A/N: So sorry for the delay, my dear friends. Real life and original works eat time more reliably than stone angels. I hope you enjoy this offering, despite the delay!
Disclaimer: I do not own any facet of Final Fantasy VII, though I would not object to joint custody if its owners are ever looking to take weekends off...
Sephiroth found himself watching the Genesis copy an abnormal amount in the days that followed. It was unspeakably strange, interacting with someone who both was and was not Genesis, and at the same time both was and was not Zachary. He had never realized how much of a person's identity was tied up in their form. Where Zack had been big and almost intimidatingly friendly in his broad-shouldered and muscular form, wearing Genesis's body he seemed reserved by comparison, though he still did all the same things.
Four times now during their trek Sephiroth had been required to dodge a hug from the man. Four. And it was only the third day of travel. He did not welcome touch, and Zack knew that well. And yet, something about the man made him express any level of delight by flinging his hands out and attempting to hug the nearest person-shaped object. Sephiroth had observed that it need not actually be a person when they found the river after the second day, and Zachary attached himself affectionately onto a damp rock, snuggling it. The sight of dignified, refined Genesis with his monstrous wing and his flashing eyes snuggling an everyday river rock and getting a little mud on his cheek was nothing short of surreal.
He said to himself that it was the surrealism that made him want to watch so fixedly. He repeated it as many times in a day as he could—every time he caught himself eyeing the glint of Genesis's hair in the sun, or watching the wing flair and relax at his back. Zachary had already gotten significantly better at keeping the thing under control. Every now and then, Sephiroth saw him look upwards and squint, a little smile tilting thin, perfect lips that were not his own as he contemplated flying.
If he were honest, though, it was not those aspects that made him watch Zachary. It was the same thing that drew him to all his friends, and fascinated him about them. It was the spirit he could see in those clear blue held a sort of strange effervescence that radiated from the entirety of Zack's being. It was both similar to and absolutely opposed to the burning self-righteousness that seeped from the real Genesis. Both fascinating—both strange—completely different. And yet, now, they were somehow stuck together in the same form, and no matter how Zack tried (if it really was Zack, a part of his mind whispered treacherously every time he tried to think) he couldn't quite be entirely himself while Genesis's body held him.
However, his eyes remained lively and bright. Which was why when he woke up on the fourth morning with a dull, listless look in his foggy gaze, Sephiroth immediately felt a swell of worry. Zack stayed all but silent behind Genesis's impassive face as they walked. His gaze remained on the ground, and his footsteps were slower than the pace they had been setting in the days before.
Part of Sephiroth wanted to say something. He wanted to acknowledge the change, and make it clear that he wanted to know what was going on. But at the same time, it was not his way. He knew his men, and they knew him. He did not ask after the health of his subordinates. He assumed they were well enough to continue until a medic told him otherwise, or they were no longer able to continue marching. Zachary was still marching, and Sephiroth was still his General, even if not in name. So he did not ask, and he did not slow down. Not until Zachary crumbled.
At first, Sephiroth thought it was just that Zack had tripped. His equilibrium had still not entirely recovered from the transformation into a new body. He paused, waiting for Zack to get to his feet and continue following. After three seconds, he shifted, watching the other man's fingers clench in the soft soil. Then after five more, Sephiroth started to walk over. He moved quietly through the brush, and couldn't help but eye the wing splayed out to Zack's side. It was flexing in and out, slowly, in tandem with his fingers tightening and relaxing their grip in the dirt.
"Zachary," Sephiroth said quietly.
"Something's wrong," Zack said softly. Red hair glinted in the afternoon light as he shook his head slowly. "Something's wrong with me."
Sephiroth crouched slowly, taking Zack's chin gently in his hand and tilting his head up slowly. Genesis's face was pale and drawn. There was a strange mark on his cheek that drew Sephiroth's attention from the still-dull cast of usually brilliant eyes. He tilted Zack's head, ignoring the confused twist on his comrade's brow.
There was a crack on his cheek. There was no other way to describe it than a crack, though Sephiroth was certain that it was a word that ought not to be used for human injuries. But the mark was not a cut. It was not a bruise. It was a crack. It did not bleed, and it was not swollen, but it was undeniably a mark made in the skin, and not a superficial coloration. Sephiroth could not resist the urge to touch it.
The skin around the mark was smooth, but dry. The mark itself had hardened edges, like shards of pottery clay. As his finger touched it, Zack recoiled, gathering enough energy to break free of Sephiroth's grasp and stare at him.
"Ow," he said in sharp rebuke. "What the hell was that, Seph?"
"There is a crack in your cheek," Sephiroth said dully by way of explanation. "That should not be possible."
Zack's hands lifted to his own face, tracing over his own cheeks. His fingers found the broken pieces of skin, and traced over them in horrified curiosity. He was starting to shake, and Sephiroth wondered abruptly if he ought not to have refrained from giving Zack that information.
"What the hell," Zack whispered, his hand still on the mark. "What the hell is this? What is happening to me, Seph!?"
Sephiroth didn't have an answer. He clenched his jaw and shook his head in response. He expected Zack to melt down, or to start screaming. He wouldn't even have been terribly surprised if the boy broke into his half-manic laughter. He did laugh at strange things, after all.
Instead, Zack's eyes rolled back in his head, and he started to shake harder. Abruptly, Sephiroth realized that the shaking was not a reaction, but a symptom in its own right. He rose to his feet smoothly and backed away from the convulsing boy. There were no immediate dangers in the area of his thrashing. Better to stay out of his way and avoid being harmed or harming him until the fit passed.
He watched from behind dispassionate eyes, waiting for the seizure to pass. He felt annoyance rise as Zack continued to spasm rather than arising for him to continue inspecting and questioning. It was frustrating, being stuck watching while he finished thrashing about. Sephiroth crossed his arms slowly, waiting impatiently for his friend to settle.
A glimmer of silver drew his eyes away from the overall spasmodic motions to the bright red hair that fell over Zack's face as it had Genesis's. His annoyance faded to be replaced by fascination. Grey was working its way down the hair, from the scalp through the bangs. It formed a thin streak, sapping the color from the hair a few strands at a time. It widened slowly, until there was an inch-long scar of grey through otherwise red bangs. Abruptly, the change stopped, and with it, so did the seizure Zack was experiencing.
Sephiroth waited a moment, observing the limp form now sprawled on the ground. When he was assured the fit was truly at an end, he moved forward slowly.
Zack remained unmoving, breathing raggedly and deeply in unconsciousness. It made it easy to lift the hair away from his face unnoticed. He inspected the grey hair, stroking a single finger down the swath. He lifted a strand of his own hair with the other hand, and held the two together a moment before dropping them both with a soft sound. Even he was not sure whether it was disappointment or not. They were not the same. For a moment—just one moment—he had wondered if perhaps there were others similar to him. Though his silver hair had not come about through seizures, he would have accepted that method in another. No one was as perfect as himself, after all.
But Zachary's hair was not silver now, but a dull, lifeless grey. It appeared to be brittle, and lay almost stiffly in comparison to the rest of the lovely hair. As though it had been bleached and starched.
The great wing shifted through the dirt, and Sephiroth took it as a sign that Zachary was awakening. He stood to move away, but hesitated, finding the hem of his coat caught in a weak grip. He stared down at Zack's gloved hand, unsure what to do with the situation. He could remove the grip easily, if he chose to. But he was unsure whether or not that was the correct option. Zachary trusted him. His trust was useful. Sephiroth had to act carefully to keep from breaking it. Otherwise, he would have very little assurance that Zack would follow his commands when it was of the utmost importance.
"Seph," Zack whispered.
It was too late to remove the grip now. With Zack awake, it would be too blatant of a dismissal. So instead, Sephiroth accepted the silent request and sank to one knee once more, staring impassively at Genesis's face as Zack roused slowly.
"What-" the man whispered, his voice low and gruff, seeming unable to hit his usual voice. Sephiroth repressed a shudder at the way that weariness touched Genesis's voice.
"A seizure." Sephiroth replied without waiting for the question to complete.
"Am I dying?" Zack asked.
Sephiroth did not answer. He was no master at reading people and their emotions, but he knew the tone of Zack's voice. It was fear. And Sephiroth had no comfort to offer him.
'He is afraid of death,' a voice whispered in his head. 'What kind of Soldier fears the inevitable?'
'Hush,' he replied to his own internal voice.
Zack's hand was shaking in his jacket, but it was no convulsion this time. It was pure fear. The leather of his gloves creaked with the intensity of his grip. Sephiroth considered a long moment how to respond, before slowly reaching down and covering Zack's hand with his own. He did not remove the clinging hand, but simply covered it silently with his own, in a show of silent solidarity.
"We will fix it," Sephiroth asserted firmly.
Zack was staring at him. Sephiroth watched the shift in his eyes as he spoke. The dullness fled, replaced by the spark that had always been there, hiding behind the surface. It made him look more like himself. And more like Genesis at the same time.
'Fascinating,' the inner voice whispered.
'No,' Sephiroth silently replied, repressing the rage that rose with the word he'd heard spoken by his father so many times.
"Thanks, Seph," Zack was whispering.
The hand under Sephiroth's released his coat abruptly. Zack didn't intend to release him, though. His hand was tightly gripped, and the exhausted puppy clung to it like a lifeline itself. Sephiroth eyed the hand on his, noting its inherent strength, and the ways his pale skin looked against black gloves. He did not hold the hand in return. But he did not remove the grip either.
"Thanks for everything," Zack whispered, pulling himself up slowly to sit, letting out a long breath.
"I have not done anything, Zachary."
"You left with me," Zack whispered, his grip tightening just a little bit. "You believed me, and now you're trying to save me. That's not just 'anything.' That's everything."
Sephiroth said nothing in return. He stared down at their joined hands, and waited. He was not enjoying the touch on his hand. It was firm enough, certainly. He preferred firm touch to light ones. But it was too connected. Too close. It was dangerously familiar.
"I was already considering leaving my post as Shinra's General."
"Really?" Zack asked in bewilderment, his grip lessening just a little, Genesis's head tilting in his soft confusion. "Because of Angeal and Genesis?"
"Perhaps," Sephiroth replied softly. "I have been... Considering it for some time."
"How long is 'some time?'" Zack asked, remarkably clear and bright for having just experienced what Sephiroth could only describe as a seizure.
"If you are well enough, we should move far enough onward to find shelter for the night. We are nearing Banora as it is. It would do us well to move with more thought and less speed from here on out."
"That was a dodge," Zack said softly, eyeing Sephiroth with eyes that were Genesis's, but somehow more intuitive—almost frighteningly so.
"Perhaps because it is none of your business," the once-general replied, standing and shaking Zack's hand off.
'Maybe he would understand,' the other voice in the back of his head whispered—the voice that was more human than any other part of him.
'No one understands,' his other voice replied, dark and dangerous. It made Sephiroth shiver to hear the almost feminine aspect of his mind speak with so much force. 'No one could ever understand. He would turn on you. As they all have, one by one.'
"Stand up," Sephiroth ordered, averting his eyes from Zack's borrowed form. "We're moving."
"What is wrong with you?" Zack asked, sounding hurt and a little fragile. "I'm hurt, Seph. There's no reason to be a jerk about it."
"I am being pragmatic, not a jerk," Sephiroth replied, cutting his gaze down to Zack.
The moment he laid eyes on him, his resolve wavered. He looked like a kicked puppy. He was managing to make Genesis look like a kicked puppy. His eyes were luminous and watery, brimming with tears that he wouldn't let fall. The hand Sephiroth had previously allowed to hold his was curled at Zack's chest, covering his heart as though to guard it. His newly greyed hair was falling into his face, dull and limp rather than vibrant and lively. And the look on his face... He looked wounded. Not just in pain, but wounded. As though Sephiroth had struck at the very heart of him.
Sephiroth knew he shouldn't soften. He knew that growing any closer would only leave him open to being more deeply hurt. And he knew that his inner voice was right—that eventually Zack would leave him too.
He knew all of that, but he still crouched at Zack's side and touched a hand to his newly marred cheek. He brushed away the tear that almost fell from Zack's eye, and heaved a soft sigh, searching his mind for an apology, though they never seemed to come to him. He had a mental block against apologizing. He could never form the words. But it seemed he didn't need to.
At his touch, Zack calmed, and his hitching breaths evened out. The luminous, sad eyes closed lightly, and his tense shoulders drooped. Sephiroth took it as a good sign. He gave the greying hair a gentle pet, brushing it back out of Zack's face.
"Be strong," Sephiroth said after a long moment, rather than apologizing. "I rely upon my soldiers to be strong."
"Yes sir," Zack said softly, his eyes still closed and his pose weary.
"I know this is difficult for you," the general said, allowing his hand to side through that strangely soft hair yet again—how it was not oily after so many days of walking, he was not sure—and cupping Zack's other cheek, drawing his attention. "And I understand that you are hurting. Know that what orders I give you, I give in an attempt to protect you and keep you safe. You must trust me to have those motives in mind."
"Sorry, sir," Zack breathed, letting out a slow breath. "I know that. I do."
"Good," Sephiroth replied. "Now. Stand up, Zack. We need to keep moving."
Zack opened his eyes—Genesis's eyes—and looked up at Sephiroth through their suddenly clear depths. His tears had vanished, replaced by a quiet resolve. There was a word for it, Sephiroth thought, finding himself caught in that bright blue gaze. There was a word for how he thought those eyes looked.
'Beautiful,' the inner human voice whispered.
For once, his other side—his darker side—didn't argue.
And when Zack moved forward, Sephiroth didn't stop him. When their lips met, Sephiroth allowed it. And when it continued for longer than a moment, he took control. He deepened the kiss, shifting his hand from Zack's hair to the back of his neck, drawing him closer to the kiss, devouring the taste of his lips. He didn't care that it wasn't sterile. He reveled in the unsanitary nature of human desire. He thrilled at the sounds that escaped Genesis's throat as he plundered his mouth.
And then he remembered himself, and as suddenly as he had let it begin, he broke the kiss. Zack was panting, but smiling at him. It was a soft, open-mouthed smile. His eyes were shining again, with want and desire.
"Zachary," Sephiroth began.
"It's okay," Zack interrupted, putting his hand lightly on Sephiroth's chest. "I know you want Genesis, not me. I don't mind. I really don't."
Sephiroth let out a slow breath, watching the puppy smile sweetly at him. It was wrong, he knew. The puppy's assessment wasn't incorrect, but it also wasn't... Complete. It wasn't that Sephiroth didn't want him. It was that he wanted them both. And wasn't it perfect that now they were both neatly wrapped up in the same body...
He shook his head slowly, and brushed a hand through Zack's hair again before taking his hands and standing, drawing the puppy up with him as well. Better not to tell Zack that. He was reasonably certain the puppy would not approve of having his current condition appreciated. And it wasn't as though Sephiroth wouldn't help Zack recover his true form. But a treacherous voice in the back of his head had been urging him towards kisses, and touches—towards what was for now all his own. After all, soon he would meet up with Genesis and Angeal. Soon he would not have this strangely damaged and attractive Zack with him. Soon he would have his precious Angeal back, and Sephiroth would be background noise yet again in a dance of personal interactions that Sephiroth had never and would never understand.
But taking advantage wouldn't do. He released Zack's hands once the man was on his feet, and turned to lead him towards Banora—just a little closer and they'd begin running into the natural cave formations of the area, where they could take shelter. And it would just be shelter. No more kissing, he promised himself. No more touches.
"This cheek thing really hurts," Zack muttered behind him. "And it really really doesn't make sense."
"I know," Sephiroth replied, glancing back to see Zack poking at his cheek. "If it hurts so much, I would not bother it."
"But it's weird," Zack replied, casting him a rather wide-eyed look.
"You'll make it worse, messing with it," the general warned, shaking his head and turning back to watch the forest as he walked through it.
"I know," sighed the puppy behind him. "But I've been thinking... What if we don't find Angeal and Genesis here? I mean, where do we go from there? Maybe we should have stayed at Shinra... The scientists there-"
"No," Sephiroth interrupted sharply, whirling on Zack.
The puppy froze behind him, fixed in place by Sephiroth's gaze, as the general had known he would be. Sephiroth approached slowly, letting each step carry a warning and a threat, watching as Zack's eyes grew wider, and the wing curled at his back.
"You won't mention it again," Sephiroth ordered, leaning close to address Zack from only inches away. "That is not and never has been an option. Is that clear?"
"Clear as crystal, sir," Zack responded, his voice a little on the breathy side.
"Good," Sephiroth said shortly, backing a step away to allow Zack room to breathe.
He knew that his presence was intimidating. It had probably been cruel of him to use it like that. But it wasn't an option. It wasn't. Sending Zack into those white halls—into the rooms full of machines that would make it so much worse before they made it better—into a place where few ever left, and if they did leave they were never the same... It would be a surer destruction for the puppy than death. And if a little application of brute force helped drive that point home, then it was worth the traces of fear and confusion that had entered the puppy's scent.
Sephiroth turned away and started walking again without another word. Zack followed him, interrupted only now and then by a stumble or a stagger. The first somewhat-defensible location Sephiroth found, he stopped at. They would be reasonably secure at the side of the small cliff-face. The hills had some jagged outcroppings here nearer Banora's rolling hills. They afforded at least some shelter.
He motioned to the panting Zachary to sit down while he paced out as far as the tree line, walking swiftly and stiffly along it, mentally measuring the distance from where they would be settled to any potential kill zone for a threat exiting the woods. As his curve met the other side of the rock face, he crouched deep and leapt up onto it, glancing around. The top of the hill had fewer, if any trees. Sephiroth looked around the rather bare hill and nodded his approval. He would hear anything approaching them from this angle. It would die before it even crossed the edge.
He jumped lightly down, landing with barely a whisper. He looked over to instruct Zachary to get some sleep, only to find the Genesis copy already lying down, his head pillowed on his arms and his wing splayed behind him haphazardly. Genesis's eyelashes were dark and feathery over his pale cheeks. The streak of grey in his auburn hair could almost be mistaken for a trick of the evening light, Sephiroth thought. He wandered over slowly, looking down at the vulnerable, sleeping form. He wanted this, he thought to himself as he stared at the lithe body that could move so gracefully, and had for so many days now been subjected to awkward stumbling and disjointed motion.
'I always take what I want,' he thought to himself, gazing down at the delicate features that belonged to his first friend.
But that wasn't quite true, and he knew it. He had wanted freedom, and had never taken it. He had wanted Genesis for years, and had never dared. Had wanted Angeal, and never found the way to put it. Had wanted Zack, and hadn't dared for fear of hurting him. He was far from always taking what he wanted. But Zack's offer was tempting-the smile with which he'd proclaimed he didn't mind if Sephiroth used him as a stand in for Genesis-it had not been so sad a smile. He might really not mind.
But not now, Sephiroth thought, shaking his head and moving to the rock wall to sit slowly, his eyes falling to half-mast. The clone needed his sleep. And though Sephiroth would not sleep that night, he would keep watch for him, and let him get the rest he so needed. Later, perhaps. Later, when they had found a way to heal the strange cracks in his skin and the greying hair. Then he would consider it again.
Despite his rigid decision to wait, as he watched the Genesis copy breath deeply through parted lips, he could not hide the desire that ate away at him. The kiss had been a surprise. And he wondered if, perhaps, Zachary had his own agenda that would change his selfless plan. He quietly hoped that he did.