Disclaimer: All elements related to Final Fantasy VII are the intellectual property of Square-Enix. This work of fiction is a non-profit, fan-made tribute.
Author's Note: It's good to be back.
I: Then the World Fell Away
Hurried footsteps made him whirl, spinning to face his aggressor an instant, just an instant too late.
"My home, my mom, everything—give it back!"
The words came out in a rush, echoing off metal and stone, reverberating back inward to repeat the demand over, met at first only by the sound of blood spattering on the floor. The sword plunged in, fought to continue, and then finally broke through with the snap of a scapula unable to stand against the strain. The bloodied point protruded from the madman's back, straight through his shoulder blade, and the metal scraped against bone as he fell to his knees with a barely audible gasp.
Sephiroth's mouth worked silently, gloved fingers pushing frantically at the massive blade driven through his chest. He took a ragged breath, blood trailing out the corner of his mouth, and looked up at his killer with wide, frenzied eyes—but all in vain. The boy didn't move an inch, all his diminutive weight against the borrowed weapon in his shaking hands.
Another moment passed before Shinra's greatest elite shuddered, back arching as his mouth went wide and gasped for breath, then at last fell limp against the sword. The glow in his open eyes slowly faded, burning green darkening to a deep emerald as the inhuman energy in him ebbed.
Cloud choked as he finally pulled the blade back out, Zack's oversized Buster Sword so heavy in his hands that it immediately fell, the blade colliding with the makeshift walkway he stood on with a clang. For several long minutes, the only sound to be heard—between the hisses and hums of the reactor at work—was Cloud gasping for breath, fighting against hyperventilation, fighting not to scream.
Finally he sunk to his knees, white-knuckled hands still clenched tight around the grip of his best friend's sword, and struggled to let go. Finger after finger uncurled, stiff and hurting, and then he reached up and tore off his helmet with a choking growl through his clenched teeth.
"I trusted you!" He yelled, voice breaking. "I—I believed in you, I even—I—" He bit back a sob and shook his head, at last dislodging his other hand, allowing him to reach up and bury his face in the both of them.
He hurt. Everywhere, every inch of him was screaming. Of all the people in the world to do this, of all the places in the world for it to be done…
He choked out a sob, rubbing furiously at his eyes. He couldn't just sit here, not while there was still a chance that someone out there could be saved. He couldn't just sit here while there was still a chance for Tifa, Zack, for any of them.
He swallowed, rubbed his eyes once more, and pushed himself up. His knees gave out instantly, and he landed on all fours with a grunt of frustration. "Come on," he hissed, whisper drowned out by a loud hiss from the ventilation system. Cloud clenching his blue-grey eyes shut. "Come on, come on, get up."
He was supposed to be on his way to becoming a SOLDIER, and SOLDIERs didn't stay still. SOLDIERs didn't fall. That was a world away now, a dream from a life that was gone forever—and a part of him already understood that—but it was the only thing he had that could possibly force him back to his feet. The only thing that could make sure he kept breathing after what he'd done. So, with another deep breath, he pushed himself up again. It was tentative at first, his body unfolded joint by joint, but finally he stood straight and opened his eyes.
There lay Sephiroth, sprawled forward on the mess of metal and wiring that led up to that horrible tank, still glowing from within ever so slightly, silver-white hair flowing out around him like liquid platinum, dyed perfect scarlet where it touched his blood.
Cloud clenched his eyes shut. "I'm sorry," he breathed, voice shaky. "I'm so sorry."
He tried to tell himself that it wasn't Sephiroth, that the man he'd known would never do such a thing, would never think of doing such a thing—but while he had come to the conflict fairly late, Cloud had been part of the war in Wutai. He'd seen what Sephiroth was capable of, the lengths he was willing to go to do what he felt necessary. Why burning Nibelheim to the ground was necessary remained the real question, why everyone present for the revelation regarding the circumstances of his birth had to die, but even so Cloud couldn't manage to separate everything that had happened from everything he'd known.
Sephiroth would never hurt him, that much had always been clear. Those Cloud loved were an entirely different story; regardless of his demand when he struck that perfect warrior down, when he ran the man he'd admired so much straight through, no one could bring them back once they were gone.
That was why he had to move. Once they were gone, they were gone, but they might not have all been gone yet. There could still be a chance. Cloud forced himself to look away, forced himself to move, step after step after step, each one a struggle.
"I'm so sorry, Seph," he murmured once more, making it off the stepping line and onto proper floor, giving him a chance to lean on the wall for support. He didn't look back, couldn't say any more, but he shook his head and gave his eyes another brush of his knuckles as he finally stepped out.
That left Sephiroth alone, and that was a mistake.
The resonance of Cloud's overwhelming spirit distanced at last, Sephiroth woke back up cell by cell. One gloved hand twitched ever so slightly and the torn flesh on his chest slowly began to pull inward, knitting itself back together. His arms pulled in as well, the movement slow and halting, and the left turned to brace his hand against the floor—the other stayed with fingers tangled in Jenova's silken, silver-white hair. Fragments of bone, all that remained of his shoulder blade and a good several ribs, rearranged themselves in proper order and fused with a flare of white-hot energy so bright it glowed through his skin, burning muscle and tissue from the inside.
The flash of pain made Sephiroth shove himself up on his hands, throwing back his head and taking a ragged breath as his heart gave one rough beat, then another; the light in his eyes rekindled, glowing brightly, and his pupils tightened back into slits.
He clenched a hand at his chest, fingers slipping into what remained of the wound even as it closed up, black leather sinking into bloody, ripped muscle while he fought to breathe again, struggled against the pain. When he pulled his hand away his glove was soaked with blood, aching straight through, and after a moment he reached up to fit the tip of his middle finger between his teeth, clenching at the seam of his glove to rip it off and bare the pitch black numeral I burned just under his knuckles.
Having it exposed to open air made the ache fade, somewhat, but it was a weak reprieve when compared to the pain still burning through him with each uneven heartbeat.
Sephiroth had never suffered any damage to his heart before, much less having it cut in two, so this was a learning experience. Pain like this was entirely new, an unknown adversary he only felt he could face because of the subtle, singsong whispering in his head that told him so.
The arrhythmia of his heartbeat slowly steadied, too fast at first, but calming by the second as valves and tubes and muscle pulled back together. Finally Sephiroth let out that ragged breath he'd held and pushed himself up to a sitting position to better catch his breath. That blow, that death had taken more out of him than he was accustomed to.
His pale skin was ashen, hair and clothing soaked in blood, but still he rose to his feet with a pained wince and limped toward the door. He would come back for the rest of Mother later; right now that burning resonance that was Cloud drew him from the chamber, the last heart still beating steady in this place pulling him away. He wasn't finished.
Cloud knelt and gathered Tifa up into his arms, lifting her carefully to move her away from the steps and lean her up against the wall, prop her up so she wouldn't have to move herself. His arms were sticky and his very skin stained red by the time he lowered her back down and dropped once more to his knees before her. Eyes closed, hair caked with blood…Cloud brushed a hand along the curve of her cheek, grey eyes giving a sharp sting. The touch left a streak of crimson over her suntanned skin.
"Tifa," he murmured, praying for her to open her eyes. "Tifa, please…" She didn't move. Didn't stir, didn't so much as breathe. He was too late, again. Cloud bit his bottom lip and pulled her against him, burying his face in her thick brown hair and holding her tight. He wanted to apologize, but couldn't bring himself to force out the words. He was sorry, so sorry, but his voice just wouldn't work. He couldn't through the death and the blood, all brought on too quickly. Everything Cloud knew and loved was gone.
And all he could do was try to apologize.
Something rustled, scuffed the walk at the top of the stairs, and Cloud's breath caught in his throat, heart dropping into his stomach when he whirled to see the entrance to Jenova's chamber.
Red spattered on the black of his leathers, Sephiroth leaned against the doorframe—such as it was—and took a wheezing breath. "You should…know better," he coughed.
Memories flashed through Cloud's head, velvet tones in teasing admonitions, making fun so much more than administering punishment. It most certainly wasn't the first time Sephiroth had said that to him in the past year.
No reason to ask how he came back—the mako would see to that if Jenova didn't—and that wasn't the thought on his mind to begin with.
It was selfish, but more than anything Cloud wanted to know how Sephiroth could do this. How the man he'd known so well, been so close to, could possibly do something like this. How he could become this monster and still speak the same words he always had, still sound like himself.
Sephiroth gave a weak, tired chuckle took Cloud's heart and turned it on its end. "You need to—to ask?" His burning green eyes narrowed, white teeth bared in a wide, predatory grin. "You need to ask, even after…" The general swallowed thickly. "What you did. After what you…what all of you…did?"
"None of us did anything!" Cloud responded, voice a note too high, throat burning.
Now Sephiroth barked out a laugh, close to doubling over in the doorway, leaning heavily on the metal for support. Jenova's head, clutched so tightly in his hand, brushed the floor as he moved. "Not you. You. Them." He dropped his voice to a whisper, still pained and halting but not quite as disjointed from word to word anymore. "You killed us all. All save one—save me. I'm simply—returning the favor."
Cloud couldn't help the automatic cry of "Why?!" he gave in reply, couldn't quite bite it back in time. He knew what Sephiroth believed, knew some of what he'd read in the library deep below the mansion, knew what he was; as such he shouldn't have had to ask. He knew what Sephiroth was referring to, knew the mass genocide of the Ancients was what spurred him into action.
But why now, why here, why Sephiroth, of all people? The chances of everything falling into place like this, all the pieces being in this place, of all places in the world, they were so slim it didn't seem possible. Everything had just happened so fast, too fast.
Sephiroth's response was an almost snakelike hiss, and he straightened as he spoke, lurching his way out of the entry at last. "This—This is why I was born." Down the steps, he passed Cloud without giving him a glance. "You ask why." Down the next set of steps. "I ask…why you can't see it yourself."
Cloud wanted to charge after him, pushed to his feet to do just that, but the moment he disappeared out into the next room, silhouetted by burning bluegreen as he moved over the Reactor's open mako tank, a low rasp caught the young man's attention. Cloud turned back, dark eyes wide as he looked up the steps to the lesser tank caved in around Zack's shattered, bleeding form.
He was there in a heartbeat, fleet-footed up the steps in spite of the pain boiling inside him, burning him from head to toe and deeper still, into bones and brain and heart. Zack was alive. If Zack was alive that would be enough, just one person left out of them all would be enough. When he joined Shinra, Zack was all he'd had—he could handle that again. He could.
Zack was alive, and when Cloud reached him he moved to drop to his knees to heft him up. Zack's hand shot up and caught his arm, halting him.
"Finish…him off," the SOLDIER choked, wide violet eyes shifting in and out of focus, pupils dilating and tightening of their own accord, trying to settle with so little blood to fuel the constriction process. "Sephiroth. You have to—please."
There was something else there, some pain in Zack's glowing eyes that made every pain in Cloud burn anew. He was right, Sephiroth had to die. He had to be stopped, he couldn't be permitted to leave the reactor. But Cloud could tell that wasn't the reason for Zack's pleading, wasn't the purpose behind that heartbreak in his voice and face. That wasn't what made him beg.
Their Sephiroth was gone. The monster wearing his shell, pretty as it was, had to be stopped before he could do any more. Before any more of what he'd been could be sullied to outside eyes.
To save Sephiroth as Cloud and Zack had known him, he had to die. This would have to be their last memory of him, final recollection for the two people who cared about him most in the world, but perhaps it wouldn't have to be the same for the rest of the world. Perhaps Rufus and Reno and Tseng could remember him as he'd been, not as he'd become.
Sephiroth deserved that much. Deserved to be remembered as something other than a monster.
Cloud put his hand over Zack's and gave a squeeze, nodding his head. No words exchanged, Zack's grip loosened and his arm fell back to his side with a painful sounding clang where wrist impacted the metal and Cloud straightened properly, turning to rush out after Sephiroth.
Chasing the man he loved, pushing him forward to his doom.
Every step was pain, new and old, echoes of a childhood Sephiroth had never wanted, of an upbringing no one should have been meant to endure. The screaming in his joints brought up the scent of alcohol and sterile cotton, of mako and another glowing fluid, violet and thick as syrup, driven into him time and time again by pale, gnarled hands.
They were finally going to pay for what they'd done, for creating him this way, for using the last of the planet's true heirs as their own weapon.
Sephiroth knew, because Mother told him so, that he was not like the other Ancients. He was special, better than them all, brighter and stronger, like the sun compared to the pinpricks of stars driven into the night sky. When the sun rose, the stars disappeared and only it remained to cast light and warmth on the planet far below; Sephiroth had risen, the stars of his kin extinguished forever, and his light would sear the planet raw. He would cauterize the gaping wounds left by humankind, singe off the old skin and allow new to grow.
It would hurt, him and the planet and Mother, but he knew it would work. He knew that this was what he had to do. Since the first instant when Mother's eyes cast down on this fading rock, she had known what had to be done. Now it was her son's turn to fulfill the destiny she had never been capable of.
He staggered along the catwalk, Jenova's hair trailing along one the platform just beside his boot, his steps grew more certain as he moved, the glowing energy far below replenishing his own strength and healing even those wounds too deep for him to touch. The pain faded and he stood up straight again, angling his head back to take a deep, steadily-clearing breath.
He angled his head back just slightly further, barely turning to look back over his shoulder. Cloud stood with his hands clenched into tight fists, face flushed with rage, and Sephiroth found a part of him smiling at the redness in his cheeks, the sweat he could smell on his skin.
He had seen it so many times before, but it had never seemed so beautiful as it was right now.
When Cloud rushed at him it was made abundantly clear that this was no time to think on the way the light shone in his eyes, the way his hair fell over his face, sunshine blond so perfectly complimenting the flush of exertion in his cheeks. Cloud Strife, Sephiroth thought to himself, was a work of art. What a shame he'd been born in such substandard skin.
Sephiroth spun, angling Masamune just so, and impaled Cloud on the finely honed metal using his own inertia. Straight through the chest, just as Cloud had done to him, but in this case the blade reached Cloud's scapula and stopped, point scraping against the inside of his shoulder blade. It wasn't enough force to break the bone.
Of course, the son of Jenova could change that easily enough, but that would be too fast. That would make those beautiful eyes go dead too quickly, and that was the last thing he wanted. Some part of him, under the burning and the blood song howling in his head, couldn't bear the thought of watching those eyes go blank, couldn't stand to think of watching that pain twist Cloud's face.
He raised the blade, lifting Cloud off the ground, and stared into those dark eyes. Cloud had caught him off-guard once, if he thought it was going to happen again he clearly didn't know the general as well as he'd thought he did.
"Don't…" Sephiroth licked his lips, dry croak of his voice pulling back out into that deep, confident tone he was meant to have. Like the sound of silk, the sound of shadows and burning. "Don't push your luck."
Cloud looked at him for a long, pained moment, straining to even breath where he hung, then both hands came up in jerking, shaking movements to allow him to wrap his hands around the over-long blade just where it met his chest. The blade cut through his gloves, through his hands and fingers to meet bone, carving at tendons with ease, but still he held on. Taking a strained breath, Cloud gathered his strength and jerked downward.
His booted feet impacted the floor with a unified clank, and Sephiroth could only murmur his disbelief as Cloud set his jaw, blood running out the corner of his mouth and strained grunt coming out in a bloody gurgle, and mustered all the strength he could to lift the sword himself.
Sephiroth clung to his sword even as Cloud's impossible strength peaked and the general's feet lifted off from the catwalk. With a cry of exertion and rage, crimson bubbling in his throat, the young man spun to send Sephiroth and his sword into the shining green below; just as the arc completed, Sephiroth gave one final push.
He could feel the bone shatter around his beloved weapon, and Cloud screamed at the top of his lungs as the long silvery point protruded from his back.
Sephiroth held tight, and continued to fall.
Cloud fell with him.
The air tore at them both, supercharged with the planet's own lifeblood, particles of energy burning at Cloud's skin and tearing at Sephiroth's hair as they fell. Ancient, boy, and remnant of Jenova hit the glowing fluid with a great splash, swallowed instantly, material of Cloud's clothes sizzling in contact with the pure liquid power, sending up the faintest plumes of blue-grey smoke.
Cloud's head broke the surface once more, just long enough for him to scream as every cell in his body went white hot, then Sephiroth's weight and grip on Masamune pulled him down after him.
Then the world fell away, leaving nothing but the pain—and eventually that too stopped, overtaken by the deepest, purest dark.