“There isn’t much time.” Aerith’s voice was a murmur in his ear, and yet seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “I’m sorry. But I believe you can make a difference with it. Wake up, you have to wake up.”
Zack’s eyes opened, a memory of white and yellow lilies and Aerith’s voice, and soft and warm, quiet green light in the darkness- those memories faded. The sensation of being shot in the chest at least a dozen times took longer to fade, although his skin was completely whole underneath his hand.
He was in a bed. Somewhere. Where was he? The scent of lilies lingered, reminding him of the dream.
Zack fiddled with his PHS, and stared at the time. The date.
Horror set in, and a slow realization.
He was in Nibelheim.
Had it been a dream? The infantry gunning him down? The fire? The experiments? What Sephiroth would do to this tiny town in only hours?
Only… Hours at most. He’d woken partway through the massacre in his dream, with Sephiroth already sweeping towards the reactor. He didn’t know exactly when it would start.
There wasn’t any time to wonder.
Zack sat bolt upright in bed, and threw his legs over the side, standing before he’d fully finished orienting to Cloud laid in the other bed in the room.
Sephiroth. Sephiroth was still in the basement. But how long did he have before the attack began? Was it already too late?
Was it going to happen at all?
But Sephiroth had been locked in that basement for nearly seven days. He’d been strange the whole time. That Zack could not deny. The risk that it was a warning was too high.
“Cloud, up and at ’em buddy,”
“S’… s’going on, Zack?”
“I need you to evacuate the villagers into the southern caves. Once everyone is accounted for, use the barrier materia I gave you and block the entrance. Stay with them until I come for you.”
“Nibelheim is in danger. I’ll get Sephiroth and we’ll do everything we can. But you need to get the Villagers to safety in case we can’t protect everything.” A lie, but it came forward so easily.
Genesis, the clones, the monsters. He could use their reality to manage without admitting the threat was Sephiroth himself.
“Can you do that for me? We don’t have much time.”
“Of course!” Cloud rose and rushed off to complete the task he’d been given. Zack had to trust Cloud to obey an order.
He had to get to Sephiroth, he had to buy Cloud enough time to get everyone to safety, if nothing else. Zack ran. There was no time to waffle, or to wonder. Along the path, passed the village and closer to the Mansion, someone was on the path. The girl. She was just a girl. Tifa, her name was Tifa Lockhart, the mayor’s daughter. What was she doing here? It didn’t matter.
“You need to go back to the village, Miss Lockhart. Help with the evacuation.”
“There’s going to be an attack on the village very soon,” firmly, with all the authority he used when training cadets. “Everyone needs to be evacuated into the southern cavern. Cl- the infantryman will block the cave with Materia and stay with you for protection.” Cloud didn’t want to be revealed. Now wasn’t the time to throw her into confusion with new information, either.
“We’re going to do everything we can, but the civilians need to be safe. Help them, Tifa.”
She looked conflicted for a heartbeat, but nodded once, and darted down the path back into Nibelheim proper. Thank Gaia she didn’t argue with him or insist he tell her what was about to attack the village. She’d only delayed him a minute, maybe two. There was still time.
He prayed there was still time.
Zack had to slow down as he made his way toward Sephiroth in the library. He strained his enhanced hearing, listening for Sephiroth. And, indeed, he could hear the SOLDIER mumbling to himself, though Zack couldn’t make sense of any of it.
His stomach tightened, but Zack had reached the door at last. Think. What could he do? What was the best option to keep this from being a fight? A massacre?
… Well, he still had a sleep materia. It would be better to try and talk to him first. But he had options. He remained there, outside of the door, secure in the fact that Sephiroth was inside, and couldn’t get to the Village without going through him.
He swapped his materia carefully. The sleep materia linked to a booster that would make it harder to resist. A barrier materia and his healing materia slotted.
Nothing else. Nothing more dangerous. He didn’t want to fight Sephiroth, and didn’t want Sephiroth to take his presence as a threat, either.
Finally, Zack pulled the door open. Books and papers were scattered all over the space. Across the desk, on the floor.
Sephiroth looked… haggard, Zack thought. Bags under his eyes where he hadn’t rested. Zack could almost swear he’d visibly lost weight. Maybe he had with SOLDIER metabolism being what it was. Guilt washed through him for obeying the order that meant he’d left his friend down here alone for long enough to do this to himself.
Unfortunately, all he had on him was a ration bar or two. Zack pushed it aside for a moment. There were more pressing things than feeding Sephiroth. And if he could get him to calm down, to listen, it would be easy enough to get him to eat in a few moments.
Sephiroth wasn’t looking at him. Hadn’t bothered to acknowledge his presence in the room. That wasn’t a good sign, Zack didn’t think. Still too absorbed in whatever these books held.
“Hey, Seph…?” Zack said, breaking the silence that had fallen.
Green eyes snapped from the paper in Sephiroth’s hand to bore into his soul. The same distant cold that had been there when Sephiroth shoved him away in the reactor, when he said he wanted to be alone here. When he nearly killed Zack—-
Zack swallowed. He couldn’t get distracted.
“I said I wanted to be alone, Fair.” The words ground out, lacking the smooth velvet and the gentleness that Zack had come to anticipate outside of combat. Play it as normal as possible, maybe?
“That was, like, a week ago. You’ve gotta at least take a break. A nap. Have something to eat. You can’t just stay here. The books will still be here if you want them after.” There was something, a flicker in his eyes. Confusion, maybe. A hint of clarity.
Zack reached out for Sephiroth. It was the wrong move. The clarity was gone, replaced again with that cold rage.
“Don’t touch me!”
Zack froze, hand outstretched in the air. “Please, Seph, I’m worried about you-”
“How dare you address me so informally,” A low growl rippled through the tone, sending the hair on the back of Zack’s neck prickling.
Okay. Okay, he could do this. He just… he needed to… Why was Sephiroth acting like this? He’d gotten strange shortly after they entered the reactor. Not so… drastically at first, but… No. He needed to focus on what was right in front of him.
“Commander, please.” Zack tried again. Voice steadier, calmer. Taking strength from protocol as much as he hated it and the distance it forced between himself and his friend. “You aren’t acting like yourself. Let me help you.”
“Help me,” Sephiroth sneered, cat’s eyes contracted into slits - in anger? Or pain? Zack wondered. “As if a mere human could help me.”
Using materia on Sephiroth would absolutely be grounds for a court martial. It was beginning to look like he wouldn’t have a choice.
“I’m going to make them pay for what they did to my mother.”
Sephiroth began to brush past him. Zack grabbed his arm, fingers locking around the older SOLDIER’s wrist. “The villagers didn’t do anything-”
The force with which Sephiroth jerked his arm free made Zack stumble, but he rushed back into the hallway behind Sephiroth.
And he tapped into the sleep materia in his bracer, and let fly a spell that he did not know if would hit its mark.
As it turned out, Sephiroth had not expected it of him. Had, perhaps, discounted him the second he’d gotten out of the room. Or else was so engrossed in whatever the sleep deprivation was feeding him that he’d forgotten anything else. Forgotten to be careful.
Zack closed the space between them in an instant and caught Sephiroth as the spell took effect. The SOLDIER commander was now boneless in his grasp. Guilt swirled through Zack for raising a hand against his friend.
But Zack was saving him from himself. He was certain of that.
If Sephiroth had made it to the village…
It didn’t bear thinking about. The evacuation might be done by now, but the damage would have remained.
“I’m sorry.” He said aloud into the open air. “I hope you’re forgive me, eventually.”
In the end, Zack settled on getting Sephiroth laid down in one of the manor’s bedrooms. He’d closed up the passageway into the basement, though Sephiroth knew it was there and certainly would be able to find his way back down if he so desired.
Many of the doors had locks, but Zack did not dare attempt to lock Sephiroth anywhere. That would be a line too far to cross.
Once the commander was horizontal, Zack pulled the blanket up over him and took a step back.
Did he call or go to Cloud and tell him to call off the evacuation, that it was okay now? Did he wait it out and see what happened when Sephiroth awoke?
Then there was the reactor, and the monsters, and the door with Jenova’s name on it. … Jenova.
Genesis had said she was excavated from a two thousand year old rock layer. That her cells had been used in the Projects that created both Genesis and Angeal, and perhaps, Sephiroth. Zack was not certain Genesis’ words could be trusted.
But Sephiroth had begun to act strange as soon as they got to the Reactor.
Blue eyes narrowed.
Leaving Sephiroth alone was a risk. And Shinra was very likely to react poorly when they found out.
Zack pulled out his PHS and composed a quick message to Cloud. “It’s going to be a bit longer. Stay where you are with the civilians until I contact you again. Do you have supplies?”
The response came quickly, a confirmation both that he would make them stay where they were and that the southern cave was outfitted for such an evacuation.
Zack wondered why, but for the moment, it hardly mattered. He would be thankful for it.
Well, he was already on track to be in serious trouble for what he did to Sephiroth. What was one more thing in the vein of protecting the village?
It was silly. The state Sephiroth had been in before. He wouldn’t bother to read it. But even so, Zack left a note, just in case Sephiroth awoke before he returned from the reactor. It featured an apology and a promise that he’d be back and they could talk. It did not feature the promise to surrender himself to Sephiroth’s judgement that he considered.
If Sephiroth was back in his right mind, Zack would willingly face whatever his commander - his friend - decided. But if he was not… then Zack would continue to protect Nibelheim by any means he could manage.
He wouldn’t make a promise he didn’t know if he could keep.
The hike up to the reactor took time. Longer than he liked, especially with the occasional monster in the way. But Zack didn’t have to keep his pace down for the unenhanced, so he made far better time than they had the first time.
Outside of the reactor, he adjusted his materia again. The sleep orb was unequipped, replaced with a mastered Firaga.
Unerringly, he knew where to go. In the end, he broke through the door that blocked the path to the core, to the chamber Jenova was housed within.
Behind the metal statue.
In his mind’s eye, he could see Sephiroth ripping it away. He’d broken open the glass. He’d taken.. her head.
Zack shook his head sharply to clear his mind. Focus.
It took him two tries to rip away the statue to reveal the thing behind it.
The red eye was dimmer now than it had been in the memory. Strange.
Zack did not dwell on it. The buster sword brought to bear on the glass had exactly the desired effect. It broke away, releasing the fluid to flow down the platform and drip off, down into the reactor core.
It didn’t matter. As the glass fell away, Zack cast the first Firaga. As the burst of flames faded, he saw the creature’s flesh knitting itself back together. What in the- Zack’s stomach turned slightly, and his throat tightened. That was creepy. So creepy. But he’d faced worse on the battlefield.
A feminine scream. Familiar but not.
He cast until he’d drained through his pool of mana, and only then hesitated again.
The sight of charred flesh greeted him. He had clearly wounded it. But… some of the burns were already fading at the edges. What in the hell was this thing? SOLDIER accelerated human to the maximum level. Could Sephiroth heal this quickly? Zack didn’t think so, but it made him wonder.
Zack had a handful of ethers on him. He took the first of them into one hand. It was weird that the thing was repairing itself, but it wasn’t moving. He could… he could figure this out. A few more casts would probably do it in. If nothing else eventually the pod itself would be destroyed badly enough to just collapse into the reactor and maybe that should be his goal.
Zack swallowed back the ether, the taste of it bitter. His eyes squeezed shut against the wash of overstimulation that the ether brought with it.
That was his first mistake.
Zack’s eyes snapped open at the sensation of something wrapping around his wrist. He pulled back, half stumbling down the walkway, back towards the main platform. But the tendril that was linking him to the thing in the tube only stretched with him.
His skin burned under its touch.
“Zack help me!”
… Aerith? Zack’s head turned, attention flicking around the chamber in confusion. Who - what - had spoken? She sounded like she was right behind him and yet-
There was nothing there. Which made sense, Aerith was in Midgar. The Turks were watching her. Of course, she wasn’t here. She was safe. So why-?
The tendril wrapped tighter around his arm, dark flesh snaking towards his elbow and tightening so viciously that his hand went numb nearly instantly.
It was dragging him forward, towards the pod. He stumbled a step forward, two, before Zack planted his feet and threw his weight backward slightly.
Focus, focus. He had to call on the Materia again. He had to get that thing off of him. Zack finally got off the next Firaga, focused on the tendril.
It burned away, leaving red, raw skin on his arm. Zack stumbled back and nearly fell before properly righting himself on the narrow walkway.
The next cast hit the main body of Jenova, but Aerith’s voice shrieked in pain.
“Zack, you’re hurting me!”
Aerith wasn’t here. The monster was playing a trick on him. Zack had to remember that.
“Stand down, SOLDIER!”
Zack froze before the next Firaga, heart dropping into his stomach. Sephiroth had caught up already? He’d known the sleep spell might not hold as long as he needed it to, but he’d hoped- Gaia were the villagers okay? Had he come straight here?
Zack gritted his teeth. He hadn’t looked behind him yet, where the voice seemed to be coming from. His eyes remained locked on Jenova.
Zack took a step backward down the catwalk, and towards the voice.
Was Sephiroth there? Or was it another trick? Zack was afraid to look behind him, to leave himself open to another assault from the creature.
That was an order, Fair.
The words were delivered with such force that they felt like they came from inside of his head.
He had to finish this. He had to get rid of the monster before he obeyed Sephiroth. No matter what that meant for him.
If he was lucky, Sephiroth would come back to himself, would understand the choice that he’d had to make.
Traitor. How dare you attack my mother?
Zack drew on the materia orb again.
A clawing pain seized him, not at all unlike being impaled from behind. Zack grit his teeth against it as it threatened to consume him.
“You will obey me.” Sephiroth’s voice again, just behind him, but this time underlaid with a strange, feminine voice that echoed through his head.
Zack released the building Firaga. The pain he felt intensified, burning across his back, radiating from the point at which he’d been impaled, and from the raw flesh of his arm where the tentacle had wrapped itself.
More tentacles reached for him as the figure seemed to drag itself forward despite the burns.
“Fair! Get away from there!”
Zack drew the buster sword and swung it at the catwalk he was standing on, casting one final Firaga as he threw his weight backward, all too aware that if he was really being impaled from behind, it would do an incredible amount of damage. He was still more likely to survive it than falling into the reactor core.
Jenova did not seem to have anticipated that.
She fell with the remains of the metal walkway, down into the glowing teal.
The pain intensified by magnitudes as she hit the mako below them, and Zack curled in on himself, a crumbled heap on the main platform.
His fingers curled around fistfuls of his hair as an echoing shriek of pain consumed his senses.
Zack did not know how long the screaming continued, deafening him while the pain of it blinded him to his surroundings.
Finally, there was silence.
Zack didn’t try to move at first. He remained slumped awkwardly on the platform. Aware that he’d dropped the buster sword beside him.
His chest heaved as he panted, desperately dragging air into his lungs.
Sephiroth was not wholly aware of why he was standing inside the reactor. Of why masamune was drawn and aimed at Zack. Of why Zack was laying bonelessly, panting, on the metal walkway.
Of why the air reeked of burning, rotting flesh in addition to Mako.
Fury coursed through his veins, blinding and unreasoning. It demanded blood, retribution for what had been done to him, and to her, his mother. The only one who could ever understand him. Masamune’s point remained held towards Zack, but the metal was unmarred by blood. He had not attacked. The blade wavered slightly.
Sephiroth’s hands were shaking.
The echoing shriek that had ripped through him and nearly brought him to his knees was silent now. There was nothing in the room with them made sense of where it had come from. Beyond Zack, up a broken metal walkway was what looked to be the remnants of one of the tubes the science team used for mako showers. There were several broken tubes and wires dangling from it.
Jenova had been housed there. Sephiroth was certain of it.
What had Zack done? The anger flared up, bubbling below the surface. But it was still not the driving fury he’d had before.
Exhaustion pulled at his limbs, and he felt a little like a puppet with its strings cut. His eyes burned, his head ached. If he were a lesser SOLDIER, he might have collapsed onto the walkway himself, with the strength of the summons to the reactor having let him go. Why was he so tired?
That was like, a week ago-
Right. A week, he’d spent that time researching in the basement. Learning what Hojo had done to his mother. Learning how he’d been created, and seeing the pieces fall together with what he knew of Project G.
A week? Without resting, without ever leaving the library. What had gotten into him?
No wonder he had a headache.
He wanted answers.
But why had he come to the reactor? The compulsion had been there when he’d woken up, almost before he’d woken up, even. An unrelenting plea, calling him to the reactor. Calling him to help.
Right. He’d been asleep. Zack had used materia against him.
But what had he been about to do when Zack stopped him?
Sephiroth’s eyes remained on Zack, waiting for him to regain some semblance of sense. He seemed to be unharmed, and yet overwhelmed. Perhaps Zack could answer some of these questions.
Burning rage under his skin. I’m going to make them pay for what they did to my mother. He’d shoved Zack away, and then…. and then. That was when the Materia had taken effect.
Sephiroth shook his head to clear it. He’d pick apart those hazy memories after. Zack was beginning to stir. Sephiroth closed a little more of the space between them, sheathing Masamune.
Zack didn’t acknowledge his approach, still hadn’t attempted to sit up. Sephiroth crouched down beside him.
It was only there, as he drew close enough to touch Zack, that the scent of blood registered.
The black fabric of Zack’s shirt was wet with it, but the fabric was untorn. Sephiroth had not wounded him. So what had?
Sephiroth didn’t hesitate to pull on the restore materia he had equipped, letting the cast wash over Zack. The effort made his head spin and his vision swim slightly.
Yeah, he’d overdone it a bit.
But, he wanted answers, and he wouldn’t get them if Zack succumbed to an unseen injury. But more than that, Zack was his friend, perhaps the only one he had left. Sephiroth was still furious, but not yet willing to cast Zack aside without hearing the truth.
Whatever had happened here, there was an answer, and Sephiroth would hear it.
Zack jerked upright at the feeling of the materia washing over him.
Blue eyes wide, pupils still constricted in remembered pain.
“…Commander?” Uncertain, though not quite afraid.
Sephiroth recoiled fractionally in surprise. He wasn’t certain Zack had ever addressed him so formally.
“How dare you address me so informally?” His own voice, a rippling snarl. Hurt flashed in blue eyes.
There was something strange here. Sephiroth didn’t like that he only half-remembered the conversation from that morning. Had it even been that morning at this point?
“Are you alright, Zack?” The answers could wait a moment. It seemed wise to offer what assurance he could by acting more normal. Any answers Zack had would still be there when Zack was a little calmer, when he was sure that he was okay.
“I-” A glance down at himself. Sephiroth watched him slowly rotate one wrist as if expecting it to hurt. “Yeah, I think so, sir.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Relief, this time, Sephiroth thought, as he noted Zack’s expression.
Sephiroth rose to his full height slowly and offered a hand to help Zack up after he’d had a moment to retrieve the Buster Sword.
Sephiroth didn’t attempt to speak again until they’d emerged back onto the mountain path in the morning light. It was easier to breathe in the open air, away from the mako and burning flesh, though he could still smell the blood on Zack’s shirt. It was fine, still easier to manage than all the rest at once.
“Tell me about your actions today.” Simple, open-ended. A good place to start, as once he had the overview, perhaps he could work out the details from there.
“I acted alone.” Zack said. “You can’t blame Cloud for any of this. All he did was follow my instructions.”
“That is decidedly not what I asked.” Sephiroth said, tone even. “Just walk me through what happened. Start at the beginning,” Given apparently he only barely remembered what they’d talked about in the first place.
He was angry. It still boiled beneath the surface. Zack had incapacitated him and then had come, and what? Attacked his mother? That seemed to be the answer.
Help me! She had pleaded, screaming for him to come to her, to save her.
Sephiroth shook his head sharply, stopping himself before his hand strayed back to Masamune’s hilt.
He’d focus on one thing at a time. For now, what Zack had done and why would likely clarify some of the fragments. Perhaps he would even know how he’d ended up at the reactor by the end of it.
And so Zack explained, beginning with the fact that he’d woken up from a dream of disaster. Sephiroth resisted the urge to interrupt at any point. The picture painted from the dream, to the conversation in the library, to the reactor was… strange.
It was hard to focus on him speaking, with the weight of days without sleep pressing down on his shoulders. The path back to Nibelheim was barely manageable. But at least the monsters seemed to have gone, for the moment. It was one less thing to concern himself with.
That Zack had acted on impulse from a dream was strange, and yet… and yet, upon reflection, Sephiroth knew that he had been prepared to do the unthinkable when Zack had stopped him with the sleep spell. It was hard to be angry with that.
But he was. Zack had taken away his chance to see his mother. To get another answer, another piece to the puzzle.
Genesis was right. He was a monster. … Wasn’t he?
They’d made it back to the manor finally.
There was still so much to do. Sephiroth still had so many questions.
“I know you’re angry, and we’re not done here,” Zack spoke up again. “But you should try to get some rest. I’ll still be here afterward, and I’ll answer anything else.”
Sephiroth considered that for a moment. “A nap would be wise.” He conceded, finally. “Don’t forget to tell your friend to let the villagers go.”
It wasn’t really a surprise that Sephiroth slept for the rest of the day, and through the night as well. Not considering he’d gone seven days without rest. And so, it was early the next morning that Zack finally - begrudgingly - decided to wake him.
Sephiroth needed to eat. After that, he could go back to sleep if he wanted.
Zack brought breakfast from the inn, and Sephiroth had apparently awoken to his approach, because his friend was regarding him silently when he entered.
“I thought you might be hungry by now.” Zack said without preamble. “The innkeeper said it should be pretty easy on you, but there’s plenty more if you want it after.”
Sephiroth sat up against the headboard and took it from him.
Or not. Zack inclined his head and glanced around the room once. Ultimately, he ended up sitting at the foot of the bed. Sephiroth was probably right. They needed to have the rest of this conversation now.
“Everything alright with the village?”
“Just the same as it has been. Quiet,” Zack confirmed.
A brief nod. “That’s good.”
“I wanted to say I’m sorry for-”
“But you aren’t.” Sephiroth cut across. “And you shouldn’t be.”
“I am.” Zack corrected, stubbornly. “Because you’re my friend, and you’ve been through a lot. And I jus left you down there by yourself. And because I never wanted to raise a hand against you, but I didn’t know what else to do.” A breath out. “I understand if you can’t forgive me.”
“I was going to do it.” Sephiroth said quietly. “You’re the only thing that saved this village from a massacre. I’m every bit the monster your dream painted me to be.”
“But you aren’t.” Zack said quietly. “Because you didn’t do it. Because you stopped, and because you listened at the reactor rather than continuing with what had brought you there.”
“You’re splitting hairs.” Sephiroth observed. “Is not the intent part of the problem?”
“You weren’t yourself.” Zack plowed on, stubbornly. “You were being influenced, and you were exhausted.”
“I am exactly what Shinra made me, a killing machine.”
Zack shook his head sharply. “No, you’re more than that. You’re my friend. And you care. You’ve always gone out of your way to protect those under your command.”
“You saw that thing, and what she did to you. That was my mother.”
“Stop saying that.” Zack snapped. “You’re more than the experiments that made you. I won’t- I can’t lose you like this too.”
Sephiroth’s attention flicked up from the bowl in his hands, empty now.
“I can’t go back to them, knowing that they did this to me.”
“We don’t have to go back to Shinra if you don’t want to.” Zack agreed. “But promise me that you won’t just… disappear on me.”
Cold cat eyes softened, and Sephiroth nodded, slowly. “Very well. I won’t.”
It wouldn’t be easy, breaking from Shinra, but Zack thought it would be worth it to give Sephiroth the freedom to decide his own path.
For now, this was enough, even if the road ahead was no less dangerous than that they had left behind.