Kingdom Hearts II

Deep Silence Complete

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine (except Mathews), and the story is! This was directly inspired by the prompts Nudophobia; Fear of Nudity (in only my birthday suit) at 13 Fears and Breath; Footfall (the only sound in the world) at 20 Heartbeats, as well as What has to be done at Key Blade. It is deeply entwined in my timeline. For the confused unfamiliar with my timeline: Yes, this is the real Sephiroth. It's just that some people believe he isn't.

It was so quiet. . . .

Green eyes weakly opened, focusing on the darkness around them. At first, it was pitch black, with not even a hint of a location. But slowly the orbs began to adjust. Shadows and shapes around the room came into view, highlighted by the bright moon shining through the barred window. Something long and thin was leaning against the opposite wall, and the occupant gave a dark smirk. It almost looked like a grave marker.

Not that he believed he would die; he certainly had no intention of perishing. But he was apt to think of the most dreary and morbid thoughts, especially in his situation.

Before slumber had been achieved, there had been an unsettling, annoying, dripping sound somewhere in the building. Now there was absolutely nothing other than his soft, somewhat pained breathing---and that was perhaps even more unsettling.

He knew where he was, of course, even though he could barely see a thing in front of him. It was the same old building where he had been held prisoner for the last several days, and the same old wall against which he had been slumped the better part of those days. The stone bricks still felt icy against his bare flesh.

He was sitting on the equally cold floor, his legs and lower wings out in front of him and his upper wing curled around his chest in a desperate attempt for warmth. An ancient, yellowing sheet was billowing around his hips, covering him down to his feet. He had to be grateful for it, he supposed. At least it provided some shelter and additional warmth, despite how thin it was.

He slumped further into the wall. The circulation had been all but cut off to his arms. Both of them were raised above his head, chained and manacled to the hard surface. It had been hours since he had last been free. And in this case, the word was being used lightly.

It had not been so long ago, though, that he had last been used as a punching bag. That only seemed to happen when he was in this restrained condition and could not fight back. Cowards. His lower right wing was still aching from what had been done, and his stomach did not feel so great either. The story of the last few days in a nutshell.

He was such a fool. How could he have allowed this to happen? Not that he had not tried to fight against it. As he gazed off at the opposite wall, the scene played out again in his mind's eye, projecting itself onto the dark surface in front of him.

"That's it, boys. That's the creature we're after."

Green eyes raised to study the strange people who were watching him from the safety of an unmarked, white van. The one who had spoken was hidden in the shadows, save for his sickly smirk. The men who were now emerging were wearing coats that matched the vehicle's paint, and while most carried semi-automatic guns, two or three held what seemed to be dart rifles. All looked nervous, and even though they tried to conceal the emotion from their faces, it was all too obvious from their shaking hands and knees.

The main question was, What should he be the most irritated about---that he had just been called a "creature", that so many cowards had been sent out to meet him, only to hide behind their guns, or that they were planning to try tranquilizing him as if he was some kind of an animal?

He opted for gripping his sword and bringing it up out of defense before anyone could stop him. "What do you want with me?" he demanded, aiming the blade's tip at the nearest and most uneasy gunman.

The fool trembled more, beads of perspiration slipping down his gaunt face. "We . . . we're supposed to bring you in," he stammered, before receiving a sharp jab to the ribs courtesy of the compatriot standing next to him. He gave a start, fumbling and almost dropping his weapon.

Sephiroth was most unimpressed. "Unless you're planning on first filling me full of bullets, you're using these guns only for show and an attempt to frighten me," he pointed out.

He did not even blink when the leader boldly and stupidly fired a crescent of lead into the ground around his boots, barely missing the lower wings in the process. "Aren't you scared yet?" he grinned. "Or maybe monsters don't get scared."

Before he even had a chance to step back, Sephiroth was knocking the weapon from his hands with the Masamune. The eyes nearly bugged out of the idiot's head as the gun fell harmlessly to the ground, another bullet emptying into the pavement. Then the blade was against his throat. Shuddering, he raised his gaze back to the one holding the hilt. "Don't kill me," he whimpered, all pretexts of bravery vanishing in the wind. "Please don't kill me . . . !"

Sephiroth merely gave him a look of disgust. This was pathetic. Were all of them as wobbly-kneed as this so-called leader? If so, he would be able to take them all down with ease.

"You're not even worth the effort," he grunted. Withdrawing the sword's tip once more, he took a step back. All he would have to do would be to teleport out of here. He did not run from fights, but it seemed that this would not be even a shadow of a battle. It would be too simple and only fitting to leave. But if they wanted him for some reason, they would probably find him again.

Instead he began to spread his wings. They would not be able to follow him into the sky. And he would like to know what they wanted with him!

A reckless man near the edge began to hoist his gun, but was grabbed on the upper arm by the person next to him. "Don't shoot!" he hissed. "He wants the wings intact."

"But one of them's already busted," the gunner whined, eyeing the feathery appendage on Sephiroth's lower right side. Despite being unfurled, its normally bent condition was obvious.

A third man gave a weak chuckle. "It probably can't even fly," he sneered.

"Shoot around it!" another yelled.

Immediately bullets flew from nearly every angle, deliberately missing but attempting to box him into a corner. He raised the sword over his head to keep the ammunition from approaching there. He could not teleport with this going on, but he did not have to stay on the ground and take it, either.

The wings flapped mightily, lifting him into the sky. The guns continued to fire, but now their holders seemed uncertain. As he ascended further, he looked to his pursuers below. One of them was yelling about using the tranquilizers on "it." But they would not be able to do that if they could not get to him. Placing his hands together as he hovered, he cast a wall of fire between him and them. The men screamed and yelped as they fled from the determined blaze, only making themselves appear all the more spineless.

"You didn't tell us it could do that!" one of them wailed, looking to the figure in the van.

"Stand on the roof and shoot it down with a tranquilizer," was the calm reply. Whoever it was, was enjoying this encounter. And it seemed that he did not want it to end right away. Why? Was he using this time to study his quarry?

With shaking legs, the man did as ordered, first stepping onto the hood and then the roof of the van. For what seemed a long moment to him, he worked at getting the rifle aimed correctly. Then, once it was pointed at the well-built chest, he fired.

Instantly the Masamune came up again, blocking the dart and sending it into the fire. The pieces were falling into place now. It was what he had begun to suspect when they had first appeared. The white coats and the darts were the biggest clues. They were scientists of some description, and they wanted to sedate him to take him with them. But why? It did not seem that they were from the government. Did they find him a threat . . . or did they want to study him?

A bullet whizzed past his left wing. Now what? They were shooting at him again? More followed in succession, and they were soon raining upon him from every direction. He could see the snipers now. They were behind rocks and inside buildings, and they were more sure of themselves than the idiots from whom he was fleeing. It was a trap, just as it was on the ground. As long as he was constantly dodging and deflecting the lead, he would not have the time to concentrate on making a portal.

Nor could he deliver another fire attack. It was too risky, without seeing where it was going. He might set the old fields ablaze. For now, all he could do was to shield himself again and struggle to rise. When he was high enough that the bullets could not reach him, then he would teleport.

Moving as if automatically, he continued to deflect shots with his sword as he beat his wings again. One bullet clipped his cheek, leaving a small strand of blood, but it was hardly something to worry about. He began to push his body upward, past the angry lead.

Something sharp drove into his upper back. He froze, his eyes widening. It was one of the darts. They had lured him further into the trap by forcing him to go higher in the sky, and then had used one of the long-range rifles to shoot at him! He had to get it out before it took affect. He could not fall unconscious. He would crash out of the sky, but worse, he would be taken into custody. Maybe if he could teleport and get it out later, when he was where they would not find him. . . .

There was no time to accomplish any of those things. Already he was feeling so sluggish. Everything was going out of focus, and his wings had stopped flapping. Had the guns stopped firing as well? Probably. . . . They would not want to hit him as he descended. . . .

He was senseless before he struck the pavement. But he was certain later that he must have been a sorry sight---sprawled on his stomach, with his wings limply hanging around him and his hair going in all directions. Not to mention the dart sticking unceremoniously out of his back.

He smirked weakly to himself. Shot out of the sky like a dumb animal. How pathetic. Oh, if Cloud had seen him then.

Of course, that was all that they thought he was---a dumb animal. And just because of the extra limbs he possessed.

The chains clinked as he shifted position, looking down at the twisted lower right wing. The men had jeered it, and not just when they had been trying to catch him. It was amazing, how much their fearful attitude had changed once their victim was restrained and not a threat. They all enjoyed beating up on him when they got the chance.

It was infuriating! He wanted to tear himself free, to attack them in retaliation, to show them that he was still a force with which to be reckoned. He kicked them when he was able, as well to hit them with his wings, but then there were occasions such as the last time, when two had sat on his legs and three others had grabbed his wings, holding him entirely still while others beat him.

The head scientist never allowed them to torment him physically for very long. After all, he wanted his prize subject in good condition for the experiments and the examinations. He had been taking X-rays, trying to determine how the wings were attached to Sephiroth's body. And once he had realized that the lower wings could retract, he had tried repeatedly to force Sephiroth to take them into his form. Every time, he refused, and then the doctor would deliver cruel and unkind punishment. He had figured out himself approximately how it was done, but he always wanted Sephiroth to demonstrate, knowing that only he could perform the task with ease.

He often wondered what Sephiroth was---a genetic mutation, someone else's scientific experiment, or even a creature that was not actually human. Of course, he was never told anything. Sephiroth still had his dignity. He would never give information to these entities.

He had been human once. According to Zack, he still was. The wings had not turned him into some kind of freak of nature.

Ah . . . Zack. . . . Would he see his friend again?

He could not allow himself to sink into despair. He had already determined that he would not die here. He would get free, and he would find Zack.

The poor man was probably in a panic by now, looking everywhere for "Seph." And he had probably pleaded with Cloud to help him. Well, for Zack's sake, Cloud probably would have. And would the mad scientists try to abduct Cloud, if they saw him? The last thing Sephiroth wanted was for them to be cellmates, and to know that Zack would be all the more panic-stricken. Zack did not deserve that.

He sighed, wearily closing his eyes again. It was not likely that he would go to sleep already; he was just resting. But that was almost impossible to do as the memories continued crashing through his exhausted mind.

It was so strange, when he began regaining consciousness. Something cold and hard was against his back, and he was propped up on it. His arms felt so odd too---tingling and aching, as if all the blood was being drained from them and leaving the flesh and bone numb. They were up over his head.

He pulled on them both. Neither would move, and instead a clanging noise met his ears. What . . . was that? A chain? Was he being held prisoner?

He was . . . wasn't he. Now it was all coming back---the fight, the bullets, the dart. . . . That must be why his back was throbbing now.

And he felt so cold. . . . Usually he was not affected by the temperatures. Now he was so strangely exposed, vulnerable . . . as if his soul had been laid bare for all to see and his deepest secrets had been revealed.

His top wing twitched as he finally managed to pry open his eyes.

And he was looking right into the fascinated and warped face of a middle-aged man.

A grunt of surprise left his lips as he slumped into the freezing wall.

"Who are you?" he growled.

The other only smirked. "Now, that really isn't important, is it? There's plenty of time for introductions. However, you don't need to give me one . . . Sephiroth."

Why was that not a surprise. "Why did you take me?" he demanded. His voice sounded so raw and raspy. How long had he been unconscious? It must have been hours.

"You're a fascinating specimen," the man smiled, thin lips pulling back over yellowing teeth. The dark moustache framing his upper lip only added to his cruel appearance, as did the glinting eyes and the white lab coat. "I hope you will excuse your current state of undress. I've been examining you, particularly these, of course." He reached out, touching the left wing.

Immediately Sephiroth retaliated, slapping the greedy hand with the wing before drawing it around himself protectively. This was a mad scientist. He was going to be used as a guinea pig. That was obvious now. He had not actually thought that he had been taken by anyone concerned with his presence in the city, but he had not wanted to believe that this would be the truth either.

"You don't want me to chain your wings too, do you?" The voice had a disturbing delighted tone, as if it was not a bother in the least that he had just been struck with one of the extra appendages.

"You won't," Sephiroth growled. "Not if you want to study them."

"And you will cooperate," the lunatic rejoined. He rocked back, out of reach of the wings, and took a small box out of his pocket. "If you misbehave, then . . . this will happen." The wicked grin widened as he pushed the button.

The pain that suddenly rushed through the winged body was horrific. His eyes widened as he strained against the bonds, his mouth opening in a gasp, a silent scream. He could not make a sound. He could not allow himself to be broken in that way. But the agony . . . ! He was being electrocuted!

The button was pressed again. And then, as suddenly as it had come, the fire was gone. Sephiroth slumped against the wall, going limp as he breathed heavily.

"It's channeled through the manacles," the treacherous creature explained. "And I'm certain you don't want to feel that again?"

Of course not. But if he thought that meant Sephiroth would prostrate himself on the floor and play dead, he would be disappointed. This man had been a fierce general. He possessed pride and honor. And he would never let himself give in to whatever was going to happen.

"How did this happen?" Stuffing the box into his pocket, the fake scientist leaned forward and this time took hold of the half-crippled limb. Restraining it with one hand, he ran the other over the inner side of the wing, attempting to straighten it. It flattened in his grasp, hanging limply from the wretched hands.

This was abhorrent. He had to get free! In desperation he jerked the appendage, but the unkind grip was firm and fast. He could do nothing.

The rough hands ran over the feathers and the bones several times as he spoke once more. "It must have been something strong and powerful that bent your wing," he mused. "Maybe the same creature that left the scars on your chest and side?" He smirked again.

Sephiroth glared in silence. He would say nothing.

"And why do you have wings in the first place?" The smirk widened in fascination. "I'm inclined to believe that you are, or were, a human being. Were you a mutation from birth? Or did someone else get to you before I did?" He leaned in, the eyes glittering with dark interest. "Maybe someone was using the taboo power of hearts to do this, hmm? The power that I've been attempting to master!"

Another of those idiots? He would probably end up turned into a Nobody before he was done, just like what had happened to the six men who had betrayed Ansem the Wise and had performed such experiments.

"No?" The wing was released, where it thumped to the stone floor. "Well, whatever the truth is, I will learn it." He straightened up. "It's only fair to warn you that my . . . associates have been champing at the bit to have some fun with you. I told them they can, as long as they don't go overboard."

Fair?! There was nothing fair about that at all! He should simply prevent them from having their "fun."

"Oh, and here." Taking hold of an old sheet, he threw it at Sephiroth with a cruel smile. "Cover yourself," he directed, watching in apparent amusement as the cloth floated entirely over the silver-haired man.

Sephiroth shook his head free, his eyes cold and hard as his gaze went from the foul devil to the faded sheet. Even though it was something he could possibly manipulate with his wings in order to "cover himself", it seemed more a mockery than anything else.

This entire captivity was a mockery. It was outrageous!

It was only now that he realized he was sitting on a sheet as well, one that had been spread on the floor. But it did little to alleviate the chill from the stones underneath it.

Now the lunatic was turning to leave, his footsteps echoing loudly on the hard floor. But as he was going out, the frightened men from earlier were coming in. They were changed now, their expressions speaking of inhuman delight and boldness.

"Not so scary now, is it?" smiled the first, deliberately talking loud enough that Sephiroth would hear. He was the one who had begged earlier for his life to be spared. What a sickening display of the darker side of human nature.

"It's just a grounded bird," taunted the second.

"Only it isn't a bird at all." The third kicked viciously at Sephiroth's left leg. It jerked from the pain, and a laugh rose in the scrawny throat.

The bound hands clenched into fists. Was he going to have to sit here and take this?

"What is it, anyway?" asked a strongly accented fourth voice. "It ain't a human, neither."

The first began to circle the restrained body, not caring in the least as the green gaze followed his movements with a warning. "Oh, I think it's nothing more than a creature that thinks it's all that because of a few powers. But it can't even use them now!" He laughed, cruelly kicking the lower right wing when he found it in his path.

The sea-green eyes narrowed further. He could not cry out, he could not release the gasp of pain that had leaped to his tongue. He could not let them know that they were hurting him. The right wing slipped under the sheet, where it crossed over the left appendage of its kind.

"Did that hurt?" the first sneered. "Oh don't hide it from us. We want to see it."

"Maybe it's ashamed of it because it's twisted," smiled the third.

"Can it feel ashamed?" wondered the fourth.

"Can the wing be straightened out?" said the second. "When it fell out of the sky, all of the wings were limp, even that one."

"Let's find out!" smirked the first.

As he approached, Sephiroth shot out both of his legs, kicking the thug harshly and sending him crashing to the floor. They would have to restrain all of his limbs if they did not want to be attacked, and even then, he would not be submissive! They were all imbeciles if they thought he would not fight them!

Immediately the second and the third snatched his legs. They pushed downward, insistent and firm, their hands viselike. He struggled to resist. He shook one leg and then the other, trying to dislodge the unwelcome claws. He tried to kick out and strike them in their chests. But it was hopeless. His legs were forced to the floor, and the two sat on them to hold them in place.

"You're going to regret that," said the fourth, ripping the sheet away. The cold air struck with fury, and he could feel an involuntary shiver running up his spine.

The first, who was now getting up again, promptly grabbed the lower right wing, his unfeeling hands curling around the bone. Giving a mighty tug, he tried to force the limb to uncurl from its current position against the left wing.

Right now it seemed that there was only one means left of defense. And he would take it. His upper right wing flew out, swatting his assailant in the face. The man cursed as he fell back, but it was muffled from the mouthful of feathers.

The fourth ran over, grabbing the appendage with an intensity that sent it crashing into the wall. Somehow Sephiroth was sure that the resulting cringe was not only felt inwardly. The sting was shooting through it full force. He glared as the man pinned his wing to the cool stone. They should not be touching him! They should never be touching him! The wing twitched, pulsing with his indignation and outrage, but it could not move.

Another time the first man came forward, his fingers grabbing the previously injured limb and attempting to pry it loose. This had to be resisted. Sephiroth leaned his upper body over with an abrupt motion. The only thing left to do was to knock his head against the other's.

But the fourth man slammed his hand on the bare chest, forcing the prisoner back into the wall.

Stars swirled in his vision after the back of his head hit the stone. He could not pass out . . . he could not allow the dizziness to overwhelm him. It had not been a strong enough impact to render him unconscious. He would not allow it to be.

His vision began to focus again, onto the man who was clutching the previously injured wing. It was spread out in his hands, and he was laughing unkindly.

"Look at it, boys," he grinned. "It ain't twisted all the time. But if you feel right here, the bones are deformed." With a finger he rubbed at the spot, and those holding Sephiroth's legs down reached to touch it as well.

The warrior's upper lip curled in disgust. He was being treated as a specimen, to be poked and prodded and manhandled. Could there be anything more distasteful than this? His eyes narrowed. No . . . it could definitely be worse. It could only be hoped that these men wouldn't . . .

"Maybe we should . . . re-twist it," sneered the second, "only put more force into it." He demonstrated by clenching his hands in the air and making a wringing gesture.

"The boss'd kill us," said the third. "The wings are what he wants to check out." A pause. "But maybe . . . when he's done and doesn't care what happens . . ." He left the sentence unfinished. It was all too clear what was meant.

If he was trying to frighten Sephiroth, it was not working. It was only making him revolted and indignant. What a den of monstrosities he had fallen into!

"Alright, that's enough for today."

All four of them, plus Sephiroth, looked up at the doorway where the scientist was entering. The thugs seemed disappointed at his words, but slowly wings and legs were released as they stood up to head for the exit.

"You didn't hurt his wings, did you?" the creature asked, his tone stern.

"No, just roughed him up a bit," answered the first.

It was the first time they had actually referred to him as "he" and not "it."

He slumped back against the wall. The sheet had been tossed aimlessly to the side, close enough that he should be able to reach out with his left wing and bring it closer. But it would be impossible to use his wings to spread the cloth over him again, unless he could use them to hold it down while trying to pull it open with his feet. And it was not as if he had anything else to do with his time.

Reaching out with the feathery limb, he clapped it over the crumpled sheet and began to sweep it to his side. Somehow he maneuvered it onto his legs, and as planned, he placed both lower wings over it. It was easy enough to get his feet under the soft cloth in order to pull the one side away from him, and then the tips of the wings disappeared under the material as the attempt was made to pull the other side towards him.

It actually did not work out so bad; the sheet was soon spread around him approximately the same way as before. A shiver ran down his back again. One problem was that the cloth did very little to warm his upper body. He sighed, lowering the uppermost wing to cover his chest.

His eyes opened again. Was that the drip he had just heard? No . . . now there was silence. He was still in this tomb, where he would remain until the next experiment or the next taunting and beating.

Yet it was so deathly quiet that it seemed that his breathing was the only sound not just in here, but in the world. At least until he shifted and the chains clinked. The noise echoed off the lifeless walls, the tones ominous.

He wanted to go back to Hollow Bastion . . . back home. . . .

Maybe this building was still in Hollow Bastion, for all he would know. Maybe it was one of the fortresses that had been abandoned when the Heartless had attacked. When he would discover a way to get free, then he would learn the truth. And those who had taken him would regret their folly.

"I've been looking over these X-rays I took of your body."

Sephiroth looked up, glaring at the entering "doctor." The monster was examining the contents of a file folder, his expression thoughtful. And with his unwelcome inquisitive nature, that was the last emotion that the captive wanted to see.

"Oh, now don't look so defensive," he scolded in a mocking way. Setting the folder down, he crossed his arms as he gazed at the former general. "I have determined that your lower wings retract." The eyes glinted with fascination. "Show me. Take them into your body."

He was met with a look of pure disgust. Sephiroth would not do any kind of a demonstration for him. And anyway, he never retracted the wings anymore, due to the injuries to the one on his right.

"You refuse?" The madman started to reach into his pocket for the device. "Are you sure you don't want to reconsider?"

Sephiroth felt his body tensing. Again he would be shocked. But it did not make him change his mind. He would not be so weak as that.

The pain ripped through him again, coursing through every part of his body. He could feel himself breathing hard, struggling not to scream . . . trying to grab onto the wall again for support. . . . If he could focus on something other than the pain . . . ! It would stop soon; it was never allowed to go on for very long, even though while it was happening it felt like an eternity. . . .

The torment was released. Again he slumped against the stone, shuddering, his head falling forward on his chest.

He had never been taken and tortured by the enemy during his time in the military. He had suffered wounds in battle, but nothing such as this had ever been done to him. However, the principle of endurance was the same. He could get through this. That was what he had to keep telling himself.

A shadow fell across his line of vision. The insane doctor was suddenly too close for comfort. As he looked up, the other was starting to kneel down on his right side.

"If you won't do it yourself, then I will have to figure it out on my own," he warned.

As he took hold of the half-crippled wing, it stiffened in his hands. Sephiroth was tensing again, regarding him with apprehension and hatred. "Don't . . ." he hissed.

Before he even had the chance to retaliate, the lunatic was trying to fold up the appendage he was holding. It could not be done like that anymore! The way it had healed did not allow for it! Was he going to try to . . . he was! He was trying to push the wing back into the opening! It would not work. Not with that wing.

The upper wing was flung out, striking the man hard and sending him backwards. The lower wing was released, the pain easing. But relaxing was not an option. The limb again went around his body in a protective way, as the green eyes studied the other with suspicion. Would he try again?

The man leaned forward a second time. "Now, you don't want to do this, do you?" he said, his tone threatening. "You know I won't hesitate to press the button again."

"That wing . . . can't retract," Sephiroth growled in response. "It's too badly damaged."

It was grabbed anyway, as the creature tried once more to fold it over itself. Placing his other hand on the bare shoulder, he attempted to ease the limb into Sephiroth's back.

He jerked away, again using the upper wing as his defense.

This time the punishment was not a mere threat. It was so difficult not to cry out, not to scream himself hoarse, but he could not deliver such satisfaction. That was what was wanted of him. He had to accept the electricity, to simply allow it to flow through his form. . . .

As the pressure was released, the madman once more snatched the injured wing, folding it in his hands while Sephiroth was recovering and too weakened to attack. But then he frowned, letting it thump back onto Sephiroth's legs.

"Hmm . . . it isn't able to do it after all," he mused, as if he had never heard what Sephiroth had said.

He ignored the green-eyed glare on his person as he stood up and walked to the other side. "This wing is normal," he said aloud, "so it should fulfill the task. And you had better let me try it."

Sephiroth turned his head weakly to the side, watching in annoyance as the left wing was carefully folded and pushed inward. It did not hurt on this side, as long as the movement was gentle. But it was exasperating and angering. That was his wing. No one else should be trying to make sense of how it worked. Especially not someone like this.

"Fascinating," the monster purred, removing his hands and allowing the appendage to slide back out on its own.

He stood up. "Get some rest, if you can." The way he said it made it clear that the thugs were planning to return and not allow for a moment's peace.

And sure enough, here they were, filing in the door.

"We heard you gave the boss some trouble today," remarked the first as they walked over.

"You're just asking for trouble yourself, aren't you?" grinned the second.

"I think we should teach him a lesson, boys," said the third. "Don't you?"

"I think we should," agreed the fourth.

A fifth moved forward, placing his foot on the half-crippled wing without warning. "Does this hurt?" he taunted, pressing his weight onto it---not enough to shatter the bones, but definitely enough to cause intense pain.

Sephiroth gritted his teeth. There were more people today, about eight in all. If this was what they were doing to start with, how would it end up?! The main wing unfurled, ready to swat the cruel offender.

"Hold him, boys."

Instantly several of them sprang into action---one grabbing the top wing, two restraining the lower wings, and two others holding his legs in place. The other three advanced, their countenances wicked and unfeeling. They were going to attack now. They were going to beat him, leaving no means for defense.

The first punch was landed to his stomach. He hissed, doubling over as much as he could. The second blow hit his chest, and the third, his left side. He fought with all his might, trying to dodge, to pull a wing or a leg away to use as protection---but it was no use. All he could do was to stay helpless and suffer.

It was despicable, how much enjoyment they always received from inflicting harm upon him. It was attitudes such as those among Hollow Bastion's enemies that had driven him to hate them all. The problem with that was that he had become just as they were. He had relished any pain he had delivered, feeling that they were less than human and that they deserved every bit of his revenge. Maybe this happening to him now was only just. That thought did not make the torment any less miserable, but he probably did not have the right to complain.

Usually he had granted his adversaries swift deaths, but every now and then someone had fallen into his hands who possessed important information. Then he had taken them captive, sometimes having them tortured in order to extract whatever they knew. Most of the time that had not worked, and they had preferred to be beaten rather than to speak. He could recollect two or three occasions when he had gone into the holding chambers and had slapped the prisoners around himself, furious and desperate for any news of what the opposing armies were plotting.

Even when he had been drowning in hatred, however, one of his main motivations had always been the protection of his own people. He had not been able to bear the way innocent women and children had been grossly violated and mutilated. That did not change that he had killed guiltless people after he had lost himself, but . . . could the men who had been tormenting him have ever possessed righteous goals?

Bah. There was no way of knowing. Even though the situations still sounded different, it also sounded as though he was still trying to justify himself. It could not be helped that he believed with sincerity that his motives had originally been good while his current enemies' never could have been, but he had still given into his hatred and had become monstrous. That could not be justified.

And there was that sound again. It was so hard to place when it was emerging out of the eerie stillness, but . . .

It was footsteps. Someone was coming, running as fast as he possibly could towards this room. Were the mad scientist or his lackeys returning? These steps sounded so urgent . . . panicked, almost. Why would any of them be coming so fast?

What was going to happen now . . . ?

The door flung open, light spilling into the room. It was so strange, to suddenly be hit with the beam after being in darkness for hours. He looked up, squinting and blinking at the figure standing there. The thought of someone else coming to torment him now was too much. He was still recovering from the last injuries. And he did not want to be experimented on, either.

Wait . . . the spiky hair, the stance, the horrified voice calling out his name. . . . It was Zack! Zack had come for him!

The brunet ran over, a keyring held fast in his hand, his lavender eyes wide and alarmed to see what had become of his poor friend. What a sorry sight he again must be---chained to the wall by his wrists, his skin bruised and broken in places, his hair tangled, the sheet billowing loosely around his weakened frame. . . .

"Oh Seph. . . ." Zack swallowed hard. "Hey, I'll have you out of this in a minute."

Gently he reached up, unlocking first one handcuff and then the other. The arms dropped to Sephiroth's sides.

After they had been up for so long, it felt odd to have them released. They were so numb now, due to the poor circulation. Hesitantly he reached out with his left hand, running it along the length of his right forearm. He was free. The nightmare was over. Unless this was just a dream. . . . But it felt so real . . . he wanted it to be real . . . !

He raised his gaze to Zack, who was dropping to his knees beside him. The eyes, the worry, the gentle touch as he extended his hand to tend to one of the cuts . . . it was not a fantasy. Zack was here. . . .

"What did they do to you?" he whispered. Having removed a small first aid kit from his pocket, he took out a disinfectant wipe and began to clean and bandage the injury with care. He watched Seph as he worked, his eyes pained to see the other's beaten body. This should not have happened. Not to Seph, not to one so strong. . . .

"Too much," Sephiroth grunted. His voice sounded strange to him right now. He had rarely spoken in the last few days, as there had not been a great deal worth saying to his previous company. And since they had wanted him to talk, that alone had made him want to be quiet out of spite.

"Cloud and I have been looking everywhere," Zack stated, his voice quiet. He could hardly stand to look at Seph in this condition, but he was a lot better off than in some of the nightmarish scenarios to which Zack's mind had wandered. He was alive, he was conscious, he did not look half-dead, he was not in some ghastly mutilated state . . . but he was still hurt. And Zack hated to see him in any kind of agony.

"Cloud . . . is with you?" Sephiroth mumbled. The thought of his grudging ally seeing him in this condition was not especially pleasing, but he had known it was a possibility. Right now, he was gratified just to be able to know that he could leave. Cloud had already seen him in worse states anyway---such as after the dragon's attack.

Zack did not have to answer.

"Did you find him?"

Both looked over at the blond's gruff voice. Cloud was in the doorway, buster sword in hand. Surveying the scene, he made his way inside and observed from a close distance.

"Yeah . . ." Zack grinned. "He's here."

Sephiroth looked at Cloud briefly before averting his gaze. He was probably going to need help to stand, as humiliating as that was, and while he knew Zack would help, Cloud might need to as well. And that would be awkward.

"I wasn't sure how well off you'd be when we found you," Zack said now, still in the quiet tones, "but I brought you some spare clothes." He indicated the backpack he was carrying.

Sephiroth gave him a grateful look. After everything he had been through, that was something that was also very welcome.

"Looks like you can use them too," Zack remarked with a sad smile as he watched Seph run his hands up and down his arms, attempting to hasten the returning blood. He had never seen Seph like this before---stripped of all but his dignity. That was something he could never imagine being taken from the other. Seph had too much pride and determination to allow himself to be broken. Though . . . what if Zack had not been able to find him for weeks? Would he have remained in such a stable condition?

It was better not to think of it. Seph was here and he was still in possession of all his faculties, and that was what was important---not maybes and what ifs.

Sephiroth nodded in a vague way to Zack's comment. Sitting on the floor, wrapped in a sheet, was very tiring. But not only that; for the most part, he hated how vulnerable it made him feel.

Placing a hand on the wall, he began to ease his body up. His legs protested with ferocity. They had not been stood upon for any long period of time over the past days, and it had been several hours at least since the last attack, when he had used them for kicking purposes. They were now not used to the idea of getting up.

Zack rose with him, ready and willing to assist. About halfway up, Seph swayed, and the brunet was instantly there to steady him. He said nothing, but watched Seph in silence as he got his balance. It was not necessary to speak right now.

Sliding the bag down from his shoulders, he unzipped it and removed the clothes from inside, checking them quickly. They were all there. He straightened again, holding them out to Seph.

"I'll stand guard," Cloud grunted from the doorway. He crossed his arms, leaning against the stone frame. His expression said that he was bored out of his mind and that he would rather be anywhere else---but that he was also relieved that Sephiroth had been found alive and relatively alright. That would make Zack happy.

Zack nodded vaguely in his general direction. "Okay," he agreed, and looked back to Seph. The winged man was shuddering as he stood there, the sheet still hanging off of him, his hair matted as it fell across his face and down his back. He was still gripping the wall, and with his left hand he began to reach for the clothes Zack was offering.

Sephiroth's hand trembled as he pulled the first article to him. "How did you find me?" he asked, letting the sheet drop to the other sheet on the floor.

Zack grinned. "You sure have led me and Cloud on a chase, that's for sure," he said. He watched the other carefully, seeing how he continued to be unsteady as he struggled to manipulate his body into the item of clothing. He would let Seph try to handle it on his own, as he wanted to, but if he tumbled again, Zack would be there to catch him.

A frown graced the brunet's features. "No one knew what'd happened to you, or else they weren't talking. But Cloud found where it looked like you'd put up one of your fire spells, and there were feathers scattered nearby, so we knew something had gone wrong." He paused. "Finally somebody came forward . . . a kid who'd seen them take you."

Sephiroth listened to this as he now pulled the trousers to him. He would have to dress as fast as he possibly could, so that they could leave before they were attacked. If the lackeys found this scene, they would try to ensure that an escape would not come to pass. And there would be more of them than there was of allies. Not that it was likely for them to win, considering Zack . . . and Cloud, too. But still, a fight at this time was not desirable.

It was such a relief, to be wearing clothes again. Now he was starting to feel like himself. He just needed a shower and to get his hair back in order, to complete it.

"The kid described the van," Zack continued, "and some of the men. He said he heard the driver being addressed as "Mojo" or something like that. Never heard of him." He waited for Seph to adjust the suspender straps and then held out the coat for him to get into. "But anyway, we started looking for the van and we found it here," he said grandly.

"Did you have any trouble getting in?" Seph asked, poking his upper wing into the hole in the back of the coat.

Zack moved to the side, so as not to be accidentally whacked with the feathery appendage. "Actually, no," he admitted, "and it kinda bugs me. I didn't think they'd wanna let go of you easy, but there were no guards, no scientists, no nothing! And these keys were on the wall outside this room."

That was strange. The head lunatic, the one who had driven the van, had not given any indication that he was finished with the experiments. From what he had said, it was more as though he was just beginning. What had happened?

As he adjusted the belt that held the coat together at his waist, he turned to face Zack. The younger man looked concerned and uneasy. Would they be stopped as they tried to leave? Or had the interest in the "specimen" been halted?

"Where is "here", anyway?" Sephiroth grunted. He took a slow step forward. Maybe he would be able to make it without being helped. Now that he was on his feet again, it was not such a difficult task to walk. Or had he spoken too soon . . .

Zack's arm quickly encircled Seph's waist as equilibrium was lost. The bigger man's body slumped against him, and he could feel Seph's resignation. Just below his arm, the lower wings were twitching.

"It's the dungeon of the old castle," he said now, taking the next step along with Seph. "Never thought they'd bring you here, Seph," he murmured.

"Neither did I." And yet it amused him in some ironic way. The former leader of Hollow Bastion's army, imprisoned as though he was some sort of traitor. It was just the sort of odd twist that was infamous for occurring in his life.

Cloud looked over now, his blue eyes veiled. "Can you make it?" he asked.

"Think so," Zack said, glancing to Seph for confirmation.

Seph gave a short nod. Cloud's assistance would not be needed.

And Cloud looked perfectly fine with that. He walked into the hall, allowing the duo to pass through the doorway.

Why did it feel as though they were being watched? He frowned, looking up at the wall behind them. Nothing. But the feeling would not leave.

"The nearest exit's this way," he directed, his tone abrupt as he pointed to the stairs. "Come on, let's go."

Sephiroth and Zack were only too willing to comply.

The man writing at his desk looked up when the door opened. He frowned as the scientist stepped inside, pleased with himself.

"Well?" he demanded. The other looked almost too pleased.

"They're escaping, just as you wanted," he announced in his smooth tones. "Commander Fair definitely is friends with him, as you suspected. He believes that Sephiroth is the same one he knew years ago."

The man at the desk leaned back, running a hand over his care-worn face. He hated stooping to these measures, but it had come to this when he had realized how attached Commander Fair had become to this winged Sephiroth, who of course had to be a fake. The real Sephiroth had been killed in battle several years previous, and Zack had never gotten over his dear friend's demise. He was most likely being deceived by this current one, desperate to believe that Sephiroth had somehow come back to life.

It had been a concern when Zack had volunteered to spy on the winged apparition, and approval had not been granted at first. But it had finally been decided that he would be the ideal one for the job, if he was willing to do it. Now, however, it was looking more and more as though it had been a mistake. Somehow it seemed that Zack was delivering the vague reports with the consent of the new Sephiroth. Zack had probably told him everything, and maybe he had offered his services in the first place because he had hoped that agreeing to spy on Sephiroth would mean that he could spend time with him. His devotion to the real Sephiroth ran very deep.

"You didn't hurt him, did you?" the man at the desk asked, his voice stern.

"Oh . . . my men roughed him up a bit," the dark-haired man answered, "but nothing too serious. And my experiments did not hurt him, though I really didn't get to find out as much as I would have liked." There was no need to mention the electrical device that had been used. It had compromised their deal, after all.

A weary sigh. "You'll have your chance, as we agreed. Did you at least determine where his wings came from?"

A shake of the head. "It looked to me as though they were naturally grown. Which is surely impossible."

"I suppose we'll find out. He didn't say anything to indicate his true identity, did he?"

"Not at all. He barely said anything, period."

"Alright. You're dismissed, Doctor Hojo."

A coolly polite smirk. "I'll be sure to call you when I have more information, General Mathews."

The general numbly watched as the mad doctor turned to walk out of the room. What had he gotten himself into? And what was Hojo planning? His confidence bespoke of some wretched scheme. And he acted as if he was so clever for coming up with . . . whatever it was.

A dark frown crossed his features. "Hojo!" he called, his tone commanding.

Hojo paused, turning back to face the general. "Yes?"

"Remember our agreement," Mathews said sternly. "Commander Fair is not to be harmed, nor is he to be told of any of this. And you can't do any experimenting on Sephiroth without my consent."

"Of course," Hojo said. "General, why would I go against your wishes?"

That should have convinced Mathews, he supposed, but it did not. "Just leave," he ordered, his voice dark.

"Whatever you want." The door closed firmly.

Why was it that Mathews felt it was closing on not only his doom, but on many other parties', as well?

. . . Maybe because the feeling that he had made a deal with a devil would not go away.

Of course, Mathews' suspicions were correct. Sephiroth—who was certainly the real one and not an imposter—did indeed know of Zack's mission to spy on him. Zack had told him beforehand of the military's desire to watch him and learn about him, and that he was worried of what would happen when the person was chosen. Sephiroth himself had then suggested that Zack volunteer for the mission, to which Zack had mused that they could come up with innocent reports to send back, mentioning nothing of Sephiroth being bound to Cloud or of the fact that Sephiroth was sleeping at Zack's house. It was a risky move, and Sephiroth had been concerned over what would happen to Zack if it was ever discovered, but Zack had opted to volunteer anyway. It would enable him to be around his friend without suspicion, and hopefully, it would also protect Sephiroth in the end. If someone else had been appointed to the task, it would have been a disaster long ago.

But the tangled web was now starting to unravel.

The shower felt warm and refreshing against his clammy skin. He stood under it for some time, his eyes closed, listening to the sound of the drops pattering into the tub and onto the shower curtain. He had already soaped his body, and the water had rinsed the last of the suds away several minutes previous. But still he had lingered, lost in his thoughts and the therapeutic sensations. He took hold of his now-wet hair, lathering it with the shampoo.

It felt good to wash away all traces of the treacherous experience. And what he could not erase now would fade in time---the bruises would return to their normal skin color, and the cuts would knit back together. His lower right wing would not suffer worse from what it had undergone, either. It would be as useful as it had been since it had healed from the dragon's cruelty.

The mental wounds had not gone deep. He would easily bounce back from this misadventure. It had been inconvenient, and angering, and bruising to his pride, but it was hardly the worst that had ever happened to him. However, he most certainly wanted to find the creature who had taken him. He wanted to know why it had been done, and why he had been allowed to go free. The more he thought about it, the less it seemed a coincidence.

As he held the ends of his hair in his hands, letting the downpour cleanse the silver locks, it was impossible not to notice the red marks on his wrists. The manacles had rubbed against his skin many times when he had strained against them during the beating sessions. Both wrists felt raw now, but they would mend as well.

He was still getting used to being able to utilize his arms once again. After they had been restrained for so long, only being released during short intervals, the feeling was still working on returning to them. His hands shook, particularly when attempting to grasp objects, and his arms felt wobbly. But he had only been free for an hour or so. Once the initial shock wore off, his arms would be fine.

It was already much easier to stand now then it had been the previous hour. His body was readjusting well.

And it was such a relief, to be back in a friendly location. Zack's home was his home too, by now. He slept here the majority of the time, down on the couch. His clothes were here, kept on one side of Zack's closet. And Zack was here. Zack welcomed him, as always.

The suds were now gone from his hair. It was slick and smooth to his touch, and ready to be dried. There was no need to remain longer. The taps were turned off, the last of the water trickling into a dribble that soon ended as well. He straightened, twisting the mass of hair in his hands. The warm liquid splashed from it into the tub, making a loud sound as it hit. Due to the length of the locks, the amount of excess water was immense.

Pulling back the shower curtain, he stepped out onto the rug on the floor. One towel was taken to his hair as he furiously dried at the tresses; then he left it up in the cloth for a moment as he used a second towel to go over his torso and his limbs.

He patted at his wings gently. From experience, it had been learned that it was best to allow the air to dry them. He liked to flap them rapidly to remove excess water, but that would be impossible in the small room, and even if it could be done, he did not want to get everything wet. That would be inconsiderate.

Several moments later he was dressed and slumping with exhaustion into the soft mattress of Zack's bed. Zack had insisted that "Seph" take it tonight; Zack would sleep on the couch. And Sephiroth was much too worn out to want to protest.

The mattress embraced him with gentleness as it adjusted to the contours of his body. It was such a change from the hard and unwelcoming stone that he had been forced to endure for the past few days. It almost seemed unrealistic, a fantasy or a dream, that now he was away from it.

"You're looking a lot better!"

From the pillow, he glanced over at Zack in the doorway. The brunet's arms were crossed, and he was grinning, happy to see Seph more like his old self.

"I feel it as well," he responded, placing an arm under the generously stuffed pillow. "And I'll feel even better after I sleep."

Zack nodded. "You do that, Seph," he smiled, reaching to turn off the light.

Sephiroth settled down, pulling the quilt around him. This darkness was much different from the darkness in the dungeon. It was not cold and unfriendly, or taunting. He would be able to rest in its keep without concern.

Zack was still there. He could sense it. He glanced up again, the questions in his eyes.

Realizing he had been caught, Zack shivered slightly. "Your eyes looked so blank, that first moment when I opened the dungeon door," he said at last. "It was like you were expecting to be hurt again, and you were just going to accept it, even though you wer dreading it too. . . ."

"I was," Sephiroth said, his tone flat.

Zack shook his head slowly. He never wanted to see Seph like that again. It had been one of the most heart-wrenching moments for him---that look of apprehension and resignation. "I'm sorry, Seph . . ." he said quietly.

"Don't be." Sephiroth raised up halfway on an elbow, his voice firm. He did not say more, but the message in his eyes was clear. Zack had found him. That was what was important.

Zack nodded, smiling a bit once more as the unspoken words reached him. And it would be impossible to recall only that expression, without also seeing in his mind the indescribable relief and hope that had come into Seph's eyes once he had realized that Zack had found him. He had done the best he could over the last few days, and it had brought him success. Seph was safe. And now he needed to sleep.

"Night, Seph," Zack said now, stepping into the hall.

Sephiroth gave him a slow nod in return before the door was pulled shut.

Again he sank into the softness of the mattress and the pillow. It did not take long for sleep to wash over him.