Here's the conclusion, at last! Wow, this one took a long time. I suppose you'll all understand why this one was particularly draining. My poor Zacky.
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We now return to your regularly scheduled angst.
Part of the Decorum series
Part two of two.
"He threw himself on top of the bomb, General. Saved the whole sorry lot of us." Hitchcock's voice broke on the last word. He coughed to clear it and continued his agonizing report, standing in an unconscious salute as chaotic movement swirled around them. "The rest of us escaped with only minor injuries, the worst of which are being treated now. We...we brought his body back for proper burial, sir, Lydon led a charge back into the rubble to retrieve...but I don't think you should look, sir. It's not Angeal anymore."
Only minor injuries, being taken care of. I have to remember to thank Lydon. I can't look at Angeal? I was allowed to look at Genesis. But it was a terrible memory. It hadn't been Genesis anymore either.
Sephiroth nodded, listened, but kept looking over at Zack, who was surrounded by a handful of 1sts and staring at the van in front of them with a blank, dead expression. He had not said a word or looked at anyone, or seemed to hear any of the confused noise all around. He hadn't yelled or cried or run past Sephiroth when they got the news, just walked zombie-like at his side to the spot he was now frozen to.
"Sephiroth, we can handle things. You don't need to be here." Hitchcock glanced pointedly at Zack while he said this.
Should I take Zack back inside? Away from all this? But Sephiroth doubted he could comfort Zack better than the assembled 1sts, the men who loved Zack like a little brother. They were speaking gently to him through their own grief, touching with many hands in a way even Sephiroth understood, though the boy didn't seem to be feeling them. The general briefly flashed back to the cold room of years ago that Angeal hadn't been allowed in, where a swollen body resembling their dearest friend lay cold on a padded table. With Hojo close behind and watching with fishlike eyes, fourteen-year-old Sephiroth had stood rigidly to conceal the unfamiliar pain in his chest. He wondered now, looking at Zack, if that was what he had looked like.
"I'm here, Sephiroth."
"What is the right thing to do?" I can't ask Angeal, Angeal is not here. The thought was calm, still circling his mind and refusing so far to sink in.
"There isn't one. Go to Zack."
"But..." Sephiroth tried to ignore how young his voice sounded. "What if I do something wrong and his calm is disrupted?"
"He's not really calm, no more than you are."
The chaos was becoming more ordered, settling to small groups of emotional upset rather than one immense crowd of it. The 1sts who weren't cushioning Zack or inconspicuously trying to do the same for Sephiroth stayed near the only van left unmoved, but none could bring themselves to open it. Dr. Murakai in his lab coat and sheep-patterned tie was standing alone, hands cupped over his mouth and his glasses dotted with tears.
The Turks formed an awkward line off to one side, and it would have been jarring at any other time to see them look so helpless. Tseng was in the center, cold Tseng with a stricken expression and his arms around Amaya and Kiisa as they silently wept. President Shinra swept through the crowd, clearly too troubled to care that no one was saluting or making way. As the man dumbly stared around at his well-oiled machine of an empire grinded to a halt, his heir glided behind, surveying before breaking into a run toward the Turks. Vice President Rufus, who never flinched or showed feeling in public, grabbed Reno into a tight hug and held him close. Beside them, Rude bowed his head and soulful eyes to the ground, sunglasses dangling from one hand.
Everything was wrong, the order Sephiroth had organized his world into was flying apart. He started to move toward the one thing that was still right, and halted at Zack's voice and the strange, distant anger in it.
"Angeal!" the boy called, taking a step closer to the vehicle. "C'mon, this isn't funny anymore!"
A low, pitying murmur went through the scattered crowd. Commander Dawson grabbed hold of the boy's arm, though Zack had gone no further.
"Angeal, quit it and get out here! This is your worst joke yet!"
Now he was moving, trying to get closer to the van, and the hands gently restrained him. They didn't incite Sephiroth's jealousy - he realized they came from the same impulse as the words of comfort being murmured - but he very badly wanted Zack in his own arms. The general started in Zack's direction again, slower than he meant to, absently noting that his legs felt suddenly heavy.
"It's okay, kid, it's gonna be all right."
"Stay here with us, okay? You don't need to go over there."
"We're right here, Zack, we've got you."
"Tell him to stop this! Seph, tell him it's not funny!"
The others all let go of Zack when he got close enough. Sephiroth put his arms around Zack and the boy allowed it, but clung urgently to the shoulders opposite him and kept looking back and forth between Sephiroth and the van. His expression was confusing, constantly flickering between anger and devastation.
"Seph, make him come out. Please."
Sephiroth cupped Zack's face in his hands and brushed his thumbs over the cool, dry skin. "I can't. Angeal is...gone."
"He's not! He just...it's one of his lessons and - "
Sephiroth was growing increasingly worried about Zack's illogical refusal to accept the truth. This concern did have the benefit of dampening his own pain, but nothing was worth seeing Zack this agitated and being unable to make everything okay again. Dawson spoke up, with a point that Sephiroth hoped would convince Zack.
"Kid...Angeal wouldn't upset you like this for a lesson. He's - "
"Then I did something, Angeal, just tell me what I did!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Sephiroth noticed Commander Hitchcock hunch over and begin to tremble into the hands over his face. On the periphery of his sight, Lieutenant Altair, who had long been a great admirer of Angeal's, nearly collapsed and had to be held up by Morgan and Dunley.
"Angeal, I'm sorry!" Zack sounded like he was crying, but his face remained dry, and it was anger even more than hurt that was making his eyes the green-blue of strong emotion. The color was swirling and shifting violently, expanding and contracting as though it might burst. "Just tell me, I won't do it again, I promise!"
He made his hardest struggle yet then, trying to run to the van where he thought his teacher must be waiting for some opportune moment or revelation. Sephiroth kept restraining arms around him, hoped they would hold back the disorder crushing them both, and cupped Zack's face in his hands. He gazed into the chaos in those familiar eyes, and spoke with his usual gentleness, more than his usual uncertainty.
"Zack, you didn't do anything wrong. Angeal cannot come to you because he is dead." Sephiroth didn't hear himself speak that last word; it might have come out broken, or whispered, or not at all. "He would not avoid you by choice. He would never willingly not come when you call. Angeal's soul is - "
"We go to the Lifestream when we die, Sephiroth." A kind, half-forgotten voice rose out of the general's memory, an answer to one of his many childhood questions. "We become points of light that converge with many others. We join with every person we've ever lost in a paradise of knowledge, and we circle the planet to give strength to those left behind."
" - in the Lifestream. Were you to open the doors of that van, you would only find a body that Angeal no longer inhabits. And I don't believe Angeal would want you to remember him that way."
"Seph," Zack whispered, while his eyes continued to pulse. "He can't be. Please."
"He is. I wouldn't lie to you." I would not seek out the pain you are feeling, and I.
He expected it to come then, the crying that he had never seen from Zack, only a few quiet tears. But all Zack's strength seemed to go out of him. He sluggishly looped an arm around Sephiroth's neck, pulled him down to bring them closer together, then slumped wordlessly against the general's body. He pressed his dry face and trembling shoulders into soft black leather, and Sephiroth willingly bent to enfold Zack into a tight embrace. The feel and smell of him seemed to reach out and encompass Sephiroth in return, calming him enough to banish some of the numbness and unleash a quiet, powerful rush of grief.
Angeal is gone. This new wound cut his heart and left its mark beside a similar, older one. He realized that, as it had been with Genesis, he would grow used to this pain, never be rid of it. I will not be able to speak to him again as long as I live. He will not barge into my office to make me talk, or show me pictures, or antagonize Levine. I will not hear Angeal's voice again. He won't hug me anymore, or Zack.
Sephiroth squeezed the boy, not to tighten his grip but to cover more of Zack's body with his own. The sound of more people arriving intruded upon them, and the faint noise of cameras being produced. "We've got this, go," Hitchcock said from somewhere close by, and though Sephiroth remembered Zack's dislike for being carried, he had to get him away from this place. He lifted Zack just enough to get his feet off the ground, and walked quickly toward the nearest entrance, where the din of shouted questions was faint. Zack held on to him, and made no sound.
"How are you, General?"
Commander Hitchcock didn't ask to come in, and Sephiroth didn't offer. They looked at each other over the threshold of the open apartment doorway, Hitchcock appearing ragged and far more than his twenty-nine years. Sephiroth, though there was no obvious, describable change in his perfect face, looked somehow over-alert and weary at once. The overall effect was one of an approaching mental breakdown. Hitchcock made a note to have the 1st Class spar with him as soon as possible, to vent some of the concealed emotion.
"I am fine." Sephiroth said it the way he always did when he wasn't sure of his own condition. The tone was even, the silver eyes in quiet turmoil.
"How's the puppy?"
"He will not eat or speak. He looks up when I say his name, but does not move unless I move him. I suggested that I should take him to the med lab, or have one of the doctors come up here, but he shook his head."
"I doubt medicine or magic can do anything for Zack right now," Hitchcock sighed, rubbing his chin wearily. "Besides, I think he's better off keeping out of sight as much as possible. Security is keeping the reporters off company property, but they want to talk to both of you, and you know how they are. One step off the Compound..."
"I don't intend to go anywhere anytime soon. Commander, I believe you should sleep."
"I know. I've turned things over to Dawson for a while, I just wanted to be the one to check on you."
As you must have known I prefer. Sephiroth had seen no one since bringing Zack here and closing the door. The phone had not rung once. Few had the number, only 1sts who were giving him space and Levine, who was no doubt busy dealing with a hundred inquiries so his revered employer wouldn't have to. Sephiroth felt a faint warmth of appreciation, and a shiver to remember that it was Angeal who had told him to be kind to Levine.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No. Thank you."
"ShinRa's planning the funeral for the day after tomorrow. Private, company only, but grand enough to befit a legend. They want to know if you want to speak at it."
Want to? Sephiroth thought he'd like to, as much as he found public speaking awkward, he would like to pay tribute to his closest friend. But what could be said? What words were sufficient to sum up so immense a life and a loss? Maybe Zack had the right idea.
"You don't need to decide now, they can work it into or out of the service easily enough. Get some rest, Sephiroth. We're all here for you and Zack."
"Thank you, Jason."
Sephiroth allowed a rough hand to clasp his shoulder, then waited until Hitchcock was out of sight before closing the door. Zack was in the bedroom where the general had left him, sitting on the cushioned window seat with his knees to his chest and head resting on one limp arm. The glass reflected in his eyes and hid their color, but when Sephiroth got close enough to block the light, he saw they were the same blue as ever. Pale, holding back rain just like the clouding sky outside.
"Zack." Sephiroth sat opposite him, threaded one hand into his hair and rubbed the other up and down his thigh. "Please speak."
"Why is he doing it? What's he trying to make me learn?"
"Zack..." What would it take to snap him out of this delusion? Maybe Zack found it preferable to believe he was being punished rather than admit Angeal was gone, but it was wrenching for Sephiroth to hear him say such things. "What can I do? Tell me what to do."
"Don't go anywhere, okay?"
"I won't." Sephiroth stroked his cool cheek; Zack grasped the hand and held it there. For once, Sephiroth was the warmer one. "How can I convince you of the truth? Angeal would not intentionally hurt you like this. He loved you, more than anything."
"I don't understand why he's doing it, either." The dull voice was unfamiliar, a match for the lifeless eyes. "But he has to be. Or I'm having a nightmare, like that one with the zolom. But..."
"If it were really such a bad nightmare, then you wouldn't be with me. So I can't wake up. So I just have to wait for Angeal to come back. Then I should kick his ass. I mean, he's worrying you too, right?"
There was none of Zack's usual mirth or fondness in the threat. Sephiroth moved his other hand from the younger's leg to his arm and rubbed the chilly skin.
"I am worried, yes," he murmured. "You feel cold."
"Come rest. I'll stay with you."
Without thinking first, only considering his impulse to comfort, Sephiroth made to pick him up. Looking down, at nothing, Zack jerked away as though burned and got unsteadily to his feet before he could be lifted. Sephiroth analyzed this behavior for a few moments, easier and faster for him to do with Zack than anyone else, and found what he thought must be the reason. Zack claimed to dislike being picked up, but he allowed Angeal to do it, and it was Angeal he associated the gesture with.
Zack looked at him with genuine confusion. "About what?"
"I...I thought I startled you. Do not be concerned."
Zack limply held his hand on the way to the bedroom, and crawled into the bed first, where he slumped down onto the pillows drained and strengthless. Sephiroth lay down facing him, nearly close enough for their foreheads to touch. With the lights off and the sun dimmed by window blinds, it was visually indistinguishable from every night they slept together. Zack was just unusually still as Sephiroth pulled a warm comforter over them.
"Can you sleep?"
"I think so. Maybe, by the time I wake up..."
He sounded so uncertain, so small and alone. The blue glow from his eyes and the silver from Sephiroth's faintly illuminated their faces, and revealed a single tear tracing its way down his cheek to the pillowcase. Zack didn't blink it away or seem to notice it, only kissed the hand that came to wipe it away.
What is the right thing to do? Should I distract him?
Beneath the blanket, Sephiroth slipped his hand between Zack's legs, grasped the limp bulge there and began to slowly massage. The boy's eyes closed, but opened again just a moment later, and his expression became slightly more concentrated but otherwise didn't change. Sephiroth stroked him for another minute with little physical response and only a few sad-sounding sighs, then relocated the hand to Zack's side and smoothed warming circles into the skin.
"Sorry," Zack whispered. "I just don't think I can."
"You have nothing to apologize for." Sephiroth held Zack close with a protective arm and squeezed his clammy hand. "Sleep. You'll feel better."
Zack nudged closer to give him a long, chaste kiss. "Always feel better with you."
A dull pain, eased by Zack's presence but still there, kept Sephiroth awake, reminding him of Genesis again, of how he had felt strangely cramped and coiled up like a spring until a fit of destroying half Hojo's lab had released the discomfort. Angeal had come to see him afterward and they had hugged a longer time than Sephiroth had done with every other person in his life combined - Angeal wordlessly crying, Sephiroth weak and dizzy from the mako-draining process. For once the scientists had left them alone, even Hollander had managed to drag Hojo out, and after an hour of quiet and two of softly talking, it seemed Angeal had made the decision to go on living.
Now Zack was the one whose behavior was zombie-like; Sephiroth was again watching someone he loved mourn a mutual loss in a way he himself couldn't quite understand. Crying so much had seemed to help Angeal, as casting aside control for destructive frenzy had helped Sephiroth. What would the answer be for Zack?
"Sleep," he said again, because he wasn't sure what else to say.
Zack nodded. Sephiroth put his mouth and nose into the sweet-smelling black spikes, nuzzled the silky hair with lips and fingers so Zack would feel comfort all around and over him. After a little while his breathing became slow and even, and he remained still as an inanimate thing, warmer but doll-like in more than prettiness. Sephiroth hoped he had fallen asleep, but when he looked down to check, Zack's eyes were open and staring, two living tears in the dark.
The largest hall in the grounds of the ShinRa Compound had been transformed impressively over the short span of two days. From a default, all-purpose blankness, the place had become beautifully, somberly regal. Rows and rows of chairs formed columns and lines on the marble floor, the walls were hung with ShinRa and SOLDIER banners, and though black prevailed, there were touches of red in the symbols and flowers - the color of death for the too-young, as fallen SOLDIERs often were. Or always.
Sephiroth was grateful for the numb feeling in his head now, because it muted his dislike of the crowded room and the unfamiliar feel of a black silk shirt and dress pants. He was more conscious of Zack hugged close to his side, in his full-dress, dark blue uniform, as the 1sts were wearing their own black. Just as visible was the tension covering him, and the anger that his sadness had progressed to. Zack had not slept at all for two days and it showed, and beneath heavy eyes he was scowling, furious that Angeal would trick him this long. Nothing anyone had tried had been able to break his delusion, and the normally-sweet boy was in a foul mood toward everyone but Sephiroth.
Hitchcock and Dawson, the acknowledged leaders of SOLDIER after Sephiroth and Angeal, were at the front of the hall, having taken charge of this whole unhappy duty. They met the general and the 2nd, exchanged condolences with Sephiroth, tried to speak gently to Zack. The teenager answered shortly and made it very clear he wanted no part in what he thought was a cruel joke, so they were soon left to take their seats in the front row, just across the aisle from the president. Sephiroth noticed the vice president wasn't in the same place, then spotted his reddish-blond hair at the far left, his white suit among the black of the Turks. Tseng's armband was white also; Sephiroth remembered that was the Wutaian color for mourning.
By unpleasant chance, they were directly facing the polished, dark-wood coffin, sitting on a red velvet-draped dais and surrounded by black roses. (Sephiroth caught the scent of Banora apple blossoms and nearly smiled, wondering who had remembered.) The casket was closed, and would remain so. Apparently, the body was recognizable thanks to the work of the med lab, but broken, incapable of looking like Angeal was just sleeping. Even if the opportunity had been offered, Sephiroth thought, he would not have let Zack look nor would he himself. One of his few certainties in this non-battle disorder was that Angeal would not want them to see.
"Angeal would be angry."
"About what?" Sephiroth asked carefully. Zack had not directed any anger toward him, but there were many others here he was not nearly as attached to.
"All these flowers being picked. It's a waste. He hates that, he hates that people have to kill them to enjoy them." Zack's expression shook, then hardened again, into a sullenness that was alien to his face. "His fault for letting this go on."
"How are you doing, Fair?"
The president was approaching across the short distance. Sephiroth tensed, worrying about how Zack might react. Nearly everyone in ShinRa was fond of Zack, including President Shinra, and there was a lot of behavior they were willing to excuse him now, but Zack always felt things strongly and expressed them thus, joy as well as rage.
"Fine, sir," was the flat answer, no eye contact. Shinra patted his head patronizingly and mercifully had gone back to his seat by the time Zack's fists were clenched. "Fucking asshole."
"Zack," Sephiroth said softly. The boy was whispering, not going to be overheard, but it wasn't external troubles that were worrying the general most anyway.
"He doesn't really care about Angeal. Any of us."
The service was beginning, the planet's foremost expert on the myth cycle Loveless (and a friend of Angeal's) had gone to the front and was solemnly reading from the famous old book. Sephiroth hadn't touched it in years, though his memory could still recall whole passages, and he could almost hear Genesis's musical voice reciting these very lines. Angeal had probably known them just as well. During Genesis's final illness, Angeal had stayed by his side day and night, reading aloud from a story he professed to dislike.
I didn't understand, then. I do now, Sephiroth thought, as he drew Zack close to rest against him. The boy was shaking and so wound up that he was hard to the touch, but he willingly lay his head on the other's chest. Angeal faced that pain for love, as I would face anything for you. All that remains a mystery to me...is how Angeal kept himself alive after that.
Moments or minutes had passed unmarked, and now the president was at the podium, giving a generic speech but seeming to be genuinely sad. He listed some of Angeal's many accomplishments, spoke of the devotion he inspired in the 2nds he oversaw and his comrades in 1st, glossed over Angeal being an early experiment of SOLDIER in favor of praising his skill and leadership abilities from a young age, the second child SOLDIER, the second 1st Class ever. Yes, Sephiroth remembered, after losing Genesis, Angeal had put all his mind and energy into SOLDIER, making sure the department was a home and family for its members, not just an elite fighting force. His honor and patience as well as his skills gained him respect and admiration, but he had been mostly a loner, close only to Sephiroth, until Zack came along.
It was you. The general rested his chin on Zack's unruly hair. You made Angeal so happy. Neither of us could replace Genesis, but together, I believe we did all anyone could.
"When you set aside all the accolades and the adulation of fans," Commander Hitchcock was saying, "you're left with Angeal as I prefer to remember him. He was a quiet man, perplexed by his own fame, happiest with the ones he loved and his garden, strict with his subordinates but much more so with himself. Angeal was a deep thinker, but his heart was simple and pure. He valued courage and honesty. He hoped for peace. He extolled honor and pride as the highest of virtues."
He loved us. Probably more than I ever realized. Sephiroth hugged Zack closer and Zack clung back, though he didn't seem to have woken out of his nightmare of denial. Angeal, I'll keep my promise. I will protect the part of your heart you entrusted to me.
A group of interwoven voices rose above the respectful silence in an old song, a hymn to Gaia, telling the story of how her grief at the harshness of mortal death led to the creation of the Lifestream, where souls find each other again. Sephiroth recognized them by their white robes as Midgar's most famous choir; shortly after Genesis and Angeal had come to Midgar, Genesis had dragged them excitedly to a performance and spent it mesmerized by the beautiful music. They were children then, excited and nervous about having snuck out without permission, and Sephiroth wasn't yet entirely used to Angeal's quiet protectiveness, Genesis's physical nature. But by the time the concert ended and the curtain fell, the three of them were holding hands and Genesis was resting his head comfortably on Sephiroth's shoulder. For the first time he could remember, Sephiroth experienced touch without thinking of Hojo's straps and needles.
You never had to overcome such a thing. For you, affection never brought up the memory of loss it did for Angeal, nor touching the expectation of pain, as it was for me. You came to us pure of these horrors and bandaged the wounds they'd left in us. I can't protect you from loss, but I swear, I won't ever let the world I grew up in touch you.
"Sephiroth?" Hitchcock was sitting back down on Zack's other side. "I'll stay with him."
The general hesitated, not wanting to let go, but Zack let his arms slip out of the embrace and sat up. Hitchcock squeezed the boy's shoulders, and for some reason the sight made Sephiroth's stomach clench, but Zack looked at him then, nodded with a jerking motion.
"I'm okay." Zack couldn't manage even his weakest smile, but there was love behind the pain in his eyes.
Sephiroth touched his face a moment to comfort them both, then stood and walked, with a hopefully concealed apprehension, to the podium on the left side of the dais. He had grown used to the stares of many eyes at once, and many of these were men he was fond of, but still, he felt strangely naked, and briefly wished he'd worn his famous jacket. As he turned to face the sad crowd, Sephiroth caught a glimpse of Hojo, in the row behind the president, watching his every move with interest. Of course, he would not miss the chance to see his project feigning such a human thing as hurt.
"Have you heard the latest amusing rumor your men are circulating throughout the company? Something about you being in love? Apparently they don't known you as well as they believe if they think you capable of such foolishness."
"Not concerned there might be trouble with Hewley, General? Does he approve of you fucking his little pet?"
Sephiroth dug his fingers, out of sight, into the wood of the podium. His face showed nothing, but he wished he had brought Masamune as well. The glow of twilight was falling through the room's high windows, the magic hour that Angeal had preferred for photography. It lit up the metal of the chairs before him, silver like Masamune's blade, and Sephiroth remembered the day he received it, the pictures Angeal had taken. Something clenched in his chest.
"We have assembled this evening to pay our final respects to a fallen comrade. In our world, in the life we here have chosen, loss is commonplace. It is one of the inevitabilities we begin teaching to cadets on their very first day. Ideally, a SOLDIER should be able to accept the truth of this, and with every battle, every mission gone wrong, our experience reminds us of this crucial lesson. Logically, being aware of the possibility of death should render it painless over time, or should at least make each loss successively easier to bear. However..."
The audience was in tears - partly because the SOLDIERs among them recognized turmoil in their leader's flawless presence - and rapt. The general's powerful charisma and beauty always commanded silence from those he addressed. But this wasn't like every other time, in his usual style of dress in front of comrades or new SOLDIERs, and Angeal hadn't read over the speech prepared for Sephiroth and laughingly crossed half of it out, insisting it be replaced with Sephiroth's own blunt words and lack of emotional understanding. "It's you they respond to, Seph, and your intent, not what you say."
Angeal isn't here.
"However, Commander Angeal Hewley was not commonplace. I have learned through my observations that every person, even those who pass by unnoticed by most of us, is irreplaceable to at least one other. Because Angeal was such a one to us, there is nothing I can say here that will make his absence easier for any of you. Because Angeal was such a one to me, I don't believe I can adequately express the value of his existence to me, save to say that his friendship was a gift I don't believe I could ever repay."
For the first time since beginning, Sephiroth dared to glance at Zack. He was sitting with slumped shoulders, staring at the coffin, chin faintly quivering. Was he ready to cry at last? Now, when Sephiroth wasn't right there to hold him?
"Dr. Tomlin from the university earlier read a passage from 'Loveless'. Angeal was fond of the story for the memories he held of it, but as some of you may know, he disliked the work itself. I recall him using the words 'repetitive', 'vague' and 'insipid' to describe it."
Soft laughter from around the room. Even Tomlin nodded wistfully and smiled, remembering the peculiarity of a man who hated Loveless and yet knew it almost perfectly.
"Angeal told me, many years ago, that he preferred poetry to state its meaning more plainly. His favorite poem was the work of an anonymous Mideelian writer of the previous century, and some of you may know it, as Angeal often shared it with friends and comrades during times of grief. He claimed that these lines reminded him of his reasons for living, and that when one is hurt by loss, such reminders are needed. I believe he would want me, now, to give you the words that were of help to him."
Sephiroth had heard Angeal murmur bits of this poem, like a mantra, so many times that it was easy to dredge up the lines from his memory. When he'd had to kill, when a tree was unnecessarily felled, when his mother succumbed to the illness she'd long struggled with, when last goodbyes were being said to SOLDIERs in rooms like this one. Most vividly, under a darkening sky like the one outside, breathed like a prayer as they buried Genesis's ashes under his favorite apple tree.
Away with it, let it go.
Are not the trees green,
The earth as green?
Does not the wind blow,
Fires leap and the rivers flow?
As he spoke, the crowd was caught in his voice, especially those few who knew him well enough to detect the slight waver in it. Sephiroth could feel them following along, hanging on each word as the poem prompted smiles or tears, but his own interest here was Zack, and it was to Zack he kept looking. The boy hadn't budged, not even to shrug Hitchcock's hand off his back, but in his expression, something was coming apart. As he recited Angeal's favorite prayer, Sephiroth mentally made one of his own - that the breaking thing was Zack's denial, and nothing else.
"'Man of all creatures
He of all creatures alone
Raiseth a stone
Into the stone, the god
Pours what he knows of good
Calling, good, God.
Away melancholy, let it go.'"
Zack, let it go. Even grief must be better than what you're feeling.
As though Zack had somehow heard him, the boy unsteadily got to his feet. Hitchcock watched with concern, everyone did, but he let his anchoring hand fall away, and Zack took a few heavy steps forward, closer to the casket. He looked at it, then at Sephiroth with a frighteningly childlike expression. Sephiroth had never known a Zack that young, and wasn't sure what had prompted the change. The framed pictures lined up on the polished wood lid, Angeal's work that spanned his whole life and featured everyone he'd cared about? The center two were the ones he'd kept on his bedside table, one of he, Sephiroth and Genesis huddled together and smiling; the other from his and Zack's first mission together, Zack half-glomping him and raising a fist in triumph, Angeal enduring the hug with a patient smile.
He had taken pictures of Sephiroth and Zack together too, the general remembered, and in the back of his mind resolved to find and develop that film. The thought passed quickly, the happy memory, and he struggled to keep speaking, to give Zack more of what was waking him up at last. Of course it would be Angeal's prayer, Sephiroth thought, Angeal always had the right answer.
Beaten, corrupted, dying,
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.
Away with it, let it go.'"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?!" Zack suddenly shouted. The anger had returned to his face, and the sight of it froze Sephiroth, as everyone else was frozen by the outburst. "Can't you see you're hurting him too?!"
There were noises of movement, but no one seemed to move. Uncomfortable shifting in seats, sobs and murmurs of pity, and Hitchcock jumped up and went straight to Zack, trying to tell him gently that everything was okay.
"It's not!" Zack growled, and shoved the larger man off, hard enough to send him sliding across the smooth floor. "Angeal, just stop this, okay? I'll do anything, just stop!"
He's breaking, Angeal, he's breaking and I can't move, I don't know what to do. You always knew, but you're not here, what is the next right thing?
Zack's shoulders were shaking, violently enough to swing his clench fists. Hojo rose form his seat and shoved past the rest of his row to the center aisle, murmuring to the president "Don't worry, sir, I came prepared for just such a distasteful outburst." He was heading toward the unaware Zack, hand slipping into a lab coat pocket, a movement that meant drugging, that always preceded restraint or pain. The nightmare of his childhood was trying to touch the only perfect thing he had left, and that was enough to push everything still and numb out of Sephiroth.
"Don't worry, Fair, I have something that will make - "
"No!" Sephiroth growled, turning for a moment into the battle-mode reaper that even scared his 1sts. He was at Zack's side in an instant, holding him protectively, making the scientist back away with a look of dark hatred. "Don't touch him, don't you ever dare touch him."
Hojo, conscious of the many eyes on them, shrugged off his subject's warning with a cool smile. He turned back to the alarmed President Shinra and said, louder than he needed to, "You see, how practiced he's becoming in imitating human behavior?"
"Zack." There was restlessness all around, people asking in uneasy murmurs what was happening and what was going to, but Sephiroth's world had comfortably shrunk down to the ache in his chest and the shaking boy in his arms. "Zack..."
"Seph, he's...why won't he..."
"Because he can't." Sephiroth cupped the white face and gently lifted it to meet his gaze. "Angeal is not hurting us on purpose, Zack. You know he would never do that."
"But he has...he can't be, Seph, I can't..."
"You can. We can. We have to."
Zack's face screwed up, the last tremor that would shatter his denial. Afterward, when Sephiroth analyzed what happened next, how he had miscalculated Zack's intent and made to catch him in a drop to the ground rather than restrain him from rushing to the coffin, the general came up with a possible answer that was, at first, puzzling. It was almost as though he had, without realizing it, decided to let Zack push him back, jump onto the low dais and lift the ornate lid.
Zack made a choking noise, then another and another as he dropped the lid and stumbled backward. It was a low keening sound by the time Sephiroth caught him and brought him back to the ground, then a rapid series of panicked sobs as Zack gripped Sephiroth, trying to pull him closer and yet unable to stay still. He looked at Sephiroth, at the coffin, the horrified crowd, the marble pattern of the floor like he didn't understand or recognize any of them. His eyes were overflowing, the general had never seen a person go from no tears to this so suddenly.
"Don't look don't look Seph don't look - "
"I won't, I won't." Sephiroth wrapped one arm around him and grabbed Zack's hands, held them together and massaged their twitching with his fingers. "I will not let go of you."
"Gaia no please, he's gone, Angeal's really..."
Zack pressed his soaked face hard against Sephiroth's shirt, and his disjointed words faded into muffled screams. The sound was still loud, jarring for more than its volume or anguish, and it went into and through Sephiroth's body like an electrical current. With Zack shaking so much in his arms, no one could tell that he was trembling too. Sephiroth bowed his head into Zack's, silver hair cascaded forth to hide their faces, and the clenching in his stomach and chest surged upward and escaped in a pained sound that Sephiroth could not remember ever having made before. His eyes felt hot and wet; he closed them in the cool darkness of Zack's hair.
Sephiroth sensed the movement around them, the familiar mako signatures that he knew so well from years of missions and training. He knew what they were doing, and knew even before he opened his eyes exactly what he would see. The entire 1st Class and much of the 2nd had formed a human wall around the room and enclosing the crowd, keeping the noise of protest and curiosity contained and away from them. Only Commander Hitchcock remained out of formation, standing next to his general like a bodyguard and indicating the closest exit. At that door, two 2nds stood - Zack's friends Devon and Kunsel - looking very determined to escort them out and kill anyone who got in their way.
Zack's feet obeyed and walked in the direction he was carefully pulled. His face remained hidden in black silk and emitting a heartbreaking wail which was, Sephiroth told himself, at least a sign of continuing life, the first Zack had given him since Angeal's death.
"Are you certain you wish to do this now?" Sephiroth asked gently. Zack did seem determined, but also afraid as they faced the door.
"Yeah. I have to, Seph. I...I don't think he'll really be gone until I do."
Sephiroth nodded, keeping close watch on him, ready at any instant to catch him if he fell. Once they'd gotten from the hall to Sephiroth's apartment, Zack had collapsed onto the floor and clung to the carpet, continuing to scream and weep. Sephiroth's instincts warred with each other at the sight, but concern about whether he should summon a doctor was beaten by the feeling that Zack didn't want anyone close but him. With only a little prompting, Zack had transferred his clinging to the one he loved and proceeded to pour days of repressed grief into the hug. For hours they remained in this position, the air becoming slowly quieter, and all the while Zack's hand moved over Sephiroth's hair, the instinctive gesture of soothing he had inherited from the dead.
"Seph, I'm so sorry."
Grieving for me. He was grieving for me too.
It was almost midnight now, and when Zack had finally lifted his head out of the embrace, he looked no longer like a zombie, and no less beautiful than he always did. But exhausted, ready to fall anywhere, close his reddened eyes and sleep. The general suggested this, and Zack answered that there was something he needed to do first, and no, it couldn't wait. Which brought them here, to the door of Angeal's apartment.
Zack unlocked it with his keycard, slowly pushed the door open, and stepped in first, followed closely. The place looked the same as it always had, simply furnished but comfortable, well-worn and neat. The couch pillows that Zack tended to scatter when he plopped down were all in place. The shelf below the vid-disc player where Zack always plugged in his game systems was empty, awaiting the next round. Night of the Harbingers 3 was being released in three months; he had already pre-ordered the two-player version. Zack instinctively clutched his stomach as a sharp pain gripped it.
"You haven't eaten in days." Sephiroth speaking, Sephiroth whose love was anchoring him to this life. "You should eat."
"I will, I just..." Zack looked around, his mind struggling for words while still healing from days of fracture. "I just needed to make sure he isn't here."
Sephiroth nodded, though it was clear from his eyes that he would need to analyze that before he would understand. A powerful rush of love for him swept through Zack's wobbly frame. Seph's grieving too, and I haven't been there for him, but I will be, from now on, forever.
"It's okay, Seph, I know he's not really here."
Another nod. "Zack, while we are here..."
"I am sure the legal department will be telling you this soon, but Angeal's will states that, in the event of his death, all his assets and possessions are to go to you."
Zack stared at him, confused, then looked at their surroundings, then the floor, and shook his head. "Idiot. What am I supposed to do with all that?"
He could do nearly anything he wanted; though not as wealthy as Sephiroth, frugal Angeal, with his simple tastes, had been a millionaire many times over. Zack didn't seem to care, and Sephiroth understood.
"We can have the contents of this apartment put into storage," the general suggested quietly. "There is no hurry to decide. But if there's anything you want to take immediately - "
Zack had abruptly turned and raced into the bedroom. Sephiroth hastily followed and found him standing by the bed, hugging a yellow Moogle plushie, worn from years of squeezing but kept in good condition.
"Mr. Squishy." The ridiculous name tasted less silly when he spoke it now, for some reason.
"Don't worry, I won't let you get stuffed in a box somewhere," Zack was saying tenderly, running his hands over the toy in an almost reverent manner.
Something caught Sephiroth's eye, a flash of cleaned metal hanging in its usual place. Someone must have brought it back.
"Zack, there's something else. I don't know if it is something you would want or if you feel ready to know about it yet...but Angeal made me promise I would ensure its passing to you."
The teenager looked to see what he was gesturing to, and his wet eyes widened. "No, no, I can't. It's practically Angeal's soul."
"He always intended you to inherit it. He told me that is why he was so insistent you work on developing upper body strength."
"The kid's completely squat-obsessed, Seph. I think it's the only time he's not bouncing."
"So that's why he was such a slave-driver. Angeal..." Zack looked uncertain, even wounded, but slowly, as though being drawn there, he went to the far wall and gently lifted the famous Buster Sword off of it. He held it carefully, kept it from falling, but he was tired; the weight of it was a lot for him. "Angeal. You were too young to be thinking so much about death."
He turned back to face Sephiroth, nodding to indicate that he was ready to go. He had straightened up stubbornly, defying the blade's heaviness with willpower, and stood with both hands supporting the sheath and Mr. Squishy under one arm. Sephiroth smiled faintly at the sight, thinking that it was very like Zack.
"Can I carry something for you?"
"Thanks, but I got 'em. I want to."
Sephiroth thought he understood this, too, though he didn't think he'd be able to explain it in words. Zack was simply strong, and he knew Angeal had known it, but still wanted to show him one more time. Sephiroth opened the door and closed it behind them, and figured that if the sword's weight proved too much, he might be allowed to carry Zack.
When Sephiroth returned from the kitchen with a bowl of rice and steamed vegetables, he found Zack sitting curled up on the couch. The TV was on, one of the news channels that it was usually tuned to, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention. Mr. Squishy was on his lap, its little paw being gently squeezed, and the Buster Sword had been carefully placed on the coffee table in front of him. It seemed to be all Zack could concentrate on, until he looked up at Sephiroth and smiled weakly.
"Thanks." He accepted the food with a short laugh. "I'll eat, I'll eat, no need to glare. I'm immune to that anyway."
It didn't seem to be easy for him, but Zack forced down a few spoonfuls. "Have you been eating while I was off bein' useless?"
"I would prefer to wait until morning." The heavy feeling in his midsection was breaking up slowly, not light enough yet to add to. "You were not useless."
"I wasn't there for you."
"Zack, you have been helping me, tremendously. I don't believe I would be able to handle this without you."
Zack swallowed with another tiny smile. "I want to do more. You want to hold Mr. Squishy?"
"Are you sure, Seph? He doesn't bite or anything."
"Wait here," the general heard himself say, before he realized he'd made a decision.
What the heck? Zack stared, puzzled, as Sephiroth disappeared into the bedroom. He returned a few moments later, looking faintly embarrassed, with something black and furry clutched in one unpracticed hand. Is that...no way...it is.
"Oh my Gaia," Zack whispered, as Sephiroth sat down with the stuffed Bandersnatch on his thigh. "You kept it? I thought you'd throw it away. You were angry, he said."
"I was surprised. Alarmed by the new and strange feelings I was experiencing. I wanted at first to get rid of it, of them, but I could not destroy something that came from you."
"You jerk, you spent all these months hiding that from me?" But Zack looked pleased. "Well, Wuggles'll be happy, he'll have two new friends. But just how many secrets are you keeping from me? I want to know them all."
"I don't know if I would want that."
"What if I told you all my secrets?"
"You have secrets?" Cheerful Zack?
"Everyone has secrets, Seph. Um, I can't think of any at the moment, but still." Zack inconspicuously put down the half-full bowl of rice and faced straight ahead to look at him out of the corner of his eye, teasingly. "Although you already found out the big one, thanks to VR technology and my big mouth."
"That you love me."
"Completely, totally, head-over-heels, giggly like a schoolgirl, can't think about anything else, can't fight you or even form a coherent thought in your presence, hopelessly, uselessly in love with you." Zack sniffled a few times, grabbed a tissue from a nearby box - placed there for him, he suspected, as Sephiroth never needed them - and blew his nose. "I think Angeal was even more freaked out by what I did than we were."
"You're crying again," Sephiroth said softly, as Zack discarded the used tissue and grabbed another. "I wish I could make it stop for you."
"Thanks, but people need to do it sometimes. It makes you feel better."
"How can it make you feel better?" Sephiroth asked as Zack blew his nose again. "Your breathing seems to be impaired."
Zack laughed into a clean tissue, kindly, the strongest sound he'd made save for screaming in days. "Let me use an analogy you're familiar with. Needles hurt going in, don't they?"
That depends largely on the size, location, contents and angle of insertion. But he understood Zack was trying to explain something, and nodded.
"They hurt coming out too, right? But which feels better?"
He thought for a moment, then guessed that the right answer must be the honest one. "The withdrawal, because the worst of it is over."
"Exactly. Angeal's gone, what could hurt more than that for us? Just one thing, and if you ever dare leave me, I'll follow you to the Lifestream and kick your butt."
He was watching the TV screen, where a female reporter was standing against a background of familiar scenery, in front of a crowd of people holding blurry signs, lit candles, bouquets of flowers. The bright light illuminating her swung unsteadily, then went still, and she spoke loudly into her microphone to be heard over the noise of crying and chanting.
" - update from the front of the ShinRa Compound, where crowds, as you can see, have grown larger over the last two days. This is part of our continuing coverage of the tragic death of one of SOLDIER's most legendary, Commander Angeal Hewley, age twenty-six. The private memorial service was held earlier tonight, and cameras were not allowed inside. The company seems to have closed ranks, Tom, and security here at ShinRa is tighter than ever."
"Lynn, is it true that the crowd is now estimated to number ten thousand, and if so, what is their reason for remaining so long?"
"That is the latest estimate, and we'll have exclusive interviews with top members of the Silver Steel, Legion of Honor and Zack Pack fan clubs after the break. For now, I can tell you that the atmosphere here is very charged, with many of these young men and women insisting that they will not leave until they see General Sephiroth and Lieutenant Zack Fair for themselves. Regular viewers of Channel Three News will remember that we have been on a constant lookout for Commander Hewley's closest friend and student, who are known to be involved in a sexual and/or romantic relationship, which dashed the hopes of many in both the Legion and the Pack, who hoped that such a relationship would develop rather between Hewley and Fair."
"They're still on about that? Sheesh." Zack stood up, more steadily now. "C'mon."
"Outside, just for a minute. Those people aren't gonna go home till they see us and it's cold out there."
"I don't know if that would be good for you right now. You're exhausted, and..." And just starting to mend, I can't risk anything breaking you.
"We'll be okay. We'll be together." Zack swept a hand slowly through his wild hair. "To be honest, I'm not totally sure how well I'll handle it. But it's the right thing to do. Angeal used to tell me, when in doubt, just do the next right thing."
"He said that to me also." Sephiroth drew him closer, cupped his cheek. "Zack. Please do not push yourself."
"It'll only take a minute," the boy said softly. "Then I can come back here and curl up with you and sleep without feeling guilty. I'll trade ya, anything you want."
"I just want to see you happy again."
Zack looked at him, his eyes clear and bright and unbroken behind a film of tears. Slowly, a smile spread across the face Sephiroth was caressing, pushing through pain to form, even just briefly, the blinding grin that had once come so easily, and hopefully would again. As it started to recede and a sob came up, Sephiroth grabbed and held him tightly, squeezing the smaller body as though he could wring the loneliness out of it.
"How did you do that?" the general asked, voice heavy with gratitude and wonder.
It took Zack a minute to get out what he said next, past the gasped breaths and attempts that ended in whimpers. "H-He...H-He's with Genesis now."
The arms around him tightened, not comfortably for long periods of time but not painfully either, and Sephiroth bowed his head to press his face into the warm neck. Zack felt wetness on his skin that could have been merely dampness from Sephiroth's lips, but he didn't ask or try to look. He lifted his chin as high as he could to rest it on the silky bed of silver hair and ran an open hand gently down the length of it, then again from the top, and again.
I'm here, Seph. It'll be okay. I promise, I won't let you be alone.
"I think I'm crying again," Zack whispered. "So let's wait a minute till I'm done, before we go out there. They would understand, maybe they'd even like to see it, but they'll understand if they don't, too. Some stuff is hard enough to let out in private, much less in public. It can be embarrassing, even though there's nothing wrong with it."
Angeal is not here. For a moment, it was as though days of functioning despite that fact hadn't happened, and the loss was new and sharp. In reaction, Sephiroth breathed Zack in deeply, took in as much of his scent as his lungs could hold, would have loved him more if that were possible.
Zack waited quietly until Sephiroth had relaxed and begun to ease up on his grip. "I think I'm okay now."
"If you are certain." The general lifted his head to reveal a dry face, but eyes a bit more mercury than metal. "Only a minute, remember."
Angeal is not here. The rooms they were leaving behind waited silently, no breath or laughter to stir the air, only memory. It was easier now to understand what Zack had meant earlier. In the lives he had been so much a part of, in the apartment where Angeal had smiled at and scolded them both, there was always the faint expectation that he would walk into sight any minute and smile knowingly at the stuffed Bandersnatch Sephiroth had hidden in his jacket, or gently swat Zack for touching the Buster without permission.
Angeal is not here.
Zack paused at the door, looking down pensively, and brought the hand not held by Sephiroth to touch his chest, as though he were by this gesture keeping something inside. Sephiroth, who had always learned by observation, mimicked the movement, brushing fingers and palm over his own heart. Zack squeezed his hand, and though the intimation was not at all logical, Sephiroth squeezed back in agreement.
Angeal is here.
The poem Sephiroth recites from is "Away, Melancholy", by Stevie Smith.
Thank you all for your lovely reviews. It's so good to be able to do Decorums again. And as always, thanks to Amaya and Kiisa, my lovely Turk contacts, for letting me ruin their good names. :)