Beta: none, rough draft
Fandom: Compilation of FF7; post-Advent Children AU
Pairing(s): gen (at the moment)
Warnings/Content: mature/dark/disturbing themes (e.g., obscene language, violence, abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.
(continued from COI Redux - Chapter 11 (part 1 of 2)
Sephiroth had seen that particular mixture of emotions in Zack only once before.
After Zack's return from Modeoheim. After Zack killed Angeal.
He had hoped to never see such an expression on Zack's face again.
In many ways, the first time Zack had been so hurt was Sephiroth's fault as much as Angeal's. HE should have been the one to face Angeal and kill him. Although he never mentioned it to Zack, Angeal had offered him the perfect opportunity to do so.
Before the events at Modeoheim, Angeal had tracked down Sephiroth and challenged him to one last fight. He had refused. Unable to force the fatal confrontation he so obviously desired, Angeal had departed, but not before leaving Sephiroth with a few final words.
"We're both going to owe him for this."
At the time, Sephiroth hadn't understood what Angeal meant by 'him'. But after Modeoheim, he knew that Angeal was absolutely right. They both seriously owed Zack. Angeal, for forcing Zack to kill him. Sephiroth, for dumping the brutal burden of that death onto Zack's young shoulders.
And because of his seniors' selfishness, Zack would forever bear both the physical and emotional scars of having to kill his beloved mentor.
So afterward, Sephiroth had tried, in his own way, to make up for causing that pain. He couldn't take Angeal's place, but he had promised himself that he would do his best to protect and guide Angeal's cherished legacy.
Well, not only had he broken that promise, he had done so spectacularly.
"I want to tell you the truth about everything. You deserve that. Trouble is, I don't know what I can say and what I shouldn't say. So I figured if I give you the information in small enough chunks spread across enough time, history won't repeat itself." Zack uttered a small chuckle of embarrassment. "Probably a stupid idea. But it's the best I could come up with."
With a sharp shake of his head, he added, "I won't lie to you, because there's been way too many lies already. But at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that I'm not sure how to tell you. Because yeah, the truth sometime sucks and hurts like hell. And the absolute last thing I want is to do or say something that will make you... break... like you did before."
Silence filled the lab, broken only by the sound of a few stray drops dripping from broken pipes.
"I see," Sephiroth said simply.
With almost a visible effort, Zack shook off his dark mood and said in a considerably brisker voice, "I want to take things slowly, but in case something happens before I get around to explaining everything, there are a few things you really need to know.
"First, Hojo is a conniving, manipulative bastard who has been screwing with your life in more ways than you can imagine. When he's not outright lying, he's twisting the truth to serve his own purposes.
"That leads to the second. Despite everything Hojo said, Jenova is NOT your mother. He's been basically lying his ass off about that for years. Your mother was human. And although she maybe made some bad choices, she cared about you very much. Remember that and don't let anyone, especially Hojo, convince you otherwise.
"Third and the most important. Being different isn't the same as being a monster. It's not the outside that counts, but what's in here."
Zack lifted his left fist and lightly thumped his own chest. "In your heart, that makes a person a hero or a real monster. Honor is what you know about yourself, what you expect from yourself. As long as you hold on tight to that and your dreams, it doesn't matter what anyone else wants to call you."
"Honor and dreams, hm?" Sephiroth said, feeling a sharp pang of nostalgia.
Zack blinked, then chuckled ruefully. "Wow. Now I'm the one giving you lectures about that stuff, instead of Angeal."
"Well, you are particularly qualified," Sephiroth said easily.
Zack blushed, then muttered, "Well, I hope you remember what I said, because it gets really irritating when people ignore me when I try to tell them that they're NOT monsters!"
In those three things Zack told him, Sephiroth could already see hints and outlines of the dark secret he must have discovered in Nibelheim.
If Hojo had lied all along and Jenova wasn't his mother, then who or what was Jenova?
Who was his real mother?
And just how 'different' was he?
Sephiroth glanced around the lab, at Tifa and the others shamelessly eavesdropping on his conversation with Zack. He gestured toward them.
"Do you trust these people?"
Instead of a quick, flippant answer, Zack looked thoughtful. His reply, when it came, was both deliberate and confident. "When it comes down to it, I trust them to try to do the right thing. Turks included." His lips quirked upward in a quick grin. "That doesn't apply to Scarlet, of course."
"Of course," Sephiroth replied drily. He paused, then said, "You once told me, 'Our enemy is all that torments the world, all that creates suffering.'"
"It was Angeal who said it first. It was his honor, the one thing that kept him... well, sane for those last few years. And in the end, it was the reason why he felt he had to...." Zack shrugged. "Anyway, at the moment, Hojo and Jenova are right at the very top of the hit list."
"And what about me?"
Zack's lips curved into a smile that was both worried and hopeful. "I guess that's up to you."
Sephiroth considered that, then said, "All right, then."
Zack blinked and did a double take. "...huh?"
"I said, 'All right'," Sephiroth repeated patiently. "You can explain what happened at your own pace. I'll wait for the answers to my questions until you feel comfortable telling me."
"....that's it?" Zack asked, looking visibly doubtful.
"Did you want me to say, 'No, give me the answers right now, or else?'"
"No! I mean... I just didn't expect... I thought you'd need a lot more convincing," Zack said, cocking his head to one side and looking decidedly flustered.
Sephiroth absently noted that one thing certainly hadn't changed. On Zack, that little tilt of the head combined with a bewildered expression still looked oddly endearing.
"No, I don't. I asked you to convince me, and you did. So, if in your best judgement, you feel it's better to take things slowly, then I'll accept that decision."
Looking massively relieved, Zack said anxiously, "Oh. So... everything's cool between us for now?"
"Yes, Zack, it's cool." Sephiroth's voice was both patient and amused.
"Great!" Zack glanced over at Tifa and the others. "Uh... what about...?"
"Since you vouched for them, I'm prepared to be cooperative." It was Sephiroth's turn to scrutinize Tifa's group. "The question is whether they're willing to return the courtesy."
While most of Sephiroth's attention had been focused on Zack, he had also taken careful notice of the other people in the lab room.
He knew Scarlet, along with Reno and Rude of the Turks. However, many of the others were strangers. The middle-aged blond man expertly wielding a spear. The silent, dark-haired man in the oddly fluid reddish cape. The large, but obviously sentient red-furred beast with the 'XIII' tattoo on its shoulder and the ridiculous looking toy cat sitting on its back. The young Wutai woman who looked vaguely familiar, but he was quite sure he had never actually met before.
Interestingly, the Turks appeared allied more closely with Tifa's group instead of Scarlet.
There was something else that united this strange group -- intense suspicion, if not outright hostility, toward him. Which was perfectly understandable, given what Zack had told him about Nibelheim and its aftermath.
But if anyone who could convince this disparate group to work with him, it was Zack.
Zack walked over to Tifa and the others, then said, "Okay, I guess it's your turn. He's willing to meet you halfway. What about you?"
During the conversation between Zack and Sephiroth, Tifa and the others' attitude had shifted from intense suspicion to a mixture of astonishment and bemusement.
"I don't fucking believe it," Cid muttered. Before Zack could object, he continued, "Are you sure THAT," he jabbed a finger in Sephiroth's direction, "is the real Sephiroth?"
Zack looked surprised. "Uh, yeah. Why would you think he wasn't?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because that guy sounds way too nice to be Sephiroth?" Yuffie said sarcastically.
Zack turned to the Turks and said in an exasperated tone, "Reno, help me out here!"
The redhead snickered loudly. "Believe it or not, before the whole Nibelheim mess, Sephiroth was a consummate professional and reasonably polite person, which is more than I can say about Heidegger or Scarlet."
Scarlet uttered a contemptuous sniff at the Turk's comment.
"And yeah, he could be that nice. To Zack, at least," Reno added with a wicked little grin.
"Huh?" Zack said, his head making that now familiar slight tilt of confusion.
"Don't worry your pretty little head about it, Zack," Reno said, even as he gave Sephiroth a sly grin. "The point is, Cid, that this Sephiroth's behavior is quite consistent with Sephiroth we knew before the shit so epically hit the fan in Nibelheim."
"Reno's right," Tifa said unexpectedly. "I remember now, the way he behaved when he first arrived in Nibelheim. Sephiroth may have been a little curt and standoffish, but he wasn't...." She groped for a less offensive choice of words, then gave up. "He certainly didn't act like a sadistic madman, and worse, back then. That came later."
Sephiroth met Tifa's steady, unwavering gaze, then glanced at Zack, who shifted a bit uneasily.
"The person who did all that wasn't the real YOU...," Zack started to protest.
"Whether I remember or not, sane or not, if I committed atrocities, they are my responsibility," Sephiroth said sharply. "Insanity is no excuse. Honor, remember?"
Zack rubbed his hands over his face. "Yeah, I know. But the details are going to be seriously ugly. You're going to hate it."
"I figured as much, given what you said about my attempts at genocide, planetary destruction, and delusions of godhood." Sephiroth's eyes suddenly narrowed. "Or is there more?"
When Zack didn't immediately reply, Sephiroth turned to Tifa and said evenly, "Sadistic?"
She responded with a surprisingly reluctant nod.
"....yes," Tifa replied quietly.
Sephiroth took two swift steps forward toward Zack until they were face to face. He didn't touch him, but stared hard at the dark-haired SOLDIER and asked in an ominous tone, "What else did I do?"
Zack met Sephiroth's narrowed green eyes, started to say something, hesitated, then stubbornly clamped his mouth shut.
"So there IS more," Sephiroth said grimly.
"Yeah," Zack muttered, his expression tight and set. Sephiroth waited. Finally, responding to Sephiroth's unspoken question, Zack made a terse little shrug and said, "But not me."
Sephiroth's obvious tension gradually eased. He took a step back and his tone softened. "At this point, the truth is far more important than my feelings. Zack, I'm sure that Tifa and the Turks will be more than happy to fill me in on the relevant details. But I would prefer to hear it from you."
Shoulders sagging, Zack nodded, reluctantly. "Okay, I promise. But later, because we really shouldn't hang around here any longer than necessary." He glanced at the still naked Sephiroth and grinned slightly. "Since it was Hojo's idea to bring you back, hopefully he left some spare clothes for you lying around."
As he watched Zack zero in on a pile of black clothing on a nearby lab counter, Cid irritably asked, "What's with the big rush to leave?"
"Ah ha! Thought so!" Zack rummaged, then began tossing parts of an all too familiar black outfit in Sephiroth's direction. While his hands were busy, Zack answered Cid's question.
"Because the WEAPONs are coming."
"We've handled WEAPONs before," Cid said, as he watched Sephiroth neatly catch the black leather boots casually flung at him.
Zack held up and inspected a black pair of men's briefs with a slight frown, then glanced at Sephiroth.
"How the hell does Hojo knows exactly what sort of underwear you like?"
Sephiroth snorted -- there was no other way to describe the sound of derision and contempt he uttered. "This is Hojo we're talking about. Nothing is off-limits. I wouldn't put it past him to go snooping through my dirty laundry."
"Oh yeah. Right." Zack made a quick grimace of disgust, then tossed the briefs to Sephiroth. As Sephiroth began dressing with smooth precise movements, Zack turned his attention back to Cid and gave the pilot a serious look.
"I know you have fought WEAPONs and won. But you've only encountered them one at a time. Things are different now. Hojo's cooked up something really nasty down below, and believe me, the Planet is NOT happy about that. It wants this place cut out like a bad tumor. And to do that, it's going to use not one, but multiple WEAPONs."
"Wha... multiple?!" Cid sputtered. "Just how many are we talking about here?"
"I'm not sure. Probably enough to completely obliterate this factory and everything for miles around it."
"The Planet's awakening and it's NOT messing around," Zack said grimly.
"That's what I was afraid of," Cid muttered.
Zack eyed the half-dressed Sephiroth uncertainly, then apparently decided to take the plunge.
"I told you that Jenova's not your mother, right?"
As he slipped on the black leather longcoat, Sephiroth said, "Zack, I assure you that I'm perfectly clear on that concept. If Jenova is not my mother, then who is she?"
"Jenova isn't a who, but a what. She... it isn't human. Jenova was the codename given to an alien lifeform that fell from space and was found by Shinra 2000 years later. Basically, it's an extraterrestrial predator that infects, corrupts, and consumes every living thing it encounters. Think of it as a really horrible sort of sentient virus."
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as he adjusted his shoulder armor. "You mentioned something being stored in the Nibel reactor."
"Yeah. Shinra stored the remains of Jenova at Nibelheim."
"Remains. Then she... it... is dead?"
"Depends on your definition of 'dead'. More like a suspended animation of sorts. Anyway, Hojo recovered a fragment of Jenova. He's been feeding it and making it grow. The Planet wants that fragment destroyed before it becomes a serious threat." Zack sighed. "And there's another reason for my rush to get us out of here. Hojo I'm not so worried about, but I really don't like the idea of you being near anything involving large active chunks of Jenova."
"Because of what happened to me before?" Sephiroth said, pulling on black leather gloves.
"Yeah. Aerith -- or was it the Planet? -- warned me to watch out for some sort of... psychic resonance?" Zack said, looking a bit uncertain.
Sephiroth's tone sharpened slightly. "If Jenova's not my mother, why would there be any sort of resonance to worry about?"
"Uhhh... well, it's kinda...."
"Complicated, and one of those things that you're not ready to tell me yet. So explain it later."
Zack grimaced in apology and hunched his shoulders like a guilty puppy.
Reno had been leaning inconspicuously against a nearby lab counter. Now he abruptly straightened and said, "That's all fine and good. But Rude and I aren't leaving until we find out what's happened to Rufus."
"He's not here," Zack casually responded.
"Rufus isn't here. Hojo doesn't have him."
Reno stalked over to Zack. "How the fuck do you know that?"
"Because the Planet has been keeping tabs on him."
"I don't think I like the sound of that. How, and since when?" Reno demanded.
"I haven't got a clue how," Zack replied. "As for when, I think it was after Aerith's trick with the rain. I don't know what triggered it, but the Planet became 'aware' of Rufus after that."
"Shit. Are you telling me that the freaking Planet's after him?"
"No, it's nothing like that. I don't think it's hostile. More like... interested."
Reno exhaled sharply. "Interested? In what way?"
"I'm not sure." Zack hesitated, then said, "The last impression I got was a bit different, though."
"Fuck, this gets better and better. Different? How so?"
"If I had to put a name to how the Planet currently views Rufus, I'd say... smug."
Reno stared at Zack, then said, "I have to say that 'smug' sounds almost worse than 'hostile'."
Zack nodded sympathetically. "Like I said before, the Planet's got an agenda, one that definitely involves Sephiroth. And from the way it's actively got its attention on Rufus, it probably involves him, too."
"Bloody fucking hell! Why didn't you mention this earlier?" Reno said furiously. "Here I was worrying about rescuing Rufus from mad scientists and now you're telling me that I have to worry about the damn Planet as well?!"
"Reno, there's no point yelling at me. The Planet is making its own decisions now. And except for the vaguest of hints, I have NO idea what the Planet is up to!"
"So if Rufus isn't here, then where the fuck is he?" Reno demanded.
"I'm not sure," Zack replied with a frown. Before Reno could speak, he continued, "But I'm pretty sure it's somewhere I've been before."
"Zack, between your time working for Shinra, then running away from Shinra, you've been nearly everywhere on this damn Planet! You've got to be more specific than that!"
"Look, what I've got was more of a mental impression than a precise spot on a map! Rufus's location just feels familiar and... important... to me. I didn't just pass through that place. Stuff happened there."
"As a clue, it sucks balls. But it's better than nothing, I suppose," Reno muttered.
"Rufus?" Sephiroth said, looking down at Cait Sith. "As in Rufus Shinra?"
"That's right. He's the current president of the Shinra Corporation. And at the moment, he's missing, if you can't tell."
"What happened to his father?"
Cait Sith grinned toothily at him. "Dead. Two years ago, you slaughtered your way up to the top floor of the Shinra Building and skewered him like a butterfly on a pin."
With Reno fully occupied with interrogating Zack about Rufus Shinra's whereabouts, Cid took the opportunity to sort out his own thoughts.
He was used to picturing Sephiroth as an insane, utterly ruthless, completely inhuman enemy. But watching this resurrected Sephiroth interact with 'Zack' had been one hell of a revelation. Damn, he just wasn't used to thinking of Sephiroth as a person with normal human feelings.
But he couldn't deny the evidence of his own eyes and ears. This Sephiroth might play the stoic pretty well, but so did Vincent. It was pretty obvious Sephiroth cared about Zack. And to Cid, the way Sephiroth reacted when he thought he had tortured Zack spoke volumes.
If this was the original, pre-insanity Sephiroth, he was nothing like what Cid had pictured him to be. But he was now beginning to undestand why a teenaged Cloud had idolized Sephiroth so much.
But what about Sephiroth's memory lapse? Was it genuine? Or was it just one hell of an act?
It could be some sneaky scheme of Hojo, but that didn't seem likely. Sephiroth, even when insane, did his own thing and had his own agenda. It was Hojo who always scrambled to do stuff for his son, not the other way around.
As for it being some plot of Sephiroth's, the sane Sephiroth just seemed too proud to stoop that low, and the crazy Sephiroth was too fucking arrogant to do it, either.
If Sephiroth's memory loss was genuine, Cid couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the guy. Hello, you wake up buck naked and the first thing a reliable source tells you is that you went batshit crazy, attacked your best friend, massacred possibly thousands of people, and tried to destroy the world. Hell of a way to start the day.
However, that little bit of sympathy he felt didn't mean that he was about to give Sephiroth a free pass on all the shit he'd did. Cid wasn't about to become buddy-buddy with the guy responsible for killing Aerith and torturing Cloud into a full-blown mental breakdown.
Forgive Sephiroth? Hell, no. But maybe they could find a way to work together, as 'Zack' suggested. Even if Sephiroth didn't end up on their side, the mere fact that he wasn't working with Hojo had to count for something.
Their only other choice was to take out Sephiroth here and now. Which wouldn't be easy, especially with Cloud out of the picture. And given his obvious closeness with Sephiroth, there was no telling which way 'Zack' would swing, especially if Cid and the others made the first unprovoked aggressive move.
As for 'Zack', Cid couldn't get over the creepy way he'd taken over Cloud's body. But he also couldn't deny that it was pretty easy -- maybe too easy -- to like the guy, even though he came off as a bit of a ditz at times. Not that mere ditziness made a person any less dangerous or reliable. Just look at Yuffie.
Cid wasn't happy about it, but he had to admit that both 'Zack' and the Turks probably had the right idea. The smartest thing to do would be to join forces with a sane Sephiroth, if they could. While keeping a wary eye on him, of course.
If Sephiroth was telling the truth and proved himself, that was great. If not... well, at least they wouldn't have to go looking for him.
Cid shot a quick glance at Vincent, who had faded into the background, and wondered what the other man saw as he watched Sephiroth so intently. Was he looking for any traces of Lucrecia? Or was he seeing signs of Hojo?
Vincent met his eyes, then nodded slightly.
Nanaki did the same before moving off to listen to Zack and the Turks.
So that was two votes for cooperation, then. That left Tifa, who, along with Cloud, probably had the deepest personal grudge against Sephiroth.
"You okay with this Zack guy's suggestion about working with Sephiroth?" Cid asked as he moved over to her.
"Believe me when I say I'm not happy about it." She glanced over at the Turks, Zack, and then at Sephiroth. "But they're right. If there's a chance we can work with Sephiroth instead of fighting him, then...."
"I know, hard to argue the benefits of that. So you believe Zack?"
"Because of what Cloud told you about him?" Cid said skeptically, but not unkindly. "Because, you know, he isn't exactly the most reliable source of information."
She shook her head quickly. "I'm not relying solely on what Cloud told me. I met Zack myself in Nibelheim. Only briefly, but even then, I got the feeling that he was someone you could trust and rely on. And the events of Nibelheim prove that he's someone who puts his heart into fighting for what he believes in. Even if that means killing a good friend."
"Our enemy is all that torments the world, all that creates suffering."
"Yeah, I get that," Cid said. "Doing the right thing is a big deal for the guy. Sephiroth did say that Zack was qualified to lecture HIM about honor."
He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I guess that's why Sephiroth's willing to believe him when Zack tells him about seven missing years, going insane, and trying to destroy the world. Because it's Zack who's telling him that story."
He glanced over at Sephiroth, then at Zack who was still being pestered by Reno. "Then all I can say is that we're mighty lucky Zack showed up when he did. Otherwise things probably would've gotten damn ugly. Although I fucking hate the way he did it."
Yuffie sidled over to join Cid and Tifa. "Zack did say that the Planet has an agenda. If it can manipulate things so that Sephiroth came back sane, maybe it's responsible for Zack showing up, too?"
"You think that the Planet somehow messed around with Cloud to make him transform into Zack?" Cid said.
"Well, yeah. I honestly don't think Hojo's responsible for that. He's obsessed with resurrecting the crazy Sephiroth. Why would he bring back someone who wants to keep Sephiroth sane?"
"Even assuming you're right about the Planet being responsible for Zack showing up like this, how the fuck did it happen? And when?" Cid demanded.
"Like I know? I'm just guessing here!" Yuffie snapped irritably.
Before the argument could escalate, Tifa interrupted them. "I don't care how it happened. What I want to know is how to reverse it and return Cloud back to normal."
Cid and Yuffie exchanged mildly embarrassed looks.
"The Turks definitely know something about that." Cid glanced over at Reno and saw that he and Zack had finished their discussion about Rufus. "So let's finish up deciding how to handle Sephiroth so we can move on to figuring out what the fuck's going on with Cloud. Right, Cait?"
"Agreed." The cat glanced around at his companions and got a mixture of nods and 'what the hell' shrugs. When no one voiced any further objections, Cait Sith addressed Zack and said, "Okay, we're willing to give this Sephiroth a chance."
Cid added bluntly. "I don't trust you one bit. But I figure you're not a particular fan of Hojo, either."
Zack uttered an exuberant whoop of relief and pumped his fist in excitement. "YES!"
"Now that we've agreed, would you mind telling us WHY it's so important to work with Sephiroth?" Cait Sith asked.
Calming down, Zack said, "Like I said before, all I have are a bunch of vague hints and impressions. But I'm pretty sure it has something to do with all the loose bits of Jenova that are still floating around."
He stopped to organize his thoughts. "If we think of Jenova as a really nasty disease, then those loose Jenova cells are like pockets of infection spread all over the Planet and throughout the Lifestream. They might be dormant for now, but they're just waiting to flare up and cause trouble."
"You're talking about Kadaj and his crew," Cid said with a scowl.
"Something like that. The Geostigma, too."
"So you're saying that Remnants and plagues could show up again at any time."
Zack nodded. "Getting rid of them one at a time won't fix the underlying problem. Aerith managed to deal with the Geostigma, but there WILL be more monsters and nastier diseases. And each generation that comes along will be deadlier. Or worse, sneakier."
"That's already happening, thanks to Hojo." When the others looked at Tifa, she continued, "Remember that trap he created for Cloud using that parasite inside the poor woman back in Healen?"
"You're talking about an endless war of attrition," Vincent said grimly.
"Well that's just fucking dandy!" Cid glared at Zack. "Okay, you got any bright ideas how to solve the damn problem?"
"I don't, but I'm pretty sure the Planet does. I think it's got some sort of grand plan to deal with all the stray bits of Jenova lying around, one that involves Sephiroth." Zack glanced apologetically at the Turks, "And probably Rufus."
"Whoopee," Reno said in a cold, sarcastic voice.
"And what about Cloud?" Tifa said tightly.
Zack looked startled. "I hope not! With everything he's been through, the last thing Cloud needs is the Planet messing around with him, too."
They all stared at Zack... simply stared at him with varying degrees of surprise, disbelief, and/or shock.
"You... don't know," Yuffie stammered.
"Know what?" Zack began looking decidedly uneasy.
"About what happened to Cloud."
"Cloud? But he's right...." Zack glanced over his shoulder and downward, as if he fully expected to see an unconscious Cloud safely tucked away somewhere behind him.
Sephiroth moved forward. "Is Cloud the blond infantryman who accompanied us to Nibelheim?"
"Yeah." Zack replied distractedly, as he turned around and frantically scanned the lab.
Sephiroth waited a moment, then said, "Zack, you're not going to find him. Or rather, he's right here, but you can't see him."
"Huh?" Zack whirled around to stare at Sephiroth.
"You can't see Cloud, because you're inside him." When Zack continued to stared blankly at Sephiroth, he said, "You're inhabiting his body."
Zack's eyes sought out the closest reflective surface, then turned back to Sephiroth. Pointing at his dark-haired reflection, he sputtered, "But... that's me!"
"He took on your physical appearance."
This time, it was Zack's turn to utter a visibly stunned, "WHAT?!"
It was an unusually somber Reno who dropped the final hammer.
"I don't know what the hell happened during those years in Nibelheim, but it sure looks like Cloud somehow became a Copy. Of you."
Zack's wide blue eyes skimmed over everyone, their various expressions of concern and distress serving as silent confirmation of Sephiroth's and Reno's words.
Sephiroth watched Zack and thought, "So this is what pure rage looks like on him."
After a frozen instant, Zack erupted into a ferocious stream of profanity which made Cid's most impressive rants pale in comparison. But he stopped short in mid-expletive, flung up a hand to forestall any interruptions, and closed his eyes. His entire body tensed, as if straining to pick up a distant sound.
"C'mon... I know you're there... don't give up on me now...," Zack whispered under his breath. "Almost... gotcha!" He suddenly relaxed, opened his eyes, and uttered a heavy sigh of relief.
Tifa grabbed his arm, and quickly asked, "Cloud?"
Tapping the side of his head, Zack replied, "He was buried deep and slipping away fast, but I managed to find him." Then under his breath, he muttered, "...barely." He patted her hand and said reassuringly, "Don't worry. I didn't work my ass off to keep Cloud alive and sane only to lose him now."
But despite his confident tone, Zack's tight expression told everyone that Cloud's situation was far from secure.
He then turned to Sephiroth, regret written all over his face. "I'm sorry. I thought we might run short of time, but not this way. I know I promised to tell you everything I know about what happened at Nibelheim and afterward, but...."
"Your friend Cloud is in danger, correct?" Sephiroth said.
Zack nodded miserably, obviously torn between his promise to Sephiroth and his need to help Cloud.
"Then what are you waiting for?"
Zack's head came up sharply. "Because... well, because you're my friend, too, and I can't just leave you alone with them!" He said, waving his hand in the direction of Cid and the others. He then gave them an apologetic look, and hastily added, "Not that I don't trust them, but considering all the bad history that's happened between you guys...."
"While I appreciate your concern, I think I can manage on my own for a while," Sephiroth said drily. When Zack continued to hesitate, he added with surprising gentleness, "You've managed to convince everyone here to keep an open mind about me and to try working together. Which, considering all the things I've apparently done in the last seven years, is quite the achievement. You've laid out the groundwork. Let me handle the rest.
"Cloud needs you far more than I do at the moment." Sephiroth made a slight jerk of his chin. "So get going."
Zack flashed a quick grateful smile, then his expression turned wistful and a little sad.
"When you get around to meeting Cloud, try to be nice to him. Please, as a favor to me? He really deserves it."
Sephiroth nodded slightly.
"It's really good to see you -- the real you -- again." Zack gave Sephiroth a brilliant grin that held both joy and relief. "Welcome back, Sephiroth."
He closed his eyes. Almost immediately, Zack's body flickered, shifted, and began to melt into Cloud's shorter, slighter form. Golden blond hair overtook the black, except for a small patch at the nape of the neck. And like with the earlier transformation, the clothing shifted subtly to accommodate the change in height and build.
A few seconds later, the Cloud they knew reappeared. Without opening his eyes or uttering a word, he crumpled silently to the lab floor.
Tifa was at Cloud's side in an instant, rapidly followed by the rest of his friends. As most of them hovered anxiously, she hastily checked his vital signs. Cloud's heartrate and breathing were steady, and there was no evidence of the severe stomach wound they had seen earlier on his body or clothing.
To all outward appearances, Cloud looked as if he was merely sleeping. However, he remained completely unresponsive to their frantic attempts to rouse him.
(end of Part 11)
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