|raisedbymoogles (raisedbymoogles) wrote,|
@ 2010-01-14 10:12:00
"On Broken Wings," chapter 3
A lot of setup and exposition in this chapter, mostly. Also, Seph needs hugs.
Title: On Broken Wings
Rating: PG, gen for now, though I make no promises as to later chapters
Word Count: 4620
Previous Chapters: Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2
Sephiroth paused, hands tight on Gleipnir's reins. "Cloud?"
Cloud didn't look up. "Yeah."
"Isn't that..." Sephiroth waved a hand at the scenery below them: beyond the cliff, the mountains parted to cradle a green valley between them, and in that valley was a small town. Nibelheim.
"Yeah," Cloud confirmed, his inflection still a dull monotone.
Sephiroth shook his head and willed the world, and his stomach, not to lurch from unreality. He focused on his hands clenched tight on the reins. He had asked for, and received, an old pair of leather gloves before he had left Cid and Shera's care. They were brown and plain, made for working rather than war; but they covered his tattoo. "Didn't I...?"
This time a note of dry amusement bled into Cloud's voice. "Burn it to the ground?"
"Well," Sephiroth said desperately, "yes."
"Yeah," Cloud answered, monotone again, and Sephiroth quickly smothered the urge to shake him.
"Then why..." he managed once he was in control of himself again.
"Shinra." Cloud muttered, and this time he couldn't keep his anger from coloring his voice.
Sephiroth let out a long, slow breath. "Ah." He bit his lip to keep from pushing Cloud any further, and nearly jumped when the blond spoke again on his own.
"I'm thinking," he said, "we should avoid the area altogether."
Sephiroth took one last look at the pleasant little village below, then tore his eyes away and nudged Gleipnir on after Cloud and Tyr. "Good idea."
They were only in the mountains for a few days, yet somehow the trip dragged on for eons. As they headed northward, the jagged features of the Nibel range broke off abruptly in favor of more earthy-green mountains. These were younger mountains, formed by gradual wrinkling of Gaia's crust, a less violent process than the ancient volcanic activity that had birthed the Nibel mountains. Gleipnir seemed to be happier on terrain that he could sink his talons into, bouncing his stride and even trying to make friends with Tyr, though the gold ignored him imperiously. Sephiroth endured the extra bounce stoically along with Cloud's silence.
Yet in his dreams, he saw the wolf again. Sephiroth hesitated to say the specter was haunting his dreams; it was much more like he was guarding them.
"There are three things you need to see when we get to Edge," Cloud told him, huddled on the sole berth in their tiny stateroom aboard the good ship Rust Bucket.
Sephiroth peered up at him from his seat on the floor, taking in the younger man's greenish complexion. "Perhaps we should have taken the airship after all," he offered unnecessarily.
Cloud glared at him and curled up tighter. "I'd be motion sick either way. Don't change the subject."
"I apologize," Sephiroth said humbly. "Go on."
"Well, two things," Cloud corrected himself, "and one person you need to meet." He shook his head. "She won't be happy. With either of us. I didn't even tell her about - you, before I left."
"Someone I wronged," Sephiroth guessed dryly. "Who is she?" When Cloud hesitated, Sephiroth knew he'd overstepped his bounds. "Forget I asked."
"It's okay," Cloud said, too quickly. "It's just... I don't know what to call our relationship. It's, uh..." He waved a hand in the air. "Weird."
Sephiroth thought about that. "It can't be as weird as ours."
Cloud made an explosive, amused noise. "Shiva's bikini, I must be tired, that was actually funny." He glared at his traveling companion, though the effect was ruined by his insistent smile. "You're not allowed to make me laugh, Sephiroth."
"Yes, Cloud," Sephiroth said, straight-faced.
"I'm going to check on the chocobos."
Cloud banged the door shut behind him but didn't lock it. Sephiroth curled his arms over his knees and finally gave way to his own smile.
They said goodbye to the chocobos at a clean, bright stable in northern Kalm - Edge was no place for chocobos, Cloud said, unbuckling Tyr's tack with a businesslike swiftness and pointedly stroking the gold's feathers. Sephiroth took the hint, turning away to leave the young man alone with his mount and to say farewell to his own Gleipnir.
"I will come back," he promised, though he didn't know how or when he would keep it. "You're too good to stay away from."
"Wark," Gleipnir warbled sadly, preening his hair. Sephiroth smiled helplessly and buried his fingers in the bird's feathers, skritching with all the will and skill he possessed - which wasn't much on either count, admittedly, but it seemed to be enough for the green. The bird fluffed up like a verdant dandelion, leaning on Sephiroth with more of his weight than was entirely safe, and crooned rapturously. Sephiroth found himself smiling, and promising again he would return to see his faithful bird.
"He's beautiful," said a soft, unfamiliar voice, and Sephiroth stiffened. Gleipnir raised his head and his crest in curiosity with just a hint of threat.
When Sephiroth turned, a dark-haired girl - young woman, really, old enough to try for Soldier if it still existed - was directing a polite smile at him, though her eyes were all for Gleipnir. She wore the tough cotton and leather gear of the dedicated jockey, all completely practical; a pale yellow feather hung from her headband. "I'm Chole," she said offhandedly, as if introducing oneself to other humans was an afterthought. "I take care of the birds."
Rather than offer his name, Sephiroth stepped aside to let Chole and Gleipnir greet each other. Gleipnir followed Sephiroth's movement, remaining close to his rider, but he slicked his crest back and allowed Chole to approach. Chole crooned, soft-voiced, and offered a hand to the green palm-down. Gleipnir lowered his beak - whether he recognized the gesture or was just following his natural curiosity, Sephiroth wasn't sure - and nibbled at Chole's leather a moment before allowing her to scratch the back of his head.
"Lovely bird," Chole murmured, her sleepy-eyed contentment matched with Gleipnir's own. "What's his name?"
"Gleipnir," Sephiroth answered, startled; Chole offered him a smile that was almost apologetic, as if she hadn't meant to forget he existed but couldn't help it when chocobos were involved. Sephiroth gave her a smile of his own, crooked and unsure, and she nodded to him and left them both with a final pat of Gleipnir's shoulder. Midway across the field, she met Cloud, approaching from the other direction; they exchanged a few words and parted again, and Cloud took Chole's place at Gleipnir's shoulder.
"Ready to go?" Cloud asked him, tugging on black leather riding gloves. A pair of goggles was perched on his forehead, pushing back his hair from his face; another pair dangled from his wrist. Of course - his motorcycle. We are to ride in his motorcycle from here to Midgar.
Sephiroth looked down pensively at his hands buried in Gleipnir's feathers, and said nothing. Cloud sighed. "I wouldn't have brought him here if it wasn't a good place for him," he said, more gently than he'd ever spoken to Sephiroth before. "He'll have the best greens and a run every day and a nice girl to groom his feathers." He indicated across the field with a gesture of his chin; Sephiroth looked, and saw Chole charming the bright blaze that was Tyr into submitting to feather-scratches. "He'll be fine," Cloud continued softly as Sephiroth watched. "I promise."
Cloud keeps his promises. Sephiroth nodded once, slowly, and stepped away from his faithful green. Gleipnir warbled and moved to follow. "No," Sephiroth said, hoarse but firm. "Stay here."
Gleipnir halted, and Sephiroth made himself turn away and follow Cloud. He looked back only once; when he was safely in the sidecar of Cloud's motorcycle, speeding away from the ranch. Gleipnir was a rapidly dimming flicker of green in the distance, blending into the Kalm grasses.
The Midgar scrublands were much as Sephiroth remembered, dusty and gray, populated by monsters that had grown hard and twisted as the landscape. Said monsters kept a respectful distance, wisely, Sephiroth thought: they weren't likely to find a bigger monster than the mad General himself. Yet something still felt off, and he didn't know what it was until he scanned the horizon for the fifth time.
The skyline was empty. Midgar was gone.
No towers. No Plate. The city that had been his home since his earliest memories was wiped off the map. With it, the world he'd known: Shinra and its endless, implacable march toward progress, his command, his mission, his place in the world - it was lost, with no more trace than words written in sand and washed away by the surf. He was the last, twisted wreckage of a dead era - dead by his own hand, no less. Dead and unmourned.
Why did I come back?
"Cloud," he forced past a suddenly dry throat. "Cloud, stop."
Either Cloud didn't hear or wasn't inclined to obey; the bike thundered on over rock and sand, and Sephiroth could only grip his sidecar and try not to disgrace himself by throwing up or weeping. The sidecar rattled over the uneven ground, shaking him mercilessly. Powerless, Sephiroth could only hold on and endure.
He'd left handprints in the sidecar's metal by the time the motorcycle finally - blessedly - came to a halt. Shedding his borrowed goggles, Sephiroth stumbled out onto the rock and stood there, hunched and shaking, until some command of his own faculties returned to him. When he turned, Cloud was standing watching him, goggles forgotten in one hand.
I lost control of myself, Sephiroth thought, ashamed; but all Cloud said was, "This way."
Cloud led the way up a steep hill that seemed well-trod to Sephiroth's keen eye, up to a sheer drop guarded by an old, battered buster sword. For a moment, Sephiroth didn't understand what he was seeing, even when he touched the roughened metal. "Was this yours?" he asked.
"It was Zack's," Cloud said, and Sephiroth's world crumbled for the second time in an hour.
He barely listened as Cloud told him how it happened: the five years trapped in Hojo's hidden laboratory in Nibelheim, the desperate flight to Midgar, and the firefight that had taken Zack Fair's life within sight of the floating city. For Sephiroth's part, all he could remember was the fight in the reactor: being so near (Mother) Jenova seemed to transform him into new heights of invincibility, himself and his sword. Zack had never had a chance.
"I didn't kill him," Sephiroth found himself saying without meaning to - without having meant to speak at all.
"You didn't strike the final blow," Cloud answered flatly.
Sephiroth sank to his knees with a sob he couldn't hide, arms clutched around his middle. "What a wretched monster I am," he said aloud. "My best friend is dead and I- I am glad I didn't kill him. Curse my black heart," he swore, with feeling; then the tears flooded his eyes and he couldn't hold back any longer.
Sephiroth wept - for Zack, for Midgar, for all he had lost and all he had destroyed. Through it all, Cloud watched over him, a silent and solemn-eyed guardian.
It was not much further to Edge, but it took so long for Sephiroth to cry himself out that it was nearly sunset by the time they arrived at their destination. Exiting the sidecar - no more handprints in the metal, he'd been careful - Sephiroth scanned the area in some bewilderment. The area seemed to be an intact part of the Slums, removed (or, perhaps, protected) from the devastation that Meteor had wrought on the rest of the city. Before him, a building, lovingly if inexpertly restored: a church, he thought, but he wasn't certain until Cloud led him inside.
It was a church, built in the old tradition, but there was nothing traditional about it now. Half of the pews had been cleared away, there was a pool of deliciously clear water where the altar should be, and the floor was carpeted in flowers. Sephiroth took a single step past the threshold, in a daze, and for a moment his vision doubled and he saw a flash of rose and ginger and impish green eyes-
"Aeris," he breathed.
When his vision cleared, Cloud was watching him with some surprise. "You see her too?" the younger man asked, and Sephiroth nodded wordlessly. "This was her place. Before - before everything." He turned away, trailed a hand along the back of one of the few remaining pews. "Nowadays there are flowers all over Edge, but back then this was the only place you could find any. I guess part of her never really left here."
Sephiroth thought about saying I'm sorry, but he liked to think he was usually not quite that foolish. "They're beautiful," he murmured instead, looking down at the white bell-shaped flower nudging his boot.
Cloud took a deep breath, as if gathering his strength. "Yeah." He turned, brushing past Sephiroth's shoulder on his way back out the door. "You'd better stay here for now. I don't want to bring you by the bar until Tifa's had a chance to get used to the idea of you being alive."
"The woman I need to meet," Sephiroth guessed.
"Yeah." Cloud shook some of the travel dust from his clothes, ran a hand through his hair - it didn't make it any less disorderly, but Sephiroth didn't think much would. "I'll be back soon."
Sephiroth watched him leave, pushing the door closed behind him. He was still watching, a few seconds later, when Cloud re-entered the church backwards, bullied by a brown-haired woman in high dudgeon. Cloud keeps his promises, Sephiroth found himself thinking again, but this time it was with a smile he had to work to hide.
"No, idiot, I know because Barret called me to warn me," the woman was rapping out, both fists wrapped in Cloud's shirt. "What were you planning, to not tell me until you invited him over for dinner?"
"Tifa," Cloud protested, and Sephiroth thought, Ah.
"Don't you 'Tifa' me! After everything that's happened, everything he did-!" Tifa seemed to run dry of words long before she ran out of anger. She balled up a fist and smacked Cloud in the chest, not hard, but loudly. "Idiot," she repeated, thick-voiced and smacked him again. Although she would have a hard time doing any real damage to Cloud, not being a Soldier herself - Sephiroth had feared she was, but her eyes were a reassuringly normal brown, and their brightness was only anger, not Mako - her hits landed with the accuracy of a professional and Cloud was doing nothing to defend himself.
Sephiroth steeled himself. "Excuse me."
Tifa turned her glare on him with full force, and Sephiroth almost faltered. There was no fear in the woman's eyes, but past the anger Sephiroth thought he recognized a profound, dearly-held grief. Grief that I caused. Bowing to the inevitable, Sephiroth inclined his head to her. "I believe I would be a more satisfying target."
Brown eyes glared fiercely into his own. Tifa let Cloud go, stalked up to him, and drew her arm back.
He'd been foolishly expecting a smack much like Cloud had received, loud but harmless, but Tifa's full-force punch into his solar plexus knocked him breathless and sent him straight on his ass on one of the pews. Mid-flight, he altered his earlier evaluation of the woman: she was fully capable of going toe-to-toe with a Soldier.
"Sephiroth, meet Tifa Lockheart," Cloud announced dryly as Sephiroth picked himself up again. "The only other survivor of Nibelheim."
Sephiroth looked into Tifa's face - still angry. One punch hadn't been enough. "I'm sorry," he said, and was rewarded with a brief look of shock.
"That isn't - it -" Tifa stammered, not out of fear but a complete inability to express herself. "It's nowhere near enough!"
"I know," Sephiroth said, and bowed his head. "I can't change what I've done."
He heard her give voice to an explosive growl, and thought that she would hit him again; instead Tifa turned away and laced her shaking hands in Cloud's shirt.
"Outside," she said in an impressive imitation of a normal tone.
Cloud nodded and put an arm around her, guiding her back to the door. He cast Sephiroth a meaningful glare over Tifa's head - stay here - as they exited the church, and Sephiroth sank down into the nearest intact pew with no thought of disobedience.
"I'm sorry I didn't warn you," he heard Cloud murmur from outside. "I didn't know what I was going to do with him. I still don't know."
"Yeah." Tifa laughed humorlessly. "He's easier to know how to deal with when he's trying to kill you." A pause, then, "Do you really think he's...?"
"Sane? Yeah. For now, at least." Cloud took a deep, considering breath while Sephiroth's own breath hitched painfully in his chest. "I don't know how long that'll last. We can't let our guard down, ever."
No, Cloud. I'm not that person anymore. The words came to his throat; he ruthlessly pushed them back down.
"I wasn't going to!" There was Tifa's anger again. "Gods, Cloud, I lost as much as you did that night."
"I know." There was a brief rustle of cloth and leather; an embrace, Sephiroth tentatively concluded. "I'll keep an eye on him, I promise."
"We'll keep an eye on him, you mean."
"Tifa, it's too-"
"If you say 'dangerous,' Cloud, I'll hit you."
The tone of her voice promised a proper hit this time, too. Cloud wisely acquiesced. "Okay, all right. But it's only temporary, okay? Until we figure out what to do with him."
Sephiroth didn't want to hear any more. He walked down the central aisle to the pool, being careful not to tread on Aeris's flowers, and sat down by the bank. The water was still and clear as glass, and like he had in the Forgotten City, Sephiroth leaned forward and gazed at his reflection while he undid his braid. I still hate what I see, he thought, watching his long fingers and unnatural eyes. Perhaps some things even Aeris can't change.
He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but it had been a long day and his heart and body were exhausted. Sephiroth lay stretched out among the flowers, his face hidden by his arms, and dreamed.
The wolf was back, licking his cheeks with a strange, tender urgency. Sephiroth raised a hand to ward him off and found himself stroking the animal's ears instead, and wondered at his loss of control. "Thank you for seeing me off Gaia's Cliff," he said aloud, for lack of any other idea of what to say.
"He's been with you ever since then, Sephiroth." Aeris sat down beside him, and Sephiroth didn't question her presence. "When you cried at the cliff where his sword is, he howled."
Sephiroth looked down, surprised, and the wolf laid his head in his lap and looked up at him with soulful violet eyes. "Zack," he breathed, the name escaping him before he had time to hold it back. He surely didn't have the right to pronounce his friend's name, much less have that soft-furred head in his lap-!
As if privy to his shame, Zack surged up to lick his face again at the same time as Aeris wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "You have the right," she said, as the lupine Zack nosed under his chin with a whine. "And the responsibility. Zack is your friend and always will be - how sad would he be if you forgot him?" There was a smile in the young Cetra's voice that wrapped warmth around Sephiroth.
"I will never forget," he promised, and let the tears come-
Sephiroth opened his eyes. There was a boy hovering over him, wide-eyed and curious and unafraid.
"Denzel!" an unfamiliar voice hissed, tense and childish, from the church door. "Tifa said not to do that!"
"It's okay," the boy called Denzel said assuredly as Sephiroth sat up. The light in the church was pale, the air cool; it must be morning. "You were crying," Denzel added to Sephiroth himself.
Sephiroth stared him, momentarily wrong-footed. I let a stranger see me cry? He could feel tear tracks on his face, and reached up to rub them away. "Yes," he answered in a sleep-raspy murmur.
The boy had far fewer restraints on his behavior than Sephiroth had at his age; he found that he approved. "I was dreaming of my friend, who died years ago," he answered, deciding on honesty as the best course.
Denzel at least had enough grace to look sad. "I'm sorry. I've lost friends too." He also had enough grace to pause for a few breaths before continuing his line of questioning. "What was his name?"
Though it hurt, Sephiroth smiled as he answered. "His name was Zack. Zack Fair, Soldier First Class."
"Zack!" As if the name were a summoning spell, Denzel's friend hurried to them and flopped down next to Denzel. "Cloud only talked about him a little, but we know he's an important person. I'm Marlene," she concluded breathlessly.
"Pleased to meet you, Marlene." Sephiroth nodded to her politely. Marlene had slick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail (with a pink ribbon, and Sephiroth's breath caught at that just a little), in contrast to Denzel's unruly red-brown mop. Both of them had dark, eager eyes, trained on him like a pair of fresh recruits. Sephiroth swallowed hard.
"So?" Marlene demanded. "Tell us about Zack. Cloud won't." Perhaps not that much like recruits after all, Sephiroth thought.
"He... loved life, and loved to laugh," he began hesitantly, and was emboldened when the children settled in to listen. "He always had a kind word for everyone. You would have liked him, I think," he offered shyly. The children smiled.
"He was also very skilled. He achieved the rank of First Class at age eighteen, something no one had ever done before. He was... nearly my equal at fighting." The memory of their final match panged, threatening to overwhelm him; he pushed it back. "He enjoyed combat, but I think what was most important to him was protecting people. That's why he joined Soldier; that's why he worked as hard as he did to be the best he could."
Marlene frowned, eyebrows pulling together. "But Shinra didn't protect anybody. It just built mako reactors and sucked up the Lifestream."
Oh, dear. He didn't begrudge the girl her views; he couldn't even say they weren't justified. "Shinra's motives were not pure, by the time they broke into the energy business," he said carefully. "Perhaps they never were. But the people who worked for Shinra weren't all evil - most of them were making a living the best way they could, and some had only the most noble of intentions."
"Like Reeve," Denzel put in, nodding understandingly.
Sephiroth blinked. "Reeve Tuesti? Is he still alive?"
The children brightened. "Reeve's the leader of the World Regenesis Organization. He's helping rebuild everything that got broken after Meteor," Marlene informed him proudly. Something must have showed on Sephiroth's face at that, despite his best efforts; the girl's face turned stricken. "I'm sorry."
"I never meant for it to happen." Funny, that hadn't sounded like 'it's all right.' "I was unforgivably stupid at Nibelheim, but - I never wanted - all of this. Any of it." Marlene and Denzel reached out at the same moment, each slipping a hand into his and holding it tight. Sephiroth's throat closed and he hid behind his hair, not wanting to display his weakness to them a second time.
"It's okay," Denzel said quietly, and squeezed Sephiroth's hand.
"You're not a bad person," Marlene added, smiling bravely up at him.
There was nothing Sephiroth could say to that, not without betraying himself. The children seemed to accept his silence, though, and settled in on either side of him. Their warmth soothed him, as the presence of human beings so near seldom did.
"Tell us more about Zack?" Marlene asked.
Sephiroth smiled, tilted his head back, and began. "When Zack made Soldier, he was issued a certain chocobo..."
Denzel and Marlene sat bolt upright. "Tifa!"
Sephiroth looked, fighting the impulse to duck like a third guilty child. Tifa stood just inside the doorway, one hand on her hip. "What did I tell you about coming to the church last night?" she demanded evenly.
"Not to," Denzel admitted.
"So you snuck out of bed early just to disobey me. I'm impressed: normally I can't get you two up when there's no school." Tifa started walking forward, each step quiet and deliberate. "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
"We meant to be back before you got up," Denzel protested weakly. "We just wanted a look at him."
"He tells stories, Tifa," Marlene insisted, as if such a thing could wipe away the collective sins of all three.
The corner of Tifa's mouth twitched. "Go outside, Cloud's waiting. You can explain this to him."
With twin apologetic looks, Denzel and Marlene got up and filed out of the church, like conscripts marching toward a reprimand. Tifa waited until they were out of the building before approaching their third co-conspirator. Sephiroth remained seated, his hands carefully in his lap, but rather than attack or yell at him Tifa sat down in a pew with a tired sigh.
"Marlene's the daughter of a friend - Barret." She smiled wryly at Sephiroth's quizzical look. "Yeah, that Barret. She's actually adopted. About a year after Nibelheim, there was an accident at the Corel reactor. Shinra burned Corel to the ground in retaliation for supposedly harboring terrorists. Marlene's parents and Barret's wife both died in the attack."
A tragedy in this world that I can't be blamed for, went a crooked thought in Sephiroth's head. How shocking.
Tifa's next words, measured and calm, killed that thought. "Denzel's from Midgar. His parents died when Meteor came down."
Sephiroth shut his eyes tightly, his only concession to a sudden need to - what? Curse, punch something, throw himself on his sword? Somehow, though, Tifa seemed to understand his silence. "I only told you because you needed to know," she said, and her voice was - if not gentle, then at least not filled with the hatred she must have felt for him. "It wasn't to rub your past in your face."
"It's not as if Denzel is the first orphan I've made," Sephiroth said bleakly. "There's a whole generation of them just reaching adulthood in Wutai."
"That's-" Tifa paused. "No," she said slowly, "I'm not going to say 'that's different.' But- you met Yuffie at Cid's house, right?"
Sephiroth blinked up at her. "Yes?"
"She's the Kisaragi heir. Wutai royal family." She actually laughed at Sephiroth's shocked look, shaking her head. "If forgiveness is what you're after, you could start with her." She turned away before he could respond.
She was through the door and out of sight, but Sephiroth still counted to ten before getting up. He paused when he heard Cloud's voice outside. "You're not really angry."
"I'm a little angry," Tifa protested.
"At nine years old, you wouldn't have been able to resist either."
"Neither would you." There was warmth in her voice. "Besides, seeing him with them like that..."
"...Gods help me, I kind of want to feed him."
Cloud actually started laughing, and Sephiroth covered his mouth when he realized he was laughing too.