last chapter: sephiroth goes, "off with her head!"

What in the world had Genesis been looking for?

It was the one question that ran through Sephiroth's head as he had surveyed all the different cities that the clones had visited, yet with every visit, he was no closer to coming up with an answer. When he finally got to Junon and met with Zack, he found himself tired.

"Go back, Zack," Sephiroth had told him. "Go visit your girlfriend."

Hours later, Sephiroth found himself on taking the same train home. At the very least, the Turks had been bugging him to investigate something and he could, at least temporarily, distract himself with that. Something about thinking about Genesis frustrated and unnerved Sephiroth in a way he never wanted to admit.

But something was off when he arrived in his office. Immediately, he noticed that Cloud wasn't there as the boy should have been but somehow, everything felt… chilled. It was if he wasn't seeing things with his own eyes, and everything was distant, almost unreal.

Find me, my son…

Without even knowing where he was going, Sephiroth found himself walking and before long, he distantly recognized the halls as the ones leading to the Science Department. Distnatly, he realized that there were bodies along the floor (Dead? Alive?), yet the alarm wasn't going off.

And finally, he was right in front of the door to Hojo's lab.

There you go…

His hand reached out, touched the handle.

And then a yell ripped through the air.

Lucidity washed over Sephiroth like a earthquake and with a jolt, he pushed the door open, just in time to see Hojo pull out a syringe out of Cloud's arm with a victorious swing of his arm

"Hee hee hee! I doubt you will survive a batch of pure mak—Oh."

It all happened too fast for Sephiroth to even process, Cloud suddenly reaching for a cracked beaker and cracking it against the scientist's head. The older man didn't even let out a cry as he fell, his face frozen in his triumphant cackle as his body hit the ground.

And then he was dead.

"What's... going on?" Sephiroth found himself saying, his mind suddenly in a haze, only barely just catching the details of his surroundings. Destroyed lab equipment. Broken samples. Bodies on the floor, pale faces.

The boy turned to look at him, surprise morphing into pure panic as his eyes fell upon. "No…" Cloud let out. "You shouldn't be here…"

And then Sephiroth saw it-and honestly, how could he have not seen it earlier, it was magnificent-the glowing tank on the side of the room. Sephiroth completely forgot about Cloud, turning towards the object, mesmerized. Nothing else in the room mattered. No one else mattered. No one but the woman within that tank, who somehow seemed so familiar, that he could almost just sound out her name on the tip of his tongue. He stepped closer, and he felt that chilled feeling descend upon him again as his eyes flew to the nameplate on the woman's forehead: JENOVA.

"Mother?"

He didn't even realize that cracked whisper was his own.

You'll protect me, won't you?

He was just about to lay a hand on a tank, when he suddenly saw movement out of the corner of his eye. On pure gut instinct, Masamune was out in a flash and steel met steel, the noise singing out as Sephiroth found himself face-to-face with Cloud. Sephiroth found himself looking upon the boy with wonder, amazed that he was still able to stand after taking that injection of mako. It was clearly straining the boy, several droplets of sweat glistening along Cloud's ash-stricken face.

Yet the will he saw burning in the boy's eyes almost took his breath away, for just a moment.

But Sephiroth's amazement was quickly replaced by pure rage when he remembered just what Cloud Strife was standing in the way of. He narrowed his eyes on the boy, a cold, calculating wave of fury washing over him. "Don't stand in my way," he ground out.

Sephiroth swung his sword without mercy, aiming for the boy's chest, when he finds himself blocked again. The impact propagated throughout his body, and he can't help a small jolt of shock; Sephiroth hadn't been holding back. His gaze quickly flew to the other in utter confusion. The boy… should have been dead from that strike. He shouldn't have been fast enough to block the strike, and he certainly shouldn't be strong enough to hold his own against Sephiroth.

But as Sephiroth looked into Cloud's glowing cerulean eyes, one sudden thought gave him pause. Cloud couldn't have … adjusted to the mako? Already?

A smirk crossed Cloud's face and Sephiroth fleetingly realized this was the first time he had ever seen any genuine expression on the boy's face. "'Don't get in my way', huh?" The boy snorted. "Funny. That's my line."

And then he attacked.

Sephiroth was only barely able to hold off all the hits, and each collision shocked him as much as it fired him up. Not only was Cloud adjusting to the effects of the mako, no it more than that. The boy… was strong. More than strong. The boy was matching his every hit.

And to think the boy had been hiding his skill under his nose the whole time.

Who in the world are you, Cloud Strife?

Too late, Sephiroth realized that he slipped up, getting himself caught up in the fight, losing himself to the fire and the adrenaline that electrified him as he found his every move met and returned with equal fervor. It had been too long since he had felt like this, not since … not since Genesis and Angeal. Or maybe not even then.

Maybe he had never truly had an equal.

Until now.

And when that one thought gave him the barest pause, that slightest jolt of instinctual hesitation of the unknown, Cloud took his chance and broke through Sephiroth's defenses, his sword moving fluidly to knock Masamune away, landing its tip at his throat.

The world paused.

Sephiroth took the short breath of silence to just look at Cloud, only just now realizing what bad shape the boy was in. His limbs were shaking, the sweat had an intense sheen, and it seemed as if the blood had drained from his entire body.

And he had still beat Sephiroth in that state. The fucking prodigy.

"Are you going to kill me?" Sephiroth finally asked.

Never had Cloud's face ever looked so honest to Sephiroth as a whirlwind of emotion seemed to explode on the boy's face. It was all too fast and too restrained for Sephiroth to even read, but if there was one thing that Sephiroth knew he could recognize, it was adrenaline. No matter how the teenager tried to dial down his facial expressions, Sephiroth could see it. Cloud had enjoyed the fight just as much as he did.

Finally, a frown settled on the boy's face. "You're… not my target." The words came out constricted, tense. And then he put down his blade and turned back towards the capsule. "And… she's not your mother."

LIES!

A howling wind seemed to gather around Sephiroth, and there was a sudden explosion of pain throughout his chest. He buckled down as the feeling spread, almost as if it was trying to claw its way out, or carve a place for itself in his body. The screeching noise intensified and Sephiroth near blacked out from the sound alone.

But then, his body wasn't his anymore.

My sweet darling boy, you'll protect me, won't you?

Sephiroth found his hand reaching for the Masamune, slow and tortuous in its movements. He marveled at how it all felt, how soft and hazy everything had suddenly become. And silent. There was nothing but him… and her.

There was nothing more he needed.

As he watched Cloud, back still to him, raise his sword towards the tank in slow motion, a sudden clarity filled him and his energy returned. He knew what he needed to do.

Kill the boy…

Sephiroth slowly started to rise up, not making even a noise as he drew back his sword, when his glance fell across a beaker and caught his own reflection.

Cat-slit eyes.

Cloud's expression of fear from the training room incident suddenly appears in his mind, fuzzy and unclear, almost as if he was underwater. And then the memory comes up unbidden; the pain, the ice-cold hand that had gripped onto him…

Those eyes weren't his.

But his body was already moving on its own.

"No!"

Cloud heard Sephiroth's yell a split second too late—he turned around, only to have his chest completely pierced through the Masamune. He didn't make a noise; he didn't even have a look a surprise or shock as the blade moved fluidly into his body.

Instead, then there was something else.

There was the sound of the cracking of glass, the sound of liquid rushing out.

And the sound of a woman's scream.

The last Sephiroth remembered, before the darkness finally took him over, was the taste of chocolate on his tongue.

epilogue

She didn't know why she came here, but something within her just called to her, singing, asserting that she needed to be here. Even when Zack had texted her and asked to meet up, she had ignored the message. There was something here for her in the church.

Right now.

So Aerith stood, not sure what she was waiting for, when she started to hear it. Heavy footsteps, harsh breathing, and suddenly, she saw Cloud in the doorway. At the sight of him, she let out a shocked gasp and ran towards, just as he toppled forward.

There were cuts and slashes all over his body, though the most obvious wound was the one in the middle of his chests, looking like a black hole of blood. She pushed her jacket onto the wound in a panic, yet despite her frenzied movements, the blood continued to flow, betraying and warm.

And yet his body was turning so cold.

"I didn't even… Sephiroth… he killed her…"

"Cloud, don't speak," she ordered. "Just… conserve your energy."

But he didn't hear her, or maybe he just ignored her, because he was holding on her hand, and absurdly enough, smiling. Smiling as if he was the happiest man in the world. "Aerith…" he said, slowly. "I… I had a dream. That the world was nearly destroyed. That you… died." He looked at her with wide eyes. "But… You're alive… right?"

A slow horror filled her every bone. "Yes, Cloud," she responded gently. "I'm… alive."

"Good…"

His eyes were clouding over, and yet, glowing (glowing?) so brightly at the same time, staring unseeingly into the distance.

"Cloud?"

No response. She held onto him tightly, as if that would stop him from leaving.

"Cloud?"

No. She wouldn't let him die like this. As if she was on fire, adrenaline suddenly was pulsing within her every vein. She looked around frantically at everything, anything, just looking for something that she could use… and then her eyes fell on her cell phone.

She didn't even hesitate as she went to dial the number.

"Tseng?" Her voice came out in shuddering breaths and she could barely get the words past her choked up throat. But still, she forced the sounds out regardless, ignoring the hot, burning feeling in her eyes, ignoring how her hand shook so much she nearly dropped the phone. "Do you remember that offer you made to me? Tell them ... Tell them I've changed my mind."

"Aerith? What are you... are you crying?"

. end .

Note: There are two planned sequels. The next is the series will be called 'Annotations'.