Author: Guede Mazaka
Even before Sephiroth was fully aware, he tried to recapture the sensations that had stirred him out of sleep in the first place. He didn’t think he’d been dreaming, and when he checked his vitals on the wall monitors, he didn’t see any trace of that. Though that didn’t completely rule out that possibility, but…he grimaced, rubbing at his hands. They were covered in sweat, but it was cold. Cold and slightly sticky so his palms didn’t smoothly pass over each other.
He was still sitting on the bed and staring at his hands when he knew Vincent was in the room. The other man was standing at the side when Sephiroth looked up; Sephiroth jerked in surprise, his spine snapping straight and the fingers of his Masamune hand reflexively curling to receive a hilt. After diligent, covert effort, he’d managed to hone his strange awareness of Vincent to the point where he could sense him nearly a mile away. If Vincent was letting him, that was—sometimes Vincent would suddenly and inexplicably drop out of Sephiroth’s senses and as with nearly everything else, Vincent neither commented on it nor acknowledged any question Sephiroth had about it.
It did seem that Vincent was in the mood for a conversation right now. The red of his eyes dulled—in intensity, not color—as he regarded Sephiroth. Then he abruptly stripped off the glove on his normal hand and reached over to seize Sephiroth’s wrist. “What?”
He’d tilted his head to look at Sephiroth’s palm so his eyes weren’t visible, but a slight greenish corona emanating from them was. “I woke up in a cold sweat,” Sephiroth said.
Vincent at least didn’t need the moment, or sometimes longer, that others would’ve required to realize that that wasn’t a normal reaction for Sephiroth. He dropped Sephiroth’s wrist, but instead of tending to his weapons as he normally did, sat down on the edge of the bed. “Over what?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I was dreaming, but there was something…” Sephiroth tipped his head, swallowed a more bitter remark “…you’d know what goes on in my head better than I. What—was it—”
“If it’d been her I would’ve noticed and you’d be manacled by now,” Vincent tonelessly said. He started to pull his glove back on.
Every single time they had a chance for significant interaction, Sephiroth told himself he’d control himself and not be controlled. He was relearning that along with everything else, and he needed it, he needed the ability to ground himself in an overwhelmingly intense and unpredictable modless world—but Vincent’s damned denial of everything always got to him. “You do like that. I noticed when we first met.”
Vincent momentarily stilled. Sephiroth started to turn, then quickly reached out and snatched away the glove so it went sailing across the room. A metal vise immediately closed around his throat, a hand clamped his right palm face-down to the bed so he couldn’t draw Masamune and he froze in place, eyes locked with Vincent. Another uncharacteristic reaction: he was breathing as if he’d come off a whole day of non-stop fighting. And he was angry at himself for resorting to beyond childish tactics, and angry at Vincent for simply existing, and angry for being reintroduced to his least favorite new feeling, fear.
After fifteen seconds, Vincent relaxed but didn’t take away his grip on Sephiroth’s throat. “What happened? Describe what it felt like.”
At least it was his metal hand. The effect of the touch was muted by its chill, though Sephiroth still was aware that he was shaking and his hands were mildly paralyzed so they were frozen to the bed. Sephiroth gritted his teeth, then abruptly jerked himself back.
For some reason, Vincent let it happen. He put his hand down after a moment.
“Before I lost my mind, I was experiencing conscious anomalies,” Sephiroth acidly said. The moment he was able, he pulled his hands back into his lap. “Indistinct messages that I couldn’t trace or recover for amplification, no matter what I tried. I assumed they were due to the network problems we were having—white noise, something like that. Smecker and Reeve thought so too, so one thing I don’t feel inadequate about is not seeing Jenova coming.”
“You said it wasn’t her.” The color of Vincent’s eyes was flickering, like black shutters quickly opening and closing over a bright room.
Sephiroth rolled his eyes. “I said I didn’t know. You said it wasn’t her. It didn’t feel like her. But it was the same approach.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t feel like her?” Vincent demanded. “What does she feel like?”
“Do I have to explain that to you?” Sephiroth snapped back. He started to pull back the sheets, but then realized he wasn’t clothed beneath them. And that he wouldn’t even have noticed, damn it, except that it was—he grabbed the sheets and threw them around himself, then began to get up.
He wasn’t surprised when he was dragged back down by the arm. He let himself go down on one elbow, then shoved himself towards Vincent.
The other man promptly let go, and his hands had just moved into position for shoving when Sephiroth hauled himself out of the way. Vincent’s jaw tightened. The folds of his coat whispered as his body tensed beneath it, readying itself to leap. “What?”
“I was going to get dressed. I know there isn’t any point in avoiding you, but I think I could be safely allowed to minimize undesired contact,” Sephiroth said. All of the movement had caused the sheets to fall away from him and he grabbed handfuls of them and pulled them back up. He was aware that Vincent’s stare had progressed from unnerving to questioning.
“You’re—” Vincent seized Sephiroth’s jaw again “—flushing. What happened?”
He’d used his bare, human hand. Sephiroth fought the electric shock of it and used the last of his willpower to hiss out an answer. “I’m turning human, that’s wh—no, it’d be more correct to say I’m getting used to being human. Thanks to you. Now get—”
The fingers on Sephiroth’s jaw rearranged to dig thumb and forefinger into the flesh just behind the joint, where the nerves were. He hissed out another breath and jerked up his chin to relieve the strain; he couldn’t quite see Vincent’s eyes anymore. Vincent muttered something indecipherable and shifted on the bed with no clear purpose. Possibly he was actually expressing discomfort.
Vincent’s fingers continued to feel like ice while where they touched heated up till Sephiroth could feel more sweat—warm sweat—slick down his throat. His breathing grew uneven and he couldn’t keep himself from kneading the sheets, even though that was gradually pulling them off his legs. And then Vincent loosened his grip. He slid his thumb across the front of Sephiroth’s throat, then turned his hand just as Sephiroth lowered his chin; Vincent’s eyes were fixed on his hand as he slowly drew the back of it down the side of Sephiroth’s throat, carefully brushing away the hair from it.
“I didn’t flush before her or when she had me,” Sephiroth said. He swallowed when Vincent’s fingertips ran over an implant scar. “Were you like this before, or did it happen when you immunized yourself?”
Nails suddenly dug into Sephiroth’s skin; Vincent’s pupils flared, then shrank. He turned his hand back over and curled it around Sephiroth’s neck, and the muscles there began to slacken before all of his palm had pressed down. His thumb rose to stroke the underside of Sephiroth’s jaw. “It was an amputation, not an immunization. You were supposed to be, too. But you…”
It should’ve gone to assault by now, but Vincent was holding back. And he continued to merely sit there till the strain of it got to Sephiroth and he jerkily lifted his hands, then seized the lapels of Vincent’s coat. Vincent acknowledged it by pushing his fingers further across the back of Sephiroth’s neck, sliding them beneath loose hair. Sephiroth inhaled sharply, eyes now on the scarlet fabric he was twisting in his hands. He watched as he slowly gathered it up.
When it’d completely slid from Vincent’s shoulders, Vincent abruptly put back his arm and twisted it out of the sleeve, the fabric snagging a little on his metal fingers. Then he put that palm to the side of Sephiroth’s waist and lifted his other hand from Sephiroth long enough to take it out of that sleeve. Sephiroth immediately dropped the coat and grabbed at Vincent’s shirt too quickly so his fingers slipped on the seamless fabric. Then he found the fastenings and began undoing them, his fingers burning and his lip tasting bloody. “I’ve never seen you undressed,” he said, grimacing at the feverish shake of his voice. “I’ve told people you don’t scar, but I don’t actually know that. Maybe only your face is immune.”
The black shirt parted in a line that went from the base of Vincent’s neck to the center of his waist, exposing a lean chest—leaner than Sephiroth’s; he never could believe that Vincent was in fact slightly smaller than him—that was flawlessly white. Even the nipples were merely a variation, shadows on snow. He hesitated about touching any of it, and then he jerked his hand and just grazed the line of one pectoral before Vincent abruptly took him by the wrists.
Vincent threw him on his back and slapped his wrists once against the mattress, and then Sephiroth held them there religiously, cursing and clawing at the air with his teeth as Vincent kicked off the sheets. The other man raked his hands over Sephiroth once, his black shirt flapping about to cut his white torso into pieces, before raising Sephiroth’s legs. By then Sephiroth’s vision was already dimming, the world spinning as his eyes rolled back into his head. By the time Vincent fucked him, he wasn’t much better than a posed mannequin.
Whatever mood had convinced him to let Sephiroth uncover him, he’d worked through it before he came. Like always, he immediately pulled away to tidy himself. “Your dream,” he finally said.
“Not a dream.” Sephiroth’s tongue was half-numbed and too thick for his mouth. He stared up at the ceiling and honestly thought that being coerced in that damned club had been better than this. Back then he’d been professionally deadened to the world and hadn’t known how to deal with the sensory overload Vincent had induced; now his senses had no filters and the lack of feeling was one particularly ferocious ache. “Someone was trying to contact me…someone else who’s connected. I can’t tell anymore, damn it—Rufus, Kadaj, the other high-level officers Hojo modified—”
“I went through the records. The only ones with whom he tried to include Jenova in the mods who were successful were you, Strife, and Zack,” Vincent helpfully informed him. “Zack was only a partial success and so far it appears his resulting vulnerability isn’t mental. Otherwise I would have killed him.”
Sephiroth pushed himself up on his elbows before he really thought. “You don’t kill him.”
Vincent glanced over his shoulder. Then he reached down and picked up his coat from the floor, but instead of putting it on, he folded it over his arm. “I will if he becomes accessible to her. If I could find Strife, I’d kill him too.”
He…couldn’t find Strife. Which could be one reason why he made so many trips out without informing anyone where or why he was going. “If that happens, then I’ll kill Zack. Until then—”
“Could you kill him?” Vincent asked, turning around. He reached out and deliberately ran his fingers down Sephiroth’s chest. The touch both seared and invited, and Sephiroth only resisted enough to keep himself from crawling over.
Even then, he had to gouge his thigh with his nails till it bled to keep it only at rolling over on his belly, curling towards Vincent. “Don’t talk to me like that. You have Smecker to do it, so let him—he’s good at it and that’s his damned job. You were going to kill me and you still probably should, and you want to, but you don’t. You pulled out my mods and cut me off from her instead. I’ve found photos of Lucrecia and I don’t look that much like her.”
Vincent’s pupils contracted like fingers snapping to a fist. His hand went from Sephiroth’s belly to the back of his neck, coming down there like a clamp. He flexed his fingers once, twice so Sephiroth flinched, then—his mouth like fire, blowing sparks into Sephiroth’s mouth to bring Sephiroth’s groans to life. And he stayed bent over, his lips and tongue easing and then brutally hard with their pressure, and Sephiroth swung up an arm to finger the thick black tail that hung down Vincent’s back, finding that its neatness was due to black threads knotted around it at regular intervals, and still he stayed.
When he did finally lift away, his ragged breath rasped over Sephiroth’s face. Sephiroth blinked and realized he’d closed his eyes. He opened them wide and stared up at Vincent. “Do you like me like this? If you just told me, it’d be easier to know what to do.”
Vincent grimaced at that, then roughly pushed himself and Sephiroth apart. “This isn’t a chain of command. Who was trying to contact you? Do you have any ideas?”
“If you want to think that, then you should keep your glove on,” Sephiroth muttered. He pulled himself up to the head of the bed, then disentangled his legs from the sheets and moved to get off the bed. This time, Vincent didn’t interfere. “Not Jenova. If it’d been somebody in the building, I think it would’ve happened earlier—Smecker would’ve picked up on Kadaj and be in here assisting you in the interrogation again. I don’t think it’s Zack. The clones have been getting better.”
“They’re still just shells,” Vincent said. He reached over and hit the button to refresh the sheets. “I believe I’ve killed all of Hojo’s misfires with the exception of Kadaj. That leaves Strife. What do you know about him? I can’t find much.”
“Because he was quiet and kept his head down. I never paid attention to him either.” Sephiroth went into the bathroom. He cleaned up his thighs, then looked outside to find that Vincent had left. Biting back a curse, he finished tending to himself and then began to dress for the day, even though it was still early. He wasn’t going back to sleep for quite a few reasons.
* * *
“I can’t talk,” Tifa said, spinning on her heel. All along the wall, panels were up to display the wiring and banks of motherboards behind them; as she walked away from Zack, she smacked them down one by one.
Zack glanced around the bar, which wouldn’t open for another two hours. Then he wandered over to the nearest floating screen. “Yeah, I guess you’re busy. What with all these checkmarks next to items on your to-do list.”
“That’s just the list for here. I manage more than one place, in case you’ve forgotten.” Her heels clicked angrily, her hair slapped hard against her back…what the hell. The last time Zack had seen her had been just after Cloud had had his breakdown, and then she’d been all worried and sympathetic. “Just because you see me here all the time doesn’t mean I don’t exist outside of it.”
“Okay, okay. Man…did I requisition some supplies you needed or something? Because I swear, I didn’t know and as soon as you tell me, I’ll—”
Tifa pivoted on one heel to stare at him. At first it was shocked and disbelieving, but it slowly turned into that irritatingly disgusted look women always gave when they found out the glamour of being a soldier didn’t last outside of the photo-op. Except Tifa had known that for years, and so Zack was even more annoyed at her.
“Do they give you cold blood transplants when they stick in all of these?” she finally asked. She tapped her temple jack, then half-turned to enter things on a datascreen.
Zack gritted his teeth and made himself walk towards her. “What? Goddamn it, Tifa—I’m being as nice as I possibly can, but right now you’re really—”
“Just because all I do is keep the drugs well-stocked and the VR equipment glitch-free doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on. It’s been weeks since Cloud disappeared and you haven’t done a damn thing. There’s been no official search for him, and no unofficial search either.” Tifa tipped her head to one side, her mouth twisting in an unpleasant way. Then she sighed and dismissed the datascreen with which she’d been working for getting out an old-fashioned glass. She spritzed in an orange liquor that floated in a ball in the middle of the glass, then poured in a clear one around it. “The Turks aren’t on it. You think they don’t talk, wondering why they’re sent on routine missions to suppress the Kisaragi when we’ve got a missing general?”
“Cloud wasn’t quite a general yet. Kid was almost there,” Zack said, surprised into a nervous laugh.
Unimpressed, Tifa just looked disdainfully at him over the rim of her glass. She drained half of it so the floating orange part was a semi-circle. “Closer to it than you. You never had the concentration for it. Or the drive.”
Ouch. That really…Zack had to press his hand hard to the side of his leg. But it was true, and to be honest, he was happy about how he was. He hated politics and there was a good reason why he’d made friends with Sephiroth and not idolized him. “Tifa, look…the pollution’s not so bad out. If you go high enough, you can see a few stars tonight. Want to check it out?”
She blinked a few times, but Tifa was a smart girl and she got it soon enough. She just didn’t want to bite, lingering behind her bar and fingering her half-full glass.
“Goddamn it, Lockheart.” Zack flicked his eyes at the security feeds. “You’ve been in the bar too long. You’re going sour as the shots you pour.”
Her eyes narrowed. She pursed her lips as if to say something, but instead turned around to dump out her glass. Her long hair swished as it swung over her top, which was some ultra-modern plastic today. Usually she liked the old-fashioned—insofar as they still were from sheep, even if said sheep looked nothing like the photos in the historical archives—wool textiles.
“Stop trying out your lines on me,” she finally said. She tapped part of the bar and it dematerialized to let her get out. “I’m always going to tell you they don’t work.”
About twenty minutes later, when they’d found a secure spot on the bare girders of one of Shinra’s more inconsequential construction sites, Zack had to grin. “I beg to differ.”
“I’m not in the mood. Say what you have to say.” The night haze was an eerie blue tonight, which perfectly suited Tifa’s pale, beautiful features, even with the air-filter jammed over her nose. Her eyes looked unfocused because she had them on extreme wide-focus, trying to pick out those rare stars in the obscuring clouds.
“The Turks are off Strife…I think because there’s no way they could take him, and Rufus wants to keep as many of his loyalists alive as possible. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t looking for Cloud—and that doesn’t mean you should celebrate,” Zack quietly said. He started looking for the stars as well; he hadn’t been outdoors for more than twenty minutes since Sephiroth had informed him of his reassigned duties after that rush into Gainsborough territory. “The people you should be eavesdropping on don’t hit bars. At least, as far as I know.”
Tifa turned. Her eyes opened up from flat blue to terrified brown. “Jenova has infected him. That’s what you’re saying. I’ve heard—there’s some kind of operation, or some treatment…Sephiroth being ill for so long. Kadaj showing up all of a sudden with plastered-over surgical cuts. Rufus’ return to sanity. Is it too late for Cloud?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if Jenova…” Zack couldn’t finish that, remembering that second just before Cloud’s sword had whistled down. That hadn’t been Cloud in there. That had been some…mostly he remembered that shade of green. He’d thought he’d seen every single shade man could come up with, but that one had been new. Nowadays it was the color of his nightmares. “Tifa, I’m going to be honest with you. Sephiroth’s barely hanging on.”
A flicker of impatience crossed her face. She’d admired Sephiroth’s looks, but once she’d had a few close encounters with him, she’d rapidly developed a dislike for him.
“Forget what you think about him, okay? He’s still the strongest fighter Shinra has. He could take the Turks. All of them. Well, maybe that wiseass Reno might live long enough to report back to Rufus, but that’d be it,” Zack snapped. He was getting a little tired of Tifa’s bitch routine, as if she were the only one in the entire world who was missing people and under pressure to not show it.
Tifa muttered something that might’ve been ‘Elena,’ but she didn’t repeat it or clarify it.
“But first Jenova got into him. He’s sane now—really sane, freethinking and all that—but he’s not…free. Valentine’s pulling his strings. Valentine’s pulling a lot of strings, and when it comes to anything connected with Jenova, he’s managed to pull everybody off it except for him.” Maybe Zack couldn’t work Grand Strategy, but he could spot a pattern when he saw one. And the one thing Valentine wasn’t all that good at was being lowkey. Rufus didn’t creep around in the shadows, but Zack didn’t have nearly as much idea of what Rufus got up to outside of the conference room that he did about Valentine.
“But what about Cloud?” Tifa asked. She put her hands down and carefully turned herself on the girder to face him. For a moment, she dropped the mask and looked like the dewy near-girl who’d followed Cloud into Shinra. “Where does he fit? What does Valentine want? Is Valentine looking for him?”
Zack hesitated. She saw it and opened her mouth to call him on it, so he got out his answer first. “Well, given his record, it’s probably to kill Cloud. I’m not sure why Valentine helped Rufus, but he has obvious personal reasons—” he could talk the bullshit as well as anyone; he just couldn’t get used to the taste of it in his mouth “—for Sephiroth. Kadaj was for Smecker, I think. All the others, he’s just killed.”
Tifa sucked in her breath. And then showed the years since she’d gotten an entry-level job as a waitress by not immediately flying into a hysterical fit. She sat there and her eyes were pointed at Zack while she thought behind a stone mask of a face.
“The thing is, he hasn’t found Cloud yet. And I—well, you heard about how I fucked up and got relegated to guard duty. I don’t feel too good about just leaving that, since somebody really has to do it and right now we’re just too shorthanded. I go and there’s nobody to step up for me,” Zack said. He didn’t like working things out in silence. If he talked it out, things seemed more solid and he could pin them down one by one, holding them in place while he made the connections between them. “And I don’t know where to even start looking for Cloud.”
“Did you come in to tell me this, or were you going to ask me something? You looked like you were going to ask me something,” Tifa abruptly replied. She twisted her hands together in her lap, flicking her eyes from them to Zack and back again.
He had to take a moment to regroup, since he hadn’t been expecting that kind of response from her, and because he couldn’t actually remember. He thought about it, then snorted and shook his head. “Oh…I was going to ask you if you could slip me some kind of sedative. Just a mild one—if I got it the normal way, it’d get passed on to Smecker and a ton of other people, and next thing I know I’ll be in interrogation.”
“Sedative?” Tifa raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s my bartender. I’m having nightmares. Nothing that bad, I guess, since I can never remember them, but they keep waking me up.” Zack flashed her a humorless smile. “I went to adjust with a handheld, only to find that I’ve been barred from messing with my brain biochem levels for that. Don’t know whether it’s Rufus worried about my competence, some nutty experiment of Smecker’s, or maybe even Sephiroth afraid that he’ll get recalled from the field.”
“Recalled from what?” Tifa absently asked. Her eyes were green and unfocused, probably because she was checking inventory.
He didn’t answer her right away. It wasn’t all that relevant and given what Zack thought it was, telling her about it wasn’t going to make her like Sephiroth any more than she already did. And she needed to, since the fact remained that Sephiroth was possibly the only one who could take Valentine on. Zack knew Valentine had gotten the better of Sephiroth once, but that’d been surprise plus probably Jenova. On a level playing field…which was something he hadn’t seen in years, damn it. Maybe just given enough motivation—
* * *
Sephiroth froze mid-stride. Then he snapped himself together and tried to send out a…but he couldn’t do network probes. Vincent had disabled that particular ability of his.
The signal was gone anyway. Gone almost as if it’d been passing through him. Not to him, like he’d thought before. It…he gave himself a shake and stalked on, heading for Smecker’s chambers. He wasn’t going to enjoy this, but if there was something they could build externally that’d help him track that call, then he’d need Smecker’s help.
* * *
Something slammed hard into Zack’s arm. He let out a startled gasp, eyes snapping wide. A spectacular aerial view of the city below snapped into focus; he grabbed onto the girder just before that would’ve turned into a moving view. And stayed leaning over, wondering what the hell that had been.
“Zack? Zack, talk to me,” Tifa hissed, digging her fingers into his shoulder. “What’s wrong? What just happened to you?”
“I don’t--know.” Zack pressed his hand against his temple. He closed the eye on that side and felt the pressure inside his skull increase, then opened his eye and pulled down his hand. His head didn’t actually hurt, but that had been so damned disorienting. “I—am I having dreams when I’m awake now?”
After a moment, Tifa scooted over and slipped her arm around Zack’s waist, nudging him to get up. When he didn’t immediately stand, she braced her feet under herself and pulled both of them onto their feet; she wasn’t some soft network junkie, muscles only kept intact with liberal mod usage. “Let’s get down from here,” she said.
He started to let her, then stopped as he thought of something. He bit his lip, then twisted hard away from her and quickly backed up when she started to move towards him. “Wait, Tifa…look, if this is Jenova doing something…”
She looked very steadily at him. He could see fear and horror flash through her eyes, and then a kind of grim determination. She took a deep breath, then…stepped off the girder.
“Tifa! What the hell--” Zack caught her by the wrist and had swung her back up before her head had even dropped below the level of his knees. Then he made damn sure he had hold of her shoulders.
For some reason, she was smiling. Her eyes were wet and she was laughing, soft and relieved and a little edgy. “No, no, you’re fine. You’re—you saved me. You still care—I talked with Cloud. He was pulling away, till he wasn’t…he wouldn’t have done that. Jenova wouldn’t have done that. You’re fine, Zack.”
“Then what the fuck just happened?” he demanded. “What?”
Tifa stopped laughing. Her breath hitched, and then she looked up sharply at him. Her expression wasn’t certain at all, though. “I…I don’t think we’ll know unless it happens again. So you’ve got to…I can’t give you the…”
They looked at each other for a long moment. Then she looked away, down at the distant streets, and he looked up at the sky. He actually could pick one out in a thinning of the haze, a little smear of brighter light.
“In that case, I’m not in any hurry to go back in. If I’m going to invite more nightmares, then I’m damn well taking my coffee breaks,” Zack said. Bunch of nonsense. He didn’t even know what he meant. He just didn’t want to go back to work for another five minutes.
Something touched his hand. Then Tifa curled her fingers tight, squeezing his palm. “Start taking them in my bars, okay? I can’t…talk to me. Tell me what’s happening. Tell…help me find him.”
“I’ll…try,” Zack finally replied. He watched that star till the haze blurred it out of sight before he and Tifa started down.