Author: Guede Mazaka
“Because I have no idea what I’m doing!” Zack ducked behind a server, only to have to scramble to get clear when six huge slashes blew it into a dangerous spray of high-voltage sparks. Lightning arced out to touch the metal platforms and railings, turning the whole area into a death-trap.
He leaped up just as the first tingle hit the soles of his feet, and even that little graze felt like somebody had shoved red-hot rods into various parts of his body—mostly where his implants were. Their dampeners managed to handle the sudden extra load, but just barely; he snapped out shock-shields beneath himself and when he landed, he could still feel the charge thrumming through those.
*You held down my job for a month! How could you not know?* The aural implants were completely overloaded by all the sizzling and clashing, so Zack only got words scrolling down the left side of his vision. Not that that reduced Sephiroth’s clear annoyance by much.
“Well, I didn’t have to fight any pitched battles! What am I supposed to do with the group we’ve got up by the transformers?” Zack hissed, twisting cautiously around.
He sensed a pressure change from above and dodged just as a flash of silver cleaved down to barely miss his left shoulder. The floor shattered beneath his feet and his first instinct was to scramble back, but instinct screamed and instead he whipped around, jumping over the melted edges of the gap and letting his momentum swing his sword. It bit into flesh, but he was moving away and couldn’t keep up the pressure long enough for a fatal blow.
A zillion messages were popping up in his vision, begging for orders and directions and fuck, wasn’t that what all that damn training was for? Couldn’t anybody—he back-stepped, then flipped his sword and thrust it straight back behind him. It thunked into a body, then slid home to grate on bone; he didn’t waste the chance and sent a massive EMP wave down the blade as well. A huge cleaver of a sword jiggled into view, then abruptly fell past his face to stick quivering in the floor; a hot trickle down the side of his face told Zack exactly how close that had been. He lifted his hand and wiped it off, not feeling the cut because it’d already closed.
He missed the heat-vision, damn it. That one shouldn’t have managed to get that close, only Zack was used to checking the infrared flashes and now he didn’t have it anymore with that eye.
*They haven’t moved? Then they’re on the flank right n--* Sephiroth must have run into some trouble, because he paused long enough for another message, this one from the anxious programmers trying to keep all the damaged servers from crashing the systems, to interrupt his. *Send them in already.*
Zack jerked his sword free and passed on the order just before another one of the goddamn endless clones slammed down at him from above. If they always fought like that, then he seriously had to look into getting ocular ‘plants in the top of his—
He’d slid away, whipping sideways to present a smaller profile, and then had sneaked in a backhand as the clone accidentally touched a still-electrified portion of the floor grates without properly shielding himself. Then Zack had finished turning, and for a moment he’d been frozen in horror at the sight of wide blue eyes.
But the hair was wrong. The hair was—Zack gave himself a fortunate shake, since that made sure that the incoming bullet missed his jaw by a fraction of an inch. The wind-burn of its trail finished sparking him back into fighting mode, and he leaped for the dark figure balanced on the far platform.
He never really got a good rhythm going, what with all the orders coming in and Sephiroth never giving him enough replies to relay on back, but he stayed on his feet and got through it with little more than scratches and a deep, deep sense of fatigue. And then every fucking soldier still standing converged on him to ask for orders in person. It almost made him want to start killing again. “Look, I—”
“Aren’t half of you supposed to be sweeping out to secure the perimeter? And what about body disposal? Making certain that their parts can’t be recycled into more attackers?” Sephiroth snapped, shouldering through the very outermost ring. After that, everyone shrank away from him. “I go on leave for a month and you’re reduced to a pack of children. Pathetic. You know what to do.”
Which more or less took care of that. Zack dematerialized his sword and rolled his shoulders, feeling the ache spring up from the bone. Modern technology could do a lot, but it seemed all superficial sometimes—they still couldn’t do much about chronic pain except drug somebody up, and right now Zack couldn’t afford the haze.
Sephiroth flicked his eyes over Zack the way he would over a new piece of weaponry, then walked on. He’d taken off his famous black leather coat and slung it over one shoulder; beneath it, he still had on a white shirt, but it was made out of one of those translucent absorbent fabrics. It wasn’t much more than a very thin sponge to keep the sweat and blood from sticking his clothes to him and hampering his movements, and through it Zack could clearly see the outlines of wounds in various stages of healing.
“Hey,” he said, frowning. “Are you…scarring?”
“It appears so. Whatever it is that keeps Vincent from acquiring any, he hasn’t seen fit to bestow on me after he disabled most of my bio-healing ‘plants. Of course, it’s entirely possible that he just hasn’t figured out yet how he does it. Either way, I wouldn’t know.” Ever since he’d come back, Sephiroth tended to bind his hair into a long tail instead of leaving it loose. The way the hair was skimmed tightly back from his face made him even more angular and severe. “Any new variations?”
He put his hand up to the right side of his head as he spoke, carefully prodding at his ear. Then he pulled out a very tiny external. He tucked it into his palm and opened his mouth to pick out an even smaller voice transmitter that they’d probably had to glue to his teeth.
“Not really. There was a silver-haired one that looked a little different.” Zack walked past the other man to what was left of the body and pushed at the charred leg with his foot. “Shorter haircut, broader in the shoulders. Like…I guess if you took a guy more like me and gave him your face,” he hesitantly said.
Sephiroth came over to take a cursory look, then bent down to collect samples and check a couple other things that he didn’t bother explaining. He never showed any signs of being disturbed that they were hunting what looked like renegade copies of him, but somehow Zack had a feeling it did bug the hell out of him.
“And another—another Cloud. They’re getting better at copying him.” Each word hurt to say. But Zack could hope all he wanted, and the business of making sure that he had a roof and food and protection for while he did that wouldn’t go away. “Does that—”
“Probably not. If he was with them, the clones would be exact. She’s…Jenova’s…still having to make do from long-distance,” Sephiroth said, standing back up. He absently rubbed at a long, raw gash that wound over his left ribs. “She doesn’t have me right either.”
He sounded both oddly proud of and upset at that. Sephiroth’s ego was just a weird, prickly, contradictory mystery to Zack, even after all the years they’d known each other. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? That fucking bitch—Hojo’s dead and you’re still a lab rat to her.”
With a curt shrug, Sephiroth snapped out his coat and slipped back into it. “Don’t call her a bitch, Zack.”
Zack paused, then looked more closely at the other man. “She just tried really hard to get us all killed. I think that qualifies as bitch-like behavior.”
That was a slight twitch from Sephiroth. He stilled, then turned away from Zack and silently went over to check the blond clone. His fingers hesitated above the body, then dipped to start taking samples.
His back was to Zack, but that definitely wasn’t enough for Zack to think he had enough of a jump on Sephiroth to risk much. He set up a warning call to the other soldiers, but didn’t release it quite yet, and rocked back on his heels. There still was an intact platform behind him that he could probably make with a double-flip. “Is that a sign I should be worrying about? You know, Smecker’s been stopping me every day to grill me on how you’re doing—should I say anything—”
“Did you enjoy seeing me strapped down to that table?” Sephiroth snarled. He jerked up, then grabbed for the floor grate and clutched at it, bowing his head so Zack couldn’t see his face. His shoulders moved up and down to the time of three breaths, each needing visible effort to make them slower than the one before.
That’d been years ago, a wrong turn and an accident that Zack was sure had almost gotten him quietly put down by Hojo, and that probably had been the reason he’d been on the bad side of the Turks ever since. He still had nightmares about it, to be honest. “No. Is that…”
Sephiroth abruptly pulled his shoulders down, then made a dismissive gesture over one of them. “No, Zack, it’s not something you have to report. She can’t get to me for the same reason why I can’t plug in and track the men’s movements myself, so you have to interface for me when it comes to that. Jenova just…for a long time happened to be the reason for which I thought I existed.”
“One of Hojo’s crazy theories?” Zack guessed. He didn’t know a hell of a lot about this Jenova, aside from the rumors, and he never liked to put much trust in those. Then again, he didn’t like being out of the loop either, and it’d long since become clear that he wasn’t exactly in the straight line of command anymore. Tifa seemed to know more than he did, and much as he liked the girl, she wasn’t much more than middle management.
“Possibly.” Now Sephiroth was just making conversation because he thought Zack required an answer. His voice was too cool and crisp and disengaged from what was going on. “You need to learn how to general. You do well enough with guerilla tactics and improvisation, so it shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Zack rolled his eyes. “Sorry, but I didn’t get that package of mods. Okay, this whole relay-thing is a little messy, but we’re still fine-tuning it anyway. I’ll get better at it.”
“It’s not a matter of getting better at it. It’s not an ideal set-up because it doesn’t suit the situation, not because we can’t…” Sephiroth trailed off and looked up towards the right. Then he grimaced and backed up, slicking nonexistent loose strands back into his hair-tie. It was a pretty new habit, but Zack had already noticed Sephiroth did that when about to deal with someone he thought was an interference.
A couple moments later, Kadaj cat-leaped his way from wrecked level to cracked generator-case and finally landed soundlessly by Sephiroth’s feet. He eeled over to the body of the silver-haired clone. When he stopped, he was in an odd crouch, his feet together and knees winged out, with arms straight down so he could grab his toes. His eyes were glowing green and he looked both solemn and fascinated.
“Is Smecker here as well?” Sephiroth asked, the slightest edge to his voice.
Kadaj took a moment to even realize he was being spoken to, which didn’t happen too often to Sephiroth. Usually people were acutely aware of him due to sheer terror. “Huh? Oh, no. Oh, no…my poor brothers. They were born all cracked inside.”
A flash of disgust passed over Sephiroth’s face, somewhat covering up his odd, brief look of sympathy. “Then they should be grateful for being put out of their misery. Don’t do that.”
The hand Kadaj had stretched over the corpse’s face froze. He slowly turned to look up at Sephiroth, eyes dancing with a mad, sad kind of mischief. Then his mouth twisted and he pushed down his hand, fast and angry. A second later, he’d snatched it back up; the eyelids of the corpse had been pushed down. He pivoted on his heels to shoot a weird look, defiant and almost pleading, up at Sephiroth. “You think I should look like that?”
Sephiroth grimaced and looked away, tracking movement of some soldiers on one of the upper side-levels. “Why are you here?”
Just like that, all the seriousness dropped from Kadaj and he sprang up to do an actual cartwheel right over the body. Once he was back on both feet, he wiped his bloody hand on the railing with the unselfconsciousness of a child. “Paulie wanted you to know, big brother—Valentine’s disappeared into Gainsborough territory and nobody can talk to him.”
That sent Sephiroth’s head up and had him staring hard at Kadaj. He started to ask something, then cut himself off with a hard sideways jerk of his head. Then he opened his mouth and used a fingertip to stab his voice transmitter inside it. “I see,” he tersely replied once he’d finished. He stuck the other external back in his ear and turned towards Zack. “Anything else Smecker would like me to know?”
“No~oo,” Kadaj sing-songed, skipping over to the railing. Then he took a high jump right over it and did a flip so suddenly that Zack’s breath caught in his throat.
He rushed over, but three stories below, Kadaj had already landed and was casually making his way towards a door.
“You never need to worry about him. Leave that to Smecker,” Sephiroth said, still roughly clipping his words. “Get moving, Zack. I want this place cleaned up in the next hour.”
Zack stayed at the railing for a second longer, though once the other man had turned his back to him, he was looking at Sephiroth instead of the tiny dot that was Kadaj. Worry. Yeah.
* * *
Sometimes Sephiroth wished that Zack wasn’t so easily concerned. The other man stayed with him through the mopping-up work and then after they’d returned to Shinra Tower, not giving him a moment to attempt to reach Vincent. He even followed Sephiroth down to the labs, which normally was an area that Zack took great pains to avoid.
The usual complement of white coats were milling about between the analytical equipment, plus a couple blue suits. Rude promptly slotted himself between Elena and Sephiroth as soon as he noticed, which was both foolish and telling of him: he still hadn’t noticed what she was. Interesting, but currently irrelevant.
The workspace next to them was empty, so Sephiroth appropriated it and started transferring samples. He willed Zack to wander off to the weaponry department, which was where the other man usually headed when he did have to come down, but instead Zack took a seat nearby and seemed to settle into place.
Gritting his teeth, Sephiroth committed himself to doing this in front of Zack. There wasn’t enough time to wait for an opportune moment. “When’s the last time Valentine gave you an order?”
Rude lifted his head and raised his eyebrows over the dark lenses of his sunglasses, moving slowly and deliberately. Elena’s hands paused, then continued with her work. “About two hours ago. He’s having us blow up a strip along the west side of Gainsborough’s sectors.”
“Did he say why?” Sephiroth asked.
Instead of answering, Elena flicked her eyes over to Zack. Then she shared a look with Rude; Zack sighed and rearranged himself on his seat.
“He’d like to speak with Aeris, but can’t get to her through normal channels,” Rude said.
There was a loud clatter as Zack slammed off his seat and stalked towards the door. Five more samples were left to be transferred, but Sephiroth let them go and turned to chase after the other man. Heads lifted and eyes went to them, and probably everyone who could had had their aural implants set to pick up every single word said. Zack already was famous for his crush on Aeris, and this wasn’t going to—at least it’d mask Sephiroth’s interest in Vincent’s whereabouts. But it wouldn’t do much good for his attempts to wean the army command off him and put it in Zack’s hands.
He had to swerve to avoid Reno, who had just slipped in from a side-door, and lost too many seconds to be able to catch up with Zack before the other man got to an elevator. He would’ve liked to do something satisfyingly pointless, such as hack the doors to pieces, but he didn’t have the time. Sephiroth turned down a side-hall and began thinking about what he might be able to exchange to Smecker in return for borrowing Kadaj’s tracking skills for a few hours.
* * *
“Well, well, King Blade’s back up and already fighting with his boyfriend. What’s going on?” Reno drawled, strolling the rest of the way across the lab.
Elena bit back a snort as she picked up the tubes of samples Sephiroth had left behind. She had a pretty good guess what those were from and thought she might as well get them into the processing queue while she was around. “Everybody knows Sephiroth and Zack never.”
“Yeah, I guess so. And I don’t think Red Eyes likes to share much.” Reno raised his arms over his head in a stretch, then let one casually drop over Rude’s shoulder. He leaned into the other man closely enough to get a few curious looks from the techs.
Rude turned his head—not enough for anybody except Elena to pick up on—towards Reno. His lips barely moved, but Reno’s mocking expression went from heartfelt to place-holding while he listened.
“Zack would’ve liked to, though. He might’ve been able to talk Hojo into believing it was a good test to see if Sephiroth was…fully biologically functional…” somehow Reno made the cold words steaming with lewdness “…if he’d managed to stay on that bastard’s good side. Pity, because he sure as hell ain’t gonna be getting any from Strife or Gainsborough now.”
He was talking loudly enough; Elena risked putting up a sound distortion field around them, the zip of its unfolding perfectly covered by Reno’s babbling. “What’s Rufus got to say about it?”
Reno paused, then made a face. He swung around to lean his back against Rude, using the other man like a pillar. “Rufus doesn’t have much of a choice, does he? When Red Eyes is standing there with his claw right in Rufus’ face.”
Elena glanced a few times at him, clicking through x-ray and MRI vision, but she didn’t see any obviously serious injuries. The third time, Reno turned to catch her at it, but just gave her a crooked half-smile and tapped his finger by his right eye, signaling the color change. Then he hooked the finger over the edge of his collar and pulled it down to give her a quick look at two parallel streaks of inflamed flesh lying aslant over his collarbone.
“Valentine’s got a few tricks tucked into that cyborg hand of his,” Reno muttered.
“He threatened Rufus?” Rude asked. It wasn’t what he was really asking. He had his hand resting lightly on the small of Reno’s back, and his fingers had curled slightly to fit the contours better.
Sometimes Elena wondered if in the middle of all his other machinations, Rufus had noticed that yet. He didn’t seem to like sharing either, now that he was mentally competent, and he seemed oddly attached to Reno, considering Reno had been one of a handful who hadn’t taken advantage of a pretty, uninhibited, drugged-out Rufus. Well…not all the way, Elena thought. She’d seen Reno feel up an unconscious Rufus a couple times, but he hadn’t seemed to have enjoyed that as much as he might’ve.
But he and Rude had fucked a lot back then. Enough to make Elena inexplicably uncomfortable and restless and wanting…she didn’t know what, since technically it hadn’t been programmed into her. Not directly. She’d done a lot of research since then and come up with a few possible theories.
“Not…really. He said some things I didn’t get, but Rufus did. But Rufus kind of ended up agreeing with him, and I don’t know about that, either.” Reno shrugged, but too stiffly to be really nonchalant. His electrostick rattled annoyingly against the floor. “You know, if he was pretending to be polite or anything.”
“He sent you down here, so he must feel all right with it,” Elena said. She glanced over a moment later to see a flash of annoyance pass over Reno’s face—she’d guessed right. He didn’t usually leave now unless Shinra made him. “Sephiroth’s looking for Vincent anyway. He and Zack should keep Valentine busy—”
“‘Vincent’?” Eyebrow up, Reno hooked his arm through Rude’s and somehow arranged himself in a gravity-defying slouch against the other man’s side. His feet slowly slid out about eight inches, then stopped so his belly was angled at a good thirty degrees from the vertical. “Getting familiar, girlie? He does have a nice face for a vampire.”
Elena rolled her eyes and let herself mess up one of the duplicate samples. She huffed in irritation as she started all over with setting the scrap of flesh in the holder. “I’m not suicidal. Besides, why shouldn’t I call you on ‘Rufus’ all the time? What happened to ‘sir’?”
Reno abruptly pulled himself up and straightened, his hand jerking up a couple inches so Elena took a quick look at it. Then he rolled his shoulders, taking a deep breath, and offered her a lazy, insolent grin that didn’t quite go with the tension in his eyes. “Don’t question your elders, blondie. You never know what they might be up to,” he said, flapping his hand in farewell. “Speaking of, time to get back to the daily grind. Need to go wave lunch in front of Rufus.”
She didn’t watch him go. Rude did, though, and then seemed unsettled for the rest of the day. Not that Elena had the time, let alone the naïveté, to question him about it.
* * *
Kadaj bent over the back of the couch so Smecker could ruffle a hand through his hair. Otherwise, Smecker didn’t skip a beat in whatever he was orchestrating with the networks: his other hand danced through connection lines only his starkly staring, foxfire eyes could see, and he was jacked into both a handheld and a wall server. Probably setting himself up for a day-long stint wading in programming code and reams of biological analysis data.
“Bring him back in two hours, and I don’t give a damn whether or not you’ve found Vince by then—I need him. It’s not like Valentine can’t take care of himself,” Smecker said. His fingers limply slipped from Kadaj’s head; Kadaj tilted so they stayed in contact a little longer, then suddenly hopped so his feet left the ground and swung himself over for a smacking kiss. “He did say he’d be back tomorrow.”
“To you?” Sephiroth said. He was having a hard time keeping himself from snapping at Smecker, and checking up on Zack’s movements using Smecker’s system wasn’t much of a distraction. “Is that before or after Gainsborough declares war on us?”
Giggling, Kadaj pushed himself back over the top of the couch. He stood for a moment, head cocked, to stare at Sephiroth, before plopping to the ground with an abrupt liquidity.
“Is that what you’re worrying about?” Smecker was taking more inputs than he really could handle; his voice randomly slid from whispery to almost shouting since he couldn’t spare the attention to monitor his volume. “He doesn’t want to kill her.”
“He could’ve mentioned that to Zack.” Sephiroth checked Zack’s position a last time, then tapped off and watched the data-screen dissolve. He could’ve picked up another external and kept on tracking, but the detour would’ve wasted too much time and anyway, Zack was fairly predictable. If they moved fast enough, then Sephiroth could manage the general direction and Kadaj could pick up the actual trail from the last point of reference.
Long pause. Then Smecker must’ve paused something, because he suddenly sounded acutely concerned. “Oh, Christ, who let him know? And what the fuck are you still doing here? Shouldn’t you be chasing your damn buddy down so he doesn’t mess with Vincent and accidentally get your instability triggered again?”
“I thought I should inform headquarters first so three senior officers weren’t running off without prior notice,” Sephiroth said, briefly enjoying the chance to pay Smecker back in verbal acid. Then he turned on his heel, curtly gesturing for Kadaj to go on ahead of him.
If Smecker said anything, Sephiroth didn’t hear it. He probably hadn’t said anything—he could be bitterly garrulous at times, but that usually was a mask for his furious manipulating. He kept himself busy.
Kadaj was thankfully silent all the way out till they’d started through the twisted back-alleys of Sector Eight, and then something about crawling over roofs and slipping through girders started up his mouth. “Does big brother want Zack first, or the Vincent Valentine?”
“Zack. Seeing that I gave you his last-known coordinates, and if we were looking for Vincent, we would’ve had to turn left earlier.” Sephiroth hated the way Kadaj referred to him, but he’d spoken to Kadaj enough times to know that short of cutting out Kadaj’s vocal cords, he couldn’t make the other man stop.
“Okay, okay…” Bounding up shaky piles of rubbish, Kadaj seemed to think this was another game. Find the Zack.
Thinking of it that way probably was easier. Sephiroth didn’t know what Vincent was up to, but he doubted that it would end in Aeris being injured much—Vincent saved his fury for the Jenova-clones and for Sephiroth, and unless he needed information from them, treated everyone else as part of the background. On the other hand, Zack might be stupid enough to do something that’d end in an unavoidable inter-House War. They already effectively had one of those on their hands with Kisaragi, and Gainsborough had far greater resources to hand. They couldn’t fight both and still deal with Jenova.
After a few moments, Sephiroth suddenly realized he’d been thinking to himself. He scanned the area around him—even sans implants, his senses were miles above the norm—but didn’t see a trace of Kadaj. And when he…when whatever extra sense he had that let him know when the clones were coming and what Elena was beneath her carefully designed artificial skin reached out, he didn’t find anything either.
If that damned nuisance had gone and gotten himself distracted with some street gangs, then Smecker was getting him back in pieces and never mind the consequences. Honestly, the house psych couldn’t do any worse than Sephiroth had already taken.
The alleys were strangely quiet in this area. Fresh scorches and shiny edges on the broken girders scattered around the place said it’d recently hosted a violent battle, but that had to have been before Sephiroth had…come back to himself.
He hadn’t had the time to catch up on anything but the list of confirmed and probable Jenova attacks. It didn’t look like one of those, but it didn’t look like any of the three Houses either. Possibly Gainsborough’s tight retreat had allowed the lower Houses and their affiliated gangs to start quarreling among themselves…
Well, now there were clones in the vicinity. Where Sephiroth was standing was the lowest ground, but it was relatively open so he didn’t make an attempt to go for any of the girder stacks. He swung out his arm, letting Masamune flow from his hand, and slowly circled around, trying to decide from where the attack would come. One of the more recent wounds in his back pulled tight, then released a needle of pain into his side.
He wasn’t so used to pain yet—oddly enough, since he’d just been in a heightened form of that state for several weeks—and he grimaced. They’d see that and come down, he immediately knew.
And they did, bounding out from piles of refuse four at a time. They were good: perfectly coordinated so they flew through the air at exactly the same speed. He could still match them and slash them all down, but he had to let the last one come within a foot of him before swatting it into a concrete wall.
Its head cracked back, and then it fell, leaving a wide swath of red behind it on the concrete. Something blurred in front of it and Sephiroth instinctively slashed out, only to be sent to one knee by the sudden weight—whatever it was, it was much bigger and heavier than the clones.
He managed to pivot Masamune’s hilt on his knee and swing the blade back to send the thing flying off behind him, but then something came at him from the side and he couldn’t get up in time. His kneecap screamed; Sephiroth gritted his teeth and settled for a non-lethal slash, then scrambled up and jumped into the air above it.
Masamune easily skewered it, and almost before his feet landed on its back, the thing was falling apart: it was a construct, not even a clone, and its hastily-joined parts couldn’t hold. The strange, glistening green fluid characteristic of Jenova’s soldiers spurted out and rapidly turned into a flood that washed out across the ground.
Sephiroth’s boots sank deep into the decaying corpse, momentarily trapping him. He sensed more coming from his right and desperately twisted around, but he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. A tiny bit of his molar abruptly chipped off under the pressure as he made the split-second decision to take the blow on his left shoulder—dangerously close to the arteries, but he’d need his elbow to whip Masamune around afterward.
He saw the snarl, and the blade coming down, and then an odd silver line suddenly appeared down the center of the clone’s face. It violently cracked to the left, opening up the clone’s head so a shower of the green fluid came down on Sephiroth, who after a stunned moment was belatedly ducking.
He used the motion to twist his feet out of the corpse and rolled down the sides, landing on one knee and one foot on the sticky ground. As soon as he could, he brought up Masamune, but everything was silent. Sephiroth paused, waiting, and then finally twisted around.
Kadaj was already standing, though he was bent over the corpse of the clone he’d killed. He was wiping off a long, narrow silver sword on the corpse’s clothing, face set in curiously intent concentration; the tip of his tongue was sticking out of the corner of his mouth. He pulled that in when he was done, and then he straightened up. A line of red dripped from just below the inside corner of his right eye over the cheekbone and then back towards the point of his jaw.
He started to scrub at it with a loosely-curled fist, but then looked up to stare inquisitively at Sephiroth. “Hmm?”
“Don’t touch that,” Sephiroth said, slowly getting to his feet. His knee still ached and he’d probably have to visit the medical department again to get that seen to.
Surprisingly enough, Kadaj actually did what he was told this time. He stood docilely while Sephiroth walked over and carefully brushed off the blood droplets, then rubbed them between his fingers. Red…well, when Sephiroth held it up so it was in the glow of Kadaj’s eyes, he could see a faint greenish sheen, but its main color was red.
“I feel so sorry for them,” Kadaj suddenly said. He had a disturbingly earnest look on his face, and when he ducked to gaze at the clone’s body, the eeriness only increased. His voice filled with a pitying kind of sadness. “They’re my broken brothers. Nobody can ever fix them. They’re just wrong inside.”
“I don’t ever remember seeing you bleed before.” Sephiroth’s own blood was red. He knew that, though the first time he’d seen it again after regaining his sanity had been a shock. Something about Jenova’s voice, about having her calling to him, had made him think it’d be…but it was red.
Kadaj smiled proudly. “Because I’m careful.”
His manner annoyed Sephiroth in a way he couldn’t quite pinpoint. It just was that if Sephiroth had to be brother to something…no, he wouldn’t want the clones. He was sure of that, and never mind the echo of dissent in him—that wasn’t him speaking anyway, he reminded himself. He wasn’t merely the first in a line of clones…and that’d been why he’d never liked Kadaj much. But Kadaj bled red.
That concluded one of the questions that had always plagued Sephiroth. He…felt grateful, actually.
“You don’t like me. I don’t really like you either, you know. You’re what everybody thinks I should be, but I can’t be that because I’m not broken anymore. Smecker and the man fixed me,” Kadaj said. He was still smiling, but it had the malicious edge of the young, when they didn’t know enough to modulate the intensity of their emotions. “But you’re not either, and they say kill the broken things.”
“As sad as that might make you, that’s necessary,” Sephiroth finally replied. He wiped off his hand and sizzled the blood and flesh-fragments off of Masamune with a quick burst of electricity before he retracted his sword. “That was a good strike.”
It still bothered Sephiroth how easily Kadaj’s mood could swing around. Kadaj beamed at him. “There was another one over in the other street, and then there was Zack! But I didn’t have time to do both so I had to hit him on the head.”
Sephiroth just restrained himself. “Zack is not broken. I don’t care what Smecker might have said to you.”
Kadaj blinked, going solemn. He made his mouth into a small, pursed thing. “Are you sure?” he cooed.
“Very,” Sephiroth snapped. “Which street?”
* * *
“Because he’s a manipulative bastard who’s good at being a manipulative bastard. Zack. You’re awake.” Sephiroth leaned over the…the side of the cot. Damn it, they were in Shinra’s medical wing. “You might be interested to know that Aeris contacted Rufus twenty minutes ago and asked for a private meeting. Which you will be excluded from, based on your behavior today.”
“You’re such a maternal figure, you know,” Zack groaned. He twitched around, then concluded that he had all his limbs and none of them were too injured, but the hit that had put him down had had enough force to screw with his nervous system a bit. His reflexes were off.
But Aeris was okay. That was—
“Vincent’s back as well,” Sephiroth dryly added. He didn’t sound particularly enthused, but he wasn’t normally a fidgeter and right now he kept flicking the datascreen with Zack’s biostats up and then back down.
“Can I go now?” sing-songed somebody. Kadaj. What the hell was Kadaj—oh. Well, not so much a failed copy of Seph, then.
Sephiroth looked up and over where Zack couldn’t see. A peculiar kind of exasperation passed over his face…it wasn’t quite as virulent as was usual for him. “You could’ve left the moment we got back. Go.”
“You took—” Zack paused till the dizziness passed, then finished levering himself up with his elbow “—you took Kadaj out to find me and drag me back. You took the guy you like to refer to as the test-tube failure out, and you—”
Kadaj was gone, so it was anyone’s guess why Sephiroth had almost made a face right then. “I don’t have the mods now to track as well as he can. And he’s one of the few not vulnerable to Jenova.”
“You’re admitting he can do something better than you? Damn, I missed a lot while I was out. What, did he declare his undying love for you?” Joking was a good way to stall. Sometimes it even worked, since Sephiroth never had gotten any training for handling benevolent sarcasm.
But not today, apparently. “No. He likes me about as much as I like him.”
“Well, I thought you hated him,” Zack said. He started peeling off the electrodes and taking out all the biojacks they’d plugged into him. “You know, lab rat.”
“He’s not a lab rat.” Sephiroth actually shrugged, a rare sign of uncertainty in him. “He’s…the brother I can stand.”
After a few moments, it became pretty clear that Sephiroth wasn’t about to explain that anymore. Zack shrugged himself and chalked it up to the other man’s weird mental processes; he knew he wasn’t qualified to get those and he was perfectly happy to leave all that up to Smecker.
“You do realize she’s not part of Shinra and in fact leads a competing House, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Zack snapped. He started to swing his legs over the side of the bed, then stopped and hunched up his shoulders, let his head hang. He’d messed up. He’d messed up a lot, and they were going to take it out of his hide and then some, but…well, Cloud wasn’t just gone.
He’d left, and he’d given Zack the kind of farewell present that should’ve made him want Cloud back just for neck-snapping purposes, but instead made his stomach twist up. And made him touch the rough ridge now trailing down the side of his face before he really realized it.
Aeris tended to calm him down, but now Zack couldn’t see her either, and he was just going fucking nuts wondering what was going on, why Cloud had done that—and it wasn’t all goddamned Jenova; he’d looked into Strife’s eyes and seen the man looking back out at points—and if she died he’d just…he needed her to stay alive. Maybe he couldn’t talk to her, but he needed to know she was okay and around and then he wouldn’t go crazy from worrying about everything he had to worry about.
“What does Rufus say?” Zack finally asked. At the least, they were going to relieve him of commanding duties. Shinra wasn’t going to risk divided loyalties.
Sephiroth flicked an odd sidelong look at him. “Rufus seemed to grasp the point of my argument. You’re on notice. You’re handling the field command from the Tower for the next week, and you don’t get any more solo or special commands. You’ll do the defenses and any pitched fights.”
It took several moments for Zack to figure out what Sephiroth was really saying, and then more to get over his disbelief. “Excuse me? They’re not sending Rude after my ass? I’m—I haven’t even been demoted? How the hell—why the hell would you do that?”
The muscle in Sephiroth’s cheek twitched. He was gazing at something far across the room, looking both wary and craving. “Because I need to be able to go out.”
Zack glanced over. Vincent met his eyes for a moment before drifting on behind an opaqued screen. He looked back at Sephiroth, only to catch the other man dropping his hand from his mouth; red teethmarks stood out against the white skin of his index finger.
“Oh,” he said.
Sephiroth looked at him again. “Watch the House.”
“I’ll…work on that,” Zack said. He’d meant to anyway, only he’d gotten off-track for a moment. He’d do better this time—it looked like he’d have to, or else they’d be in serious trouble.
But Sephiroth wasn’t paying attention; he was too busy making his way across the room. He moved like he knew where he was going, and Zack couldn’t help but note that Sephiroth didn’t need any guidance with that, and that was not reassuring at all.