After so long fighting - Zack didn't know how long, and couldn't find it in himself to care - conscious thought processes shut down and the automatic stepped in, because he wasn't even quite able to think anymore, everything too much to contemplate. He was having trouble moving by this point - the world screamed around him as the images smoothed and merged together, blood dripping from gashes and into his eyes until he couldn't quite get rid of it, a red film over his vision, coating everything in the color.
The Turks were at their backs, and they stood and watched with cold eyes as their former allies met their fates - and they wouldn't move to help or to fight anyone, in any way, because they followed orders unquestioningly and that was it. They didn't move, because it wasn't their place to question right or wrong, because they were Turks and that family meant more to them than the right thing or the wrong thing or anything else at all - in his foggy mind Zack couldn't bring himself to blame them because for him, his ideals and loyalty were one and the same and he never had to fight one for the other.
He didn't move, only panted as thoughts paced through his head in a meaningless montage, and Vincent was fighting now - or was he? Zack could hardly tell - and only the faint outline of a cloak remained because it was the same color as the blood in his eyes - and he couldn't see where one started and the other ended. Possibly, in the distance, a shot went off - no, an explosion, too loud to be a shot - but that could have been the sound of his body giving up on him, or his blood-deprived mind telling him things that weren't really happening. But all thoughts of that were gone as the bloody blur that might have been Zack's ally moved at Xigbar - they moved together and there was a glint of metal there somewhere, a weapon. Watching, the former ShinRa captain had the hazy thought that right then, right there, they were both probably going to die.
Maybe soon, Zack thought to himself through the haze, but not now. Not yet. I won't let it happen.
The captain hauled himself up off the ground for one final run, and his opponent turned slowly - too slowly - and then the door opened or fell apart or came apart or died, and this was the man's undoing because the sound of wood and iron falling to the floor was enough of a distraction for Vincent to fire one final bullet into that bastard's heart.
And Zack, through a great force of will, stayed standing. Now was not his time.
The sound of a shell bursting caught Sephiroth by surprise, breaking him from his reverie as the adrenaline brought back memories of his days in the Army. He could not see the explosion - he knew from the sound that it would be coming from behind the mansion - but the smoke from it floated upwards, outwards, and the General drew in a sharp breath.
That was the moment when he realized that there was no more time left for him to waver - the longer he waited, the more likely it was that Zack and Cloud would not live to speak to him again. He couldn't just brush off responsibility for this, say that it was orders and that he had no option - it was still, in the end, his own decision.
He strode forward past the army, ignoring the hushed whispers and the feeling of Rufus ShinRa's suspicious gaze on the back of his head. He would not walk over the fence, or take in any measure the coward's way; he drew his Masamune faster than vision could catch - and the gate hung, suspended in the air, for a moment before crashing to the ground in pieces, iron twisting, deforming under its own weight. Sephiroth strode fearlessly through the dust and to the front entry - and it met the same fate as the gate, crumbling from a hundred invisible slashes and falling away to nothing.
He stepped into the entryway in just enough time to see Vincent Valentine put a bullet in a man's heart - and Zack was frozen, panting, on the other side. The man was more exhausted than Sephiroth ever remembered seeing him before, bloodier than he'd ever been - but now was not the time to worry. Neither he nor Cloud were yet out of danger.
The General stepped forward purposefully now, pushing past the Turks who watched him with a mixture of surprise and anger.
"Zack," he began, stopping beside his friend for a moment, just long enough to see if the other man was alright.
"Oh, Seph?" the other man returned, though his breathing was labored and his eyes unfocused. "So you made it after all."
"I have made my decision," Sephiroth responded, and that was all the explanation that was needed - the captain smiled a little bit, leaning on his Buster sword for support because he was simply too stubborn to kneel.
"Good," the man slurred, using all of his energy to keep himself upright. "Now… Spike. He's upstairs," Zack informed the other as best as he could - and that was as much as Sephiroth needed, because he could feel the portent in his gut. It occurred to him, looking at the destruction as he mounted the stairs, that even his arrival would not be enough.
"Choose, Roxas," Xemnas repeated, and the boy's vision flashed with every clashing beat of his heart. He couldn't thing, and his ears filled with a ringing sound that he almost couldn't hear past.
"Roxas, you don't have to do this," came Sora's small voice from beside him - "You don't have to choose. Any minute now somebody will be up here and they'll get him for what he's doing. We don't - we don't know that he'll do what he says he will…" His voice drifted off then, and Roxas could feel his brother's body trembling beside him. Blood dripped down and soaked the rope that bound their wrists, and the blonde realized that it was not his own - his brother had been hurt, maybe badly, in the explosion, and he hadn't even realized.
"You must choose - if you wait, both of them will die," Xemnas's accomplice rumbled from where he was holding Cloud, his fingers still in the soldier's bullet-wound and cross-shaped scar practically glowing.
"And I will do as promised," Xemnas stated coldly, "because you will suffer for what you have done. For the rest of your life - and it will be long - you will have to live with your decision. You will know that you killed the one you care for less, know that it was your choice that caused him to die - and if you do not choose, know that it was your indecision that killed them."
Images churned in Roxas's mind, memories and thoughts, shared dreams - and they caught in his throat as they passed. He was sure he was crying now, but it didn't matter anymore - he knew, and had known from the beginning, exactly what he had to do.
"Axel," he croaked, trembling like foam in a tempest. Xemnas, without a word, began to move across the room towards Sora, his knife out and ready; but before he could take a step, Roxas continued. "Axel, I'm sorry," he said, shakily meeting Axel's bottle-shard eyes with his own. "I'm so sorry, but -"
Behind those eyes, through the pain and sadness and anger - Roxas could see that his lover understood. Axel understood what the boy was going to do, and why it had to be done.
"I choose Sora," the boy said, voice shaking. "This is what you wanted anyway, isn't it? You get to kill Axel, I live with my guilt the rest of my life. Fine, you win," he hissed through his tears, in a final act of defiance.
The sound of his voice was almost drowned out then by Sora's guttural, animal noise - a sound too primal to even have a name. "No, no Roxas, don't do this," the brunette moaned, voice growing louder with the force of his despair. "Don't - you don't have to choose me, you don't have to choose at all -"
"Xemnas," Axel interrupted, the force of his determination back in his voice. "Do it," he ordered, then turned his gaze again to Roxas. "I'm not gonna let you reconsider this, Roxas. Just…" The assassin's voice broke then, and through the crack in his resolve the blonde could see the other's raw, heart-rending pain. "Just… don't spend the rest of your life thinkin' about it, ok? That's all I ask," he said, and his resignation was evident in every line of his body. From the corner of his eye, Roxas could see Cloud making one last desperate attempt to escape - the knife flew out of his captor's hand, but the other was the stronger nonetheless. Cloud's head crashed into the wall with a force that crushed the wood, and he didn't move again.
"I promise I won't," Roxas choked, lying as best he could as he watched Axel for the last time. Frantically, his desperate mind clung onto the last thread of hope he could find, grasping at anything that might make this make more sense. "And… And we might see each other again, right? Someday. When I die."
"Dumbass," his lover responded fondly. "You and me aren't goin' to the same place."
He laughed then - a bitter, half-hearted chuckle - as that knife moved away in preparation for the killing stroke. Through it all, the determined look in his eyes never wavered - and Roxas realized that he would always love the man for that.
A searing pain as Cloud's head crashed against the wall was his only reward for his desperate attempt to not be helpless, to save someone - but then he never could, never had been able to save anyone. He realized as he tried to move, to get up again, that he couldn't - he was paralyzed, forced to watch helplessly as Sora and his brother waited for their end.
It was something he couldn't watch, didn't want to watch - Axel's death, the look on Roxas's face, on Sora's face. But he kept his eyes open - he would face his failure. Penance, of a sort, for those he could not save. He would face this Xemnas, this murderer, as he killed the hope in those two brothers' eyes.
Then, flashing from beyond Cloud's blackening vision, a sword burst through Xemnas's stomach and sliced upward - and there was no mistaking whose it was, even before the body was flung off of the blade and its wielder revealed. In the space between moments, suddenly everything was over - Saïx's gutted carcass fell to the floor beside Cloud, and lay there as if he had been a butchered animal.
Suddenly, it was over, and that rush of relief was almost as painful to his injured body as the fear had been, and he could feel himself beginning to lose consciousness. Even through the ringing in his ears and the too-crowded darkness of his vision, the former captain managed to make out when Sephiroth turned to him and put a hand on the blonde's pulse.
"I had feared that my change of heart had come too late," the General murmured, half to himself and half to shell-shocked men nearby.
No, Cloud responded silently, ineffectively willing his mouth to move even as his thoughts faded. It's never too late.
Silence hung in the air with an almost physical presence as Sephiroth effortlessly sliced through the ropes on the captives' wrists - but Roxas felt nothing as his bindings fell away. He didn't have the emotional capacity for relief, or even surprise, after everything.
Maybe help had come from an unexpected quarter, but the boy still refused to let himself believe that they were all still alive. It was too surreal - there he was, looking at the place where the wall of his house had once been, and struggling with guilt that he knew was completely, totally deserved.
There was almost nothing that could be said at this point - nothing that could brush away the enormity of what had just happened. Axel watched him from across the room, mouth tight, but the boy didn't even want to think about what that meant.
"Roxas," Sora murmured from beside him, and suddenly the brunette's arms were around him like he'd never let go again. With that, the throttling quiet was broken - and the small rustling noises the General took Cloud away took the edge off of the choking stillness. None of them could have stood the stifled air any longer.
Before the silence had a chance to return, Roxas took a deep breath and spoke: "I'm sorry," he said, as if that was enough to cover up what had just happened. "I'm so fucking sorry, Axel." He focused on the ground, refusing to meet his lover's eyes, and Sora's hands clenched even tighter in his shirt.
"I'm… I'm not asking you to forgive me," he continued hoarsely, "but I…" He drifted off then, unsure of what to say - but his heart pounded as he waited for a response to all that he hadn't said. The silence lasted for too long - far too long - and he looked up once he just couldn't take anymore.
Axel sat still, perfectly still, on the chair he had been about to die in barely minutes before; but this time, there was a grin on his face. It was a disbelieving, pained, half-crazed expression - but it was something.
"You're alive," he laughed, and the sound was almost deranged in its wild enthusiasm. "You're alive, Roxas. You're alive. I'm alive."
The blonde stopped for a moment in pure shock - that had hardly been the reaction he'd been expecting. Sora sat up then, back rigidly straight, and the blonde could feel his brother's searching gaze on the both of them.
"…Are you gonna say anything else?" Roxas muttered, knowing he had to get this over with. "I mean, I almost just…"
Instantly, Axel was across the room, his arms wrapped around his lover and face buried in the boy's hair.
"I'll worry about that when I've got any worry left in me," the redhead responded, quietly. "Tomorrow, or probably even farther away than that, I'll be able to work up the excess energy to worry about what just happened. Not now," he breathed, and Roxas could feel the warmth of it. "You're still alive. That's enough for today."
"For today," Roxas agreed after a moment, and he felt Sora's comforting hand on his shoulder. Maybe the feeling triggered something in the blonde, or maybe he couldn't keep himself wound up any longer - but without warning, the wave of relief he'd been fighting off finally caught him. He crumpled into his lover's embrace wordlessly, forgetting the throbbing pain in his arm and the blood on Axel's chest and everything that either of them had done - for at least that one instant, nothing else mattered.
It was kind of surprising, really - Reno had never expected to see the cold, dispassionate General show anything close to simple, human emotion. Once again, he was proved wrong - being right had never been his strong suit, but seeing General Sephiroth carrying Cloud Strife down the sweeping staircase had broken any expectation he had ever had.
"It's over," Sephiroth intoned before any of the Turks could say a word, silk voice booming across the open entryway. "I suggest you leave." This was said so forcefully that the redhead almost had to look over at his leader for instructions.
"We have our orders," Tseng responded, and Rude pushed his sunglasses up his nose. "If the Rogue is not dead -"
"He is not, and it would be best -" the emphasis here was pretty ominous "- if you allowed him to remain that way."
"Whoa, whoa," Reno began, tapping his baton against his shoulder absently, "that sounded an awful lot like a threat, General. And we'd hate to have to report that to the boss, wouldn't we, partner?" he mentioned conversationally, with a glance at Rude. It wasn't precisely that they were making a threat of their own - one didn't threaten the Silver General - but the man was coming down the stairs with a guy who'd been fighting the Turks like a mad dog when they'd still been in the fight.
"You will not need to report it to Rufus ShinRa or anyone else," Sephiroth replied, eyes gleaming. "I am going to tell him myself."
That left the Turks in stunned silence for a moment, though apparently not anyone in the room - Zack Fair, barely able to support himself even leaning on his buster sword that was embedded in the ground, had begun to laugh.
"I never thought I'd hear you say anything like that in my life, Seph," the dark-haired captain informed the other with a genuine, if shaky, grin. "If I could move, we'd go tell him together, you crazy son of a bitch."
"President ShinRa will not listen to the words of traitors," Tseng said darkly. "Nor will he give in to your demands."
"Y'know, if you're gonna call it treason when I decide not to kill people who don't deserve it, I'm pretty ok with that," Zack remarked, every word squeezed out like it was an effort just to move his lips. "And anyway, we're not going to talk to the president, Seph said he was gonna… gonna go have a word with the Vice-President-"
"Who just got a promotion," Reno interrupted easily. "President ShinRa is right outside and waiting for us to come out and report our glowing success. Wouldn't want to disappoint him."
"You might also keep in mind that the ShinRa army is also waiting outside," Tseng noted, never moving. "We have the strategic advantage."
Sephiroth hadn't stopped in his motion forward until that moment, when he was directly in front of the leader of the Turks - despite the fact that he was carrying a fallen comrade, he was still a powerfully intimidating man.
"Do you really think that any of your troops would have the courage to shoot at me?" he sneered, arrogant in the way only Sephiroth could be.
"Don' even bother, man," Zack laughed raggedly. "Once Seph has his mind set on something, y'just don't get him to move."
"President ShinRa will see the benefits of following my… suggestions, if he is a wise man," Sephiroth informed them, and walked out the destroyed front door. Though Tseng flanked him as he walked, none of them were under the illusion that it would do them any good at all. Though the man may have been an arrogant ass, his confidence was hardly misplaced - and the Turks knew that as well as any.
"I would like to know," Rufus spat, expression murderous, as Sephiroth walked up to him imperiously, "exactly what you thought that you were going to accomplish by this, General. I'm sorry, former General."
"I believe I made that decision on my own when I walked into that building, ShinRa," the dark-clad man responded, silently waiting for the man in his arms to take each successive breath. "I will now call the army back to their regular duties, if you don't do it yourself immediately."
"What makes you think you have the authority -"
"President ShinRa," Sephiroth interrupted, "if you order your troops to shoot me now, I will still have more than enough time to kill all four of your Turks and you."
They met each other's eyes for a moment, neither backing down.
"Was that a threat, Sephiroth?"
"It was a promise of retribution." He paused for a long moment, staring out among the troops as he waited for the opportune moment. "Your decision here was unwise," he finally continued. "The Rogue has no intention of attacking you or your corporation further until you threaten him, and the leaders of both organizations you hoped to impress are dead. There is no further reason to fight."
He turned again to the troops, and his voice carried over the whole platoon.
"ShinRa has lost here. Move out, soldiers," he intoned, and Rufus made no attempt to stop him. He watched, detached, as they filed out - and felt the other man's anger burning itself into his shoulder. But the ire of men such as the young president had never slowed Sephiroth before, and it wouldn't now.
Now that he had time to look for such things, Sora noticed that if he looked out of the gaping maw that had once been the wall of the mansion in just the right way, he could see the ShinRa army gathered outside in a flurry of granite silence. But one thing caught his eye after a long moment - movement, in the back, as the sea of men trickled back out the way they had come.
"Roxas, Roxas - Axel," he laughed, the light in his eyes one of almost hysterical joy, "They're leaving. God, they're leaving. Every one of them." The ones, he supposed, who weren't corpses in front of their doorway - he fought off the sickness that thought brought for long enough to give them a long smile.
"…You mean we're safe? Really safe, forever?" Roxas asked, breathless.
"I wouldn't go that far," Axel returned, still holding onto his lover like he never wanted to do anything else. "Not forever, maybe. But for now."
And for the first time since Sora had known him, the tension went out of Axel's shoulders as he stood.
"We should probably… Well, we should go see how everyone else is doing." Sora's voice was suddenly and startlingly quiet. "See if everybody else is ok, you know?" A beat. "I hope Cloud wasn't… too badly hurt."
"Ah, that son of a bitch's head is way too hard to let something like a little fall hurt 'im," Axel drawled with a lazy sort of smile, and it was good to hear, even if Sora knew the optimism was mostly for his benefit. "And anyway, nobody dies when the Silver General wants you not to. He probably just glares until the guy comes back to life. Everybody's afraid of the General - even death itself."
"I'm not," Roxas muttered with a scowl, standing up himself. "That fucking asshole of a -"
"Everybody except for Roxas," the redhead amended with a grin, heading towards the door, and Sora laughed despite his nerves. "Anyway, let's go see if there's anythin' we can do to help."
"What," began the younger blonde with a feigned surprise, "You mean you're actually going to help people? People you've never met before?"
"Yeah well, everybody has their crazy moments," Axel responded - and the tension in the room was lightened, even for just that moment. With every moment that went by, a feeling crept, slowly but noticeably, over him - that everything was going to be alright in the end.
The stench of blood was so thick on the air that Roxas was almost sick from it as soon as he walked out the door - and the fact that Axel was seemed completely unaffected was a bit disturbing, even if it was to be expected. As always, the redhead walked in front, stepping carefully over corpses with his weapons at the ready - he was prepared, as always, for any lingering unpleasantness. For a moment, Roxas wondered what he would be like if he let his guard down - completely and totally, even just once.
But that was a thought for later - later, when they weren't so pumped full of adrenaline that they couldn't feel anything at all. When there weren't still tearstains lining Roxas's cheeks - when he'd been forgiven, or forgiven himself, for what he'd tried to do.
His thoughts were pulled away from that train of thought as Vincent appeared out of nowhere, without warning, graceful and silent.
"They are gone," the man intoned, his normally smooth voice as haggard as his breathing. "The ShinRa have conceded defeat, and the others appear to have retreated as well. For the moment, at least, you are safe," he said, taking a ragged breath.
"You should probably see a doctor about that whole breathing thing, y'know," Axel drawled. "Thanks for the heads up, though. Appreciate it."
Vincent gave a nod in acknowledgment.
"There were not enough medics on site to take care of myself and the other injured. The others were far less fortunate than I."
Roxas raised an eyebrow in disbelief - sure, this guy was good, but he didn't seem like he was so far above everybody else's level that he'd hardly be injured when everyone else was probably incapacitated.
"And by this you mean?" the blonde asked, surveying the carnage and seeing Zack's buster sword still implanted in the ground.
"I was… otherwise occupied, for most of the battle," the pale man responded, unnatural crimson gaze never wavering.
"Uh-huh," Axel responded, disparaging. "So you ran away or something and let everybody else take the hit for you?"
Vincent winced at that, and Roxas could feel his scowl deepen - clearly that hit a nerve. If that was what had actually happened, the man definitely wasn't going to escape with as few wounds as he had now.
"Not precisely. I drew the Turks away from the battle. They asked me to assassinate President ShinRa in return for their absence, and I agreed."
Well. That was unexpected.
"Izzat so," Axel responded with a small laugh. "Wasn't that what you were going for all along? But anyway, you win it all when you can. Good for you."
"How are Zack and Yuffie?" Sora asked, and his brother could hear the worry in the other's voice. "Neither of them are… are they?"
"Neither are dead," Vincent confirmed, in a tone of what might have sounded like relief, if his face had moved at all to accommodate the emotion. "The ShinRa medics are caring for them until such a time as they can be transferred to a hospital."
"Oh, that's good to know," the brunette responded, and then his voice fell off, as if he had tried to take a step up a stair and misjudged the distance. The reason for the sudden hitch in his thoughts was clear enough - neither he nor anyone else knew what came after. Even the best-laid plans had ended with the assault - the assumption that they would die during the attack had been fairly universal.
The mansion had been destroyed, Axel's identity revealed - and they had nowhere to go.
"So, uh," Roxas began, looking from Axel to Vincent and back again, "What do we do now?"
"Hadn't thought that far," the redhead responded.
Vincent cut in then: "You will have to think carefully on that, but in the interim - I suggest that we use Cloud Strife's living arrangements, as he will not be able to do so himself."
"Yeah, sounds good," the assassin agreed - and Roxas took this last moment to examine the only place he had ever lived, his home for so many years.
Perhaps this wasn't the best way to remember his home - broken to ash and cluttered with silent tombstones - but it was somehow necessary. It was a reminder, he supposed, of the cost of arrogance; the cost of believing oneself superior to others. And also, conversely, a reminder that hope is never wasted, and that no result is ever inevitable.
And that, at least, was a comforting thought.
The morning of the second day after the battle found Sephiroth still sitting by Cloud's bed in the hospital, watching the man's immobile face as he slept. The former general wasn't precisely sure why he was still there - waiting somewhere else would be acceptable, and much more comfortable - but he knew that the blonde's current situation was his fault. His indecision had led directly to this man's injury.
"Hey, Seph," came a voice from the door, and he looked up to see Zack leaning in the doorway. So he'd finally been released, then. "In your usual mood, I see." He took a step forward, examining the blonde on the bed carefully.
"No change, then?" the dark-haired man asked, and put a hand on Cloud's forehead. "No fever, though. That's good."
"They've been keeping him asleep," Sephiroth explained, not moving. "The doctors do not wish for him to leave before he's ready."
"I guess that makes sense. Spike has no great love for doctors. Not surprising, really." Zack plopped down in the chair on the other side of the blonde's bed, bright blue eyes meeting with Sephiroth's own.
"So… Whatcha thinkin' about?" the man probed, scrutinizing the other man with more intensity than he was precisely comfortable with.
He didn't answer for a moment.
"You're not going to ask me why I came to the mansion? Or… why I didn't come earlier?" Sephiroth murmured, watching the ground so he didn't have to meet the other man's eyes.
"Nah," Zack returned, a smile in his voice. "The way I figure it, you came when we needed it. Spike and I made our own decisions, even knowing we were fighting the corporation. You're an asshole, but we knew that already - and you're an asshole who likes us anyway. That's enough for me."
There was a long quiet, and Sephiroth gave his friend a searching look - but he knew already that Zack was as honest as men came. He wouldn't say a thing like that if he didn't mean it.
"You didn't answer my question, though," the former captain noted with a laugh. "You're not deterring me that easy. You've been brooding there for days, now - what are you thinking about?"
"Nothing of importance," Sephiroth responded, though he knew it was a lie. "Just thinking."
"Bullshit," Zack replied with a grin.
This was the disadvantage of having friends, Sephiroth supposed - but the connection came with so much more. That made it worth the sacrifice.
"…I was thinking about Cloud," he finally returned, his face betraying nothing.
"Yeah? And?" his friend prompted, leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms. "I know I'm only getting half the story here."
"…May I ask you a question?" the former general finally ventured haltingly, tentative on unfamiliar ground.
"Shortly before I left, I overheard Cloud speaking with one of the McCarthy children." A beat. "He asked if Cloud was still in love with me," he continued, letting out a deep breath he'd been holding even as he heard Zack take one in. "I wanted to know if his query had any basis in fact."
The moment stretched on like it had no right to, breathless and awkward, and Sephiroth watched as a series of unrecognizable emotions flashed across his friend's eyes.
"Yeah," he said after a long moment. "Yeah, it does." He stopped for a moment, shaking his head in apparent disbelief. "Shit, you weren't supposed to find out like this, Seph. But I guess… " he drifted off, and within moments a look of resolution had settled itself on his face.
"Cloud's been desperately in love with you since way before I ever met him - since back when you were in the US army, before Hojo made you transfer to ShinRa. He joined the army because you were in it, transferred to ShinRa because you did, and has spent his whole life watching you with more devotion than I've ever seen in anyone before or am likely to see in the future.
"Just because he made the decision to do something you wouldn't approve of, that he was even willing to fight you if he had to, doesn't mean he doesn't still love you. He's just -" Zack's voice shook a little here, and he watched the blonde with a fond smile.
"Having to fight you would have hurt him as much as anything he's ever done - but he's selfless enough that he was willing to do that, if it meant saving people who deserved to be saved."
Sephiroth couldn't find the strength to say a word in the silence that followed, completely dumbfounded in the wake of such an admission.
"So… um," Zack said awkwardly, scratching his neck in a nervous gesture. "Now you know, huh?" he said with a small laugh, openly meeting the former general's gaze.
Yes, he knew - and that left him with the unsettling question of what, exactly, he was going to do about it. In the curious way of uncomfortable questions, the answers had left him even less certain of his path than he had been before.
None of their comrades had yet been released out of the hospital when Axel finally had a fucking brilliant thought - it had been a while since his last one, and he was beginning to be kind of annoyed at their absence.
"Roxas," he began with a grin that was more genuinely mischievous than any he had worn in a long while. The blonde looked up from his book with an impassive look. "Roxas, Roxas - I know what we're gonna do."
"And that is?"
"We're gonna get the fuck out of this place. You're going to go to the bank, have every penny you own transferred to Switzerland, and we're gonna hop a boat to England."
The boy didn't say anything at first - the idea of leaving behind everything he'd ever known, leaving before his parents' memorial services, was probably startling at best. But the fact was that you never really knew when somebody or another was gonna decide to take some revenge for comrades or family killed. Better get out of the country before that happened.
"Where we're going to do what, exactly?" the blonde responded after a moment. Both Sora and Vincent looked over then, waiting for the redhead's answer.
"We're gonna live off your trust fund for a bit, first of all - then, I dunno. We'll move around Europe - I've always wanted to go to Italy or Russia or somethin'. I'll take some jobs as a bodyguard here and there so we don't run out of cash, and you can do odd jobs if ya get bored," Axel returned, hands moving in emphasis - for the first time what seemed like forever, he was full of the manic energy that Roxas seemed to bring out in him so well.
"And Sora?" the boy asked, a glint in his eye - and Axel knew then; their thought processes had synched in just the way he had known they would. He'd sensed it that first day, when he first saw Roxas - all anger and flashing snarls, with a fierceness too strong for his small frame - he knew that they would understand each other.
They'd raise fucking hell together, in the best sort of way.
"Sora'd come with, 'course. You wouldn't ever leave him behind, right?"
"Fuck no," Roxas responded, breaking into a grin. "When's the next train to New York?"
"Whenever you wanna up and leave, baby."
"Don't I get a say in this?" Sora piped up from the other side of the room, though he didn't sound like he was protesting just too hard.
"Nope," Axel and Roxas both responded at once.
"You'd better be glad I'm ok with it then, 'cause it'd be kidnapping if I wasn't and then you'd really have something to worry about."
The blonde began to laugh then, and the former assassin joined in - enjoying, for once, the unfamiliar sensation.
On the third day after the battle, Cloud awoke. Sephiroth might have admitted to feeling a tendril of relief as he watched the blue eyes flutter open, had anyone asked: he hadn't left the blonde's side for the entire duration of the man's hospital stay. The former General would welcome the absence of the nagging worry that had plagued him.
"You're awake," he murmured, careful to keep his voice low in respect for the other's invalid condition.
"…General Sephiroth?" the blonde asked, confusion evident in his manner. "…What are you doing?"
"You're in the hospital," Sephiroth responded, not comfortable enough to volunteer an answer to the question that the blonde had actually asked. "You shouldn't move yet, until a doctor has said you may." He paused. "Zack asked me to apologize for him if you woke up while he was gone. He's gone for a physical examination."
"So he's alright then," the blonde breathed. "But… why are you here?"
"I brought you here, I don't know if you recall."
"Oh." A beat. "But… sir, what are you doing here now?"
So it finally came down to this.
"It is my responsibility to ensure your safety, since it was my fault that you were hurt at all," Sephiroth responded, voice impassive, too uncomfortable to ask the other to dispense with the formalities.
Cloud blinked at that, apparently still too confused to comprehend.
"Your fault? I don't remember that. I…" He took a breath, and a look of realization grew on his face. "I remember you saving me."
"If I had been there earlier -"
"No. It wasn't your fault - you were just doing what you thought was the right thing. And you helped in the end." Silence. "Everyone else is alright, then?"
Sephiroth nodded, watching the other man for any change in expression.
"So far as I know, yes."
"Good. And that… Thank you for that. You saved them, too." For a long moment, they watched each other - and it was like Sephiroth was seeing Cloud again, for the first time.
"But I want to know - why did you come back?" he asked slowly.
"I could let neither you nor Zack die while I could prevent it."
Another silence, as long and awkward as the last.
"I see. Then… why did you save them first? When you came in the door, my opponent was closer than theirs - and still you saved them," he murmured - and though his eyes were clouded by pain and the medicine in his body, still his gaze was intense.
"I -" His words broke off then, as he realized that he hadn't really thought about it until then. He had no investment in the lives of the children or the Rogue, so why had he done as he did?
"I thought that it was what you would have wanted me to do," he explained before the thought had even crossed his mind. Once he had time to process the words, he recognized its truth - Cloud had forgiven him once for the death of someone important to him, and even that man was not merciful enough to pardon the same offense twice.
Somehow, Sephiroth had expected more of a response than that - but perhaps even other men were not always sure of what to say in an uncomfortable situation.
"Can you forgive me for my indecision?" the former general asked haltingly, swallowing his pride for a moment.
"There's nothing to forgive," Cloud responded, watching the floor. "Nothing to forgive," he repeated, eyes sliding up to meet Sephiroth's own.
"You didn't do anything wrong," the blonde countered, sitting up a bit in his bed - possibly more than was good for him, but Sephiroth didn't move to stop him.
"…You don't blame me for any of the many things I have done," Sephiroth responded, voice sober. "What, then, might I have to do for you to hold me at fault?"
The captain shrugged, gaze never faltering.
"I guess I don't know, exactly - except that you haven't done it yet."
The air between them became charged with something that Sephiroth could not understand, much less describe - and it took longer than perhaps he would have chosen to force out his next words.
"I don't know what you think I am, Cloud Strife," he began, expression focused with the effort of his words, "but I am not a god. I… I have my faults, like any other man - and I make mistakes, as any other man would."
"I know," the blonde breathed, and for a heartbeat Sephiroth saw a flicker of the man that Cloud had been once, before deaths and tragedies had taken their toll. "I know - but you're here now, aren't you?"
Something changed between them then, and Sephiroth knew he would only ruin it with his clumsy attempts at words. So, he didn't say a thing - but that was alright, because he knew that, somehow, Cloud understood that. Their comfortable silence was more telling than any words could have been.
Within a day - as soon as they received news that everyone who had fought with them was alive and recovering - Axel and Roxas picked up everything they would need and left, dragging Sora along behind them happily. The trip to the New York harbor took a few days by train, and the blurred repetition of the scenery around them gave them time to think. Perhaps it was too much time - the silences were awkward as often as they were comfortable, and Sora was the only one who seemed completely immune to the quiet, sad spells that would overtake the other members of their party.
The last night of their train trip, Axel noticed a small noise from the end of his bed, and it didn't take much thought to guess Roxas as the source. It was long after they both should have been asleep - he wasn't sure if the other was looking for comfort or just contact; but either way, the redhead was more than happy to provide.
"Hey, Axel? You awake?" the blonde probed, speaking carefully - presumably to ensure that he wouldn't disturb his brother, who was happily dreaming on the other side of their private sleeper car.
"Mm?" came the redhead's sleepy reply. " 'm always awake if you're gettin' in bed with me, Roxy." He turned over onto his back and opened one eye, a small smirk on his face. "So… are we gonna get straight to the fucking or d'you want dinner first?"
Roxas gave his lover a scowl in return and a light smack, but lay down next to him nonetheless - and that probably meant he hadn't actually been any kind of offended. That was good to know.
"I dunno why I'm here," the blonde murmured after a moment, not moving to touch his lover but not complaining when the redhead put a lanky arm around him. "I just… I dunno. It's been… kind of quiet, these last couple of days."
Axel couldn't stop himself from stiffening a bit - he had known that they would have to talk about this eventually, but he hadn't really wanted to. Ignoring it all was much more his style.
"Well… There's been a lot to think about."
That was one way to put it, at least. A lot had happened, both with regards to them and with regards to others. They both were going to have a lot of guilt to work through.
"You're not - reconsidering, are you?" Roxas asked, and the redhead could feel his lover's heart begin to hammer against his ribs. "Are you going to leave?"
That was probably the stupidest thing he'd ever heard come out of the blonde's mouth - usually he was smarter than this. He ought to have known that there was no way in hell something like that could happen - but he wasn't about to break the moment by saying it in those words.
"Nah, not leaving," Axel responded instead, turning his head so that his face was buried in the blonde's hair. "Not gonna leave 'till ya want me to. I'd… I couldn't do it, Rox. Couldn't ever do that to myself."
He laughed a little bit, quietly - at how far he'd fallen and how little that bothered him. He was officially one of those romantic dumbasses now, and even though it still kind of pissed him off, he would never have it any other way. Never again.
"I'm way too damn selfish to ever do that to myself. So, just for the record, if you're thinking of leaving for my good or something - don't be an idiot," the redhead said, grinning.
"Never thought of that once," the blonde replied, and the lie was obvious. "But…" he continued, blue eyes fixed on the bunk above them, "are you really going to give up your job for me? Give up everything you made for yourself over here, in Chicago?"
"Well, not just for you. If I stayed over here, eventually somebody or another would do me in, and I'm not ready to die yet." This was mostly true, at least. "But, uh, yeah. Basically," Axel agreed with a shrug, like it was no big deal. It wasn't, though, in comparison.
"…Is that what's been bothering you? Or…"
"Nah, haven't lost a bit of sleep over that. But…" The redhead paused then, and wrapped both of his arms around his lover. "Sometimes a guy just thinks too much, you know?"
That had not usually been one of his faults - he'd never been one for brooding or moaning about the fate life had dealt him. But it only made sense that things would change, eventually.
"…God, I'm sorry," Roxas whispered, still not looking at his lover. "You know I didn't, I never -"
"I know." Axel cut him off, holding the blonde even tighter, feeling the boy's breath on his chest. "I know. Nobody should ever have to choose."
That choice was the worst punishment anyone could have doled out - to try and break something this good, to leave them with doubt and guilt enough to feed a nation. But they hadn't broken yet - they had survived together, the two of them and the third that Roxas loved like life itself. Leaving now, and letting the blonde's guilt fester until it scarred, would haunt Axel forever. It would ruin both of them.
He couldn't ever do that to Roxas. He couldn't ever do that to himself.
The two lovers lay together, entwined, for minutes, more - until the redhead finally broke the silence again.
"Not gonna lie and say that it hasn't been bothering me - I'd have to be one crazy bastard if it didn't. But - that's not all. Don't take all the credit."
Axel realized as those words left his mouth that he never should have said a word - the other thoughts that had plagued him were not ones he was ready to discuss with his young lover yet, if ever.
He had visited Demyx before they left, to say goodbye, one last time. The boy had been practically immobile, tearstained and broken - hands shivering as he sat, alone, in in a patch of daylight on his floor. No one else came to hug him, or to cry with him - the life of an assassin's lover was a solitary one; and now, he was left with nothing.
Axel had never experienced guilt so strong, and it was not easily brushed away, nor was it easily spoken of. And yet, he was still selfish enough that he would never admit to what he had done. He would not risk losing everything for that one moment of honesty.
It wasn't fair, maybe, or right. But life fucked with you in the worst ways - and at least he was still alive. Axel was going to take advantage of that for as long as it lasted.
So, he left about thirty thousand dollars in Demyx's bank account and gave him the telephone number of a guy who'd put him up in a nice room for as long as he needed one. Then, the former assassin had breathed the dust from the piano one last time, and left.
That wasn't something Roxas needed to hear about. It wasn't something that ever needed to be spoken, to anyone, in any time or place.
So before the blonde could say anything in return, Axel cleared his throat and spoke.
"But that's not important." A pause - Roxas clearly didn't believe him. "By that, of course, I mean that it is, and you shouldn't ask. Trust me when I say that some things are secret for a reason."
"Yeah." Another silence. "I'm still sorry, you know," the blonde murmured, finally meeting Axel's eyes - he was apparently determined to keep saying that until something shut him up. So, the redhead took the liberty of closing the distance between them, kissing the other's lips like it was the first time - gently, their meeting chaste and unimpeded.
"Yeah, I know," Axel said as they pulled apart, breaths lingering hesitantly, temptingly - and the words he didn't say were still there, between them.
He didn't say them because they were uncomfortable and unnecessary and probably rushed, because he didn't want to break this moment, and because he was still too selfish and too wary to lay himself bare in the way that those words would. They were words for later, that would be said in another time and another place - words meant to be shared rather than forgotten.
Their second kiss was as natural as falling and as dizzying, the fire of it pushing all other thoughts to the wayside - and there was only a split second of consideration before Roxas had rolled on top of him, hands brushing and moving tentatively against Axel's too-warm skin. He couldn't help the shiver, or the way his hands moved to do the same - he skillfully slid his hands under the shirt that was obstructing his access to his lover's body. Then, Roxas's mouth found that spot on his neck, and he stopped all movement but breathing to concentrate on that sensation.
Once the redhead's coherency returned to him, he suddenly remembered - or realized - where they were, and with whom; and that was in a sleeper car on a train bound for New York, with Sora asleep on the bed across the room.
"Roxas," he began, trying as best as he could to keep his thoughts straight as the blonde's mouth moved lower, "We can't do this."
"What, getting shy now?" Roxas retorted, breath hot on his lover's chest, and Axel couldn't help but grin.
"Nah. But - y'gotta remember, your younger brother is about five feet away from us right now."
The blonde stilled then, as the thought finally hit him, and Axel pulled him down for another kiss.
"It's not that I don't want you," he laughed quietly, " 'cause believe me, I do - I want you so damn bad. Just… not like this."
A thought struck him then, and took hold of him as it sunk in - tendrils creeping to every part of him, and he began to smile like there was nothing that could stop him.
"You know, we have a while. Fuck, we have as long as you want, Roxas. I'm not goin' away anytime soon."
Yeah, we have a while, he thought with an astonished, disbelieving laugh. We have the rest of our lives.
Climbing out of a hospital window with three-day-old injuries was even harder than it sounded - and Yuffie only barely managed it without re-opening her stitched-shut wounds. But thankfully, she'd picked up a few more tricks from her years on the streets than just how to jump off of things and look cool - and one of those things was to climb down walls with at least a small expectation of safety.
She would have stayed to drop in on Cloud, who, according to the doctors, was being held to his bed with everything short of manacles - but she knew that if she did that, somebody would catch her and she didn't want to spend another day in that place if she could help it at all. So, figuring that she'd just be there when her friend finally got out, she tossed her wooden crutch out the window and proceeded to slide down a drainpipe. At least one arm and leg were strong enough to support her - and that was good, else she might have had to do something stupid like use the stairs.
It was quite frankly astonishing that each of their company had fared as well as they had - Yuffie would have a new scar that ran the length of her back and neck until it crossed into her scalp, and others in her legs and arms. Frankly, though, they made her look like a badass. People might think twice about messing with her now.
Upon reaching the ground floor - she'd only been on the second, thank god - she picked up the crutch that she was still pissed off that she needed, and began to make her way to Cloud's apartment. She'd wait there - probably with Zack - until they took the handcuffs off of the poor guy and let him go.
She just hoped she managed to catch up with Vincent before he left to mope or brood or whatever it was he wanted to call it to make him feel better about it. He'd been hard enough to keep in place before making enemies of the whole city, and now he was even less likely to stick around.
But she was gonna be pissed if he left without saying goodbye. Sure, they hadn't known each other for long - but he struck her as the sort of guy who needed looking after, at least on the emotional side of things. This, Yuffie was more than willing to provide - 'cause otherwise, he'd sit and think in some cave somewhere until he put down roots or starved to death.
Much to her surprise, upon picking Cloud's lock, she found a characteristic red coat draped over the back of Cloud's only chair, and the man it belonged to lying on the bed.
"Oh, good," she said loudly, grinning as she watched his eyes fly open. "I was hoping to catch you before you ran off. How're you doing?"
He sat up slowly, giving an unreadable look to her crutch, and then back at her again.
"…They let you out so quickly?" he asked, deep voice unmoving.
"Ah, not exactly. But a gutter rat is nothing if not resourceful, right?"
Vincent raised an eyebrow disapprovingly.
"…You escaped. Tell me you didn't climb out, with those injuries," he intoned, finally standing up - partially to put his cloak back on, and partially to use his superior height to his advantage.
"If it makes you feel better, daddy," she laughed, watching his expression flicker to one of distaste for just a moment. "I'll just add that to the list of things I'm not supposed to be doing, then - climbing out windows, wearing pants, spending time un-chaperoned with men. Mother must be turning in her grave."
"I never said -"
"I know, I know," she cut him off, smiling. "It was a joke. Please tell me you can take a joke - no, wait, of course you can't. You're a tightass, through and through."
She moved to sit down on the recently vacated bed, crutch thumping across the wooden floor irritatingly before being dropped unceremoniously to fall wherever it would.
"You're a tightass who's sticking around, though, right? I mean, it'd be kinda dumb to go off by yourself or something once you have people who'd like to see you every so often," she mentioned with a forced levity - she wasn't ever one to act serious, even when she kind of wanted to.
"Yuffie," he began, crimson gaze focused, and she knew what he was about to say even before he said it. "If I stayed, I would be a danger to you and everyone else."
"Bullcrap," she responded cheerfully. "We're all a danger to each other. We're all in deep shit if ShinRa decides to go out for revenge - but that Sephiroth can keep them in line, apparently. I wouldn't be too worried about that," she told him, laying down on the bed herself - she was more exhausted than she cared to admit. She couldn't really afford to spend too many days away from her job.
"It is different for me," he murmured, still unflinching. "I was asked by the Turks to assassinate the President ShinRa in return for their absence from the battle, and I complied."
"Oh." She shifted on her bed, trying to find a position that didn't hurt her side or back. "Well… wasn't that sort of what you were going for all along?"
He shook his head, dark hair shining in the half-light.
"I am… unsure, myself, of what I had intended," Vincent responded, quietly. "And less certain, now, that the path I chose was the correct one."
"What would make you say that?"
"Vengeance rarely cures more ills than it creates," he noted, turning to face the window, leaving Yuffie wondering just why everybody was so damn cryptic. A straight answer or two every so often would be nice. He was worse than Cloud, even - at least he didn't go around trying to confuse the hell out of people.
"Probably not," she agreed lightly, determined to combat the dark-haired man's morose attitude. "But you did a bunch of good at the same time - he needed to die."
"I wonder," Vincent returned, quiet and thoughtful as always.
"What, whether he needed to die or not?" Well, that was pretty stupid - Yuffie had seen enough people get messed up by the ShinRa corporation that any blow against them was a victory in her book. "I'm pretty sure he did."
"It is not my place to give life or death, deserved or not," he observed, face sober, as he turned to face the girl again. "And perhaps a worse evil has been given power in his place."
"Hey, it's not your place to figure that out, either. You do what you gotta do, and the rest of the world either deals or it doesn't." They watched each other for a moment. "So, that mean you're gonna stick around or not?"
"…I have much to think on," he responded, taking a restless step forward. "Wandering may clear my thoughts."
Yuffie let out a breath - she had known that this was the way it was going to turn out, but that didn't mean she was any less disappointed. Despite her nature, her friends were few and far between - a girl dressing as a boy couldn't afford those casual friendships. She had hoped that Vincent might become one of those few.
Her thoughts must have shown on her face, because he tuned towards her and spoke.
"But… I might return, from time to time, if you don't mind," he murmured, gaze shifting like he wasn't really sure why he was saying it.
Well, at least he wasn't a total idiot.
"Really?" she asked, brightening. "I'd like that. 'Cause, you know, thinking too much is bad for a guy. Turns you old real quick - and we couldn't have that, now could we?" She paused, giving him a bright, impish smile. "Now, I want a promise on that."
"You have my word," he responded - and maybe, just maybe, he smiled a little too. Probably not, though, because that would have meant the world was ending - and there was still way too much fun to be had for the apocalypse to come just yet. Besides, Yuffie had herself a man to catch - and no four horsemen or flaming swords were gonna stop her until she did.
"Hey, Spike," Zack called, practically breaking the hospital room's door down with his enthusiasm. "They're letting you out today!"
It had certainly been long enough since he'd been admitted - closer to a week than anything - and though Cloud had been awake for a couple of days, he hadn't been allowed to move. Zack and Sephiroth had both seen to that - and the former general hadn't left the blonde's side in days, interestingly enough. The first question that raised was how he managed to survive that long with apparently no food - the second was what, exactly, had happened between them that made the silence so comfortable.
Of course, the former captain could get straight answers out of neither of them. Typical.
But they both looked comfortable enough as they sat there, Cloud on the edge of his hospital bed, and Sephiroth looking over the edge of some book or another.
"I'm so glad you're ok, kiddo," Zack informed the younger, moving forward to ruffle the blonde's spiky hair. "You had me worried for a bit there."
"I'm fine, Zack," Cloud returned, pretending not to be indignant as he pushed his friend off of him. "And will you stop it with the hair? You're just going to injure me again."
"Nah, you're tougher than that," the dark-haired man responded. "Anyway, c'mon. Let's get you out of this place," he continued with a gesture towards the open door. Never seeing the inside of another hospital again would still be far too soon.
"With pleasure," Sephiroth agreed, standing gracefully from his seat and closing the book. "Cloud, do you think you can walk without assistance?"
"If Zack can, so can I," the blonde declared as he slid off the bed carefully. "I still don't understand why you got out so much earlier than I did. From what I heard, you weren't in great shape either."
"Well, I walked out of that place," Zack pointed out, extending a hand to help the kid get his balance, "and you got carried. That didn't help your case much, kiddo. That and you were probably just too cute to let go," he continued happily.
"Zack," Sephiroth intoned, looking very much put-upon, "You should probably wait until he's healed to begin making a nuisance of yourself."
"Hey, I'm injured too!" the former captain returned indignantly. "Doesn't that give me special privileges too?" he asked, trying to sling an arm around the taller man - an attempt which was unfortunately fended off.
"I think I liked him better unconscious," Sephiroth noted, sharing a half-smirk with Cloud.
"Sometimes I think I agree with you," the blonde responded, teasing, and Zack's wounded look was ruined by the grin that just refused to go away. Maybe his work here wasn't done, but it was moving cheerfully along.
"So anyway," the dark-haired man continued, throwing the arm meant for Sephiroth over Cloud's shoulders, "I have a grand plan for us, you'n me. D'you wanna hear my plan?"
"Not for General Sephiroth too?" the blonde asked, half-playing.
"He's not a general anymore, so you can drop the title. And Seph's welcome to join if he wants - but I somehow can't see him being a delivery boy. Seph?" Zack asked, looking over to his friend for confirmation.
"…I think that, for once, you are actually correct," Sephiroth returned, eyebrow raised. "And you, one of the most accomplished fighters in the country, would lower yourself to being a 'delivery boy?'"
"It's better than going back to the ShinRa with my tail between my legs, like I'm repenting or something. What do ya say, Cloud? It wouldn't just be delivery," he explained, never letting his expression fall, "it'd be other stuff, too. We'd do odd jobs for whoever wanted 'em, and guard trains or something. We'll live together over our shop, and Seph can drop by whenever he wants, too. It'll be great."
There was only a brief pause before Cloud responded.
"Sure," he agreed, walking forward gingerly even as he gave Zack a smile. "It's not like I have anything else to do, right?"
"Not in particular," Zack agreed, turning his glance to Sephiroth. "C'mon, princess. We're going shop-hunting."
Sephiroth raised a delicate eyebrow at that.
"With what funds? If I recall, you lost a good deal of it at the races a few weeks ago," he noted, but nevertheless followed the others out of the room.
"With your money, of course, my friend. We'll pay you back with our undying love," the former captain declared with an enthusiasm that almost made his wounds start aching again.
"Remind me again of the exchange rate in actual currency for 'undying love.'"
"Whoa, Seph," Zack retorted as they headed down the hallway, ignoring the astonished and vaguely scandalized looks of the hospital staff, "I think you might have just made another joke. That's two in the past five minutes - going so fast, you're gonna hurt yourself. You have to take it slow for these things."
"Duly noted," Sephiroth responded, and Cloud gave a little chuckle - it was strange to hear, after so long; but good. Really good. Actually it was pretty much a miracle - it wasn't too long ago when the smaller blonde couldn't be convinced to say anything at all in Sephiroth's presence, much less laugh.
Maybe it would take a little while, but they'd make it. One day they might even figure out that hugs didn't transmit deadly diseases - though that was probably a little much to hope for at this point. But, perfect or not, Zack couldn't help the feeling - coursing through his body like adrenaline - that this was the way it was meant to be. That everything they had been through was so they could make it to this point, together.
Those years of hurt weren't going to just disappear, but that was ok. He wouldn't change a thing, not for the world.
The marketplace on Cyprus had always been pretty interesting - colorful, in the way that places which bustled with people tended to be - but it hadn't ever been really out of the ordinary. Normally, it was just a welcome break from the carefully tended monotony of Riku's life - but he later stated with confidence that there was the hand of fate somewhere in that day's disturbance.
"I told you, um - lefta, ochi pia," a brunette boy - clearly a foreigner - explained in very broken Greek as an overly large and frighteningly muscular fishwife bore down on him menacingly. The boy was covered in guts and standing uncomfortably in the midst of what looked like it might have been a tornado of fish, and the pitiful remains of a broken stall.
"Lefta," he repeated himself, completely unaware that the woman he was dealing with probably spoke Turkish. "I'm sorry, really, I didn't mean to break it, I was just - I don't have any more money to pay you back with, if you let me go get some I could, though. I'm really sorry, I am."
The sight was so absurd, so comical, that Riku couldn't help but laugh - the poor guy probably hadn't been on Cyprus for more than a day, and already he'd managed to break a whole market stall, landing himself in trouble with the locals. And all this while covered in fish guts.
He'd never done anything quite like this before, but this kid needed some saving.
"Hey," he began as he walked over to the destruction, intending to grab the guy's attention. "Your Greek sucks pretty bad," he informed the brunette, laughing as the boy's eyes went wide with indignation. "Let me handle this."
"You know, if you weren't being such a jerk I'd say thank you," the foreigner muttered, nevertheless taking a step to the side so that Riku was in front of the angry fishwife instead.
"Well, I am saving your ass, so a little bit of thanks might be in order," he responded easily. "And you reek. You're welcome to a bath at my place when you're done being indignant."
"You sure know how to make a guy feel good," the boy responded, and Riku was pretty sure he'd never seen anything as cute as the blush that spread across the other's face at that moment.
He did his best to ignore that for the time being, as he began to explain the situation to the woman in fluent Turkish. That didn't help much, at least until he promised compensation from the Greek royal family - and though the Turks on Cyprus weren't overly fond of the Greeks, they were fond of Greek money.
Riku finally turned away from the woman and back to the brunette, grinning at the look of astonishment on the other's face.
"So, you gonna take me up on the bath or are you going to run around with fish guts in your hair for the rest of the day?" he questioned casually, still smirking. "And I kind of want to know just how you managed to break that stall. What's your name, stranger?"
He began to walk away then, and the boy followed at a light trot.
"Uh," the boy responded intelligently, clearly not very quick on his feet, "I'm Sora. Why do you speak English so well?"
"International schooling will do that to a guy. I'm fluent in French, English, Greek, Latin, and Turkish - and I've got enough Chinese and German to get along." Modesty had never been one of Riku's virtues. "But how did you manage to break the whole damn stall?" They got quite a few strange looks as they walked by various shops, but he was pretty used to those by now.
The boy - Sora - blushed a little, and was looking increasingly flustered with every passing second.
"There was this kid, and he was trying to pickpocket me - usually I'd let him take it, but Roxas said he was gonna get mad at me if I came back without dinner one more time. So I'm chasing this kid, trying to get my money back, and all of a sudden this fish stall jumps in my way," he moaned, putting his hands in his pockets like he expected to find his missing money pouch there.
Riku laughed - and the other pouted a little bit, even though he looked like he was trying his best not to. The kid was probably just as oblivious to how adorable he looked as he was to everything else.
"So you're left without your money, without dinner, and with an angry fishwife in your face," Riku summarized, amused. "Do I get a thank-you?"
"Yeah." A pause. "I mean, thanks a million. You saved me from a terrible fate," the boy said, finally smiling a little bit. "Anyway, what's your name?"
He turned to properly face Sora then, smirking like a cat at a fishbowl, before sweeping him a long and over exaggerated bow.
"I'm Riku, illegitimate son of a prince of Greece, grandson to our revered King George I. I was dropped onto Cyprus when I was a baby, and I'll be left here until the public forgets what a scandal I am," he informed the other, the sarcasm laid on thick.
Sora took a moment or two to comprehend, blinking wordlessly.
"What, really?" he asked, still unable to get that look of surprise off his face.
"Yes, really. Don't be an idiot," Riku retorted, walking past the buildings until he reached the road that would lead to his family's summer home. Sora really was impossibly cute - and the fact that the thought persisted was pretty telling.
For the first time in a long time, and quite unexpectedly, Riku found himself actually enjoying their conversation - in the circles he usually moved in, smiles were always fake, and generally covered some kind of ulterior motive. But here, with this boy that he'd barely known for five minutes, he felt like he only had to smile when he wanted to. Like he didn't have to keep a lie on his face. Better yet, he knew somehow that Sora's every expression, his every word, were completely and happily honest.
"Uh… I'm not," Sora responded, breaking Riku's train of thought, "It's just - I'm ninety-nine percent certain that my brother's been stealing your identity ever since we got to Greece," Sora admitted, face turning even redder. "Uh, sorry 'bout that."
The elder let out a peal of laughter, and then - because he'd never been denied anything he wanted, because no-one had ever fought him on anything, and because it never even occurred to him to do anything differently - he turned and kissed the other boy, fish smell or no.
Sora pulled away within seconds, beet-red and fumbling, but that wasn't completely unexpected.
"You jerk," the brunette said, looking more surprised and embarrassed than actually offended, "you know, it's common courtesy to ask before you kiss someone! Especially a guy," he emphasized, blue eyes bright.
"Yeah, well - neither you nor I are exactly ordinary, are we?" Riku returned, smirking roguishly, as their feet crunched on the gravel driveway.
"…I think I'm going to go take you up on that bath now," Sora fairly squeaked, bursting into a trot across the lawn.
Well, this is going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun.
One Saturday night, Cloud and Yuffie met up in the Seventh Heaven like they had done years ago, when Cloud had been in the army and Yuffie just a punk kid. It was surprisingly comfortable, actually - even the former soldier noticed that he was feeling less reticent than usual, like some weight had been taken from him.
"Looking good, Cloud," Yuffie noted with a grin as she dropped down into the chair opposite him, motioning to the waiter that he should bring her a drink. "I'd never believe that you only got out of the hospital a week or two ago if I hadn't been there myself."
"Same goes for you," the blonde responded, taking a sip of his drink. "I see you're not using your crutch anymore." Actually, she was moving around extremely well - maybe there wouldn't be any permanent damage.
"Yep," she agreed cheerily, "Totally off. Still not back up to speed, but that'll come eventually. So I'm not too bad, all things told - even if I can't quite get back to business yet. Speaking of businesses," she continued, crossing her arms on the table, "how's yours going? You're starting up one with Zack, right?"
"Yeah," he responded, looking around the room for a moment - his awkwardness wasn't completely cured yet, after all. "We haven't really started yet. Buying automobiles and weaponry takes time."
"And money," Yuffie interjected, one eyebrow raised. "So how do you afford splurging on a place like this?"
Cloud cleared his throat a bit - there were several answers to this question, none of which he was particularly intent on sharing.
"Well - Sephiroth went back to ShinRa, first of all -"
"- that son of a -"
"It's not what you think," the blonde cut her off with a small smile. "They came begging for his help - apparently the President finally realized that his army was nothing without its General. His pay raise was significant."
It was better to have an eye on your enemy than leave them alone, after all - and in any case, much of what ShinRa did was good. None of them would have joined in the first place if it was all evil - the city's real police force was corrupt and untrustworthy, completely unwilling to spend the time or manpower it took to control crime in the streets. ShinRa's army deterred and punished wrongdoing when the city itself was unwilling.
"So that's how you've got money to spare," she said, impressed, as the waiter set her drink on the table. She grabbed it and downed every last drop before there had even been time for a ring of condensation to form.
The answer to that was both yes and no - though Sephiroth's pay raise certainly contributed to his and Zack's financial wellbeing, there had been other factors. Part of Zack's brilliant idea had involved going to marksmanship competitions under fake names and taking, of course, the top prize - the money prize - without anyone really realizing who they were.
Maybe it was a little bit unfair - but as Zack said, it was really just taking advantage of the skills they already had, like any good businessman would do.
"Yeah," Cloud agreed, not really wanting to make the other methods the topic of conversation. "How's Vincent doing?" he asked, transparently attempting to change the subject. "Has he left yet?"
"Oh hell no," Yuffie responded, and the blonde wasn't entirely sure that he was comfortable with the intensity of her grin. "I'm not letting him go just yet."
"…Didn't you promise to let him leave?"
"Sorta," she replied, tapping her mug on the table until the condensation slid down and stained the wood. "But I'm not gonna let him go until I'm sure he'll come back."
He refrained from asking just when that might be.
"Fair enough," Cloud responded with a quiet laugh, taking another drink. "But, while you're here, I thought I'd pass this on - Tifa's offered to give you a job at the bar if you ever want one. If you ever decide that you can't go on being a pickpocket forever."
The look Yuffie shot him then was purely incredulous, and the blonde was almost sorry he'd said anything.
"Oh, hell no. I'm not an old codger yet, and nobody's gonna make me wear one of those walking wedding cakes women call dresses -"
"Tifa doesn't," Cloud pointed out, and was summarily ignored.
"- and nobody's gonna tell me where I can go or what I can do or who I can spend time alone with. I'm perfectly fine being a man for now, thanks all the same."
"It's a standing offer anyway," the former soldier responded, mildly amused, as he finally finished his drink and stood. "But, I have some things that need doing. Say hello to Vincent for me."
"I will," she chirruped, "and you'll pay for my tab, won't you?"
"I think you've trained me to expect that by now," he observed, handing her a bill as she called for the waiter to bring her another.
It really was good to know that some things would never change, no matter what happened or what else might be different. Some things didn't need to change.
A half hour later, after the most beautiful bath he could ever remember taking, Sora finally came back downstairs to thank his host. Despite the whole kissing thing, the other boy had really been very kind and generous - and Sora was hardly one to be ungrateful.
With the help of one of many servants who wandered the hallways in apparent boredom, the brunette found Riku on the back porch, where he was watching the ocean swell gently up over a pristinely manicured white-sand beach.
The whole place was so unlike the brunette's own home that it was almost astonishing - the doors and walls were all laced with so many windows that it was hard to believe that the building didn't collapse under its own weight, and the shell-white vaulted ceilings were more inviting than imposing. The doors leading out onto the oceanfront balcony were all open, letting in the ocean breeze, and the white curtains fluttered against the gathering clouds on the horizon
"Hey, Riku?" Sora ventured from the doorway, taking a step outside and finding himself grateful that the weather in the rest of the world wasn't as terrible as the weather in Chicago. Then again, he'd place a bet that there wasn't weather anywhere that was worse than Chicago's.
"Oh, hey," came Riku's response, and he flashed the brunette a grin as he stood up. "Enjoy your bath, did you? I was beginning to wonder if you'd drowned."
"Nope, I managed just fine," Sora laughed, plopping down ungracefully into a wooden chair.
"Shame. If you'd been drowning, I could have come to rescue you," Riku replied, grinning like the devil - and worse, Sora wasn't entirely sure whether the other boy was joking or not.
"I'm pretty sure I don't need any rescuing."
"Like I said, it's a shame." His grin stayed there for a moment, but then turned apologetic - he shifted his weight awkwardly before sitting down again. "But listen, uh - sorry about freaking you out earlier. Wasn't my intent."
Sora raised an eyebrow.
"You're sorry for freaking me out, not sorry for kissing me without permission?" the brunette asked, good mood still wafting though him.
The smirk Riku flashed him then had probably made more than one girl pass out on the spot, and the guy knew it, too.
"Not in the least," he responded, and Sora couldn't help but laugh.
"So…" the elder continued, propping his head up with his arm in a way that made his silver hair fall over his face, "What brings you to Cyprus? You're from America, that much I can tell from the accent, and we don't tend to get too many travelers from your side of the Atlantic."
"Oh. Uh…" The question caught him a little bit off-guard; Axel had given them a cover-story plus fake papers at every country they'd visited, and this one was no different. The usually picked some lesser-known member of the nobility to impersonate - apparently Axel couldn't get over his love of lying, no matter what other habits he'd kicked - and used their fake status to get themselves into the most exclusive hotels or restaurants.
According to Axel, Sora's answer to enquiries of that sort was supposed to be "I'm the personal servant of Riku, grandson to the king."
The issues with this were quite clear.
"Um… Well. I'm… on vacation?" the brunette said with little hope that he was going to be believed.
"H-uh. So boys on vacation regularly wander around marketplaces by themselves, do they? And have brothers who impersonate royalty?" he asked, looking disbelieving and mildly amused. "Funny. I wasn't aware."
"Yeah, well…" A sight on Sora's left distracted him for a moment. A beautiful fencing foil leaned up against the whitewashed wall, next to a mask of equal quality.
"Wait, you fence?" he asked, perking up a bit.
"Yeah. Why?" Riku questioned, apparently distracted enough by the query to drop his earlier train of thought.
"Let's have a go, then, if you've got another set," Sora responded brightly - it had been way too long since he'd gotten to practice. He'd been pretty good, too, once upon a time.
"Sorry, we haven't got any in children's sizes," the other drawled, smirking - but this time the expression was entirely different. The brunette play-scowled - this was all part of the fun.
"Let's see you keep that attitude when I make you eat dirt."
"Well, we'll see, won't we?" He paused then, and his arrogant expression melted away as quickly as it had come. "Um, Sora - do you think you might, you know, stay on Cyprus for a little bit?" he asked awkwardly.
Seeing that awkward, scowling look on the other's face, Sora couldn't help but feel sorry for him - as nobility, he probably hadn't had many chances to make friends. His house was huge, sure, but it was also empty - and that was a sorry state to be in.
"Sure," Sora replied, smiling. "I don't see why not."
On the list of wonderful ways to wake up, being pulled out of a dream by your lover's mouth on your lips and his hand on your crotch ranked way the fuck up there. For Axel anyway - though anybody that didn't hold true for was one crazy son of a bitch.
"Well," the redhead murmured, shifting his position for better access even as he opened one eye, "Good morning to you too, Roxy."
"Sora's been gone for hours," Roxas responded as best he could between kisses, "and you weren't waking up. So I figured it was my duty to do that for you."
"Good call," Axel responded, putting both his hands on the blonde's ass where they belonged. "Awfully frisky today, aren't we?"
"Shut up - there are things you could be doing with your mouth that involve less talking," the younger growled, and the redhead took the moment of distraction as an opportunity to flip them around. With Roxas on the bottom, Axel found it easier to put his thigh between his lover's legs and elicit those long, beautiful noises the blonde was so damn good at.
"Aww, love you too, baby," the redhead laughed, and brought their lips together again.
Slowly but certainly, Sephiroth had begun to realize that he spent more time at Zack and Cloud's shared living quarters than he did at his own. Zack had teased him about it more than once, but he'd stopped once he realized that the General wasn't denying it.
He had never decided what, precisely, to do about the situation with Cloud - his limited knowledge of interpersonal affairs did not extend into such a realm - but their condition had been changing, somehow, with no easily discernable end in sight.
He would never admit it aloud, but he had taken to watching the blonde - hoping, he supposed, to discover something about the younger that would explain his undying infatuation. Very little had come to light that would explain such a bout of insanity from a normally stable man.
Chiefly, he had noticed that Cloud, much like himself, had quite a bit of trouble with people - he never seemed quite comfortable in their presence, and never sought them out if it could be helped.
That answered at least one question that had been bothering Sephiroth since Zack's explanation - as to why the younger Captain had never brought it up himself, or even initiated a conversation with the General of his own free will.
But, despite the time he spent searching for answers, Sephiroth still found himself uncomfortably unenlightened.
His decision to ask Cloud himself was not planned, but rather the result of an impulse - the more time he spent with Zack, the more compelled he felt to act on these whims. He'd seen the blonde enter his room of the small living complex, and had followed without thinking; and now, he found himself standing outside of the door with his hand raised mid-motion.
After a moment, he brought himself to knock.
"Cloud?" he began, still getting used to the taste of the man's first name. "May I come in?"
"Door's open," the former captain responded, and Sephiroth took that as an invitation to enter.
The room was predictably sparse, with only a bed and a bedside table to fill the space. Cloud himself sat cross-legged in the middle of the comforter, lap full with a full array of various bandages as he attempted to wrap one around his right arm - and given that he only had his left to work with, this wasn't going particularly well.
The blonde looked up for an instant and then down again, holding one end of the bandage with his teeth as he pulled it tight across his arm.
"Sephiroth. Can I help you with something?" he asked quietly once he was done, looking up through his unruly bangs at his visitor.
"I was about to ask the same question," Sephiroth rumbled in return, giving a nod to the pile of bandages. "It seems you might be more successful with assistance," he noted, taking a few steps forward, uninvited, to sit on the edge of the bed himself.
"…You sure you don't mind?" Cloud questioned, watching the general intently. "I mean, I could call in Zack if -"
"No need." Sephiroth took up a roll of bandages and found its end, then began to wrap it around the blonde's arm with an ease only years of practice could give. The man's arm was bulkier than perhaps it should have been for his tiny frame - training with the Buster Sword would do that to a person, he supposed. But even more than that, Sephiroth noticed that it was tense: it seemed that the blonde had trouble resting, even for a moment.
"Cloud," he began after a moment, eyes never leaving the other soldier's arm, "Relax your arm. Doing otherwise may injure the muscles further."
"I know," the blonde responded, giving a small laugh that seemed like it meant something of an unhappier nature. "Sorry. It's just - I guess it's not everyone who gets their arm wrapped by ShinRa's Silver General, huh?"
"No," Sephiroth agreed, finishing that wound and moving on to the other man's chest, "That is a privilege granted to few men." He felt Cloud stiffen even more at those words, and wondered what he'd said wrong.
There was a moment during which only the sounds of the bandage unrolling could be heard.
"I see," the blonde murmured after a moment. "What… makes me one of those men?"
Ah. So this was the problem.
"I don't know. Perhaps it is luck." There was a pause, and Sephiroth could practically feel the man deflate. "I, however, prefer to think that it is because -" He took a breath, searching for the words " - you have earned the right to call me your friend, if you wish."
The sound of breathing was almost deafening for a heartbeat, two.
"Oh." Another beat. "…Really?"
The general finished up the bandage with a quick knot, and looked up at Cloud's face - the man seemed like he might never have been more surprised in his life. Sephiroth was left paralyzed for a moment, unsure of what to do.
Think. Zack is good with people - how would he handle a situation like this?
Without really thinking about it beforehand, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the younger man. There was too much awkwardness in that one motion - it was, perhaps, too raw, too sudden, too unexplained; but it was something.
Then the door swung open.
"Hey, Cloud? I…" And Zack was left speechless, staring at them as they sprung apart - but it took only seconds for the look of astonishment to turn into a mischievous grin. "No, no, don't mind me - I'll just let you two get back to what you were -"
"Zack," Sephiroth growled, only half serious, "I'm going to hurt you now."
"Hey, no, don't hurt me," Zack laughed, taking a step back. "Cloud, defend me!"
"You're on your own this time," the blonde responded, watching from the bed with a sparkle in his eye.
That one moment was, perhaps, broken - but it had been there. And now, perhaps, it would be easier to find again. It would be less awkward, the next time, and less the time after - and again, until it was as comfortable as anything. That would be a while, for the both of them - but something told Sephiroth that it would be worth it.
"Come on," Sora began, taking off at a trot down the burgundy-carpeted hallway, "I want you to meet my brother." This would also be the part when the brunette begged Axel to let them stay in Cyprus for a little bit longer. Maybe for quite a while longer; running around Europe could get pretty lonely when your brother wasn't paying much attention to anything but his stick-thin lover. It would be nice to stay in a place where he'd have friends again.
"He the one who's been impersonating me?" Riku asked with less annoyance than was probably deserved. He didn't look a bit out of place in a venue like this - but then, these ritzy hotels had been built for men like him.
"Yeah," the younger responded sheepishly, slowing down so he could have a proper conversation with the other boy. "We're both here with our bodyguard Axel -"
"Bodyguard? Why do you need a bodyguard?"
Crap. I'm really not too good at this whole "secrets" thing, am I, Sora thought to himself with a sigh.
"Um… no reason. You just can't ever be too careful, right?"
The brunette avoided his friend's upcoming question expertly by trotting to his door and knocking on it quite loudly. Much to his disappointment, there was no answering noise from behind it - in fact, everything was rather disturbingly silent.
"Hey, Rox?" Sora called, knocking on the door again - when there was no answer, he began to rustle around in his pocket for his own copy of the key. "Alright then, I'm coming in!"
This elicited some noise from the other side of the door, finally.
"No, wait! I'm coming," came Roxas's muffled, and notably irritated, voice. "What are you doing here, anyway?" he asked, voice getting louder as his steps could be heard across the floor.
"I'm here to steal your brother from you," Riku responded with a grin, ignoring Sora's squawk of indignation.
There was a moment of silence before the hitch of the door unlocking could be heard. The door opened slightly to reveal Roxas on the other side, looking like he was about to kill - and, the brunette noticed, only partially clothed. A quick glance over the blonde's shoulder revealed Axel in a similar state of disarray, though with markedly less clothing on his person.
Roxas stared, fuming, at first one, then the other, as the expressions on the intruders' faces turned from surprise to horror. The silence grew awkward quickly.
"To steal my brother?" A beat. "Take him," Roxas growled, and slammed the door in both of their faces.
There was a long moment, during which Sora tried and failed to collect his thoughts.
"So…" Riku began, breaking the silence with his sharp grin, "He's your… bodyguard. Is that what they're calling it these days? Well, I guess they're guarding bodies in a manner of speak-"
"Shut up, Riku," Sora squeaked, completely not ready to have a discussion on euphemisms with anyone, much less with someone he'd only just met. Or someone who had kissed him not three hours prior. He was fairly certain that his face was turning scarlet, but there was very little he could do about that at this point.
Maybe he'd look back on it later and this would be funny. He was pretty certain that it would be hilarious, actually - but right now it was just potently embarrassing.
"I'm going to have to deal with you making lewd jokes all the way back to your house, aren't I?"
"Hell yeah." Riku responded with a laugh, as they turned together to walk down the hallway.
Even with that moment of embarrassment, this was pretty ok. They'd go back to Riku's beach, and they'd fence with each other again and again until they were exhausted - then they'd find Roxas and they'd all laugh about it together. Six months down the road, maybe they'd pick up and leave, maybe they wouldn't - it was hard to tell. But one way or another, it was good - and considering everything that had happened, Sora was grateful for every moment.
Even with the barely-healed scar on the brunette's shoulder that he'd catch Riku staring at every so often, or the way Roxas's arm still hurt when it rained, every one of them had been impossibly, wonderfully lucky.
Maybe they hadn't deserved their bad luck, and perhaps their good luck was far more than anyone could possibly have asked for. Maybe good people had died and bad ones had lived. Maybe none of them deserved forgiveness for the things they had done, and maybe they did - but that wasn't really anyone's place to decide.
It just went to show that life never had a giant balancing sheet, where good deeds were checked off against bad ones until you came up with your final tally - and that was probably for the best. Life proceeded as it would, oblivious to any one person's crimes or virtues.
Anyone could only do the best that they could with what life had given to them, and no-one would ever know if that was enough.
None would ever know, perhaps, but they could hope.
Oh. My. God.
I have spent the last eight months of my life writing this thing, and it's finally done. I can honestly tell you that I never thought I was going to make it through this. I'm so happy that I have. I hope that you guys enjoyed it too.
On another note, I am so sorry about this sixteen thousand word behemoth of a chapter. I'm sure it wasn't what you were expecting, either, was it? *laughs* Well, I don't like doing what people expect me to, and the end was planned from the very first chapter.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for following me this far. It means worlds and worlds to me. I would never, ever have been able to do it without you.
And I say this now with more emphasis than I've said it ever before: Please, please, if you read and liked I would be so happy if you'd give me a comment, especially if you've put this baby on your favorites list (which I heartily appreciate, by the way).
Thank you so much. I love you all.