Writer's Note: The latest chapter! It probably should be beta read but I'm ready to get GD done, so apologies for typos or weird grammar. I'm not sure about the last scene, but I kept picking at it all week so at this point I don't want to read it again, but I don't want to make you wait another two weeks while I stew over it. So have at it, and let me know what you think!
Chapter 41: Bending Under the Strain
The reports were grim.
Banora had been leveled. The entire village was little more than rubble after the Remnants arrived, tearing through it like a natural disaster. Vincent got there in time to see the three men fleeing, not entirely unharmed, but certainly the winners of whatever battle had taken place.
Buildings had been pulverized with mechanically enhanced punches, fuel tanks and front door locks had been blown away with bullets, and the townsfolk had been killed by all of these things, but mostly by the sword. What was left was on fire, though even that was slowly dying as it began to rain, destroying precious evidence.
Vincent gathered what he could about the events in Banora, but most people had not been left alive, and the answers he wanted were complicated. Why had the Triplets come here? Why all this destruction? Where were they going now? He'd barely checked the closest homes when he started to hear engines and tires bouncing on dirt roads. The SOLDIER outpost in Mideel was arriving, likely having seen the smoke curling up into the sky from afar. The General and Firsts wouldn't be far behind.
Vincent escaped into the orchard and from there to the forest surrounding the town, hiding his tracks and leaving as much surveillance equipment as he dared. Turks would be descending here too, and they would find them. What little information he'd been able to gather from the village would have to do. The rest he'd have to pick up from Shinra's investigation team.
Hours past as the SOLDIERs secured the area and the clean-up crews came in, burying bodies in the local cemetery haphazardly and clearing up debris enough to clear a space for a temporary outpost. There was an obvious effort to make this look like an accident and anything but the massacre it was. If anyone learned about three extremely dangerous men running loose the public outcry wouldn't be devastating for Shinra, but SOLDIER's reputation would suffer. Vincent could only guess where these orders were coming from, but it was probably the Turks or Heidegger himself. He watched from the forest above and monitored the radio devices he'd left in the town, listening to the murmur of horror swelling from the soldiers, some battle-hardened by the Wutai War but still shocked by the random carnage.
Vincent considered the angles as he listened, hearing another report of the General's helicopter on route. The Remnants were manipulative and violent, and willing to plow their way through any obstacles. The secret lab of Hollander's had brought them to Banora, it became clear, but Vincent couldn't figure out how they'd found it unless Jenova really was here. Did they kill all the townsfolk on her order, like presumably Sephiroth had done to Nibelheim in Cloud's original timeline? Or had they killed them out of anger at not finding Jenova? More importantly, the town square had clearly been a battlefield, so who or what had they been fighting there? One of Hollander's leftover creatures or—
Leaves crackled underfoot in the forest around him, and Vincent pulled his cape closer to his body as he listened. He was in the shadows of the trees, but the bright red didn't hide well among the green sprouts of spring. Someone was nearby.
Crouching low, Vincent stalked carefully through the forest, ears straining to follow the snapping twigs and bending branches as someone carelessly cut through. As he got closer, the footsteps he heard were stumbling, halting ones, and Vincent dared to draw closer.
Through the trees appeared a bright white wing, unmistakably the same mutation Cloud had described the former Firsts, Angeal and Genesis, forming as they began to degrade. Vincent cautiously rounded the figure, watching him stagger around tree rootss, visibly weakening with each step.
It wasn't Genesis or Angeal, both whom Vincent had also studied after his escape from the Shinra Mansion. It was another man altogether, but who shared enough characteristics of Angeal's profile picture that Vincent remained wary. It wasn't natural, what he was seeing.
"Who's there?" the man called, coughing a bit at the effort. He kept determinedly walking, even though each step seemed a strain. One arm was wrapped around his torso like he'd broken ribs, and his knee was swollen and straining the combat pants.
Deciding the man wasn't a threat in his state and potentially had useful information, Vincent stepped out into the open. The man stopped and leaned heavily on a tree, turning his head just barely around to see Vincent. "Who are you?" he asked, watching him with heavy lidded eyes. As Vincent drew closer he noticed the subtle differences from the photos of Angeal he had studied. His cheeks weren't as broad, and he lacked the eye shape despite the wide jaw, clear hair, and nose features that matched. He could have been Angeal's brother, except there was something wrong. "You are a copy," Vincent said, approaching slowly.
"Yes, a copy," the man said, body shaking with the effort to stand. His ribs had to be paining him seriously with how he gripped them, but he stood nonetheless.
"How did you last so long when Angeal has been dead more than a year?" Vincent asked, still standing a far outside the one-winged man's reach. One didn't become a First Class SOLDIER or a clone of one without gaining some of those abilities.
"I injected myself," the man admitted without shame. He seemed beyond it. Perhaps he knew that with Angeal dead the injection would cause him to degrade too, though not being formerly human meant that his death was slower.
"Revenge. But now… now I have to save them. Save the world." He tried to remain standing but the effort was too much and he slid to the ground. His wing dragged on the forest floor like he didn't have the strength to life it. Vincent glanced around their surroundings, making sure that they were alone.
"You injected yourself with Angeal's cells?" Vincent confirmed. The man nodded. "Who were you before then?"
"Lazard… Lazard Deusericus."
Vincent didn't stir at that news, but it certainly made this conversation more interesting. Subtly he set his PHS to record it. Cloud had mentioned the SOLDIER director's disappearance as happening differently than his original timeline, but it looked like Lazard had met the same fate. Cloud hadn't known much else about him though.
"Why are you here?"
"I tried to save Genesis. Those men… the silver ones… they're powerful. Dangerous."
"You fought them?" That would explain the battle marks in the main square.
"Genesis and I. We were a team again, just like before." Lazard coughed, seeming to forget for a moment he wasn't Angeal. "But then Genesis took Hollander and disappeared, and I couldn't beat them. Not alone."
"Why were Genesis and Hollander here?" Vincent asked. Lazard coughed again, and it sounded like there was fluid in his lungs. Only the hardiness of a Firsts' cells was keeping him alive at this point.
"Jenova. They're looking for her like the three men. Hollander… told them she was here but…"
Lazard shook his head.
Vincent drew closer, eventually standing over the fallen man. "Where is Jenova?"
Lazard shook his head again. "I don't know. Hojo's hidden her I guess. Hollander can't find her."
"What do you know about Cloud Strife?"
Satisfied, Vincent turned away.
"Wait!" the white-haired Lazard called. "Wait. The Lifestream. I want to go there."
The murmurs on the radio were growing louder, meaning more and more were calls with coming in. Vincent couldn't miss this. He kept walking.
Pausing, even though he knew it would be better to silence that sympathetic part of him, Vincent turned back around.
"It's… it's calling me. Tell Zack… tell him I'm sorry."
Vincent had seen a lot of men die, but this was the first time he'd seen one slowly vanish the way Lazard did. He seemed to melt into blue particles of light and then into nothingness. Even when nothing was left of the former director but an impression in the soft soil, Vincent found himself considering if his soul also consisted of little blue lights, or if that was the Planet's manifestation.
He would have to ask Cloud what it had looked like when the Planet fought off Meteor. Little blue lights? An ocean of them?
Tucking the thoughts away, Vincent was extra careful to conceal himself as he crawled to the overlook of the village he'd been occupying earlier. Sephiroth had arrived with his support, and they were about to check the village themselves.
Vincent felt that familiar stir in his chest as he caught sight of that long silver hair. He didn't know…. Wasn't sure… but the possibility always jumped to mind when he considered Sephiroth. The timing was right after all. And Lucrecia had never said…
The General and other Firsts conferred for some time before they tackled the village, and Vincent kept tabs on what they studied. The darker haired man who Vincent identified as Zack Fair, the Lieutenant General and Cloud's closest friend, took the lead in the investigation. He seemed to know Banora well, and he moved from home to home efficiently.
Then in one building with barely three walls left to it, they vanished.
When they didn't emerge after five minutes, Vincent turned up the radio and tweaked the transmission. It crackled terribly and cut out occasionally, but he was just barely able to hear the secure feed connected to Sephiroth.
"That wall… touched?" That was Sephiroth's voice, his baritone unmistakably.
"Ma- 'ould be? Think they—"
More fuzz cut into the feed until Vincent couldn't hear anymore, he kept trying the dial but then the other SOLDIERs voices were jumping on the comms.
"Did you hear an explosion?"
"The ground is cracking!" Focusing back on the town, Vincent saw several SOLDIERs jumped away from a neighboring house of the one the General had disappeared in, reporting more sounds of fighting.
Then out of the ground burst a man in red, one black wing thrown out proudly behind him. He glared down at Zack who followed him out of the ground, wielding his buster sword. Whatever they yelled at each other was lost in the second explosion that caused the ground to give way, and then they were fighting in the air, matching blow for blow.
The fight was amazing, but Vincent was careful not to get caught up in their match in case he missed something vital below. The other SOLDIERs were watching, and some of the Firsts were trying to join in, but there was still activity outside the main battle. A third house across the main square burst from below, and Sephiroth appeared with his sword out, a man held tightly in his grip.
Vincent pulled out his binoculars to confirm, because as sharp as his eyesight was, he could not be mistaken about this. He focused quickly on the yellow t-shirt with the red logo of Banora, complete with that ring around the 'O', and the scruffy salt and pepper beard. There was no mistaking it: Sephiroth had Hollander in custody.
Two Firsts took the scientist away as the General joined the battle, and with the best SOLDIERs in the business fighting him it wasn't swift but the end was obvious. Genesis put up an argument and a good fight, but in the end the degradation and the lack of desire to live did him in. Sephiroth's blow was final and complete. The last missing First was dead.
Vincent lowered the binoculars as he considered the situation. He didn't know what Genesis had said to Sephiroth and Zack, but he could guess it was something personal, probably unrelated to Cloud and more likely involving their personal history. Hollander was another story though. His narrative was intertwined with Hojo's, and he knew and had met about the Remnants. What conclusions he had drawn might be devastating.
Vincent pulled out his PHS and dialed the only number he had in it.
It rang four times before Cloud picked up. "Vincent." It sounded slightly slurred.
"Genesis is dead."
There was silence on the other end. He could hear Cloud breathing raggedly. Vincent couldn't tell if he'd been training, drinking, or something else.
"Hollander is in custody," he finally said. He could hear Cloud walking for a few beats after that before his footsteps sped up suddenly.
"I have to go. They're on my tail." Cloud hung up before the ex-Turk could ask what was happening.
Cloud could handle himself better than most in a tight situation, so Vincent pushed his concern away. The blond would never ask for this, but Vincent knew Hollander was a loose tie that needed to be cut. He knew about Jenova, the S-cells, and probably a lot more about Hojo's doings than anyone knew. If he started talking, Sephiroth might start digging, and Cloud had been explicit about stopping that.
Vincent watched the transport take Hollander away towards Mideel and packed up his things.
Shinra's holding facilities ran the gamut of security levels, but Mideel's weren't the highest. Unfortunately, Sephiroth was perfectly aware of that and had put a First on duty along with Seconds. The actual facility was a small, two-story building, with the cells on the bottom floor. The General had taken over the building next door and one room had been hastily converted into an office. Sephiroth and Zack Fair had been holed up there most of the day.
Vincent's plan, therefore, didn't involve actually breaking and entering, but deceiving and entering. He donned a Turk suit stolen from the Turk quarters in the Mideel outpost station and slicked back his hair into a neat ponytail not unlike Tseng, even going so far as to use hair gel to style it as he'd seen men do in Midgar. It made Vincent look even younger, which was the idea. If anyone dared to suspect he was still around, they would not expect him to look under fifty.
Satisfied, Vincent's stolen oxfords clicked smartly on the tiled hallway as he took the stairs down to the holding cells. The door at the bottom opened into a long hallway with a door at the end guarded by a First.
"Halt!" the SOLDIER called when Vincent was still fifteen feet away. "Holding cells are in lock down. Don't approach."
"I'm secondary security. The acquired target necessitates it." Vincent affected a bored, slightly higher-pitched voice to further conceal his identity and casually tugged at his clothes. This First would remember those mannerisms more than his appearance if he kept repeating them; it was a classic trick along with not making eye contact. Eyewitness testimony was unreliable and easy manipulated, as every Turk knew.
"You know interrogations aren't happening until he's been moved to Midgar, Turk," the First reminded, his dislike obvious. "And don't think the General will forgive you for trying. The prisoner was under Turk custody the last time he escaped."
Vincent exaggerated a sneer. "I expect you to stop the brawn that tries to take him, and I will stop the real threats—the ones that get through you."
The SOLDIER squared his shoulders, taking up the entire width of the tight corridor. Getting around the man would be very hard, which was why Vincent wasn't trying.
"A Second will go with you while you check the perimeter. I expect you out in fifteen minutes."
"I expect I'll be out when we take him to the helicopter," Vincent smoothly corrected, tugging on his cufflinks again. The First's eyes darted to the movement.
"This is the only way in or out."
"That you know of," Vincent added, and he could see those mako-bright eyes glinting in the dark. Cloud's weren't that color yet. The First opened his mouth to argue and Vincent waved his words away in that same irritating manner Veld always did, particularly when he was cutting off someone he considered beneath him. "I will show the Second. I doubt the fat man could get through it anyway."
Firsts were not generally taught to de-escalate situations, so this one was doing an admirable job of controlled breathing so he didn't punch Vincent. Vincent continued to be nonchalant, adjusting a button on his suit as he waited for the man to step aside.
The First did eventually, but not without giving him another dark look. "Kunsel!" he called over his shoulder, never taking his eyes from Vincent. Smart man. "There's a Turk here to check security. Walk with him."
A tan, redheaded Second opened the door. He and the First had a brief conversation in whispers, which Vincent could clearly hear. The First warned Kunsel to keep an eye on him and about that second exit. Nodding, the Second bid Vincent to walk in. As they passed each other in the doorway, Vincent was careful to take stock of the armor and weapons Kunsel had on him. The SOLDIERs were doing the same.
The room beyond had eight separate cells in it: four on each side, with the entrances to those cells along small hallways breaking off the main one. The design was so none of the cells shared a wall. The lighting was dim and the air was stale, but Vincent could see clear to the back wall where an assortment of weaponry and restraints were hung.
"Show me that second exit," Kunsel said, letting Vincent walk ahead of him. They got no more than five steps beyond the door when Vincent palmed his hidden materia and cast as powerful a sleep spell as he could manage. Glancing back, Vincent was in time to see Kunsel's eyelids droop before the Second jerked up and shook himself awake. The sleep spell didn't take.
"Hey—" Vincent whipped around and grabbed Kunsel's head with both hands and slammed his temple straight into the stone wall of the corridor. The Second was dazed but not unconscious, so Vincent quickly kneed him in the stomach and repeated the head-blow, this time sending a gush of blood from the temple. Kunsel's eyes didn't open again.
Quickly Vincent propped up the unconscious man around the corner out of sight of the main door and pretended to be looking down an adjacent corridor for something. The door opened not a moment later.
"What was that?" the First asked, looking very suspicious. "Kunsel?"
Vincent grunted and called out. "The hatch is on the ceiling. Need to stand on something to get better leverage."
The First continued to look at Vincent in the hallway. "Where's Kunsel?"
"Supply corner," he said, thumbing down the hallway that the First couldn't see. "Might be a bucket or something." With a sharp twist of his wrist, Vincent was able to flick a gil down the corridor he stood in front of without being seen. It banged on the mop at the end and knocked it over.
"Shit," Vincent said in a deeper voice, throwing it so the sound seemed to come from the corner where Kunsel was supposed to be. Ventriloquism of this sort was a vital skill all Turks were taught.
Vincent was fully prepared to attempt the sleep spell again if the First didn't buy it, but after another long look at Vincent, the SOLDIER shut the door and resumed his post.
Alone now, Vincent stripped Kunsel of his headband that prevented sleep spells from taking effect and cast it again. Unless the man was hit directly, he wouldn't wake until the spell wore off. The First would no doubt be checking up again, but Vincent didn't need much time.
Hollander's cell was the last one on the left side. Inside there was nothing but a chair nailed to the floor and a small bucket. Vincent picked the lock in a minute.
"Well, you're not who I expected," Hollander said. He was sitting in the chair with the air of a man waiting on guests, not like someone about to be sent to jail—or more likely, quietly disposed of. He sighed, sounding put upon. "I suppose the Turks just want information. Well I'm not going to help. Shinra has snubbed every last one of my creations and let that credential-less, unimaginative man run a laboratory. What has he made since Sephiroth? Nothing."
Well aware of Hollander's feelings concerning Shinra and Hojo, Vincent cut to the chase.
"Do you know where Jenova is?"
"Heh, no. And if I did I wouldn't tell you."
"I don't work for Shinra."
"You don't work for me either." Hollander eyed Vincent though. "Who do you work for?"
The scientist snorted, waving one fat hand in the air. "That's what they all say, but I can tell something's been done to you. Can't be Jenova cells, can it, otherwise you'd feel the call—"
"You know about Reunion?" Vincent interrupted. He and Cloud had thought no one but Hojo knew about that.
"Yes, why else are those… copies, aspects, whatever they are after that creature? Ancient yes, but not an Ancient," Hollander continued. "Hojo was talking out of his ass as usual, making up the numbers when the math didn't add up! Gast was on to something—that was a scientist with potential. Not Hojo. Never."
Hollander was clearly defiant even when he'd lost, and was being stubborn even though he gained nothing from not cooperating at this point.
"Want to be free?" Vincent offered.
Hollander eyed him. "You look like a Turk. I don't believe Turks."
"Hojo did this to me," Vincent said instead, offering a mutual goal as a way to win the scientist over. "Jenova is his prized possession. Destroy it and cripple him."
"Jenova's old news. At least she was for a long time. If Hojo had any brain in him at all he'd have taken that tentacled beast and reduced it down to a few cells on slides in cold storage. Incinerate the rest. I should've done that with Gillian, ungrateful woman."
Vincent raised a brow but ignored the slight at Hollander's own experiment. "You've been searching cold storage units for Jenova?"
Hollander rolled his eyes and slouched further into the seat. Vincent took the quiet moment to make sure Kunsel wasn't stirring and there weren't footsteps approaching. When silence continued to reign he tried another tactic.
"Genesis is dead."
"He always was a failure." Hollander sighed again.
"All of your experiments are gone now."
"Angeal was the real loss." He crossed his arms and looked away, and even though his posture said he didn't care, Vincent had been taught to read deeper into body language. Hollander was affected by both of their losses, even if he wouldn't admit it.
"Have you ever heard the name Cloud Strife?"
Hollander's eyebrow went up. "No…?"
"Did the three Remnants mention a brother?"
"Remnants?" Now Hollander uncrossed his arms and leaned forward. "Sephiroth's Remnants? How can that be? Pieces of his left over that gained form and consciousness?"
Vincent didn't explain. It didn't matter what a dead man knew.
"How are they Remnants?"
"Brother," Vincent repeated, this time deliberately fingering his gun. Hollander was not a brave man, despite all his bold scientific experiments. He backed down at the sight of the triple-barreled gun.
"They did, something about a black sheep. Knew he was looking for Jenova too."
"And what of Sephiroth?"
"I don't know, I didn't' try to talk to them!" Hollander said, getting annoyed. "I was looking for Jenova too and thought if I sicced those three hounds on her I'd have her that much sooner."
"And?" Vincent asked.
"And they're crazy, that's what. Totally mad. Powerful as hell, but clearly mad. Mumbling about brothers and Sephiroth and jealous mothers."
"Anything else?" Vincent continued to finger his gun, feeling the heft of the three bullets he'd loaded earlier. Hollander was looking angry and red-faced but blind to what was coming.
"We got here and found them ripping the place apart when they didn't find Jenova, yelping about displeasing her, as thought the thing had any consciousness. They were angry too because they wanted to bring Jenova to Sephiroth—some kind of Reunion thing I imagine—and not let the General find him herself. I don't know it was—" Hollander slumped back, blood trickling from his forehead into his thinning hair.
It was easier to put a bullet in the brain of a victim not looking at you, and not actively engaging with you, Vincent had found. Hollander, so riled up in his annoyance at the Remnants, had nearly forgotten Vincent was there at all. Now he would never tell anyone he'd ever been there.
Cloud was broody when Sephiroth and Zack returned to Midgar.
This would have been an appropriate mood for Sephiroth or Zack given that they'd lost the lead on the Triplets, killed their friend Genesis, and somehow let Hollander be assassinated right under their noses, essentially coming home empty-handed. But Zack was as chipper as normal, if one didn't look too closely, and Sephiroth actually felt some relief at putting Genesis to rest. He hated to kill a friend, but the Genesis he'd fought in Banora was far from the man he'd trusted once.
Cloud's broodiness now was particularly off. Zack noticed first, when he dragged Cloud out of Reno's apartment. Apparently the blond hadn't gone back to his barracks because the Turk was keeping an eye on him—Zack couldn't get the answer out of Reno without making Cloud mad, so the First had settled for shooting the Turk a nasty look and hustling Cloud out.
"C'mon Cloud, it's not gonna be that bad," Zack cajoled. "You just look like you've gotten some real practice in and no one's better at assessing levels than Seph."
Cloud hadn't turned around and walked out of the gym yet, but that didn't mean he wouldn't. He had yet to look at them, looking away and down at the floor with his characteristic stoic look.
It was hard to see Cloud's face from the angle, but Sephiroth thought he looked tired and lackluster, his cheeks more hollow than before. It was like some of the life in him had been drained out, from his very appearance to his posture. That he hadn't fought Zack that strongly to come here meant something was eating Cloud inside. Sephiroth intended to find out what.
"Did something happen with Reno? With… a scientist? They didn't drag you off for a physical or something did they?" Zack said, coaxing Cloud across the room to the actual gym floor.
"It's nothing, Zack."
"It's not nothing," he argued back. "I can see your eyes from here and I know that's not nothing. Talk to me Cloud."
The blond's lips tightened and the skin at his eyes pulled taut. Sephiroth had a horrible suspicion. "After," Cloud finally said, and Zack took a breath and stepped back.
"Alright, after. I'll hold you to it," he promised. He stepped behind the bench where their bags and a first aid kit were sitting just in case. Zack was still looking at Cloud like he was about to explode or collapse, but Sephiroth was about to find out.
"Take up your sword," he instructed, walking away from the bench and into the middle of the training room gym.
They had booked the First Class SOLDIERs' training room again. If Cloud was affected by the choice he didn't mention it. After some hesitation, the blond strode out with the secondary training buster sword—he'd traded away the first one. Sephiroth noted that neither he nor Zack had seen the twin blades Cloud had traded them for. Sephiroth had no doubt they were hidden away somewhere nearby. Hopefully that would be explained "after".
"Ready," Sephiroth intoned, lifting Masamune to be parallel with the ground. Cloud lifted his buster sword into a ready position, and when their eyes met Sephiroth saw the same thing Zack had: SOLDIER. There was too much mako in Cloud's eyes. Even if he'd had one injection after returning from leave before Zack and Sephiroth returned, the effect was far too strong.
"Go!" Zack yelled. No sooner had the word left his lips that Sephiroth darted forward with a direct attack.
Cloud swung and parried, knocking Masamune up and to the left, which Sephiroth countered with a downward swing that could have cleaved arm from shoulder easily if Cloud hadn't neatly sidestepped and spun.
They moved precisely with the skill of natural swordsmen, weaving patterns in slashes of silver, flashes of black interspersed between whirls and spins as they ducked and dodged dangerous blows. Just as before, Cloud seemed to read Sephiroth's patterns, seeming to know the exact parry to a move just as Sephiroth began to execute. It was frustrating and exhilarating at once, especially as Cloud continued to hold up under the high-speed strain of the fight. The leapt about the room, Cloud driven back more often than not, but he was quick on his feet as he flipped and turned before the wall met his back.
As the fight went on though, Cloud couldn't really level with the General despite significant speed and stamina increases. Sephiroth was able to prove Cloud's limits when jumped up and rained a series of blows down on Cloud, who did little more than hold up his buster sword and take them. He couldn't jump up and hover like Sephiroth to avoid the attack, and he couldn't match his speed.
Just as Sephiroth was about to flip over Cloud's head for a strike aimed at his vulnerable back, Cloud shouted, "Thunder3!"
Bolts rained down, and Sephiroth cut off his attack to quickly throw a Shell spell on to deflect most of the electricity. Cloud had been unnaturally good at magic—almost as unnaturally good as he was with the blade—but that Thunder spell had been almost weak. Cloud panted as he straightened, using the time he'd bought to recover some of his mien. Separated now by about ten feet, Sephiroth calmly raised Masamune above his head and pointed it at Cloud in a fencer's stance. No sooner had he adopted the traditional pose that he lowered it when he saw Cloud flinch and remove one hand from his sword to touch his shoulder.
"Cloud?" Zack called, but the blond muscled past the moment, regained his grip, and launched himself at Sephiroth.
This time the blows knocked chips of metal off the training sword because Cloud was swinging it so hard. At one blow Sephiroth actually gripped Masamune with both hands to ensure he didn't get cut, deflecting the momentum of the strike down and to the ground before he shoved a shoulder into Cloud's stomach, winding him and knocking him back.
Sephiroth expected that Cloud would drop his defenses in the wake of that blow, and rather than capitalize on it he fell back a step, ready for another round. But Cloud never reacted as Sephiroth expected, which really was what Sephiroth should have always expected. Cloud took the blow and when he stepped back to keep his balanced he turned on the ball of his foot and pushed off, shooting like an arrow straight at Sephiroth.
Masamune was uncomfortably close to Sephiroth's face as Cloud brought the fight close and quick, but the blade was singing with each strike against the dull metal of the training sword. In flashes Sephiroth could see that the buster sword was breaking down, the edge literally being cut off because of the angle of the blows and the sharpness of Masamune's blade. Deciding to end this before shrapnel hit one of them, Sephiroth jumped back and hit the wall feet first, pushing himself over Cloud's head and preparing to use one of his first Limit Breaks. A lifetime of training taught him to react fast though when Cloud pushed off the wall too and then changed direction in midair and pushed off the ceiling.
Defying the laws of gravity like that was a high level skill, the kind that was difficult to teach because it required mastery of the body and the sword. Cloud performed the anti-gravity move smoothly and when he launched from the ceiling his blade was shimmering with magic.
Sephiroth considered a hundred things in that millisecond before the hit, including the integrity of the walls, floor, positioning of Zack, likelihood of others in the building, and what materia he had. Decision made, Sephiroth switched his grip and cast his Wall materia in time to take the blow, but he was thrown back ten feet with Cloud pushing him every inch. The blond was breathing hard at the exertion and when their eyes met in that split-second Sephiroth saw very little of the Cloud he expected.
-This time though, he knew to expect the unexpected.
With his full weight behind him and not tempering his blows, Sephiroth swung horizontally and struck the buster sword directly so hard he flung Cloud back, flipping him into the air. In a second blow he hit the huge blade near the hilt and knocked it loose from the blond's hand. The training sword went one way, and with a hilt-strike to the stomach Cloud went the other. The blond hit the wall with a crack and slid to the ground, dazed from hits to the head and the stomach. Before Zack could run over to access the damage Sephiroth was on Cloud, one hand dropping Masamune and the other grabbing Cloud by the collar and lifting him clean off the floor.
"Do you know how dangerous supplemental mako is? Do you know what that can do to you?"
Sephiroth wanted to shake Cloud but he couldn't quite do it, not even when he realized how those brilliant blue eyes he liked so much had begun to turn mako green.
Cloud didn't answer, but he was definitely aware and defiant. One bruised hand came up and grabbed Sephiroth's wrist.
Consciously slowing his breathing, Sephiroth continued, "I cannot claim to know what made you this way Cloud, but know that the path you travel is a terrible one. That much mako that quickly will do more than give you nightmares."
There was a flicker in that blue-green gaze that gave away Cloud's fear. Sephiroth latched on to even that glimpse of weakness, knowing he'd hit the spot. He lowered Cloud enough to let his feet touch the floor, but not quite enough to let him slip away.
"There are other ways to be strong. They may call me a one-man army, but it is untrue. I would be dead in the war if not for my comrades, and I think you are the same." Sephiroth's breathing by now had gone from ragged angry breaths to calmer, quieter ones. Cloud's were still harsh, still coming down from the exertion of sparring. "All battles can be fought alone, but not all battles can be won alone. Stop. Taking. Mako."
Sephiroth finally released Cloud, but the blond didn't stumble back or run away. He never did what was expected, not even inches away from one of the few people who could kill him in a serious fight. Sephiroth was now very aware that if Cloud continued to self-destruct like this he could take a First down with him.
"You've been taking mako, Cloud?" Zack asked, finally interrupting the moment. He was looking at Cloud with a mixture of hurt and worry on his face. "What level and how?"
"I had to," Cloud said flatly, and as his heart rate slowed and the adrenaline of the fight disappeared, he regained some of his equilibrium. "I have to be strong enough."
"Strong enough for what?" Zack said, his exasperation loud and clear. "We can see that you've always been trying to be strong enough but why? For your revenge? Hojo isn't a fighter you know. Genesis is gone now thanks to us, so there isn't anyone left outside SOLDIER you need to be that strong for!"
Sephiroth put a hand on Zack's shoulder, sensing that Zack's frustration wasn't just from Cloud's stubbornness but also pain at the death of Genesis.
"It's not revenge, it's pre-emptive," Cloud said fiercely. "Before anyone else gets hurt."
"Then let us help, Cloud," Sephiroth said, trying to be the soothing voice in this fight. He'd never been that before though, and from Cloud's clenched jaw it wasn't working. The blond made an aborted shake of his head, which was a huge step from the automatic 'nos' they'd always gotten, but it wasn't a yes either.
"I don't sleep for five days after an injection," Sephiroth said suddenly. "The risks of my unguarded mind in sleep reliving nightmares and memories are too high. Sleep-walking was… dangerous."
Sephiroth was speaking softly but he didn't hide the disgust or simmering anger in his voice. His hand never left Zack's shoulder either, and Zack let the too-tight grip stay to keep the General grounded as he continued. "The higher the mako concentration the worse it is."
"I don't need to sleep to have nightmares," Cloud finally said, and he was looking at Sephiroth with an expression that was hard to read. There was resignation and kinship there, but more too. He eventually rubbed his hand over his head and sighed. "I've screwed this up," he finally said. "Let me think about it."
Sephiroth squeezed Zack's shoulder before the First could interject about how much time Cloud had already spent thinking about it and straightened.
"Fine," Sephiroth agreed, "but you are hereby banned from injections. First level or not, you are relegated to Third Class and grounded from missions. You are to remain inside the grounds of Shinra Headquarters under surveillance. A note will be on your file today." The General's word was as law, but Cloud didn't bow his head.
"Third Class or not, you're moving in with me," Zack added, shooting Sephiroth a look that said they would hammer out the details later. "Let's go Cloud. It's after now."