Warnings: Boys who like other boys. Extended canon deviation. Non-explicit sexual situations. The works.
Summary: Zack and General Sephiroth find a stranger lying in the trees. A stranger with mako eyes, reflexes on par with Sephiroth's, and so much anger, so much hate. What's a pair of SOLDIERs to do?
Disclaimers: They belong to Square-Enix.
Prologue: Dead Man's Oath
Chapter 01: This Is How It Was
Chapter 02: This Is How It Is
Chapter 03: A Time for War (Part I)
The next morning dawned early, although neither Zack nor Sephiroth nor Cloud had slept a wink. Zack had long since taken back his snide mental remark about the General’s inability to conduct a proper investigation and interrogation and had replaced it was an equally snide mental remark about the General’s goddamned thoroughness.
Cloud had held up pretty damned well, even if Zack still wasn’t sure Cloud wasn’t the enemy. Had answered all of Sephiroth’s questions with a quiet frankness that certainly sounded like truth, mostly because the guy didn’t seem capable of lying properly even if he tried.
There were still some things Cloud had refused to tell them, even with all of General Sephiroth’s solemn probing.
“Why did you attack me?”
“I thought you were someone else.”
Which was patently ridiculous because if there were someone else quite like Sephiroth in the world, they’d have found them by now, wouldn’t they?
…Although judging by this guy’s talent, perhaps that wasn’t completely out of the question.
“If you’re not in SOLDIER, how did you come by those clothes?”
“He didn’t need them anymore. And I did.”
Sephiroth never looked exasperated, but something about the utter blankness of his features made Zack wonder. Apparently Cloud had picked up on it too, because the corner of his lips quirked up in a wry smile, “It’s not going to work, you know. Convincing yourselves. There’s no helping anyone else believing I’m anything but the bad guy.”
“Then I hope you realize that it is certainly not a good thing for us to think that way of you.”
There it was again. Us. Zack allowed himself the tiniest of smiles at that hint of inclusiveness. Seph was making progress.
“I don’t know any other way.”
And that… well, it really just wasn’t good enough.
Zack shared a mutual look of muted dismay with his commanding officer. He was too dangerous to simply be let out, or even just to be held in containment in cuffs. Not after what they’d already seen. But if they even breathed a word to anyone higher up or even with a scientific bent…
As if to spur his mounting sense of paranoia to new and incredible heights, a voice outside chose that precise moment of silence to pipe up in a nervous, but loud, “Permission to speak to General Sephiroth, sir! The Head of Weapons Development has landed. Orders are for you to return to port to discuss the current situation.”
A new recruit, obviously. But messenger boy nonetheless, and even General Sephiroth couldn’t ignore a summons from the Powers that Be. Sephiroth made a sound that might almost have been a growl of impatience, as he grasped for the tent flap, glancing back pointedly at the both of them, “Do nothing whilst I am gone,” he said, quiet voice heavy with warning. “Or I won’t answer for what will happen to you.”
Zack saluted. Cloud’s face went stony, but he jerked it once in a curt nod before Sephiroth disappeared out of the tent.
Then there was silence. Again.
Well, that just wouldn’t do.
“Se—the General. What’d he ever do to you?”
And oh, there was a look of avoidance right there. Total discomfort if Zack knew anything about reading a body.
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I saw the way you looked at him—like he… like…”
Even Zack with his exceptional imagination couldn’t think of something bad enough to warrant all of Cloud’s anger, Cloud’s hatred and disgust directed at Sephiroth and Sephiroth alone. There were plenty of people even in Midgar that’d happily knife anyone who had anything to do with the company. But not Seph alone.
“He’s different. Not who I was looking for.”
“You telling me there are others like him?”
Cloud just watched him with eyes that tried way too hard to be empty. He was still hiding something, and Zack had half an idea it wasn’t anything good.
Why did this have to be so hard?
It took a great deal for Cloud to keep from slumping and burying his face in his hands. It should have been easy. He’d been given everything, a chance for a different future, a better future, one where so many things could have been avoided if only this one man were to…
A future where Tifa’s father would be… where his mother and his village and… Aeris…
So why couldn’t he? Why couldn’t he just… make things better?
“I just… I don’t know.”
It would be better… wouldn’t it? Wasn’t it worth it?
“He’s a good man, Cloud.”
That was the problem.
Less than four hours later, while they were still waiting for Sephiroth to come back, pandemonium came calling.
Zack wasn’t entirely sure how it’d happened. Blackhurst had come running back with rifle un-slung, hell bent for leather only minutes earlier, yelling about finding the border patrolmen of their camp dead with throats neatly slit. Then the whole world had exploded into a frenzy of noise and screaming and yelling as the sharp spiking scent of magic hit his nose, seconds before the air around him exploded into flames, like someone had set off several Fire3’s all at once.
He had his sword in hand in an instant, and was running his fingers in a quick check along the glowing spheres slotted into his standard-issue bracer with the other as he scanned the surroundings. “Shit,” he muttered as he heard the shrill whine that soon changed to a keening growl. There weren’t just Wutains attacking them, there was more. Monsters. Whether they were summons or were just attracted to the fighting like a lot of the monsters were around here—attracted to the blood and the death perhaps, because usually guys were more keen on killing each other than worrying about the furred and feathered while they were alive—didn’t make much of a difference because now they were attacking them, and Zack could see several dark splotches of filthy brown fur from his vantage point. Shit, shit, shit.
“Give me my things.”
Cloud was behind him, and Zack wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, but it couldn’t have been very long because Zack didn’t freeze at crucial moments like this, needed all the time to figure out how to best keep his ass, and hopefully anyone else’s around him, from being skewered on several feet of Wutain steel.
Zack hesitated. It could be a trap. Cloud could have been planted by them, by the Wutains, and it wouldn’t have been impossible, except…
And Cloud was on top of him again, knocking him over and down, grinding him into the dirt, except this was far from pleasurable as Zack felt the air threaten to leave his lungs, and Cloud leapt off him nearly as fast as he’d tackled him, dodging the wild corrective swing the dark-haired Wutain that’d sprang on them from behind aimed at his head and leaping up into the man’s guard, landing a stunning blow directly to the man’s throat.
Zack heard something crunch wetly, and saw the man’s eyes bug as he slumped backward and crumpled to the ground in that way that only happened when you got your neck snapped. Cloud had a look on his face, the kind you only ever really got after you’ve killed a lot of people and lived to still have a heart beating inside you with something more than just blood. There was still feeling in there, in the very depths of those eyes, but the face had gone stony and silent, not all that different from Sephiroth on the battlefield.
A quick flick of the eyes later, and Cloud was leaning down, offering a hand up to Zack.
Zack took it feeling mildly foolish that the only real reason he did was because Cloud was offering contact, and he damn well wanted to take it, even at a time like this. He didn’t even think too hard on the instant suspicion that maybe Cloud just wanted to break his arm in six places. If that wasn’t trust, he didn’t know what was.
Cloud hauled him up with relative ease, his eyes never stopped moving around him, scanning his surroundings, and Zack could’ve sworn that if the guy had had ears like a cat, they’d have been twitching here and there at the slightest noise, so intently was he listening. “Damn it Zack,” he muttered, “Give me my things and at the very least I can watch your ass properly.”
“Won’t that distract you?” Zack replied with an attempt at a leer, stalling in the only way he knew how as he wracked his mind for a good answer. Should he? The General still hadn’t been sure whether or not this guy was safe—no, not safe, no matter what Cloud was, he would never really be safe, not with the way he fought—on their side. And now with this attack…
So damn it, why did he trust him?
“I don’t have your sword, Cloud. Sephiroth kept that. Your armlet though…” he snatched it out of his belt-satchel, and handed it to him. “Don’t you dare end up a traitor, Cloud.” He said, with a warning glare, “I’ll come back and haunt you, I swear. I’ll be damned cranky if I die.”
Something flickered in those eyes as Cloud methodically checked his materia quickly, secured it around one wrist, and snatched up the dead man’s sword—to hell with battlefield superstition anyway, not when things were desperate. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid. Where’s Sephiroth?”
Zack jerked his head towards the tree line, where the thickest of the fighting was. “Up at the front.”
“Then we’re damn well going after him, aren’t we?” Cloud murmured, scraping up an abandoned helmet from the dirt nearby, standard Shinra issue that obscured most of his face from sight when he put it on.
“What’d I say about not being a traitor, Cloud?”
“The man’s going to need backup, isn’t he? No in-fighting until all this is settled. Honor-sworn.” Cloud replied as the two of them took off running, easily keeping up with one another in a way Zack could tell Cloud was unused to. Obviously if Cloud had traveled with people, it certainly hadn’t been with any SOLDIERs, or any fighters of his caliber.
“Witnessed. Don’t forget it.”
As they waded into the crush of things, Zack was a little surprised to find out that Cloud knew how to fight in proper formation—the guy had already seemed to know the rule book, sure, but it was one thing to know what you were supposed to do, and another to actually know to how to do it when you were actually there.
Whatever kind of vigilante assassin tactics Cloud knew and practiced, there was still an obvious military base somewhere in all that training as well.
There were no fancy leaps and feints from Cloud this time; this was steady on-the-ground footwork as the two of them slowly advanced through the crush of the fighting. Zack had never really had anyone near him that darted past the dropped rifles with a baleful look like Cloud did, how he didn’t seem to notice the bullets flying through the air that he dodged with almost bored nonchalance. Except it wasn’t nonchalance because even if most of Zack’s observations were conducted out of the corner of his eye, he could see immediately that the guy noticed everything and it was only a single-minded goal running through his brain that wasn’t the where am I, who else is around me, are they enemies, can I take them? which was quite obviously need to get to Sephiroth.
Why Cloud was so damned eager to get to Sephiroth Zack had no idea, and there was still enough suspicion left to him about this guy that forced him to keep up with the blond, forced him to keep at his back.
Zack hadn’t had a lot of time to look over the collection of materia Cloud had kept slotted into his Dragon Armlet, but of the mixture of greens, blues and reds, he’d only really been able to recognize FullCure out of the greens, and it was a mastered one at that. He’d only ever seen one of those and that was one that belonged to Sephiroth who didn’t carry it often for the power it required to use it. Clearly Cloud had been ready to fight something big when they’d found him. The other two greens were spells, of that much he was sure, and they were high-level ones at that. There was an All material there, attached to the FullCure. Clearly, despite his automatic surliness and the fact that they’d found him alone, Cloud was used to traveling in a party with at least one or more people in order to make that near-mastered All materia worthwhile.
The next one told Zack that despite the use Cloud’s FullCure materia had taken, the man was no mere Cure bitch. It was a purple… Zack could recognize that, he’d trained with that one himself; Counterattack. Obviously a heavy hitter in the party, Cloud was. Zack wasn’t surprised to note this. Just look at the size of that sword after all.
But… spells, strength, and a healer? Whatever he was, Cloud obviously didn’t trust anyone but himself to keep himself and the people around him alive. Which was… sad, really. Not something to be mocked, just… people should have other people to depend on when things got bad, and even if things didn’t.
The last was a red, and Zack had no idea what kind of Summon Cloud would carry around with him, but just a glance at the others made it pretty damn sure that whatever kind of Summon it was, Zack could be sure the thing would pack a pretty big punch.
He could see Cloud glance at his bracer glittering with green, before he looked around and un-slotted two of the greens, replacing the one linked to the All. Probably an attack spell of some form.
He saw Cloud glance at it once while they jammed their way through before visibly deciding against it; probably too many targets that were interspersed with their own. Zack decided it was probably a good thing that whatever else, Cloud appeared to be on their side, if only for the fact that he ruthlessly cut down the Wutains that surged up against him shrilling their war cries, and never once touched a Shinra soldier, except once to jerk one out of the way of a spray of bullets that would have gone straight through the boy’s brain.
General Sephiroth up ahead was not mounted, though Adrammelech was right at his master’s side, his warning whistle shrill as his fought as hard as the man beside him, looking ferocious as only a war bird could, with blood streaking beak and talons. General Sephiroth was a blur of motion; black leather and the reflection off of plate armor, his sword a thin ribbon of silver and death. He was holding his own, but he was also alone, at the very front with his war bird, just like a true General should, and everyone who had eyes could see that he was the target they were after. Zack could understand Cloud’s haste to get there, if what he wanted was to protect the General… but this was still the guy who’d tried to kill General Sephiroth not all that many hours ago. Was he trying to protect him?
Perhaps it was that fighter’s instinct again—on Cloud’s part, just like it had been on Sephiroth’s before. He hadn’t wanted to reveal Cloud to the others, hadn’t wanted to report him because he’d been intrigued by the guy, been intrigued by the extent of his strength, with the possibility that he might have met his equal. Sephiroth was proud—he would never allow himself to die except at the hands of the best opponent, and whatever he was, Cloud would not be a disappointment if it came time to putting up a good fight. Maybe Cloud wanted the same thing. Although Zack wasn’t so stupid as to that it was as simple as all that.
Whatever the case, Zack hoped that Cloud’s homicidal tendencies towards the General wouldn’t resurface until a good while after the day’s fighting was done.
They eventually managed to fight their way through to the General, taking up position behind him so that they were an odd ragged circle of swords and sharp chocobo talons. And the General looked shocked—as shocked as General Sephiroth could look, anyhow—his eyes passing over Zack and raking over the stranger in SOLDIER charcoals but a regular trooper’s helmet over his head. Didn’t take more than an instant to figure it out though, hotshot General that he was, and he caught Zack’s desperate eye with a gauging look of are you sure?
As Cloud met the next wave of Wutains with a clash of steel with an expression as coldly serious as his own, Sephiroth obviously realized that whatever quarrel Cloud had with him, it was clearly going to wait until after the day’s fighting was settled.
“How many of them do you think there are?” Zack yelled from a few feet away as his blade flashed out; a low groan of sound through the air, before ending in the solid thwuck of steel in flesh, muscle and bone. And the screaming… oh hell, always the screaming…
“A good deal more than I expected,” Sephiroth admitted, blood spattering his cheek as several men fell away from him, dead before they struck the earth again. “I had not expected the monsters—”
Adrammelech’s shrill warning whistle interrupted him, and from the corner of his eye, Zack saw Sephiroth’s eyes narrow, focusing on the men approaching with swords and materia-glows alike. Then they were all moving again, and Zack’s attention was engaged in the blows that landed unerringly on either steel or flesh as the next wave broke over them.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before he heard a ringing crack and Cloud’s curse as he stumbled backwards a step, the hilt and about half of the stolen blade still held in his hand. It was enough for a side-sweeping blow to slice open his opponent’s throat, gouts of blood splashing onto the little that was visible of his face as the other man dropped.
Cloud shuddered, once, before he shook his head. “Enough,” Zack could see his mouth say, though the ringing of steel was all he could hear.
“What are you doing?” Sephiroth demanded when he saw Cloud thrust what was left of his stolen sword into the ground. Zack automatically moved in, positioned himself in front of him, covering him, as Cloud answered, “I’m going to find out how strong they are.”
Zack saw a glimpse of his face; saw that the blue eyes had gone flinty and cold, as if the guy’s heart had detached itself from the actions of his body. He turned his attention away, guarding him as he felt rather than saw the glowing nimbus of green power that Cloud raised, running in waves along his back. He knew without looking that the power Cloud called had made the materia-blue glow in his eyes flare even brighter, knew that if he turned around now, the glow would have swallowed Cloud’s pupil, two circles of blue behind the wash of green, coiled in an afterglow of an All’s blue.
A wide sweeping gesture of Cloud’s arms at the corner of his eye told him the blond was sighting his targets, eyes sweeping along the faces of those he was going to attack.
And then the power exploded… black.
Zack felt the terror race up his spine as he stopped moving and whirled around to stare, forgetting training, forgetting the fact that there were people with large sharp objects that could be shoved into his person at any time… because those around them had stopped, gripped by the same undeniable terror that nearly drove him to his knees as a dark, sickly figure appeared directly above them, and the sounds of cold laughter filtered through the air.
If that was a summon, he’d never seen it before, never even heard of it before. Nothing like this had ever been mentioned in the Shinra texts about materia—and something like this, to call down the Grim Reaper itself…
The wave of magic smashed into them all and through them all; Zack could feel it as if it were a cold, icy wind that chilled him to his very bones before it passed and rolled onwards.
Over thirty men fell dead instantly, slumped sightlessly to the ground like puppets with cut strings, without a struggle, without anything as that grim laughter tolled from above and the blackness of the figure faded into nothingness again.
There was a long, horrible silence where they all stared at Cloud’s masked figure like he was a demon sent from the depths of hell itself. Then as one, they all turned and ran.
In all three years of Zack’s time in the war, he had never, never even a single Wutain turn tail on him, not even when Sephiroth had unleashed his worst summons on them. And here… here was a horde of them, running from Cloud as if their very lives depended on it. What was he?
And had they actually sided with a true demon?
Zack had never really wanted to be a priest; there were way too many rules and too many complications like vows and probably the whole not-swearing part, and that whole business where he couldn’t have sex… oh, and that whole faith business that he’d never really had in something that he couldn’t see, couldn’t feel for himself.
But right then, he almost wished he knew something of what the old man in the pulpit seemed to know. Find out if death gods or demons really roamed the Planet. That seemed like some pretty handy knowledge to have right about now.
Cloud’s hands dropped down to his sides as the power haze cleared… the guy hadn’t even broken out in a sweat after that… whatever that was… and was watching them run, the icy expression fading slowly into one of surprise. He turned to Zack with a look that might have been confusion, “Haven’t they ever seen a Destruct materia before?”
Zack’s reply was a dumbstruck silence. Sephiroth’s quiet, “No… no they probably haven’t.” seemed to impress on Cloud the fact that everyone was silent, and everyone was staring.
At him. In awe, and what approached utter terror.
This close, even with the visor, Zack could see Cloud’s eyes had gone wide and panicked as he surveyed the crowds staring almost unblinkingly at him, and wracked his brain for some way to help him.
A second later, Cloud did it himself; he straightened, drawing himself up until he reached his full height—although next to Sephiroth, that wasn’t as impressive a figure as he could’ve been—and in a voice pitched to carry, he thrust his fist in the air and bellowed, “Victory!”
He could see that knowledge playing along the faces of those soldiers around them. Victory? They had run, the Wutains had run and…
And Zack was shocked to find he was thrusting his fist up alongside Cloud. Him and Sephiroth and dozens of the soldiers closest to them. This was power. This was winning beyond any argument. This was true
So it's been a... long while. But, for once in a long history of not-doing stuff, I actually have been completing large sections of this fic to post--at least one chapter very soon, and more forthcoming. I don't know if anyone's still interested by this time, but! Well. It's my own sense of accomplishment too, after all! :D