Gah, this took forever to type, so now that I have it done, why not give it to you right away?
Sigh, ending a multi-chapter is always so hard. A whole universe closed and finished with...and the knowledge that I have to do character exposition all over again for the next one, even though the characters are always basically the same. :) Well, this was received many times better than I ever expected. It was intended mostly as a post-Madness purge, something light after all the heaviness. It didn't turn out that way, it was more complicated and longer than I planned, but I'm very glad of it now. Thank you all for all the lovely reviews and the support. Writing and conversing with you guys has been the best therapy I've ever had and it gets me through the hardest moments of my RL. You guys are my safe, comfy pillow fort and I love you for it.
Zack recently had a major breakthrough over at my LJ (long story short, Zangeal is now Choir-canon), so in celebration, and because I really do love him...Zack, the last word?
Zack: "Okay, okay, I don't hate you. Just stop getting me molested, okay?"
...I could...try? We'll see how the Madness sequel goes. For now, let's proceed to the end of Not Wrath of Gods...
NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 42 - Grief Shall Endure Not
"Nor all strong things had severed us then;
Not wrath of gods, nor wisdom of men,
Nor all things earthly, nor all divine,
Nor joy nor sorrow, nor life nor death."
- "The Triumph of Time", Algernon Charles Swinburne
"Looks like we arrived just in time. They're packing up, getting ready to decamp."
Sephiroth nodded, agreeing that their timing was fortuitous. Engaging an enemy on the move might allow them to take advantage of a group's disorganization and the extra weight of luggage, but the drawbacks were considerable. For one, the advantage of an open, flat battlefield was lost, and the cover of forest would make it easier for the targets to flee. And of course, it was a common practice to execute remaining prisoners before relocating, to spare the hassle of transporting them.
Standing on a slender tree branch a hundred feet off the ground as calmly as he would anywhere else, Sephiroth looked beside him. "Do the others understand our plan?"
"Mmm-hmm. Wouldn't have had to hop down there and tear my pants if any of the thick-headed plebeians could see and hear the tengu," Genesis sniffed, having apparently forgotten that he himself hadn't been able to perceive them right away. "We go in first, blitzkrieg, shock and awe, et cetera. The 2nds and army come in next for clean-up. The wounded who surrender are taken prisoner, the rest are to be dispatched. Speaking of which, I left orders at the base that Godo should be hung up by his balls. Do you think that's too severe?"
Sephiroth couldn't tell if that was a joke, and didn't care enough about Godo to inquire further. "Our first priority is getting to and arming our comrades."
"Before they can be killed as a precaution or retaliation. I know, Seph. More than Angeal and Puppy are at stake here."
The general gently touched the hand that wasn't busy gripping a sword. "Would there be any point to my suggesting we split up?"
"None at all. You're not leaving my sight, and neither is 'Geal, once we get him back. Not ever again."
"We must be quick, then."
"Try and keep your clothes on this time, okay?" Genesis grumbled. "These freaks go crazy enough around you when you aren't nude."
"I will remain clothed unless circumstance requires me to be otherwise. Ready?"
"Just say the word, General."
They dropped gracefully from the steady branch, plunged through the wind like a strange species of bird and landed on their feet with surprisingly little sound. They stood facing the Koibito camp just long enough for Sephiroth to draw Masamune and then they were running, making the world blur with their speed and not trying to keep quiet, as their noise would signal the other members of the offensive to advance. The first warriors Sephiroth and Genesis encountered had time only to recoil in terror and reach for their weapons before they hit the ground in pools of their own blood. The few who made no grab for their arms and dropped to their knees were mercifully knocked out with careful blows and left unhurt.
"This way!" Sephiroth called, and chose their path through a whirlwind of people running and screaming.
The guards around the SOLDIER prisoners were quickly killed, as much out of anger for what they were doing as for the fact that they were armed and ready for combat. Lts. Stahl, Lowhill, Akio and Hunter were already on their feet and smiling, but adrenaline quickly took over when they realized what was going on. While Genesis continued his elegant death-dance with the Koibito to cover them, Sephiroth passed out swords that were eagerly received and quickly asked about their conditions. All four claimed to be uninjured and insisted they could fight. Stahl, Sephiroth noticed, was holding his blade in his weaker hand, but the general judged that for now he would honor the resolve on the man's face and leave medical matters for later.
"Angeal and Zack?" he asked shortly.
"Alive when we saw them last," Hunter spoke up, looking years older than Sephiroth remembered. "I think I know where they are."
"Akio and Stahl, go with him. Guard Angeal and Zack. Your judgment," Sephiroth added, meaning he authorized them to take any measures necessary to fulfill their assigned duties. He often put his trust in his men this way, and rarely regretted it. "Lowhill, go join our back-up, they could use a man with inside knowledge."
As soon as they had all run off, before Sephiroth could turn to rejoin Genesis, a cold and dreamy voice addressed him from behind. "Silver demon, I hoped you would return."
Sephiroth turned and looked neutrally upon a bleach-blond Koibito. "You welcome your doom."
"I welcome you, beautiful reaper." Staring with rapture in the midst of chaos, the warrior threw down his katana and spread his arms. "Deliver me to oblivion, only grant me a little death before the greater one..."
Sephiroth was distinctly annoyed, not only because he hated when the Koibito spoke to him like this, but because the man was empty-handed now, and he disliked facing the unarmed. It felt dishonorable, even against an enemy. Still, it was kill or be tackled by this deranged fan, an easy enough choice. Before Masamune could deliver its lethal kiss, Genesis swooped up behind like an enraged ladybug and finished off the madman with an inelegant and squelching jab to the gut.
"I warned you, didn't I?" he shouted, kicking at the dying body. "I warned you all! Go find your own god to gawk at and Gaia help you all if you get even one grubby hand on what's mine!"
With offense, amusement and an odd pleasure floating around him as options, Sephiroth opted instead for practicality. He eased Genesis's fury with a touch to his arm and quickly filled him in on the rescued prisoners. The news of Angeal and Zack was vague but positive, and the commander brightened to hear it.
"Let's go, what are we waiting for?"
"They are being guarded. Our priority is to finish the battle and secure this location. Then we may go to them."
"Angeal needs hugs and lecturing and you want me to keep gutting these weirdos instead?"
"It is him, the real Sephiroth," one of a crowd of voices exclaimed.
"Move in all at once, we'll share him."
"I want him first."
"He can take us both at once."
"On second thought..." Genesis glared darkly and raised his red blade again. "You're right, Seph. Killing first."
Zack and Angeal hadn't known what to expect when they stepped out into the open air - strife within the Koibito, battle with a rival tribe - but what they found was a rout. The fighting wasn't in their sight yet, but the sound of swords and shouts of opposition to ShinRa carried clearly on the wind. The Koibito they could see were yelling to each other, grabbing weapons and rushing toward the spreading fray, too busy to notice two captives peering out of the chief's tent. Whether it was fear of Tatake's anger at an interruption or just tribal policy that made them avoid looking for their leader, it was a bit of luck that the stunned SOLDIERs gratefully accepted.
"Angeal, do you think it's..."
"I think so." Nonetheless, he gently swept Zack behind him. "Stay put, that's an order."
"Please don't be a dream," the boy whispered. Angeal reached back for his hand and stroked it with his thumb. "What should we do?"
"Wait here, so we can be found."
"I can fight."
Zack looked down at his hand and found it trembling in Angeal's. "Oh. I..."
"Stay close to me. That's not an order, it's a request."
"Always using my heart against me," Zack whispered. He stepped forward to stand snugly against the commander's back and wrapped his arms around the broad torso. "Remember your promise."
"Oh, you're never leaving my sight again, Puppy," Angeal said, barely loud enough to be heard.
In the thinning midst of men running away, a figure was heading in the opposite direction, toward them, and Angeal relaxed a little to see the welcome sight of a black SOLDIER uniform. Another came into view just behind the first, and in seconds they were close enough to name, though they both looked aged by their recent ordeal. Lt. Akio's determined, lanky stride and dark eyes, Lt. Hunter's blond curls, dusty from the battle-stirred earth but crowning a face that lit up with its old good nature to see -
"Zack! ZACK!" Declan ran to them past his superior officer, who shook his head and chuckled, but stopped short when Angeal unthinkingly nudged Zack further behind him. "And Commander, sir. Are you both all right, sir?"
"We're okay, Declan." Zack released Angeal enough to make himself visible, but kept one arm loosely around his waist. "What about you and the others? What's going on?"
"We're fine. Stahl was with us, but Lieutenant Akio had the idea of leaving him to 'guard' Dr. Oren. Otherwise he'd never get treatment for his arm. We think it's broken."
The normal, old-life activity of talking with a friend would have led Zack to ask more, but Akio had reached them. He clasped hands with Angeal and offered a weary smile.
"Good to see you too, Toshi."
"Everything's under control. We're to be your guard while these noble sons of Wutai contend with the Silver Demon and the Red Banshee."
"Red Banshee? That's a new one."
"Just came to me, sir."
Declan looked confused. "Red Banshee?"
"DON'T THINK I DIDN'T SEE THAT!" a distant, normally-musical voice screeched in a register that would have sent dogs running. "THE NEXT ONE WHO TRIES TO GROPE LOSES THEIR HAPPY PLACE! GET BACK HERE, SON OF A COEURL-FUCKER!"
"Oh," Declan said meekly. "I get it."
"SEPH, STOP LAUGHING, YOU'RE JUST MAKING IT EASIER FOR THEM!"
"Sephiroth," Zack whispered, and there was an intimation of tears to come in it. "Laughing. I wish I - "
"We'll get to hear it, Pup." Angeal had turned away from the others to speak quietly to him. "We'll have plenty of chances."
"They're really here, aren't they?"
Not caring at the moment how it might look, Angeal tugged Zack forward a bit and hugged him with one arm before looking back to the others. "I assume Godo was assisting the Koibito."
"I think so too, Commander," Akio said. "But the general didn't have time to explain."
"They were holding his daughter hostage," Zack said softly. "They let her go."
"Where's the leader?" Declan asked, clearly having been wondering this.
"Dead." Angeal squeezed Zack more tightly. "I will explain the details later."
Akio 'hmm'ed thoughtfully. "We can afford to be more lenient with the survivors who are young and only recently recruited, then, spare their lives. If that's what the general decides to do."
"He killed his father," Zack said distantly. "Tatake. So he could be chief. He told me. The rest of the tribe should know."
"We'll make sure they do."
"Fuck, the kenjin!" Declan winced, but apparently Zack was never reprimanded for such language in the presence of superior officers. "They have him locked up, we - "
"He's fine. Oren released him when the confusion began, he's with the doctor and Lt. Stahl. He said, um..." Declan shifted uncomfortably, as though he thought he'd be reprimanded. "He said the Koibito who surrender might listen to you, if we need to give them any orders. So..."
He trailed off; Zack had abruptly turned and gone back into the tent. Angeal told Declan and Akio to wait where they were and followed. He found Zack frozen, staring down at Tatake's body.
"I wanted to look for my uniform. I don't want to be dressed like them."
"Okay, I'll help you. Zack, don't look at - "
"I killed him, I can look."
"I know you can, but you don't need to. I'll cover it up."
"Angeal? Are we gonna be able to work, if you still..."
"If I what?"
"I thought you wanted me to...be a certain way."
"I want you to be who you are, all of who you are. If any changing needs to be done, Pup, I'm the one who needs to do it."
"I like the way you are. Don't change."
"Well..." Angeal tried to hide how pleased he was by the simple order. "Some change is inevitable. The way people view the two of us will change. Are you going to be all right with that?"
"Of course. Will we...we can be...?"
"Not publicly until you're seventeen, but yes. If you want to. And when you can. I don't want you pushing - "
Zack began to stomp on the cooling body, smashing his foot into the stomach and chest with horrible squishing noises. He was wearing the lighter kind of shoes popular among the Koibito, not his SOLDIER boots, but Zack's strength was enough to cause considerable damage. The skin was bruising dark purple and misshapen with foot-shaped dents by the time Angeal waved away Lt. Akio, seized Zack around the waist and lifted him back.
"ASSHOLE! FUCKING...damn it..."
Once he was away from the corpse, the sudden violent impulse drained out of Zack. He let himself be turned and hugged tightly, dangled limply as all the remaining strength was in his arms and being spent hugging Angeal. Zack pressed his face into Angeal's neck as closely as he could, breathing heavily but still not ready to cry the way he needed to.
"It's okay." Angeal smoothed his hair with one comforting hand and held him close with the other arm. "It's enough. It's over."
"I have to tell them...the Koibito. They have to know they were being led to war by a...I don't want to."
"You don't have to."
"Angeal," Zack whispered with a sort of laugh, "I missed you."
Angeal kissed him long and slow, and reluctantly set him back down on the ground. Zack put their foreheads together and ran his fingers over the lines and curves of Angeal's face, memorizing them by touch as he already knew them by sight. The way he did this, with certainty that he was allowed to grope anything he wanted, made them both smile. Shyly, like a new couple instead of the lovers they had been waiting to become.
"I can kill them all, if that would be easier for you."
"It kinda unnerves me that you're not kidding. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Perhaps it should. But this is who I truly am." Angeal thought of the moments he'd wanted to run to Zack without a care for the other captives, and the night he'd tried to free a sadistic serial killer in exchange for one near-victim, his Puppy. These actions didn't fit his reputation for honor. But then...there was honor in defending the planet and its innocents, as he'd done and would do, whether it's for the sake of one person or a billion. "I can be open about this part of myself now. Well, after your birthday."
"Will we get in trouble?"
You wouldn't. "We won't be breaking any rules, then."
"I won't let them blame you, if they try." Zack blinked and looked around, looking like he'd just suddenly woken up. "I don't see it anywhere. The moonstones Genesis gave me, he took them from me yesterday and put them with my uniform."
"Don't worry, we'll find it."
Angeal let himself sound certain, feeling sure that a man as controlling and deranged as Tatake would have kept souvenirs, especially ones he could return and withhold according to a prisoner's behavior. First he took a blanket and hastily covered the body with it, though Zack had not asked him to, and began searching the piles and containers that lined the tent's walls. Zack seemed to want to help, he kept facing a direction and trying to move in it, but ultimately stayed where he was, fidgeting nervously. He calmed a little when Angeal brought him a rolled bundle of black cloth, and eagerly took it when it was handed to him. The moonstones had been tucked into one of the pants pockets, and once out of the darkness they seemed to glow brighter than ever in Zack's palm.
"Just another mission, huh?"
"It's going to be all right."
"I'll have to see the doc again, huh?"
More than one doctor, Angeal mentally corrected. "Dr. Oren will need to look at you before we leave, and once we're home, well, you like Dr. Martin, right?"
"Uh-huh," Zack said robotically. "I want to change."
"I'll turn around." Angeal moved away from him, and the most convenient direction happened to be toward the exit.
"No!" Uniform still hanging over one elbow, Zack grabbed Angeal's arms and threw himself against the wider body. "Don't leave, please."
"I wasn't going to." Zack was crying at last, he could feel the fabric of his uniform growing damp. "I'm not going anywhere, Zack. You're gonna have to shove me away when you want privacy, in fact." The boy relaxed a little, and the tears continued steadily. "Let it all out, Puppy. I'm here."
"I want to change."
"Do you want me to turn around?"
"No, I mean..." Zack lifted his wet face to look at Angeal, squeezed Angeal's shoulder with his empty hand. "I don't want to feel like this. It'll get in the way of us."
"Puppy, we've always been 'us', since the day we met. We have time to take these things slowly. Don't rush."
Zack gave him a watery smile. "Is that an order?"
"Yes. But you can give me orders too." Angeal stroked his cheek, not to wipe the tears away, just to touch. I'm so sorry for all this, he thought, but what he said was "You were brilliant today, Zack. You scared the hell out of me, but you did well."
"I'm sorry you had to see that..." Zack said quietly. "But at least I got you to admit how you feel."
"I had planned to tell you, after the mission. Honestly."
"The mission's over."
"Zack, I love you and I want to be with you. As close and as long as you'll have me."
Zack smiled brightly even as his eyes continued to overflow. "Then you just signed away the rest of your life, Commander. And all your future lives."
He was pulled to Angeal's chest again, and felt a soft rumble of laughter beneath the muscle and damp cloth. "I love you too, you stubborn, oblivious dope."
The light changed suddenly, and the air currents. Angeal instinctively clutched Zack tighter and looked to see who had thrown open the tent flap. There, like another answer to a prayer, was Genesis, hair a mess, clothes disarrayed, his red leather jacket covered with dirt and soot. His scarlet blade splattered blood when he dropped it onto the floor.
"You inconsiderate fucker," he croaked by way of greeting, and ran to them.
Angeal intended to shift Zack so he alone would take the force in Genesis's glomp, but Zack smiled, and reached out an arm to him when Angeal did. Genesis crossed the soft floor in a few stubborn strides and grabbed them with enough strength to lift them off their feet for a moment. Continuing to mumble words that Angeal used to forbid in Zack's presence, Genesis was hugged and tried to reassure himself through touch that he wasn't dreaming or imagining this. Genesis's hands had a tendency to wander even when he wasn't intending them to, but Angeal chose to ignore the squeezing of his ass, and Zack just laughed to have his hair kissed and ruffled and nuzzled by a beaming face.
"Bastard, no consideration for what I went through worrying about you...and Puppy, you didn't even run out to meet me, and now you're seeing me in this terrible state..."
"I'm sorry, Gen." Angeal pressed his lips briefly to his old friend's cheek. "We're okay."
"Of course you're not! You...you get all boring and serious when you're away from me!" Genesis's eyes were brighter than usual, and his expression was an odd one, equal parts joy and anger. "And Puppy is not remotely okay, just look at him, he's not bouncing and he's been crying. You're hopeless, 'Geal, give him to me."
"That's not going to happen."
"I am okay, Genesis, really." Zack wiggled until he was able to breathe properly again. "I have Angeal. And, um, I'm glad you and Sephiroth are here."
"You don't need to pretend to be cheerful when you're obviously traumatized, baby," Genesis continued to fuss. "What can I do? Do you want a blanket? Tranquilizers, hallucinogens? Or I could - "
"I wasn't gonna say anything perverted this time!"
"I'm okay," Zack tried to drown them out. "But I'd like to change into my uniform. I hate these clothes."
Genesis stepped back, looked the teenager up and down. As one of Gaia's three most mako-enhanced and as a perceptive person, he must have picked up the lingering, faint scent of sex in the tent's air, and put that together with the concealed body of the Koibito chief, Zack's dulled eyes and the high quality of the Wutaian clothes he wore. With all these clues to add to his own fears, Genesis almost certainly guessed roughly what had happened. He glanced quickly at Angeal and then back to Zack, and - proving he was capable of tact when necessary - Genesis covered his pain with a wan smile.
"They're not really you, huh? Okay, baby, we'll let you get dressed."
"Angeal can stay."
Genesis looked blank for a moment, then grinned. "Of course. Come out when you're ready. I'll go check on Seph, lest he try to handle any of the drooling prisoners alone."
Zack waited till Genesis had gone, then began to hastily pull off his Wutaian garments, not minding that Angeal stayed near and watched him with his usual concern and affection. Angeal handed him his uniform and Zack seemed to breathe easier once he had the familiar black cloth around him. "I'm okay," he said in an almost cheery tone, then immediately fell to his knees and began to vomit.
"It's okay now, Pup." Angeal was beside him in a flash, rubbing soothing circles into his back. "It's all over, and there's nothing you need to do or worry about right now."
"Yeah," the boy coughed, "there is."
The kenjin was, all things considered, in good shape, his profession having accorded him acceptable if not comfortable treatment. He excused himself from his conversation with Declan to approach Zack, smiled sadly and touched the boy's head in greeting, or in an attempt to heal as he'd done at their first meeting. Zack smiled back and gave a slight bow, finally appreciating the Wutaian gesture of greeting and the distance it allowed.
"Are you quite certain you're up to this, son?"
Zack honestly couldn't think of an answer to that, so he simply started walking toward the line of seated, guarded prisoners, and Setanta went at his side. Angeal followed closely behind, respecting Zack's strength but unwilling to be any further away from him than this. As they neared the dozen or so captured Koibito, they looked up from their sullen, angry silence at Zack, and many immediately bowed their heads. Zack stiffened, but with the familiarity of his uniform around him and Angeal emanating a steady stream of love toward him, he was able to gather up his strength and keep his head held high.
"In accordance with Rule Seven of the SOLDIER Code of Battle, you are all in the custody of ShinRa. As prisoners of war, you will either be tried for your crimes by a military tribunal or returned to Wutai in the supervision of a trusted regional lord. As long as you cooperate, you will be treated fairly."
A harsh Wutaian word was hissed by one of the captives. Zack recognized it, and spoke before Setanta could offer a translation.
"I'm not a traitor, because I'm not one of you. I didn't stop being a SOLDIER when this uniform was taken from me."
"You killed the chief, dishonorably!"
"The gods will curse you!"
Sephiroth held Genesis back, Akio held onto Declan, the kenjin stopped Angeal with a swiftly raised hand, and everyone else was kept where they were by the calm strength remaining on Zack's face, balancing his pain into something human and fragile and mending. He slipped a hand into his pocket to touch Genesis's moonstones, then curled them both into fists. Somehow, he didn't look angry, at least not with the kind of anger that precedes vengeance, which was the only kind the Koibito knew.
"For a Koibito, to kill his chief is the worst possible crime, right? As bad as killing his father?"
Furious nods; one shouted "Worse!"
"Then Tatake was doubly guilty."
Silence. Stares of suspicion, but rapt attention.
"He told me he killed his father, your previous chief, because he was afraid that the tribe was being led away from war and cruelty toward peace. Tsuyote didn't die of a sickness, he was poisoned. He was strong, enough to try to make the Koibito the heroes they once were. He had faith in you, and courage to do what's right instead of what's easy. His only mistake was not realizing what a monster his son was."
Low, disbelieving murmurs, and someone said "It's a lie."
Setanta stepped forward, grabbing their attention at once. "This SOLDIER speaks the truth. While I was held in isolation, the tengu told me what really happened to Tsuyote. It was the poison made from the flower of the maljoor plant...as you suspected, Healer, didn't you?"
Aerinas kept his eyes firmly directed toward the ground. It was hard for Zack to look at this man who had fondled and drugged him, but he did it, as long as he could bear to.
"Tatake was my blood," Setanta continued solemnly. "I will mourn him as much as any of you. But he deceived you all, and would have sacrificed you in a war that would have served only his own self-importance. He was killed justly, by one who had every right to execute him. My people, you know your history. The Koibito were once honorable defenders of Wutai, of the weak and oppressed. Would our ancestors have condoned what was done to this boy? What you all allowed?"
The row of hanging heads clearly showed varying levels of shock and shame, of embarrassment and old hurts amplifying the new. The kenjin took a small glass vial from his robes and held it up; though it was old and dirty, it caught a sliver of the late-morning sun.
"The tengu led me to this, and I found it buried beneath the twisted tree where Tatake hid his favorite possessions as a child. The smell of the maljoor poison lingers in it." He held the bottle out beneath their noses, one at a time down the line of them, and their expressions darkened further. "We are at the mercy of ShinRa now because of men like Tatake, who think fighting is the only way. My people, we can rise out of this darkness as we always have, we can make peace with ShinRa as Tsuyote wanted to. What is more important for Wutai, for the nation we love - to be glorious in battle or to be happy?"
Having been given so much to think about, the Koibito were quiet now, only half-listening. Setanta nodded, seeming satisfied for the moment, and returned Zack's pale smile of gratitude. The boy quickly checked to make sure Angeal was still shadowing him, then shuffled over to where the other two-thirds of the Trinity were standing. Genesis had been glaring at the prisoners as though daring them to ogle Sephiroth again, and the general himself had watched Zack confront the figures of his waking nightmare with quiet pride, every so often glancing at Angeal and feeling grateful that these two - both precious to him - had found each other.
As Zack approached, Genesis met him with a nod of approval and a one-armed hug, then moved to stand by Angeal. The boy faced Sephiroth, who had observed him with increasing gentleness over the past three years, and playfully tied him up to teach him how to escape tight situations. Behind the general's default blankness, Zack got the impression that Sephiroth was pleased by all he had done.
"Sir, what's going to happen to them?"
"I don't know. My opinion will be only one of many that the company considers in deciding the prisoners' fate. It will depend partly upon whether or not we are able to install a new overlord of our choosing, now that Godo has been unmasked as a - "
"Fox-fucking son of a zolom."
"Thank you, Genesis, that term will suffice." Sephiroth's eyes flickered to look beyond them, then back, calling to Genesis's poetic mind the way a swiftly-running stream becomes a ribbon of silver under moonlight. "The kenjin has asked to remain with them and share their fate."
"What? But he helped us!"
"I know that, Zack, and so too will the president. The kenjin probably believes his presence will grant them some leniency. And he is most likely correct." Sephiroth made his enigmatic smile. "They will be punished, of course, but afterward they will have the opportunity to begin their lives anew. The kenjin will undoubtedly prove a better guide for them than those they have known in the recent past."
"If they can return to the way they once were, the Koibito who live and die for love only," Genesis sighed, "then may the Goddess illuminate their path."
Unable to wait any longer, Angeal stepped forward and touched his student's shoulder. Zack, who had also been in quiet agony from the lack of contact between them, wrapped his arms around Angeal with a wordless murmur of relief. Sephiroth and Genesis looked at each other with similar mischievous smiles, which would worry Angeal later when he realized how his oldest friend's influence was spreading.
"I'll explain later, Seph," Genesis said smoothly, though the other seemed to understand fine on his own. "What do you have in your hand there, Puppy, anything fun?"
Zack spent a few seconds trying to extract a hidden, probably dirty, meaning out of the question before he realized he was holding something in his right hand, and opened it. The moonstones, shining like miniature suns in the daylight. He must have taken them from his pocket and been squeezing them without noticing he did it.
"Very good, I see you've been taking proper care of my gift. See how they gleam, even after being in such a dark place?"
This time, the real meaning of his words came to Zack at once. "Yeah. Tatake told me a different story about where they come from, but I like yours much better, especially the ending."
"Oh, you flatter me. Not that I mind, of course."
"No, really." Zack rolled the stones between his fingers, enjoying the way they caught the light. "I'd rather believe these are souls who chose this form than enemies who were defeated and punished this way. The ending is the same, I guess, but your version is...happier."
"Is this a true tale, Gen, or something you invented to pass the time?" Angeal laughed.
"How insolent! All my stories are true! Or at least they ought to be. And what does it matter?" Genesis closed Zack's hand around the stones and wrapped it gently with his soft fingers. "There's only one truth that stories and reality share, and that's that we make our own happy endings. Why else, Puppy, would you and 'Geal be looking at each other with stars in your eyes, hmm?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Angeal said coolly, as he tucked Zack's head under his chin.
"Of course not. But I'll bet the realization will just happen to hit you on Puppy's birthday."
"Okay, what about this? 'And lo, then our swords were upon them, and utter defeat came to pass. Justly I rained wrath on those who dared to look at my Sephiroth's ass.'"
"It doesn't quite have your usual elegance, Gen."
"I suppose you're right. But it isn't my fault, I'm being distracted by Hunter's new pet. Isn't it pretty?"
"Pronouns, Genesis. And the boy's only a cadet, so no leering."
"'Geal, why are you so mean and distrusting? I'm not going to hurt it or anything. I just want to hang it up on a hook and play with it for a little - "
Angeal's stern expression softened when Zack leaned back in his lap to rest his head on a broad shoulder. The 2nd laughed and said "I'm sure Genesis is just kidding. Right, Sephiroth?"
"I knew he was behind me the whole time. I'm just tired of being the only one jealous all the time. Did it work?"
Sephiroth's mouth curled with amusement, and his gaze passed over the semi-circle of his dearest friends before settling on Zack's glowing face and bright eyes. "What response would be appropriate?"
"If you want to feed his ego, sir, tell him you're enraged at the thought of him noticing anyone else. If you want to deflate him, tell him you don't care who he fucks around with."
"Puppy," Angeal scolded gently, before his mouth was silenced with a kiss.
"I don't believe either choice would correctly express my true feelings."
"There's the Seph I adore," Genesis purred. "Sit down and cuddle with me, we're expecting a picnic to be delivered any minute now."
"Have you been intimidating the 3rds into doing your errands again?"
Genesis ignored Angeal and continued speaking happily. "And the view is lovely, just take a look at the pretty thing Lieutenant Hunter has acquired."
"It's perfectly innocent," Angeal said, for at least the tenth time. "Hunter's adopted the kid as a sort of little brother."
"I think I get it," Zack said softly, playing with Angeal's fingers that were curled around his waist. "After what Declan went through in Wutai, he just wants to be around something innocent and safe. And be nice when you meet him," Zack said, aiming a kick at Genesis's knee. "Cloud's my pal too. He's the sweetest little chocobo-head you can imagine."
Zack grinned and waved to the pair across the lawn, where they were sitting close together and Declan was reading from a book on the SOLDIER entrance exam. Cloud looked up with a shy smile and waved back, beaming until he noticed Sephiroth, then shyly ducked his head back down.
"All right, all right," Genesis sighed. "Well, Seph, will you stay?"
"For a brief time." The legend gracefully sat down on the grass beside him and allowed himself to be tugged closer. "I am meeting with Lazard at sixteen-hundred hours."
Genesis kept his pout playful. "Right, that new museum exhibit. But I get you tonight."
"And I've been thinking I'll offer to teach Lazzie the art of the sword. I mean, if I'm to trust him to look after you, I want him armed with more than threats of extra paperwork."
Sephiroth hummed an amused sort of noise and swept his mercury eyes back over to the snuggling bodies of Angeal and Zack. "If the executive director and I discuss SOLDIER business this evening, he may bring the conversation back to the subject of Fair's promotion. Do you wish me to delay further, Angeal?"
Zack lay against Angeal's chest and idly stroked his arm, quiet and content to let the elder handle this. Almost as soon as they'd returned from Wutai four months ago, ShinRa had been pushing for Zack to be made a 1st Class in recognition of his daring and self-sacrificing actions during the mission. Angeal, though proud of his student, was hesitant to hand him more responsibility so soon, and believed Zack currently had enough to deal with with weekly therapy sessions and getting back into his routine of training and classes. And, since his birthday the previous month, the news of him and Commander Hewley being together that had swept the company like wildfire.
The two of them were happy, the kind of bliss that renders all present troubles and ghosts of the past little more than minor irritations. Angeal and Zack had talked about their nightmarish stay with the Koibito, while holding each other close, crying when they needed to, and comforting one another with touches that were, at last, sensual but not guilty. They were building their life as a couple, and around them, life went on. The surviving Koibito were undergoing a brief imprisonment, after which they would be freed and watched closely by Wutai's new overlord, a cousin of Godo's who was discussing treaty terms with ShinRa already. Zack had heard that Lord Uero was grooming his predecessor's daughter to take over the position one day, and thought fondly of the loudmouth little girl who had given her Koibito captors so much trouble.
The shadow of the trauma Zack had undergone would never lift completely, but there was enough light around him to keep most of the memories at bay. The shoorei was gone for good, replaced by the reality of Angeal. Zack's sleep was now only disturbed by an occasional nightmare, and a body he could not only feel but see and hold was always there to lull him back to sleep. He kept in touch with some of his Wutaian army friends, and Setanta, who sent him and Angeal cheery letters that asked about their relationship and insisted that such prying was a privilege of the elderly. Aside from this correspondence, the only tangible evidence of the Koibito affair was a photograph of Tatake and Miru (the latter identified by Setanta) that Genesis had found when he retrieved his friends' Buster and Junior Buster swords. Zack kept the picture in a dresser drawer, not certain why he did this but feeling comforted by the fact that he could bear its presence.
All in all, Zack was liking his life and in no hurry to change it. He had been assured by Angeal that neither changes in rank nor anything else would alter their relationship, and Zack believed him. If all that had gone before couldn't pull them apart - guilt and disapproval and hesitation and hurt - then nothing had enough strength to. And, as Angeal had promised, they had time, a lifetime or more. So Zack, though he aspired to be a 1st Class, gladly left such matters to his mentor.
"I'll give my recommendation to promote him," Angeal said, "but I think we should wait for all the talk of Zack and I to die down a little, and I don't want him going on missions again yet. A few more months. Is that okay, Puppy?"
Zack sat up a little, suddenly, to wave at someone else. Angeal looked to see who was waving back, and there was Reno, walking hand-in-hand with ShinRa's elusive vice-president. Members of the ShinRa family usually didn't stroll so casually around the Compound, not unless they had a whole squad of guards to show off their importance. But Rufus didn't seem concerned with his image at the moment. He was looking at the sky and the trees that were beginning to flower, waving away formal greetings with a smile, and looking at Reno like he was the only other person on Gaia.
"How sweet," Genesis cooed.
"I heard Rufus had a big fight with his dad," Zack added. "Looks like Rufus won."
"Well, of course, Puppy, true love always wins! Have I taught you nothing?"
"I believe the source of their dissension was the president's disapproval of fraternization with Turks," Sephiroth said thoughtfully. "However, the president will surely deem it prudent to keep peace with his only heir."
"Of course they'll be fine, they're family. Silly Seph, still clinging to logic." Genesis combed his fingers through a handful of silver hair. "Are you gonna be like this with our children?"
"Nothing, dear. And you two, you should really thank V.P. and the chibi. Their little scandal has taken some of the attention off of yours."
"I would not call our being together scandalous," Angeal said. He actually understood why some might object, having struggled with Zack's age and subordinate rank himself, but he felt protective of their relationship. "Anyway, our business is our own."
"I think most people are happy for us. But even if they weren't..." Zack possessively clutched Angeal's broad, encircling arm. "I'm seventeen now. We're not doing anything illegal."
"Of course you're not, Puppy."
"I have heard nonetheless that the legal department is trying to obtain permission to perform an investigation," Sephiroth said, probably oblivious to the inflammatory nature of his comment. "To make sure that there has been no past impropriety between you."
"No, some new hotshot. I heard Kaplan's gone back to the Midgar justice department full-time. But you have nothing to hide, riiiight, 'Geal?"
"Of course we don't, why did you say it like - Pup, is something wrong?"
"Uh-uh." Zack had scrambled to his feet, and the way he stood in the sunlight, straight-backed and confident - and rather heroic - called to their minds the old, pre-Koibito Zack. "I'm good. I'm happy and I'm not lettin' anyone try to take that away. I think I'll go tell Legal where they can shove their investigation before they get any further. Be back in a few minutes."
But the teenager was already bounding off, pausing at the spot where grass met cement pathway. "Hey, you guys wanna help me scare some suits?"
"Sounds like fun," Declan laughed, and lightly jumped to his feet. Cloud looked alarmed, but less so when the elder murmured something to him and draped a friendly arm around the boy.
"Oh, let him be, 'Geal." Genesis had one hand on the back of Sephiroth's neck, the other stroking his knee, and looked content with the pleasure of it. "He wants to be a hero. Let Puppy rescue you, for once."
Behind the transitory nature of all present concerns, Angeal's face shone with a peaceful joy that seemed there to stay. He rose and followed after Zack, not in any particular hurry. Genesis hummed with approval and tried to shift the body beside him closer, onto his lap if at all possible. Sephiroth indulgently let himself be budged a little and then resisted, enjoying the close contact involved in this struggle, laughing softly all the while.
2:14 a.m., Christmas morning, 2009
And that's it! Thank you all. I hope you've enjoyed the story as much as I've enjoyed presenting it to you. :)