Author's Note: And with this, I throw all my cards onto the table! This story is done. I've held back on posting this, simply because I kept going back and tweaking things all week, wanting to get it just right. I didn't think it would be too difficult to wrap things up, but with a story this big, with so much going on, it turned out there was a lot to say at the end.
Can you believe that this was last year's Halloween fic? I never imagined it would grow so big or take so long! Happy belated Halloween! You still have all your leftover Halloween candy, right? See, it's not that late ...
Thank you to LuckyLadybug who has helped me with things throughout this story. And thank you to all my watchers, readers, and reviewers for sticking with me! This is the first chapter-length story I've ever completed. I have to say, I'm thrilled to have written it all!
What's next? I have another FF7 1920s detective story in the works, to continue the series I began in A Knock at the Door. And I will also be continuing Distant Worlds, Broken Souls, an FF7/Star Wars crossover that I've buried deeply within FanFiction(dot)Net's crossover section. Aside from that, I'm sure there will be other random ideas popping up. Maybe I should get started on this year's Halloween fic pretty soon, so I actually finish it in time!
Oh, and if you'd like to see more of Mochi the behemoth plush (introduced near the end of the chapter), you can find him in This Broken Road.
Anyway, I've loved writing every moment of this story. I now present The End. Hope you all enjoy!
They illuminated the night in shades of red. But it was pitch black, too dark to see. Even Mako-enhanced eyes couldn't distinguish much.
The flashlights were lost in the initial rush. The radio followed moments later, knocked from his grasp when needle-like teeth latched onto a wrist and speared his neck.
Bursts of materia lit the darkness for brief instants, but the miniature shadows dodged and swarmed quickly, and no one could see enough to lead them, to hit them in groups before they scattered. Fires would not stick, snuffed out by the forest itself, and starlight could not reach into these dark depths.
They saw only glittering onyx eyes, black on black, and the faint gleam off pearly ivory and wet jaws before they snapped upon their next target.
Two swords swung and slashed, and the staccato sound of gunfire laid a counterpoint to the mad scuffling, briefly illuminating the spray of fine drops of oil.
It wasn't oil.
He tripped over something firm, but soft, moving quickly, and went down. Catching himself, hands buried into the carpet of moist leaves, he momentarily lost his sword. Something impacted his side. There was a stab of pain, he yelled, reaching for the beast, but it was small and nimble, and scurried away, rapidly clawing across his back.
Frantically, he swatted at it; no use, he missed. It scampered around his neck; the brief brush of fur tickled his skin. Then it was suddenly in his face. He smacked it away, but not before claws raked across his cheek, just missing his eye.
Quickly, he stumbled to his feet, scrambled for his sword.
"Hammerson! Get Harley and Allen and get outta here!"
A burst of Fire illuminated his path for an instant. The others were too deep for him to see, but he could hear them.
Blindly, he ran, swinging his sword by instinct.
But his comrades weren't where he thought they were.
"Hammerson! Harley!" He heard rustlings around him, let loose with a sweep of Lightning. Shrieks met his ears, singed fur greeted his nose. "Allen!"
Something hit his head. Wasn't hard, but it caught him by surprise and he jerked away, stumbled. A root caught his heel, and threw him into a tree.
He saw stars.
It took a moment before he gathered himself enough to stand. Gripping the giant nest of roots he'd fallen in, he pulled himself up; stabbed his sword into the ground for leverage.
It wasn't enough. Dizziness plunked him back into the dirt.
He shook his head. Gaia, he was tired. But why? He hadn't fought that long. Felt like the air was suffocating him. His head was fuzzy. Blinking, he shook it.
It was quiet now. Too quiet. Where were the others?
"… Harley! Allen!" The volume of his shout startled him, jolted his mind a bit more awake. He frowned. Why weren't they answering?
Again, he levered himself up. But he was brought up short. Unexpectedly, something had caught his wrist, and he fell back down, a surprised yelp escaping his lips.
He'd gotten tangled in some kind of plant. He pulled at it, scooted upright against the tree, and yanked hard. It only seemed to tighten.
A sudden rustling brushed his left ear and he flinched, whipped his head over to see.
A strong, sweet smell, like honeysuckle and mountain lakes, assaulted his nose and clobbered him over the head. He swayed, nearly keeling over. It took a supreme effort to stay awake. Groggily, he pushed away from it, managing to stand.
He staggered, his eyes feeling heavy.
What's … What is this …?
A third attempt to step away was halted; his captured arm had been pulled up against the tree. He tugged on it, to no avail.
What on Gaia …?
Twisting to face the tree, he planted his foot against it, grabbed his wrist with his free hand, and tried to pull away. But the plant refused to let him pry loose. A stray tendril wrapped around his other wrist, tiny thorns nipped his skin.
Shouting in surprise, he yanked the arm away. The vine, loose, went with it. Swinging around and pulling against the plants that still held his other arm, he reached for his sword, intending to chop away at the stubborn foliage.
But a sudden tug at the free arm brought him up short; his fingers just brushed the hilt. He cursed and strained against the vines. Just a little more …
Even as he reached, he saw, in the dimness, tendrils slowly wrapping along his arm. A wisp of fear brushed his heart. No … He redoubled his efforts, heaved against the plants and made a wild swing. His fingers closed around the hilt …
But at the same instant, a constriction in the vines pulled him away. The sword, caught for a brief moment, was tugged toward him … before his fingers slipped off, grip too weak.
He let out a sharp cry of despair.
Hauled back against the tree, he continued to struggle, pushing out with his arm to keep it free. But the vines grew tight; he discovered they had wrapped around his legs and torso, kept the other arm pinned against the rough bark. The heavy scent of the flowers washed over him as they gently brushed his cheek. He twisted his neck, but was unable to escape them. Drowsiness settled upon his mind. His eyes grew heavy and his struggles lessened.
As darkness encroached upon his vision, he spotted a figure approaching. When it drew close enough, a sense of dread chilled his heart, and he thought he must be hallucinating.
It was himself.
The last thing he saw was the doppelganger grip the hilt of his sword, and, smirking, pull it from the ground. He flipped it around, settling it upon his back. Then he gave himself a mock salute and sauntered away.
Zack reached out for him, straining once more against the vines. Then the darkness was too much, and everything faded to black.
The flowered vines cinched tighter, pinning his arm across his chest.
He managed one last thought before his mind fled.
The Ghosts in the Trees … they're us.
Sephiroth sighed, turning a page in the book he was currently reading. They hadn't quite made it home, but perhaps that was for the best. It was peaceful here. Though the walls in the small room were whitewashed, the starkness was broken up by a few paintings of rocky, sun-splashed shorelines and glittering tides. Wide windows on adjoining walls of the room let in warm, late morning sunlight, filtered by thin, white curtains that fluttered in a light breeze. The balmy air brought in the salty scent of the ocean, and somewhere, he caught the lazy creaking of the town's weathered windmill.
Another page turned, and he glanced up to check on the quiet form lying on the bed beside his chair.
Zack was still sleeping. A single white blanket draped across his form, all that was needed in this temperate climate. He'd been unconscious for four days now, though last night had finally transitioned to a natural sleep. It was shortly after that that the monitoring devices had been unhooked and removed from the room, the absence of their constant beeping a welcome change. A single IV still remained attached to one arm.
Sephiroth considered his young friend. Though still pale, some color had returned to his skin, and neither he, nor the Mideel doctors, feared for his life anymore. He was pleased to note that the scratches on his face, and the other injuries, had begun to heal, no longer the fresh, angry red they'd been when he was found. The countless, tiny thorn-pricks from the vine had already vanished. It seemed that the plant had put Zack and the other soldiers into a deep coma, slowing their cellular activity in order to keep them alive so it could feed off their life energies. It was an energy vampire.
In a way, Sephiroth supposed he should be grateful. That incredibly deep sleep had been the only thing that sustained the soldiers over the course of the month. They would have died, otherwise, starvation or dehydration taking their toll. Indeed, this would have happened eventually at some point – they had found the bodies of several other victims as well, those that Zack's team had been originally sent to find. Only a few still lived after the extraordinary amount of time they'd been lost in the jungle, their bodies having given out some time before they'd been found. Ironically, those that survived owed their existence to the same plant that had imprisoned them. But to be kept alive in limbo, as the food source of some vampiric plant … He shuddered. It was not a pleasant existence.
Sephiroth considered the other survivors they had found, who now rested in other rooms of the small medical center. They, too, were recovering, though had been in a more critical state than the soldiers due to the length of time spent in the forest. He, Dr. Walker, and N'kim had seen to locating and notifying their families; all now had the support of their loved ones as they rested. Sephiroth regretted the victims who had already perished, but at least their families would have some closure, and were grateful for that small measure of comfort.
Movement from the bed stirred Sephiroth from his thoughts, and he focused on his friend. Zack shifted, rolling onto his side toward the General. Still blissfully asleep, he snuggled against the pillow with a content sigh, bringing one hand up under it, and the other to rest, loosely curled, just in front of his face. A stray lock of hair fell across his eyes. Sephiroth's features softened, and he couldn't help smiling fondly at the young SOLDIER. In that moment, he looked very much like Angeal's puppy.
Unable to help himself, he reached over to brush the lock from Zack's face, allowing ungloved fingers to linger in his hair. A shadow crossed over his eyes. Sephiroth had almost lost him. He'd left him, abandoned in the jungle for so long, while some wretched imposter stole Zack's life and Sephiroth's friendship. That he'd even comforted that vile creature while the real Zack was suffering so far away … it was unforgivable.
A light moan of protest broke into his thoughts; Sephiroth glanced down to see Zack turn his face and bury it into the pillow, away from the hand that sought to bring him to wakefulness. Amused, Sephiroth lightly ruffled Zack's hair, then let his hand drop when Zack finally turned and blinked blurry violet eyes up at him.
"Welcome back," Sephiroth rumbled, an unexpected tightness in his chest letting him know just how glad he was that Zack had been found.
Still not fully awake, it took Zack a moment to process things. "… Seph …?" he mumbled. Abruptly, he yawned.
Sephiroth leaned back in the chair, the small, warm smile back on his face. "It's about time, Zackary. I would have thought a month of sleep was a bit excessive, even for you."
Sluggish mind missing the import of that statement, Zack rubbed his eyes, mumbling his automatic response, "Don' call me Zackary." It came out in a croak, and he coughed, the words sticking in a dry throat. Immediately, Sephiroth reached for a water glass on the nightstand and held it to his friend's lips, arm slipping behind his shoulders to ease him up and help him drink.
Finding the water had an unexpectedly bittersweet taste, Zack nearly choked on it and tried to pull away.
"Drink," Sephiroth commanded.
Not given a choice, Zack managed to down about a third of the glass before giving up and waving it away. "… Ugh, what was that?" His voice was dry, scratchy, not having been used in so long. He coughed.
"Diluted elixir, mixed with vitamins and other nutrients." Satisfied, Sephiroth replaced the glass, laying him back down.
Zack made a face. "I'd rather eat Mako." Sleepiness finally beginning to dissipate, he rubbed his eyes again, glancing around the room. Failing to recognize it, his mouth turned down in a slight frown. "… Where am I?" He cleared his throat, noticing the IV stand and the strange, pale blue liquid it held, traced the line down to where the needle was secured to his arm. "… Did … something happen?" He turned a confused, questioning gaze upon Sephiroth. He felt strange … as if he had cotton over his ears, and his vision seemed a bit wonky. And his whole body felt heavy, as if he'd just run the First Class obstacle course a few dozen times.
Sephiroth tilted his head. "What do you remember?"
"… I …" Was he supposed to remember something? But what …? His mind was drawing a blank. For a few, long moments he lay, staring vacantly at the ceiling.
Suddenly it hit him, and he sat bolt upright. "Oh God, Seph, the others!" His voice was raw, anguished. "And Stover, I killed him, I-" He broke off as a wave of dizziness struck him. He swayed, the room spinning. Sephiroth caught him, easing him back into the pillows. Several ragged coughs escaped him at the stress on his voice.
"Easy, Zack. They're okay."
Zack desperately pressed on despite his dry throat. "But we were overrun and I couldn't find them and what if they're dead and Gaia, Seph, I killed Stover-!"
"Zack." Sephiroth pressed gently down on his chest to keep him from getting up, heart aching to see such grief in his friend's eyes. "Shh. They are fine. We found them, they're all alive."
"But …" Zack shook his head, not comprehending. "But Stover, I-"
"Stover's alive too."
Zack stared at him. "… What? But he can't be, I killed him myself! I know I-"
Sephiroth shook his head. "Listen to me, Zack." He raised a hand to cut off another protest. "Hush. Just listen. The Stover that you killed was an imposter." He remembered the difficulty he had himself in believing the Zack he killed was fake, and fought to find the right words to set Zack's mind at ease. "A copy. Like a Genesis copy."
"… A Genesis copy …?" Zack's tone was doubtful.
Sephiroth nodded and, after a brief pause to give Zack another sip from the glass to soothe his throat, patiently went on to explain about the events of the past month: the murders, the investigation, everything they'd pieced together, and finally the search for Zack and the soldiers, the vines, Zack's deceiving "furries," and the other victims they had discovered. Throughout the explanation, Sephiroth was forced to rein in his own emotions, the creak of the chair's arm as he gripped it the only clue at the fury that still boiled beneath his skin. He carefully projected a calm front as he watched Zack's confusion turn to disbelief, and finally to understanding and anger.
"I-It … they … they stole my life!" Zack finally burst out. "They were so cute and friendly, and I thought … I mean, we even fed them, and … But then they turned into monsters and they stole my life!" He turned imploring eyes onto Sephiroth. "Why? It's all … it's all insane!"
"It is, and I'm not sure that the reality of what's behind it is any more believable." He paused, considering his words, and then began to explain what the scientists from ShinRa had just recently begun to learn, during the four days after Zack and the other soldiers had been found.
The abundance of Mako in the area of the deep jungle, specifically around the Valley of the Red Leaf, had spawned a twisted sort of cooperative symbiosis between two specific organisms – the tan, furry creatures and the red, flowering vine, or the shii vine, as the scientists had taken to calling it.
"The ba'keel," Zack murmured, interrupting.
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "… The ba'keel?"
Zack cleared his throat. "Er, yeah. That's what those furry critters are. That's what we finally discovered at the end. They're the Forest Watchers."
It seemed that the creatures – the ba'keel – once weak and timid, and hunted by stronger monsters, had long ago sought refuge in the valley. Immune to the effects of the shii pollen, the valley had become a haven for the animals, and so they had taken to luring former predators into the valley, allowing the pollen to gradually send the unwary pursuers to sleep. At that point, the ba'keel could choose to kill the victims, now their prey. But, through the power of Mako, their abilities grew and mutated, until, through odd quirks of circumstance, they found they could mimic the appearance of the prey they sought. Over time, a type of warped intelligence developed, and the creatures began to infiltrate groups of prey, taking on the appearance and behavior of one of their own, only to kill them, in secret, at their leisure.
At the same time, when the ba'keel chose not to immediately kill prey captured by the shii vine, the vine would keep the prey in hibernation, slowly draining its life energies, slowly killing it. The prey would last for a long time in the clutches of the vine, renewing its energy as it slept, even as it was simultaneously drained away. But, providing the ba'keel did not return for their "stored" food at some point, because the plant inevitably drained more energy than was renewed, the prey would eventually wither and die. The plant would need more food – provided, more often as time went by, by the ba'keel. This allowed the plant to proliferate widely throughout the valley, with the ba'keel protecting their stored food source – and, consequently, the shii plant itself.
Long ago, the ba'keel encountered humans – the incorrectly named Ba'keel tribe. It was discovered that, while the shii vine held a person prisoner, the ba'keel, taking the person's form so the tribe was none the wiser, could walk amongst them as one of them, observing them, communicating with them, preparing them … as a shepherd would his flock. Though individual abilities differed, the creatures became experts in the art of mimicry. Voices, emotions, habits, reactions – all were gleaned from careful, continuous study of their targets, and then implemented when the time was right. Hidden amongst civilization, they could study and learn, and finally begin culling their food source – the easiest food source of them all.
At some point, in the distant past, the Ba'keel tribe had succeeded in driving the creatures out. No one remembered much from that time, the only remnants of such a history being legends, ceremonies involving special paints, and traditions once developed to resist the forest "spirits." No one yet knew why or how the creatures began returning, only that the forgotten truth and superstition had turned the people of all Mideel into victims once again.
"Man … That's creepy." Zack shuddered, as Sephiroth helped him sit up against the pillows. "Talk about a wolf in sheep's clothing! How would you ever know, before it was too late?"
"You wouldn't," Sephiroth responded, wryly. "I believe that's the idea." He sighed, leaning back in the chair. "At least, that is certainly what we experienced at ShinRa."
Zack gazed at his friend, taking in the weary set of his shoulders, the flash of pain carefully hidden behind emerald eyes. "… I'm sorry, Seph." He was suddenly miserable, guessing at the heartache that Sephiroth must have gone through. The General could try to hide it, but Zack knew him better than that. "If only I'd known, if only I'd tried harder …!"
"Zack," Sephiroth gently admonished, "there's no possible way you could have known that an imposter of you would show up at ShinRa, and I'd be forced to kill it. And you tried as hard as anyone could."
"But I saw it, Seph," Zack persisted. "Right before I fell asleep, I saw it pick up my sword and everything! I should have done something."
"You couldn't know, Zack. Even if you had guessed where it was headed, I doubt you could have escaped from those vines. The scent of that flower was enough to overwhelm even me."
Zack sighed. "… I guess." He hesitated, biting his lip. "…Was I … really missing for a whole month?" At Sephiroth's nod, he glanced down at his hand, rubbing the bandage covering the bite on his wrist. "… It sure doesn't feel that way." He frowned. Was that why he felt so … off? And shouldn't his injuries have healed long before now?
Sephiroth watched him, taking a guess at what he was thinking. "When the shii vine kept you prisoner, it basically put you in a form of suspended animation, which is how you were able to survive so long. But that included slowing your natural healing ability."
"Really? Man … that doesn't sound good." Zack chuckled. "I'm lucky these scratches didn't get infected, or something!"
"Actually … some of them did." At Zack's suddenly worried expression, Sephiroth continued. "Again, the plant kept the infection from spreading too quickly, but it didn't completely prevent it. You did not look good when we found you." He sighed. "… We quickly discovered that Poisona and Cure weren't options we could use. … There was the risk of materia poisoning."
Zack's eyes widened. "Materia poisoning …?" He recalled the brush he'd had with that phenomenon before – an extreme case of Mako poisoning, materia being the concentrated form of the energetic substance, which could occur under very rare, specific circumstances.
Sephiroth nodded, his expression serious. "By the time we found you, your energy levels were dangerously low, and they'd likely been very low for a while," he nodded toward the IV; Zack followed his gaze, "hence, the ether drip. This, of course, impacted the ability of the Mako in your body to store energy … and, Mako being what it is, a significant portion of it had leached into the plant that held you." Zack dropped his eyes, processing the words. "All combined, it made you susceptible to materia poisoning." Inwardly, Sephiroth kicked himself for not seeing the danger before he'd used that first Poisona on his friend. It was only after Zack had become dangerously pale that he'd realized there was some problem. Things had been touch-and-go for that first day, while the local doctors struggled to determine what exactly was wrong with Zack, and the rest of the soldiers. They'd had to fly in the specialized SOLDIER doctors from ShinRa, who had packed the powerful antibiotic and anti-toxin remedies manufactured specifically for SOLDIER use.
"… Huh. Guess that explains why I feel so strange." Zack fiddled with the IV line attached to his arm. If his Mako levels were low, it was no wonder he felt like someone had stuffed cotton in his ears. His normally sensitive hearing and eyesight were suffering because of it – details that he could normally pick out easily were gone, making the world seem flat and two-dimensional, the colors slightly washed out.
"I can imagine. You'll need a Mako booster shot when we return."
Zack grimaced at the unpleasant thought. "Oh, joy."
Sephiroth smirked, then twisted to reach for something on the nightstand. "Here." He tossed a flat package onto Zack's lap, and presented him with the remainder of the elixir. Zack regarded the glass with distaste.
"Do I have to?"
"It will make you feel better."
Zack huffed. Then he snatched the glass and downed it in two large gulps before Sephiroth could caution him to take it slow. Shuddering, he returned the glass to the nightstand. "Gaia, that is awful. Who invented that? They need a taste of their own medicine."
Amused, Sephiroth indicated the package. "We found your camera among the wreckage in the ruins. I took the liberty of developing the photographs."
"Really? Thanks, Seph!" Grinning, Zack tore open the package and pulled out the photos. The first images to greet him were some snapshots of the town and the Ba'keel village. Curious, Sephiroth leaned over his shoulder. Zack flipped through them.
"You know … I'm not really all that into photography myself. I think I do it more for … for Angeal than anyone else. Sometimes, I think it's a way to … I dunno, show him what I'm doing and what I've seen." He set aside another photo. "… I know, it's silly, right? It's not like he can see the pictures, or that, if he's around, that he'd even need a photo in the first place, but …" Zack trailed off, biting his lip.
Sephiroth laid a comforting hand on Zack's shoulder. "I'm sure he appreciates them."
Zack smiled a bit. He sniffed, resolutely not looking in Sephiroth's direction. "Ya think so?" He paused for a moment, recalling memories of browsing through one of Angeal's own albums. Then he shook his head, returning his focus to the present. Flipping over another photo, he suddenly came to one that made him groan and smack his forehead. "Gaia, I'm gonna kill Harley. I swear, next time I see him …"
Raising an eyebrow, Sephiroth took the photo. It was an image of a very bewildered Zack with a little girl slapping a paint-covered hand over one eye. A smile tugged at his lips. It was … cute. "I don't know, Zack. I think that look is very becoming on you."
He grumbled. "Maybe you should join the club then." Suddenly, a look of panic crossed his face. "I don't still have the paint on my face, do I? That stuff doesn't come off!"
Sephiroth turned a serious expression upon him. "Well …" He emitted a grave sigh. "It's not too bad, but I think we may need to get you a new photo identification card. And perhaps a new title … something suitable, like Jungle Warrior Zack. Your hair already fits the image."
Zack rolled his eyes. "Ha ha, very funny. Just so you know, I am not responsible for the state of my hair after a month in the jungle." He ran a hand through it just to check how bad it was, and was mildly surprised to find it clean. Apparently, someone had taken the time to wash it while he was unconscious. His cheeks reddened slightly at the idea. Not that he wasn't grateful, but he wasn't sure he wanted to find out who had done it. He cleared his throat. "… Seriously, though … you're not serious about the paint, are you?" At Sephiroth's very serious expression, Zack groaned, then frantically rubbed his eye and cheek, seeking to get the nonexistent substance off. "Great. I'll never live it down. I'll be the laughingstock of SOLDIER! Cloud'll never take me seriously again. … Maybe Hojo's got some kind of powerful chemical that'll take it off …" Zack trailed off when he noticed Sephiroth's shoulders shaking slightly in suppressed laughter. "… You were joking, weren't you?" he accused.
Finally, Sephiroth gave voice to his chuckle. Pouting, Zack reached to snatch the photo from him. "You jerk, see if I ever believe you again." But his own mouth pulled up into a grin.
At some impulse he didn't fully understand, Sephiroth twitched the photo away, just before Zack could take it. "I think this photographic evidence needs to be kept some place safe, don't you agree?"
"… Photographic evidence …? What? Hey!" Zack reached for it, only for it to be held just out of his grasp. "That's not fair, Seph! Give it back!"
"I'll get you a copy." Smirking, Sephiroth tucked it into his coat. He didn't yet have a photo of his friend, and, after the close call they had, realized that he would very much like one. There weren't many opportunities where a camera was available to capture the unique bundle of energy that was Zack, and the moment frozen in the photograph described him well – only Zack could end up in such a ridiculous position. Sephiroth decided that he would rather like to remember that moment, though he hadn't been there to witness it. He would need to pick up a frame when they returned to Midgar.
Zack leveled another pout at him, crossing his arms. "That's, like, cruelty to invalids, Seph. It's against the law. You should be feeling sorry for me."
"Is it?" Amused, he turned his gaze onto the other photos. "Perhaps I should take a different photo, then?"
Glancing down at the photos in question, Zack suddenly froze in mortification, face flaming red. Right there, at the top of the pile, was a picture of him with his shirt off, looking distinctly out of his element as the young lady from the tribe, sitting much closer than he cared to remember, ran her fingers across his chest in a caress, applying more paint. It looked like it was a very loving caress.
Zack sputtered and snatched the photo away before Sephiroth had a chance to pick it up. To his utter horror, the next one was a similar picture, the young lady pressing close and running her hands across his shoulders. Likewise, the following three displayed similar embarrassing situations. Frantically, Zack seized them and all but threw them back into the envelope. "I-It's … it's not what it looks like, I swear! She was crazy, and I didn't know what she wanted, and I couldn't understand anything she was saying, and they made me take my shirt off and everything, and it's not my fault, I didn't do anything …!" He paused for breath, only to find Sephiroth quietly laughing in the chair.
"Honestly, Zack … you tend to get yourself into the most ridiculous positions."
Zack stared, then cracked a weak grin of his own. He rubbed the back of his neck. "… I guess it is pretty funny, isn't it?" He chuckled. "… Ahh … you won't tell Aerith, will you?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "I won't tell Aerith," he assured. She would probably find out and laugh at him herself, anyway.
Relieved, Zack returned his attention to the rest of the photos. The remainder went quickly – aside from a few photos of N'kim and the rest of Zack's party goofing off and playing SOLDIER ball while he was recovering from the run-in with the kimara, the only thing of real interest were the images of his furries, the ba'keel. They paused when they came to these.
"So, that's what you found at ShinRa, huh, Seph?" His friend nodded. "That's just so bizarre. I mean, look how cute they are! They were so friendly, and we fed them … Short of letting us pet 'em, they came up real close and everything." Zack sighed, rifling through the images. "… That's strange, though … I coulda sworn that these guys had purple eyes, just like mine. I know they did! They were the most incredible color, so vibrant …" He frowned, laying out the photos. In the pictures, the eyes of all the creatures were an inky black. "That's just funny …"
Sephiroth picked up a few of them in consideration. "Hm. Come to think of it, we saw the same phenomenon at Headquarters when we were going through the security tapes. I thought it was a fluke or a trick of the camera, but in all of the images that showed your face, the eyes were black, too. And they were black when I fought the creatures."
"… Huh. But how's that even possible? Were the color of the eyes an illusion?"
"It's possible, I suppose."
Zack pondered. "… You know … that actually makes a bit of sense, now that I think about it. The other guys claimed to see these critters with different eye colors, but every single one I saw had purple eyes. I kept looking, but never did see any other colors. I thought that maybe purple was the dominant color, but … what if we only saw the color we wanted to see? Or only the color of our own eyes?"
Slowly, Sephiroth nodded. "Maybe that was an indication of it fixating upon a target, trying to get an imprint of your personality."
Zack shuddered. "Dang. That's creepy! And we just sat there and palled around with them …"
Sephiroth leaned back in the chair. "Another thing that was very strange were some of the habits of the creature. When I was tracking it, on the occasion that its path crossed a photograph or image of a person, it would rip out the image and destroy the faces."
Zack stared at him. "What? Why? That's too weird!"
The General shook his head. "I can't say for sure. That is something that the scientists will need to figure out. I can only hypothesize that it was some indication of … perhaps the animal attempting to memorize another face or identity to take?"
"If that's what it was, it certainly was a violent little bugger! Jeez."
"Indeed. I wonder whether the mutation of the creatures was pushed too far, too fast. Their behavior, overlooking the mimicry, did not follow the behavior of normal predators. They were vicious, ruthless, and wasteful. Rather than stopping to eat their … prey … they simply tore it apart and moved on."
Zack frowned. "Weren't they able to eat?" Though the thought of them eating their prey … the people at ShinRa … made him feel sick.
"I don't know. They must be, in order to survive, but it was very strange. If nothing else, everything points to them having a very savage, uncontrollable nature. … Once the study on these creatures and the shii vines are complete, I wouldn't be surprised if ShinRa chooses to firebomb the valley."
Zack was appalled. "But isn't that overkill? Think of everything that'll be destroyed! Sure, those critters are horrible, but that doesn't give anyone the right to wipe them out and everything else with them! They're still living creatures! They're just trying to survive in their own way."
"They're monsters Zack. You know as well as I do that monsters are an unnatural mutation, and ShinRa destroys them when they become a problem. Otherwise, they become a plague on the natural environment. You've seen already that they're threatening the people here. They could easily become a threat to ShinRa itself, were any of our adversaries able to get their hands on such a creature. Besides …" And here, Sephiroth felt a chill at the remembrance, anger flaring behind his eyes. "They had me believing that they were you. That you might very well be a murderer. That I'd killed-" He forced himself to release the protesting arm of the chair, lowering his voice. "… That I'd killed you. All while you were imprisoned in the forest for a month. … And they had you believing you had killed Stover. There is nothing left of those creatures worth saving."
Zack frowned, crossed his arms, thinking. He felt for Sephiroth, but … "… I dunno," he said, quietly, unsure. "It's still not right. They used to be normal animals once, too. Just because something's touched by Mako doesn't make it a monster, does it?"
Sephiroth hesitated, then gripped Zack's shoulder. "It does in this case, Zack."
Sullenly, Zack looked away, glaring at the edge of the bed.
A distraction came in the form of two figures suddenly appearing at the doorway. Zack raised his eyes at the movement. Upon seeing who was there, he blinked in surprise, then broke into a grin.
"N'kim! Hey, it's good to see you! I was wondering if you'd get back to the tribe before they kicked you out."
Though N'kim would never admit to it, he had routinely come to visit around this time each day, checking on the progress of his traveling companion. He had not left the Mideel village since helping to return Zack and the other victims; to stay so long in the coastal town was a rarity for him. The tribesman came forward, nodding at Sephiroth, and clasped Zack's forearm in greeting. He still appeared stoic, but his eyes were kind. "Zack. You look pale."
"Gee, thanks. I'll take that as a compliment, coming from you."
N'kim examined his friend, eyes lingering on the IV line and the bandages around his arm and torso. Hesitating, he bowed his head. "I offer my deepest apologies for leaving you to the forest. It is not what a warrior should have done."
Zack blinked. "Well, it's not like you had a choice. They wouldn't have let you return if you stayed with us and tangled with those critters! Besides, you'd have just ended up in a fix like the rest of us."
However, not about to be dissuaded, N'kim withdrew a long, curved dagger from its place at his hip. Taking it in both hands, he presented it to Zack. "Take this. It is the warrior's blade. I am no longer deserving of it." There was a quiet gasp from someone behind him, but Zack was too astonished to pay attention to it.
"… What? No, I can't take that! That belongs to you – I certainly don't deserve it." Zack was emphatic. "I'm the one who got everyone stuck in the forest for a whole month! You … that's … you keep that. After all, you saved my life, remember? Twice, from what Seph says!"
N'kim appeared to consider the words. Then his face hardened, and he again pushed the dagger toward Zack. Zack's shoulders fell, and he looked helplessly at Sephiroth. The General simply raised an eyebrow.
Finally, Zack lifted a hand, hesitated. If anything, he was the one who owed N'kim. But, if he refused again, it would be like a slap to the man's face. The native's honor demanded that he go through with it. After a pause, Zack slowly reached out and took the object. N'kim nodded firmly and straightened.
The young SOLDIER turned the blade over in his hands, silent for a long moment. Then he spoke up. "… Thanks, N'kim. For everything." Uncharacteristically solemn, he raised his eyes to meet the tribesman's gaze. "I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't been there." Though he didn't know how to say it, N'kim's presence had really helped to keep Zack together when it had seemed that things were falling apart. When he had to remain strong for the soldiers under his command, N'kim had no such expectations from him. There was a pause. "… And, I expect you to earn this back, you know," Zack finished, in a serious tone, though a corner of his mouth quirked upward.
N'kim was quiet for a moment. Then he cracked a smile, ever so slight, and inclined his head.
The very feminine sound of a clearing throat broke the silence between them. N'kim stepped to the side, revealing the other person he had arrived with. It was the young lady from the tribe.
Zack's eyes widened, and he froze like a deer in the headlights. Then, remembering the photographs scattered over the sheet, and suddenly unable to recall whether he'd hidden the ones of her, he frantically swept them all together and stuffed them back into the envelope, all but tossing the thing at Sephiroth.
"H-Hey! Didn't expect to see you here! Hi! Um, I mean, it's a pleasure to see you again …" Oh, Gaia, let the earth swallow me up …
The lady giggled at the nervous SOLDIER, stepping closer and clasping her hands. "Zaack. I am glad you are alive." She spoke slowly, glanced at N'kim for confirmation. He nodded. Sephiroth looked on in amusement.
She edged closer, biting her lip. "I will remember you, Zack. You are very brave." At this, Zack's eyes flicked to N'kim. What the heck did you tell her? N'kim retained a stoic expression, but Zack had the suspicion that he was laughing. He returned his gaze to the girl.
"Um … thanks! But it wasn't anything, really … I mean, N'kim and everyone did a lot more than I did, I'm sure, you know, especially with the kimara bug and everything, and then I'm sure Allen was a sight to see with that sea worm …" He trailed off, watching her listen to him intently, and realizing that she may not have actually understood much of what he said.
When he seemed finished, she smiled gently at him, though there was a slightly regretful cast to her eyes. "I know you must leave, and I will miss you, Zack. … You write letter?" she asked, hopefully.
He blinked. "Uh … Yeah, sure, I'll … I'll write you a letter …"
Her smile widened, as she apparently grasped his meaning. "Good." Now at the edge of the bed, Zack fidgeting awkwardly, she brought a gentle hand up to the side of his face. He froze. She bent down and placed a kiss at the top of his cheek. "Good-bye, Zack." Then she pulled away, blushing, gave him a last, sweet smile, and left the room.
Zack had flushed scarlet. Not knowing what to say that wouldn't embarrass him any further, he mumbled something indecipherable, and stared resolutely down at the blanket, fiddling with the edges. Sephiroth brought a hand to his lips in appearance of thought, but in reality to hide the smile that threatened.
N'kim inclined his head once more. "Good-bye, Zack. Recover quickly."
Absently, Zack nodded, still stewing in mortification. But, just as N'kim was about to exit, he spoke up. "Oh, hey … Uh, I never did find out her name …"
The tribesman straightened. "Neela. My sister." He left.
Zack stiffened. "… He's gonna kill me." Abruptly, he buried his face in his hands, groaning. "All this time, and I never knew …? Oh, Gaia, what if he was there at that painting ceremony? His own sister … I am such a goner …"
Sephiroth grunted. "You're overdramatic." He watched the First for a minute or two, ever amused at the fixes he continuously managed to get himself into. Then, suddenly remembering something, he reached down beside the chair. "I almost forgot …" He pulled up a fuzzy, purple object and gently plunked it down in front of Zack. "Here. We recovered this from the campsite, too."
Zack looked up, still prepared to bemoan the identity of the girl who'd been trying to court him. Instead, his eyes widened in surprise. "Mochi!" Grinning, he scooped up the behemoth plushie and squeezed it tight. "I can't believe I forgot you! Thanks, Seph!" He peered at his friend from over the top of the toy's head. "I kept him buried in my pack, since I didn't want the guys to see." His voice took on a slightly embarrassed tone. "Never did find an opportunity to pull him out."
Amused, and glad to have the cheerful Zack back, Sephiroth's face softened. He spontaneously ruffled Zack's hair. "Always the puppy."
"Hey …" Zack grumbled, good-naturedly.
Gazing down at his friend, all the events of the past several weeks came into sharp focus, and Sephiroth once again felt how close he'd come to losing Zack forever. He moved to the edge of the bed and, to Zack's surprise, pulled the young SOLDIER into a tight embrace. He rested his cheek against Zack's hair, Mochi squashed between them.
"… Seph …" Zack's surprised voice was slightly muffled by Sephiroth's coat.
"… The last time I did this … it wasn't you." His chest tightened.
Silence followed, and then Zack freed an arm to wrap it around his friend, gripping the back of his coat and relaxing into the embrace. "I'm back, Seph."
"… I missed you." Sephiroth tightened his hold.
"Me too." Zack thought back to the week he'd spent in the jungle, how things had fallen apart around him. How he wished Sephiroth had been there!
Sephiroth felt Zack's shoulders tense, and gave him a reassuring squeeze. "I'm proud of you, you know."
"… Really? For what?"
"For the way you handled yourself and your mission. It was the first mission you organized yourself, and you did well; it was not your fault how things turned out. I heard much of what happened from N'kim and your journal."
His journal? Zack groaned, thinking of everything he'd said in there that he'd rather not have told anyone, and was glad his face was hidden in Sephiroth's coat. "You read that? Gaia, how embarrassing …"
Sephiroth chuckled. "Well, your grammar skills do need work. But it wasn't a bad read … and it helped us find you. I'm glad you wrote it."
"Heh. Well I guess I'm glad you read it, then. … You won't show it to anyone else, will you?"
"Just your fan club."
With another chuckle, Sephiroth just held him tighter, overjoyed to have him back. He closed his eyes, a content smile gracing his lips. He felt complete, for the first time in a long while. And Zack, for his part, felt no inclination to pull away.