A/N: And the beat goes on. As always, thanks to all of you who have reviewed; you've been more than kind. You give me more credit than I deserve! I hope my story lives up to or even exceeds your expectations.
Sorry for the delay, this chapter was a real bitchkitty to write. I confess that I'm one of those people who gets to Chapter Two then runs out of inspiration, so making it to Chapter Three is a good sign.
Despite Dr. Holden's assumption that Nibelheim was deserted, the town was enjoying the beginnings of a revival.
The new town bore little resemblance to the original or the actor-populated copy that was built upon its ashes, but that was by design. Although many of the structures that were hastily reconstructed by Shinra still stood, as people arrived to carve out their new lives, the buildings were torn down and replaced.
The primary reason was that these older structures were shoddily built and not meant to stand the test of time, so within a few years of their construction they deteriorated and became unstable. It simply made more sense to clear them away and start from scratch in most cases. It was essentially a brand new town, but the name remained Nibelheim mostly because it never occurred to anyone to come up with another one.
People were drawn to the area because it belonged to no one. It had been abandoned after the fall of Shinra and was anyone's for the taking. Many of them were from Edge, and had crossed over from the Eastern Continent after having grown tired of struggling to make a living in a city whose future even after six years was still precarious. The coast was only a short distance from Nibelheim, and many people had heard rumors that the fish were so abundant one could walk across the water on their backs. That claim turned out to be highly fanciful, but rooted in enough truth that those who arrived early on and staked their claim were able to find success in fishing.
Not all people came for that reason. A small group shared the sensation of having been pulled there for reasons they couldn't quite explain. If someone had taken the time to study these people, they would have noticed that all of them were young families with at least one child under ten years old. They also would have observed that these children, formerly sullen and misbehaved, grew more content as they drew closer to the town. But since no such study was undertaken, the parents simply concluded that it was a positive side effect of the fresh country air.
As the families settled in, aspects of the children's personalities emerged, and some of them began expressing interest in things that they never had before. Two nine-year-old girls, Lotte and Trina became instant best friends. However, they didn't play house or with dolls as one would expect from little girls Instead, they pretended they were soldiers, using sticks as swords. Their mothers thought it an odd choice of entertainment, but otherwise condoned it.
A three-year-old boy named Obie joined them nearly every day, mostly sitting and watching the two but occasionally he was permitted to join in their mock battles. Lotte merely tolerated him, but Trina treated him with sisterly devotion. Obie slowly came out of his shell and revealed a bright, loving personality, and the other children were drawn to him. Soon nearly all of them had formed a tight-knit group, which pleased their parents to no end.
Ten-year-old Adel would often join his parents in the pub they had opened, not merely getting underfoot as children his age tended to do, but talking to customers, helping his father and even sometimes serving drinks to patrons, who would tip him with coins and trinkets. Eight-year-old Dita would help her mother bake cookies, and then would take batches of them to her friends, instructing them with motherly sternness to share. Others would play shoemaker, scientist, police officer and a host of other activities they hadn't expressed interest in previously. Their parents were happy to see their children settling in so well and making friends easily.
Inhabitants arrived and departed, some only staying for a week or two before deciding that they were more suited to the order and predictability of Edge. The population was still in enough of a state of flux that xenophobia had not set in; so little notice was taken of new faces. This casual attitude toward strangers worked in the drifter's favor.
No one remembered exactly when he had turned up in town, he was simply there one day, inquiring if anyone was willing to pay him to kill the monsters that threatened the town. Violent and often fatal attacks were common, so the unofficial sheriff, a pigeon-chested man previously from Icicle, eagerly accepted his offer. After that, monsters no longer attacked so no one asked questions of the man for fear that such inquiries would drive him out of town and leave them yet again vulnerable. He was anonymous and rarely spoke to others unless it was to accept a job.
His looks were unmemorable. He wasn't plain, in fact, he was handsome enough to turn a few heads, but once he was gone from sight, his face would fade from people's minds. They would recall a tall young man with long, dark hair, possibly of Wutai descent, and those details would become hazy as time wore on. Even his impressive weapon, a katana nearly as tall as him, didn't stay in mind for long. This was deliberate. It was a carefully constructed illusion intended for his anonymity.
However, the younger children knew. They saw through the glamour to the silver-haired man beneath it all. Perhaps that was because children didn't yet understand that there was no such thing as ghosts or magic that was not aided by materia, so sightings of that nature were nothing unusual to them. Or perhaps the illusion wasn't intended for them, and even if it were, they still would have seen, because they were the reason he had come to Nibelheim, even if neither they nor he realized it yet.
When he was seen in town, the children were never far behind. They followed him through the streets and watched him from the windows of their homes. When he would walk by, they stopped what they were doing, their eyes following him until he disappeared into a building or rounded a corner. He spoke to none of them and avoided their sometimes angry and accusing, sometimes despondent gazes. Still, they were drawn to him.
Lotte and Trina, with little Obie in tow as usual, took the greatest interest. The mothers were a little concerned because they knew nothing of him, but decided the girls simply had a crush on the handsome young man and let them have their fun after warning them about the possible dangers. He did nothing to acknowledge the trio, in fact he often appeared to be trying to get away from them, so their mothers figured they'd get over their seeming infatuation with the man.
The mothers had it wrong. Awake, the children didn't know why they were drawn to him. They knew he was different, that there was something special about him. The feelings he inspired in them were too complex for them to understand, and they only vaguely connected them to him. Instead, they dealt with them in the way young children tended to do, becoming moody or irritable if the feelings were bad or dismissing them out of hand if they weren't.
But at night, after they had gone to sleep, their spirits left their little bodies and went walking.
They always knew where to find him, and that was usually at the shore. He slept little, so many of his nights were spent staring balefully at the ocean, shivering against the cold night air. As they drew closer, understanding dawned. They became the adults they were before the Planet decided that they had to return after their previous lives ended prematurely.
Lotte and Trina found him sitting cross-legged on an outcropping of rock, and they went to him, sitting in front of him, blocking his view of the ocean. Obie took his place beside him.
Sephiroth knew to expect them most nights. Even sleep wasn't an effective deterrent if one of them had something they wanted to say. His expression didn't change when they joined him or when he looked to the beach and saw the rest of the children standing there, looking at him expectantly. He closed his eyes and sighed inwardly.
When he re-opened them, the children sitting near him were gone and in their place were three men. As usual, Genesis spoke first.
"So how are you feeling, Sephiroth?" His voice was devoid of the sneering sarcasm Sephiroth had come to know in their previous times together. That would have been preferable to the feigned pity he currently saw.
"Fuck off, Genesis."
"It's an honest question," Genesis continued, seemingly unaffected by the verbal abuse. "This can't be easy for you."
"What do you want me to say?" The only thing that stopped him from leaping forward and wrapping his hands around the redhead's neck was knowing how stupid he would feel when he passed right through the immaterial spirit and landed flat on his face, and how much that would amuse Genesis. "Do you want to see me break down and cry over what I've lost?"
"Is that what you want to do?" Genesis asked, obviously fighting the urge to mock.
"Genesis," Angeal sighed. "You're not helping."
"And I've lost nothing," Sephiroth spat at the redhead, his voice simmering with resentment. "My mind is as powerful as my body would have been if the things hadn't gone wrong. Should I prove it to you? Perhaps I could cast a glamour to make your mother think I was your father and have a go at her, hm? Or maybe I could see to it that their catch for the day turns up spoiled. I wouldn't even need to get out of bed for that one."
Genesis laughed with bitter amusement as he watched his former friend grow angrier. It wasn't that he wanted to see Sephiroth upset, he was just enjoying the irony. The man who had inspired such searing jealousy in him because he was always the best and the strongest had been reborn as what he had grown to hate most: a normal, frail human, albeit one with mental abilities that went beyond any mastery of materia.
Zack shifted uncomfortably beside Sephiroth, and when he spoke, his voice was pleading and tinged with weariness. "C'mon, guys. Don't do this."
Despite himself, Sephiroth's anger dissipated slightly at the pitiful plea. It was the effect Zack had on him. He would have called it a "soft spot" if he were feeling generous. He let out an exasperated sigh. "So why are you all here this time? Checking up on me?"
"Well, yes," said Angeal.
"What about them," he jerked his head in the direction of the beach, where a group of people stood. There were two men in lab coats: a Wutai man with his long, black hair pulled into a stringy ponytail, and a bookish-looking fellow with light brown hair and glasses. His clothing was riddled with bullet holes. Sephiroth disregarded the latter man in favor of glaring hatefully at the former. The man averted his eyes and gazed down at the sand. They were surrounded by people Sephiroth didn't know: a blonde woman covered in burns, a dark-haired man with a mustache and a blue, button-down shirt, the front of which was torn and covered in blood, and several others in similar states of injury.
"I don't know," Zack replied, his voice quiet as he absently fiddled with the zipper on his boot. "I guess they have their reasons."
"Except for Gast and Hojo, they're all people I killed," Sephiroth noted. "But why so few of them? If all of my victims were reincarnated along with you, this town couldn't hold all of them."
"I don't know, Sephiroth. Ask the planet," Angeal retorted, exasperated.
"I would, but I'm still trying to get an explanation for this…sick joke," he gestured toward himself, feeling angry and disgusted. "But I've not gotten an answer to that question, either."
"Maybe it's your punishment," Genesis offered, pensive this time instead of confrontational. "Maybe it's to teach you a lesson. Or maybe you were in just too big of a hurry to claw your way out of the Lifestream this time so you left your Jenova cells sitting on the dresser." He laughed at his own joke. "I've got my own problems to think about, like why the Planet decided to go against it's own nature and randomly reincarnate a handful of people. And to spit me back out as a damn girl for Shiva's sake!"
"Oh, I'm sure it's my fault somehow," Sephiroth shot back, his voice laden with sarcasm.
"It is," Zack said. "I mean…everyone here is connected to you somehow." He cringed slightly when Sephiroth turned to him and glared. "Beyond that, well, you're probably the only one that really knows why you're here."
Sephiroth looked away quickly. His expression told an obvious story.
"You don't know, do you?"
"Of course I do."
"You just don't remember."
After a tense moment, Sephiroth rose and began walking away. "This conversation is over."
He didn't look back as he made his way down the beach. He didn't need to in order to know what kind of looks those sanctimonious bastards were aiming at him. They were no doubt very pleased by his predicament, and he was sure that the others they brought along with them felt the same way. He wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of knowing that since he had discovered his latest incarnation was one of frail humanity, he found himself consumed by one emotion he had never expected could touch him.
This fear was compounded by the fact that Zack was correct. He couldn't remember his purpose for coming back. He couldn't even recall if it was his decision to do so, or if the Lifestream had spat him back out as some sort of punishment. He was lost and weak, and that infuriated and humiliated him as much as it terrified him.
He had nearly gotten himself killed on a few occasions because he had no idea how normal humans coped with their limitations. That wouldn't do at all. Dying would certainly free him from his inferiority, but he'd be damned if it would happen if, say, he forgot he could no longer fly and ended up flattened at the bottom of a ravine. That would have been almost comical, and there was no way he'd tolerate being remembered as the idiot who jumped off a cliff for no reason.
Perhaps worst of all, Mother no longer spoke to him. But then, she wasn't really his mother after all. "She" was an "it," and it was an alien from some godforsaken corner of space. The Planet wasted no time making it clear to him that he had a normal conception and birth, and that he was the product of an experiment. The title of Mother went to a scientist who sacrificed her unborn child on the altar of ambition then tried to kill herself when she could no longer handle the keening of her conscience. There were whispers that she didn't truly die, that the Jenova cells that made him as powerful as he was did the same for her, but he had no interest in finding her. He didn't care where she was, and he hoped she was in pain.
It wasn't as if he could have left Nibelheim to go looking for her anyway. He had been to several cities after his rebirth, but he was drawn to the tiny hamlet he had laid waste to so many years ago. Once he was there, he was stuck. He tried to leave, but soon discovered that the further he got from the town's borders, the weaker he became. Some force that didn't see fit to reveal itself to him kept him bound to the place.
He had set out on foot once to make his way to the Northern Crater, but once he was about ten miles out he collapsed, robbed of strength and barely able to breathe. If it weren't for some Nibelheim-bound travelers that eventually passed by and took him back, he would have died pitifully on the side of the road like a damn animal if some monster didn't come along and make a snack out of him first. Such a death would be completely beneath him and it made him nauseous just to think of it.
However, he was comforted by knowing how powerful his mind had become. Speaking with spirits was just one of the things he found himself newly able to do. He could also read minds and give people dreams and nightmares, and insert himself into them at will. It was hardly the kind of power that could be had with materia mastery-another ability of his that was sorely diminished-but it was something he could work with. He'd had limited success at planting suggestions and even directing others' actions, which pleased him greatly. If he could hone that ability, there would be no limit to what he could achieve to advance his vendetta against the human race. If only he could remember the details of that vendetta.
He trudged along the road back to Nibelheim with his head down and his hands jammed into the pockets of his coat, satisfied that he wasn't being followed. After walking like that for a while, he picked up the sound of a car's engine in the distance. As the noise grew louder, so did the giddy sensation in his chest. The closer it got, the more he was certain of who was behind the wheel, and that she was alone. Tifa…
Tifa sat behind the wheel of Cid's late model sedan. The interior smelled of antifreeze and engine lubricant, and she needed a crash course in driving a stick shift, but she was grateful for his generosity in letting her borrow it for as long as she needed it. While the sky was cloudless enough to allow the full moon to illuminate the road at the moment, that time of year was the rainy season, and she wouldn't have looked forward to making the journey on foot.
She felt her phone vibrate, but didn't need to look at it to know that it was Cloud again. It was the third time he'd called her since she'd left Rocket Town, but she didn't have it in her to talk to anyone at that moment. Especially not her friends, because that would mean she would have to explain why she was headed to Nibelheim and she had too much on her mind to try to come up with a suitable answer.
She was nervous, that much was certain. A few times during her trip she entertained the idea of turning the car around and heading back. The town was being rebuilt and she doubted if it looked anything like what she remembered, and she wasn't sure if that would make it easier or harder for her. The ghosts would still be there, waiting for her to face them and finally dismiss them. She was beginning to wonder if that was within her power.
She stared out ahead; trying to empty her mind, when she saw a figure about fifty yards ahead. A drifter, no doubt. She slowed the car as she passed him, but in the dim light she could only tell that the person was tall and lean with long, black hair.
Something about the person compelled her, and she wasn't sure if it was entirely out of compassion for a fellow traveler. She felt for a moment as if the notion to stop and offer the person a ride was inserted into her mind from elsewhere.
She dismissed the thought. Of course it was compassion. It was a cold night, and if she could help someone get to their destination faster, she wouldn't have been very happy with herself if she had refused. She stopped the car and rolled down the window as the traveler approached the driver's side.
When the person leaned down, it became clear that it was a man. That gave her pause when she recalled Dr. Holden's advice about the dangers of women traveling alone, but she could easily take care of herself. She had done it many times before.
"I can take you as far as Nibelheim if that's where you're headed," she said to the man whose features she could barely make out.
"I am," he replied, his tone soft and rich. She decided she liked his voice. "Thank you."
He walked around the front of the car to the passenger side and got in. Tifa froze when the dome light illuminated features she could have sworn she recognized, but a split second later those features seemed to blur into something unfamiliar and bland. She continued to look at him for a long moment after the door closed and the light went out, telling herself that she was being ridiculous for thinking this man in any way resembled Sephiroth.
"Is everything all right, Miss?"
"Um…yeah," she replied, turning back to the road, putting the car in gear. "It's just that for a second there I thought you looked familiar."
"If we had met before, I'm sure I would have remembered you." His tone was flattering and gentlemanly, not at all leering, and that put her at ease.
"Hm, same here. I guess I'm just more tired than I thought I was."
"The town's inn is quite comfortable and I'm sure there's a room available," he offered.
She didn't know if it was tiredness or not, but she felt a strong sensation of safety at that moment, as if no one, least of all the stranger beside her, wanted to harm her or would be able to if they did. She stole a glance at him and decided that it was the thoughts that had been weighing on her mind that tricked her into thinking her passenger ever resembled Sephiroth. If anything, he looked like he was part Wutai.
Beside her, Sephiroth leaned his head against the headrest, hoping the glamour hid the small, satisfied smile that settled over his borrowed features.