The mission to Nibelheim -- not quite finding answers in myths and dreams.
"/Nibelheim/?" Zack echoes, and he can't help grinning. "What, are the frost giants protesting the reactor?"
Sephiroth just stares at him, ice-green eyes unblinking, and Zack reflects for about three seconds on what a weird upbringing Sephiroth had, that he knows the terrain and hazards of every territory that ShinRa has tried to subdue in the last twenty years, but never even got basic kid-stuff religion.
"Sorry, sir," Zack says. "You were saying?"
"We don't know for certain what type of creature we are hunting, as the reports merely indicate there is a 'monster,' which even Heidegger would have to admit is an inadequate description." Sephiroth's brow furrows for a moment. "I do not believe there have been any recorded sightings of giants in the area around the town or the reactor."
"No," Zack says, "it was -- it was just a bad joke, that's all."
The relief in Sephiroth's face is subtle, but Zack knows how to read him as well as anyone can hope to, and it's definitely there. "I see," he says. "Since we do not know what to expect, we will take standard broad-range combat materia. The team will consist of you, me, Strife," he checks the files in front of him, "and Bran Alban. We leave in the morning at 0700 to find and neutralize the 'monster' and confirm security at the Mount Nibel reactor."
"Yes, sir," Zack says, giving Sephiroth a regulation-perfect salute. Something about this mission feels wrong, like there must be more to it or it wouldn't merit Sephiroth's personal attention, and when Sephiroth is uncomfortable he retreats into formality. Zack is personally of the opinion that the regulation book makes a lousy security blanket, but he's stopped trying to argue that one.
"Thank you," Sephiroth nods. "Please relay the deployment orders to the troopers. You are dismissed."
"Sir," Zack says. He smiles, not quite willing to leave without some reminder that Sephiroth has his friendship as well as his loyalty. "See you in the morning."
The mission has weird luck all over it, too good and too bad both at once. A hard cold rain follows their convoy most of the way, making the trip much slower than it should be -- but then the Nibelheim "monster" attacks them on the road, and it turns out to be a kind of dragon that Sephiroth has faced before, often enough to be able to land the killing blow on his first attempt. The troopers are shaken, though, and Zack blames that for the fact that Cloud doesn't spend the night visiting his family, but instead comes back to the inn late that night and curls up on the floor with the blanket that Sephiroth discarded as soon as he got in bed.
"Hey," Zack whispers. "You want to trade?"
Cloud looks up, eyes wide with panic. "I'm fine," he murmurs. "Don't worry about it."
Not where Sephiroth might see his weakness, Zack translates. Not when it might lead to questions or snide comments from Bran about special treatment. "If you're sure," Zack says.
Cloud nods, trying to make a brave face. "I'm sure," he answers. But Zack doesn't hear his breathing even out into sleep for a long time.
Still, in the morning the kid seems to be holding it together, even if Zack can see the circles under his eyes and there's that one weird moment when he tries to plead with Sephiroth not to bring the guide -- all those months of teasing questions led to nothing, and now it turns out he's been carrying a torch for someone at home the whole time. Even if she doesn't seem to feel the same. Still, when Sephiroth suggests that he protect her, it seems to help Cloud calm down.
At least until the bridge collapses, and Bran is lost down into the chasm below. Even Sephiroth is shaken after that, though Zack would bet he's the only one who can tell. Let's turn back/, he wants to say. /Let's wait on the reactor. This is a bad idea.
Except that "back" is straight up an unforgiving cliff that he's not sure even Sephiroth could climb, much less Cloud or Tifa. So instead they go onward, and Zack asks inane questions about the formation of materia so that Sephiroth can be annoyed about answering them, so that Cloud can hear the answers without having to ask himself. They all need something to think about besides the black yawning chasm below the mountain, and the whims of the Norns.
Zack almost feels like he should have expected it when he slips on his way out of the cave and puts his hand down in a puddle of half-solid materia sludge. The stuff splashes against his bare skin, above the line of his gloves, and clings there, setting his teeth on edge and making his hair stand on end. He shivers, brushing at it, clenching his jaw so his teeth won't chatter while the traces he couldn't avoid seep into his skin.
Rotten time for an extra dose, he thinks, waiting for the jarring rush of thought and memory that always follow a mako treatment -- but all he gets is a momentary dizzy sense of weightlessness, and the beat of black wings, and then it passes.
Zack shakes his head to clear it, and Sephiroth is looking at him, waiting. "I'm fine," Zack says. "Let's keep going."
They leave Cloud and Tifa outside the reactor, which Sephiroth claims is for the sake of company policy, but Zack can see the narrow tension lines at the corners of his eyes. They're expecting something nasty inside, and losing one trooper was more than enough trouble for a mission so straightforward.
What they find is worse than Zack's expecting, worst than dealing with war holdouts or anti-ShinRa terrorist cells -- the evidence that ShinRa's researchers have been experimenting with human subjects, that Sephiroth might not be simply the ShinRa-custody orphan he's always believed himself to be. The trip back to the town of Nibelheim is tense, silent, Sephiroth's mouth set in a tight line. They pay Tifa and come back to the inn, and Zack thinks that if Sephiroth hasn't shaken this mood by morning, he'll have to do something about it.
Zack's dreams are full of ice and snow and the steaming heat of spilled blood. His wings beat the air, black pinions shaking free as he rises from the battlefield to see -- to see a great fire on the horizon, bright against the night sky, and then a raven dives at him, squawking, screaming something that sounds almost like words --
And he sits up in bed with a start, his heart pounding. He looks over, and Sephiroth's bed is empty. "Shit."
"He -- I don't think he could sleep," Cloud says from his other side. "He was tossing and turning a lot, and then a little while ago he got up and left."
Zack lets his eyes adjust, scanning the room: boots, coat, Masamune, all gone. Wherever Sephiroth went, he was prepared for trouble. Still --
"I should go after him," Zack says, rolling out of bed. "You can stay here if you want. You haven't been sleeping either, have you?"
"It's been a weird mission," Cloud answers. Zack can hear him getting up despite the reprieve. "It's -- you can't even tell me what happened in the reactor today, can you?"
Zack shakes his head. "I'm sorry," he says. "Until we know exactly what it was that we saw in there, I don't think we can tell anyone." He shoves his feet into his boots, cracks his neck, and stands up. "You're coming with me, huh?"
"It's been a weird mission," Cloud says again. When Zack looks over at him, he's buckling his belt. "I'd rather stick together." He picks up his helmet off the dresser. "I mean, if that's okay."
"Of course it is." Zack leads the way, Cloud trailing close behind him as they leave the inn. They take their weapons.
Nibelheim is painfully quiet at night -- if it weren't so cold, Zack would be reminded of Gongaga. As it is, their breath steams in the still air, but Zack's SOLDIER metabolism keeps him warm enough, if not quite comfortable, and Cloud doesn't seem to be suffering.
They search the town, but all the steeple-roofed houses are dark, nothing moving in the windows or in the streets. Once or twice, Zack thinks he sees something moving, a flicker of black like wings, like Sephiroth's coat in the wind, but when he turns, there's nothing there.
"There's the mansion," Cloud says at last, sounding like he'd rather go anywhere else.
"Right," Zack says. "The mansion's ShinRa, too, isn't it?"
Cloud nods stiffly. "Every once in a while, back when I was a kid, somebody would come or go, but nobody ever talked about why." He laughs a little, nervously. "Then the company people stopped coming around, and the kids started saying the mansion was haunted."
Zack grins, doing his best to hide his own unease. "Good thing you'll have me to protect you, right?"
"I'm not afraid," Cloud says, but his voice sounds a little tight.
The gates outside the mansion are wrought iron, and until recently they were chained shut -- now, though, the chain is severed, the broken links silver-bright in the moonlight, the edges sharp. Zack nods once. Looks like they're on the right track.
Inside, the mansion is no better, beams warping, the floorboards covered in a thick layer of dust. "No wonder it's supposed to be haunted," Zack says. "This place is creepy." His voice sounds too loud in the still front room, and he cringes.
"Yeah," Cloud breathes, and Zack can see him shudder. "He's here, though, isn't he?"
Zack nods. "Looks that way. He is, or he was." There's a trail through the dust, leading straight toward the right-hand staircase -- the footsteps of someone who knew exactly where he was going. "This way."
The floorboards creak under their boots as they climb the stairs, and the air tastes of mold and dust. There's still no light source anywhere, just the faint moonlight coming in through the windows and the rotten spots in the roof. "You know where you're going?" Cloud asks softly from behind him.
"Not really," Zack says, shaking his head. Cloud probably can't see the trail in light this dim, he realizes. "I can see where he's gone, though. He disturbed the dust in here as he went."
They reach the top of the stairs, and Zack ducks through the first door, following Sephiroth's trail. "Is this," Cloud says, "is this a good idea? I mean, bothering him when he really, um, doesn't want to...."
"No, it's okay," Zack promises. "He'll calm down once I can talk to him." Probably. "He's just -- a little shaken, that's all."
Cloud makes a disbelieving noise behind him -- General Sephiroth, shaken? -- as Zack scans the upstairs room. It looks like some kind of study or office or something, and there's no sign of Sephiroth. But the trail did lead in here it --
The trail leads straight into the stone wall in the corner, and there's no way that's possible unless.... Zack presses his hands to the wall, leans on it until he feels it give slightly. "Damn, this place just gets creepier," he says. A few more moments of searching and he finds the right place to push, the "stone" that's actually a switch, and the hidden door grinds open.
"He's down there, huh?" Cloud says. He sounds completely unenthused about following the trail down those rickety stairs into the dark, and Zack doesn't blame him.
Still, Zack smiles, tries not to let the place get to him. "If it weren't against regulations I'd bet on it," he says. "You want to wait here?"
Cloud manages a stiff little laugh. "Of course not."
They get down the twisting staircase with no incident, and they even make it through the unfinished tunnel at the bottom with no incident, and they come out at the far end in what looks like a primitive mako lab. Where they do, at last, catch up with Sephiroth, pacing back and forth in front of the shelves of records in the adjoining lab.
"Get out," is all he'll say to them. "Get out -- leave me alone, I have work to do. There are answers here, but I need time to find them."
Zack reaches out to him, instinctively. "Seph --"
Sephiroth's eyes blaze, bright terrible green. "Leave. Now."
If it were just him, he might argue for longer, but Sephiroth actually looks like he might be willing to actually insist physically, and that's not something Zack wants to put Cloud in the way of. "Okay," he says, backing up slowly, making sure he stays between Sephiroth and Cloud. "We'll, ah, just let you be tonight, and -- we'll come back later to see how it's going."
Cloud's quiet until they get all the way back up to the top of the stairs, and then he says, "Just shaken, huh?" like he'd really like to be able to laugh about it.
"You watch," Zack says, smiling back at him, trying to project confidence. "In the morning, it'll all be fine. In the meantime, we should get some sleep."
Except in the morning it's still not fine; Sephiroth isn't done with his research, and still won't talk to them about his findings or allow them to help. Cloud still seems nervous every time they interact with the villagers, head down and helmet firmly in place. Around mid-afternoon, Zack makes the executive decision to leave the inn and move to the ShinRa mansion while they plan their next move.
That night is their third in Nibelheim; the mission should be over, and they should be on their way home, but instead Zack and Cloud are trying to make themselves comfortable enough to sleep in the dank stillness of the mansion, waiting for Sephiroth to find whatever crucial piece of information he's looking for in the basement laboratory. The house is terrible, brooding; no wonder it hasn't been in use lately, the way it settles and creaks and almost seems to breathe around them.
Cloud still drops off to sleep almost immediately -- he must be exhausted, running himself ragged the past few days trying to keep up with a SOLDIER First Class and pretend like it's no effort. One more thing to remember to worry about, Zack thinks: keeping Cloud from self-destructing while they try to get through to Sephiroth.
When he gets up from his bed in the middle of the night, everything is dark, indistinct and foggy around the edges, and when he walks down the hallway, his footsteps make no sound. He follows the winding staircase down into the mansion basement, into the soft glow that shines through the mist in the stairwell. Great twining roots wind through the walls on either side of him, squirming and pulsing faintly. The door to the laboratory is missing, the opening craggy and uneven like the tunnels under Mount Nibel. Zack steps through the door, and stops in his tracks.
The roots have permeated down here, too, straight through the room, and Sephiroth is pinned to them by Masamune, hanging there inverted, his arms behind him, his hair streaming down. His right eye stares steadily ahead, glowing mako-bright, meeting Zack's without flinching. His left eye is gone, the socket raw and red, blood dried across his forehead.
"No," Zack whispers, "oh gods. No. Sephiroth --"
Sephiroth opens his mouth, and what comes out isn't language, not really, not words so much as pure raw /sensation/, colors Zack can't name and a strange pull in his blood that makes him stagger and fall to his knees, his head spinning and his stomach in knots.
He wakes up tangled in the sheets, his stomach still roiling, and staggers out of bed to find his way to the bathroom and vomit. It's like bad mako sickness, worse than he had it after any of his treatments, and it takes half an hour before he can make himself leave the weak light of the bathroom and go back to bed.
"Are you okay?" Cloud asks, his voice thick with sleep.
"Fine," Zack says. "Just -- I'm fine. Don't you worry about me."
"If you're sure," Cloud says. He's propped himself up in bed, squinting over at Zack in the dark, tracking the glow of Zack's eyes.
"I'm sure," Zack tells him. "Thanks." He lies back down, pulls his blanket up over his shoulders, and closes his eyes. Just a nasty dream, just the creepiness of the house. He's not going to let it get to him.
He still doesn't sleep so well. Then the next day is more of the same, the house lurking at them and Sephiroth refusing to unlock the basement door any time they're nearby. Zack and Cloud take turns bringing meals down to him, leaving plates outside the door and pleading, with no success, for him to acknowledge that they're there. The plates are empty when they come back later, no trace of food remaining, but Zack wouldn't put it past him to just be throwing it away. Cloud makes excuses and looks away when Zack suggests that he go to spend more time with his family, or with Tifa, and after one or two tries, Zack lets the subject drop.
By the time they give up for the night and turn in, Zack is more than ready for a good night's sleep -- the worry has just done so much to wear him down. He's out cold almost as soon as his head hits the pillow.
And then he opens his eyes, and he's back in the mess in Central HQ, back in Midgar, and everything's decked with flags and garlands, like it's a holiday or the end of a war or something. There's music, and everyone's laughing, and somebody presses a heavy glass into his hand. It looks like beer, but he brings it up to taste and it doesn't taste like anything he's ever drunk before -- it's like honey and spices, warm through, and it brings a smile to his face.
Somebody else grabs his not-drinking hand and pulls him up, onto the table. There's music in the background somewhere, and soldiers keeping the beat with their boots against the floor. So it only feels natural, really, to dance.
Zack picks up his feet and moves, dancing on the table, light on his feet. Everyone's there, from the generals to the regular troopers -- there's Cloud, looking like he's finally loosening up a bit, and there's Sephiroth, actually smiling where people can see him, and.... Zack falters for a minute, because there's Yishay, and Sebastian, and that means this has to be a dream, because they're dead -- he had to kill them himself.
But it's a good dream, anyway, so after a second he just smiles back at them and lets it go. They're here to have a good time, the same as he is, and he'd like to remember them like this. A few of the guys in the hall have started throwing stuff at him, but it's still a good dream -- all it means is that they like him, that they think there's nothing he can't take, that he's the golden boy, invincible --
And something rips through his gut so cold and brutal that he'd swear his heart stops. He looks down, and there's about three feet of slender, gleaming pale blade sticking out right under his ribcage. Blood drips off the metal, and then he watches the sword change, sprouting glossy green leaves and white berries, and the cold just spreads through him --
And he sits up in bed, his heart in his throat, drenched in sweat. He thinks he hears the beating of heavy wings, for a second, but he doesn't look up. Instead he just slides his hands up under his shirt, feeling for the spot where the sword went through. It's ridiculous, to have to actually /check/, but the dream felt so vivid. But careful examination reveals no horrible gaping wounds, and after a few minutes Zack's heartbeat slows, and he makes himself lie back down.
The next day he gets a call on his PHS from Midgar, from a Heidegger so cranky he's not laughing. Sephiroth, apparently, has been refusing to answer calls, and now the top brass wants to know where the hell they are and why they haven't come back yet. The problems in Nibelheim are more extensive than they expected, Zack explains, which isn't quite a lie. No, they don't need reinforcements, just a few more days. It'll be fine.
He's not sure Heidegger believes him. He's not sure he believes himself.
If it weren't for the worried looks Cloud keeps giving him, he'd probably not go to bed that night. So far as they can tell, Sephiroth hasn't rested at all this week; if anyone can do that and get away with it, Sephiroth would be the one, but no matter who you are, your judgment gets pretty messy after enough sleep deprivation.
So Zack gives in, lies down and closes his eyes, even though he's not really anticipating any rest, anymore. He wonders if it's something about Nibelheim, or if he's having a bad reaction to the unfiltered mako dose he managed to give himself on the first day. The other option -- that these dreams mean something -- is almost too awful to consider.
He dreams that night of Cloud, older and stronger, grown into a set of SOLDIER grays. Cloud with eyes so mako-bright they look like active materia. Cloud with one arm hidden, wrapped up, and somehow, in the way of dreams, Zack knows that it's because the arm is...lost. Cloud, despite that loss, astride a giant wolf with icicles for fangs and frost for fur, riding across a land so barren and scarred that all of ShinRa's power couldn't have destroyed it that thoroughly. Cloud in the ruins of a city, wielding a sword made from six impossible things, with ravens circling around him in the gloom. The pieces won't fit together, won't tell him a real story, but Zack is sure, when he wakes up before dawn and stares up at the water stains on the ceiling, that it's only because he doesn't know how to interpret them.
That day he's almost as quiet as Cloud. They're quite a pair, haunting the ShinRa mansion together, restless with nerves but too tired to do anything about it. He should be doing more, Zack knows; he should be holding up better. He's a SOLDIER First Class, for gods' sakes. He's Sephiroth's first choice on missions. He's the best there is. But the endless days of waiting, and the bolted door in the basement, and the creeping certainty that he's being warned about something he can't quite wrap his head around -- those are doing more to rattle him than any combat he's seen.
On the sixth night he tries to stay awake. There's nobody else who can keep vigil for him, nobody else who can stop it if the premonitions are real and something terrible is about to descend on them. He paces back and forth, upstairs in the ShinRa mansion, the loose floorboards creaking under his boots, until he can't manage a straight line anymore and he has to sit down for a minute. He's no good to anyone if he's too exhausted to fight, after all. So he sits down in the hallway outside the upstairs lab, and leans back against the wall.
When he feels well enough to get up again, everything in the mansion is eerily quiet, completely still. Zack explores the whole house, everywhere but the locked basement doors, but there's no sign of anyone, just the shadows crawling across the walls.
Alarmed, Zack goes outside, looking for Cloud, looking for any of the people of the town. The moon shines overhead bright and stark as the lights over Hojo's examining table, and the whole town is cold, blue-white and black. There are no lights on in any of the houses, no dogs barking, no footprints marring the glitter of frost on the ground.
Whatever's going on, Zack is sure he'll find the answers at the reactor. Just thinking it is enough to turn his footsteps in that direction, to send him north out of the village and into the winding paths at the base of the mountain.
Only he finds himself heading not up, toward the reactor, but down, into the jagged ice crevasses where their bridge collapsed on that awful first day. He's looking for something, being drawn by something, the rocks cold and sharp even through his gloves as he climbs carefully down.
At the bottom of the crevasse he finds it. Finds them. Bran's body is broken on the rocks, limbs at odd angles, his spine out of joint. His face is white in the moonlight, his lips cool ashen gray, and his uniform is stained with blood that's dried black -- as black as the two monstrous ravens that perch beside the body, nodding their shaggy heads and laughing in their rough voices.
"Leave him alone," Zack says. He can't help it, even if he knows it'd be risky to try to carry the body back up the cliffs alone.
The first raven cocks its head to fix him with one glittering eye. "Khaa," it says. "Too late for him, now, too late."
"Ready to listen now, kaa?" the other raven asks, tossing its head. Far above them, dark clouds scud aggressively across the sky, smudging out the moon. Zack feels his mako enhancements awaken, his eyes adjusting -- and the ravens seem even bigger in the dark, hulked like wolves around the body, tiny flickers of lightning curling at the tips of their wings.
"Listen to what?" Zack asks. He wonders for a moment what the ravens' names are, and then he realizes that he /knows/, beyond doubt.
"Advice," says Hugin, and tears at the face of the dead man.
"A warning," says Munin, and snatches a scrap of flesh from Hugin's beak.
"I'm listening," Zack says, his mouth dry, his heart pounding. "I would be grateful for your help."
Munin laughs, raucous and loud, spreading his wings. Their span is as long as Zack's sword. "Help, khaa, too late for help."
"The message," Zack pleads. His throat aches, stings, like he's breathing something foul.
"Only this," Hugin says, tossing a strip of meat and catching it, bolting it down. "Where Glad-of-War goes, his blood brother follows after." He twists his head, looking up toward the sky, and Zack realizes that what he'd taken for cloud cover is actually smoke, thick and roiling.
"No," Zack whispers. "Oh, no."
The ravens' wings beat a gale as they take off, screeching, knocking him to the ground, and Zack wakes up to Nibelheim in flames.