Vincent regarded the rubble of the Shinra building with some trepidation. It was distasteful to return here again, even years later. But after the Remnants he felt compelled to make certain no further threats concealed themselves among these massive shards of concrete. So here he was, perusing collapsed rubble once a monument of the greatest and most terrible enterprise on the planet.
Long practice suppressing memory allowed him to enter that wretched manmade jungle without much uneasiness, crossing into the mutilated fragments of Shinra's fall. The destruction wreaked by Cloud's latest battle left the skeleton of the building barely upright. Intricate kaleidoscopes of shattered glass and half-melted steel obscured his way, and at times he climbed over entire sections of the fallen giant. Due to the short time since the new destruction, nothing stirred, no small animals or human voices to break the eerie silence. Vincent was accustomed to quiet, however, and did not find it overly oppressive. The sun was bright, the air, miraculously, somewhat crisp, with only a slight taste of mako to remind of what had been. The path was not arduous, the sky clear. Absurd as it was, this was passable, acceptable.
Perhaps that heralded change in and of itself.
He paused in the shadow of a shattered wall, looking up at the shambles standing proudly and futilely into the sky. How odd it seemed now destroyed. Even if much of his past lay elsewhere, it affected something deep to see Shinra both thankfully and terribly brought down. Memory of thousands of atrocities and innocent deaths before that final end lay splintered beneath his feet.
Walking from the shadow into sunlight briefly blinded him, and he stopped, able to discern only blurry shapes of light striking the surfaces before him. When his eyes adjusted, he froze.
A first instant of pure shock, Vincent staring blankly at the man before him.
He knew him at once; impossible he would not, but he'd never seen him like this. Silver hair harsh and bright in his memory was dust-covered, streaked with blood and something blacker. His stance listed unstably, slumped shoulders and crooked weight distribution, as if he were limping. He carried the sword, he could not do otherwise, but the point dipped dangerously low, barely above the ground.
Everywhere, over exposed skin and leather and armor, flashes of red and something darker marked wounds. Something that looked like black blood branched across his sword hand, seeping in thin trails between the fingers and dripping slowly from the blade's hilt. A black rivulet trailed down his chin from the corner of his mouth.
And, most unnatural, Vincent's surprise did not set him at a disadvantage; briefly it seemed the other hadn't noticed him.
Sephiroth raised his head and seared Vincent with his eyes. Vincent stared. Neither moved.
Seconds dragged by as Vincent saw something else very wrong. Sephiroth's eyes flickered erratically, first bright as if in anger then near fading away, leaving the irises a sickly grey. Sephiroth seemed unaware of the change.
A sudden shudder of instinct broke the trance, his gun aimed at Sephiroth's heart, and Vincent breathed.
In the same instant, Sephiroth raised his sword. Masamune caught the ground before clearing it, the horrible shriek echoed jaggedly in the deathly quiet. Then again they stood, watching each other.
Vincent hated his own hesitation. Cerberus did not waver. He could probably hit Sephiroth, the ex-SOLDIER could be slowed by injury enough for the shot to land. But would that even kill him? Cloud had destroyed him two days ago, and yet here he stood, battered, but quite clearly alive.
And, curse it, a familiar guilt coiled deep in his gut whenever he saw Lucrecia's face on this man. After all, had he been stronger, then...would things have gone differently for Sephiroth, too?
Enough past. Focus. Finish it now.
And yet, finish it? Blood dripped off Sephiroth's hair, mesmerizing Vincent as it fell. We killed him, and then Cloud once again...what could finish it...?
Something hardened in Sephiroth's features, an internal power making his eyes flash even as they flickered. The sword shifted slightly, commanding Vincent's attention in anticipation of the attack. Vincent's claws curled instinctively.
Sephiroth watched him coldly. "Well, are you going to shoot me, Valentine?" He spoke quietly, words falling sharp and clear among Shinra's cold shards.
Hearing his name on this man's tongue unnerved Vincent. His trigger finger ached from tension. Marshalling his self control, he narrowed his eyes. "Sephiroth," he returned, taking strange satisfaction in mastering the name. "How are you back again?"
Rhetorical of course; Sephiroth only gave megalomaniac speeches when he chose. And yet the ex-SOLDIER narrowed his eyes and frowned, as though he might actually answer. Another involuntary flash lit his eyes and in puzzlement Vincent though he saw something like pain cloud Sephiroth's focus.
The expression was gone far too fast to confirm, overtaken by a sneer. "Go ahead, Valentine," Sephiroth said. "Kill me. Put me out of my misery for a time." Standing tall, he pivoted Masamune aside, smirk widening. A strange, ragged edge left his voice rough, as Vincent had never heard him before. "I can't vouch for permanence, though. She always seems to drag me back."
Vincent stared at Sephiroth, startled. These words, even this voice, were irreconcilable with the man Cloud had fought just days before, who murdered Aerith, summoned Meteor and attempted to destroy the world. Vincent had heard him; that Sephiroth never showed uncertainty, never spoken of Jenova as less than a god. That man did not stand still and offer his life. Vincent had never even seen that man bleed.
And that smile wasn't his either. Sephiroth smirked slightly, even as he offered Vincent an undefended shot. Not the smile he would have recognized; the madness and barbarous glee of two years ago, mocking and arrogant and cruel. No, Vincent had seen this look before too. But long ago, in turk days, on the smirking faces of defeated opponents as they stood to fall.
Sephiroth smiled, seeing in him his death. Daring him. And Vincent, seeing the bared teeth of that smirk, uncaring and defiant, could almost believe his free shot would indeed fall undefended if fired.
Sudden movement broke the stalemate, almost startling Vincent to shoot. Liar!
But, when rationality caught instinct, he realized Sephiroth wasn't attacking at all. Head bowed, eyes closed, Sephiroth bit down on his hand as a sound like raw meat against rock broke the silence. Vincent blinked. Sephiroth coughed again, again, bone deep, hacking convulsions that rattled his entire body.
Snatching a whistling breath, Sephiroth loosened his teeth, glancing at his hand dazedly. Vincent saw it too, black liquid mixed with blood catching the light as it dripped from the fingers. The drops sparkled oddly as they fell, green almost, before spattering to the ground.
Sephiroth watched intently, another flash in his eyes making the expression unreadable. The force creased his forehead as another cough shook him, this one gurgling wet and thick in his throat. He didn't raise his hand quickly enough now and Vincent saw; black-red liquid splattered over his lips, trickling from his mouth. His stance wavered, and Masamune trembled as its master struggled to breathe.
Black drops falling from his chin, Sephiroth grit his teeth and shot Vincent a grin. Vincent stood still as another cough dragged Sephiroth's gaze to the ground, body bent inward as he focused all strength on dragging in his next breath.
The ridiculousness dazed Vincent as he watched; that he had felt such fear of so helpless a man. No wonder Sephiroth laughed even when he couldn't breathe.
Sephiroth's strength of will had brought Meteor to this planet, and he held valiantly against the failing of his body, hunching and shuddering, but remaining on his feet. But Vincent saw him lose, a breathless growl of desperation as Masamune clattered to the earth from a shaking hand. Sephiroth collapsed heavily to his knees, still coughing and rasping for breath.
Vincent's heart contracted with shock. Something was very wrong. He watched Sephiroth's black-stained hands shudder as the ex-SOLDIER struggled against utter collapse.
He'd been a turk. He'd killed more in his time than he cared to recall, sleeping, unarmed, unaware. This should be easy. A single bullet, put him down like any rabid dog. This should be…
But it was a failed mission, not a success, that had brought all this to be. It was his fault, after all, that she-
He couldn't shoot him, not like this.
Wordlessly, Vincent lowered Cerberus and approached Sephiroth. Closer, the scent of blood and something else, rotting and decayed, flooded his nose, like he'd walked into a morgue. Steeling himself, Vincent crouched by Sephiroth, looking closer to discern some possible cause.
A twisted gasp and Sephiroth raised his head, eyes flashing this time in a conscious glare. Vincent could now see the haze of pain that pinched his face, how he shivered with each drawn breath as if the act itself were terrible, but Sephiroth bristled at his presence nonetheless, watching every move with slitted eyes. He'd offered a shot, true, but now even the choice was not his. If Vincent wanted to kill him, there wasn't much he could do. Teeth grit, eyes glowing, he glared, the desperate defiance of a wounded animal, cornered and crippled. Vincent could barely see the semi-conscious man buried there. Was he fading so fast?
Meeting that glare, Vincent holstered Cerberus, making sure Sephiroth saw. Green eyes widened, confused, the glow dim again. Sephiroth gasped a breath, and seemed to jerk back from some edge, blinking, staring, pupils dilating as he coughed again. Vincent hesitated, not wanting to startle him. If Sephiroth snapped, it could hurt or kill them both.
Though, just now, he was even more worried it would simply make the ex-SODLIER drop dead.
Sephiroth looked at him fixedly, aggression drained from his eyes by confusion, but mostly by fatigue. A particularly vicious cough ripped itself out of him, Vincent could practically hear his ribs creak, and Sephiroth winced, closing his eyes and abruptly turning away. The meaning was perfectly clear, if a little defiant. Do what you want, I don't care anymore... Blood spattered on the rocks as he curled his spine and hacked.
Vincent accepted the surrender, too preoccupied to respond to the glare. Something of this severity…what even was the matter? Clearly it was something internal, if Sephiroth's continued coughing was any indication…
He'd never seen Sephiroth so weak. The ex-SOLDIER wavered even to sit up now, the oppressive decaying scent practically palpable.
Some part of his mind raged with debate even now. This was the murderer of hundreds. Sephiroth had killed countless innocents, ended so many lives… It was wrong…he deserved the shot he had offered, and nothing more…
Yet he couldn't bear the thought, not like this. Killing him for the salvation of the planet was one thing, but this… This was letting him die. Abandoning him to die.
Vincent had already abandoned too much he shouldn't have. What right did he have now to return death with death?
He had to get him out of here. Sephiroth's appearance would bring widespread panic. There could be no way to explain his foolhardy need to the others; why he did not slaughter this man on sight.
The rocks around them were speckled with red and black blood. Sephiroth shuddered, now braced on hands and knees. He wouldn't be walking. The coughs hadn't slowed, but to Vincent's alarm, the number of breaths Sephiroth took had. He didn't open his eyes now, didn't bristle or fight, only coughed and coughed as if to tear his insides out.
Vincent warily reached out and caught Sephiroth's arm, silently offering or telling that he would take the weight. Sephiroth recoiled sharply from his touch, but the effort buckled him, and quite suddenly he slumped. Vincent had to scramble to catch him. Sephiroth's entire body shook as he heaved, and Vincent could feel his chest rattling, and even through his glove he could feel sickly heat of his skin.
As gently as he could, Vincent ducked under Sephiroth's arm and stood. Sephiroth jerked and gave a cough-thinned hiss, resisting weakly as Vincent's claw brushed his back. Vincent froze and pulled the metal back, unsure whether the reaction was conscious, instinctive or some mix. He couldn't carry even a weakened Sephiroth if he fought.
Trembling, Sephiroth fiercely pushed away from Vincent, as if trying to stand. But the strength taxed reserves he didn't have, making him pant raggedly. Something Vincent couldn't see seemed to finally snap and Sephiroth could breathe or move, not both, his throat choking with black-blood. He fell, hacking. His blood-blackened hand on Vincent's shoulder gouged in a deathgrip as he tried to keep from slipping.
Vincent caught his passenger, trying unsuccessfully to assure him he wasn't falling. Sephiroth, however, either didn't notice or didn't process; his grip didn't loosen even as Vincent lifted him. His eyes were closed now, his breathing ragged, thin, each gasp thick and wet. Something tightened inside Vincent at the blood he could almost hear there. He didn't know how badly hurt Sephiroth was. He didn't know what, if anything, he would be able to do for him once they were safe.
Vincent made sure his grip on Sephiroth was secure, glancing unenthusiastically at the bright noon sun. At the moment, it was the act of even getting him anywhere that worried him. How was he going to sneak Shinra's ex-general through Midgar unnoticed?