Final Fantasy VII: Parallels

Plot synopsis: What if Sephiroth had retained some portion of his sanity after learning the truth of his birth? Genesis becomes the One-Winged Angel. A different take on FFVII.

Author's Note: So, we've got a longer chapter this time around. I simply couldn't find an appropriate place to make a break, so this will have to do. For those who might think that Sephiroth is a bit OOC, remember that he's learning how to interact with those around him. I am trying to keep him sane this time around, and every character has to be able to grow and develop, whether they're normal or not. Keep thinking pre-Nibelheim (Crisis Core), and he won't seem quite so. . .off. And yet another special thanks to my beta, Littlehouseinthewoods, who's doing a wonderful job!


Chapter Twelve

Nearly two hours later, Zack wasn't feeling so quite so optimistic. As he lowered the Buster Sword for the umpteenth time, he realized that he'd been right. Sephiroth was way too recognizable to be simply strolling through the slums--at any time. They'd been jumped as soon as they entered Sector 7, by a gang of thugs looking to prove themselves by killing the great Shinra General. Things had only gone downhill from there. There had been more gangs, each more heavily armed than the last, as well as the monsters that normally populated the area. Not to mention, the Shinra guard patrols that had been assigned to search the slums for any possible sighting of the two rogue SOLDIERS. They were in Sector 6 now, close not only to Aerith's house but the church, but if they didn't start making better time, they'd never reach her in one piece.

Cissnei had left them ten minutes go, after Zack had voiced his worry that Shinra might send other Turks for Aerith, since she had turned off her phone to avoid Tseng and his inevitable questions. Kunsel had gone with her, ostensibly to keep them both safe, but Zack was scared. They were risking everything to help him, and Cissnei was a Turk. What if she let her sense of company loyalty get the better of her? Where would Aerith be, then?

"Zack."

He started, flushing with embarrassment as he realized that he had zoned out in the middle of a war zone. The battle might have been over, but they'd been attacked so often since entering Midgar that any sort of distraction was like asking to be killed or devoured.

Zack looked at his hero and managed a self-deprecating smile. "Sorry, Seph, just got to thinking about stuff for a minute there."

Sephiroth inclined his head, his expression softening fractionally, as he gestured towards the entrance to Sector 5. "Shall we?"

"Oh, hell yes!" Zack hurried towards the opening, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that the others followed. Cloud was jogging to keep up with him, while Sephiroth merely walked faster than any normal man could run. They both stayed close to him, Yoshiyuki and Masamune drawn respectively, flanking him on either side. Vincent and Cid brought up the rear, and he was surprised to see them talking quietly, engaged in a seemingly non-hostile conversation.

"Weird," he muttered to himself with a shake of his head. Maybe, Vincent wasn't as cold-blooded as he seemed. Or, more likely, Cid had earned the gunman's respect by proving himself in battle. Cid had turned out to be a pretty good fighter, even if he used a spear instead of a gun or sword. He'd saved all of their asses at least once--well, with the exception of Sephiroth, who never needed help in battle. Still, he'd proven that he was a warrior, even if he'd never be at the SOLDIER level. Zack could respect that, if nothing else.

The church loomed up before them, beautiful in all its desiccated glory, and he nearly cried out with relief. More monsters greeted them as they as they made their way towards it, but none of them stood a chance. As tired as they all were, it was a simple thing to cut their way through the Devil Rides, Cloud stealing their gil as they died. Cloud might never be the best thief in the world, but with his smaller size and surprising speed, he could mug the dying creatures better than the rest of them.

Finally, Zack thought as he raced up the church stairs, reaching out to shove the double doors open with both hands. He immediately spotted Aerith, standing with Cissnei and Kunsel near her flowers. Both had their weapons drawn, aiming at the one-winged monster standing just inside the doorway.

She looked up at him as he approached, a nervous smile on her beautiful features. "Zack!"

"No, don't hurt it!" he called out, drawing the monster's attention to him. One hand creeping to the hilt of the Buster Sword as he slowly began to circle to the griffin-like creature. The creature turned towards him and suddenly lifted its head, as it had the first time he'd encountered it. On the underside of its elongated snout was Angeal's face, and Zack only nodded wearily in acknowledgment, his hand dropping to his side. "This is the Angeal copy I told you about, Seph."

"So, I see," Sephiroth murmured as he joined him. The creature lowered its head, its odd bluish-white eyes locking with his own, and Sephiroth inhaled sharply. He could see Angeal in that monster's gaze, and it shook him to the core. "Angeal."

The copy held his gaze for several moments before dipping its head once. Then, those odd eyes swiveled towards the church entrance, where the odd mechanical clicking could be heard. Several gunshots sounded, as did Cid's voice, raised as he cursed soundly. "Zack, stay here."

He took off in a run, his slim form a blur of speed as he rushed outside, the Masamune appearing in his left hand. He found Cid, Vincent, and Cloud fighting with five of Shinra's small, spider-like robotic attack units. Cloud was doing well, using the Yoshiyuki to its full potential, as he circled the diminutive threats. Sephiroth set the tip of the Masamune on the ground and leaned against it, wondering if he should even attempt to help. They were doing fine on their own, working as a team, something he would not have expected of such different people after such a short acquaintance.

And, Cloud might take it as a sign that he was not trusted, he acknowledged with a sigh. He wanted to give the boy more confidence, not take away what little he had already gained.

The decision was made he watched one of the units extended a slim metallic rod and shoot a bolt of electricity at Cloud. The blond boy cried out and dropped to his knees, temporarily stunned, and Sephiroth leapt forward. He placed himself in from of the boy he had sworn to protect and raised his right hand, murmuring under his breath, and cast the most powerful lightening spell he possessed--Thundaga.

It ripped through the robotic ranks, destroying all four of them in a dazzling display of mako-created electricity. Sephiroth frowned as he observed the wreckage, sure that he had counted five of them in his initial rushed survey. He glanced back at the church, angry to realize that he had, indeed, missed one as he'd pondered his decision to risk upsetting Cloud.

The small robot had made its way up the stairs to the front of the church, preparing to attack even as he watched. Sephiroth glanced down at Cloud, who was swaying as he fought to regain his feet, and then back again. A blur of white, gold, and silver dropped from the out of the air, hitting the robot's multi-eyed head hard. The robot began to sizzle, shooting sparks as it lost power. It collapsed in an ungainly heap as the Angeal copy landed before it, raising its head and flinging its wing out in a victory stance.

He released a relieved breath and turned back to Cloud, who met his gaze with dazed blue eyes. He hesitated before reaching out and settling an arm around thin shoulders. "I've got you," he said, wincing at the stiffness of his words. He had never been good at comforting others. "Let's get you inside, Cloud."

"Okay, General." The boy's words were slurred as he leaned against him, surprising Sephiroth with the extent of his trust. "Sorry, I let you down."

"You did no such thing," Sephiroth told him sharply. "You fought well, Cloud, and you will do better as your training intensifies."

The boy didn't respond, and Sephiroth sighed heavily. The boy likely hadn't believed him, though he had spoken true. "Someday," he said in a casual tone, "you will see yourself as others do. Then, you will not question the truth whenever you hear it."

Cloud stumbled a bit, and then looked up at his hero. His brilliant cerulean eyes were wide with disbelief as Sephiroth's gaze met his own. He read the truth of his general's words in their pale green depths and felt a rush of gratitude. "Thank you, sir," he said with reverent awe. "I'll try to remember that."

One corner of Sephiroth's lips curled in a satisfied half-smile. "See that you do," he returned humorously, adding, "I hate having to repeat myself."

A giggle escaped Cloud before he could contain it, and Sephiroth tightened the arm around his shoulders briefly. "Come," he intoned deeply, "let's go see what trouble Zack has managed to find for himself in our absence."

"Yes, sir!"

"Can you hear me?" Zack was pointing at the rafters as they entered the church, his back to them. The copy had fled to the rafters, where it sat as still as a statue, apparently content to simply watch over them. "Stay right where you are!" he yelled, shaking off a sense of déjà vu. "I'll take of things from here on in."

"Not alone, you won't." Zack turned towards him, shrugging a bit helplessly, and Sephiroth merely smiled sadly in return. "I know. Now, go visit your . . .friend."

Zack's sky-blue eyes took in Cloud, and the way he was leaning on Sephiroth, with concern. "Are you okay, man?"

"Yeah," Cloud returned, embarrassed to have drawn so much attention to himself. "I just got zapped out there. I'm all right, now."

Zack looked to Sephiroth for confirmation, relaxing at the older man's nod. "Good," he stated with a grin. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll introduce you both to Aerith. Okay?"

Cloud nodded, disturbing his spiky hair, while Sephiroth sighed deeply. "Zack," he said, exasperated, "just go."

The younger man wiggled his eyebrows comically before turning away. He strode through the church, his boots hitting the wooden floor hard, the sound echoing through the stone and wood structure. He didn't stop until she was in his arms, clinging to him as he lifted her off of the ground. "Gods, I was worried about you, babe!"

"Oh, Zack, I'm fine." Aerith Gainsborough tightened her hold on his neck, shuddering as relief threatened to take her breath. "It's you I'm worried about. Kunsel and Cissnei said that you're a fugitive, now. Are you all right? Can you tell me what happened?"

He let out a harsh breath and slowly, reluctantly, set her back on her feet. "It's a long story," he warned, unable to look away from her beautiful sage-colored eyes.

She merely smiled serenely as she clasped her hands before her. "I have all the time in the world for you, Zack."

Zack couldn't help but laugh as he reached out and took her tiny hands in his own. "You're too good to me, sweetheart," he murmured deeply.

Aerith glanced beyond him, and for the first time, her pleasure at Zack's return faltered. There were four other men with him, all of them warriors, one of them Shinra's most famous SOLDIER. She studied Zack's commanding officer, the infamous Silver Demon of Wutai, closely. The man known throughout Gaia as Sephiroth examined her in return, his head tilted to one side in a considering manner, his undeniably handsome features wiped free of expression.

She shuddered and moved closer to Zack, not liking the cold look in those slanted green eyes. Zack merely shifted his stance and drew to him, pressing a kiss to the crown of head. "Don't worry, Aerith," he told her in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, "I'll never leave you, again."

At those heartfelt words, Sephiroth looked away from the happy couple. I'll never leave you, again. A weight seemed to settle over his chest, pressing on his heart until it hurt to draw breath. He shifted uncomfortably, but the pressure didn't ease. If anything, it only intensified.

He felt Cloud's hand on his arm and looked down, surprised to see the boy gazing at him with solemn blue eyes. He nodded at the young man, who smiled weakly in response, before switching his gaze to Vincent. "Stay with them," he commanded flatly as he drew away. "I'll guard the perimeter."

Vincent slid a sidelong glance at Cid, who was standing with his Spear resting comfortably on his shoulder, before nodding solemnly. "We'll take care of them."

Thank you. It remained unsaid as Sephiroth drew a deep breath and strode out of the church. He paused at the top of the steps, his gaze searching the surrounding area for any possible threats. Except for the remains of the defeated robotic units, all appeared to be calm in Sector 6. He let a slow breath and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to bring his unruly emotions under control. While he had never been the type of man to show his emotions, he did have them, much as he oftentimes wished otherwise. He studied the tight feeling in his chest in the clinical, detached fashion that had always shocked others, and was appalled to discover that part of this tangled morass of feelings was jealousy.

Gods, had he truly fallen so far? Sephiroth asked himself incredulously. How could he possibly feel threatened by Zack's obvious devotion to this mere wisp of a girl? Yes, he had come to rely on the younger man, not only as a comrade but as a friend. But to be jealous? It reminded him of Genesis, and he shuddered to think that this unpleasant feeling was what had torn he and his friends apart.

No! he told himself harshly. He would never allow such a base emotion to come between he and Zack. If Zack truly intended to remain here, there wasn't anything he could say that would change his Lieutenant's mind. The boy might have the attention span of a puppy, but he had the loyalty of a SOLDIER 1st Class, as well as the honor Angeal had so fervently impressed upon him. Zack would do whatever he felt was right, and he would follow it through to the end. Sephiroth could only hope that his promise to the young Cetra wouldn't cost him his life.

He sighed heavily and lowered himself to the cold stone steps. He knew that, if Zack chose to stay here, he himself would be forced to go. He could not afford to be captured by Shinra. Were he to return now, he would be given to Hojo, and not even his former position as General would be able to protect him. While he feared very little in this cold world, his memories of Hojo were enough to terrify him even now. No, he would never allow himself to be taken, no matter how long he had to run to ensure it.

And, Sephiroth thought resolutely, he would never betray the memory of his friends in such a dishonorable fashion. They had been outraged the first time he'd told them of his childhood with Hojo, and had quite stridently told him that such things were not normal. They were the ones who had encouraged him to stand up to the mad doctor, to take control of that part of his life. Thanks to them, he had found the strength to defy Hojo, and to keep his meetings with him to a bare minimum. He had only gone to the labs when he could no longer avoid it, and his friends had always waited right outside those imposing metal doors, always reaching out to shoulder him when the mako injections left him physically drained. Only with them, had he overcome his discomfort with physical contact. It was only because of them that he had become capable of reaching out to others when they were in need of comfort. He would never have the responses of a normal human being, but he was learning, and he was more grateful to Genesis and Angeal than they would ever know.

Sephiroth could still remember how baffled he had been to learn of Genesis' sudden disappearance so long ago. At first, he had been worried about his impulsive, temperamental friend. Once he'd realized that Genesis had actually gone AWOL, he had been utterly bewildered. That the loyal--if hot-tempered--SOLDIER 1st would betray their friendship in such a way had been a blow he had never truly recovered from. The pain of that betrayal had only been compounded by Angeal's apparent desertion a handful of weeks later. Never would Sephiroth have believed that his reliable, stalwart friend was capable of such a duplicitous act.

Then, he had gone to Mako Reaction 5 in an ultimately fruitless search for Angeal, and what he'd found there had shaken his faith in the company that had raised him. He had found the remnants of an Angeal clone, as well as an insensate Genesis copy. He had personally gone through Hollander's files, and learned more than he had ever wanted to know about the truth behind the births of his closest friends.

Genesis had been the first. Dr. Gillian Hewley, Angeal's own mother--had injected herself with dormant Jenova cells, then allowed her enhanced DNA to be mapped onto Genesis en embryo. She had gone a step further and repeated the process with her own unborn child, unknowingly destroying both their lives before they had even drawn their first breaths.

Neither Angeal nor Genesis were to blame for what for what had been done to them in the name of the god Science. No, what Sephiroth blamed them for was the way they had reacted after learning the truth. Genesis had turned his back on the accomplishments he had worked so hard to achieve, walking away from his much-coveted position as General. He had embraced the darkness within him wholeheartedly, going so far as to murder his own parents for their part in Shinra's very real betrayal. He had abandoned Sephiroth and Angeal both, turning his rage on any who showed loyalty to Shinra. Even Zack, who was as much an innocent as could be found in SOLDIER, and had done nothing to earn his wrath, had been forced to taste his fury.

And Angeal had allowed it. Oh, he had protected the boy during his first mission in Modeoheim, but he had also left the young SOLDIER alone with Genesis afterwards, leaving him to his best friend's mercy. What Angeal had never quite understood was that Genesis had no mercy. Not for him, not for Sephiroth, and certainly not for his precious puppy.

Sephiroth pulled one knee up and wrapped his arms around it, resting his chin on the cool leather which covered it. If only Genesis had come to him in the beginning, he thought with another sigh. Perhaps, all of this tragedy could have been avoided. He would have done anything to help his friends, even if that meant leaving Shinra to do so. He would have gladly joined them in their self-imposed exile, if only they had asked.

Had it truly been so easy to leave him behind? Jealousy aside, had Genesis truly hated him enough that he had enjoyed wrenching Sephiroth's only sources of comfort from him? Or had he simply not been good enough, deserving enough, to have been included? He had loved those two like brothers, and even though he hadn't been capable of properly expressing his feelings, they had known. Angeal had understood that Sephiroth's upbringing had left him. . . emotionally challenged, and he'd always believed that Genesis understood, as well. And still, knowing how lost he would be without them, they had walked away without a second glance.

Their desertion had only left him with more responsibilities, so many that he'd felt ready to buckle beneath the overwhelming press. And then, his biggest responsibility, his most important obligation, had changed everything. Zack had decided that Sephiroth spent too much of his time alone, and had proceeded to make a complete nuisance of himself. He had followed Sephiroth around like a cheerful shadow, flashing his charming smile at every turn, talking non-stop until Sephiroth had been ready to strangle him, if only to gain a few moments of blessed peace.

One night, nearly two months after Angeal's death, Zack had finally stopped talking. The silence had been blissful, and at first, Sephiroth hadn't questioned it. He'd simply been grateful for it. Then, he had realized that his second-in-command was crying. Zack had been sitting on the sofa in his office, paperwork spread across every available surface in typical Zack disorganization, a river of tears pouring down his young face. That was when Sephiroth realized that, for all of Zack's irritating optimism, the boy hadn't healed.

They had had their first true conversation then. Zack had apologized repeatedly for taking Angeal's life, revealing the guilt that had been crushing him since that fateful day in Modeoheim. Sephiroth had responded hesitantly, speaking of his own conflicted emotions at the loss of his only friends, and he and Zack had become friends in the process. At the time, he had wondered if Zack's feelings of friendship weren't simply a combination of hero-worship and his awareness of Sephiroth's ties to Angeal. He knew now that they had become true friends that night, bonded by their shared grief for the man who had meant so much to them both.

What would he do if Zack did choose to remain in Midgar with this girl? Such a decision would be suicide for the young 1st. Of that, Sephiroth had no doubt. Zack had to be aware of it, as well. They both knew how ruthless Shinra could be covering its tracks. Did Zack truly care for this girl so deeply that he would throw his life away for the mere chance to be with her? And how would he be able to keep his promise to Angeal if Zack did so?

A gentle swooshing sound pulled Sephiroth from his painful reverie. He watched with guarded green eyes as the Angeal copy dropped gracefully to the ground at the bottom of the stairs. The griffin-like creature began to climb the stairs, its movements strangely hesitant, its head lowered in what appeared to be a submissive manner. He thought briefly of reaching for Masamune, and then decided against it. The clone's body language was far from threatening, and Sephiroth feared that, even had it been, he would have been incapable of harming it. He had seen Angeal in those mako-bright animal eyes, and he could no more harm his friend than he could Zack.

He thought fleetingly of what Jenova had shown him in Nibelheim, and hastily dismissed it. It had not been he who had gone after the boy in a mad rage but Genesis. Unlike the insane Red General, he cared for more than himself. As the copy carefully approached him, giving him a wide berth as it made its way to the landing beside him, he hoped that this piece of Angeal remembered that much about him.

The clone sat back on its haunches, watching him with those intense eyes, careful to keep its distance. Sephiroth could only gaze at it in return, his loneliness sharp as it rose up within him. He thought of all he had never had the chance to say to the man he had admired so greatly, and wished that he were capable of producing tears. Then, Angeal would understand just how much he and Genesis had meant to him.

"Angeal?" he questioned, his voice low and hesitant. The copy remained still, the only sign that it had heard him a slight twitch of that rather lovely white wing. He waited vainly for some kind of response, but even the wing went still, proving that he could still play the part of the fool.

His lips curled in a sneer as he looked away. It was directed not at the clone, but at himself for his own idiocy. "Of course," he muttered, his voice harsh in his disappointment. "Nothing more than my own foolishness at work. One would think that I would learn not to hope for impossible things."

He felt a gentle pressure on his upper arm and was shocked to see the clone standing beside him, the tip of that pure white wing pressed against his shoulder. Sephiroth could only inhale shakily as he forced himself to remain still. It was a comforting gesture, he recognized at once, one that Angeal had used often. A hand set on his shoulder, as though touch alone would ground him, and keep him from his incessant brooding. It was enough to convince him that some part of Angeal truly did reside within this creature's unnatural shell, and it made him smile as little else could.

"I've missed you," he murmured, watching with soft green eyes as the copy settled down beside him. The creature laid its maned head on his thigh, a soft huff coming from its elongated snout, and Sephiroth carefully rested his gloved hand on that course white hair.

"Zack is well," he began almost conversationally. "He is every bit the puppy you named him, and I have become most fond of him. You should be proud of him. He is my second-in-command, now. Unfortunately, we are no longer a part of Shinra, so the title is of Lieutenant General is rather superfluous. Still. . ."

Sephiroth found himself in a rather bizarre, one-sided conversation as he spoke of Genesis and the events at Nibelheim. He apologized to Angeal for his failure to keep his word, for taking Genesis' life after he had sworn not to. He explained that killing their mad friend had been unavoidable, and that he had done so to save Zack's life, but that did not lesson his culpability, nor his guilt. His voice lowered considerably as he spoke of Jenova, and what she had shown him in the reactor, as well as what he had discovered about his own origins.

"But you already know what I am, don't you?" He found himself petting the copy's head as though it were a domesticated animal instead of a wild monster who shared his friend's genetics. "Genesis would have burdened you with that knowledge, as well. For that, I am truly sorry, old friend."

He spoke of Vincent, and what he had discovered about his human mother, and her ties to Hojo. The clone growled, a low rumble in his throat, upon hearing the name, and Sephiroth only grunted in agreement. He explained what little he knew of Vincent's nightmare in Shinra Manor, and of his shape-shifting abilities. While he had yet to witness such a transformation, he was deeply curious to see the process for himself.

He told his friend of Cloud and his training, and Zack's role in it, with obvious pride. "Your puppy has become a mentor in his own right," he said with unconcealed affection. "While Zack is much the same as he has always been, his focus has improved tremendously. I believe he will have Cloud at the 1st Class level fairly soon. Of course, there will be no mako therapy involved, but the boy is a natural with materia, so I don't believe that a normal healing rate will be a negative factor. The boy is more than capable of healing us all, should the need ever arise. Though I will always wonder why Lazard ignored his potential for so long," he said in afterthought.

"I am concerned for Zack," he continued after a moment. "He is quite attached to this Gainsborough girl, and I fear he wishes to remain here with her. Midgar is no place for us now, and I worry about what will become of him if he chooses to stay with her. I cannot force him to leave, though I would like nothing better, and I don't know that I even have the right to ask him to do so. He cares for the girl, and we both know how protective he is with those he. . .loves."

Sephiroth sighed deeply, looking down at the clone with cat-like green eyes. "I-I do not know what to do," he admitted haltingly. "I cannot linger here much longer, but I cannot keep my promise to you if we part ways. How can I protect your puppy if he will not allow me to do so?"

"Seph." He froze as he heard footsteps approaching him from behind. He kept his gaze averted, watching from the corner of his eye, as the boy in question sat down on the other side of the clone. "I'm not staying, you know."

"Zack, I. . ." His voice trailed off as he watched Zack reach out and touch the copy's flanks. "It truly is a part of Angeal, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is." Zack's smile was genuine, though it was tinged with grief. "It's weird, I know. I felt the same way the first time I saw it here. It protected me then, too."

Sephiroth only nodded as they both continued to touch the only part of Angeal left to them. Zack shifted with the soft rustle of cloth and leather, turning to face him fully. His young features were somber as he waited for his hero to acknowledge him. Frustration filled him when he did not. "Come on, Seph, this isn't like you."

The silver general tilted his head to the side, meeting his gaze without raising his head. "I'm not sure what you expect of me, Zachary."

The younger man rolled his eyes at that. "Just. . .talk to me," he said finally. "Don't go all silent and introverty on me. Open your mouth and speak. Tell me what's going on in that head of yours, so I can understand why you'd think I'd desert you now, after everything we've gone through together."

Sephiroth looked away for a moment, his eyes losing their focus as he gazed out into the night-darkened slums. "The girl," he said at length. "You. . .you care for her.

"Yeah," he acknowledged with a shrug. "So? What's that got to do with you being unable to keep whatever promise you made to Angeal?"

Sephiroth flinched inwardly at the plain-spoken words. "I promised Angeal that I would care for you. Protect you," he clarified quietly. "And you told her you would not leave her, again.

Zack's mouth made a perfect 'O' of surprise. "That's it?" he questioned somewhat scornfully. "Damn, man, you worry too much. I didn't mean that I was gonna stay here, Seph."

"Indeed?" Sephiroth questioned coolly. "Then, how will you keep your promise to her?"

"By taking her with us." At his commander's horrified look, Zack quickly explained, "She can fight, Seph. She's wicked-good with a staff, and she can heal without materia. Something to do with being an Ancient, I guess. I don't know, I've never really asked her about it. But she's smart, and I taught her to fight myself, so I know she's good. She's not very strong, but she can still kick ass when she needs to. And we can't rely on you or Cloud to heal us every time we get hurt. That would just drain both of you. With Aerith in the party, we'll be able to concentrate on fighting, and leave the healing to her. Think of how much that will help when we go onto The Plate. Not to mention--"

Sephiroth raised one hand, silently halting the flow of words. He could tell how much Zack wanted this by the dogged determination in his eyes, as well as the nearly endless flow of words. He hadn't even been introduced to the girl yet, and Zack was already speaking as though she were one of them. He had seen the fear in the girl's deep green eyes as she'd looked at him, and that more than anything was what kept him from immediately agreeing. While he was relieved--frighteningly so--that Zack would not be leaving them, he worried about the possible ramifications of agreeing to such an arrangement.

The girl was a civilian, whether or not she could actually fight. She was also the last Cetra on Gaia, and was being watched by The Turks. If they took her with them, Shinra would be even more inclined to capture them, if only to retrieve such an important figure. As he lowered his hand and prepared to speak, he wondered if Zack had already thought of this.

"Cissnei said that she had been assigned to watch over Miss Gainsborough, correct?" Zack nodded warily but didn't speak. A true miracle, Sephiroth thought with inappropriate humor. Aloud, he said, "Is it safe to assume that Shinra has observed the girl for a long while, and wouldn't take kindly to her sudden disappearance?"

He paused, giving the boy a chance to speak. Zack only nodded again, his expression showing a combination of hope and dread. It was the hope that did it. Sephiroth felt his resistance begin to crumble, and was angry with himself as he realized that, no matter how compelling his arguments might be, he would give Zack what he wanted so badly. But not until he and the girl had come to some kind of understanding.

"Your. . .girlfriend," he bit off the ridiculously juvenile word, "fears me. Do you know why?"

Zack nodded a third time, his spiky black hair flopping with the motion. "She was scared of me, too, the first time she realized I was a SOLDIER. She got over that quick enough, once she got to know me. She'll get over this, too."

A frown marred the smooth skin of Sephiroth's brow. "Why does she fear SOLDIER?" he asked.

Mako-bright blue eyes rolled expressively. "She had this picture in her mind of scary, half-drooling men who lived for fighting and killing, who loved it so much they underwent some kind of mysterious surgery just so they'd be able to kill better. Civs have weird ideas about SOLDIER, Seph. Real weird."

His brow cleared as he fought a sudden urge to laugh. "You realize how ridiculous that sounded, don't you, Zack?"

"Well, duh, of course, I do." Zack grinned at the older man, waiting for the laughter he saw in those pale eyes to break free. It was only a chuckle, but it was enough to tell him that all was right in the world, no matter what might come. "So, are you ready to meet my girl, and help me prove to her that SOLDIERs don't drool?"

"Yes," he said, still laughing quietly. "I would be honored to meet the girl who tamed Angeal's puppy."

"Hey, I am not tame!" Zack gave the copy, who had lain silently between them as they spoke, a final pat before jumping to his feet. He put his hands on his hips and gave his friend a mock-glare. "I'm really beginning to wish you hadn't discovered your sense of humor, Seph."

"And that is only because you so often find yourself at the butt of it," Sephiroth retorted, using both hands to ease the copy's head from his leg. He rose to his feet gracefully, pausing to look down at the clone. There were gray patches of skin showing beneath its covering of fine fur, and he recognized it as the degradation he had also witnessed in Genesis. "Its degrading, isn't it?"

"Yeah, the poor thing." Zack watched as the clone rose to all four legs and then jumped into the air. It flew away, not returning to the church, and he wondered if he would ever see it again. "So, did you and the copy have a nice, long, meaningful chat?"

Sephiroth frowned at the condescendence tingeing the younger man's voice, even though he knew that humor was only Zack's way of dealing with emotional stress. "Yes," he answered simply, adding, "It was very cathartic."

Zack could only smile at the typically solemn response. Even with that surprisingly dry sense of humor, Sephiroth took everything way too seriously. "Come on," he said suddenly, jerking his head towards the church. "I want you to meet Aerith, and I expect you to be nice about it."

"What is it with you and your insistence that I be nice to everyone?" he questioned with exasperation. "I am not a 'nice' man, Zachary."

Zack merely snorted and began to walk away. "You're not getting out this, Seph, so get your ass in gear."

Sephiroth couldn't contain a pleased smile as he followed, albeit at a much slower pace. Only Angeal and Genesis had ever dared to speak to him thus, and he liked that Zack did so as well. It showed that, for all that he was far from normal, he was capable of inspiring fondness in others. Zack never let his inferior rank stop him from speaking his mind, or allowed it to interfere with their friendship. He kept Sephiroth from retreating into his shell, as he was wont to do most of the time, and he found himself grateful for it. Exasperating or not, Sephiroth enjoyed having Zack Fair as a friend.

He found Zack standing beside the young girl, whose wide sage eyes indicated her nervousness, just inside the doorway. He came to a halt before them, doing his best to keep his expression neutral but not cold. He flicked a glance at Zack, whose smile held just a hint of warning, then back at the girl.

"Seph, I'd like you meet my girlfriend, Aerith Gainsborough. Aerith, this is my friend, Sephiroth."

Startled by the description, Sephiroth could only hope his surprise didn't show in his expression as he extended his right hand. He had learned long ago that only a small part of the population were left-handed, and he had yet to meet another, so he always shook hands with his right. Sure enough, the girl reached out and clasped his hand in a gentle grip.

"It's an honor to meet another friend of Zack's," she said in clear, musical tones which belied the uneasiness in those large green eyes.

"Thank you," he murmured. "It is an honor to meet you, as well."

He released her hand and glanced at his lieutenant, who was frowning at him, and sighed soundlessly. "Was that not 'nice' enough, puppy?"

Zack threw up his hands, snorting as did so. "Gods, but you're thick sometimes," he said with his own exasperation.

Sephiroth merely gazed at him with gleaming emerald eyes. "I thought you would appreciate the fact that I did not mention her taming of you," he said with a touch of humor.

From behind him, he could hear Cloud trying to smother his laughter, and couldn't contain his own. "Gee, thanks a lot, Seph. I just don't know what I'd do if you didn't embarrass me at every freakin' turn."

Sephiroth looked down at the girl, who was watching them with something akin to shock, and managed a nearly non-existent half smile. "He can be quite a trial, at times. You are to be commended for your patience, Miss Gainsborough."

Zack merely shook his dark head, slinging a casual arm around Aerith's shoulders. "Hey, I'll have you know that I am extremely lovable. Extremely," he added with strong emphasis.

Aerith let out that high, tinkling laugh he'd always loved, and he knew that everything would be all right. Sephiroth had used that humor to smooth things over with Aerith, who was smiling tentatively at the normally stoic general. Cloud was with them, still snickering at his friend's embarrassment, gaining more confidence every day, and losing his skittishness around Sephiroth. For Zack, life was nearly perfect. Now, if only they could get past the little 'mission' Cid had for them, they could get the hell out of dodge and find a place to settle down for a little while. Gawd, but he was tired on sleeping on the ground!

"So, Seph? Are we ready to go, now?" he asked meaningfully.

Pale emerald eyes cut to Aerith, taking in her long pink dress and matching denim jacket with a critical eye. "Zack says that you can fight?"

Aerith nodded hesitantly and pulled a long metal rod from her supply pack. It gleamed dully in the moonlight that filtered in through the church's broken roof. Sephiroth studied the staff as he had studied her, taking note of its single materia slot, as well as the weapon's overall condition. "You'll do," he said at last, stepping back and looking past them. "Kunsel, Cissnei, do you still wish to accompany us?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" Kunsel responded with a salute.

Cissnei sent him an amused glance before bobbing her head. "So long as I remain with you, I can still fulfill my duty as a Turk, and Tseng can't execute me for disobeying orders. So. . .I'm in."

"Very well." He turned to Vincent, who was standing in the shadows, well out of the light. Only his pale skin and ruby eyes gave his position away. "Are you and Cid ready, as well?"

"Hell, ya, we're ready," Cid exclaimed impatiently, already moving towards the doors. "Let's get on with it, already!"

Vincent merely sighed as he stepped into the light. "The Plate?" he questioned tonelessly.

Sephiroth nodded, his silvery hair slithering over his shoulders. "The Plate," he confirmed.

With a rather dramatic flip of his cloak, Vincent turned on his heel and followed the pilot out of the church. Sephiroth shook his head slightly at the former Turk's eccentricities before following suit.