Final Fantasy VII
Weep Not For the Memories
Notes: The characters from the games are not mine, but the Fragmented Triangle crew and the story are. This was heavily inspired by a couple of role-plays with Lisa, so she must be credited for a good deal of the plot. Other elements were created by me especially for this fic, particularly the final twist. It's funny, the idea for the fic version came from Sarah McLachlan's I Will Remember You song, yet barely any of the original concept stayed intact by the end of this. Thanks to Kaze for plot help!
Staring into eternity was bleak.
The wind had become an untameable, intangible wolf, mournfully howling without mercy. It sent the driven snow whirling and spinning into Sephiroth's hair, but he barely noticed as the long locks swept out behind him, the bangs slapping against his face. He was standing on the edge of the hated precipice, gazing with blank eyes into the frigid water many feet below. There were pieces of ice floating downstream, the current as harsh as it had been several days previous.
He did not want to be here. Not for the reason he and the others had gathered. For him, it was pointless. It would waste valuable time. Memorial services were for the dead. Zack was not dead. He could not be. He was somewhere in these canyons, and he had to be found before any more time passed. He may have located a cave or some other spot for shelter. Maybe someone had even found him first and had taken him into their cabin. But if he had been left out in the cold for the past days, injured and bleeding and possibly soaked through from the river, then there was no chance of him being found alive.
And that was what could not be considered. Not yet.
Cloud and Aerith were determined to continue the search even after the service. But they had decided that in the case of Zack being recovered dead, it would be easier for them to adjust if they had already had the funeral. They referred to it as a celebration of Zack's life, a way to pay tribute to their missing loved one, but all of them knew what it really was--a way for them to say goodbye if they had to.
And yet none of them could figure out what to do. So far, everyone had stood around, staring off into the distance or into the ravine, collecting and mulling over their thoughts. Someone needed to give the eulogy, and Aerith had offered, but she had not been able to find a way to put her feelings into words. And Cloud felt too uncomfortable to even begin to attempt it.
Sephiroth did not want to even participate. To him, that would be accepting that Zack was likely dead. And he had already gone through that years ago. But that time he had discovered that Zack still lived. Later on, Cloud had seen and known that Zack was dead for real, and Aerith had felt it in her heart. It had been hard to understand how they could want to think of Zack being dead this time. And yet he knew it was not that they wanted to at all; it was their way of dealing with the tragedy. Just as Sephiroth's way was to refuse the possibility. He did not want to torture himself as he had done ten years ago. Zack could still be among the living this time as well.
He hated to remember how they had been brought to this point. But staring into the rushing, dark water, the memories came anyway, unbidden. . . .
It was a normal day at Jenova Corp--busy and hectic. Everyone had been on the go since the start of the working day, and only at the close of it did they hope to find relief. Zack had flopped on the old green couch after the latest business conference, exhausted as he draped an arm over his eyes. His tie was untied, and he had unbuttoned the first two buttons on his dress shirt.
"Man," he mumbled. "What a day. You almost done, Seph? We can head home with Cloud and Angeal, get some food, some good sleep. . . ." He trailed off as he yawned.
Sephiroth grunted. "I just have to read the rest of the email," he said. Another one was coming in now. He frowned. Normally they did not get any this late. He clicked on the announcement.
Zack could hear him stiffening in his chair. "What is it?" Zack asked, frowning as he looked over at his pal.
"Zack." Seph's voice was taut. "You need to see this." No explanation was given.
None was needed. Zack leaped up, hurrying over to Seph's desk. A strangled gasp tore from his lips.
Good evening, good sir. How is Mr. Fair tonight? I trust he is well. Unless he has discovered
what has happened. You see, I decided to invite Ms. Gainsborough to my cabin in the canyons.
She really isn't a hospitable guest. And Mr. Fair will no doubt be unhappy to hear of her departure.
It would be so enjoyable if you and he would come out as well. Do consider it, won't you?
Zack slammed his hand on Seph's desk in outrage. "He's saying he kidnapped Aerith!" he burst out, dissolving into panic. What would happen to Aerith in the presence of such monsters as Dalton and Rakesh?! What did they want with her? What would they do to her!? "I . . . I didn't even know she was missing!" he cried in helplessness. "I . . ."
Sephiroth shook his head. "Maybe no one else does, either," he said, reaching for the phone. As Zack watched, Seph dialed the number for home and let it ring.
It was not long before they learned the truth. Aerith had gone out to pick up the groceries and had not returned. It had not been a long time yet, and no one had been worried, but the news of the email from Dalton sent everyone into a panic. No one at the store had seen anything odd. Perhaps Aerith had never even made it that far. Now it was urgent that they journey to the canyons and rescue her. Knowing Dalton, it was some kind of a trap. But they would have to take that chance. Aerith could never be left to suffer.
Sephiroth, Zack, Cloud, Angeal, and Tifa were swiftly on their way to the canyons. Dalton had provided brief directions to the cabin, and both Sephiroth and Zack were sure that they could determine the rest. And they and the other three were not going by themselves. They were flanked by Jenova Corp security. They were not taking any unnecessary chances. If Dalton had brought out his own guards, Sephiroth and the others would be outnumbered by themselves.
Zack could barely stay still on the drive. He shifted all over in his seat, gripping the knees of his pants. It was impossible to stay calm! The Rakesh brothers were both so sadistic. Dalton might not let them do anything right away, but on the other hand it depended on exactly why they had taken Aerith. What if . . . what if she was already . . . ?
No, he could never let himself think such a thing! Aerith was resourceful. She was stubborn. And Dalton himself had said that she was not being hospitable. A weak smirk came over Zack's face. Dalton had probably bitten off more than he could chew. Aerith had probably overwhelmed all of them.
. . . But that did not change that they were physically stronger than her. If they really wanted to, they could try something . . . and she would not be able to get away . . .
Zack leaned forward, running his hands through his hair.
"Zack. We'll find her."
He blinked, looking up at Angeal's firm voice. The older man, who was driving, gave a quiet nod as he looked at Zack in the rear view mirror.
"And she'll be just fine," Cloud chimed in.
Sephiroth laid a hand on Zack's shoulder. "Dalton won't have done away with her yet," he said. "If he's going to, he would want you there to watch." At least he hoped he was right. Dalton was sadistic in his own right. More than anything else, he enjoyed bringing pain to Sephiroth and Zack. But it was actually hard to know which he would consider the most devastating--to invite Zack there to watch Aerith's death, or to present him with the body when he arrived.
The last thing Sephiroth wanted to do was to give Zack false hope. But had he just done that? He frowned.
Zack looked over at Seph. Again he tried to grin. "Aerith'd never let them do anything without a fight, either," he said.
Sephiroth nodded. That was certainly true. But he could see what else Zack was thinking, what he had not been able to speak aloud. Aerith could have lost such a fight.
If they had done anything unspeakable to her, it was hard to know how Zack would handle it. Even he had his breaking point. In the temple in South America, when Dalton had mocked Sephiroth's death, Zack had snapped. It had really been Dalton's and the Rakeshes' fault that Sephiroth had ended up perishing, just as it was their fault that so many other catastrophes and near-tragedies had happened. Sephiroth himself had been all that had stopped Zack from cutting Dalton down in cold blood that time. They both knew only too well what blind rage and hatred could do to someone, and Sephiroth could not bear to see such a fate befall one as kind and good as Zack.
Dalton would only mock that, too. He would probably be delighted if he could get Zack to become one of the monsters that Zack had always fought against. It would be a colossal joke to him.
"Here's a cabin," Tifa announced. She frowned at the lighted building ahead of them. Was it the one they wanted? There were not any others around. And she had never actually met this Dalton person who was such a bane to their existence. But if she saw him, or his associates, she would likely recognize them from the descriptions she had been given.
Everyone came to attention. "I don't see anyone out there," Zack frowned.
Angeal brought the vehicle to a halt. "Then we'll go in," he determined, grabbing up his sword as he began to climb out into the snow. His eyes narrowed as snowflakes drifted past. If a storm started now, they would have a terrible time getting back down the mountain.
Crunching snow near the cabin sent his gaze in that direction. He gripped the sword tighter. Behind him, the others were exiting the car as well. Ahead of him, Dalton was stepping into the light shining from one of the windows.
"Well," he purred, "so you've come as well, Mr. Hewley?" He smirked, placing his hands behind his back. "Maybe you're getting homesick for your old job, hmm?"
Disgust surged through Angeal's veins. "Maybe I'm not," he retorted.
"Where's Aerith?!" Zack demanded, running forward. His own sword was raised threateningly, but even the blade was not as dangerous as the look in his lavender eyes.
"Aerith?" Dalton laughed. "Oh, all in good time. I thought first we could reminisce."
No one could stop Zack. He was at Dalton's side in an instant, holding the weapon to his throat. "Where is she?!" he cried. His hands trembled for a moment, then steadied.
Instead of being concerned for his safety, Dalton blinked. A laugh began to form in his throat. "My, my," he said. "So angry, Mr. Fair? Though I suppose you have a right to be." He gestured behind him. "If you want to see Ms. Gainsborough so badly, do come this way." He turned, beginning to walk back the way he had come.
Zack frowned. There was no choice but to follow. And his heart was being squeezed further with every step he took. What would he find? Was Aerith okay? Was she?! Dalton sounded so delighted. That was never a good sign.
He barely heard the others walking after him as he tore around the corner. It was dark at the side of the cabin. But there was another light coming from the back, and he could vaguely see Dalton walking in that direction. He kept up the pace, chasing his arch-enemy around the next corner as well.
Then he stopped short. Fragmented Triangle's guards were collected near the trees, weapons ready. In front, Azazel Rakesh was clutching Aerith at his side. One arm was around her neck. The other was around her waist, his prosthetic hand digging into her side. She was gripping at the arm around her throat, trying without success to rip it away from her.
"Aerith!" Zack screamed. Not bothering to stop, he broke into a run.
And was promptly met by the click of Dalton's gun. He had no choice but to stop.
"Not so fast, Mr. Fair," Dalton smirked, bringing the weapon level with Zack's forehead. His expression was sickening.
Mixed emotions flashed across Aerith's face, the color draining. "Zack!" she cried, digging her fingers into Azazel's arm. She had known he would come. But this was a trap. She had wanted him to stay away for his own safety. And she could not get free from this madman to help in any way! Frustrated and helpless tears began to prick her eyes. But they would not fall.
Zack looked from Aerith to Dalton, gritting his teeth. "I'm this close to snapping and tearing you to shreds," he said, his voice dark and cold as he stared down the wretch in front of him. "Aerith hasn't done anything to you. And you know that! You're just using her to torture me!"
Dalton sneered. "You're thinking too small, Mr. Fair," he said. "I'm using Ms. Gainsborough to further my ultimate plans. We are gathered here for a final battle. Once all of you have been defeated, then it will be so much easier for me to go about searching for the Compass."
"Oh yeah?" A sneer began to come over Zack's face as well--a cold and grim and out of place expression for one so gentle. But it was also knowing. "Well, this battle's gonna be on even ground," he said. "See, we thought you might pull something like this, so we came prepared." Behind him, Seph, Cloud, Angeal, and Tifa gathered. And behind them were the Jenova Corp security guards.
Aerith's eyes widened. This was good. The fear that Zack and the others would be outnumbered had plagued her poor mind for the last hours. And now even Azazel seemed momentarily distracted. She wasted no time in taking the opportunity to slam her elbow into his ribs. He grunted in surprise, his grip loosening. It would tighten again any second. She thrust his arm from her, wrapping her fingers around his right wrist now. Giving it a harsh twist, she began to swing away from him. Then she let go, breaking into a run. Dalton, turning to look, unwittingly gave Zack the chance to run out to her.
"Are you okay?!" he exclaimed as they met.
She gave a shaky nod. "I'm just fine," she replied.
Zack pulled her to his side, pointing his sword at Dalton once again. "You're not gonna use Aerith as a way to pull things in your favor!" he vowed.
Aerith gripped at him. Now it was Zack's arm around her waist. Instead of the alarming feeling of something merciless and wicked holding her, now it was the warmth and protection of her beloved. The difference in how this felt could not even be described.
For a moment Dalton looked furious. Then a smirk began to creep back. "This is interesting," he said. "Very interesting indeed. Very well. We'll see how long this lasts."
He raised his weapon to the skies, firing a lone shot.
No one knew how long the battle lasted. Most likely only a few moments, though to those involved it was an eternity. The guards fired at each other. Any who challenged Sephiroth, Zack, Cloud, or Angeal had to deal with their swords. Tifa punched and kicked wherever she could. Without her staff, or any materia, Aerith could not enact the highest damage possible. But she joined in the battle too, using anything she found as a good weapon for knocking out the Fragmented Triangle guards.
Azazel Rakesh had seemed to have abandoned his sword-fighting knowledge from Gaia. He was much more comfortable with a gun as his weapon, and he fired equally at guards and at Sephiroth and the others. Gunju, utilizing whatever ghostly powers he could, made the battle much more irritating. He would snatch weapons away from the Jenova Corp employees, sometimes flinging them away and other times throwing them right at his enemies. He also enjoyed appearing in front of them, serving as a distraction and getting in the way of the attempts to fight back at Fragmented Triangle.
Only Zack noticed Dalton slipping away from the main part of the destruction. When the man was satisfied with his location, he raised his gun. In horror Zack followed his gaze. Seph and Cloud were nearby, engaged in fighting two of the more persistent guards. Their backs were to Dalton. And he was aiming to shoot at one or both of them.
Zack never stopped to think. Cutting down his opponent, he broke away from the combat surrounding him. Thrusting his sword into the ground, he propelled himself at Dalton. "NO!" he screamed, tackling the older and broader man around the waist. Startled, Dalton fell back. The gun fired harmlessly to the side.
Zack's cry and the shot brought the battle to a standstill. Everyone involved started to attention, staring in disbelief and shock. The ground was crumbling underneath the two. Dalton had been standing closer to the edge than he had believed.
Now it was Sephiroth who came to life first. He ran past the frozen guards. The cliff was there, Zack was still there, but he was so far out of Sephiroth's reach. Even though Sephiroth was going at full speed, even though he was coming to the precipice, Zack was not any closer to him. He flung himself into the snow, clawing in desperation--and only grasping thin air. Zack was falling, still locked in combat with Dalton. They were vanishing into the night.
In an instant Sephiroth's wing was spread. He was diving after them, his hair streaming out behind him. Somewhere on the ledge, Cloud was screaming for both of his friends. Angeal was running up as well, unfurling his own wings and leaping over the edge after Sephiroth. Aerith's cry of horror for Zack was ringing in everyone's ears.
But Sephiroth pushed it out of his mind. Now he was reaching the bottom, far below. The snow, which had gained speed sometime during the battle, was whirling around him. And there was no sign of either one of the missing. The snow was fresh and untouched. Sephiroth was the first to land in it. And he was in a clearing. There was not any brush near enough for them to have fallen into. There was only the river rushing past him, chunks of ice on its furious surface. . . .
His heart twisted. Would they . . . could they have gone under? He had not heard a splash, but the wind was so loud. And where else could they be?! He could not waste time looking on land. Not until he had looked in the water. Dalton would no doubt try to drown Zack and get out himself. If Sephiroth found Dalton, surely he would find Zack.
Plunging the Masamune into the ground near him, he took a leap into the river. It was freezing, even to him. But he paid it no heed. Holding his breath, he dived under the surface. It was almost impossible to see anything. He spread his arms wide, propelling himself downward. He would have to feel for bodies as well as to use his arms for swimming.
His throat was burning before he came to the surface again, gasping for breath. His bangs were clinging to his face, partially obscuring his vision. He had not found anything. And the current was strong. What if they were being pulled towards the waterfall at the end of the river? If they went over the edge, there would be little to no hope of survival. He disappeared beneath the surface once again. They had to be there! They had to be!
But still there was nothing. He was forced to come up for air again. By now Angeal had apparently flown back to the top and brought Cloud down with him. The spiky-haired blond was staring at Sephiroth in alarm from near the shore.
"Get out of there!" he yelled. "The current's getting stronger!"
Sephiroth shook his head. "They're not on the bank!" he retorted. "They have to be down here!"
For the third time he went under, pushing himself both deeper and further. With the sweeping current, that was not difficult. He gritted his teeth behind closed lips. It was getting harder to hold his own against it. But he was still Sephiroth, the one who had been SOLDIER's most formidable member. He had been the General, fierce and proud and able to complete his missions without hindrance. He should be able to fight against something that was not even sentient. And yet, the way it continued to push him along, it might as well have had a full knowledge of what it was doing.
When he came up next, Angeal was airborne above him.
"Cloud's right!" he yelled, struggling to be heard over the wind and the water. "You have to get out of the water, Sephiroth. You're not that far from the falls now."
Something about his tone of voice struck fear into Sephiroth's heart. And there was a glint of something in Angeal's hand.
"What did you find?" he called back.
Angeal hesitated. There would not be any use in trying to hide it. Even though he knew how Sephiroth would react upon knowing. "Dalton's glasses," he admitted. "They were close to the bank."
Sephiroth's eyes widened. "But neither Zack or Dalton are on the bank!" he cried.
"Don't go under again!" Cloud screamed, running over to where the others had gathered. There was an edge in his voice, and though he was too far away to see for sure, it looked like fear passed over his face. "Maybe they're ahead, clinging to the shore or something. There's a bend before the waterfall comes . . . !"
"Maybe they aren't!" Sephiroth responded.
He was not sure whether he deliberately went under again or if the current had pulled him down. But water was suddenly filling his mouth. His eyes widened. He gasped, shutting his mouth as he fought against the force of the river. There was still no sign of them. And for the first time it was fully beginning to sink in that he could be pulled around the bend without being able to stop it. He could go over the waterfall himself.
He never heard the splash. But then hands were grabbing at him, trying to pull him up. He looked over. It was Cloud.
He gripped at the blond, beating his wing and kicking his legs as he used a free arm to sweep aside the water. Cloud did likewise. The current was against them. Invisible, icy fingers were reaching for them both, wishing to drag them into a painful and freezing death. They resisted. But for an agonizing moment, it looked as though there was no hope.
Still they pressed on, swimming with all their might. There was a speck of light above them, growing closer. The surface! They strained for their salvation. The river cried in protest. One final time it struggled to hold them back.
They broke free, into the world of swirling snow. Sephiroth sputtered, water trickling from his mouth.
And Cloud had plenty to say. "What good's it going to do if we have to look for you too?!" he cried as they climbed onto the bank. "Do you know how dangerous that was?! What if we'd lost you?!"
Sephiroth looked over at him in surprise. Cloud's blue eyes flashed with pain and a definite message. Losing two best friends would be too much for him to take. He did not know how to deal with one already missing.
Sephiroth coughed, averting his gaze. "That wouldn't have happened," he muttered. But he knew very well that it could have. The desperation and urgency had overwhelmed him to the point that he had pushed himself to continue going down after coming up for air. And he still did not know if Zack was down there. What if he was? What if he would be sentenced to certain death because Sephiroth had not been able to find him? Even the General had had to concede defeat to the river.
And it was hardly a blow to his pride as it was to his heart.
By sunrise they had located several more small pieces of evidence, and it had been enough to testify that something deplorable had happened. Dalton's gun had been discovered on the bank close to the waterfall. Parts of Zack's coat had been clinging to the snow on the other side. And traces of blood had been found on the sharp rocks at the bottom of the aqueous dropoff.
Sephiroth had sunk into despair for a brief time following that discovery. But remembering what had happened ten years ago had helped to buoy his confidence once again. Back then, it had appeared that Zack had met his end in a deliberate fire. That time, falling into the water far below had been his salvation. If there had been a waterfall, however, there would have most likely been a very different result. But he had determined this time that he would not give up, not unless he found Zack's body.
The thought of such a conclusion made him ill. Not only would Zack be dead, but being propelled into the rocks would have gruesome consequences. His demise would have been so indescribably agonizing! In such a case, Sephiroth could only pray that Zack would have been killed instantly.
There was no sense in focusing on such an abominable possibility. Every time the thought appeared, Sephiroth pushed it aside, thinking instead of all the ways Zack could have survived. And over the next few days he ran himself ragged. He had barely been home at all, insisting that there had to always be someone to continue the search and devising a schedule of shifts for everyone. But despite that, he was almost always in the canyons anyway. He was restless when he was not taking part in the search.
Cloud was worried about him. Without Zack there, Cloud had taken up Zack's role of trying to encourage Sephiroth to get sufficient sleep. Angeal had done likewise. And without them, Sephiroth most likely would not have returned home at all.
"We're worried too," Cloud told him one night five days later.
"Don't feel like you have to do it all," Angeal added. "Zack wouldn't want that."
And of course he would not. But Cloud and Angeal knew as well as Sephiroth did that he would keep pushing himself until they either found Zack or until Sephiroth had a complete collapse. Still, Sephiroth had tried to force himself to eat, and to sleep for more than two hours at a time. It would not help anyone if he grew ill, and he knew that very well, even though it appeared he was not thinking of it.
He could not recall who had suggested the idea of the memorial service. It may have been Shera, when she had spoken to Tifa after the fifth day. It may have been Tifa herself, aching as she watched Cloud and Aerith and the kids in anguish.
Aerith was completely devastated over Zack's fate. Though she did not speak of it, Sephiroth was certain that she blamed herself. He would feel the same way in her position; and actually, he already did to a certain extent. He suspected why Zack had jumped at Dalton. And he felt an illogical guilt over it. If he or Cloud had realized what was happening, maybe they could have avoided being shot without Zack getting hurt in their place. Yet that would have been almost impossible. They had been locked in combat with the opposition at the time. They had not been able to pay attention to anything behind them, especially when there had not been any audible noise.
Of course it was not Aerith's, or Sephiroth's and Cloud's, fault at all. But the thoughts at the forefront of Aerith's mind were that Zack was missing and could be dead, and it had happened because he had came to rescue her. She did not even think to blame Sephiroth and Cloud, and she would not have blamed them even if the thought had crossed her mind.
She had initially been doubtful at the idea of a memorial service. Yet another part of her could not forget the anguish from years' past, first not knowing for years what had happened, and then finally coming to feel that Zack was dead after the fifth year. And in the present she had at last agreed that the service could take place, but only with the idea that the search would continue afterward. Somewhere in her heart, she had to cling to any last bit of hope there was.
It was hard to say what Angeal thought. He had been quiet the past days, as Sephiroth had been. And he did not seem to want to talk any more than Sephiroth did. Sephiroth could only suspect his feelings. Genesis, always his nearest and dearest friend, was already lost to him. No one knew where he was. And now Zack, the kid he had trained and been so fond of, was gone and possibly dead.
As the oldest, Angeal seemed to feel much the way Sephiroth himself did--that he had a responsibility to keep himself in check, to not reveal his deepest and most inner pain. He did not wish to burden anyone else with his sorrows. And his deep and intense feeling of pride was also a factor. He had to be strong. Sephiroth understood and respected this, and he did not press Angeal to talk, just as Angeal knew that Sephiroth did not wish to speak.
Marlene and Denzel, on the other hand, were very vocal. They hated the idea of the funeral. On the day that had been chosen, Denzel sullenly and silently gotten into the car. He was only going because Cloud wanted to do this. Marlene stomped her foot on the floor instead.
"I don't want to say goodbye to Zack!" she protested, looking up at Cloud. "What if Sephiroth's right and he is still alive somewhere?!"
Cloud's heart was pierced. "Maybe he is," he said. "We're not going to stop looking. I promise. But . . ." He ran his tongue over his lips. How could he explain the idea of closure to a seven-year-old? She did not need it. Not the same way he and Aerith did.
"If we're not going to stop, why does it feel like you're giving up on him?" Marlene asked. Now her voice had lowered.
If Cloud had been stricken before, now he had been impaled all the way through. And Sephiroth, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, looked as though he wanted to hear the answer to Marlene's question, too. Was that what he thought--that they were giving up? His eyes did look somewhat cold, matching his attitude since he had learned of the idea. And somehow that pained Cloud even more.
"I . . . we're not giving up," he tried to say. "It's just . . ." He swallowed. "It was so hard, when Zack really was dead. . . . And . . . thinking that he might be dead now . . ." Inwardly he groaned. That did not make sense at all. Marlene was frowning at him.
"It's worse not to know," he tried again, "and to always be wondering, instead of just knowing he's dead."
Marlene did not look impressed. "So the funeral's to think of him being dead, but you're going to keep looking for him like he's alive?"
Cloud wanted to run his hand over his face. "That doesn't make sense, either, does it?" he mumbled.
"No," Sephiroth said flatly.
Marlene shook her head, walking to the door. Grownups could not seem to explain themselves on subjects such as this. And it all just seemed so silly. Knowing Sephiroth was irritated by the funeral only made Marlene feel it herself even more. She knew Denzel was very upset by it too. Cloud and Aerith cared about Zack a great deal, and it had only been a few days since the accident. Even though she knew they had torn apart the area several times over without success, it still did not seem right to consider Zack dead already.
"It's not really a funeral," Cloud tried to say now. "It's . . . it's more like a tribute to Zack. . . ." He trailed off, helpless.
Marlene let out a sigh. She turned the door handle, prepared to haul it open and step onto the porch.
Sephiroth frowned as he watched the scene. Yes, it was true that he despised this idea. But he had not meant to incite Marlene against her guardians. He had been a bad example. And he had only brought more pain to Cloud by closing himself off the way he had done. Something about the way Cloud was standing now, staring after Marlene, made him look so lost.
Sephiroth walked over to Cloud, his visage sober. "I haven't been fair to you," he said. "I'm sorry."
Marlene turned back, frowning in confusion.
Cloud blinked in surprise. This was the last thing he had expected. "Sephiroth . . ."
Sephiroth laid a hand on Cloud's shoulder. "You're dealing with this in the way that you find best," he said. "And I know that after so long, under the circumstances it isn't likely Zack is still alive. There aren't many more places we can even look, except away from the gorge and the waterfall. And that's looking less hopeful each day. You can't stand to think he's alive when you know he might not be."
Cloud ran his tongue over his lips. "Yeah," he said. "That's it exactly." He shifted. "I mean . . . all that time before, I didn't even remember Zack existed. I'd blocked it all out, because I couldn't accept he was dead." He looked down. "And . . . I just don't want to go through that again. I want to keep looking for him, and I will . . . but I don't want to kid myself."
". . . Zack wouldn't want you to do that to yourself," Sephiroth agreed. "He would want you to do whatever you have to in order to keep going." For himself, that meant to not even allow thoughts of Zack's demise to sully his mind. Maybe he was the one fooling himself. Yet in his heart he had always known this might be in vain. He knew, but he would not stop. He could not. To think of Zack as dead at this point would break him.
Cloud nodded. He knew what Sephiroth said was true.
Sephiroth hesitated. "I still don't agree with this idea," he said, "but if it's the only way you can handle what's happening, then I will respect it."
Cloud opened his mouth to speak, but the words caught in his throat. He hated the rift that had formed between him and Sephiroth over the last few days. It had only made the agony over Zack's disappearance so much worse. And from Sephiroth's eyes, he realized it. He was very sorrowful that he had hurt Cloud.
"Thanks," Cloud said at last.
Marlene came back over to them. "I'm sorry too, Cloud," she said, her voice and face plaintive. She reached out, throwing her arms around his waist.
Cloud was stunned. But then he laid a hand on her shoulder. Sephiroth gave a slight smile.
And so now they had been brought to this. Sephiroth turned away from the cliff. Suddenly he was so tired. His heart had been broken into countless new pieces. Just as he had done ten years ago, he had tried to sweep it out of sight. He had just used a different approach this time. Instead of believing Zack dead, he had believed him alive.
He still believed it. But it was so hard to know where to look anymore. They had checked some of the cabins near the waterfall, but no one had seen anyone resembling Zack. If he had gone over the falls in the first place, and if he had survived, he could have also been carried far downstream. There were no clues pointing in that direction, but they had been looking anyway. There had not been clues pointing to anything except the possibility that Zack had indeed been pushed over the falls.
"Heh . . . funny."
He turned, looking to Cloud. The blond had wandered over near him, his smirk rueful as he crossed his arms. Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. Cloud shrugged.
"I mean . . . the whole idea was to honor Zack and talk about him, and yet . . . now that we're here it's like all everyone can do is think about him quietly. Nobody can figure out how to say anything aloud."
Sephiroth gave a quiet smirk. "Maybe that's because it would feel too much like an actual funeral, and no one really wants to do that."
"Maybe." Cloud stared out over the trees and mountains they were facing. He let out a heavy sigh, his breath materializing in front of him.
". . . Where could he be?" he muttered. "We've just looked everywhere!"
"I don't know," Sephiroth answered. "It does seem almost hopeless. He wasn't in the ravine at all. All indications show that he did go over the falls, likely with Dalton. But after the blood on the rocks, there's nothing."
Cloud looked down at the snow. "Maybe that's because . . ." He swallowed hard. "Because there's nothing to find."
"Don't think like that." Ordinarily Sephiroth's voice might have come out sharp and stern on such a subject. Now he just sounded exhausted and sad.
". . . I have nightmares about it sometimes," Cloud mumbled. "Dragging the river and . . . finding what's left . . ." He shook his head. "I guess if I thought Zack really was dead, I wouldn't want to keep looking for his body." He gripped his arms. "I'd be too afraid of what he would look like. . . ."
"I think we all are." Sephiroth stared off into the distance.
There were several hills and mountains up ahead. Pine and other evergreen trees dotted the sloping landscape, snow weighing down their branches. And . . . strange, it looked like a figure attempting to descend one of the mountains. "Attempting" because every few yards, it stumbled or crashed to its knees. Once it fell all the way into the powder, sprawled on its stomach. But always it would struggle up to continue. Obviously it was badly injured.
It was impossible to explain why, but Sephiroth suddenly walked past Cloud, heading in the direction of the hobbling form. It would be inhumane to ignore anyone so clearly in need. But that was not the main factor driving him forward. He had to reach that person. That was all he knew, all he would allow himself to think--he had to. He did not want to engage in foolish fantasies and hopes. And the figure was coming from the wrong direction, if . . .
Now he was a lot closer. The dark, wild hair was only barely distinguishable, but the many-layered spikes were waving in the breeze. And Sephiroth could not keep himself from calling out.
A weak wave as the figure struggled up again. "Seph!"
Sephiroth rarely ran. Unless it was absolutely necessary, the fastest he would go was normally a brisk walk. The last time he had ran was when he had tried and failed to save Zack. Now he ran again. He ran until he had gained the strength-departed form, until he was sinking to his knees and the tired eyes looked up at him. The light was coming back. Zack's face was scratched. His coat was torn, and through the rips, his other clothes could be seen rended as well. Bare and cold flesh was visible, some bandaged, some not. He reached out, throwing his arms around Seph's neck.
"Oh wow . . . you don't know how great it is to see you again, buddy!" he choked out.
Sephiroth was overwhelmed. He drew his arms around the shuddering form, pulling him closer. Zack was freezing. There was no telling how long he had walked. But he was alive. He was alive.
"We've been looking everywhere," Sephiroth managed to say at last. How could he put that anguish into words? How could he give voice to the sheer joy filling his heart? There was no way. "We didn't know if you were alright . . . if you had even survived . . ." It was hopeless to talk. His voice was not cooperating. He shut his eyes, hugging Zack close.
The others were coming too. The children were openly ecstatic. Cloud struggled to speak, but he was having the same problem as Sephiroth. Angeal extended his hand, gripping Zack's shivering shoulder.
Aerith fell to her knees, trembling as she began to pull off her gloves. She reached out, touching a hand to Zack's face. He was here, he was real, he was not dead this time . . . ! She had lain awake so much the past nights, longing for some knowledge of where he was and if he was alright. . . . The tears gathered in her eyes. "Zack! . . . Oh Zack . . ." she whispered.
Sephiroth released Zack, pushing himself aside to allow Zack to get to her. Everyone wanted their chance to reunite with him, but Aerith should be next. If Sephiroth had not gone out ahead, noticing the figure before anyone else and discovering the truth, he would have let Aerith be the first.
Zack reached for her, his own hands shaking as he drew her to him. He breathed in the scent of her hair, moving his hand down a stray lock as he stared into her widened green eyes. "This isn't a dream, is it?" he asked softly. "I've had so many of 'em the last few days--always the greatest stuff you could imagine, like this . . . but it wasn't real."
She shook her head, trying to smile. "You always seem to mix up what's real with your dreams," she said, referencing their very first meeting. But her emotions overwhelmed her. She clutched at her beloved, the tears slipping from her eyes. He was so badly hurt because of what had happened. She had never wanted to give up on him. But they had exhausted so many possibilities, and so many days had passed, and she had kept envisioning him laying somewhere helpless and cold. It had become too much for her to bear, especially when remembering the past.
Zack kissed her forehead. "Yeah . . . I guess I do," he said, gently rubbing at her back.
Aerith smiled, closing her eyes in contentment and joy. But of course this could not last now. They needed to get Zack home and warmed.
She pulled back. "Let's get you to the car," she said, the smile still on her face.
"Hey, hugging you and everybody keeps me good and warm," he grinned.
Cloud rolled his eyes, reaching to help Zack stand. "Dork," he said.
Zack gripped Cloud's hand, shakily pulling himself to his feet. For a moment they stared at each other, taking in the moment.
And Cloud found himself pulling Zack into an embrace, heedless of everyone watching. So many pent-up emotions were coming to the surface, so much heartache and anguish--both from the past days and from years long gone. He could have lost Zack again, just as he had on the hill near Midgar. But instead Zack was alive. Zack was freezing in surprise at the gesture, but then hugging Cloud in return.
"It's okay, pal," Zack said quietly, his smile somewhat sad. He hated that he had made everyone worry so much. He had never wanted that. He had only desired to protect his friends.
Cloud just shook his head. He would be unspeakably embarrassed about this show of emotion later. But for the moment he did not care.
". . . I can't even say anything," he muttered as they pulled back. "That's just pathetic."
"You said a lot," Zack answered. "You just didn't use words!"
He looked up as a strong hand came down once again on his shoulder. Angeal was standing there, his expression serious. Zack blinked.
"I don't want to see this happen again," Angeal said, making himself sound stern to match as he studied the ripped apparel and the cheap bandages. "This is completely non-regulation. You'll need to get cleaned up and changed as soon as possible."
Zack gave him a mock salute. "Yes, sir!" he chirped.
Angeal could not keep the sober expression. A quiet smile began to grace his features. That smile, and his eyes, said more than he would ever utter aloud.
Tifa smiled as well. "Welcome back," she greeted now. She was not especially close to Zack, but he was Cloud's friend and Aerith's beloved, and she thought very highly of him. This was a wonderful and amazing turn of events! Hope had been brought when they had not believed there could be any.
"Good to be back, that's for sure!" Zack said.
And the kids were hurrying over to him. "Zack!" Marlene cried in happiness. "We missed you so much!"
"You're okay!" Denzel cheered.
"Sure I'm okay!" Zack said, laying his hands on their shoulders. "Takes a lot to get rid of me!"
Angeal shook his head, reaching to steady him. "Maybe, but you're not in the best condition," he said. "We should go before something else happens."
"It was a misstep!" Zack protested.
Now Sephiroth gave him a stern look. "You misstepped because you're hurt," he said.
Zack threw up his hands. "Okay, I surrender!" he cried.
Cloud and Sephiroth draped Zack's arms around their shoulders before he could protest that as well.
Zack grinned at them. "Forward march!" he directed.
Cloud just shook his head. "You never stop, do you," he said. But he was smirking.
"It'd be boring if I did!" Zack said.
Sephiroth was amused. Though as they started to walk, a sobering feeling came over him. Yes, it would be boring, he supposed. But it would mainly be tragic. The only reason Zack would ever stop would be if he became too bitter and discouraged to be happy. And none of them ever wanted to see that heartbreaking sight.
Cloud and Sephiroth helped Zack all the way to the car, easing him inside before getting in themselves. The others followed. When they were all ready, Tifa took over the wheel and began to maneuver the vehicle around in the snow. Marlene, who was sitting in front with her and Denzel, switched on the heat.
Zack grinned, rubbing his hands together. "That feels great," he proclaimed as the warm air arrived at the back of the car. His gloves were mangled as badly as the rest of his clothes. Some fingers poked through holes, and there was a long gash on the back of the left glove.
Aerith ran a hand through his hair, sending the gathered snowflakes to the seat. "What happened, Zack?" she wanted to know now. She peered at him with her bright green eyes. "How did you get all the way up here? We were looking below . . ."
Zack looked sheepish. "I don't remember much at all," he confessed. "I think I must've hit my head on a rock or something. Got a bump big enough anyway! I woke up in this cabin, on a mat on the floor. It was a lot higher up in the mountains than the cabin where we went to find you, but I didn't know that yet. Woke up with Azazel Rakesh sneering down at me." He frowned.
"Azazel Rakesh?!" Sephiroth repeated in disbelief. Angeal had told him that after the fall, Azazel had called an end to the battle. Then he had somehow climbed down a part of the cliff that was not as steep, beginning a search for Dalton. Gunju had followed him. Sephiroth vaguely remembered seeing them, but at the time he had not paid any attention. And the idea that Zack had been found by such people was all at once bewildering and concerning. Why would they have taken him? It would not be for any good purpose.
Zack nodded. "He'd bandaged up my cuts and stuff," he said, raising an arm for inspection, "but he did it really crude. Just enough so I wouldn't bleed all over the floor, I guess." Crimson was visible through the gauze, and Aerith drew a sharp intake of breath.
"He said he was gonna use me as a bargaining chip." Zack's voice was suddenly hard. "After he tortured everyone first. He took me because he wanted you guys to think I was dead."
Cloud muttered a curse under his breath. That was just like the Rakeshes. It made him want to go punch them out, or worse. But of course that would not help anything. And Gunju could not be punched anyway.
"What about Dalton?" Sephiroth frowned.
Zack could only shrug. "They didn't find him," he said. "I heard them talking one night when they thought I was sleeping. Gunju was pretty puzzled because he figured that if Dalton was dead, he'd know it. But he's not anywhere around. Azazel said they'd keep looking."
"But if they took you, why didn't we find any footprints?" Angeal asked. "There should have been something."
Zack's fist clenched. "Gunju," he said, bitterness weaving through his tones. "The creep saw to it that all footprints were dusted over so much that they couldn't be seen."
Sephiroth shook his head. "I never even considered . . ."
"Hey!" Zack cut him off. "Nobody would've had a reason to think it. Especially without any footprints." He reached over, gripping Seph's shoulder. "So I don't want you or anyone else to feel like you should've figured it out. It's all over and done with, anyway." He grinned. "I'm here!"
"And don't think of going off again," Angeal said, allowing a smile.
"Don't worry! I don't have any plans for it!" Zack chirped.
"How did you even get away?" Aerith's voice was quiet. She brushed aside a stray piece of hair from Zack's face. The Rakesh brothers were ruthless and cruel, as they had proven many times before and again now by taking Zack in the first place. They would not easily let him out of their grasp. And in his condition, he would not have been able to fight them.
Zack frowned, mulling it over in his mind. "Well, I had to wait till I was strong enough to even think about it," he said. "And then I had to wait till there was a good time to do it. Gunju was always around to watch me if Azazel was sleeping. And they'd take turns going out to look for Dalton. So I figured the best time would be when Gunju was out."
He rubbed the back of his head. "I pretended I was asleep, hoping maybe Azazel'd leave me alone. He didn't. But then there was this really big crash outside!" He gestured wildly. "And Azazel got out his gun and went to look. So I just took the chance to stumble up and head for the back door."
Aerith gave him a worried look. "Didn't he realize and come after you?" she exclaimed.
Zack shook his head. "I kinda grabbed up this vase thing on my way out, in case I'd need to use it. But he didn't come back. I dunno what happened to him! Maybe something to do with the crash. I didn't stick around to find out. Left the vase in the snow somewhere back there."
Sephiroth frowned. "I wonder what the source of the crash could have been," he said. That seemed odd, to say the least. And too coincidental. There had to be some meaning behind it.
"I have no idea," Zack said. "I wanted to go look, but I figured it'd be better to stay on the side of the house furthest away from Rakesh, so I limped off. But I did find this laying in the snow." He reached into his pocket, producing a long black feather. All eyes stared.
"I thought it was yours at first, Seph," he said, looking to the silver-haired man. "But when you weren't anywhere around, I figured it couldn't have been."
Sephiroth shook his head. "No," he said, his voice taut in his confusion and disbelief. "It isn't mine."
Angeal had gone completely pale. He took the feather from Zack, turning it over in his hands. Could it be . . . ? He looked to Sephiroth. From his eyes, he wondered the same.
Zack looked back and forth between them. "Hey, what's going on?" he asked. "You don't really think it's . . ."
"Genesis," Sephiroth finished.
Angeal slumped back in the seat. Was it really his? If so, how long had he been on Earth? Did he know about everyone? Why would he not have come to them? Or at least to Angeal? And how would he have known that Zack was being held prisoner? Or had he known? Maybe it was by accident that he had found the scene. But that made even less sense.
"Genesis?" Aerith said in surprise.
Cloud frowned. He had never known a great deal about the Genesis situation. Perhaps that was because he had never advanced beyond an MP. He did know that the problem with Genesis had been highly classified. Officially, the reports to the public had said that Genesis was killed in action during the Wutai war. But he had lived, albeit in a deranged and destructive state of mind. If he was back now, what did that mean? Was he friend or foe?
He looked to Sephiroth, but there were no answers to be found in his eyes. Sephiroth was just as bewildered, or moreso. And he could not hide the flickers of pain and apprehension that passed through his green orbs. He wondered what to expect. Part of him wondered if Genesis could be on their side, after apparently distracting Azazel Rakesh so that Zack could get free. And another part wondered if it only meant that Genesis wanted to use Zack in some plan of his. A third part wondered if it was Genesis at all.
Zack watched their silent exchange. Then he looked to Angeal, who was still turning the feather in his hands. A quiet smile came over Zack's features.
"I dunno," he mused. "I don't think we have anything to worry about."
Sephiroth could only blink in stunned surprise. After everything they had been through because of Genesis, even cheerful Zack would not say such a thing haphazardly. Zack knew something. And Sephiroth would have to ask about it later. For now his main feeling was gratitude--that Zack was alive and safe, that he had found a way back to them . . .
. . . And that someone had assisted him in getting away, no matter whether it was Genesis or someone else.
Zack insisted that he wanted a shower when they arrived home. No one felt that it would be a good idea, but they finally compromised with the concept of a hot bath. Zack still managed to get his hair washed, and soon he was dry and warm, his wounds properly treated.
Sephiroth regarded his friend in fondness. Zack had tried to stay awake a bit longer to talk with everyone, but he had soon fallen asleep on the couch near the fire. He was exhausted, but peaceful. His shoulders slowly rose and fell as he lay there, a soft couch pillow under his head. He was safe and sound, and on the road to recovery.
The nightmare was over.
"I brought this for him."
Sephiroth turned. Angeal had entered the room, a thick comforter from Zack's bed in his arms.
The silver-haired man nodded in approval. "He needs it," he said, reaching to take hold of two of the ends.
Together they spread the quilt in the air, then lowered it over Zack's slumbering form. Zack mumbled in his sleep, but did not awaken.
Angeal smirked in gentle amusement, shaking his head. Then he looked to Sephiroth, his expression turning serious again.
"So . . ." he began. "What do you think of . . ."
"The feather?" Sephiroth finished.
Sephiroth shook his head. "I don't know what to think," he admitted, walking over near the window. "If it belongs to Genesis, and he helped Zack, then I want to believe he doesn't have any ulterior motives. I want to believe he's sane again, as we are. But . . ." He frowned, trailing off. He did not know whether he wanted to discuss with Angeal his concerns over Genesis's personal feelings towards him. Genesis had grown to despise and hate him before he had gone mad. And it was only human and natural to be wary. Genesis could still feel that way, even if he was now in possession of his faculties and would not actually do anything destructive.
Even though Sephiroth remained silent, Angeal could sense his feelings. But he did not have an answer for him.
"I believe he's sane," Angeal said at last. "And I know he didn't have a grudge against Zack personally. I could see him wanting to help, if for no other reason than because of how important Zack is to us."
Sephiroth nodded. "Or because of how important Zack is to you," he remarked. "I could see it, too, if he is sane."
Angeal sighed, looking to the window. "But it doesn't explain why he wouldn't try to contact any of us," he murmured. Genesis would surely know that Angeal would be worried and would want to hear from him. If he was sane, did he feel so guilty about what he had done that he did not feel worthy to come around? Sephiroth had felt that way for weeks following his return to sanity. Zack had told Angeal that the weight on Sephiroth's shoulders had remained to some degree until Cloud had finally realized the extent of his feelings for his former enemy.
". . . We'll keep watch for him."
Angeal blinked, starting back to the present. He looked to Sephiroth in surprise.
Sephiroth met his gaze. "Even if he still abhors me with every fiber of his being, he helped Zack get away. He deserves our gratitude. And I want to know why he is here." Undoubtedly it would be painful, to peel away the scab covering that old wound. It was one of the deepest in his heart. But he wanted to face it, and to know the truth once and for all.
If Genesis still hated him, then Sephiroth would have to accept that. He already had done so, and yet he could feel that now there was a spark of hope in his heart. He wondered if there was any chance that Genesis would want to try again at their friendship. But after all that had happened, that seemed such a ridiculous thing to even consider. He was only allowing himself to be carried away by pointless fantasies.
Angeal nodded. "And we'll take whatever comes," he said.
"That's right." Sephiroth's voice was firm. That was all they could do.
Angeal hesitated, then laid his hand on Sephiroth's shoulder. Sephiroth stiffened in surprise, but then relaxed as he looked to his old comrade in arms. The look in Angeal's eyes said that he had been debating over this, but that he had decided it was the right time.
". . . I know Genesis really did care about you at one point," he said then. "He idolized you. He was always talking about you. You were everything to him."
Sephiroth thought this over before shaking his head. "You were everything to him," he said. "I was someone he may have looked up to and wanted to surpass, but you were the one he always wanted by his side."
"He wanted both of us," Angeal answered. "Trust me on that."
Sephiroth stared into the distance. When he remembered Genesis's jealousy and mocking, it was hard to believe that at all. Or maybe it was even worse to think that Genesis had once cared and then had grown so bitter. They had had good times. He recalled those very well. And in spite of himself, he could not help being nostalgic now and then. There was a part of him that wanted to welcome Genesis back, if he was now sane and rational and if he actually wanted to come back to them.
"I trust you," he said at last. "But so much changed since then. His hateful feelings may not have altered, even now."
Angeal nodded. "I know," he said.
Sephiroth looked down at Zack. It was still strange to him, how Zack had waltzed into his life that night in Wutai. There had been dark times for them at first. But when Zack had started to try to be cheerful, he had amazed Sephiroth with his energy and vibrant personality. One evening at sunset, Sephiroth had seen him grinning and waving to him from a distance. Maybe that had been the point where he had first started to realize that he cared deeply about the young SOLDIER, someone so different from anyone Sephiroth had ever known. Somehow it had seemed so astonishing, that anyone would greet him in such a way and be so excited to see him. Just like a puppy. And Sephiroth had realized that he wanted to be a part of that.
He had immediately dismissed the notion as foolish back then. He, the stern and proud General, had been afraid--both to care and to be cared about. He had not been certain at all where that would lead, especially after what had happened with the first friends he had ever had. But when he had consented to his feelings, he had not regretted it.
What he regretted was that in the end, his hatred and insanity had caused the very betrayal he had feared would happen. He despised the irony of the events at Nibelheim. But he despised himself above all else.
Zack had forgiven him for his madness. He had been angry and confused, especially when he had not known at all what was going on. The heartbreak and agony he had felt when he had fought Sephiroth in the reactor room was still burned into Sephiroth's mind. He remembered Zack's eyes most of all, and the echoes of desperate pleas and horror. "Why did you kill the villagers?!" "I trusted you!" "No . . . you aren't the Sephiroth I knew!"
It was always too much for him to bear. When he thought of it too long, he became completely disconsolate.
But Zack's love for him was overwhelming. After Sephiroth had sent all of them to this planet, Zack had guided him every step of the way in regaining his memories and keeping hold of his sanity. Instead of holding any ill feelings for Sephiroth, Zack had only been grateful to have the chance to help him at last. Zack had blamed himself to some extent for what had happened to Sephiroth in the past and the fact that he had not been able to save him at Nibelheim. Sephiroth had been alarmed that Zack would feel responsible, but it was not a surprise, with Zack's caring nature and his deep desire to do everything possible for his loved ones.
If Genesis was sane, he would regret what he had done in his madness. Sephiroth was certain of it. And he would feel the same anguish that plagued Sephiroth. Of course Sephiroth did not hold against him any of what he had said and done then. He could not, especially after the unconditional love that Zack had shown him.
But the hurt he still felt over Genesis's deep-rooted envy was strong. He had forgiven Genesis for that, too, but he still did not understand. He wanted to. If he saw Genesis again, he wanted a chance to at least try to fix what had gone wrong. Maybe it could not be fixed. Or maybe Genesis would not want to try. Sephiroth wanted to know for certain.
He would think about it more tomorrow. For now he observed Zack's slumber. The fact that Zack was laying alive and peaceful was still making his heart swell.
Now Zack began to stir again. This time he yawned, stretching as he started to sit up on the couch. "That felt good," he proclaimed, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Is there anything to eat?"
Sephiroth crossed his arms. "Well, that lets us know you're feeling a lot better," he commented. "Aerith and Tifa are fixing a late dinner. There will be plenty of food."
"Great!" Zack's eyes lit up.
Angeal was amused. "But don't start out with something heavy," he warned.
Zack gave him an innocent look. "I won't!" he protested.
He grinned, slumping against the back of the couch as he stared around the room. "Wow, it's great to be home!" he declared.
Sephiroth allowed a slight smile. Yes, it was. He had not been able to relax at all while Zack had been gone. He would have remained in the canyons on end if he had not known that he needed to return home for sleep and food and warmth. Now that Zack was with them again, the void had been filled. Sephiroth could be home now and feel perfectly content about it.
Zack looked back and forth between them. "You guys look like you need a rest as much as I did!" he said. "Where's Cloud? Is he getting some sleep?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "He's taking a shower," he said.
Everyone turned. Cloud was coming into the room, dressed but still drying at his spikes with a towel. He looked at Zack, shaking his head in disbelief.
"You're the one who should be getting some sleep," he said.
"I got some!" Zack replied. "I'm just kickin' back now, soaking in the feeling of being home with all my pals. Being with the Rakesh brothers for the last few days really makes you be even more grateful for all you've got."
Cloud perched on the couch arm. "Yeah, I guess it would," he remarked, his tone half-dry. "Anything would be great compared to that."
Zack poked him on the arm. "You don't give yourself enough credit!" he protested. "I missed you and everybody here like crazy!" He sobered. "I was really upset, too. I mean, I knew how much you'd all be worrying about me. The way they fixed it up, I knew it really was gonna look like I was dead." He gripped a handful of quilt. "I just wanted to hit the guy or something."
"If you'd been physically capable, you would have," Sephiroth said.
"Yeah. . . ." Zack bit his lip, falling silent again.
"I hope you realize none of this was your fault," Sephiroth spoke.
Zack looked up at him. "I know I only did what I had to," he said. "I'd do it again if things were the same, not thinking or anything. But I just hate that it turned out like this, so that all of you thought . . ."
Cloud gripped Zack's shoulder. "We all got manipulated by Dalton again," he said, his voice bitter. "And I'd be lying if I said I didn't find some justice in the fact that he ended up falling off the cliff too." He looked away. "I wouldn't really want him to go over the falls, even with all he's done to us, but if he wouldn't be able to bother us anymore . . ."
"Judging from the fact that Gunju is still around, I don't think dying would change the situation with Dalton," Sephiroth commented, his tone dry.
Cloud rolled his eyes. "What a mess," he muttered.
"But we're all safe now."
Again everyone turned. Aerith was coming into the room, a soft smile on her face. In her arms she carried a tray of simple foods, mostly fruit and some bread. Zack perked up.
"This looks great!" he exclaimed.
Amused, Aerith set the tray on his lap. "I only cut it and put it on the tray," she said. "I didn't make it."
"Good enough!" Zack grabbed the fork, stabbing it into the sliced apple.
"I'm guessing Rakesh didn't feed you at all," Sephiroth said. That would seem too off-the-wall, especially considering the reason why he had taken Zack. Sephiroth could easily imagine Azazel starving Zack and then presenting him as a bargaining chip in that condition.
Zack shook his head, biting into the apple. "Nope," he said. "Course, I wouldn't have even felt like it before yesterday, really, but he wasn't going to do anything about it."
"Figures," Cloud grumbled.
Angeal crossed his arms, shaking his head as Zack ravenously ate the food. He would be lucky if he did not choke.
He half-turned, looking to the window again. To have Zack back was a wonderful miracle. He could still hardly comprehend it, when he fully thought of everything they had come through to get to this point.
And it seemed almost incomprehensible, too, that not only was Zack safe, but now there was a chance of seeing his other best friend again.
Maybe, someday soon, they would all be together.