Author's Notes: First of all, thank you to gryphon icefire 98! In a review, Gryphon composed an ode to Kiran, which was completely unexpected and amazing. It perfectly expresses just how I think Angeal felt about the little dragon. Thank you so much! You totally blew me away - I am so honored that you felt enough to compose something like that. I ask that everyone go take a look at it - it's the perfect complement to Chapter 5. I would link to it here, if I could, but I don't know if there's a way to link to a specific review. So I ask that everyone take a quick look at the reviews to find it! It's easy to spot as the longest one there.
Gryphon, to upload the pictures, I think taking a photo isn't too bad, but if you can find access to a scanner, perhaps at a library, that might work the best! There are numerous sites you could upload them to - if you plan to do more art in general, DeviantArt or Live Journal is a good choice, or you could go with a regular picture-hosting website. Thank you again!
This is it! The last chapter. It really took quite a while to work through this - I wanted to make sure I got the scenes just right. As the ending, especially for this fic, it had to end on just the right note. I hope it meets everyone's expectations! I think it finally meets mine. I really feel accomplished with this done. :) Oh yes, and it's quite a bit longer than the others. Hope no one minds. ;)
This may be all I upload for a while, since I will be moving next month. But stay tuned for future projects: the next FF7/Star Wars crossover chapter (Distant Worlds, Broken Souls), the next installment in the FF7 Detective verse, and who knows what else!
And now, the conclusion. Hope you all enjoy!
Part VI: Return
In the weeks following Kiran's death, Zack became more and more withdrawn. He was quieter than usual, uncharacteristically subdued. It was clear he blamed himself for the little dragon's death, and, for once, Angeal wasn't sure what he could say that would make the boy feel better.
Angeal knew it wasn't Zack's fault; in fact, he held himself responsible. He'd been the one to let Kiran go, inadvertently or not, and he'd also been the one to send Zack to hold off and defeat the birds. It was supposed to be just another exercise – granted the stakes were higher because of the dragons, but they'd faced other monsters with the dragons around before; there'd been no way to predict that things would go so badly this time. I should have gone myself. But if he expressed his regret at sending Zack into battle instead of himself, it would only further Zack's belief that he just hadn't been good enough, cementing the boy's guilt.
What a conundrum … Angeal was doing a wonderful job of repeatedly failing his student. And now he didn't know what he could possibly do to make it better.
Those first few days had been the worst, both for him and for Zack. They both missed Kiran, and it hurt Angeal's heart to see his student so upset. There wasn't anything they did or saw that wouldn't remind Zack of her. Especially when the other two dragons were involved. It hurt just to watch them, to see them so lost … They clearly expected Kiran to appear at some point, constantly stopping to look back the way they'd come, wondering where she was, why she wasn't coming, and why they'd left her behind.
Angeal wondered if Zack would ever get angry with the little dragons for holding them up. But he never did. In a way, Angeal might have preferred it. Zack was too quiet.
Oh, the young Third made a show of making an effort to come to terms with things and move on, after those first few days. But his cheerfulness was forced. He didn't chatter quite as much as he used to, and though he didn't drag his feet, that spring in his step was gone, which amounted to dragging his feet as far as Angeal was concerned. But he just shrugged it off whenever it was brought up.
Angeal never thought he'd ever find himself missing his student's chatter.
The First was sure that Zack's behavior was affecting the dragons, too … or perhaps they were affecting each other. Seph and Ness had become more reserved themselves – Ness, though still eyeing things curiously, would no longer strike out to investigate beyond a line of sight with the SOLDIERs. And Seph had completely ceased his ambushes against other animals. He'd practically glued himself to Zack. If not riding his shoulders, Seph would follow close on his heels. Rustlings in the bushes would send him trotting behind Zack's legs – not hurriedly, but very deliberately – and he clearly avoided any other creature that stumbled into their path. Angeal had to wonder, but … it was almost as if he was afraid.
It was all … incredibly sad, Angeal thought. He'd often wished for his student and the dragons to stay in line and behave … but not like this. Never like this.
They all seemed to have lost a part of their spirit. And Angeal didn't know what he needed to do to fix it.
My friend, do you think you can fix everything? One day, Angeal the Great Peacemaker will finally be at a loss, and what then? Sometimes things do not want to be fixed.
Genesis's words came to him at one point, and he had to banish them in irritation. Clearly this was not a situation that did not "want to be fixed." But how could it be? Perhaps he truly was at a loss. Perhaps he truly could not fix everything.
He'd steered them away from monster encounters, worried, not so much about a repeat of what had happened before, but about Zack and his ability to focus in battle. He didn't want to be unfair to the boy, didn't want to push him when he was still grieving. They still sparred in the evenings, so Zack's training wouldn't suffer, and he did well enough in that.
Angeal just … didn't know what else he could do. For once, all his wisdom seemed to be failing him.
They listened to the harsh drumming of the rain on the needles overhead. They'd been caught in a passing storm, and Angeal had hoped to wait it out beneath a nearby pine. Unfortunately, the pine was a little small, and, though it helped to keep the worst of the downpour from beating upon them, the falling water from the needles was doing a good job of getting them soaked, regardless. Angeal was seriously considering giving in and setting up their tents. It was several hours yet until nightfall, and he'd hoped that the storm would be moving along quicker than this, so they might still have a chance at covering several extra miles that day. But it didn't look like they'd get relief anytime soon.
Zack was huddled underneath Angeal's arm, the two dragons curled tightly around the both of them. It seemed they didn't like to get wet either, at least if it was not of their own volition. Angeal regarded his student.
He was surprised the boy hadn't pulled away by now. Zack wasn't usually this … clingy. Zack loved his hugs, of course – it had been one of the first things Angeal discovered about the boy – but he actually tried to keep it to a minimum in trying to fit in with the other soldiers. He didn't want to make anyone else uncomfortable. Besides, it just wasn't "manly." No one ever saw the Great General Sephiroth hugging anyone, did they?
But Zack seemed to forget all that when he was upset. He'd spent more time with Angeal's arm around him in the past two weeks than in the entire two months they'd been on their excursion. Though he'd made a show of being perfectly fine during the day, almost aloof – a front Angeal could see right through – in the evening, he'd bed down close to his mentor, never pulling away like usual whenever Angeal would ruffle his hair or, sensing the boy's melancholy, casually drape an arm around his shoulders as he wrote in his journal. Angeal had the impression that Zack would be perfectly content burrowing into his arms and staying there – wished for it, even.
Zack, who would once have jumped about in the rain, looked thoroughly miserable. From this angle, Angeal had a good view of his black spikes, making an admirable attempt at defying the rain. But even they had wilted, locks plastered about the boy's neck and face, bangs dripping steadily onto his uniform. Eyes downcast, there was not a smile to be found. He looked every inch a bedraggled, half-drowned puppy.
Zack shifted. "… You say somethin', Angeal?"
The First raised an eyebrow. Had he said that out loud? He cleared his throat. "I said … what are you thinking about, kid?"
Zack was quiet a long moment, then shrugged. "Nothin'." His voice was subdued.
Angeal grunted. "Is that so?" He kept his own voice light, trying to draw Zack out. "Your expression doesn't say 'nothing.'" He leaned forward a little to better see Zack's face.
In response, Zack simply turned his head away. "Just waitin' for the rain to end, is all." He shivered, unconsciously pressed a little closer to his mentor.
Angeal sighed, leaning back against the tree. "What do you say to setting up the tents?"
Another shrug. "I don't care."
"… Why don't you take the dragons out and play, then?" the First suggested, trying another tack. "I know how much you usually enjoy the rain. Despite the mess you always get into."
Again, a shrug. "Don't feel like it."
Angeal frowned. The rain was having an unusually negative effect on Zack's mood. "Would you like-"
"Look, what do you want from me?" the Third finally snapped in irritation. "Do you want me to get up and go? Then just say so." Scowling, he made an attempt to stand. Angeal's arm tightened around him.
"I didn't say that."
Zack squawked and wrestled with his arm. "What're you doing? Let me go!"
"Why? I thought you didn't want to get up."
"I changed my mind! Get off!" Angeal remained immovable, not appearing to exert any effort in keeping Zack down.
"What are you going to do?"
"I dunno! Somethin'!"
"That doesn't sound like any reason to get up. You'll get wet."
"I'm already wet! An-geaaaal!" Zack wailed, pushing futilely at the restraining arm. "What d'you want from me!"
"I don't want anything from you. I was just trying to have a conversation."
"Argh!" Zack finally gave up, slumping back and glowering at the rain puddling on the ground. "About what?" he demanded.
This was it. Time for Angeal to address everything that had been bothering Zack, even though he didn't yet know what he would say. It was now or never.
"About you. And Kiran and the dragons, and why you think it's your fault that she's dead." There. Blunt and to the point.
Zack froze, staring at his mentor in shock. "… W-Wha …" He swallowed. "That's … What makes you think I'm blaming myself for it?" Quickly, he looked away.
"Because you are, Zack. It's obvious."
Zack shook his head. "I'm fine."
"No. You're not fine." Angeal continued, cutting off another protest from the boy. "Don't you think I would know you by now? You're not exactly Sephiroth. We've been training together for eight months, spending almost two months of that constantly in each other's company. You no longer do the things you like to do. Your play with the dragons is only half-hearted. Your cheerfulness is a lie. Ah!" he raised a finger to Zack's objection. "Don't give me that, you know it's true. I can see right through you."
Zack stared at him, at a loss. Angeal watched emotions war across his face – denial, irritation, anger … He prepared himself for another outburst. However, quite unexpectedly, Zack's face scrunched up in misery, and he lowered his head, butting into his mentor's chest with a small note of sadness.
"It is my fault, Angeal." His voice came out muffled by Angeal's shirt. "If I hadn't been so stupid and incompetent, Kiran would still be alive! I might as well have killed her myself."
"… Zack …" Angeal brought a hand up to Zack's hair, running fingers through the boy's spikes in comfort. "Come now. That isn't true, and you know it," he said, gently.
"It is true! If I'd just fought better … If I'd paid more attention, if I knew what I was doing and didn't forget about that stupid Barrier …"
"Then I wouldn't have gotten myself fried, and I would've been ready when the dragons came! I would've kept them both away, or defeated the birds in time, or maybe they wouldn't've come in the first place if I hadn't been dumb enough to get myself fried …" His voice thickened.
"I understand why you would think that, Zack, but that doesn't mean it's your fault. It might have-"
"Yes it does!" Zack pounded his mentor's chests with his fists, looking up with angry, tear-filled eyes. "Why else would the dragons have run out there? It was because I messed up! Just say it, Angeal. You know it's true."
Angeal sighed, heart heavy. What could he say to convince the boy otherwise? "Zack … Kiran chose her own fate." He looked the boy in the eyes. "Something she might have done regardless of whether you'd gotten hurt, if not now, then at some point in the future."
"Then I'm a pretty pathetic SOLDIER if I gotta be rescued by a baby dragon, and I can't even keep her from getting killed!" he wailed. "It should've been me instead, because she didn't deserve it, and I did!"
Angeal frowned. "Zackary Fair," he scolded, sharply. "Do not ever say that again, do you understand me?" He gave the boy a shake. "I am not training you so that you can throw your life away. I regret Kiran's death, but I do not regret the outcome of it, and I am sure Kiran does not, either."
Zack gulped, eyes wide. Rain and tears mingled and streaked down his face.
"Kiran loved you, Zack. And one of the problems with her, as with any of the dragons, is that they would have inevitably attempted something like this, at some point. It was just a matter of time. I regret that it had to happen at all, and that it was so unexpected and tragic. If anything, I should be the one to blame for not keeping a tighter hold on the dragons."
Slowly, Zack's eyes lowered, and he buried his face in his mentor's chest again, gripping his shirt. "But it wasn't your fault, Angeal. No one can hold onto the dragons when they don't want to be held! I just wish … I wish it'd been you out there, instead of me. You would've kept them alive."
Angeal's chest rose and fell with another sigh, as he went back to stroking his student's hair. "… While I do wish I had gone, Zack … it's only because I would have wanted to spare you this grief. Not because I think it was your fault in any way, that you hadn't been good enough, or because I think I could have done better. You did the best you possibly could, and I don't regret any of it. You shouldn't either."
Zack sniffed. "B-but I … I killed her, Angeal."
"No. The needle kiss killed her."
"It's my fault then! It has to be someone's fault, doesn't it?"
Angeal shook his head. "It doesn't have to be anyone's fault."
Zack made a miserable sound. "… That still doesn't make me feel better."
"I know, kiddo." The First had to stop himself from saying "Pup." He rubbed his student's back soothingly. "All things take time. I just don't want you blaming yourself for something that isn't your fault, all right? Kiran didn't give her life for you to be miserable."
Zack choked on his mentor's last sentence, but nodded into his shirt, not trusting himself to speak. Angeal held him for a while longer, rain beating down on the two of them. After several minutes, Seph slithered around, wedging himself between Zack and his mentor, twisted, and latched his mouth onto Zack's hand, forcing the boy to let go of his mentor's shirt. Zack chuckled weakly, head still pillowed on Angeal's shoulder.
"I love you too, Seph."
Seph blinked large green eyes at him, somehow managing a whistle through the hand clutched between his teeth. Ness made a questioning sound at them all. She'd squeezed herself behind Angeal, at the small of his back, to avoid the rain, curling around to rest her head on his leg. Angeal dropped a hand to rub her ears.
"… I've been unfair to them too, haven't I, Angeal?"
The First blinked, surprised. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, look at them! They haven't been themselves, either. Especially Seph."
Angeal hummed; Zack listened to the sound rumble through his ear. "… Yes and no. I will agree that they're probably picking up on your moodiness, but they don't understand, and they're missing Kiran, too."
"I'm just failing everybody," Zack mumbled into Angeal's shirt.
Angeal frowned, catching the words. "Zack."
Zack didn't reply, hiding his face.
The First sighed, yet again. "I don't expect you to act something you're not, Zack. If you're unhappy, be unhappy. Putting on a cheerful face doesn't help anyone when you're so miserable. I just don't want you blaming yourself for things that aren't your fault." When Zack still didn't respond, Angeal continued. "You trust me, right?"
Zack frowned. "Yeah, 'course I do, Angeal."
"And you know that I have no reservations about holding you responsible for your actions?"
A swallow. "Yeah …"
"Then trust me when I say that I, in no way, hold you responsible for what happened to Kiran."
There was a long pause. "… Even though you said that I'm responsible for the dragons if we keep 'em?"
Inwardly, Angeal groaned. Trust Zack to remember at the inconvenient times … "Yes, Zack. This is not the same thing."
For a long while, Zack was quiet, thinking about what he'd been told. The rain pattered around them. Then, finally, he stirred.
"… Thanks, Angeal," he whispered. "I wish I … I wish I'd talked to you sooner."
"… Why didn't you?"
Angeal felt the boy shrug. "I dunno, I … just wanted to be strong. I … I'm just trying to be a SOLDIER, Angeal. Like you." Zack's voice was filled with quiet grief.
"Oh, Zack." He tightened his arms around his student. "You are a SOLDIER. It doesn't mean that you need to lock all your feelings away."
"… You're not … disappointed in me?"
"Disappointed?" Angeal chuckled. "Whatever gave you that idea? No, I'm not. You just have a lot to learn, but I could never be disappointed in you." Zack opened his mouth to reply, but Angeal beat him to the punch. "And before you ask, yes, I'm sure, and yes, I promise."
That got a real chuckle out of Zack. "… If you say so, old man."
In response, Angeal squeezed the boy until both he and Seph squeaked in protest.
"Alright, alright, I take it back! You're not that old." Zack pulled away, some of the old glimmer back in his eye. "But you are all wet. I want my tent."
Things got better after that. Angeal didn't expect Zack to immediately go back to his usual cheerful self, and indeed, when the boy emerged from his tent the next morning, his eyes were red. But he gave his mentor a grin and a hug, instead of turning away, and though the grin was sad, it didn't hide anything.
There were still times when Zack was obviously missing Kiran, as Angeal often did. But he didn't withdraw as he had before, and he let the dragons cheer him up. They started to head out exploring again, and, sure enough, like ripples fading from the mountain streams Zack liked to tromp through, the clouds soon cleared from his eyes.
It was five days after their talk, on a clear, sunny day, high enough in altitude to have the SOLDIERs donning long, furred coats against the crisp air, when Angeal received a phone call from Sephiroth. Zack watched him expectantly, already knowing what it was about.
Angeal turned toward his student, snapping the phone shut and stowing it away. Wind ruffled the fur around his lowered hood.
"The dragons?" Zack asked, a thread of excitement strumming in his blood.
"One. A Blue Dragon, three days southeast of here, and through Condor Pass."
Zack let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Condor Pass … the mountain path through the Southern Range opening out onto the Junon Plains, and allowing one to make the journey between the Grasslands and Fort Condor while avoiding the Marshes and the Mythril Mines. It was no less dangerous, but at least you didn't have to worry about hidden zoloms beneath your feet … providing the pass was open, that is, which it was only a few months out of the year.
Zack turned to glance up at the not-so-distant mountain peaks. They were capped in snow, but then, it was high enough in altitude that they never really thawed. And, though the weather had been getting progressively colder, they hadn't yet had the first snowfall of the season. The pass should be open.
He turned back to his mentor.
"When do we leave?"
The crossing through Condor Pass was a harrowing journey. The monsters were stronger here, and vicious, and Angeal's thoughts kept returning to Kiran's death. He feared a repeat, or worse.
So they avoided what monsters they could, but it often wasn't enough – these cold altitudes were the domain of the bandersnatches and the zuu, and while the primitive, toothed birds were aggressive, they could be easily avoided. The bandersnatches, on the other hand, were smart and relentless, and their eerie howling would call packs of them together, was even said to revive their dead. The SOLDIERs suffered more than one close call at the fangs of the wolves.
Though they neared the snowline as they progressed through the pass, they remained low enough that Angeal's fear of an attack by lessaloploths, another cold-weather creature, never materialized. The flying reptiles were large, powerful, and dangerous, but they stuck, fanatically, to icy regions higher in altitude. More than once, however, did the First catch a glimpse of a creature winging overhead, only to vanish among snowy boulders. When the wind was still, he thought he could hear their piercing cries drifting down the mountain.
Although they had the opportunity to take shelter in caves, they avoided it, save for once. Ark dragons, a lesser relative to the full-blood dragons, were known to make their homes there. Though not a great threat, they had a tendency to swarm, and it was not uncommon to hear of some unwary traveler being dragged into the depths of the caves and consumed. It occurred often enough in the Mythril Mines.
The single time they did take shelter in a cave was during the third night, after they'd gone too far into the pass to turn back. A storm was brewing far above them, had whited out the sky, as low clouds dropped in. They remained out of its reach, however, and it wasn't the storm that had Angeal sending his student and the dragons scurrying for cover. There had been lightning among the snow and fog above them, and a strong electrical charge to the air – it was Trine, a powerful Lightning magic wielded only by a bare handful of creatures on the entire planet. It was their first and only brush with the near-legendary Materia Keeper, a horrible, six-legged beast covered in spines. No one knew its full appearance, and Angeal wanted to keep it that way – he watched from their shelter, tense, as the large, dark creature appeared for an instant from the clouds, scuttled along the mountainside, and disappeared into a crevice overhead.
Angeal was thankful when they finally emerged from the pass, weary, but alive. Both worrisome, and also a saving grace, had been the dragons' tendency to shy away from the monsters they encountered. It was a complete one-eighty from Seph's usual behavior, and it had him concerned for the little dragons. What would happen in the future when they had to battle another creature? What would happen when they came face-to-face with the adult dragon they were searching for? Even Zack, who was well on his way to recovering from Kiran's death, had been unusually tense, strained, during their monster encounters.
Angeal had to somehow help them recover their lost confidence, before they encountered the full-grown dragon. But they were already through the pass, and there was no time left.
The cheerful hike was interrupted when Angeal set a cautionary hand on his shoulder; when Zack saw his mentor sink into the grass, he followed suit, following the man's gaze skyward. A hush had fallen over the area, Zack had just now realized – the ever-present birds were quiet and hidden. As Seph and Ness slunk close to gather warily at their feet, Zack finally saw, through the boughs of the short pines, what his mentor already knew: winging overhead was the dragon.
It passed quickly, too high to notice them; briefly coming between the sun, its shadow left a thrill of excitement and fear. Just as quickly as it came, it was gone, vanishing behind the trees and a ridge. Zack blinked; the sun had burned a glittering outline of sapphire into his memory.
There was a tense stillness as he held his breath. Then his mentor shifted, and he let it out in a whoosh, glancing at the man with a wide grin.
"Was that it? That was it! We're here, Angeal, that was the dragon!" He could hardly refrain from bouncing on his toes, making a great effort to keep his voice to a loud whisper.
Angeal nodded slowly, still scanning the sky. "Yes …" His own voice was low. Now that they were here, his mind raced, considering how they needed to arrange things. Somehow, they needed to get the baby dragons to the adult, and get it to accept them. But how? If there was any existing knowledge on dragon family behavior, Angeal didn't know it. Did the dragon need to be male? Female? Already hatching a brood of its own? Did it need to be of a certain age, have failed in its own nesting attempt? There were so many possibilities, not the least of which that dragons may simply not accept the young of another, regardless of the situation.
It was a puzzle, and one Angeal had been debating at length, but no longer had the time to figure out. There was also the concern that the dragon may not accept the fledglings simply because they had been with humans for so long. And if that happened … if the dragon could not be made to accept Ness and Seph, regardless of the cause … then Angeal was at a loss. They would have played their last card, and there was nothing else they could do, short of taking the dragons home, or leaving them in the wilderness on their own. Neither of those were choices Angeal wanted to be stuck with.
Zack laid a hand on his shoulder. "It'll work, Angeal! It's got to." Angeal turned his eyes on the boy, watching him practically vibrate with nervous excitement. They'd made it this far – would it be too much to ask to make it the rest of the way? Thinking back to poor Herk and dear little Kiran, Angeal feared that the cards were not laid out in their favor. It was a long shot, if anything.
But he wasn't about to give up now.
The First nodded. Examining the small, forested stand they were in, he considered their next move. He needed a better look at the dragon's location. Quietly rising, he began to pick his way carefully to the nearby ridgeline. When he felt Zack rise to follow, he turned to the boy.
"Stay there," he commanded, holding up a finger. Zack bit his lip, gaze wavering between his mentor and the ridge, obviously wanting to look over it too. Slowly, he sunk back down into the grass. "Stay," Angeal repeated. He gave Zack a hard look. The boy looked like he could spring up at any moment. "You got that, Zack?"
"What? Yeah, yeah, I got it!"
"Good." He stepped toward the ridge a few paces, then, just for good measure, turned to the boy once more. "Stay."
"I'm stayin', I'm stayin'!"
Satisfied that Zack would actually listen to him this time, he continued. The land rose up in a short, steep slope; Angeal carefully clambered the rest of the way to the crest. At the top, he kept himself pressed to the ground, and peered over. After a moment, he proceeded, vanishing over the ridge.
Zack watched the point where his mentor had been, nervous energy strumming through him. The dragons picked up on it, shifting restlessly beside him. He petted them absently, seeking to calm them all down. Would Angeal be okay? How long would he be gone? What if the dragon came back? What if the dragon wasn't there? Did the dragon have its own cave? Did it already have a nest? Was there more than one dragon?
Questions raced through his mind, just serving to make him more anxious. What kind of dragons were Blue Dragons? Ice, weren't they? Then wouldn't it want to live in some horribly cold place? Would Seph and Ness be all right if they went with it? They were just little dragons, after all …
Several minutes passed, and Angeal still hadn't returned. Zack wondered again if he was all right. He fidgeted. Maybe he should go looking for him? No, Angeal had told him to stay put. But what if something had happened to him? Then what he said didn't count, right? Angeal would want Zack to come looking for him. Unless he didn't … Zack thought back to the first dragon attack, so many weeks ago. Angeal hadn't wanted him to come then, had he? But what if something had happened? Surely Angeal couldn't expect him to just wait here forever, could he? He really should get up to make sure his mentor was all right. Oh, but maybe he was supposed to call in to Headquarters for help? Angeal hadn't ever really said; maybe he should ask him. But he'd have to find him first, so maybe he should get up after all …
Something came down on his shoulder unexpectedly, prompting Zack to jump with a startled yelp. A large hand came up over his mouth; Zack twisted around to see Angeal crouching beside him. His eyes widened.
"'Ngeal!" His voice was heavily muffled. Slowly, the First pulled his hand away when he was sure Zack wasn't going to make any more loud noises, revealing a happy grin on the boy's face. Angeal's mouth twisted wryly as he glared critically at his student.
"… I'm surprised to see you still here." He kept his voice low. "Good job. Please keep your voice down."
Oblivious to the light sarcasm, Zack's grin widened at the approval, and he nodded vigorously. "Sure thing, Angeal!" Edging closer, he asked in an excited whisper, "Did you see it? Did you see the dragon? How big is it?"
"Big enough. Larger than the Green, not quite as large as the Dark Dragon. This will be … a challenge." The First paused in thought. After a moment, he waved Zack along. "Come with me."
Together, they edged toward the rocky crest, instructing the little dragons to wait beneath the canopy of some bushes. They listened for once, peering up at the SOLDIERs with large, glittering eyes, as they scrambled up to lie against the slope. At the ridge, Angeal indicated the scene below them. Zack squirmed against small rocks digging into his side.
The slope was steep and rocky, littered with scree and the occasional, thin pine. It leveled out into a wide, shallow bowl, which had gathered enough soil for additional trees and grass to spring up. Large boulders were scattered over the area, building up to a tall, bare rock face to the right. Directly in front of them, the ground rose slightly, exposing more rock – the protruding edge of a steep cliff. Flanked by stubborn pines, beyond the cliff was an expansive view; surrounding mountain slopes tumbled away into a valley, which gave way to the Junon Plains in the far distance. A silver ribbon of water wove through the valley, and even further, beyond the haze of the horizon, lay the sea.
"… Wow …" Zack whispered in awe at the view. Angeal tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, and pointed to the side. Drawing his gaze in the indicated direction, he spied movement among the rocks near the wall. There, coming into view over the boulders, was the dragon. It settled its upper half upon a large, flat-topped boulder, fanned its wings out, and raised its head. Eyes half lidded, it turned its head toward the sun, basking in the light.
Zack's mouth dropped open at the sight of the creature. Having only encountered the other dragons in battle, he'd never had the opportunity to appreciate their beauty. This one was all sleek lines and molded sapphire, its glittering scales a blue so rich they were almost purple. The proud, angular lines of its head were framed by a crown of steely horns, which spilled in a dark, frozen waterfall of spines down the back of its graceful neck. Its underside and glinting talons matched the color; even from here, he could hear the deadly claws scraping against the granite of its perch. Sunlight through the thin membrane of the wings turned it a pale, icy color, and corded muscles rippled beneath the chest and shoulders of the creature as it moved. It was stunning.
Angeal allowed his student to appreciate the view; he knew the dragon wouldn't be leaving for a while yet, having just finished a meal of some other unfortunate creature. If they were lucky, it would work in their favor, making the dragon slow and more relaxed. Perhaps it would be more inclined to accept a pair of wayward dragon hatchlings.
Zack swallowed. "What're we … what should we do, Angeal?" he whispered, his tone reverent.
Angeal matched the volume of his voice. "There is a slope to the right, near the rock wall. It is closer to the dragon, but it should be hidden enough by the wall to keep us from view. It is rocky and steep, but not so steep as the slope here, and the scree is less; it should make less noise. The plan will be to take Seph and Ness down the slope – we'll carry them if we have to – and approach the dragon from behind. We won't get too close – we'll send the dragons on ahead. We want the Blue to see them, not us."
Zack nodded along with the words. "… Okay, and then what?"
"And then what? And then nothing. That's it."
"… That's the plan? That's it, there's nothing else?"
Angeal nodded. "At that point, it's up to the dragons to decide what happens next. We'll have done all we can do."
Zack gazed at his mentor, worry clouding his eyes. "But …" He glanced back to the dragon, fidgeted. Then his shoulders slumped. "… I thought there'd be more."
Angeal laid a hand on his shoulder. "There isn't. We can't make the dragons' decisions for them. If all goes well, our part should be simple. The rest is up to them."
Slowly, Zack nodded, expression glum. "I guess. … I just … I wish we could do more to make sure things go right."
Angeal offered him a sad smile. "I know. We've just got to trust them." Raising his hand, he laid it gently upon the back of Zack's neck, giving him a reassuring squeeze. "You ready to do this?"
Lifting his gaze from the ground, Zack looked up into his mentor's eyes. He saw kindness there, the man's expression strong and confident. Zack took a deep breath, let it out. Then he nodded. "Yeah. Let's do it."
"Good kid." Angeal ruffled his hair, turning to slide back down the slope. Zack followed.
They collected the dragons, and quickly, not wanting to chance the Blue moving to a more difficult position, worked their way to the slope Angeal had indicated. It ran against the vertical stone wall, little more than a deer trail, hopping over rocky steps and under bulging outcroppings. Using the rock and thin trees as handholds, they made their way down. Ness and Seph followed, scampering beside them. Occasionally, they would vault into a glide to come ahead and land, waiting, or slow and fall behind, perhaps sensing, somehow, that something was different; they watched with unsure, curious eyes, as their humans continued downward.
At the bottom of the slope, in the shadow of the wall, Angeal paused. He turned to his student and their dragons. Three pairs of bright blue, green, and violet eyes gazed back at him, with almost identical, expectant expressions. For almost two months, this had been his little ragtag group of traveling companions … minus one. He couldn't say that they'd all arrived here safely, but he'd done the best that he had known how to do, for as much as that counted. And now things were at the end. He would miss them, the little dragons, when they were gone.
"… Zack … it's time to say goodbye." The words came out heavy.
Zack's eyes widened, and his heart skipped a beat. What, so soon? Somehow, he hadn't expected it to come this quickly. He glanced down to the dragons and back to his mentor, heart sinking. His eyes pleaded for more time, saying that surely, Angeal couldn't mean right now, that there was still a little further to go, a little more to do?
Angeal smiled sadly, inclined his head toward the dragons.
Zack's expression fell. Gazing down at his little friends, he sniffed, taking a shuddering breath. Then he sank to his knees. He held out his arms.
"C'mere, you guys." Sensing something was up, the dragons quietly clambered into his lap. They were almost too big to hold at the same time now – it was amazing how much they'd grown. "I'm gonna miss you," he whispered, bowing his head and hugging them close. Knowing he was upset, but not why, Seph pressed tightly against him. He reached up, grabbing a lock of the boy's hair with his teeth and pulled it gently, beginning to purr. Ness also snuggled close, chirping into his shirt.
"Look, there a … there's another dragon over there. A real one, just like you, just like your mom and dad." Zack blinked, his eyes starting to sting. "An' we can't take care of you anymore, 'cause, well … we're not dragons, so it just wouldn't work out. So you gotta go with this other dragon, okay? You gotta go with 'im, and maybe, maybe things'll work out, and maybe … we'll see each other again." His throat was tight. "How's that sound?"
Seph whined and purred louder, the noise taking on an almost desperate feeling. Why was his boy so sad? Why couldn't he make him feel any better?
Zack sniffed and chuckled weakly. Despite his best efforts, his vision was clouding up. He squeezed the dragons tightly. "It's okay, Seph. I'm fine." His words thickened. "You take care of Ness, alright? And Ness, keep Seph outta trouble." Ness warbled at him.
A shadow fell over them. Angeal had appeared, kneeling before them. He rested a large hand on Zack's head.
"You all right?"
Zack nodded. "Y-yeah." Giving the dragons one last squeeze, Zack pressed his cheek to Seph's neck, whispering, "I love you guys," then he pushed them into Angeal's arms. "Here. They wanna say goodbye to you too." Abruptly standing, Zack strode a few paces away, going to lean against the wall.
Arms suddenly full of dragon, the First couldn't follow his student as he would have liked, but he felt the boy needed a moment to himself anyway. With a sad sigh, he turned his attention to the dragons.
"Ness. Seph. … Thank you for being there for my student," he said, quietly. "I hope you forgive us … forgive me … for Kiran. For your real parents. I hope you're able to forget us. And yet … I hope you remember, too." Giving them a strong hug of his own, and listening to them whistle in his ear one last time, he stood.
Zack wiped his eyes and nodded, pushing away from the wall. "I'm alright." He turned to face his mentor. "I'm ready."
Angeal held his gaze, finding it steady, committed. He nodded. "Let's go."
Together, hatchlings in tow, they rounded the wall, stepping into the late day sun. Before them, silhouetted upon a rock not a hundred feet away, was the dragon. Zack's breath caught at the size of it. Its head alone looked to be almost as long as he was tall.
It faced away from them, thankfully, still enjoying the sun. There were a handful of trees between here and there, and numerous boulders, so there was plenty of cover. They advanced cautiously, venturing a short distance out from the wall. Then the SOLDIERs slowed to allow the hatchlings to continue without them. It worked, until Seph and Ness finally caught sight of the dragon.
They froze. Having pulled ahead several yards, they sunk down slightly, ears flattening, then turned and pattered back to press close to the SOLDIERs' feet.
"Aww, c'mon, you guys," Zack whispered. "It's just another dragon!" The Third ushered them forward, quietly, urging them to continue. "Let's go!" He went with them several paces, then slowed, stopping. They continued a few feet, but stopped themselves when they realized he wasn't coming. Glancing up to the giant silhouette and back, they shared an unsure look with each other. Seph sat down, curling his tail close. His eyes flicked between his sister and Zack.
The Third tried to shoo them onward. "Go. Go!" he hissed. "Look, you're just making this harder than it has to be! I can't go with you!" None of this would work if the adult dragon set eyes upon the two humans. "You gotta go away! Go home!"
Seph swallowed, again looking at Ness. Then he settled down into the grass. Ness followed suit.
"Oh, for the love of …" Flustered, Zack cast about for a way to make them go. It was hard enough saying goodbye; was he supposed to kick them away, too? Digging into his pocket, his hand closed upon a half-eaten candy bar. Yanking it out, he pulled back, then flung it as hard as he could away from their position. Having immediately jumped to their feet upon seeing the chocolate, the dragons sprung for it. But after a few strides and glancing back up at the other dragon, they stopped once again.
At a loss, Zack fisted his hands in his hair. "Gaia! Don't you get it?" His voice was agonized. "What part of 'go away' don't you understand! You can't be with us anymore!"
In response, Seph let out a low whine. Ness began trotting back. Zack made a small noise of despair at this, heartbroken eyes searching out Angeal for guidance.
The other SOLDIER frowned. He hadn't counted on it being so difficult to prompt the dragons to continue. At seeing the adult dragon, he'd hoped that they would be interested enough to get a closer look, but it was as if they didn't care at all. In retrospect, he supposed he should have predicted this – the two hatchlings had been so wary of other creatures lately; the other dragon must be no different. He wondered if they even realized it was their own kind.
They'd have to try something else. Stepping forward, taking a cautious glance at the dragon, he …
The dragon …
It was gone.
Angeal swore. While he was preoccupied with Zack and the hatchlings, it must have … "Zack! Get down," he commanded, keeping his voice low.
As Zack instantly sank to the ground, calling the dragons to him, Angeal drew his sword and scanned the skies for the creature. Zack shot him a worried glance, drawing his own weapon. Were things going to go wrong already?
Angeal tensed, failing to spot the dragon. Perhaps they would be lucky, and it had simply moved on. Silently, he gestured for Zack to head back to the slope. They'd regroup and seek the dragon later – better than hunting through the maze of boulders and risking discovery.
However, before they could get far, there was a loud crack above them, and a tremendous gust of wind nearly ripped them off their feet. Leaves, sharp twigs, and dust blew past them, stinging eyes and exposed skin. Zack let out a wordless cry.
Before Angeal could raise an arm to shelter his face, the sun vanished, and the dragon dropped between them like a falling mountain – huge, solid, immovable. Then it shifted.
In the flicker of an eye, it had coiled and sprung for the First, enormous jaws gaping wide and claws outstretched. Mako suddenly surging and lighting his blood afire, Angeal twisted, rolling away. A lesser man would have been dead; Angeal came away lucky with a gash to the back of his calf.
As snapping jaws sought him, Angeal looked up to see his student backpedaling with a look of terror on his face. As their eyes met, in that moment, he realized his mistake: Zack had suffered a tremendous blow to his confidence in Kiran's death, and in sheltering him from monster battles in the hope he would recover, Angeal had done him a grave disservice. As the hatchlings had become skittish, so, too, had Zack. He was afraid of the monster, when he'd never shown fear before. Afraid of the monster, afraid for Angeal and the dragons, and afraid of failing.
Too afraid to fight?
Before Angeal could find his answer, the dragon was in his face, meeting his broadsword. Angeal let him have it.
Zack danced away from the stomping claws of the monster's rear feet. His eyes fixed on the talons – they were huge, as long as his thigh, digging into the dirt and sending it flying as the creature rapidly moved. Muscles in the leg bunched and rippled; they were massive, the leg easily taller than even Sephiroth. The enormous bulk of the tail swung wildly as counterbalance, ignoring ground and trees. It was the largest creature he'd ever seen, larger than the dragons they'd faced before, larger than he'd even imagined. And Angeal was on the dangerous side of it.
Angeal! He had to help the man, but he was rooted to the spot. Inside his gloves, his palms were sweaty; his mouth was dry and his stomach curdling. He didn't understand it. He'd been worried before, startled, taken by surprise … but never this! He saw death in those steely claws, stomping the ground. If he got too close …
No! I gotta … Angeal needs me … Heart racing, he gripped his sword tight and forced himself forward, yell sticking in his throat. His legs moved, but they seemed clumsy and disconnected. Spying him from the corner of its eye, the dragon snarled and lashed its tail like a whip. Zack saw it coming, ducked, kept going. Stubborn and desperate, he kept his target in sight – the dragon's exposed ribcage. He lifted his weapon.
Suddenly, the target was gone. Drawing back, the dragon had turned away from Angeal and toward him. A pillar of clawed forelimb slammed down in his path. Flailing, he skidded to a stop with a yelp, immediately backtracked. Then the dragon's maw filled his vision. Images of teeth and pain flashed through his mind; the dragon took a deep breath … and simply breathed on him.
Icy coolness washed over him, a mist, glittering gently in the sun. It was no different from stepping into ShinRa's giant freezers. Harmless, right? He took a breath.
As the mist entered his lungs, it prickled, stung his throat. He coughed, gasped. It went deeper, sudden, icy knives driving into his chest, reaching for his heart. He choked, eyes tearing up. The liquid turned to frost at the corners of his eyes, crackling; he bowed his head, gritting his teeth, and brought a trembling hand up to clutch at the sweater over his heart. What … what was this? His insides were freezing!
He managed to stumble a handful of steps away from the dragon before he found himself on his knees, suddenly weaponless hand bracing himself as he pitched forward. Distantly, he heard the dull clang as the sword hit the dirt. He couldn't … breathe. It was cold … so cold.
"Zack!" Angeal saw his student collapse onto his side, shuddering. Blue Dragon Breath … Recognizing the danger of the misty tendrils drifting toward him, he leapt away, hand covering his nose and mouth. It wouldn't do Zack any good for him to rush in. But … He narrowed his eyes. That was an extraordinarily weak form of the attack – the creature must not consider the boy much of a threat, was saving its energy for him. As Angeal watched, the dragon dismissed his student and turned back in his direction.
Igniting his Fire materia, the First threw a powerful blast toward the dragon. It scored the creature's chest, raised its ire, and lit the grass at its feet. Hopefully it would drive away the lingering mist. Another fireball to the creature's face – which it easily slithered around – and Angeal took off between the boulders, the dragon darting rapidly after him. He had to draw it away from Zack; hopefully the boy would be all right!
The hatchlings, having scattered in fear, scurried back toward the fallen Third as soon as the dragon left to pursue Angeal. Seph nosed his way into Zack's face, worried, while Ness fearfully stood by, chirping nervously.
Zack was gasping, trying to get his breathing under control. It was like he'd fallen in a frigid lake, but worse – it was on the inside. He shuddered, took another ragged breath … and coughed. Gaia, it hurt!
But … at least it wasn't getting worse. He could … he could handle this. Weakly patting at Seph to reassure him, he shakily levered himself up. With a force of will, he swallowed against the horrible chill, pushed through it. A warm gust from the nearby brush fire, courtesy of Angeal, swept over him. Thankful for that small bit of warmth, he stood, staggering toward it. Already the mist in the air had vanished. He took a deep breath, coughed wetly, and bent to retrieve his weapon. Yeah, you'll be okay, Zack. You can do this! You have to! Though cold, it felt that his lungs were thawing, slowly, by degrees. Now to help out Angeal!
Ignoring the glacier in his chest, he ran toward the boulders. Suddenly, he heard a buzzing, high-pitched whine, followed by a booming ka-rack. Rocky debris were flung past him, and he quickly ducked behind the nearest boulder to avoid getting struck. Cautiously, he peered around it.
Over the tops of the uneven rocks, he spied the dragon's head, snapping at Angeal, currently in midair. The dragon missed; Angeal landed, sprung again, driving toward the dragon's neck, sword ready for spearing. Effortlessly, the dragon evaded, batting the SOLDIER away. Angeal went with it, backflipping to land upon a large boulder. At the same instant, the dragon opened its maw, firing a narrow beam of frigid blue energy. Angeal was gone again. The beam struck the boulder; it iced up, then with a screech and a boom, exploded. Large stone shards flew in all directions.
"Angeal!" The ragged cry tore at his throat, he coughed, painfully. Gritting his teeth, he sprinted toward the battle, clambering up a large rock. This was all going so wrong … his mentor was in trouble, Seph and Ness would never have a chance at going home … wasn't there anything that could be done? The dragon would never be interested in the two hatchlings now!
As Zack scrambled over the tops of the boulders, leaping from one to the next and trying not to breathe too deeply, a large fireball forced the roaring Blue back, and Angeal sprung into view again. Furious, the dragon again unleashed its breath weapon upon the surrounding boulders; again, they froze, fractured, and broke apart, forcing Angeal to keep moving. But this time, he wasn't so lucky.
The First successfully evaded the shrapnel from one of the rocks, but another exploded just as he landed – there was no time for him to move. He had his weapon out, blocking the debris, but missed a chunk to his forehead. It struck, throwing him into the boulder behind him. An instant later, that one detonated.
Zack watched in horror. "Angeal!" Losing sight of his mentor, all fear of the dragon vanished. He thought only of Angeal, and of the suddenly growing fury at the dragon they'd had no desire to battle in the first place. With an enraged yell, he charged up his Fire and blasted it straight toward the creature. It slammed squarely into the beast's shoulder. The dragon roared.
Zack shouted right back at it. "What is wrong with you?" he cried. "Do you stupid monsters have to kill everything?" His voice came out broken, fractured by injured lungs. "All we wanted was to give two little dragons a home! Can't you understand that?"
In rage, the dragon turned its attention upon him. Clawed feet kicked up dirt as it barreled forward, springing over the rocks. Gigantic wings whipped the air, propelling it with ease. Zack blindly retaliated with more Fire.
"If you were half the dragon that Seph and Ness and Kiran were, you'd understand! I hate you! Angeal was right, you all deserve to be killed!"
Too late, Zack realized just how swiftly the dragon had closed upon him. Heart leaping into his throat, he spun and leapt from the boulder. Boots striking the ground, he was already pounding away; he could feel the rage of the beast behind him. A hastily erected Barrier shattered at the dragon's claw as if it had never existed. Adrenaline surging, Zack redoubled his efforts to get away. But, in dismay, he saw that Seph and Ness had followed him, and now they were all within the creature's path.
Stooping low, he scooped up Ness, took another two steps and reached for Seph. But the ground, rocky, unstable, shifted beneath his boot as it came down. It threw his leg out from under him. He had Seph! But he fell, hard, and tumbled. Trying to get up, a liquid current of pain shot up his ankle, prompting an agonized cry. He fell back, forward motion abruptly arrested. Adrenaline racing, he risked a glance behind him.
It was too late. The dragon was upon him.
With a note of despair, Zack hugged the little dragons close, hunching over them in a vain attempt at protection, presenting his back to the dragon. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing he'd feel the monster's claws raking through him any moment. He could feel its icy breath on his neck.
He was horrified to feel Seph squirming out of his grasp, over his shoulder.
"Seph, no!" Frantic, he tried to pull the little dragon back, but both he and Ness had grown, and were more than an armful for him. Seph wriggled higher, freeing his wings. Zack clutched tightly at his hindquarters, hearing the Blue rumble threateningly above them.
Irate, the little black dragon hissed back. Then he took a deep breath, opened his little maw, and spat out an intense, white fireball. It struck the adult directly on the nose.
Startled, the Blue reared back, blinking down at its little attacker. That had hurt. Still seething, Seph pulled himself higher, snarling in fury. He had had enough! Freeing himself entirely from Zack's grasp, Seph launched himself off the boy's shoulder and into the Blue's face, wings pumping furiously. Hovering successfully in midair for the first time, Seph chattered angrily at the Blue. Encouraged, Ness also wriggled out of Zack's hold and yapped a loud counterpoint to her brother's scolding.
Fearing for the dragons, Zack twisted around. He gasped; the Blue loomed high above them. Wings outstretched, it blocked out the sky. Zack had never felt so small, so powerless, in his entire life. The creature's very presence seemed to weigh down upon him like a living mountain. They didn't stand a chance.
Reaching for Ness, who was still on the ground, Zack scooped her back up, only to contend with her struggling.
"Ness! Stop it!" Looking up at Seph, he waved a frantic arm in a futile attempt at shooing the little dragon away. "Get outta there, Seph! Go!" His voice was panicked.
Seph ignored him. This dragon was getting a piece of his mind.
Attention taken up fully by the small hatchling in its face, the Blue's wings slowly dropped, anger turning to irritation. This was … a little dragon. What were humans doing with little dragons? Baring its teeth, the Blue growled menacingly at the small hatchling. Having none of it, Seph dared to attempt a landing to sink claws into its muzzle, but the dragon shook him off. Further attempts to move around the hatchling were met with additional flapping wings and miniature snarls. At the little Black's persistence, confusion slowly took over. Finally, glancing downward, past fluttering black wings, its gaze settled on the small human boy, taking in the way he protectively hugged the other hatchling. It listened to the way the young, incensed Black loudly defended his friend.
Growing annoyed at the chatter, the Blue swung its head down to get level with the boy – this merited investigation. The black hatchling followed it down; impatient, the dragon batted him to the side with its muzzle, returned its attention to the boy. Icy blue eyes met turbulent purple ones.
Zack's breath caught in his throat. Was the dragon going to kill them now? The creature held his gaze, and he found himself unable to look away. The pale blue depths of its eyes were incredible, they were lit, deep inside, by a white fire. Sunlight fell upon the sapphire cloak of the dragon's scales, dazzling his eyes. It seemed to be evaluating him, judging him.
The SOLDIER hesitated. Then, taking a chance, he, ever so slowly, pushed a now petrified Ness toward the dragon. Not expecting this, the hatchling squawked in surprise. The dragon blinked.
Moment broken, it turned its gaze to the little Green. Ness shrunk back for an instant, then, drawing courage from her brother's actions, straightened and bared her teeth. The Blue rumbled in response … in amusement?
Stepping away from Zack, now more interested in the hatchlings, the dragon searched out Seph, reaching down to nudge him from the spot he'd been sitting, dazed. The touch snapped him back to alertness, and he barked at the dragon. In reply, the Blue made a soft, comforting sound and nuzzled the hatchling. Thrown for a loop, Seph instantly quieted.
Confused, but drawn toward the sound, Ness whistled anxiously, taking a hesitant step forward. The Blue whistled back in encouragement, a low, entrancing sound, which prompted Ness to continue pattering onward. Seph joined in the whistling.
Feeling a little lost, Zack watched for several minutes as the dragons communicated with each other. Was this … it? Was this what they wanted, what was supposed to happen? Was the adult going to accept the two hatchlings? It looked like it, but with the little dragons suddenly ignoring him, he felt rather … left out.
What was to happen to him now?
And what about Angeal?
Angeal! Was he okay? Eyes wide, Zack glanced back toward the mess of boulders, suddenly fearful that his mentor was lying somewhere in there, broken, injured, worse …
So he received a jolt when his gaze landed on a pair of worried, deep blue eyes gazing back at him from a position across the other side of the dragon. Angeal stood, sword lowered but not sheathed, looking rather worse for wear, but certainly not dead. Cut and bruised, with a half-healed gash across the side of his head, he watched the scene unfolding before them. Zack wondered how long he'd been standing there.
"Angeal!" He couldn't help the worried exclamation that slipped out, and froze as it drew unwanted attention from the dragon. The beast glanced up from the chattering hatchlings, fixed its gaze in his direction. Angeal took an automatic step forward, stopped. He watched the dragon warily, concerned for his student, but not wanting to set the creature off.
The dragon lifted its head to observe the humans on either side of it. Neither one moved to attack. Its eyes narrowed. Nostrils flared as it tested the air. Both humans were injured; one scared but determined, the other filled with caution, but focused more upon his younger companion than the dragon before him. Interested, the dragon's gaze flicked between the two, noting the tenseness of the one, clearly wanting to go to his fallen companion. The dragon considered them, and it considered the two hatchlings that had come with them.
Swinging its head down toward the older SOLDIER, the Blue rumbled a warning as the man presented his weapon. It was familiar with swords, had faced and defeated them before. But when the man refrained from making any additional movements, the dragon took a moment to examine his scent further, identifying the individual scents of the hatchlings on him. Their eyes met, blue on blue, challenging, judging. Angeal raised his chin. Something seemed to pass between them. Then the dragon moved toward Zack.
Zack held his breath as the dragon stepped closer, once again finding himself meeting his reflection in pale blue eyes. The dragon huffed, clearing its nose, and, seeing the boy defenseless, pushed its muzzle into the fabric of Zack's shirt, breathing deep. Zack jerked, raised his hands, unsure what to do. Again, the dragon smelt the two hatchlings, and a missing third, heard the rapid thumping of the boy's heart.
The scent of the hatchlings was strong; they had spent much time in the company of these humans. And yet, the boy had deliberately pushed the hatchlings toward the dragon. The dragon considered further.
After several moments of examining the boy, the dragon finally took note of the way his gaze kept shooting uncertainly to the man on the other side of the dragon. Ah. With another rumble, the Blue again pressed his nose into the boy's stomach, giving him a nudge. At a startled noise from the boy, the rumble turned into a deep, comforting croon.
There was a second of hesitation, and then Zack, emboldened, slowly set his palm upon the creature's muzzle. After the softness of the hatchlings' scales, he was mildly surprised to find the dragon's hard and smooth. Cautiously, still afraid the dragon might attack, he let his hand trail up the muzzle. He felt the way the scales fit so closely together, like river stones overlapping and having merged into a single, supple layer. His gaze dropped from the dragon's eyes to observe the sunlight gleaming on the hard covering, noticed the faint blue reflection on his skin. He let out the breath he'd been holding in wonder.
The dragon nudged him again. Zack, recognizing the creature's actions from Seph's insistent demands for "more," gently, and a little uncertainly, wrapped his arms around the creature's muzzle. Don't eat me, please don't eat me … At the touch, the dragon unexpectedly wedged its nose further beneath Zack's stomach, and lifted. The Third yelped in surprise, arms automatically tightening. He found himself picked off his feet, ankle giving a pained throb, and suddenly he was swung smoothly through the air to his mentor.
The humans had returned two dragon hatchlings to their own kind. It seemed the dragon was returning the favor.
Angeal was there to catch him when the dragon set him back upon his feet; Zack had never been so relieved to feel those strong arms steadying him. The First's eyes met the dragon's again, and again, something seemed to pass between them. You watch over your hatchling, it seemed to say, I'll watch over mine.
"Angeal! You okay?" Even as Zack asked, he kept his eyes glued to the dragon, as it stepped away. His voice cracked, still hampered by the lingering cold in his lungs.
"Of course," came the murmured reply. He quickly checked over his student, keeping one eye on the dragon. As they watched the creature return its attention to the hatchlings, Angeal took a moment to activate his Restore. He rubbed a hand soothingly along his student's back, focusing the energy into his chest and lungs. He'd examine the boy's ankle shortly to make sure it wasn't broken. Zack took a deep breath, sighing in relief.
Once the dragon had carried out its own examinations of the chattering hatchlings, the two little dragons, now perfectly comfortable around the giant beast, grew impatient and bounded back toward the SOLDIERs. They chirped animatedly; Zack grinned – he hadn't seen them so energetic since … since Kiran.
Making sure Zack was stable enough to stand on his own, Angeal kneeled to catch the two dragons. He gazed up at the Blue. Somehow, it had come to accept the hatchlings, and to overlook whatever threat the SOLDIERs had originally presented. When had that happened? Had it recognized Zack's efforts in trying to shield two of its own kind with his own body? Had little Seph's bold actions in trying to fight it off and protect Zack stopped it? Whatever the cause, the dragon no longer seemed interested in harming them. Still, the First was cautious.
He approached the beast, slowly, and set the hatchlings down again, giving them a small push.
"They belong with you now, I think."
Ness and Seph warbled, glancing between the SOLDIER and the dragon. The dragon trilled, calling the hatchlings to it. It took a few steps toward the cliff, paused. Seph's ears perked up, watching intently. He took a step closer, seeming to understand. But then he stopped, ears flicking back uncertainly. He twisted around to look at Angeal, and then past him to Zack.
With a determined bark, Seph trotted past Angeal and up to Zack. When Zack bent down for him, the little dragon grabbed his hand with his mouth and pulled. Caught by surprise, Zack stumbled.
"Ah! Seph!" He laughed. "Ow, ow. Hey! I can't, I twisted my ankle." Grinning, he limped a few steps with the dragon before resisting. "Se-eph! Stop it, would ya? Silly dragon." Looking into those bright green eyes, his smile froze, then slowly faded. Glancing up at the Blue and back, he realized what Seph was doing.
The little dragon tugged on him again.
"… Seph …" Slowly, Zack kneeled. "I … I can't." Seph blinked at him, then again tugged. When Zack still refused to move, the dragon let out a low, plaintive whine.
"… Seph, I … This …" Zack floundered, words failing him. He looked around the clearing, took in the setting sun, Ness, the waiting Blue, Angeal, watching quietly. He let the reality of the situation slowly sink in. This was it. It really was, this time; despite the scuffle, the dragons were leaving. It was time to let go. A weight settled into the pit of his stomach. He swallowed with difficulty.
"This is it, Seph," Zack continued, quietly. "It's time to go home. We got you this far, but … you gotta go the rest of the way by yourselves."
The little dragon stared at him, listening to the sadness in his voice. His jaw went slack, then, slowly, he dropped Zack's hand. He whined again, a lonely, mournful sound.
Zack felt his throat tighten. He sniffed. "Yeah, I know, but you gotta do your best." He gave the dragon a quavering smile, looked from him to Ness. "I'll miss you guys, you know. I had a … a great time. Take … take care, alright?" He found he couldn't maintain the smile.
Angeal wasn't sure who moved first, but suddenly, Seph was in Zack's arms, and the boy was squeezing him tightly, biting back a sob. The dragon had draped his obsidian wings around Zack's shoulders; absently, the First noted how large the Black had gotten – the wings were large enough to fold around Zack like a shawl. Ness was there too, a bare moment later, climbing into Zack's lap and draping her wings around the boy's waist.
"I'll miss you so much," Zack whispered. "Don't forget me, okay?" He gasped, a sob escaping his lips, and shut his eyes tightly, hot tears escaping. His shoulders shook as several more sobs wracked his frame before he could get them under control. "Heh … look at me." The sobs turned to broken laughter. "I'm s-such a … a sap. I should be happy we f-finally made it here." He buried his face into the dragon's soft scales. "I am happy. I am. … I am." Squeezing Seph tightly one last time, he pulled back to look into the dragon's eyes. They shone, emerald and bright. "Goodbye, Seph." The dragon reached up, nuzzling his cheek. Then he let the Black go, and hugged Ness. The little Green whistled at him. "Goodbye, Ness." Her eyes were clear, miniature pools of sky. He let her go, too.
Angeal came to stand beside him. The adult Blue whistled again at the hatchlings, calling them. This time, they responded, whistling a reply with their own unique voices. Glancing once more at the SOLDIERs, they trotted away to join the dragon.
Zack stood. Angeal rested a hand on his shoulder. The boy, wiped his eyes. "'M fine." He sniffed, made a noise that was a combination of a sob and a laugh. "Just … just my allergies."
Angeal squeezed his shoulder.
As the dragons ambled through the long grass to the stone ledge at the edge of the cliff, the two SOLDIERs followed slowly behind. The Blue checked to ensure the hatchlings had followed, let its eyes slide over the SOLDIERs, then raised its wings, sapphire catching the light of the sun.
It thrust itself off the cliff then, swooping down and then up, huge, powerful wings beating the air and sending it skyward. It gained altitude and banked, majestically. Wind stirred the SOLDIERs' hair as they watched, the low sun angling into their eyes.
Seph and Ness turned to the SOLDIERs for one last, long look. Their shadows stretched long over the ground, almost close enough for Zack to touch. He'd seen them like this countless times before. Remembering, he thought back to their hatching, their misadventures, their roughhousing, their curious exploration and mischievous games. He remembered quiet nights by the fire, nestling down with the dragons and falling asleep to Angeal's voice as the First related one of his stories. He remembered long days, trekking over country he'd never seen before, with the dragons bounding ahead. He remembered peaceful moments stolen in between the hustle and bustle of raising three wild, amazing creatures. He remembered Kiran.
Ness was the first to go. Always the one to gaze into the sky, she was the first to take that final step into the wide blue that captivated her so. Drawing from what she'd seen of flying from Kiran and Seph, she crouched deeply and lunged upward. Almost like she'd always known how, her wings snapped down at the top of her leap, propelling her upward, again, and again. She rose, drawing away from the ground, away from familiar terrain.
Then it was Seph's turn. Breaking eye contact with his beloved Zack, and turning away from the mismatched group that he had called family, he launched himself into the air. Wings beating rapidly, he followed after his sister.
Their new guardian swooped around, bugled an encouragement, and led them away. Eyes glued to the retreating dragons, Zack leaned on Angeal and hobbled as quickly as he could to the cliff's edge. Once there, he raised an arm and waved enthusiastically.
"Seph! Ness! Goodbye! Don't forget us!" His vision blurred once more; quickly he wiped it away. "You better fly circles around that ol' dragon, you hear!"
In response, the little dragons peeled away from the blue, returning to the cliff side. Beating wings for speed, they stooped, and dove toward the SOLDIERs. At the last moment, they leveled out, zooming by, one after the other, and veered heavily, circling around them. Zack let out a whoop, waving his arms and laughing through his tears. The little dragons answered him with joyful bugles. Then, turning on wingtip, they headed back out toward the waiting Blue.
This time, they continued away, wings catching the light of the sun: sapphire, emerald, and obsidian. The SOLDIERs watched as they soared over the valley, the river below turned to a golden ribbon. Slowly, Zack sat down, letting his legs dangle over the abyss. His eyes were bright, and he felt … light, somehow. The weight was gone. He would miss the dragons, but he was happy for them. They had a home now, a real family. It had been a long shot, coming out here, maybe even a fool's errand. But they had done it. They'd really done it. The wind dried the remaining moisture on his cheeks.
The sun began to slide behind a line of clouds, as they watched. It set the sky ablaze, edged the clouds with liquid gold. Rays of Heaven's light peaked through and shone downward, warm and comforting. In the distance, the dragons banked, and disappeared over the crest of the mountains.
They were gone.
They watched the horizon a while longer, until the sun slipped below it, and left the sky painted with lingering swaths of yellow and pink. Purple night waited on the fringes.
"… Do you think they'll be okay, Angeal?" Zack's voice was hushed, as the stillness of the evening began to creep upon them.
"I'm sure they will be."
"… Do you think we'll see them again?"
This, Angeal didn't answer. Instead, he simply settled an arm around his student's shoulders, pulling him close. Zack let his head rest against his mentor's arm. As if in reply, or perhaps simply a final farewell, Zack heard a distant roar. And, floating very faintly on the wind behind it, he fancied there were two other calls, young and vibrant.
There was a moment of silence. Then Angeal turned to rest his chin upon Zack's soft, black spikes. They had been through a lot. It was hard to believe that it was over.
"You've done me proud, Zack," he said, quietly.
Zack took a deep breath, remained immobile for a few minutes. Then he twisted to wrap his arms around his mentor.
"I'll miss them, Angeal."
It was yet several moments longer before they both climbed to their feet. Angeal stopped only to examine Zack's ankle and apply a Restore. It was time to head home.
As they stepped away from the cliff edge, Angeal thought back to the events of their extended adventure, the close calls they'd had, and the encounter with the dragon … with all the dragons. Zack had grown a lot, he thought, had learned a great deal. And, for his part, Angeal had learned much from his student. He was not a perfect mentor, not infallible, he made mistakes. But, despite that, despite his worries, he thought they'd done all right together.
"You know, Angeal …" Zack said, as they ambled away, "I think we make a pretty good team." His voice was still quiet, but it was sincere.
Angeal felt his lips quirk upward at this.
"You know, Zack … I think you might be right."
Yes, they did make a good team. Maybe Sephiroth would have done a better job. But Zack was his student, and he was Zack's mentor. He was sure things would go wrong again, they would argue, Angeal would question his methods, and Zack would drive him to worry.
But Angeal wouldn't change it for the world. They were a team, now, and always, even if they were just a little … just a little rough around the edges.