Please forgive the many errors/mistakes I know are in here.

The End of All Hope?

Upon reaching the castle proper, Cloud abruptly halted and a distracted, almost pained look came to his face. He narrowed his blue eyes in concentration, casting them about over the courtyard. "They're close but not together."

"Where?" Leon's voice was tight.

Cloud's lip twisted. His gaze became distant and he murmured. "What are you trying to do?"

Zack kept a detached eye on him as he looked over the area for any trace of Aerith or Riku. He could not bear the thought of the woman being dragged into this. If she got hurt, he did not know what he would do.

Then he had to worry about what might be happening to Riku.

Cloud violently shook his head as if coming out of a stupor. He locked his jaw and began walking toward the castle doors with an angry gait. "Sephiroth is in the ballroom."

"What about Riku?" Zack fell in beside him. Leon was close behind.

"He's headed for the ballroom, too."

Cloud and Zack pushed open the doors together and the three strode in. There was a noticeable tension to the air creating an oppressive weight that threatened to slow them down. They pressed on, however, not allowing themselves to be deterred.

Cloud took point and guided them to the right of the ornate staircase. Long corridors ran back from the case to lead to the ballroom behind it. As they entered it, a flash of pink disappeared at the far end.

"Aerith!" Zack sprinted ahead of the other two. He skidded around the corner and literally swept his girlfriend off her feet. He held on to her tightly for a moment, simply thankful to find her safe and unharmed.

"Zack;" She quickly embraced him before forcing him to release her. "Riku…"

She turned around and he followed her gaze. Fear once again ceased his heart. At first, he thought he was back in Nibelheim and was once again helplessly watching as his friend stood before the door that would lead him to his destruction.

Riku's expression was the exact same as Sephiroth's had been on that occasion.

"Riku;" Leon spoke the name softly but did not come closer than Zack and Aerith already were.

The teen glanced over, that lost look still to his features. Despite this, he smiled faintly. "It will be all right, Squall."

Riku then pushed the door open and disappeared through it.

The four moved quickly after him, Zack and Leon in the lead. Just outside the entry, they stopped as Cloud groaned and lost his balance. His shoulder hit the wall and he pitched forward.

Aerith took hold of his arm to ease his fall. He griped her small wrist and looked up at Zack, pain etched in his face. "Go."

Zack was torn. "Are you-"

"He's using me to distract you;" Cloud cut him off. He gritted his teeth and clutched at his head. "Go!"

Zack set his jaw. Meeting Aerith's eyes, he silently told her to stay with Cloud. He poured as much affection as he could into the message, knowing that somehow she would understand it. She smiled and nodded, wordlessly sending her support back. Zack decided right then and there that when all of this was over, he was marrying the woman.

Turning, the former SOLDIER tapped Leon's arm. "Let's go."

Steel eyes flicked toward him, shaded with determination. He did not say a word as he faced forward. Together, they pushed open the ballroom doors.

The large chamber was typical of most ballrooms with the marble floor and pillars lining the walls to create narrow alcoves. Three enormous chandeliers hung from the raised ceiling and the entire far wall was made of gold-framed panes of glass. This expanse of glass revealed a rounded balcony.

Riku stood before the central section of windows, nearly ten feet out from it. His back was to Zack and Leon and he appeared to be oddly relaxed. In front of him, Sephiroth stood framed by open French doors, looking just as relaxed as Riku. His shoulder wing fluttered casually and he wore a light grin.

The positioning of the pair was so cliché, Zack would have laughed under different circumstances.

"Welcome." Sephiroth announced, words echoing through the expansive space. "Your timing is once again lagging, Zack."

Leon was in no mood for this and moved toward Riku. He made it five feet before three pillars of fire surrounded him. The front right one burned his arm.

"That's close enough, Leonhart." The easy tone never left Sephiroth's voice.

Riku turned his head to the side. "Neither of you should be here."

"Neither should you." Zack retorted, slowly making his way forward. Sephiroth fixed his bright eyes on him but let him approach.

Zack looked at his former friend pleadingly. "You don't want this, Seph. You don't want him to become another you. I know you want better for him."

"Why would he want that?"

Zack froze. Riku's question rang hollowly through the ballroom and Zack realized belatedly what he had just done. Riku did not know why Sephiroth wanted him. He had not yet been told…

Sephiroth smirked. "Tell him, Zackary. Tell the boy what he is."

Slowly shaking his head, Zack pleaded. "Please, Seph."

The winged man's humor abruptly disappeared. "Tell him what he is, Zack."

"He is nothing but himself." Leon's voice declared. "Nothing you say or do will change that."

"I wasn't addressing you." Sephiroth raised a hand. "Sin Harvest."

Leon dropped, screaming as he again hit the pillars of fire that continued to entrap him. The smell of burned skin and charred leather drifted out. Riku whirled around, staring in horror for a moment. "Stop it, Sephiroth!"

The pillars disappeared and Leon completely collapsed, falling to his side. Riku ran over to him, carefully moving the unconscious body and muttering curgra to heal the burns. The man remained motionless.

Riku lightly touched his face before standing and turning back toward Sephiroth. He kept his head down, eyes hidden from view. "Why are you doing all of this?"

"…Because you are mine."

Zack stared between the two, mind frantically trying to come up with someway to stop this. Despite everything happening, he could not let go of his belief that Sephiroth did not want to do this. He could have easily killed Leon just now but he did not.

Riku lifted his face and his aqua eyes were unnaturally bright as he fixed his gaze on Sephiroth. Zack silently begged Riku not to ask the question he knew he was about to. He knew he could not stop what was now inevitable.

The teen spoke clearly and precisely as he took a few steps forward. "Who are you?"

There was a long, expectant silence. Sephiroth seemed to be considering his answer. As Zack looked at him, he saw that unusual shift in his old friend's eyes. The raven-haired man found himself holding his breath waiting.

A soft smile tugged at Sephiroth's lips as he studied the teen. His voice and tone held a gentle quality despite the harshness to the words. "I am your father."

Zack switched his attention to the younger silver-haired male. Riku simply stood there quietly for a horribly long length of time. His expression did not change, nor did he make any movement.

The silence was broken by the teen's soft voice. "No, you're not."

Sephiroth's eyes lit up with fury.

Riku took a step closer. "You may have once been my father, but you stopped being that a long time ago. If you were my father you wouldn't be doing this."

Zack felt a huge swelling of pride at the boy's statement. While it saddened him that the words only served to reinforce what everyone believed about Sephiroth, it proved that Riku was not going to let himself be taken by this madness like his father had. There was still hope.

Sephiroth stared at Riku with righteous anger. "Those are brave words, child, but you are incorrect. You belong to me."

"I belong to myself."

The winged man's expression smoothed out, falling back into that casual, almost easy smile. His eyes, however, grew hard and calculating. "You do not truly believe that, not after Xehanort."

"It's because of Xehanort I believe it." Riku countered. "I may have lost my body to him but my heart was always my own." The teen lowered his voice. "Just as your heart is your own despite what Jenova did to your mind."

Zack started. How did Riku know about that? How long had Riku been piecing all of this together and how much did he already know?

Abruptly, Sephiroth laughed. It was rich and almost happy sounding. While it sent a shiver down Zack's spine, there was a trace of joy at hearing it. How long had it been since he had heard that laugh?

All too soon, Sephiroth was again quiet and looking at Riku with that cold, mildly curious expression. "You are so much like me, perhaps too much."

Zack tensed up as Sephiroth began walking toward his son. He remembered every one of Sephiroth's movements and he knew the man was preparing to do something. He doubted it would be anything good.

The former general stopped before Riku, slowly and deliberately raising his hand and touching the teenager's cheek. Riku did not flinch and Sephiroth angled his head. His words were oddly sad. "Such strength."

Before Zack had a chance to react, Sephiroth had taken hold of Riku's arm and pulled the boy close. Feline eyes glittered with malice. "You waste that strength, Son."

"Let him go, Sephiroth!" Zack suddenly found his voice.

"You had your chance, Zack."

The raven-haired man had to make one last attempt to end this before anyone else got hurt. "You can stop this, Seph. Right now, you can end this."

"No, it is Riku who must end this."

Riku's expression darkened and his eyes widened. He stared at Sephiroth, shaking his head minutely. "I'm not going with you and I'm not going to kill you."

The older silver-haired man smiled. "Foolish boy."

Masamune appeared in his hand and Riku leapt back, summoning Way to the Dawn. Sephiroth idly held the long blade before him. "You brought this upon yourself."

"Riku!" Zack called out, recognizing that Sephiroth was not going to attack with the sword. Riku was already spinning away from the barrage of dark orbs that began raining down.

Sephiroth advanced and Riku raised his Keyblade in defense. The pair traded hits in a rapid secession that Zack could barely track. It quickly became obvious that neither was fighting to kill.

If anything, Sephiroth seemed to be simply testing his child's skill.

Zack carefully worked his way back toward where Leon still lay unconscious. He kept his attention tightly focused on the pair dueling as he did. When he reached the man, he tried to decide what he could do next.

Sephiroth stopped fighting and Riku stumbled as his hit missed its intended mark. The man used that and whipped out his leg, catching the boy in the midsection. Riku dropped to his knees in pain.

The son of Jenova smirked as he looked up. "I was beginning to wonder what was keeping you, Cloud."

Zack whirled around and his heart fell. Both Cloud and Aerith stood at the doorway. It was obvious neither had any intention of leaving.

"…And you brought the Ancient. Anxious to see her die again?"

"You can't win this, Sephiroth." Cloud's voice was calm despite his clearly seen fury.

"Well, that depends on what I'm trying to win, now doesn't it?" Something strange entered Sephiroth's eyes as he said this.

Zack stared at his former friend as understanding kicked in.

Sephiroth moved toward Zack and Leon. It quickly became clear who his target was as he raised his hand. "Pale Horse."

Zack went to jump in front of Leon, planning to take the spell himself but a dark shield rose up. It didn't entirely stop it but what worked its way through did little harm to Zack. It likely did not affect Leon at all.

Riku again engaged Sephiroth in battle, expression angrier than Zack had ever seen it, drawing his estranged father away from the others. Zack wanted to jump in, wanted tell Riku to run away but he knew the teen would not. They were going to have to take this all the way to the bitter end.

He stiffened a bit when someone touched his shoulder. He realized it was Aerith and tensed up further. He turned and gripped her hand. "Aerith, you can't be here. You have to take Leon and go!"

She nodded quickly. Zack tugged her forward and kissed her briefly before helping her get Leon into a position she could pull him out with. Once that was accomplished, she mouthed an I love you and began dragging Leon out.

Cloud was standing on the opposite side of Zack, blue eyes tracking the father and son duel with eerie precision. "It ends today."

Zack stood, removing the Buster from his back. Cloud was already holding Tsurugi. "Looks like it."

"I'm sorry, Zack."

Zack allowed himself a second to process what they were about to do. "So am I."

The pair then ran toward Sephiroth and Riku.

They arrived just as Sephiroth was aiming a quick strike at Riku's left shoulder. The teen was reacting but his movements had slowed since all of this started. He was not experienced in long, drawn out fights and Sephiroth had been steadily exhausting him.

Cloud intercepted the hit, tapping Masamune away and launching his own attack on the winged man. Sephiroth smirked, an almost elated gleam coming to those insanity- hazed eyes. The two began exchanging blows in a steady, even pace.

Riku tried to follow but Zack stopped him. "You've done enough, Riku. Let us finish this."

"But…" Riku weakly protested. "I don't want…"

Zack smiled sadly. "Neither do I, Riku. Now go."

The teen shook his head. "I'm not leaving but I'll stay out of the way."

"Riku-"

Cloud's groan echoed through the ballroom, breaking the conversation. Zack turned around and raced across the room to help. He did not think about whom it was he was fighting, shutting all of that way.

It did not matter any more.

Sephiroth backhanded Cloud, sending him flying into a wall. When he moved to advance, Zack was there. If Sephiroth was surprised, he gave no sign of it. He simply turned and began dueling with his former second-in-command.

"So you finally understand, Fair." An upward strike.

A slice down and to the left. "It doesn't have to end like this, Seph."

Sephiroth's green eyes brightened and he lunged at Zack. He let loose a rapid series of short, precise move, pushing Zack back toward the large windows. The younger man managed to counter them but knew that would not last.

By now Cloud had recovered and rejoined the fight. Sephiroth had to stop his advancement but seemed to be having little trouble with holding off the two of them. It was quickly becoming a stalemate.

Then Zack made a fatal error. Instead of coming at him with a waist-height sweep from the left, Sephiroth angled the blade up. The tip grazed across Zack's upper arm and while Zack winced, he followed it up with a blast of dark energy that sent Zack flying through the glass behind them.

He hit the marble railing outside hard enough to crack ribs. He pitched forward, struggling to breath. Managing to look up, he saw Cloud begin attacking with newfound vigor. The blond was on to using his limit breaks.

Zack shakily retrieved a potion from his pocket and drank it. If he had broken any bones, it would not help much but he would at least be able to get up and help Cloud. A moment passed and he stood, intent on rejoining the fight.

He moved as quickly as he could back into the ball room and froze. He had no idea how it had happened in the few seconds they were out of his sight but Cloud was now pinned to the wall, face twisted in pain. Masamune was plunged into his lower right abdomen.

Zack forced himself to run forward. He knew he did not stand much of a chance but he had to get Sephiroth away from Cloud. He had to end this.

He gathered as much power to him and leapt up, ready to land a paralyzing blow or die trying. As he came down, Sephiroth removed the sword from Cloud's body and gracefully turned. He easily countered the strike, reversing the energy Zack expended on it toward Zack.

The man fell back on to the marble floor, feeling more ribs snap at the impact. Sephiroth advanced, holding Masamune's hilt up beside his head. Zack did not look at the sword, only at Sephiroth's face.

His expression was nearly blank with the barest trace of a frown tugging one corner of his lip. Those feline eyes stared down at him with madness and fury. Then Zack noticed that odd look had entered those eyes again and finally recognized what it was.

Regret.

Zack found himself smiling for reasons he did not understand. Sephiroth adjust his stance and brought his blade down in a quick, killing thrust to Zack's heart. Zack's only thought in that moment was that he hated that Aerith was going to have to go through this again.

It took another fraction of a moment to realize Masamune never hit its mark.

Sephiroth's eyes widened a touch and he dropped his sword, which fell harmlessly atop Zack's prone body. He staggered once, half-turning. A genuine smile lit his face and he fell beside Zack.

Violet eyes tracked his decent in stunned disbelief. Sephiroth studied Zack for a long moment, that unusual smile still in place. Zack saw a dozen emotions flash through those fading eyes. He felt his own tear up as he realized they were truly Sephiroth's eyes.

"Thank you." Sephiroth managed out, some blood escaping the corner of his mouth. "Take… care of… him…"

Then those glowing green eyes dimmed and his face relaxed, that small smile smoothing out but not disappearing.

Zack heard a soft cry and rapidly blinked away his tears, turning his head. Riku stared down at Sephiroth's motionless body, Way to the Dawn still clutched tightly in his hand. Rivulets of tears ran past his cheeks, covering his horrified expression.

"Riku."

The teen looked to Zack and this seemed to snap him a bit out of it. He released his keyblade and darted over to Zack's side. "Are you alright?"

Zack nodded and gave the boy a sorrowful smile. "I'm sorry, Riku. It… shouldn't have ended this way."

Riku bit his trembling lower lip and Zack's heart just broke. He tried to reach up to touch the youth's face but simply did not have the strength. "You shouldn't have… had to…"

"This is what he wanted." Riku gazed at his newly discovered father. "This was the only way he knew I'd be safe."

Zack nodded in silent agreement. It hurt him beyond words but it felt right. Riku helped him sit up and allowed the boy to cast curgra on him. He flicked his eyes over to Cloud, who was barely conscious against the wall.

The blond was staring at Sephiroth with a mix of disbelief, relief, and remorse.

Zack coughed out a laugh, which gained both Riku and Cloud's attention. "The three of us are going to need a ton of therapy."

Riku gave a weak smile and Cloud chuckled painfully. Zack motioned with his chin toward Cloud. "Get him stable enough to take to Aerith, I'm strong enough to move on my own now."

Riku nodded and moved away. Zack looked to the side and gently closed Sephiroth's eyes. His whispered words could barely be heard by even himself. "Your welcome, friend. I swear, I'll take care of Riku as if he were my own."

End

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Please, please leave me lots of feedback on this little story. You have no idea how hard it was for me to write.

And before anyone asks, this is it. There will be no more of this story line. I hoped you all enjoyed the ride.