raskol: (vernacular of the peasantry)
Raskol ([personal profile] raskol) wrote2014-08-12 08:41 pm

[ff7] in memoriam -- sephiroth & zack (pg-13)

In memoriam
~3100 words, PG-13, Sephiroth & Zack (+ Hojo, Angeal, & Genesis)
a/n: Thanks to Clara, [personal profile] dragonmoth, and [personal profile] dustofwarfare for all the support, suggestions, and overall good humor (which I'm sure was needed to tolerate my whining).

There had been no funeral.

It bothered Sephiroth more than he cared to admit. ShinRa had never concerned itself with matters of the dead, except to confirm that the dead were, in fact, dead and stayed that way. It had been the company's unofficial policy for as long as Sephiroth could remember, and he had never expected ShinRa to change its ways, even after the war. The dead were dead; it was the living that one had to guard against.

They were words to live by, and they spelled a truth Sephiroth had believed and still believed, even now. He was too well-acquainted with death to let it truly affect him, and more than that, he had learned at a very young age that nobody stayed forever.

And yet ...

The night was quiet here, in his office high above Midgar, where the only sound that could reach him was the distant murmur of the traffic mingling with the gentle hum of the air conditioner. It was easy to forget the world in this remote place, and it suited his mood, though Sephiroth knew it was only an illusion. A different reality existed below in the streets: bright lights and people, ever moving in a bustle of activity -- the steady, thrumming pulse of a growing city. Midgar never truly slept, even in the dead of night, and it was not yet late.

It was late enough, however. The stem of the wine glass was warm between his fingers, the wine mostly gone now, and his eyes burned from lack of sleep. It had been days since he’d gotten a good night’s rest; he had never had problems with insomnia in the past, but it seemed that there would be a first time for everything. The wine was unlikely to help, but it was worth a try. Genesis had claimed it helped, once upon a time.

Once upon a time. He did not sneer, but something twisted in him at the recollection of those words. How would Genesis feel now, he wondered, knowing that the very memory of his existence would disappear soon, and without a trace?

The answer went without saying. Genesis had always spoken of becoming a hero. Had wanted to be something, the stuff of legends, someone who would endure even beyond living memory. Now it seemed that he would simply fade into the murky depths of the past without even a cenotaph to mark his existence, to prove that he had been. Life would go on, Midgar would thrive, and he would be slowly, inevitably forgotten.

The world, Sephiroth knew, could be a terribly cruel and unfair place. An unjust place, Angeal might have called it. But Angeal was not here now.

He did not want to think about that, but it seemed that wants had no place here.

It had been Hojo, after all, who had broken the news to him, the last man he would have chosen for the task. Last week after returning from a routine mission, he had headed straight to Hojo's lab for a physical prior to the mission debriefing as was customary. There had been the usual pleasantries -- a misnomer, when such conversations involved Hojo -- and no indications that anything was out of the ordinary. Nothing, that was, until Hojo had said casually as he prepared a syringe, "And how does it feel, to be the last one standing?"

It was always cold in Hojo's laboratory, but never had the chill been more pronounced than it’d been at that very moment.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," he'd replied in a glacial tone even as the dread insinuated itself into his thoughts, the touch of it frigid enough to numb. As if from a distance, he watched Hojo wipe down the soft skin of his inner elbow and experienced nothing, not the pressure of his gloved fingers nor the softness of the cotton, until Hojo drew back. Then, the alcohol had burned, leeching the heat from him as it evaporated.

Cold. He had shivered then when Hojo turned -- the temperature of the room seemed intolerable, all of a sudden -- but stilled at the light playing off the needle in his hand. "It seems," Hojo had said, examining it with clinical dispassion, "that somebody has finally drawn the curtains on Hollander's final act."

His voice was steady. "Is that so."

Hojo shook his head in mock-pathos. The light glinted off his glasses. "A pity -- truly a pity -- that you hadn't been the one to put down those two miserable failures. But I suppose it's no surprise a regular SOLDIER operative could best them." He sniffed as he inserted the needle into Sephiroth's arm. "Further testament to Hollander's inadequacy as a scientist."

Sephiroth did not flinch as the syringe filled with blood. The lurid red seemed out of place in the sterility of the laboratory where the metal and glass machinery around him pulsed with its own dispassionate life. When Hojo finished, Sephiroth loosened the band from around his arm and let fall his sleeve. “Which SOLDIER operative?" he had said.

"Hm?" Hojo, distracted already, did not deign to look at him, his eyes fixed on the syringe as he transferred the blood to a secondary vial. "You can't expect me to know the name of every mediocre grunt in ShinRa's toy army."

"And yet," he bit out, "it seems that you knew Angeal's and Genesis's."

Hojo glanced up. "Ah, have I struck a nerve?"

There was no answer he could give without exposing himself; he had said too much already. Sephiroth stood without ceremony and strode towards the door, which slid open upon his approach. He paused at the sound of Hojo's voice.

"Remember this, my boy. Sentiment is something you can ill afford in your position."

In any position, no doubt, Sephiroth had thought. The door slid shut behind him.

He had checked the mission reports later that day after the debriefing, confirming his suspicions: SOLDIER 2nd Class Zack Fair had returned only two days ago from a mission in Modeoheim. There, he had confronted and dispatched two rogue SOLDIERs, who had been acting against the company in secret.

He shouldn't have cared. Even as he had scanned through the pages of the report -- poorly written, he'd noticed, with numerous typographical errors and less attention to detail than the report warranted -- Sephiroth had thought he'd left it behind him, when Genesis and then Angeal had disappeared more than a year ago without warning. Or perhaps there had been signs, and he had simply not noticed. He wondered, sometimes, how well he'd known the two of them. They had chosen each other over him, when they'd deserted, and he hadn't begrudged -- didn't begrudge them that choice; they had known each other for more than a decade before meeting him, and so, it was understandable. The fault lay with him for having expected otherwise when he should have known better.

He shouldn't have cared, but one's perception of reality was never quite the same as reality itself.

The report lay upon his desk now, concealed within a folder. He had pulled it out of the archives last week and kept it here, though it went against standard procedure. A bottle of wine stood next to it. A gift from Genesis, long ago, half-empty now. Red, of course, dry and bitter on his tongue. Its warmth only served to accentuate the starkness of the room.

He had thought he'd let go of them, that he was better than this. Nothing, it seemed, could have been further from the truth.

A sharp, strident buzz yanked him from his thoughts. Sephiroth closed his eyes, did not move from his position by the window. He stood there for a moment before crossing to his desk. He set down his glass and pressed a button. Static crawled through the intercom. "Come in," he said and unlocked the door.

It opened noiselessly, then closed with a snap. The passage created a draft of air that made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He fought the urge to reach for his sword, which hung against the wall, several arms' length away from him. He never wore his sword within his office as a matter of fact -- it had been Angeal, he remembered, who'd urged against it -- and regretted it now.

"Sephiroth," Zack said. "You called?"

Sephiroth studied him. It was the first time he had seen him since their meeting in the Sector Five Reactor, and it was difficult now to look at him and see the way that Angeal's death had changed him. Gone was the easy-going, if intense, young man of Angeal's stories and Sephiroth's memories, and in his place stood a jaded and weary soldier, sharp lines of battle drawn across his face. He had slicked his hair back, Sephiroth noticed, and it reminded him of Angeal, the way he was standing, his back so straight that Sephiroth wondered if it would break beneath the weight of his duties and his values, beneath the weight of the sword that he now wore across his back.

Angeal's sword.

Sephiroth did not comment upon its presence. It was all the confirmation he needed. He had known already that Angeal was dead -- had wanted to believe otherwise, however.

"Zack," he said. He noted the way that Zack tensed at the sound of his voice, the way his eyes flickered down to the desk, taking in the wine and the glass. He saw the wordless question form in his eyes before dying away, slowly. That, Sephiroth realized, was different too. "I read your report."

"Oh yeah?" Zack's expression was shuttered and his eyes wary. There was a scar on his cheek now. Sephiroth wondered where he had obtained it, but there were questions he was not permitted, and they were not friends.

"What happened?" he said.

"You said you read the report. It's all there."

"Is it?" Sephiroth glanced down at the folder that lay closed upon his desk. All stories end, in time. He did not smile, though the thought amused him; it was something Genesis might have said, once. He turned to the window, hands clasped loosely behind his back. "When we got to Modeoheim, we found Hollander and the two SOLDIERs there. I took care of the SOLDIERs, while Tseng and the infantrymen apprehended Hollander." He paused. "Hardly a complete account."

He heard the sharp gritted breath, saw the half-step forward in the reflection of the glass and the curled fists. It was cruel, perhaps, to torture both himself and the boy in such a way -- Boy? he thought wryly. He's no more a boy than I ever was. -- but he had to know, though he didn't know why it was important, how they had died. They were dead. The past was past. That was all there was to it.

Except, Sephiroth thought, it wasn't. It was important, somehow, to know. How they had died, how they had ended.

Genesis had said as much in the Sector Five Reactor: The meaning and significance of a story are determined by its ending. You could say the same is true for the lives of people. He had smirked humorlessly at his own words. It had been the last time they'd met, the last time they'd spoken.

Endings were significant. They provided closure. People dealt with grief in their own ways, and this -- this was his.

Zack's reflection in the glass glanced aside. Control reasserted itself. Sephiroth watched him breathe, witnessed the unfurling of his fists and the forced relaxation of his posture. Control. "That's what happened," he said. "You can ask Tseng. He was there."

Sephiroth turned. "Only for part of it," he said.

Zack did not look at him. "It's not like it matters."

"It does matter."

"Not to ShinRa."

"To me," Sephiroth said.

Silence, broken only by the uncomfortable shuffling of Zack's boots and the air conditioner, the traffic. Then: "I killed them," he said, his voice taut and frayed. "Genesis, in the reactor, when he attacked me. He was going to kill Hollander. I stopped him. I watched him fall."

Sephiroth held his peace, but he looked away, and did not meet Zack's eyes. There was a draft in the room now, and the air conditioner seemed too strong, the passage of the wind too cold.

"And then Angeal, in the bathhouse. He --" Zack said. There was something crestfallen and haunted in his voice. "He turned into a monster."

The word chilled him. Sephiroth crossed his arms over his chest. "A monster?"

"A chimera," Zack said. The word was harsh on his tongue.

The cells, Sephiroth thought. The report hadn't covered this, but there had been experiments, he understood. Project G. Angeal... you became what they made you out to be, what you had wanted to rid the very world of.

He found it hard to breathe, suddenly, and closed his eyes, which burned. Exhaustion. It was --

"I couldn't do anything," Zack said, his voice cutting through his thoughts, ragged and raw. "He attacked me. I didn't have a choice. When someone's coming at you with a sword, what the hell can you do? Stand there, and let them cut you down? I didn't -- I couldn't --"

It's not your fault. Others would have said that, perhaps, but Sephiroth had never been one for hollow, comforting statements. Fault lay with everyone in this matter. In the training room: all three of them. Hollander. Lazard. ShinRa. How far back could one go, to lay the blame? "You can't take responsibility for other people's actions," he said.

Zack's voice rose. "Well, whose responsibility is it, then? ShinRa's?"

Sephiroth closed his eyes at the outburst. "They made their own decisions," he said. "You did what you did, because someone had to."

He did not say, It had not been me. It should have been.

Zack was breathing hard now, his eyes glinting in the light. "And was it the right thing to do?" he said.

It was a question Sephiroth had heard before, long ago, during the war. Something Angeal had asked him once, when the three of them had been in the field. Are we doing the right thing? he had asked.

Genesis had cut in before Sephiroth could even respond. What place does morality have in any of this? he'd said. It's a matter of perspective. This is war, after all. If not us, then someone else. You make the most of your situation and do your job like a good soldier.

Our duty, Angeal had corrected lightly, bumping him with a shoulder.

He had a chance now to speak. Genesis was not here, and neither was Angeal. "It was necessary," he said.

Zack snorted. "Necessary," he said. "Yeah, I know about 'necessary.' I bet they thought what they were doing was necessary too."

When had this turned from him seeking closure to giving it? Sephiroth wondered. "We're SOLDIERs," he said.

Zack let out a sharp breath and a laugh that sounded like nothing more than cracking ice. "Our duty, right?"

The words were Angeal's. The bitterness was not. "Our purpose in this company," Sephiroth said.

"Right. And once we can no longer fulfill our purpose, we're expendable."

Sephiroth did not respond. There was little he could say to that, except to confirm it, and he did not think that would help. After a moment, Zack expelled a long, shaky breath and a tremulous laugh that reminded Sephiroth how young he was. He himself was not much older, he knew, and yet, the gap of their years and experiences seemed like a great, yawning chasm.

"Sorry," Zack said. "I didn't mean to say that."

Sephiroth shook his head. "You meant it," he said. "And it's ... true. You follow your orders to the best of your abilities until they conflict with your desires."

Until they had conflicted with Genesis's. With Angeal's.

"That's why you pushed the missions onto me," Zack said. "You didn't want to hunt them down." You didn't want to be put in the position where you had to kill them, so you made me do it, he didn't say.

Sephiroth met his eyes, faced the accusation. "I didn't."

The silence stretched. The blame was there, laid bare in Zack's eyes. It had been easy for Sephiroth to pretend that he was the only injured party here; he knew better now.

Zack was silent for a moment. Then: "So what now?" he said. "What do you want? From me, I mean? From this?" He waved a hand around, signaling the office.

Sephiroth thought, To lay this -- them -- to rest. "I wonder," he said aloud.

Zack opened his mouth to respond, but just then, his PHS rang. He picked it up with a wary glance at Sephiroth. "Mm. Yeah. Yeah, gotcha," he said into the receiver. When he hung up, he looked at Sephiroth. "They're calling me out on a mission."

Sephiroth inclined his head. A part of him, he realized, was relieved that the conversation was over. "We're done here."

Zack nodded. "All right," he said. He made for the door, but as it slid open upon his approach, he paused and turned. "Oh yeah... forgot about this." He dug around in his pocket, then, after a moment's hesitation, approached Sephiroth again. Made as if to put whatever was in his hand on the desk, but a sudden change of mind seemed to stop him. He reached out to Sephiroth.

Sephiroth took the object and stared for a second before turning it over. It clinked softly in his hand.

"You guys were close, right? I mean, I have the Buster Sword already, and I figured ... you might not have anything to remember him by."

Sephiroth didn't know what to say. "... thank you."

Zack shrugged. "Hey, no biggie."

Sephiroth fingered the edges, dulled by wear. The metal was scratched and worn. He looked back up at Zack, who was standing there, uncertainty and discomfort flitting across his face. Sephiroth nodded. "Dismissed."

Zack hesitated, then said, "Right. I'll see you around."

"I'm sure you will," Sephiroth said to Zack's back.

The door of his office slid shut. Sephiroth looked down at the dog tags in his hands, then placed them on his desk, beside the wine. He poured himself another glass. Only a quarter left now in the bottle. He would finish it tonight, he decided, and leave it behind him if he could.

The window beckoned. Outside, the lights of the city shone bright and clear, though the clarity did not touch his thoughts, nor did it give him peace of mind. Nothing had changed, outwardly. But inside, the absence twisted until it became an almost physical ache in his chest.

His eyes burned. He closed them and let out a long, steady breath, then raised his glass and drank deep.

There would be no sleep tonight for him. Only memories to lay to rest.

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