A/N: Not a long author's note this time. There's a lot here for you to read. There's a lot of people I need to thank, and a lot of things I want to say, but I think first there's a story to finish.
Disclaimer: I do not own FFVII or any of its derivative works. Please support the official releases.
Reno's Trophy Room was the stuff of legend. It was used by teachers as a nightmarish example of what, exactly, separated Turks and Soldiers. Some of Zack's comrades had used it as a scary campfire story for cadets. More than once, people had reported threatening enemies with inclusion in the room. But one thing always held through in all of the stories. No one ever doubted that it was real.
Despite that, sliding inside after Reno was like walking into some hellish story for Zack. He'd considered himself the redhead's friend, and he supposed that being brought to this place which everyone knew of and no one had seen cemented that. But looking around the walls, he wasn't so sure he had any idea exactly who he was friends with.
There were weapons lining the shelves. Some of them were marked, and some of them had been left unlabeled. Many of the blades had rusted blood on them. Zack wondered, quietly, whose blood it was.
"How many are there?" he asked softly, walking inside.
"Oh, thousands," Reno replied with a fond shrug. "I had to start taking smaller stuff from the small-fries. I have about ten boxes of rings, necklaces, ties, shoe laces—that sort of thing, yo."
"They're all people you've killed?" Zack asked quietly, stepping slowly into the first row of weaponry, studying a particularly fine sword and trying to ignore the twisting in his stomach. He didn't even really have a stomach.
"Yup," Reno said with significant pride. "You still so sure you wanna be here, yo?"
"I'm not that easy to scare off," Zack said with a shake of his head. "Where are they?"
"Row five," Reno said mildly. "Towards the end."
"Do I dare ask what row five is?" Zack asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Bitches who had it coming," Reno said with a half-shrug, leading Zack along his isles of mementos from his victims. "And you gotta admit they had it coming."
"I wasn't going to argue," Zack said with a grin, lifting his hands. He could feel a faint tug in the back of his mind. Things were going downhill back at home. That sort of tug never started up while he was visiting unless Angeal and Aerith were really worried.
"So what's it like being dead?" Reno asked, glancing back at the ghost that was following him. He had changed, Zack thought to himself in surprise, since he was the brash young Turk with his EMR over his shoulder and a constant smirk on his lips.
"Surprisingly stressful," Zack said with a laugh. "But not lonely, that's for sure."
"Heard from Cloud you and th' flower girl have been pretty chummy up there."
"She's my girlfriend, Reno," Zack sighed, rolling his eyes. "Being dead doesn't change that."
"Run across anyone else up there?" The turk's voice had changed, taking on a longing note.
"Haven't seen Cissnei in years," Zack replied, knowing what the young man meant. "Most of the turks take to the hills pretty quickly after dying. She went her own way a long time ago."
"Right," Reno muttered, stopping at the end of his isle. "Just curious."
"Sure," Zack replied, knowing better than that. He'd heard the Turk's howl's of rage when Cissnei was lost to them. After all, he'd been there to help Cissnei up into the lifestream. He'd owed her that, at least.
"There they are," Reno muttered, gesturing to three labeled pieces. "Whatever the hell you want them for."
Zack let out a breath seeing them. Who'd have thought the crazy Turk's hording would come in handy.
"Only one of the guns?" he asked.
"Tseng called the other one," Reno replied, giving a little shrug. "He got shot with it, so he got first pick."
"It'll do," Zack replied, nodding. "One more favor."
"Oh, come on, yo!"
"Hey, you said you owed me," Zack grinned, tilting his head at Reno. "Gunna fall through on me again?"
"Fuck no," Reno muttered. "Just tell me what you want and shoo. Got enough problems with living people."
"Take them to the church," Zack said, letting the tug pull him back towards the lifestream. "I'll meet up with you there one more time and tell you what to do next. Got it, 'yo?'"
She was winning. There was no doubting that. The brief headway Aerith had made when Jenova split in two had stalled out, leaving her once again guarding her friends with all her might. Zack had not moved in long moments. Loz could hear Angeal calling to him.
Yazoo's fight was faring no better. Though at first it had seemed he stood a chance, the battle had devolved, leaving Yazoo dodging endless attacks, battling fatigue, and only now and then managing to squeeze off a shot from Mama Strife's gun. The image of Sephiroth seemed to be having far too much fun chasing him around in circles, attempting to cleave his head from his body.
Beside him, Sephiroth-the real Sephiroth-and Kadaj had not moved an inch. Kadaj's breathing had slowed and evened out the longer Sephiroth's hand had rested over his heart. Their original sat still and quiet, his single eye narrowed in concentration.
Mama Strife had shifted to hold him, and Loz didn't argue the almost painful grip she kept on him. She obviously needed someone to hold onto. And what else was he supposed to do? He was absolutely and truly useless. All he could do was watch, and hope that he could stay out of the way.
And then the image of Sephiroth jumped. It wasn't a physical leap, but something more like an electronic glitch in a projection. At Loz's side, Kadaj convulsed abruptly, his hands clawing in the dirt and his eyes opening wide in a disturbing mixture of fear and rapture. Loz watched his brother, and his chest tightened in fear as he saw the connection between him and Jenova swell despite Sephiroth's efforts. The mute man's intact hand, spelling almost more quickly than Loz could follow.
"He says to close her out," Loz translated briskly, his voice breaking into a squeak from stress.
"She's mother," Kadaj whispered. "I belong to her..."
The copy of Sephiroth jerked again, and before Loz could even begin to realize what was happening, the image split. As the copy rushed Yazoo again, a shadow broke away from him, darting straight for Angeal and Zack.
"Angeal, four o' clock," Yazoo barked as he dodged Masamune once more.
The real Sephiroth gave a visible shiver and closed his mouth slowly. Loz got the feeling that their original had been starting to say the same thing. Loz griped mama strife's arm, and was gripped tight in return.
Angeal dropped Zack and drew his prized Buster sword. He rushed forward to meet the shadow of Kadaj in battle without reservation. Zack lay where he was dropped, limp and unmoving. Zack could still see little streams of green pulsing under his skin, as he hovered on the brink of falling apart. If Angeal hand't been an equal match against Jenova's projection of his little brother, Loz had no doubt that Mama Strife would have run to protect Zack and damn the consequences. Even as it was, she was all but vibrating with the desire to join the fight.
Loz knew he ought to have been worried for Zack, but splitting again had sapped some of Jenova's strength. Yazoo was holding his own again. He glanced to the original Sephiroth only to find the man's gaze already upon him, firm and steady-waiting. The moment Loz was looking, Sephiroth started to sign.
"Mama," Loz said softly. "He wants you to help with Kadaj."
"What?" the blonde woman whispered, her eyes still fixed on Aerith and Zack.
"He says he doesn't have enough safe places in his head to protect Kadaj from her. He thinks you can help." Loz swallowed hard after translating. The omission in Sephiroth's words was obvious. Mama Strife could help his brother. He could not.
"Well," Mama Strife said after a moment. "What's one more flower in my garden."
"What? Loz asked, moving automatically out of her lap to let her shift to Kadaj's side.
"Nothing, dear," She replied, smiling warmly through the stress in her eyes. "Now. What do I do?"
She addressed the words to Sephiroth. Her gaze was as firm and unwavering on him as on anyone else, despite that he'd killed her, despite what he'd done to her son, and despite the maimed features with which he regarded her. Loz translated as Sephiroth signed, but with a heavy heart. He didn't like only being good for translating.
"Hands on his chest, and picture somewhere safe and nice," Loz said quietly and sadly, reaching out to rest one of his small hands on one of Kadaj's legs, rubbing slowly up and down in an attempt at comfort. His twitching, hurting brother didn't seem to notice at all.
"All right," Lillian whispered, closing her eyes.
After a moment of her concentrating, Sephiroth shifted his whole hand to rest atop Lillian's. The effect on Kadaj was instant. He went limp, and caught a deep gasp of air, his eyes falling lightly closed.
Loz looked up to the battle, watching the image of Kadaj flicker. Then a cold chill raced down his spine. Someone else was watching as well. He shifted his gaze off Angeal, past the struggling Aerith, and to Jenova. Her single eye was fixed on their little group. Loz could feel the hatred radiating from her.
The copy of Sephiroth shifted its eyes as well, and abruptly broke off from chasing Yazoo, hesitating a moment, its eyes fixed on Kadaj. Then it moved into a swift sprint, darting towards them with deadly intensity.
Loz forced himself up, stepping between the others and the Sephiroth copy, but fear gripped his heart. No longer was he bold and fierce in the face of Sephiroth's wicked smile. He could remember the piercing, burning pain that Masamune's strike delivered-remember the pressure building behind his eyes as Sephiroth''s cruel hand closed around his throat-remember suffocating on the ground, watching Yazoo try to protect him even as he suffered and died.
He raised his hands, knowing it would do nothing to protect him, and swallowed hard.
The gunshot that rang out filled him with hope again, and he opened his eyes in time to watch Yazoo-bloody and sweating-slam his borrowed gun's butt into Sephiroth's head, driving him to the side, away from their little group. Loz fell back a step, bumping into Mama Strife and clinging to her, despite her distraction. She and Sephiroth hadn't even flinched at the threat.
Yazoo spared Loz not a glance, driving Sephiroth away by any means. He kicked, and shot, and bludgeoned, and all while trying to avoid Masamune's fierce retaliation. Sephiroth smiled cruelly as he indulged the middle remnant in his game.
"Yaz," Loz whispered in worry.
He couldn't save Yazoo from Sephiroth this time. He hadn't even really saved him the first time. He'd only helped Yazoo save himself, and given him a chance to fight back. That was the most he'd managed while trapped inside this child's body-his greatest accomplishment.
Yazoo lept back, fired carefully, and pulled off a shot that ought to have gone straight through the image's head. Instead it went though empty air, where the Sephiroth copy had been only a moment before. Loz watched Yazoo lower the gun—watched the shock and horror dawn on his face as his eyes scanned the horizon for his opponent, brushing over the chaos of Aerith's battle against Jenova, and Angeal calling for Zack—sweeping over to make confused eye contact with him.
Loz saw the shadow behind Yazoo just in time to inhale to warn him. The words never escaped him.
Behind Yazoo, the copy jerked back into reality, sinking his teeth into Yazoo's shoulder. Loz was still holding his willowy brother's gaze when he saw him jerk and twitch—heard the scream of pain and surprise that escaped him. He lifted his hand, pulling at Sephiroth's hair, trying to struggle free of the bite, but the man clung on, growling, his arms circling Yazoo's waist to keep him still, capturing his gun-arm in the move.
"Yazoo!" Loz screamed, trying to go to him. His legs shook under him so hard that he stumbled. He was only a kid. He couldn't be expected to handle this.
"Stay back!" Yazoo barked in return, fighting to escape the death-grip his original had on him.
The Sephiroth copy bit down harder. Crimson bright blood seeped from under his teeth, staining Yazoo's bare chest as it poured out of the bite. Loz pressed a hand to his mouth, horrified. He couldn't look away. He couldn't help.
"Do something!" he screamed to the real Sephiroth—to the man who was responsible for the other him existing in the first place.
Sephiroth didn't move. He watched Yazoo with an empty gaze, as though he were hearing things in his head again. Loz staggered to his feet, crossing to him and shaking him hard. Sephiroth let himself be shaken, his hand sliding off of Kadaj's chest, leaving Loz's brother supported only by Mama Strife's efforts.
"This is your fault," Loz screamed at the man who had created them all. "Do something!"
Sephiroth slowly turned his gaze to the boy. Some light seemed to re-enter his eyes. He rose, stiffly, to his feet, shaking his head. He widened his hand, as though searching for the sword he no longer had. Then he looked to the Sephiroth copy that held his blade. He took a deep breath, steeling himself.
"He's going to kill him!" Loz cried, his voice breaking as tears streaked down his cheeks. "You have to stop him!"
Sephiroth gave a small shake of his head. His finger's spelled.
'I can't. He's me.'
Loz shoved him away, making him stumble on unsteady legs. He turned back to watch as Yazoo sank to his knees, his eyes distant, his lips parted, panting hard as the Sephiroth copy behind him sank with him, still biting—still bleeding the boy. Yazoo's hand slid out of the man's hair as he gasped for breath. His eyes were focused far away. Loz had to wonder what was happening inside his mind. He steeled himself, taking a step forward.
As he moved, Sephiroth lifted his gaze. Twin inhuman eyes fixed on Loz and narrowed. Then teeth pulled from soft flesh, stained crimson with blood. Yazoo was released, and sagged to the ground, gasping in air, fumbling a hand up to press over the wound in his shoulder as he struggled to rise.
Loz swallowed hard as Sephiroth's copy held his gaze. The man stood, slowly. His entire mouth was bright red with wet blood. He lifted a hand, wiping the back of it over his lips and chin, as though wiping away the mess, though it only served to smear it.
Then, as Loz watched, his image jerked. Doubled. He'd seen this before.
"No," Loz whispered, his eyes widening as the Sephiroth copy's gaze narrowed in pleasure.
And then the image split again. A second form split from him, stepping smoothly from his shadow in a jerk like a static-filled image. The copy of Yazoo didn't bother sprinting like Kadaj's double had. He just smiled, slowly, and turned his head to take in the battlefield. Loz's gaze locked on the gun in the copy's hand. It wasn't fair, he thought. It wasn't fair that they had weapons when their originals did not. It didn't make sense. Jenova's powers never did.
Yazoo's eyes locked onto the conflict across the field. Angeal was holding Kadaj's copy off. He seemed to be close to taking it out all together. Even the image of Kadaj was weak, he was so used up. But it was still darting around, posing a constant enough danger to keep Angeal engaged in battle. Loz almost felt it the moment that Yazoo's double locked its eyes onto Zack's prone form.
"Zack," Loz called, feeling Jenova's intent all the way down to his bones. "Zack, get up!"
Zack did not so much as stir. The call drew Angeal's attention, but that only served to leave Kadaj an opening to dart in, leaving a slice on Angeal's arm before dancing out of reach of the buster sword again. Yazoo's image turned to Loz, face calm and distant. Then he smiled. It was an ugly smile. The sort of look Yazoo only gave to creatures like Cloud—creatures he found utterly beyond distain.
The Sephiroth copy reached out, touched a bloodied hand to Yazoo's hair, then nodded, ponderously. Yazoo moved in the blink of an eye, sprinting towards the fallen Zack, his smile wicked and fierce. Loz started forward, but froze as a streak of silver and black blurred past him, shoving him back towards Kadaj and Mama Strife.
Sephiroth was joining the fight.
Lillian Strife sighed, looking around the inside of her own cottage. She did not understand the way the lifestream worked, and never would. She'd settled with her hands on the chest of the damaged child that had until recently been the pet project of Aerith and Zack, and the moment she started trying to envision him somewhere safe, she had ended up inside her own cottage. She was aware, in the strange way of being aware she had now, that she had not physically moved—she was still in the middle of the battlefield, and if she listened, she could still hear the fight. This was all inside her mind. It was just that what was inside your mind was a very concrete thing in the lifestream.
She looked down at the child resting in her lap. His eyes were closed and his head tilted back. He looked tired. She stroked her fingers over his forehead, pushing the fall of silken silver hair out of his face. He turned into the touch. Her other hand stayed resting on his chest, feeling his thready heartbeat thundering within, in panic and fear utterly opposite to what she saw in him at the moment. He looked sick—like he'd been wrung thin by some disease that stole his sleep and his appetite. She let out a slow breath, forcing herself not to think too hard about the disease named Jenova, and the damage she had wrought to so many.
"How are you feeling?" she asked softly, looking down at the boy who had been left so abruptly in her care.
"Strange," Kadaj whispered, his voice dry and strained. "I don't know what to believe."
"You could believe in your brothers," Lillian advised, brushing her fingers lightly through the boy's hair. "In Loz and Yazoo. They've never stopped looking for you, you know. Now they're fighting to save you."
At least Yazoo was, she thought with a faint frown. She hoped Loz wasn't fighting. He was a sweet little thing, strange as it was to think so. She didn't want to see him hurt. She didn't want to see Yazoo hurt either, but at least he was closer to an age where his life could be his responsibility. Loz was still a little one. He needed protecting.
"No they're not," Kadaj whispered in argument at last. It seemed to take him a long time to process anything she said. "They're fighting for each other."
"Do you think you have to be the only one they're fighting for to be important?" Lillian asked. "It's for you too. And for me, I think."
"I hardly know them," Kadaj said, shaking his head.
"I know," she said softly, tilting his head up with a gentle hand. "They want to save you anyway."
There was a long pause. His head was heavy in her hand. He turned into the touch, his striking eyes closed lightly. He seemed so tired—so worn. She wished she could tell him to sleep, but she feared what would happen to him if he could no longer put up any resistance to what Jenova wanted of him.
"I'd have been happy," Kadaj said at last, his breath soft and warm against her arm as he spoke. "With Mother."
He flickered with his words, and Lillian fought back a shiver. With every moment he doubted, Jenova was getting stronger. Though she wished that she could believe that good would always triumph over evil, she knew better. Even if Jenova was defeated, she knew in the pit of her stomach that it didn't necessarily mean her friends outside would have won.
"If you would have been happy," She said slowly, "Why were you holding so tight to Yazoo when he brought you here? Shouldn't you have been struggling to get free if you wanted to stay?"
"It's not that I didn't want to stay," Kadaj replied, lifting his gaze to her slowly, his cat-like eyes dull and listless. "I hurt her. I couldn't stay."
"You hurt her?" Lillian repeated with surprise.
"She was going to kill him," Kadaj whispered. "I wasn't even thinking. I just... Moved. I don't know why."
"I do," Lillian said softly in return, shifting her hand to cup the boy's cheek, her other pressing a little more firmly against his thundering heartbeat. "It's because you are a good person and a good brother. A mother should be proud."
"It was stupid," Kadaj shook his head slowly as he spoke. "Now she's going to kill all of us."
"She's going to try," Lillian agreed, carding her hand through his soft silver hair. "But your brothers are fighting for you. And my friends are fighting as well. She is only a nightmare, Kadaj. She's only as strong as we make her."
"You can't fight nightmares," Kadaj whispered, burrowing his face in her shirt.
"You can wake up," Lillian said firmly, even as she buried her fingers in his hair, letting him hide from her. "So long as you listen to the people calling you. You can survive this, Kadaj. You're young and you're strong. Not just anyone can face down my son on equal ground. All you have to do is decide to fight, and I know you can stop her."
The house shuddered around them, and Lillian pulled the boy a little closer, holding him tight and closing her eyes. She would keep her cottage safe. She would keep this boy safe. She had never been a warrior, but until she'd been torn away from her son by a sudden and violent death, she had been a good mother. She wasn't about to let the same thing happen twice. If this was where she was needed, this was where she would be. She would keep Kadaj safe. They could decide whether he was a good-guy or bad-guy later.
She had already made up her mind. To her, there was no such thing as an evil child. Just a hurt one.
Loz gasped as their damaged original moved in a blur of speed. It seemed only days ago he could barely move at all. Now it took him only seconds to reach Angeal and Zack, and only a moment more to intercept the attacking clone of Yazoo.
Sephiroth's bare feet dug into the earth as he caught the copy's charge. The false Yazoo switched targets without hesitation, lofting fierce, precise high kicks at Sephiroth's head. The clone always attacked to Sephiroth's blind side, throwing his blows where he knew Sephiroth could not see them coming. Despite the copy's efforts, Sephiroth still dodged the quick moves with barely a stumble.
Behind him, Angeal was starting to dominate in his battle with Kadaj's copy. Whatever Mama Strife was doing, it was drawing Kadaj's attention and focus from Jenova. The little image of him flickered and shifted uneasily, even mid-attack. It would not be long before Angeal took him out. The huge ex-soldier swung his sword fiercely, driving Kadaj's image back to glance over at Zack. He froze when he caught sight of the damaged Sephiroth defending Zack's still form.
"Loz!" Yazoo's voice cracked as he screamed.
Loz knew before he started turning that Yazoo was still down. He knew that Sephiroth was coming. Automatically, he rose. Kadaj wasn't getting back up. Not for a long time. Mama Strife was keeping him alive. It was him or no one. He had to protect them.
He looked up, stepping forward. Sephiroth's copy wasn't even bothering to run towards them. The thing walked briskly, a confident smile on his blood stained lips. Loz could see Yazoo behind him, a hand clasped to his bloody shoulder, struggling to rise. His legs would no longer hold him. It had ceased to be a matter of will. His body had nothing left to give.
"Well?" a dark smooth voice whispered to Loz, the words soft in his mind. "What will you do?"
Loz caught his breath, staring at the approaching form of Sephiroth as time slowed. His gaze fixed on the small smirk Sephiroth was sending him. Then his gaze slid to Yazoo, watching as he fell, still fighting to stand, his blood dropping in thick gobs to the ground as he struggled. He looked like he had after the explosion—falling apart. Still fighting. Loz had been like that once. He straightened, putting his shoulders back, and narrowed his eyes.
"You want to protect them?" the voice of Jenova whispered in his mind—in all of their minds—cold and fierce in opposition to the Goddess's warm strength. "Ridiculous. You can't even protect yourselves."
Loz frowned, looking down at his hands. Jenova's words struck a chord in him. He knew she'd intended them mainly for Sephiroth, who was so bravely stepping into the fight against Yazoo's copy, despite being weaponless—despite being hurt. He knew she was right, but it didn't fill him with fear or despair as he knew she had intended it to. Sephiroth couldn't protect himself. Neither could he or his brothers.
His brain kicked into gear, running through their journey. Yazoo falling prey to the men who hated him for the stigma, to his own blindness, to Jenova herself, and yet every time he'd stepped up to defend Loz, they had somehow made it. It was the same with him. He couldn't defend himself from the monster, from sickness, from Jenova as well, but defending Yazoo? He'd managed that. He'd always found a way. He glanced down at Kadaj who had been so tragically unable to save himself, and knew in the very depths of his heart that his baby brother would have fought Jenova to protect someone he loved. His Kadaj could have won, if it was for anyone but himself.
"You can protect them, Seph," Loz whispered to his original, though he knew the man could not hear him. He lifted a hand to his heart—to where he knew a piece of Sephiroth dwelled within him. "You know they're in danger this time, so you can protect them."
"Loz," Yazoo choked, his voice barely audible from so far away as he struggled to stand. "Loz, run."
He did not run. He lifted his gaze from his hands to the slowly approaching copy. He watched the face of the false-Sephiroth shift in confusion at what he saw in Loz's stare.
"You can save them," he whispered again to his original, "and so can I."
"Loz?" Mama Strife murmured, only half-rousing from the trance she had entered to keep Kadaj alive.
"Thanks for everything, Mama," Loz whispered with a smile. "If I don't get to tell you again."
"You're not going out there," she said sharply, coming more to herself as she pressed down against Kadaj's chest, as though holding him in place.
"I'm sorry," Loz murmured. "It would have been nice to have a mother. But I have to grow up now. They need me."
He would have liked to kiss her forehead and thank her again—profusely and honestly—but the time for talking was over. He rolled back his shoulders, lifted his head, and walked forward smoothly. As he went, he felt the lifestream coiling around him, and heard a strange series of things that he knew had little or nothing to do with what was happening around him in his reality.
'Shit,' a voice he recognized from quite some time ago muttered. 'I'm not good at this sorta stuff, yo. Um... I willingly sacrifice these weapons of, uh, fallen warriors.'
Loz smirked. He could feel the air shifting around his left arm, and knew what was coming.
'Please take them, I guess,' the half-familiar voice continued. 'And, uh... Let them fight more stuff?'
'You are bad at this,' Zack's voice commented from a similar distance, sounding deeply entertained.
Loz inhaled deeply, took another step forward, and whispered the words that he knew he needed to say to himself.
"The things that have happened," he said to himself, "They're my fault too. I'm not a victim and I'm not a child. I'm ready to accept responsibility. I'm ready to grow up."
Something inside him clicked in the same moment that Sephiroth's copy charged. A great many things happened in the next moment. A firm, cold, familiar grip wrapped around his too-small arm as Dual Hound appeared with him, drawn from the real world by Reno's 'sacrifice.' An instant later, it was no longer too lose. The ground fell away from him as he grew mid-stride, shooting up from the height of a seven year old to be on par with Sephiroth. Inside him, he felt his heart beat strongly, and knew that that feeling had echoed through all of his brothers. It was a feeling of strength. He only realized when he felt it sing through him how much he had missed it. The last thing that happened in that moment between one breath and the next was simple, and small, but it made all the difference in the world to Loz.
He smirked in confidence, and he meant it.
Sephiroth's copy hesitated, and his moment of hesitation was all Loz needed to drive Dual Hound into his face and send him flying. It was the most satisfying thing he had felt since he died. Possibly even the most satisfying thing he'd ever felt all together. The look on the not-Sephiroth's face—the expression of utter shock and bewilderment—was as pathetic as it was enjoyable.
"Loz?" Yazoo breathed, his voice soft and thready.
"You gunna be able to get up?" He asked with a casualness he didn't feel as he walked over to Yazoo, standing beside him with Dual Hound still lifted, watching as Sephiroth tried to pick himself up.
"Hah," Yazoo breathed, a grin touching his lips as Loz glanced down at him. "Doubt it."
"Yeah?" Loz asked, tilting his head. "I guess that means it's my turn, huh."
"Took you long enough," Yazoo gasped back. "I've been waiting to tag-out for ages."
"As if," Loz replied fondly, shaking his head. "You've been enjoying playing martyr."
"Well who can blame me," Yazoo sighed, sinking towards the ground. Loz knew his brother's physical body was dying again, but he refused to let himself panic. "Not every day one of us gets to play the martyr."
"Consider this your last time," Loz said firmly. "From now on leave it to Cloud. Got it?"
"Got it," Yazoo replied, his eyes closing lightly.
"Come back soon," Loz warned him as the false Sephiroth picked himself up, blood pouring out of a head-wound Loz had left on him. "I'm going to be waiting. Don't let me down."
He felt it when Yazoo's body gave out on him. He glanced down, watching the same green streamers that were dancing under Zack's skin glide under his brother's.
"I know you're close to breaking," Loz whispered to him. "I know it's been too much for you. You're not alone, Yaz. Hang in there."
"Impudent," the Sephiroth copy snarled. It was the first time he'd spoken. He wiped at the blood pouring from his forehead with an affronted air.
"Oh, you talk now?" Loz commented, stepping forward and spreading his hands in a silent challenge. "Does that mean mommy dearest loaned you her tongue?"
"You'll pay," Sephiroth hissed, his eyes glowing with anger.
"I've done that," Loz replied sharply. "It's your turn now. You've taken a lot of things that don't belong to you. It's time for you to give them back."
"And you're going to be the one to make me?" He gave an ugly laugh, swinging Masamune down sharply, showing off the shining edge of the blade.
"Yup," Loz said with a shrug. "I'm thinking I'll start by tearing your tongue out. As payback, you know? It doesn't belong to you anyhow."
"And then what?" The copy said, eyes shining. "Will you tear out your own heart? Your brother's eye? The Puppet's hand?"
"No," Loz said, shaking his head. "You don't understand at all. Those were gifts. Once you give a gift to someone, it belongs to them. Otherwise I'm sure you would have taken back all this strength you gave us a long time ago."
Jenova let out a wordless scream of frustration across the field, and the Sephiroth copy lurched into action. Loz smiled as he watched the imitation approach. It probably wasn't smart to piss Jenova off, but it had accomplished his goal. There was no way she was going to pay attention to breaking Yazoo any further now. Not with him as a much more appetizing target. He deepened his stance, reached back, and plowed Dual Hound into the ground, tearing the turf beneath the copy's feet into pieces.
It felt absolutely amazing.
Sephiroth felt the tide change. It felt like breathing again. Loz grew to fit himself. Yazoo's ragged soul touched peace. Kadaj steadied himself in the arms of a true mother. Sephiroth stood between Zack and destruction.
Things clicked into place.
He could feel his old power growing with every moment. For a while, he'd thought it would never return. For a long time. Years. Now it rose up happily to meet him, freed by involvement—by doing the right thing. There was no doubt in him that this was the right side to be on. He'd never intended things to turn out the way they had. He would do anything to take them back. He never could do that, but this he could manage. He could keep Zack from being destroyed. He could stand by Angeal like he should have all along. He could fight for the planet.
The copy of Yazoo fired at him, and he let the strikes hit. Dodging had never been his strong suit. He didn't care about pain. Any pain he could possibly feel had been inflicted by Jenova in the years she'd held him hostage, stealing away his strength to feed her own insatiable lust for power and freedom. He'd grown an immunity. A couple of bullet holes didn't bother him. The gun wasn't even real. Just another figment of Jenova's. Just like the creature he was fighting. He accepted the strikes and kept moving. The copy was no longer smiling.
Sephiroth wasn't sure what Jenova had been expecting when she went against him. At first, the Yazoo look-alike had seemed delighted and amused by his intervention. He was sure she'd expected to get to watch him crumble again. Too bad for her, he thought, as he brushed aside a kick from the little imitation and whirled to strike its nose with a bare fist. The copy staggered back, rocked by the contact, and Sephiroth pushed the advantage, staying on the attack.
It was good to move again. Even if it was on autopilot against an opponent who was hardly worth his time.
Nearby, Angeal drove the Kadaj copy back, forcing him further and further from Jenova—the source of his power—and Zack and Aerith, who he was protecting. Sephiroth sighed at his foolishness. He would have warned him not to, if he could, but his voice was long gone. He'd had no voice to object with for a long time now.
He stayed close to Zack's prone form, letting the Yazoo copy stagger further away, trying to lure him. He'd seen the disappearing act that his own copy had pulled on Yazoo. He wasn't going to make the same mistake.
When he heard a sound of surprise from Angeal, he knew he'd been right to be suspicious. He turned calmly, waiting. He knew Jenova as well as she knew herself. She should not have kept him so close to the heart of her.
Kadaj's copy appeared right where Sephiroth had known he would—sword raised over Zack's throat. Sephiroth was waiting. He grabbed the back of the copy's shirt and threw him, unceremoniously. The animal sound of surprise that escaped the shadow as it hurtled into its fake brother was delightful.
Not having a tongue didn't stop Sephiroth from laughing.
"Nice!" called the deep voice of Loz, colored with a laugh of his own.
Sephiroth shot him a look and a nod, pleased to see the boy still standing guard over Yazoo's prone form, and his own copy once again picking itself up off the ground some distance away, snarling through the blood on its face.
"Sephiroth?" Angeal's voice whispered from behind him.
He turned his one eye to his friend. It left him blind to his opponents. He didn't mind. Angeal would warn him if they came.
For a moment, their gazes locked. Sephiroth wasn't sure what Angeal saw in his eyes, but it was something that made the man's eyes widen and his face pale with shock. Sephiroth didn't flinch. He knew he'd been made ugly and damaged by Jenova's treatment. He didn't care. He drank in the sight of his long time friend like it was a balm. He'd wanted for so long to see Angeal again. He wished he could apologize, as he had always wanted to.
Rage welled in him as he turned away from his friend, looking back to the clones on the ground with absolute fury. He should have been able to apologize. It should have been him speaking, instead of the poisonous creature floating in the air before Aerith's guard spell, spewing her hatred in his voice through clenched teeth.
Sephiroth gestured for Angeal to stay with Zack, and started walking forward. He'd heard what Loz had said about tearing the copy's tongue out. It wouldn't do much to do it to the copy, but Sephiroth liked the idea.
If eating his tongue had given her his voice, he would simply have to return the favor.
Loz heard Yazoo moving around before he was even done trading blows with Sephiroth this time around. He was so distracted he took a stab from Masamune, straight in and out of his left arm, leaving an ugly wound. He kicked Sephiroth's copy away swiftly. He was panting and shaking. It had been too long since he'd had a real fight. He was out of practice.
His only consolation was that the fake Sephiroth was much bloodier than he was.
"You up again?" He asked without looking back.
"Working on it," Yazoo rasped, choking and coughing.
Loz glanced back to watch his brother rise slowly to his hands and knees. He shouldn't have looked. Sephiroth was there again in a moment, sword sweeping towards him. He shifted out of the way, but had to raise his arm to block. The sword bit deep into Dual Hound, making the weapon spark dangerously. Loz's eyes widened in alarm, and he looked up to Sephiroth's copy in surprise.
The copy smiled.
The explosion caught both of them, but Loz was pretty sure he had it worse, what with the thing exploding being strapped to his arm. He bit back the howl of pain, letting the force of the explosion send him rolling back. He picked himself up again as quickly as he could. Only his right arm responded to his need. He didn't dare look at his left. His legs were trembling, the pain making him shake all over. He was pretty sure that was the end of his left arm. He didn't have the time now to mourn it.
Loz looked up at the copy he was fighting. He tried to hide the fact that he was breathing hard from the lclone. As he watched the smiling Sephiroth copy, he felt blood running down from his nose, and he wiped it away harshly,
The fake Sephiroth was missing a lot of skin off of its face. It didn't seem to mind. Masamune swung up into a ready position, completely undamaged. Loz cursed under his breath, shifting to ready himself to fight one armed. He wasn't about to give up now.
"Loz," Yazoo wheezed, rising to his feet, his gaze fixed on Sephiroth's copy, jolted into motion by the explosion. "You alright?"
Loz giggled. He couldn't help it.
"Not quite," he said, "I still have my left leg."
That earned him one of Yazoo's incredulous looks.
"So I'm not 'all right.' That's only when I lose my left leg too."
"You're an idiot," Yazoo replied, though his eyes flickered down to Loz's arm. "Let's hurry up and end this so we can get you taken care of."
"You say that like you think we're gunna win," Loz teased mildly, inching closer to his brother.
"Please," Yazoo replied mildly as the Sephiroth copy approached them once more. "With a big brute like you? How could we not. Besides, he hasn't noticed my new advantage yet."
Loz didn't have time to ask before Yazoo lifted his arm that he'd held hidden from view. Velvet Nightmare gleamed in the light of the afternoon. The concussive force of Yazoo's first shot scored right through the center of Sephiroth's chest. Loz felt himself grinning, eyes lighting up in excitement.
The copy didn't let a chest shot stop him, but it rocked him. That more than anything was what convinced Loz that Yazoo was right. They were going to win.
"Think we should go ahead and give them a hand with the real fight?" Loz asked, inclining his head towards his brother.
"Hm. Probably. Why don't we go ahead and deal with this annoyance."
"Do you want the honors?"
"Why yes," Yazoo purred, his smile widening dangerously, and a quiet, mad giggle coloring his words. "I really do."
Loz straightened, putting his free hand to the injury on his arm, holding the wounded appendage against his side. He glanced down and let out a breath. It was bad. There were pieces of metal jutting out of his skin. But he still had an arm attached, which was more than he'd thought.
By the time he looked up again, Yazoo was in motion. He flew across the ground. Loz smiled, watching him. Sephiroth sank into stance, waiting for him, but the tides had turned. He struck with Masamune only to almost drop it when Yazoo jumped and landed lightly atop the blade. Loz snickered. If it had really been Sephiroth instead of Jenova's puppet, he would have known better than to try a direct thrust like that on his wiry brother. It might have worked on idiots like Cloud, but Yazoo was better than that.
Between one moment and the next, it was over. Yazoo took a single step forward on the blade he'd landed on lightly, and fired right between Sephiroth's eyes.
The image disappeared like it had never been there.
Loz would have applauded if he'd had both hands.
"One down!" He called instead, drawing the attention of the other combatants.
Jenova roared her fury. Loz glanced over, watching the images of Yazoo and Kadaj fall at her feet. He shuddered a little. He didn't like seeing either of his brothers with broken necks. Even if they weren't real. He tore his eyes away from the broken, fading images, and fixed it on the original Sephiroth.
He looked like a god of death. His hair whipped around him, thrown into motion by the wind coming off of Jenova's powers. He'd stepped outside of Aerith's protective spell to handle the two copies. He looked over at Loz with his single eye, and lifted three fingers.
"Three down," Loz corrected himself, grinning at the man.
He was answered by a slender, wicked smile. Then, as one, he, Sephiroth, and Yazoo all lifted their eyes to Jenova herself.
"You think you've won?" She laughed. "I am stronger than all of you combined. It is because of me you exist!"
"Is anyone else getting tired of hearing that?" Yazoo asked, sauntering towards the main gathering of powers.
"Yeah, it's getting a little old," Loz agreed, rolling his shoulders as he trotted over to join his brother's advance.
Sephiroth just lifted his chin and started walking, ahead of the two of them, but somehow not separate. They were a united front.
"I still hold your little brother's life," Jenova snarled, her eyes fixing on Loz in particular. "I can drag him to death at any moment."
"Seriously?" Loz said. "You're going to play the Kadaj card? Because you can ask the last guy who killed him how that turned out. I think he'd tell you he didn't enjoy the experience."
"And he didn't even really mean to kill him," Yazoo agreed with a quiet chuckle. "He was aiming for you."
"We killed him anyway, though," Loz said with a careless shrug.
"I beg your pardon," Yazoo replied sharply, glancing over, "I killed him. You just blew yourself up."
"I helped!" Loz insisted.
"Don't cry, Loz," Yazoo sneered.
"You dare to mock," Jenova's voice snarled, dangerous and angry.
"Aerith," Loz said softly. "Take five. Protect Angeal and Zack."
"We have a score to settle with the calamity," Yazoo agreed softly.
The young woman, protector of the planet, and enemy of the three of them, took one look at them as they advanced. Then, with her arms still lifted, she backed away, withdrawing from blasting her power against Jenova's to form a shield around the two men who had become the planet's strongest weapons.
"Kind of an embarrassing show from their side, don't you think, Sephiroth?" Yazoo asked as they drew on level with their original.
"They gave it a go," Loz defended mildly, stepping up to Sephiroth's other side. It was weird to be on eye-level with the man.
Sephiroth just smiled and dipped his head a little. His hair twisted in the wind, thrown about along with Yazoo's by the force of Jenova's presence. Loz was happy that he'd kept his hair short. He didn't have to worry about tying himself up with a few locks of silver.
"You're going to die," Jenova whispered. "You cannot defeat me. You have never been able."
"We might die," Yazoo agreed, inclining his head to her, "but we're going to be taking you with us, mother dear. For all that you've done. To us. To our friends. To my brother."
"Our brother!" Loz corrected, frowning across at Yazoo. "You don't get to keep Kadaj all to yourself just because you wouldn't let me help save him, you know."
Yazoo just gave a twitch of a smile. The expression was eerily echoed by Sephiroth.
Then chaos descended.
Loz had never personally been pulled into a summon fight before, but he knew that what happened next was very like that effect. There was a jerk, a falling sensation, and then they were no longer in Aerith's field. They were in the middle of a rocky wasteland, surrounded by nothing but darkness and crumbling earth. In the air, a dozen little islands like the one they were standing on floated around them.
He looked around, but Jenova had vanished from her place in the air.
"Is this some sort of limit break?" Yazoo asked, looking to Sephiroth for explanation.
The man shrugged, shaking his head a little.
"Well, at least I didn't need a translator for that," Yazoo muttered to himself sourly, looking around. "Stand back to back. Whoever spots her first gives a warning. Unless it's you, Sephiroth. I guess you'll just have to scream or wave or something."
"You're such an asshole," Loz said fondly, smiling benignly as he turned his back on the other two to watch behind them.
"It's in the bloodline," Yazoo drawled.
Loz was very certain that the sound he heard from Sephiroth was the beginnings of a laugh.
The ground shook under them, and they all tensed. Loz immediately missed Dual Hound. He frowned, tightening his good fist. Missing it wouldn't do him any good. He had what he had. He needed to make do as best he could and get out of there with his family alive.
"There," Yazoo snapped.
Loz whirled, eyes fixing on Jenova at once. She was no longer even pretending to be human. Loz locked his eyes on hers, aware of the tentacles and wings writhing around her in a never-still mess of limbs and muscle, but it made him sick to look at. He took a deep breath, trying to focus.
"My pets," she whispered.
"You wish," Yazoo muttered, lifting Velvet Nightmare to fire at her, steadily and evenly. She smiled, shifting her wings in front of herself. The bullets buried in them, but did not penetrate. If she felt the pain, she did not show it.
"I made a miscalculation," she said mildly. "By keeping you alive, I could feed off you for years, but now I see that there is too much in the human parts of you to object to that."
"Gun's not gunna work too great, huh," Loz muttered to Yazoo, ignoring her.
"Not when she can see it," Yazoo replied, eyes narrowing.
Sephiroth stepped forward, gazing up at Jenova with hatred. He gestured to Loz, and started spelling, almost too quickly for Loz to translate.
"He says you've taken enough from him," Loz called up to the monster. "And he's going to take it back."
"Hah!" Jenova's form cried. "Come and try, my little puppets!"
Sephiroth took it as an invitation. Loz and Yazoo were only half a step behind him. Jenova was floating over the ground, but that didn't stop Sephiroth from leaping up to meet her. His good hand was curled into a perfect fist. She batted him aside with the first of her many waving tentacle-like appendages. Loz was right behind him. He slid through the gap that she'd left deflecting Sephiroth and plowed his good fist into her side. He frowned. Bones ought to have cracked.
He was thrown clear and only just managed to land on his feet. It was a close thing.
"She's a damn invertebrate!" he yelled.
"I'm amazed you know that word!" Yazoo called back from where he'd been tossed across the rock from him.
Jenova snarled down at them, curling her wings in front of herself again. Loz felt the rise in power more than saw it, and ducked for cover just as the rain of razor sharp feathers started. He heard a hiss of surprise from Sephiroth. Sharp feathers buried themselves in Loz's back, but he just kept his head covered. They didn't have enough force to go all the way through. They wouldn't kill him.
When the rain stopped, he stood and turned to face her again without hesitation. He clenched his teeth, searching for power. It answered his call. He built the limit break in his fist, sprinting forward again. Yazoo matched his charge after a few steps, and Loz ducked without comment. Yazoo's feet landed on his shoulders, and Loz jumped, propelling his brother ahead of him flying towards their 'mother.' Yazoo was caught by a flaring wing that hit hard on his ribs with the same cracking sound Loz had been hoping for before hand. Loz was right behind him. He didn't try aiming for Jenova. He knew she'd just bat him aside. He grabbed the wing that had hit Yazoo and unleashed his limit break, grabbing the thing with one hand and punching through it with the other.
The wing tore off in his hand, and Jenova howled in pain.
Loz landed lightly, tossing away the wing. He smirked up at Jenova, not letting his worry for Yazoo show. His brother was picking himself up, cracking his neck.
"That was actually pretty good," Yazoo commented breathlessly. His eyes met Loz's, but they didn't echo his words. They were saying something else. Loz glanced around and caught on quickly.
"You're bad at compliments," Loz said teasingly in reply. "You should stick to insults." But his eyes carried a different message back to his brother. He nodded a little in understanding.
Neither of them knew where Sephiroth had gone. They needed to make sure that Jenova didn't get distracted from them long enough to start looking.
"Little worms," she snarled, her blood pouring down in a rain of acidic blood that made the rocks beneath her steam and fizzle.
"Try not to get that stuff on you," Yazoo muttered.
"I'm not that stupid," Loz huffed in reply before bursting into motion again.
He didn't jump for her this time. He built up his strength, slammed his fist into the ground beneath her, severing a rock from its surface, and kicked the significant boulder up towards her. She cut through it with a flash of sharp bladed wingtips, sending it flying to the ground. Her eyes turned to Loz the moment the boulder was cut, distracting her just long enough for Yazoo to squeeze off a shot in her direction. It caught her high on the breastbone, just a little too far to the right. She howled in anger, but did not fall.
Loz started moving out of her way, but he wasn't quite fast enough. She reached down with a swift tentacle, grabbing him up by his wounded arm. He thrashed in her hold, snarling at her. She gave him a macabre grin and turned to Yazoo.
"Come boy," she purred. "Shoot again. Let's see whether your bullet hits me before I can put your brother in the way."
"Yaz, if you have the shot take it!" Loz called down. "No hard feelings."
"I'm not going to shoot you, idiot!" Yazoo replied instantly, his gun trained on Jenova's form.
"It would be the kinder way to go," Jenova purred, shifting the tentacle she was holding Loz with towards her torn wing.
Loz couldn't help the scream that escaped him as the first acid blood touched him. He thrashed in her hold, scrambling at the tentacle holding him by the wrist and making no leeway. She was going to burn him to death with her own alien blood.
Yazoo didn't bother screaming his name. He just fired. Loz had just enough time to make eye contact with him as the bullet whizzed, then it struck him hard in the back. Jenova laughed while Loz choked on his own blood. Then the second shot hit.
The pain that exploded in Loz's wrist was almost meaningless when compared to the shriek of agony Jenova gave. He fell, and dropped at her feet, gasping for breath, laying far too close to the splashes of her acidic blood for his taste. A firm hand grabbed the back of his shirt and dragged him back. He glanced back to see Yazoo, gun still raised, dragging him out of the line of fire.
"Nice shooting," he rasped to his brother.
"Shut up, idiot," Yazoo ordered swiftly. "If you can get up, get up. This isn't even close to done."
"Impudent," Jenova snarled, her face no longer even close to human, a snarling, distorted mass of once-human features, "My impudent boys."
"How could something that ugly make someone as pretty as you?" Loz wheezed as he rose shakily to his feet.
"Beats me," Yazoo commented grimly.
She struck again without nearly as much warning this time. It was only because Yazoo gave him an initial shove that Loz managed to evade the rocks that had previously been floating above them and had suddenly decided to fall. He scrambled, rolling out of the way of the pinpointed attack. He saw Yazoo roll clear on the other side, try to stand, and fail, staggering upright using only one leg.
"Shit, Yazoo!" Loz cried, sprinting for his brother, ignoring the ache in his back—the blood sliding down from the bullet wound—the burning in his ruined arm.
He wasn't fast enough. One of Jenova's wings slammed into his injured brother, tossing him into the air, and just as quickly, he was wrapped in the grip of one of her tentacles. She started to squeeze, applying pressure to his broken ribs. Yazoo let out a sharp cry of pain, struggling against her. Velvet Nightmare's blade flashed as he hacked at the appendage holding him, but it was quickly jerked away by another of her limbs.
"Wait wait wait!" Loz cried, eyes fixed on his brother. "Don't kill him!"
"Oh?" Jenova purred, turning to look at him, humanity suddenly returning to her eyes. "What are you willing to trade me for him? Your life? Your strength? Your world?"
"Fine," Loz replied swiftly. "Done. It's a deal."
"Don't be stupid," Jenova commented mildly. "I am no fool, boy." She squeezed Yazoo again to emphasize the words, drawing a pained gasp of breath from his brother, making his legs kick uselessly against her hold. She trapped those as well when he managed to knick her.
"I'll give you whatever you want!" Loz called up. He had to stall her. He had to keep her attention. He had to trust that Sephiroth hadn't just run or fallen off the edge of the rocky island.
"What I want," she said softly, "Is to kill your brother in front of you. As I should have done the moment you walked in to my mansion you terrible, ugly, foolish boy."
Her hold on Yazoo tightened. Loz screamed, sprinting forward, knowing he would be too late. Then Jenova went very still. Deathly still. Her tentacles unfurled, and Yazoo dropped limp to the rocky ground beneath her. She craned her neck, trying to look behind herself. Twirling in the air. Loz barely got to Yazoo in time to drag him out of the way as her blood rained down in a circle. He glanced up just long enough to see Sephiroth behind her. His hand was inside her neck. Even as Loz watched, open-mouthed and sickened by the display, Sephiroth ripped his hand out again, still clinging to her back with his handless arm wrapped around one of her wings. The hand he'd pulled from her neck was clinging to a piece of flesh. Loz gagged as he saw it wriggle in Sephiroth's hand.
He looked away—looked to his brother. He knew what Sephiroth would do. He didn't want to see. Yazoo was still in his hold, but he was still dragging in deep breaths. Just unconscious. Loz curled around him, holding him close as he heard the choking howls of Jenova and the ugly splatter of her blood on the ground. Then a voice he had not heard in a long time spoke, softly.
"Thank you, mother." Sephiroth's voice purred behind him. "I had been missing this."
Loz looked back, and watched in terrified fascination as the almost still moment between the two of them erupted into motion again. He knew how it would end. Sephiroth was himself again. He'd regained what Jenova had taken. There was only one way it could end. He looked away. He didn't need to watch. Someone else did.
"Wake up," he urged his brother. "Yazoo, wake up. She's dying."
He gave his brother a little shake, then winced in quiet apology as Yazoo roused with a whimper of pain. Bright green eyes opened, squinting up at him. Then the gaze moved past Loz, fixing on the battle between Sephiroth and Jenova. Yazoo rose, stiffly, and Loz rose with him, bracing him on the side of his broken leg.
They both watched as Sephiroth tore Jenova's head from his shoulders and the world crumbled around them, plunging them all into darkness. As the darkness closed in, Sephiroth threw back his head and laughed in heady freedom. Loz took Yazoo's hand and held on. Yazoo squeezed his hand back. Then the rocky world they'd been transported to vanished around them.
"Hey," the voice was gentle, if cautious. "Come on. Wake up."
"For the love of the goddess, Aerith, he's not going to bite." That voice he knew. Mama Strife. Lillian. "Come on, Loz. Time to rejoin the land of the living."
"We're not exactly living, Lil." Zack this time. Laughing.
"He looks terrible," Drawled a familiar, sarcastic, authoritative voice. That was the one that made Loz open his eyes.
He sat bolt upright, sending the people gathered around him scattering. He didn't mind that much. He had eyes only for one person.
Kadaj was kneeling nearby, watching him. He looked shifty, thin, uncertain, but solid. Awake. Loz burst into tears and moved without thought, forcing his tired, injured body to move, gathering his little brother close without a moment's hesitation. Kadaj tensed in his grip, but Loz didn't let him go. He'd learned his lesson about that. It didn't matter how standoffish his brothers were, so long as they were there.
"You're okay," He sobbed into his brother's shoulder.
"Idiot," Kadaj whispered. He sounded uncertain and hurt. After a moment, his head thunked against Loz's shoulder as he surrendered to the hold and hid his face there.
Loz pulled back only after a long while, grinning wetly at his brother and ruffling his long, silken hair. Kadaj snarled at him, ducking out from under his hand, but Loz didn't mind. Only Yazoo-
His train of thought stopped abruptly and he whirled, looking for his brother. He caught sight of him limping closer, not putting any weight on his broken leg. Angeal was helping him, silent and strong at his side. The man looked like he'd seen a ghost, but Yazoo was smiling.
Loz staggered to his feet, running to his brother with a drunken stumble to his steps. He stopped only a few feet away, staring at his brother, not even looking at Angeal. He'd have time for that later.
"You look terrible," Loz commented, wiping at his face with his working hand.
"I could say the same," Yazoo replied calmly, trying to straighten at Angeal's side without putting any weight on his foot or straining his broken ribs. Loz realized he was looking down at his brother.
"I'm taller than you again," Loz sniffled.
"I'd noticed, idiot" Yazoo breathed, a hand pressing over his ribs. "That's alright. You're still my little brother."
Loz was very, very gentle when he drew his slender brother away from Angeal's support and into a hug. For a moment, Yazoo went stiff as a rod, and Loz was almost consumed with fear. Was it going to be how it was while they were alive again? Would there be no more touching?
Then a long exhale escaped Yazoo, and he sank gratefully into Loz's hold, letting himself be supported and held. Loz very nearly dropped him in relief.
"It's over," Yazoo whispered against Loz's chest. "She's dead. It's over."
"Kadaj is okay too," Loz whispered into his brother's hair, wapping his good arm firmly around his brother's back, encouraging him to lean on him.
"We actually won for once," Yazoo whispered with a giggle.
"You say that like it's never happened before."
Both brothers looked up at the purred words. Loz knew that Yazoo smiled at the sight of the man as well.
Sephiroth was sporting burns on his face from where Jenova's blood had touched him. His one hand was blistered fiercely from plunging willingly into her neck. He didn't look at all upset by the injuries. He looked more alive than either of them had seen him before.
"How's having a tongue feel?" Loz asked, tilting his head. "Is it weird after so long without one?"
"Not in the slightest," Sephiroth replied.
"That means yes," Loz enlightened Yazoo, still grinning.
Their original huffed at them, then dropped his hand lightly on Loz's head, giving his hair a brief, uncertain ruffle. He didn't touch Yazoo, but the gesture was somehow inclusive.
"I'm sorry you got hurt," he commented mildly. "You did very well."
"It's really you, isn't it," Zack's voice whispered behind him. "You're the real Sephiroth. Where have you been?"
Sephiroth's eye glanced over to him, and he gave an elegant shrug.
"Later." Was all he said in reply before shifting his gaze and attention.. "Aerith, is it not? My brothers need healing. I believe you owe them. They just saved your world."
"So long as she and the goddess don't kill us, I'm happy to call it even," Yazoo wheezed.
"Don't be stupid," Loz scolded. "You can't afford to die again. Besides, the Goddess is totally on our side."
"Of course she is," Yazoo muttered grumpily.
Loz didn't bother trying to explain about the voice in his head that had helped him realize when it was time to turn the tides.
"Take me to Kadaj," Yazoo whispered.
The exhaustion—the strain—in his voice drew Loz's attention entirely. He phased out the words of the non-brothers around them and slipped Yazoo's arm over his shoulders carefully. He moved slowly with his injured brother. They were both of them weak with blood loss and pain. Kadaj rose slowly to meet them. He hesitated a moment, uncertain, then reached out to Yazoo, touching his hands to his brother's chest.
"Sit down," he commanded firmly. "Both of you. Idiots. You'll bleed to death, running around like this."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Yazoo muttered, sinking wearily to the ground.
"Don't be dramatic," Loz scolded, even as he dropped inelegantly to sit on the grass. "At least you never got suffocated.
"Don't turn it into a contest," Yazoo growled. "You know I'll win."
Loz found himself rather suddenly without the energy to respond. He let out a slow breath, closing his eyes. Someone had taken the feathers out of his back, but the wounds were still there. His burned arm throbbed. The bullet wounds Yazoo had left in his back and wrist were constant sources of dull agony. His brain felt fuzzy. He really didn't want to die again. They'd finally won after all.
"Aerith," Zack's voice was soft. "Come on. I know you love me babe. For my sake. Forgive them."
"He killed you," Aerith's voice was soft. Loz glanced up out of weary eyes to see her hiding against Zack's chest, holding him close and being held in return.
"He didn't do a very good job, obviously," Zack teased. "I'm still right here. Come on. One more chance for them."
"You'll keep saying that forever," Aerith whispered into his shirt. "No matter how many more chances they use up."
"Probably," Zack responded softly, kissing her hair lightly. "Help them anyway, alright babe?"
Aerith wiped the tears off her face as she pulled away from him. Loz shifted a little, moving between her and his brothers, even though he was still on his knees.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she said softly. "Zack would hate me."
Loz just stared at her out of stark eyes. He did not trust her. He would not.
"It's alright, Loz," Kadaj said softly behind him. "She can help. Just lie down, alright? Come on. You're hurt."
Small, familiar hands touched his shoulders, and where they led Loz followed. He let out a slow breath as he was guided to rest beside Yazoo. His slender brother was already unconscious again, his breath wheezing softly in and out, his eyes closed in exhaustion.
"I'm sorry," Kadaj whispered, and Loz knew he wasn't talking to him anymore. "I never meant to."
"Everyone has weak spots," Zack said fondly from nearby. "I'm the one whose sorry. That we couldn't keep you safe from her. We shouldn't have made you fight her. I get that now."
"At least you held out better than I did," Sephiroth said dryly.
Loz snuck a glance at him and smiled. Sephiroth was standing nearby, arms crossed, observing him with his one eye, and completely ignoring for, the moment, the man standing right next to him, inspecting him still with an aura of utter shock. Loz couldn't help a little laugh at the look still on Angeal's face.
"Sleep, Loz," Mama Strife's voice this time. Her soft hand rested lightly on Loz's cheek and he let out a slow breath. "Get some sleep. You were very brave today. Both of you were. You've earned your rest."
"What happens now?" Loz asked softly, even as he felt exhaustion tugging him towards darkness.
"Hard to say, on a world-wide view," Mama Strife replied as she brushed his hair back out of his face. "But I think things will start getting better. The planet will finally be able to heal itself now."
"There's still things in the mansion," Loz whispered.
"I'll handle it," Angeal replied in a low rumble.
"I think I'd be interested in helping with that," Sephiroth commented. He sounded exceedingly pleased. Loz had to smile again.
"But for you and your brothers," Mama Strife said softly. "I think a little R & R at Mama Strife's is in order. I got ride of my annoying neighbors for you. Or more, I shifted my house to a new place. It's complicated, but the point is that you'll like it."
"What about me?" Kadaj's voice was small and weak. "What are you going to do to me?"
"I said Loz and his brothers," Mama Strife said with a scolding, fierce edge in her voice. "And that's what I meant. You are definitely coming, and Sephiroth is welcome as well, if he'd like, though I'm not sure I have enough beds for all four of you."
"I think I will decline, thank you," Sephiroth rumbled as though from a great distance.
"Good, because you're coming and staying at my place," Zack insisted firmly. "I'm not losing track of you again."
"You'd let me come?" Kadaj asked softly.
"I'm the kind of mother who always has room for another child that needs her," Mama Strife murmured. "Besides. I'll need a hand carrying this big lug home."
Loz fell asleep even as he was laughing at the mental image of Mama Strife trying to carry him. He reached out and took Yazoo's hand with the last of his energy.
It was finally over. They were going home.