Final Fantasy VII

When the Stars Shine Brightest

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters from the games are not mine. All other characters, and the story, are! This is the direct follow-up to Shine Until Tomorrow, which I have been wanting to start for some time. At last the plunnies are cooperating. Those who have not read the first Shine may very well be confused. Thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help!

Chapter One

The Darkest Night

Wutai's Reign of Terror Continues! Local Hotel in Ruins Due to Welcoming SOLDIERs!

Brown eyes narrowed at the newspaper headlines. For the last months, it had all been the same---the rebels would randomly attack whenever and wherever they pleased, leaving carnage in their wake. And since no one knew when the attack would come next, everyone lived in fear. Now, according to today's paper, a nearby hotel had gone up in flames. Several had been trapped inside, including the manager and at least two SOLDIERs. They had survived, but were in serious condition.

She glowered, tossing the paper aside. Maybe today things would start to change for the better. The SOLDIER General was being called back to Wutai after new leads had been discovered. He was going to be staying at the palace, too. Her father had requested it. And he wanted the chance to speak with the General in private.

Of course, that did not mean Yuffie would not be listening.

In some ways, she felt bitter that SOLDIERs were still in Wutai. The trouble had all started because of them and Shinra. And now Wutai could not even solve its own problems! They needed more SOLDIERs to come try to find a solution. And the more SOLDIERs there were, the more the rebels became infuriated. The vicious cycle would never stop.

It did not help in the least that Emperor Kisaragi was very willing to assist SOLDIER in their quest. And ever since he had made his public address about the country's intolerance, the hatred towards him and his daughter had been mounting. Adviser Takamisaki, who had been cleared of all murder charges, had decided to resign his position. Yuffie thought that he was just scared. And if so, then he really did not deserve to be part of the cabinet any more anyway.

But even though Yuffie did not like the SOLDIERs, generally speaking, she had come to tolerate the General. He had stayed at the palace before, when he had been recovering from wounds sustained in a deliberate fire. Her father held him in the highest regard, calling him a man of honor. And since it was a title he bestowed on very few, Yuffie had paid close attention. After seeing how the General had handled the problem of the traitor in the palace, she had conceded that Emperor Kisaragi was right in respecting him.

He was still weird, though. He had knee-length hair, for Heaven's sake! And he was really proud of it. That had been obvious, when she had seen him brushing it out with such care. How did he even stand it? She had long ago refused to have long hair, finding it so confining---not to mention in the way, and that would just not do for a ninja. And here was aman who liked it, a warrior at that!

And his friend. . . . She had never seen someone as cheerful as that guy. But he could be serious, too, when the need called for it. Maybe that was why the General had put up with him. They were polar opposites. Her father had said that they were not only comrades, but best friends. Maybe he was right. It was hard to imagine someone so aloof having any friends, but it was true that he had treated the other SOLDIER different than everyone else. Sure, the guy was congenial enough to most people, but he only opened up to the spiky-haired one.

A glance at the clock sent her hurrying to the door. He should be here by now. Maybe he was out in the main hall. She would go look. She knew how to be noiseless, when the situation called for it.

The voices at the front of the palace could be heard, albeit indistinct, once she began her journey down the long corridor. One she recognized as her father's. The other was deeper and younger, without any trace of a Wutaian accent. She picked up speed, continuing her soundless flight until she was coming to a stop just outside the doorway. Eight-year-old hands traveled to the heavy door, pushing it open.

Emperor Kisaragi was speaking now, his voice grave.

"General," he said, straightening from a bow, "it is good to see you so well-recovered. But I regret the circumstances of this meeting."

"As do I. But it can't be helped."

Yuffie frowned. There was an edge to the General's voice, a cold tone that she had not previously heard. Her gaze focused on his tall form, facing away from her. He was not in a wheelchair now. He was standing, and seemed to have no lingering effects from the horror that had nearly taken his life several months ago. In his left hand he held that long sword of his, pointed harmlessly behind him with the tip almost touching the floor.

The emperor continued to watch him as well. "I am truly sorry for your loss."

Now the brown eyes widened. "Loss?!" she cried, unable to help herself. Both men turned, staring as she ran further into the room.

"Yuffie!" her father scolded, his stern face filled with disapproval.

"What?" She placed her hands on her hips as she came to stand near the General. "I wanna know what happened!" She looked to the silver-haired man, whose momentary expression of shock was being replaced by annoyance.

"It isn't your concern." Now the frozen tone had increased, and there was a hint of warning. General Sephiroth did not want to discuss this matter. Especially not with a child, and one notorious for her curiosity, at that.

But Yuffie was not willing to take the hint. "Why are you alone this time?" she demanded.

"Commander Fair couldn't make it." Sephiroth was not facing her now. His arms were crossed, and he was looking at the emperor as if to ask why he did not see that his daughter was left out of their conference.

Which he did. "Yuffie," Emperor Kisaragi commanded, "I must ask you to leave now. The General and I have much to discuss about the future of Wutai." His voice did not allow for protests. There was not time to deal with this. Every hour the threat seemed to grow worse. The fact that the General of SOLDIER's armies had returned only attested to that fact.

Yuffie stamped her foot on the floor in frustration. "No one ever tells me anything!" she cried. "I wanna know what's going to happen to Wutai too!"

"You will know what we decide." The emperor nodded toward the door. "Out."

But she was going to try one more tactic. "I'm the princess!" she said. "I'll have to be ruling Wutai someday. Shouldn't I know how these kinds of things play out?" And she abhorred the thought that one day she would be queen. That was not the life she wanted for herself, tied down to meetings, signing documents, and figuring out important and country-changing ideas. For her to bring it up now, meant that she was desperate to know the details of what was going on tonight.

Emperor Kisaragi was not impressed. "Unless your attitude improves, you will not be fit to rule," he scolded.

It was always this way! Yuffie stuck out her tongue in displeasure. She would leave, alright. But that did not mean she would not keep listening. She had a perfect right to know what they were talking about!

Sephiroth did not relax until the heavy door shut a moment later, signaling the girl's departure. His arms dropped to his sides. "What's the current situation in this city?" he asked. "I heard about the hotel." His voice was all business. He would never let it be otherwise. Anything else would be unprofessional. And he would not say anything about Yuffie's performance. Both he and the emperor knew how hard it was to keep her in line. That was not what needed to be discussed.

Godo sighed, shaking his head as he crossed the room to another door. He grasped the handle, easing the object ahead of him and revealing the space beyond. A low table was visible, with cushions on the floor around it. On the table were several folders, left there by Adviser Aoyama before retreating to a far corner of the palace.

He had been most upset at the news of General Sephiroth's return, but most especially by the fact that the man had been invited back to the palace. He still felt that Godo had taken leave of his senses, but instead of also resigning, he had simply requested to not be needed upon Sephiroth's arrival. The last thing he wanted to do was to greet the SOLDIER when he did not feel cordial. Emperor Kisaragi had been disappointed in these actions, but he had granted permission. Aoyama's presence was not necessary. And it might only make the meeting awkward.

"The people are frightened," the emperor spoke now, entering the room. "Any who have been friendly towards the SOLDIERs have determined that it is better to not let it be known. The destruction of the hotel was particularly distressing and unsettling. It was done in the same manner that the orphanage went up in flames." He gestured to the cushions, indicating for Sephiroth to be seated first.

Sephiroth let the door close behind him as he followed his ally into what had better be a private conference room. He sank onto the nearest cushion in a kneeling position, his hair tumbling down his back and at his sides to come to a rest against the plush.

"Even the Houojis and the orphanage director Ms. Shidou?" he queried with a frown.

Godo knelt across from him. "They are still willing to help the SOLDIERs," he said, "but now, for the safety of their families and the children, it must be in secret."

Sephiroth nodded. That was the most wise decision. Wutai was deteriorating into total madness. One's convictions could be the death of entire households. And it was not by the gods' hands, as some of the people had superstitiously decided months ago. If anything, the ones responsible for what was happening were devils. He would see to it that they burned in Hell, where they belonged. It was all they deserved, especially after what they had done . . . !

He caught himself, frowning as Godo's concerned gaze came into focus. He had allowed his thoughts to carry him away again. That was unacceptable. He must concentrate on the here and now, and not become entangled in his emotions. They were screaming to be heard, but at all costs they must be locked in his heart.

"General . . ." The emperor's expression and voice held deep worry. "You must be exhausted after the long trip. I heard you came by airship this time."

A curt nod. "It was leaving sooner than the airplane." And once arriving on the island that housed Wutai, he had needed to take a train the rest of the way. The captain of the airship had refused to set foot in Wutai, for fear that the rebels would decide that he was friendly to the SOLDIERs and therefore must die. And Sephiroth did not blame him. Such was the world in which they lived.

Emperor Kisaragi nodded as well. Something unspoken hung in the air.

"You wonder if I'm capable of handling this mission."

Sephiroth's words were flat and matter-of-fact. He was not surprised in the least. Many had wondered exactly that over the last few weeks. But he had been insistent, even moreso upon learning that he was needed again in Wutai. And against his better judgement, Lazard had said, he had agreed to send the General. If he could take care of the assignment without letting his personal feelings get in the way, then he would be the one best suited to the task.

And that had never been a problem before. At least, not that anyone other than he and Zack knew.

With his thoughts so plainly laid on the table, Godo did not hesitate. "Yes," he agreed. "I am concerned, considering . . ."

"It won't affect my judgement." Sephiroth's voice was the same as it had been when he had spoken to Yuffie a moment previous---cold and efficient, and filled with a warning. He did not appreciate anyone questioning his abilities, no matter whether it was the executive director of SOLDIER or the emperor of Wutai. No one had the right to determine what he could and could not do.

Emperor Kisaragi's eyes narrowed as he searched his former enemy and current comrade's face. The General's visage was as if carved from stone. There was no indication of any less than professional feelings. Yet, for a fleeting moment, unbridled hatred had flashed through the green eyes. There was something festering under the surface, something very human and understandable, but not appropriate for this mission. Sephiroth was trying to keep it under control. Ordinarily he would not have difficulty succeeding. But now was so vastly different from what had been the case those months past, when the General had pulled his battered and torn body onto the steps of the palace.

Still, right now he would not question the matter further. He would wait and see how Sephiroth managed. But even one mistake could prove fatal. And they were both aware of it.

At last the older man leaned back, a quiet sigh escaping his lips. "Very well then," he said. "Let us continue."

Sephiroth nodded in approval.

Shooting . . . so much gunfire erupting all around him. It was a furious blur as he dodged and dived and blocked bullets with his sword. The dance of death. And he was locked within it, unable to break away, incapable of doing anything but to record the sounds of the other parts of the battle in another part of his mind.

There was more shooting in the near distance, and a helicopter's roar. Zack had no choice but to use his materia in an attempt to down the vehicle. The other terrorists could not be allowed to escape.

He was able to look up in the split-second following Zack's enthusiastic cheer. He had landed a direct hit, and the helicopter was being forced to come to earth before it crashed into the waterfall nearby.

Zack looked to him, grinning as he made a V for victory with his fingers. They would take the creeps in and see to it that this reign of terror ended here. Mission accomplished!

The explosion was deafening. A cry of "Shinra dogs!" erupted from the helicopter, followed by malevolent laughter. And fear stabbed into Sephiroth's heart. The bombs ravaging the careening aircraft were not accidental. This was a last attempt to take out the hated SOLDIERs. If they were going to be taken prisoner, they would rather die, and the SOLDIERs would go down with them.

Zack's triumph changed to panic and alarm in an instant. The helicopter was coming right at him. He dived forward. He had to get out of the line of fire! He had to . . .

And then he was gone, consumed as the flames and the searing metal came upon him.

Someone screamed. Was it Zack, a last cry of agony as he burned? Or was it Sephiroth, helplessly watching?

A blade was thrust near his face. Everything had happened in the space of several seconds. Even though time had froze, despite the fact that it yet felt stilled, it had to continue. And Sephiroth's battle was not over yet.

The Masamune clanged against the other weapon. Each owner began to force his weight, attempting to throw the other off-balance. And the heartless laughter rang through the air.

"Dead! He's dead, like the dog he was! He'll burn in Hell now. And you will join him!"

The pupils became catlike slits. In an instant the true cur regretted his words. Sephiroth cut him down without mercy.

He looked up, shaking as he stared at the raging inferno. A body had fallen out of the helicopter and was laying lifeless on the cliff's edge. Already it was blackened and burned beyond recognition. Somewhere in the flames, Zack's body was the same . . . or worse. . . .

His hand shook, the crimson on the blade dripping to the ground at his feet. Zack's final look, of victory turning to horror, was seared into his mind.

He had lost his only remaining, and his closest, friend. And he had stood and watched it happen.

Green eyes snapped open, staring into the darkness surrounding him. He gasped, the breath leaving his lips in quick, frantic motions. He was in the Wutaian palace, in the room given to him. And he was alone, alone with his incubus. Only it was not just a nightmare, a phantom that would vanish upon awakening. When awake, the anguish was all the more pronounced.

Slowly he sat up on the futon, his bangs drifting into his face. He did not bother to push them aside.

Zack was dead.

He had pushed his grief away, locking it into the deepest corner of his heart. Angeal and Genesis had betrayed him, and now Zack was gone as well. To care about anyone only brought heartache, just as he had been told so many years ago. And his feelings were not appropriate for a General in the military. There was no time to mourn.

Others had told him, out of either concern for him or worry that the work would not get done, that he needed to take time off, he needed to allow himself to sorrow over Zack's passing. If he was grieving so deeply, he would not be able to do his assignments anyway. But he had refused. Zack had been a worthy comrade, a dear friend, and his death was to be regretted. Sephiroth had seen many perish in the heat of battle. He could not stop to mourn over every one of them.

He had presented himself as cold, calloused, over what had happened. Even in his most private moments, he could not admit how shredded his soul was. Zack had built him up from the last time his spirits had been crushed. He had reconstructed every piece of Sephiroth's shattered heart, making his life full and meaningful. Now the breakage had been many times more severe. It looked impossible to ever repair it. And he did not even want to try. He would go on as he had always done, treating the men with kindness, but refusing to become close to any of them.

But it was never that easy. All of the men were heartbroken over Zack's death as well, and sometimes they wanted to talk about him. And Sephiroth could scarcely stand it. He did not want to hear about how kind Zack had been, or how he had hung out with the Third Class SOLDIERs and chatted with them, or about the time he had flirted with a pretty nurse and her boyfriend had chased him all over the base. He did not want to hear such stories because he could picture them so easily; he could just imagine Zack's understanding tone, or his innocent flirting, and his panic as he was hounded from the infirmary to Sephiroth's quarters, where he had taken refuge. He did not want to remember how those times had made him feel---amused, content, happy . . . loved. He did not want to remember, because now it had been taken away.

He was alone again. He had always believed that it was his lot in life, and now this only served to prove it all the more.

There was a legend in some parts of Gaia that said that when a good person died, he or she was given a star in the Heavens, to shine their light upon their still-living loved ones, and upon all who would look up and enjoy the star's brightness. And who knew but what it was true? That would be exactly what Zack would want, to have some way to still touch people's lives after death.

But Sephiroth did not want to look up at a star, far out of his reach, silent. A star would not laugh. A star would not tease him. A star would not hug him with gusto.

And a star most certainly would never call him "Seph."

Every night, when he was asleep, the nightmares would return. The fateful battle would play out just as it had done then, with one difference. Zack's final expression was always visible, as a shadowy ghost in the background. When the events reached their zenith, Zack's panic-stricken and alarmed visage intensified. Sephiroth always awakened with it burning before his eyes. He could never block it out.

He could not have done anything to save Zack. Logically, he knew that. He had been locked in combat. But that did not take away the horror, the pain . . . or the guilt.

Why? Why could he not have seen, have known, that the terrorists might try a last foolish act? He knew that they were not above dying for their cause, and taking others with them. But he had not expected what had happened that day. He could never have expected it.

It was their fault that Zack was dead. He gripped the comforter, his knuckles turning white. They would have to answer for what they had done. Every last one of them, whether or not they had been present on that cliff. They were all just as treacherous, just as deserving of death, as the ones who had actually made sure of Zack's demise on the coast of the Eastern Continent. Their wicked and despicable behavior in Wutai would end, and they would all be captured. And he would be their judge, jury, and executioner.

Yes, he could handle this mission. He had to. He had to rid the world of this incomprehensible evil, that had taken his best friend away from him.