bad idea. Now the ground was rumbling. Some of the pieces were tearing free, rolling over and over down the mountain sides. And being whacked by a boulder would not be fun at all.

Again he reached into the bag. Here was the Comet materia. That should help. Stepping back further, he blasted at the rocks coming towards him. Shattered particles exploded in every direction, and a hand immediately flew to his eyes to shield them. Then there was silence.

He looked up, catching sight of the harmless fragments. That was all well and good, but was Seph really not planning to do anything else? It would not be surprising if something else went wrong, like a flash flood, or maybe the earth tearing asunder.

A smirk slipped over his features as he looked back up at the sky. "Hey, Seph! You're turning me into a pessimist, old buddy!" he called. "I'm starting to imagine all kinds of unnatural disasters!"

He waved. "I know you can see me, so just know I'm still coming! I'm never going to turn back!"

With that he looked back to the wasteland, taking a deep breath before beginning to walk again.

Sephiroth leaned back, crossing his arms as he observed Zack continuing on his way. Zack was resourceful, as always, and still very cheerful. Even so, he knew how Zack's heart had been pierced many times on this quest. He was inwardly aching, no matter how much he grinned and joked.

"You'll have even more of a reason to be pessimistic before this is over," he remarked.

Why was he actually so bent on stopping Zack from coming here? Partially to protect him, partially to torment him . . . but was he afraid that Zack might get through to his weaker self? That part of him was fighting harder than usual. After so many years, were his defenses wearing down in the face of everything he had done and the empty life he had been leading? Was he finally getting so he could not take it anymore?

Bah. Ridiculous. Zack's foolish hope had seeped into his soul. Well, it would just have to be eradicated.

For a while now, Zack had been seeing a white marble structure atop a cliff. As he drew closer, the many columns became visible, stretching up to the sky. Others were toppled, laying lengthwise on the jagged rocks or even on the edges of the platform. It was desolate, not a place where anyone should be living. But somehow he knew, it was obvious---Seph was there. He had been being drawn to that location ever since it had come into his view. And unless Seph was there, there was not any reason why he would be so attracted to it.

Now he was standing at the foot of the mountain. All that was left was to go up. Seph was waiting for him there, both sides of Seph. He would have to fight with his best friend again. But this time Seph was not planning to escape. They would be battling in his home. What was it that he would have planned?

Was it at all possible that his sane side would be in control? Seph had tried to torch the fields, but . . . had he been trying to hurt Zack at that point? Or had he been attempting to keep him away to protect him? Or both. . . .

Time was lost while he was hiking up the mountain. One hour could have passed, or two, maybe more. But he pressed on, keeping the palace in his line of vision at all times. There were not any obstacles in his way now, which seemed strange. The only hindrance was the mountain itself, and how long it was taking to climb to the top.

But at last he reached out, grabbing a firm rock at the top of the cliff and hoisting himself up. It was dark by now, though whether from natural night or from storm clouds, he could not tell. The palace stood out as a pale ghost against the blackish-purple sky, and as he watched, a torch near the entrance erupted into flames. This was followed by a second, and a third, and soon the entire building was bathed in the eerie glow. It was a signal from Seph. It said "Come in."

Zack took a deep breath. Well, this was it. Either he would save Seph or he would not. After this, there was not likely to be any other confrontations. Somehow, he sensed that too. He gripped his sword. What would happen if Seph's insanity won out? Would he imprison Zack, torturing him endlessly? Would he cast Zack far away, where he could not get back? Would he . . .

No. He would push all such thoughts away from him. Seph was stronger than that. Seph was going to fight and win, and Zack would be right there, encouraging him. Zack's optimism always won out.

He placed a foot on the edge of the smooth marble. The torches continued to burn brightly, casting strange lights and shadows on the floor and walls. It almost reminded him of the battle in Dismal, so long ago now, but still fresh in his mind. He had found Seph laying sprawled on the steps when it was over, bleeding to death. . . . But he had lived. He had been sane then. They had shared some of their most intense adventures during that time.

He brought his other foot up. Now he began walking, the sound echoing eerily off the pillars and the remainder of the walls. This had once been a courtyard, maybe for some long-ago god. And now Seph had taken it over, feeling that it was so appropriate for him.

"I wondered what it took to be a god. . . . If anyone could achieve it, with the right amount of power and knowledge."

"I think being a god would be more about knowing how to help the people who think of you as a god. That's where the true power would come from."

Zack clutched his sword as he advanced into the chamber, the ceiling of stars twinkling down from the roof. He remembered that conversation, and when they had had it, on one of their most dangerous and belief-challenging missions. And it had all culminated when Seph had been forced to fight that other commander, the one who had gone nuts.

"If that ever happens to me, you'll have to kill me, Zack."

And not even death had saved him. Zack felt a pricking at his eyes, but he blinked it back. Now was not a time for tears.

There he was. Seph was standing in front of three wide, stone steps, waiting for him. His silhouette was tall and forbidding, framed by the torches on either side. His hair streamed out behind him, blown by a quiet and yet ominous wind. He was dressed now, wearing the clothes of the past. And Zack himself was dressed similar to the SOLDIER he had once been. That seemed unsettling as well. Or maybe it was a sign.

Seph raised his left hand. In it he was holding the Masamune, and the blade gleamed with a mixture of the red fire and the gentle stars. He brought his right hand up as well, taking hold of the hilt further down. His expression was completely serious. In the heavy shadows, there was no way of telling which Seph was in control. But it was obvious what Zack had to do.

He met Seph's serious gaze with one of his own, drawing the wider, heavier sword level with the long katana.

Both lunged at the same time, their blades meeting in mid-air. Neither spoke. This was not a time for words, either. Everything that could be said, had been said. Now was the time to put it to the test.

They arrived back on earth, Sephiroth moving forward with aggression. His eyes were still veiled, but every now and then was a flicker. He was combating Zack at this moment, but he was also fighting himself. Zack was his light, and he was the darkness. Whoever won this would be the deciding factor in what happened to him.

Zack retaliated with all his might, forcing Seph to step back near the stairs. Whichever of them won the actual battle, Seph had to come out the true victor. He had to break free. He would break free! Zack parried, then turned abruptly, swinging his sword.

Sephiroth was right there to meet it. He moved without effort onto the stairs, all while continuing the fight. Then he stepped back again, onto the platform. Zack would follow him. Here he was now, running up, lunging, his expression filled with so many things to which he could not give proper voice.

Again their blades crashed. Sephiroth backed up, moving to the edge of the platform. Beyond it was only darkness, as far as he could see. And then Zack was coming at him. Sephiroth stepped aside slightly, allowing the swords to make contact. But Zack had underestimated the length of the surface. He yelped in surprise as the ground was suddenly not under his feet.

Sephiroth's eyes widened in horror, dropping the sword. He should let Zack fall. That action would allow the strength of the darkness to entirely encompass him. He would not be redeemable then. Not that he needed such a thing. A god was above redemption.

No . . . he was not a god. This was the last time he would entertain such a thought. But still . . . but still. . . . He would not save Zack in order to gain the possibility of deliverance. He would save Zack because . . .

Zack reached out, barely managing to catch hold of the edge of the palace. This side of it was directly against the cliff! He gritted his teeth. He would not be able to grip the smooth marble for very long, and there was no telling how far it was to the bottom. Somehow he had to pull himself up. If he could just get his footing . . . but he was already slipping.

A hand emerged from the darkness, taking hold of his wrist. Then another followed, snatching the front of his shirt. Lavender eyes looked up, staring into the green eyes gazing down at him. Carefully and firmly, he was pulled up.

The hands released him when he was kneeling safe on the platform again. Both men knelt for a long moment, just looking at each other. One saw surprise and relief, followed by joy. The other saw sanity as the dominant emotion, with the madness lurking in the background---instead of the other way around.

This path was not over yet, but a large step had just been taken.

Zack broke into a smile, reaching to embrace his dear friend.

Sephiroth stiffened at first, as the arms went around him. It was such a foreign thing to him now, something out of the long-distant past. For years, he would have fought viciously against such a gesture, and no one would have attempted it in the first place. But now . . . it felt so comforting. It felt as though there was hope, that he would be able to someday find the solace he sought. Zack was forgiving. This was the first sunrise in Sephiroth's life for many years.

Slowly, he brought his arms around Zack. He had saved Zack because of their friendship, because of the bonds that had never been fully broken. And someday, they would be mended entirely.

Zack shut his eyes, his emotions and his heart overflowing as he clutched at a Seph who was determined to be sane. A Seph who was going to keep fighting until it was altogether achieved. A Seph who was much more like the one Zack had lost so many years ago, at Nibelheim.

He opened his mouth to speak, but words would not come. Not until he at last choked them out through his swelling throat.

"Seph . . . welcome back."