A/N: Well, this project came out of nowhere, and may be going nowhere, but it is already dear to my heart. A new version of the events in Crisis Core, where everything will change. Pairings to be decided, but quite possibly to include SGAZC and/or remcest. But I'll warn you if and when those come up. For now, just enjoy the ride.
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core, Advent Children, Advent Children Complete, any of the related merchandise, or Dirge of Cerberus. If I owned Dirge of Cerberus, things would have been different.
Sephiroth had never been a fan of waiting. Ever since he could remember, the moment before a battle was the worst part of a fight for him. He'd always despised being put on hold, and made that clear enough that there was no longer any company who dared to do anything but speak directly and promptly to him. He had eliminated almost every element of pure waiting from his life—he didn't even order delivered food like so many of his Soldiers did.
And yet, ever since Genesis had left his life without a word, all he seemed to do was wait. When Angeal followed, it was twice as bad. He waited for the orders to follow them that he knew would never come. He waited for Shinra to do something so outright heinous he could justify running from the men who relied on him. He knew why Genesis and Angeal had run, but he saw nothing strange in the way they had been treated. It was unfortunate that the degradation had occurred, but there was nothing to do but fight it now, and he did not see how them leaving could possibly have helped either of them.
So he did the only thing he could. He talked Professor Hojo into working on a cure, careful to do so in such a round about way that the fool would believe it was his own idea. He put plans in place in case he vanished and left Soldier without a General. Then he waited for Angeal and Genesis to come to their senses and return, or Shinra to drive him away. It was looking less and less likely that either of those things would happen before his friends were destroyed.
Because of his impatience, and his annoyance, and the agony of waiting for so very long, when Genesis finally appeared on his balcony one night, he reached for his sword instead of going to embrace him. Sephiroth stood as Genesis opened the bay window and staggered through, his wing folding behind him. He looked ill and sickly, but he was one for the dramatics. Sephiroth kept his distance and waited.
"Seph," Genesis rasped, his voice cracking in his throat.
His sword wavered. Sephiroth lowered it. There was something wrong with that voice. It was Genesis's, of course, but it was not. The soft Banora accent had vanished, along with any traces of bravado. If anything, Sephiroth would have labeled the Genesis standing before him as a native of an area closer to Gongaga.
"Seph, help me," The man who was obviously a clone pleaded, extending hands empty of a sword towards him. "Please, help me."
"Not just anyone may enter my apartment," Sephiroth said lowly and darkly. "And I do not welcome assassins or spies."
"What? I don't-"
Sephiroth shifted his feet just a touch, then blitzed forward, grabbing both of the extended hands of the clone in one of his own, and using his free arm to pin him back against the wall by his throat. He gave an undignified squawk at the motion, and struggled uselessly, eyes wide with fear. He was still crying.
"Now I will release your throat in a moment," Sephiroth said lowly to the man whose breath he was momentarily halting, "And you will do nothing but answer my question. Who are you?"
He shifted his forearm back, removing some of the pressure from his intruder's trachea. He'd been careful not to crush, but the clone gasped for air like he'd been suffocated for solid minutes. Sephiroth fought the urge to roll his eyes.
"I-" The clone gasped, lifting glowing blue eyes to Sephiroth's, meeting them with a shocked sort of fear that was in and of itself confusing.
"You have five seconds," Sephiroth informed him calmly, counting down silently in his head. He was more than willing to deliver the Turks the living clone they had been wanting. This foolish creature might even help Hojo find the cure he'd been searching for.
"It's me, Seph," The clone choked through tears. "It's Zack!"
Sephiroth had been preparing to cut off the copy's breath again, but the words froze him as suddenly and solidly as though he'd just been struck by an ice spell. He should have kept his guard up—have at least doubted the words—but he didn't. He lowered his arm slowly, and released the hands he was holding captive. The Genesis copy slid down the wall, sobbing raggedly, and drew his knees up to his chest. Sephiroth watched with confused distance as he hid his face in his arms, looking for all the world like Angeal's puppy, and yet so wrong—so very impossibly wrong. The wing arched behind him was half-crushed in his position against Sephiroth's apartment wall, and it shook with every ragged sob.
It wasn't possible, of course. It wasn't at all possible. Zachary was in the small apartment Shinra had given him after Angeal deserted, and it became apparent that they would require more highly-ranked role models for the cadets to aspire towards. He hadn't come to visit Sephiroth's office like he usually did—not for the past two days—but it wasn't unusual for Angeal's puppy to change his routine. Between his current conquest in the form of a pretty slum girl and his busy life as a role-model and Soldier, his absence had not seemed at all unusual.
Sephiroth pulled out his phone, still staring at the crying clone. He pulled up Zachary's number—his third speed dial, behind Genesis and Angeal—and held the phone to his ear, waiting to hear the familiar voice. Zack would answer, he thought, with the forced note of happiness that had colored his voice ever since his teacher left them both to join Genesis in desertion. He'd be surprised,and shocked, and confused by the deception—as much as Sephiroth was and more. And then he would know for a fact that the tears were manufactured. Once he did, the crying clone would have to answer to his questions.
But the voice never came. He was answered with a chipper, obnoxious voice mail and a beep. He glanced downwards at the greying hair of the Genesis copy. He hadn't looked up again since his proclamation, and he looked so beaten down, and so tired. It broke Sephiroth's heart a little, every time he saw one of these twisted creatures which both were and were not his best friend. Every time he had to kill them and see Genesis's eyes closed in death.
He pulled his eyes away again, redialing Zack's phone, hoping that he'd simply been asleep. Another answer by voice mail. Sephiroth called one more time, and clenched his jaw when there was no reply once more.
"I lost my phone," the clone said brokenly from where he sat curled against the wall. " When they changed me into this they took my clothes, and it was in my pocket. If you're trying to call me at all. Of course you're probably calling the Turks to come and collect the Genesis copy, huh." A dry laugh wrung from him like a sob, and he lost himself again, crying helplessly into his gloved hands.
Sephiroth took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. It was so wrong to see Genesis like this. Even if he was not really Genesis. His red-haired, mercurial friend had many facets, and many moods, but he had never been prone to crying, or showing sorrow in any way. It manifested as rage in Genesis. If the copy had been flying off the walls, setting fires, attacking Sephiroth or causing himself harm, he would have had no problem accepting that this was simply another imperfect clone. But it was wrong. So far all the clones he had met were little more than mindless worker drones. If this one was lying, than it was showing a remarkable ability to hold on to its sanity. Worthy of a chance, part of him thought, overriding the part of him that was focused only on the danger represented by the pity and concern in his chest.
"I do not believe your story," Sephiroth said, his voice quiet and dark. "And if you have done something to Zachary in order to pull off this forgery, I will kill you."
"I don't know whether to be happy you're protective, or scared," The clone said with another choking laugh, looking up at him from beneath knitted brows.
Sephiroth inspected those eyes, searching for answers. They were unmistakably Genesis's eyes. That intense blue that he'd been obsessed with since childhood. Eyes so very different from his own—So human, and so very full of desires. Except that now, though they were physically the same, they were filled with tears, bloodshot around the rims, and looking slightly puffy from crying too much. There were dark circles of exhaustion marring his perfect complexion, and his expression—it was all wrong. It was almost as disturbing as the one time he'd seen Genesis act on stage instead of just reading loveless. Genesis, and not at the same time. He felt the pain in the back of his head building again, in the same place that twinged every time he killed one of the creatures with his friend's face. His eye twitched. He tried to shake it off quickly.
"Seph?" came Genesis's quiet voice from the base of the wall, where he was still sitting, curled up tightly in place. "Are you okay, Seph?"
"Do not call me that," he instructed coldly, staring just over the head of the clone instead of looking in his eyes any longer. "And be silent. I am attempting to decide what to do with you."
"You sure?" the clone asked again, shifting a little. "Your eye is doing that twitching thing that it does when you're freaking out a little."
"I do not freak out," Sephiroth muttered, snarling slightly as he glanced behind himself, checking the door at his back to ensure this wasn't just a distraction.
"Sure you don't," the voice said with a soft note of teasing behind the tears. "Because you totally got your feelings surgically removed when you found out they could be uncomfortable."
"Zachary," Sephiroth started, whirling on him, "I've told you-"
He broke off, the words he'd planned to say fading away abruptly. Genesis's clone was looking up at him with a wide eyed gaze. Sephiroth studied it as his mind struggled to catch up. He finally decided the expression was displaying something along the lines of 'hope.' He took a slow, deep breath.
"See, Seph?" the clone spoke softly, and his voice was shaking with every word. "Even your subconscious knows it's me."
He considered all his options. Part of him was screaming that it was true. That this was Zack—Angeal's puppy, who he'd sworn to himself he would protect and lead in his friend's place. But another part screamed in denial. To accept that this was Zack would be to surrender on the option that the real Zack was elsewhere, possibly in danger, possibly waiting for him to arrive and lend him aid. What was the harm in playing along, the part of his mind that was still calm and analytical asked. It received no coherent answer. A rush of emotions, but nothing substantial. He shut out his own discomfort and uncertainty, and crouched slowly before the clone.
"What happened?" he asked softly, keeping his face schooled to blankness. He would not show this clone weakness, whether he was Zachary or not. And if he was, he probably knew that it was there without being shown.
"I went after them," the clone Sephiroth was now thinking of as Zack said. "Angeal and Genesis. I know you said not to, and that we'd find them together, but I got impatient, and the last time we saw them they both looked worse for wear and-"
"Zachary," Sephiroth interrupted, though the name felt wrong coming from his lips while he was staring at Genesis's face. "We will not dwell on any missteps for now. Facts. No tirades. Start at where it went wrong."
"I-" Genesis's face twisted a little, and he drew in a shaking breath, letting it out slowly, struggling to regain his calm. "I found their hideout. I had a little help, but I found it. I thought—Oh, wait, just facts. Um, they let me in, and I thought that Angeal might have planned for me coming to find him. I thought maybe he wanted me to. So when one of the clones started leading me downstairs, I went with him."
"Who was there?" Sephiroth asked, studying the body language of the clone as he spoke. He was not good at reading people, and it took all his attention to catch nuances. He could detect a lie from a cadet at twenty paces, but in delicate situations like these, it was often hard for him to tell real tears from false ones.
"Hollander," Zack rasped softly.
The way he said it rang true in Sephiroth. It struck a part of him straight in the heart of where he hid his fears. He was not afraid of Hollander—the man was simply a dumpy scientist with more drive than he had talent. It was the way his name had been spoken. He recognized it very well. He'd said Hojo's name that way so very often, when explaining what was wrong to Genesis or Angeal. When realizing something else was wrong with him. When finding another trainee's name removed mysteriously from the roster.
"He said he'd take me to Angeal," Zack said softly, "but I'm not a total idiot. I realized something was wrong, then. So I tried to run." He flared the wing behind himself, and flinched at its movement, glancing back to the feathery appendage with confusion and a trace of fear. He swallowed as the wing settled, and turned his blazing blue eyes back to Sephiroth. "You might have guessed already that I didn't exactly make it out."
"And yet you are here." Sephiroth muttered, fighting to ignore how the figure before him was trembling. "So did you escape, or have you become yet another puppet, sent to kill me."
"No, Seph," Zack said softly, his voice shaking as heavily as he was. "I think you've lost enough friends without having to kill me. If I hadn't made it out, I would have killed myself before doing that to you. Even if you didn't know it was me at the time."
Sephiroth stared at him. They were on the same level, with him crouching and Zack still pressed against the wall. He studied his position, looking for Zack in it and coming up blank. Unsurprising, since he'd never seen Zack despondent, or particularly afraid. The one time the boy had been frightened, he'd spent the entire evening wrapped in Angeal's embrace, fighting tears and hiding against his mentor's broad chest. Genesis had teased him mercilessly, but Zack hadn't seemed to care. It had been a display that Sephiroth couldn't help but think of as intensely strange and disturbing, seeing Angeal cradling the boy in the same hands Sephiroth had seen him slay thousands with.
A traitorous part of him rose up, quietly. It defied all his logic, and all of his training. It was just a whisper in the back of his mind, but he couldn't help but notice it.
'If I hold him,' he was thinking to himself. 'I could find out if he reacts the same way as he did at Angeal's offer. And perhaps he would stop crying. I do not like seeing him looking so broken. Not Genesis or Zack.'
It was a silly and childish thought. It was the basest sentimentality. It was something that, if Hojo discovered it, would cause him unspeakable pain as his father deprogrammed the instinct to comfort. It had happened before. He could still strongly remember the ungodly torment he'd undergone after Hojo found out he had named one of the lab rats. The thought was unspeakably foolish, and everything he'd been told not to succumb to.
He opened his arms to the Genesis clone in offer. It took a moment, but once the gesture registered, tears welled in those pained eyes again, and Sephiroth found himself with an armful of Zack. The other man clung to him, arms wrapped around his back and fingertips digging into his leather jacket almost painfully. The wing flapped once, awkwardly, as though the man were unsure where to put it, then drooped to the floor beside them, laying still. Sephiroth kept his arms out to the side a long moment, startled by how quickly the embrace had been initiated. Then he slowly curled them around the slim, solid figure that had attached itself to him.
It was strange to hold someone. Anyone. He'd made it clear a very long time ago that he disliked touch, and the only people he'd ever been close to at all respected his dislike. It crawled under his skin as the clone touched him. Intimate, disturbing and pervasive. The urge grew inside him—the urge to crack the neck of the clone, or his back—to remove him from the equation before he grew any closer. He did not. His hands rested lightly on Genesis's strong back, just under the joint where wing met flesh under his fading leather jacket.
"What am I going to do?" Zack sobbed against him in the voice that wasn't his. "What am I going to do, Seph?"
"What indeed," Sephiroth murmured, staring down at the greying hair that was all he could see with Zack's face pressed against his bare chest, leaving hot wet patches on his skin where he was crying.
"Poor Genesis," Zack choked against him.
Sephiroth balked in confusion, staring down in utter bewilderment. "Poor Genesis?"
"Yeah," Zack rasped, curling closer still. "Him and Angeal both, if they're really the same. It's horrible in here. In this body."
"How so?" He asked the question blandly, but his heart was speeding up with nerves.
"I can feel it dying," Zack whispered. "It's stronger than mine was, but it's—It's crumbling."
"Crumbling," Sephiroth repeated softly, thinking back on Genesis—on his shoulder wound which wouldn't stop bleeding—on the pained look on his face the last time he saw him, as though he were carrying to heavy a burden—on the last time he'd seen him, with his hair turning white and the tired look about him.
"Alright," Sephiroth whispered at last, staring over Zack's shoulder. "Alright, I believe you. And I know what we need to do."
"What?" Zack whispered against him, pulling back to gaze at him, sniffling softly. As wrong as it was to see Genesis cry at all, it was even stranger to see him wiping his runny nose on the back of his sleeve. "What do we need to do?"
"We leave tonight," Sephiroth answered softly, turning his gaze from the boy. "The same way you came in. We find Genesis and Angeal, and then we all try to survive."