Approaching Ragnarok by paxnirvana
Rating: R [language, concepts]
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Characters: Zack, Sephiroth
Archive: Please ask first.

Author's Note: No, not just a sword. *grins* Norse Mythos: The final battle between the gods and the forces of evil that will result in the destruction of the entire world...

And evil doesn't spring from a vacuum. Hojo's the true villain of this game (with a big assist from Jenova). Everyone else is just his victim. Even Sephiroth. 3/20/02

Disclaimer: Squaresoft owns; paxnirvana just plays gently with them and puts them back. No money made at all.

* * * * *

The girl was huddled in the corner of the elegant living room, a pathetic, shivering thing. Skin and bones clad in garish, skimpy clothing. Barely fourteen. Her blond hair lank about her face, body bruised and dirty. She was crying; soft, hitches and strangled sounds that had caught at his Mako-enhanced hearing the instant he entered.

Zack stood in the foyer, heart sinking, as he allowed the door to slide closed behind him.

The penthouse was the best. Lofty. Spacious. Bare. Decorated in simple black and white and silver. Non-colors that were the only ones its occupant would tolerate. He looked toward the balcony, through the wide open glass doors, knowing exactly what he would see.

Tall and spare. Elegant and deadly and remote. Sephiroth. With an ageless beauty that transcended gender. Magnificent and dangerous. Silver hair falling like a waterfall down his back, black coat swirling around him, he stood with arms folded across his chest, staring out over the great Plate of Midgar.

The covered city glittered and flashed far below covered with lights, like some bizarre seascape; strangely dark even under the light of the midday sun, a pit of blackness in the evening like now. The view was awe-inspiring for the sheer destructive determination of man, this festering pit of a city like a wound on the face of the Planet. Filled with huge poisonous machines and the crumbling ruins of the villages and towns it had devoured; now only slums and shops and tenements for the hundreds of thousands of mindless workers and support personnel employed by Shinra, Incorporated. But as for all those in SOLDIER, and the elite of Shinra management, the most deadly warrior in the world rated living quarters far above it all.

So what was a slum-level whore doing in Sephiroth's penthouse?

Damn that Heidigger, Zack thought with bitter disgust. He'd let her do it again.

Zack made his way over toward the girl, pausing only to shed the imposing Buster Sword strapped to his back, concealing it behind another couch. No sense scaring the child further, he thought ruefully. Poor thing. He approached her slowly, moving with no stealth at all because he didn't want to startle her. He might as well have, because she came aware of him suddenly. Her head jerked up, and she gave a startled gasp.

"N-no, sir, s-sorry.." she stammered with fear, recognizing his uniform and not his face. "I can't... I c-can't... h-he's..." She wrapped her bruised arms around her body tighter, pitiful protection at best, tears welling. Body shaking, eyes blank. She didn't even really see him, he knew, but he smiled at her anyway. The friendliest smile he had, spreading his hands wide in front of him to show her he meant her no harm.

The bruises on her arms were old. Nothing fresh. Sephiroth didn't work that way. He didn't need to use his hands on a girl like this. And not only because his touch was almost invariably fatal. He was more than capable of inflicting devastation with words alone.

"Hey, easy there, sister," Zack said softly, making his voice as gentle as he could. But a rough, parade-ground voice like his seldom came off kind. The best he could manage was a low rumble. "It's okay. Not gonna hurt you. And he won't hurt you either."

"They didn't say w-who..." she said, eyes widening with hopeless, helpless terror. "They just pulled me outta the bar - brought me h-here. Made me c-come inside."

He moved slowly closer. The girl bowed her head, hiding her face against her knees, shivering violently.

Definitely sounded like Scarlett's work again, Zack thought in rising anger. Scarlett, head of Security. She'd talked Heidigger into trying again. That bitch believed every man thought with his dick, just like the fat fool did. It was how she'd risen to the top. That and an utter ruthlessness and lack of regret for the lives she destroyed. And she always tried to destroy those she couldn't control. Sephiroth wouldn't be controlled... or tempted. But Scarlett had tried tempting him with high-priced whores, ghoulish devotees and pressured middle managers. Now she was scraping the gutters to find something, someone to try to put the greatest SOLDIER of all under her power. She'd probably try little boys next. Zack kept his disgust off his face with difficulty. He didn't want the girl to misunderstand.

"It's okay, sister, like I said. You just go now," he said, lowering his bulk to the couch beside her. Careful not to get too close. He peered at her face, still smiling, trying to catch her glazed gaze. "Got somebody to look after you for a while?"

"N-no, s-sir," she said, eyes blinking slowly. Still shivering. But she was starting to pay attention to him now. To see him. She looked over at him, the terror fading slightly as she took in his bluff, ordinary face surrounded by unruly dark hair. The complete opposite of what she feared. He knew he wasn't the most handsome dude around. Especially by comparison. But he'd never been so glad about that as at this moment as he stared into that bruised, pale face buried under too much cheap makeup that served only to accentuate what it was supposed to hide. A face so young... too young to already be a whore's. But her eyes were older than his own.

"Hey," he said, still smiling warmly at her. Careful to make no sudden moves. She looked brittle enough to break. "There's a lady who'll help you. No questions asked. At an old church in Sector 5. They call her the Flower Lady. You go to her. She'll take care of you."

"B-but I'm 's-sposed to..." She hunched in on herself again, turning her head sharply away from the balcony. Where the tall silver and black figure loomed silently. And Zack knew that Mako-enhanced hearing could pick up every single sound they made. Every word. Every sob.

"No, no, don't you worry about that," he said, shaking his head gently. "Uncle Zack's here to fix everything up. You just go see the Flower Lady, okay?"

The girl stared hopelessly into his eyes. He could see the doubt and fear warring with her desire to escape. Was he tricking her? Would he turn on her? He just kept his face calm, his eyes as warm as possible, his posture relaxed.

"You'll have to watch out for the guards in the lobby... so you better go down the stairs."

Her eyes widened further, her frantic gaze scanning him warily. He couldn't change the bulk of his shoulders or the Mako-gleam of his eyes, but she seemed to find something reassuring in him somewhere. She started to slide off the couch, each move jerky and hesitant. He watched her silently, still calm. She darted suddenly toward the door, thin limbs flying, propelled by fear. She keyed the door with a wild slap before disappearing outside.

The door closed behind her with a soft hiss. Leaving them alone.

Zack stared after her and heaved a weary sigh, concerned but resigned. Not even Scarlett dared post guards directly outside Sephiroth's quarters, but there were some posted around the building. He should probably have escorted her out, but he didn't want to terrify her more. He was too soft. Four years in and still way too soft.

"She'll only die," came cool words from the balcony.

"Not today she won't," Zack replied, still facing the door. Not if she actually went to that church, he amended in his mind, but if she just returned to her normal haunts, there wasn't anything he - or anyone else - could do about it. He'd seen far too much death since he'd come to Midgar. Far more than he'd ever imagined when he was a boy, dreaming of glory in the army. But glory only came through battle, and death. Was that still all he wanted to be? He sighed again, scrubbing a hand across his face briefly. Helping others, like this, gave him far more satisfaction. Maybe that was why he took such an avuncular interest in the SOLDIER applicants. And why it had been so horrible when...

"Another lesson in compassion? For the dregs of Midgar?"

"Not her fault, poor kid," Zack said, turning his head slowly until he was facing the gleaming turquoise eyes that watched him impassively from the balcony. Even he couldn't suppress a minute shiver when he met that cold gaze. Cat-like and remote. And he'd been around it nearly every day for four years.

"No, not the child's fault. This reeked of Scarlett's designs again," Sephiroth said quietly, his tone as chill as his gaze. "It galls her that I refuse all offers. Especially hers." He lifted his chin, the two stiff peaks of hair that sprang from his forehead shading his eyes some, the Mako-gleam briefly muted. His profile shown pale and elegant against the dark glitter of the city beyond.

And Zack was sharply reminded of that night little more than a year ago when this dangerous game with Scarlett had begun. The celebratory ball for the end of the Wutai Conflict - three years of blood and war ended by a surrender compelled at the end of Sephiroth's sword. But the Hero of Wutai had been a silent and calm island amid a sea of bawdy revelry. Zack had watched him warily even as he tried to enjoy the celebration - and the women more than willing to cozy up to a SOLDIER First Class. While Sephiroth remained remote. Watching.

Later in the evening, Scarlett had finally become drunk or high enough to dare wind herself around him, her red-dipped nails combing through the silver tresses near his forehead. The reaction had been violent, but strangely contained; Zack too far away to prevent it. He well knew how Sephiroth hated to be touched. Scarlett had practically flown across the room, hurled by the sharp brush of Sephiroth's black-clad arm. The physical blow had been humiliation enough, but it was his cool words spoken into the sudden, shocked silence of the room that had sealed Scarlett's hatred of him. "Find another whore to service you tonight," he had said, coldly, but his Mako eyes had gleamed with a dangerous, wild light. Then he had spun elegantly on his heel and strode away.

Not even Zack had dared follow him.

Sephiroth had made a dangerous, perhaps even fatal, enemy that night. For Scarlett had Heidigger's bed and Hojo's ear. Hojo, head of Shinra Mako Research carrying on in the great Professor Gast's footsteps. Hojo, the Mako Butcher. Hojo, whom Sephiroth coldly loathed with a barely concealed enmity for reasons Zack had never been quite able to determine.

Zack watched the strange man that he called friend. Sephiroth. An enigma. Aloof and remote, even with him. There was no passion in him, not even in battle. He did everything with a cool, focused competence that was almost eerie in it's intensity. He never smiled. Well, there was that sharp upward turn of one corner of his mouth... rare. And his frown. Also rare, but far more dangerous. As Zack had observed, painfully. It had even been turned on him. Once. He shuddered at the memory before tearing his attention sharply back to the present.

Perhaps he was the only one to consider this odd relationship of theirs in the light of friendship, yet Sephiroth never asked him to leave when he just showed up… like tonight.

Sephiroth lowered his head, piercing him with his gaze once more.

"Hojo asked again," Sephiroth announced, voice flat. Zack narrowed his own gaze back.

"And you said no again, right?"

The turquoise stare remained steady. A chill raced up Zack's spine. Fear. Concern. Panic. He stood up slowly, still meeting that unreal gaze.

"You don't have to. Sephiroth..."

The silver head turned, eyelids slipping down to dim those incredible eyes. His voice fell to barely above a whisper. "He said... he knew my mother..."

"What about your mother?" Zack asked, wary. Anything Hojo said deserved to be treated warily. The man was completely without conscience. Sephiroth had been a ward of Shinra his entire life. Officially an orphan, he had been raised in the Mako Research Sector under the rarely benevolent supervision of Professor Hojo, until the boy had rebelled and joined the Shinra army at the age of fourteen. Swiftly rising to be the top fighter and strategist in the entire army, despite his youth.

Because Sephiroth's Mako eyes didn't come from tank treatments at induction. He'd been born with them. Though it was hard to imagine him as a child and vulnerable in any way. From his success, Hojo's research division developed the Mako infusion process. Creating SOLDIER. The entire program was based off Sephiroth's very existence - as well as the brilliant Professor Gast's groundbreaking work with Mako Energy.

"He told me her name: Jenova."

Something nagged in the back of Zack's mind at that name. Something important. But he quickly forgot about it at the bleak look that passed over Sephiroth's usually impassive features. Zack lurched to his feet and strode toward the balcony. Coming to a stop a few steps away from that still form, he stared into troubled turquoise eyes.

"Hey, Seph," he said softly, heart aching at his friend's pain. He'd never quite been able to understand the strange, almost manic, compulsion Sephiroth had to find out about his parents and the subtle dance that compulsion forced him into with Hojo. It was probably because he knew exactly who and where his own parents were. In Gongaga. Farming. No doubt worried sick, still, even though the war was over and he was a decorated member of SOLDIER. He'd have to remember to write to them again soon. Tell them more about his new girl - the Flower Lady - Aeris.

Turquoise eyes flickered back to him. He was caught by a wave of sudden sadness. Infinitely lonely, those eyes. Zack realized then that he was Sephiroth's only friend. Only. Ever. Everyone else was deathly afraid of him, like the girl. Whole companies of enemy soldiers had been known to surrender simply when told they were to face Sephiroth. Others, like Scarlett, wanted to use him in their own bids for power. Some, the sickest of them all, fawned over him like he was a holy being, following him around, bowing, praying to him. Only Zack dared treat the greatest warrior of SOLDIER like a regular person.

"You're not going to let Hojo do what he wants, are you?"

"Hmm," Sephiroth said, hooding that gaze again, mouth turning down slightly.

Zack stepped closer, suddenly deeply alarmed. Daring in his fear, he put his hand on Sephiroth's armored shoulder. The other man didn't react save to turn his chin slightly away, as if restraining himself by sheer will. Zack ignored the warning sign, gaze searching his friend's face anxiously.

"You didn't..."

"It was just the one treatment."

"From Hojo? Damn it, Seph, you saw what happened to that last batch of inductees! Why do you think I nixed Strife's admission this year? The boy was crushed..."

"Ah yes, I had almost forgotten who I was talking to," Sephiroth interrupted, a flash of near-anger in his gaze. "Zack of Gongaga, SOLDIER's sole remaining humanitarian."

The mockery was sharp. Bitter almost. Zack's hand dropped down from the hard armor on the shoulder to grip the tense arm below. He could feel the heat of him, even through layers of heavy leather. But then Sephiroth was never physically cold, as he'd had reason to discover on one bitter mission up north. The man seemed to burn with an inner fire, one with it's source, most likely, in Mako. Which was the main reason he went without a shirt under his long coat everywhere, even in the winter.

"Are you okay? How do you feel?" Zack asked, searching his friend's once more impassive face with his anxious gaze.

"I am fine," Sephiroth said, turning his head to stare out over the city again. But not moving away. The faintest flush touched a pale cheek. His gaze flickered back toward Zack, then away as he admitted, "A little warmer, perhaps."

"Did he tell you what this was for?"

"He mentioned 'unlocking my full potential'," the silver-haired man said quietly. Zack just stared at his profile, a deep foreboding flooding him.

"What, was he freakin' kidding? Seph, you're the most fully-realized person I've ever met."

"It was Hojo's phrase, not mine," his friend said quietly.

"Shit," Zack said, even more alarmed. "I don't like the sound of any of this. Scarlett's sending street whores to your room, we just got orders to go to the far continent to check out a malfunctioning reactor and Hojo's up to no good with your genes again." He paused a moment, frowning, then gently squeezed the rock-hard arm under his hand. "They all went insane, Seph. You saw them. You had to help me track and kill them."

The silver head turned, the turquoise eyes met his gaze again. Cold. Remote.

"I know."

Zack's stomach sank, his pulse sped up. Something in that gaze... He shook his head violently.

"Don't ask me..."

"If the same..."

"NO!"

Sephiroth actually turned to face him at his shout of denial, frowning slightly. Zack ground his teeth together, glaring back at him, sick at heart with helpless fear. Hand clenched tightly on that black-clad arm. So hot to his touch. More than before? How warm could a body get and stay normal, stay sane? Didn't prolonged high body temperature kill brain function? Even for Sephiroth? What the hell had Hojo done?

"Why, Seph? Why did you let him do it?"

Light glowed in those incredible turquoise eyes. The light of Mako. Sephiroth turned his body toward him, raised his free hand to cover the hand on his arm. Long, graceful fingers encased in black covered his own blunt, rough hand delicately. Silver hair slid down around his face as he bowed his head.

"You know where you came from, Zack. You've always known. I know nothing," he said quietly.

"Shit, Seph," he said, pained. Not knowing what else to say. His friend has always seemed so contained. So certain and sure of himself. But now... "I mean, this is Hojo... crap... what more could that bastard need to do to you? Why didn't you call me first?"

The silver head lifted with a jerk, eyes narrowed in a sharp glare. The slender hand tightened over his own. Deceptively fragile, but stronger than steel, Sephiroth pulled his hand away from his arm. The words were cold. Like ice.

"You were with your 'Flower Lady' again."

Then the most deadly warrior to ever walk the face of the Planet turned away, stepping over to the railing, folding his arms across his chest again. With a sick feeling in his heart, Zack realized Sephiroth had tried to contact him. His only friend. Tried and failed, and so let himself be swayed to agree to Hojo's experiment in a rare moment of emotional weakness over his one true vulnerability; his burning need to discover his origins. Agreed to an experiment which might have killed him. Or worse. Zack stared at the silver hair rippling over heavy black leather. Guilt and confusion roiled inside of him. Along with another shocking realization…

"I'm sorry, Seph."

"It's done, Zack."

"I'm a fucking moron, aren't I?"

The black and silver figure remained motionless, back rigid, only the very ends of that long fall of hair moving gently in the lazy night breeze. The silence dragged, broken only by the thumping hum of the occasional airship passing by. Tension grew in the air, making it thick and electric, worse than the heart of a Mako Reactor. Finally, Zack swallowed hard, fists clenched at his side.

"How long?" he asked softly. The silver head bowed slightly. Black clad arms fell to the side. He heard a faint sigh and knew, with a quick stab of fear, that Sephiroth wasn't even going to pretend not to know what he was asking.

"Since you first said my name without a title attached."

He was struck dumb for a moment. That long? He truly was a moron. He'd never seen, never realized… "I'm sorry, Seph."

The silver head lifted again. Turned enough so that he saw a brief flash of glowing turquoise before the brilliant Mako gaze was hooded once more. His stomach clenched. Nerves. Regret. Anguish.

"Don't be. I always knew your desires lay elsewhere," Sephiroth said calmly. "And your friendship is... precious to me."

"I - I don't know what to say," Zack said, feeling foolish and clumsy and stupid. Embarrassed. Helpless. All feelings he wasn't used to handling. What could you say when you found out the most dangerous man in the world, a man with no other friends, no family, no attachments admitted that he loved you? And there was no way in the world you could return his love?

Sephiroth turned to face him, features impassive, eyes gleaming dangerously. Nothing soft about him at all.

"There is nothing for you to say, Zack," Sephiroth said, cool and remote. Himself, utterly. "Don't pity me. I won't tolerate that. But I will have your promise. If this treatment goes wrong..."

"Damn it, Seph!" he interrupted, hurting, scared, uncertain.

The turquoise eyes narrowed into frozen anger.

"If it goes wrong. If I go insane... you must do what needs to be done."

Kill him. That was what he was asking. He wanted the man he loved to kill him if he went insane. Zack's mind reeled. He was SOLDIER First Class. Mako-infused. Strong. Skilled. But Sephiroth... he was in a class by himself. Capable of devastation on a horrific scale if he lost control of himself. But Sephiroth was still his friend, his compatriot regardless of his admission of feelings for him.

Feelings that had driven him to undergo this treatment in the first place. Because of jealousy, maybe. But more because his friend hadn't been there when he truly needed him. Zack stared at him, guilt and fear clawing at his insides. That gaze was compelling. Hard. Determined. And so very familiar. His friend. How could he…

"I-If I have to... you know I will," he finally said, voice raw. "But Seph..."

"Enough. I have your promise. And I will hold you to it, Zack." Turquoise eyes shuttered briefly, then caught his gaze again, flashing with bright anger. And his heart throbbed heavily in his chest. Sephiroth seldom showed his anger. It was like a portent. An omen.

But Zack still found himself with nothing to say. Could only search the unearthly beauty of that face. Mind confused, heart aching, blood racing with fear. For his friend. For himself. For...

"We leave for Nibelheim in the morning. I want you to organize the rest of the team, Zack."

...for everyone.

- - and so it begins - -