Title: Blood Brothers 3/5
Fandom/Pairing: Final Fantasy VII - Zack/Cloud
Rating: PG-R this section for violence and gore
Summary: Fantasy AU. Zack and Cloud are blood brothers - two souls bonded by one fate. But what happens when one brother is lost and the other has to sacrifice everything he is to try and save him?
It was Nanaki’s grandfather they had brought him to see, Cloud learned eventually. He trailed impatiently behind Cid and Vincent through the sun-baked streets of Cosmo village, the urge to rush off in the direction Nanaki had gone clawing sharp and urgent at his throat.
“Bugenhagen is a star seer,” Vincent explained as they walked, his chalky pallor even more noticeable than usual amidst the red mountain stone. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care for Cloud’s preoccupation. “He acts as a village elder and uses his magic to shield the village from danger.”
“Is he…” Cloud started, then paused awkwardly.
Vincent understood regardless. “He’s human,” he confirmed, a strange shadow lurking in his eyes. “His bond with Nanaki is of a different sort.”
“I see,” Cloud said, not sure what else to say, and then Cid was veering towards a massive building carved right out of the mountain rock and Cloud could only stare as they approached.
The seer Bugenhagen lived in a squat, perfectly round building near the centre of the village’s strangely circular series of streets. There were no windows. The low jut of a tower spiraled towards the sky along the structure’s east side, far taller than any of the neighbouring houses, and Cloud frowned, puzzling at the inconsistency.
Vincent caught the look. “The main building is devoted to Bugenhagen’s studies,” he explained, gesturing with one gauntleted hand. “We’ll be residing with Nanaki in the tower.”
There was no door in the traditional sense, just a bright drape of richly-coloured fabric hanging in front of a smoothly carved hollow in the stone. Cid reached out and twitched the cloth carelessly aside. “Bugenhagen?” he called. “Nanaki? You there?”
“Come in please, all of you,” a pleasant-sounding voice invited and Cid held up the cloth to let Cloud and Vincent pass.
The entrance opened into a single, large room, with charts covering the floor and overfull bookshelves lining the curved wall. There was a staircase curling off to the left that Cloud figured led to the tower. Sunshine glinted off neatly stacked scrolls and Cloud glanced up to find that there was no ceiling, just wide open space bordered by high walls that in no way obstructed his view of the sky.
A scraping noise caught his attention and Cloud glanced over to see a short, spry old man coming down the stairs, Nanaki padding along at his side.
The man smiled warmly. “Cid. Vincent.” His eyes stopped on Cloud. “And Cloud. I am Bugenhagen – Cosmo’s star seer. Nanaki has told me about the curse on your blood brother.”
Cloud swallowed hard. “Do you think you can do anything to help?” he asked.
“I certainly hope so. Come in, come in,” he encouraged all three of them, beckoning. “No point standing around in the doorway. You are always welcome.”
“We know,” Vincent responded gravely. He stepped smoothly forward, propelling Cloud into motion with a subtle hand against the small of his back. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Now then,” Bugenhagen turned again towards Cloud, gesturing for him to come close. “Normally I’d ask for more information on the nature of this curse, but Nanaki said that you are having trouble with your memories, is that correct?”
“Yes.” Cloud nodded awkwardly. “It’s a side effect of the process Shinra’s mages used to transfer Zack’s soul in my body.”
“Hmm,” Bugenhagen mused. “That does make things more difficult.” His brow furrowed as he thought. “Would you be at all adverse to me encouraging some of your more pertinent memories to resurface? To give us a bit more information to work,” he explained, when Cloud stared at him, open-mouthed.
“You can do that?” Cloud demanded, the thought of two years of patchwork memories and yawning emptiness tangling tightly in his chest.
Bugenhagen nodded. “I wouldn’t want to attempt it on a large scale, but one event shouldn’t be too taxing for either your endurance or my capabilities. May I?” he asked, one hand lifting cautiously.
Hardly daring to breathe, Cloud nodded. “Yes.”
“Try to relax,” Bugenhagen advised, as he pressed his palm against Cloud’s forehead. “This might feel a bit strange for a moment.”
‘Strange how?’ Cloud wanted to ask, just as Bugenhagen’s fingers turned suddenly hot, their touch searing into his head and sending the room to spinning. He staggered heavily, vision blurring around the sudden surprise on Bugenhagen’s face. Something grabbed at his shoulder, rough and strong, but the ground was rushing up to meet him and he surrendered himself to the dark.
“Typical isn’t it?” Zack complained, his voice carrying a long way down the deserted mountain path. He gestured expansively with his hiking stick as he spoke. “We go off to Wutai for one lousy month and Seph goes and gets himself in trouble while we’re gone.”
“I rather doubt he meant to,” Cloud told him dryly, his own hiking stick kept carefully on the ground. “He’s sensible enough not to go out looking for trouble – unlike someone I could mention.”
Zack sniffed. “Turncoat,” he accused. “How was I supposed to know how hard it would be to find one lost little girl?”
“Zack. She was the daughter of the King of Wutai. What made you think a ninja’s child would be easy to track down?”
“Eternal optimism?” Zack tried, a wry grin creeping across his face. He shrugged. “And we still weren’t gone for that long. Seph totally should have waited for us before haring off for parts unfriendly.”
Cloud sighed, a little regretfully. “There’s no guarantee we could’ve helped,” he pointed out, though the words lacked conviction. That was why they were going now, after all, even though it was still hard to imagine a problem that the leader of the First Knights of Shinra couldn’t handle on his own.
The idea that he and Zack might not be enough to fix things either didn’t even bear thinking about.
“We’re going to start watching out for the locals soon,” Cloud said abruptly, shying away from those sorts of musings. He flicked his eyes further up the path, lingering on the heavy ruts worn in the slate-dark stone. “If something dangerous really is going on in the village, they’ll probably try to keep us out.”
“Ha! Like anyone could turn away such a charming and attractive pair of men.” Zack flung a fond arm around Cloud’s shoulders, hiking stick dangling uselessly a good foot off the ground. “Besides, no one’s going to keep us out of somewhere we want to be.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Well, Seph’d probably be able to manage it, but I am so kicking his ass for it if he tries.”
Cloud gave him a sideways glance. “And why exactly would Sephiroth be trying to keep us out?” he asked, almost blandly.
“We-ll,” Zack winked at him. “Normally I’d make a joke about him wanting to enjoy the local delights in peace, but I’m not sure there are any in Nibelheim. Well, except you,” he amended, with a grin that made Cloud flush. “But I spirited you away years ago so I’m not sure you count anymore.”
“Idiot,” Cloud huffed, squinting at a tumble of rock on the slope ahead and trying to remember whether it was quicker to go to the left or the right. “As far as I remember, it was me following you.”
Zack nodded sagely. “I always have been irresistable.”
Cloud chose the left path, fighting to calm the growing pit of anxiety that had been curling inside him since they’d started their climb into the mountains.
“Hey,” Zack said, his hand sliding down to Cloud’s wrist. “You going to be okay? I know you haven’t got many good memories of this place.”
“It’s just a town,” Cloud told him firmly, the words sounding almost believable. He tried on a casual shrug. “I doubt anyone will even recognize me.”
Zack grinned crookedly. “I kind of hope not. Otherwise your mam’ll probably whack me over the head with a skillet for monopolizing you for all these years.”
“She probably didn’t even notice I was gone,” Cloud answered honestly and Zack humphed.
“You know, if Seph really came here to enjoy the local delights, I’m going to take him to have his head examined. What a terrible place.”
“Maybe it’s improved since then,” Cloud tried, though the words fell far short of the joking tone he’d intended.
A rueful smile told him Zack was feeling pretty much the same. “I’m sure he’s fine,” Zack said, more a reassurance than a promise. “We’ll sort out whatever’s the matter, whack Seph upside the head for worrying us and make it back to Gurgan before Memor and Nimbus have even had a chance to miss us.”
“I hope so,” Cloud said, with a heavy sigh. “But I have a bad feeling about this whole situation.”
Zack gave his hand a squeeze. “Honestly? Me too. But that just means we’re going to have to be extra careful – we can’t abandon Seph when he’s in trouble, now can we?”
Cloud shook his head. “No,” he declared staunchly. “We’re going to fix this. You and me.”
“Damn straight, Spike,” Zack agreed, with the smile that Cloud would cross continents for. “Damn straight.”
Cloud woke in a disoriented rush, blinking up at the ceiling and wondering why he didn’t remember stopping for the night. He would have thought Zack would’ve wanted to press on, more worried about Sephiroth than he would admit, but this didn’t look anything like the inn at Nibelheim. Well unless they’d redecorated in the years since he’d been gone, but he didn’t think even that would explain the warm, dry air he could feel wafting in through the open window or the mountains that loomed like sentinels just outside, their peaks far too red to belong to the somber slate grays that made up the Nibel mountain range…
He realized at the same time as his reaching hand closed around cool, empty sheets instead of warm skin, the events in Bugenhagen’s house returning in a rush that make him gasp. The sun shone brightly through the window, high enough to be nearly noon, and Cloud managed only a numb sort of misery that nothing had changed – that he was still alone and Zack was still gone.
“Oh, are you awake now?” a voice asked, and Cloud twisted his head to see Nanaki coming into the room. Cloud nodded.
The big cat stopped by the bed and dropped to his haunches, head bowing respectfully. “My grandfather apologizes for what happened yesterday. He did not expect you to react so strongly to his magic.”
“What…” Cloud levered himself into an upright position, gritting his teeth as the world wobbled erratically. “What happened?”
Nanaki raised his head to look at Cloud, his expression contrite. “Grandfather was trying to stimulate your memories so that you would have an easier time recalling the details. However, as those memories were actually forgotten, not just repressed, the shock of forcibly reliving them was too much for you and you passed out.”
“Oh.” Cloud glanced out the window again, his mind trying vainly to impose the sharp, imposing ridges of Nibelheim onto the view. “Did… did Bugenhagen learn anything useful?”
Nanaki nodded, the beads in his mane rattling with the motion. “Some things. However he cut the connection when you collapsed, so the details of what happened once you reached Nibelheim are still unclear. You may get up whenever you feel able,” he remarked, rising to his feet. “There’s been food prepared if you think you can eat. I expect that Cid and Vincent will be pleased to know you are well.”
“Thank you,” Cloud managed. His face felt wooden. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
Nanaki nodded and left, tail flickering as it curled round the doorframe and out of sight.
Cloud waited until the sound of Nanaki’s claws clicking on the stairs had faded into silence. Then he curled in on himself and buried his face in his hands with a low groan, struggling to keep his breathing even.
He remembered that mission now; the sharp tang of air during their ride from the coast to Gurgan, their hike up the mountain to a town that had once been his home. The apprehension tightening his throat was a hard, palpable thing, worry for himself and Zack and Sephiroth made all the stronger for knowing just how well founded those worries had been.
His right hand still felt warm, the phantom touch of calloused fingers threading through his own and making him want to look up to see if Zack was crouched on the floor in front of him, grinning cheerily and asking him what he was doing wasting such a perfect day in bed.
“Zack,” he whispered, just to hear the sound of that name on the air, for proof that it was real, that it wasn’t all just a dream.
He imagined he felt the ruffle of a hand in his hair, a fond voice in his ear telling him not to worry so much, and drew in a shaky breath.
“Right,” he said, to himself and Zack inside him, finding his boots tucked neatly beside the bed and pulling them on with hands that shook only slightly. “Let’s go talk to Bugenhagen.” His sword was resting carefully against the far wall and Cloud gathered it up on his way out of the room. “I’m sick of missing you.”
There was a small landing on the other side of the drape, several other brightly covered doorways branching off from it. Cloud took the stairs, unsurprised when they led into the wide, roofless room he’d been in the day before. The room was quiet, no sign of Bugenhagen or Cloud’s traveling companions, and he frowned, perplexed. The faint murmur of voices drifted down the stairs and he retraced his way back up, pausing at one of the ubiquitous coloured drapes near the top of the staircase. He poked his head curiously through, squinting at the sudden brightness as he took in the sight of an outdoor terrace curling round the side of the building.
“Oi!” a voice called, and Cloud spotted Cid, Vincent and Nanaki sat under a brightly-coloured awning not far away, Cid beckoning imperiously. Cloud let the drape fall and walked over, failing miserably at feeling unselfconscious.
“About time you got up!” Cid declared as he drew up. “I was starting to wonder if they’d killed you and hidden the body.”
“Savage,” Nanaki sniffed at him. He tilted his head at a platter of honey-dipped fruit that was sat on the table between them. “Have something to eat,” he encouraged Cloud, his expression kind. “It’ll do you good.”
“I need to talk to your grandfather,” Cloud said staunchly, disregarding the offer. “I want him to go further into my memories.”
“Are you sure?” That was Vincent, his red eyes grave. “You’re going to be re-living some of the most painful memories you have.”
“It doesn’t matter how hard it’s going to be,” Cloud answered, holding Vincent’s gaze and not backing down. “Not if it might help Zack.”
“Even if they turn out to be memories you’d rather not have?”
Cloud shrugged, awkward. “They’re my memories, no matter how painful they are. And I… I need to know,” he admitted, with a raw edge to his voice that cracked on the words. “I’ll never be myself again until I face this.”
“Well then,” a voice said from behind him, and Cloud turned to see Bugenhagen standing behind him on the path. Blue eyes crinkled as he smiled. “That’s just what I was hoping to hear. You ought to eat first though,” Bugenhagen observed critically as Cloud moved to stand. “You’re going to need all of your strength for this.”
“Fine,” Cloud nodded, stripping off his gloves and reaching for a piece of melon. He wolfed it down in two quick bites, sucking honey off his fingers as he reached immediately for another.
“No need to make yourself sick,” Bugenhagen chuckled, taking a seat at the table with them. “Things will come as they will.” Cloud made a face but slowed obediently, shifting restlessly in his seat.
Bugenhagen shook his head, though it was a fond sort of amusement. “Let’s take your mind off it,” he suggested. He fixed Cloud with a curious look. “Can you tell me any more about what happened to you and your brother now?”
Cloud nodded, swallowing. “Zack and I were on an assignment in Wutai and when we got back to Midgar we learned that Sephiroth hadn’t come back from a mission in a village called Nibelheim in northern Jenova.”
“Sephiroth?” Cid interrupted, sitting abruptly forward. “You don’t mean Captain Sephiroth of the First Knights of Shinra?”
“He was a friend of ours,” Cloud agreed, smiling slightly at the memory of the look on Seph’s face the first time Zack had called him that. “As Merces, we often worked with the First Knights when they had jobs that the military couldn’t handle personally.” He shrugged. “We got to know him pretty well.”
“Kronin’s beard.” Cid shook his head wonderingly. “You’ll be telling me you know how to fly next.”
Cloud smiled slightly. “Not without an aeronaut. Sephiroth often took solo missions,” he continued, ignoring the abrupt scowl on Cid’s face. “He was more than strong enough to deal with most situations on his own. And they were a good break from command for him, I think.” Not as good as taking a real vacation, Zack had always complained, though they’d never quite managed to convince Sephiroth on that score.
“But this one went wrong,” Vincent inferred neutrally.
Cloud nodded. “We didn’t worry much at first, I mean, it was Sephiroth – the man doesn’t know the meaning of the word failure. Except the weeks kept going by without any word from him.” Cloud propped his chin against his hand, remembering. “We asked The Oracle for help, but even she couldn’t see what had happened. So we – Zack and I – volunteered to go to Nibelheim find him.”
“You managed to get to the village without incident?” asked Bugenhagen. “The mountains of Nibel can be quite treacherous.”
The sound Cloud made wasn’t quite laugh. “I was born in Nibelheim,” he told him, a sour edge to his tone. “I remembered enough of the way to get us there. And the villagers didn’t make any trouble for us so it was easy to get a room at the inn and start searching.” Like lambs to the slaughter, he realized now, his lip curling at the thought of how easily they’d let themselves be led.
“Did you find Sephiroth?” Nanaki asked and Cloud shook his head.
“No one seemed to have any idea what we were talking about.” He shivered, remembering the surreal, absent blankness all the residents of Nibelheim had treated them with. Including his mother. Who hadn’t recognized him. He’d surprised himself by being surprised.
“What happened?” Bugenhagen asked, gently, and Cloud started as he realized that he’d huddled into himself, leaning instinctively into a warm shoulder that wasn’t beside him.
“Oh,” he said, reaching for another piece of fruit while he fought to control his wayward thoughts. “Um, we stayed there for three days, asking questions and looking around to see if we could find any evidence of where Sephiroth had gone.”
It was Vincent who spoke up this time. “Did you?”
“No,” Cloud denied. “But someone started a fire the third night and when we went out to help we were attacked by…” he gestured aimlessly with one hand. “Sephiroths. An army of them.”
Cid frowned. “Never heard of more than one Captain Sephiroth before.”
“That’s not… they weren’t Sephiroth.” Cloud frowned, trying to explain. “More like… dolls who looked like Sephiroth. Only empty. And they fought like him. Just not as strong.”
“Magic constructs,” Bugenhagen said, nodding sagely. “Body doubles that take on a person’s appearance and skills, though they usually possess only limited capabilities in that regard.” He looked at Cloud, his expression grave. “It’s a very dangerous type of magic, one that requires a powerful mage who doesn’t mind if their original subject gets damaged – or killed – in the process.”
The words twisted in Cloud’s gut, ripping into a wound he’d all but forgotten was there. “Seph,” he murmured, teeth clenched. “Dammit.”
A sluggish breeze curled faintly through the air, whistling in the sudden silence that had fallen over the table. There was honey dripping down his fingers. Cloud drew a deep, shuddering breath, and finished the piece of fruit with a conscious effort.
“What happened next?” Bugenhagen asked.
“I…” Cloud paused, feeling the familiar wash of gray uncertainty slamming down again around his memories. “I don’t know.”
“Well then.” Bugenhagen sounded like he’d been waiting for that. “Then our next task shall be finding out. Has everyone eaten their fill?” he asked, standing as they all nodded. “Good. Come along then.”
They filed quietly back into the building, Cloud’s emotions knotting tighter with every step. After all this time he was finally going to know. And that thought terrified him. What if it really was his fault that Zack got cursed?
A touch on his arm startled him and he glanced down to find Bugenhagen watching him with a mild expression.
“Would you prefer I send everyone away?” he asked gently. “This may be difficult to face.”
“…no,” Cloud decided after a moment. “I survived these events once. Having an audience to them won’t change anything. And…” he faltered, then tried again, swallowing hard. “The more eyes we have, the less we’re likely to miss something important, right?”
Bugenhagen nodded, just once. “That is true. Sit,” he instructed, pointing towards a cushion in the middle of the floor. His eyes twinkled with a wisp of amusement. “After last time, I don’t feel all that eager to risk you cracking your head open against the floor. Now just relax,” he murmured, hand coming again to Cloud’s forehead. “And remember to breathe for goodness sake.”
Light sparked behind Cloud’s eyes, dizzying and fast, and he opened himself as best as he could to the roaring blackness that surged in to fill him up, carrying his past with it.
“You know,” Zack said, with remarkable aplomb, sparks flying as he blocked the whip-thin sword slashing towards his chest. “This killing a friend thing really sucks.” He ducked and lunged in one smooth movement, a half foot of solid steel tearing through flesh and bone like paper. Blood gushed as the Sephiroth look-alike slumped over, green eyes going wide and glassy. Zack pushed the dead body off his sword, making a face as it joined the growing collection of black-robed, Sephiroth-shaped bodies on the ground. “Especially killing him more than once.”
“You don’t say?” Cloud managed, trying not to wince when his sword cleaved heavily through another look-alike’s neck, silver hair swirling as the head flew through the air and hit the dirt with a wet, meaty thump. The headless body teetered for a moment, then collapsed as though its strings had been cut, whip-thin sword clattering to the ground beside it. Cloud wiped a tired hand across his brow. “At least they’re not as good at fighting as the real thing or we’d be in big trouble.”
“No kidding, “ Zack agreed fervently. He lowered his sword with a smile, though Cloud could see the fine lines of tension spidering around his eyes. “Though just the fact that they managed to knock the real Seph out long enough to do this worries me.”
There were more Sephiroth look-alikes coming, their features flat and eerie as they glided between the burning houses with single-minded intensity.
“We can’t stay here forever,” Cloud decided. “We have to figure out where they’re coming from.”
“Good plan.” Zack clapped a hand on Cloud’s shoulder, the firm pressure a reassurance to both of them. “I know it’s been a while, but can you think of anywhere in the village where you’d hide a six foot tall swordsman with a bad temper?”
Cloud shrugged helplessly. “You mean besides everywhere we’ve already looked? Nibelheim isn’t exactly a big place, Zack.”
“Well, maybe we’re just not looking hard enough then.”
The look-alikes were coming closer, the gleam of the flames glinting off their upraised swords. Cloud dragged his eyes forcibly away to meet Zack’s unusually serious expression.
“Say we’d only just arrived and we hadn’t looked anywhere yet,” Zack said then, calm as if there wasn’t a horde of sword-wielding automatons bearing down on them. “If you could pick one place to hide something and know it wouldn’t be found, where would it be?”
“I…the old keep probably,” Cloud admitted, nodding at the massive hulk of black basalt towering over the burning village. “No one goes up there if they can help it. But we checked there already, remember?”
“If someone managed to keep an army of Seph-alikes a secret for the last three days, one measly old Seph isn’t likely to be a problem. Come on!” he declared, holding out an imperious hand when Cloud hesitated. “Let’s go give ‘em a piece of their own medicine!”
“And what if we’re wrong?” Cloud asked, taking Zack’s hand even as he spoke.
Zack’s shrug rippled through both of them. “We keep causing havoc until our enemy gets sick of us and shows themselves. And then we can hit them until they give Seph back. Though I think we oughta clear a path through these guys first,” he remarked, with a head tilt towards the dangerously close look-alikes. “Fire you think?”
Cloud raised an eyebrow. “In the middle of a burning village? I know it’s the middle of the night, but really Zack, where is your head?”
“Ice then,” Zack decided, grinning flippantly. “These villagers may not have been very helpful, but it wouldn’t be nice to let their homes burn down.” He firmed his grip on his sword hilt, throwing Cloud a crooked grin. “Ready for this?”
Cloud nodded, releasing Zack’s hand to heft his own sword, frost already skittering down the blade. “Let’s do this.”
The Sephiroth look-alikes kept coming even when furrows of ice exploded through their ranks, frozen spikes shuddering up through the ground and hissing as they tore through hot flesh. A thick haze of mist rose up, blood-streaked and cold, and Cloud could hear the stumble and clatter of feet as the look-alikes lumbered after him and Zack through the murky chaos.
He kept his eyes fixed firmly ahead, feeling Zack’s grinning presence close at his side as they darted through the panic-filled roads of Nibelheim, their path painted thick with spreading ice.
There were more look-alikes approaching down the road as they crested the hill towards the keep. Zack turned several into ice blocks where they stood, while Cloud laid the edge of his sword through the guts of several more, prickling frost clinging to the blade and freezing them from the inside.
“Remind me never to do this against real people,” Cloud panted, his stride hitching as they reached the door to the keep. “That is not a nice way to die.”
“Won’t get any argument from me.” Zack considered the heavy iron door for a moment, then metal flashed as he sliced through the hinges. The door creaked and swung, listing drunkenly from the thick bolt.
Cloud rolled his eyes. “We could have picked the lock,” he reminded.
“That’s alright,” Zack said cheerfully. “My way was more fun.” He pushed past the door, treading carefully into the keep. “Now,” he declared. “If I was Sephiroth, where would I be?”
“On a beach in Costa,” Cloud answered promptly, pushing the door closed behind him as best as he was able. It wouldn’t present much challenge for anything that came after them, but it was better than nothing.
Zack made a face at him. “Alright then, smartass, where would you be if you were Sephiroth?”
“If I knew that-” Cloud started, then paused, staring at the floor. “Um, Zack? Was there always a trail of footprints on the floor?”
“Well whaddaya know,” Zack declared, staring at the tracks scuffing through the thick dust underfoot. “I think we’ve found out where the Seph-alikes are coming from.”
“…do you have to keep calling them that? Actually, never mind, just come on,” he ordered, seizing a grinning Zack by the elbow and dragging him bodily behind him as he started following the tracks. “Before they regroup.”
Zack chuckled. “Whatever you say.”
The footprints led them up two flights of stairs, down a long, twisting corridor and into a bedroom that was barely large enough for the molding four-poster bed sitting in one corner. There wasn’t any sign of Sephiroth, or any more look-alikes.
“Huh.” Zack scratched his head, pacing slowly into the room. “That’s quite the disappearing trick. Unless they’re hiding him under the bed I don’t really see – oh ho!” He paused, a satisfied smile licking at the corner of his lips as he eyed the blank stone wall across from the door. “No wonder we didn’t find anything the first time through.” He twisted round to glance at Cloud. “You want to do the honours?” he offered.
“You go ahead,” Cloud allowed with a careless wave. “Just try not to bring the whole place down around our ears.”
An overdone sigh. “So picky.” A tremor rocked the room and Cloud watched as Zack blasted the wall in with a single blow, earth rising up from underfoot to meet his swinging blade.
There was an empty hollow where the wall had been, the rungs of a shallow staircase gleaming against the darkness.
Zack grinned wider. “Jackpot.” He leaned into the stairwell, eyeing the distance. “Looks like it either leads into a hidden basement or down the side of the cliff,” he observed. His head tilted towards Cloud. “You going to be okay?”
“I’ll have to be won’t I?” Cloud put up a hand to forestall Zack’s instinctive protest. “You’re going have to watch out for me. Just don’t get us both killed horribly, alright?”
A chuckle. “I’ll do my best. Come on then, tough stuff. Let’s go find Seph.”
The stairwell was narrow and dark, so much so that Zack ended up walking several steps ahead, his broad shoulders practically brushing the walls on either side. No sound of pursuit rattled down after them, but they hurried down regardless, an unnamed sense of urgency pushing them onwards.
Cloud was starting to feel vaguely light-headed by the time the staircase gave way to the stone floor of a narrow hall with a single doorway at the far end. Zack looked back at him worriedly.
“Just a little dizzy,” Cloud told him, his jaw set determinedly. “Luckily we’re not too far underground.”
“Alright,” Zack said, wearing an expression that made it clear he intended to get Cloud back up those stairs as soon as possible. “Just watch yourself, alright?”
“Yes, yes,” Cloud agreed, following Zack down the hall. There was light coming from the room at the far end.
“So,” Zack started, deliberately light. “What kind of big baddie do you think is lying in wait for – Seph?!”
Cloud blinked as Zack darted ahead, streaking through the doorway like the dread goddess Marela herself was on his heels.
“Zack?” Cloud demanded, hurrying through the door several steps behind his brother. “What’s going --”
The room flared green and Cloud gaped in shock when Zack went suddenly to his knees in the middle of the room, sword thudding to the floor forgotten as he clapped both hands over his head with a choked gasp. Spidery lines of incandescent fire burst out around him, complicated scrawls of magic etching deeply into the stone floor.
“Zack!” Cloud shouted, rushing forward. A flash of black and silver darted through the corner of his vision and he turned just in time to get hefted bodily off the ground and flung hard into the wall, the snap as one of his ribs cracked loud in his ears. He crumpled to the ground with a cough, blood and bile mixing with the dust around him.
Sephiroth – the real one this time, no mistake – watched flatly as Cloud tried and failed to climb to his feet.
“S-seph,” Cloud gasped, stretching one shaking hand out towards the man. Sephiroth didn’t so much as twitch, his green eyes implacable and blank. “What…”
A sound interrupted him, a thin, unpleasant hiss of a laugh that made all the hairs on the back of Cloud’s neck stand on end.
“Oh dear,” an oily voice murmured, and Cloud glared through his bangs as a man dressed in black mage’s robes stepped forward from the shadows on the other side of the room. “You don’t think he’s going to answer, do you?” The man’s round glasses gleamed in the light from the sigil surrounding Zack. “I’m afraid it’s far too late for that.”
Zack’s eyes slitted open, pain twisting his features. “What have you done to him, you sick bastard?”
“Oh,” the man remarked calmly. “You can still talk.” He eyed Zack with clinical interest, careless of the venom in Zack’s glare. “Impressive. I’ll have to take care not to break you too much – you could prove to be quite useful in the future.” He smiled thinly. “It’s always so amusing to watch rats follow the path you’ve laid out for them. And how heroic of the two of you to come rushing to my pet’s aid without the faintest idea of what you were getting into.”
“What?” Zack demanded, teeth gritted.
“Sephiroth isn’t your pet,” Cloud snarled at the same time, rising to his hands and knees with an effort.
The mage looked amused. “Oh, I think you’ll find yourself quite mistaken on that score.” He snapped a finger and a booted foot caught Cloud in the side, the impact sending him tumbling limply across the floor, his sword scraping heavily against the stone as he rolled.
“Cloud!” Zack cried, rage evident in his voice as Cloud skidded heavily to a stop.
“Terrok’s guardians,” Cloud swore, struggling to stand. Sephiroth was there before he could manage it, hoisting him easily off the ground and slamming him against the wall, his gloved hand gripping Cloud’s neck like a vice.
“Seph,” Cloud coughed, spots swimming in front of his eyes. His sword clattered to the floor as he seized Sephiroth’s hand in both of his, struggling to breathe. “Stop!”
Sephiroth didn’t budge, as indifferent to his words as the look-alikes in the village had been.
“There now,” the mage declared, sounding inordinately pleased with himself. “Not so confident now, are we?”
“Cloud!” Zack croaked, frantic. “Seph!” His gloved hands dug into the ground and he started dragging himself slowly but inexorably towards the edge of the magic circle, his whole body shuddering with the effort.
“Hmm.” The mage eyed Zack with a thoughtful frown. “How unexpectedly resilient. A shame really,” he sighed. “I’d hoped to take care of both of you with one blow. It seems, however, that attempting to draw this out can only happen to my detriment.” The man shrugged philosophically. “But, no matter. One at a time will suffice just as well.”
He cupped his hands, lips moving rapidly as magic pooled and pulsed between them, a black, slippery looking flex of power that was dark and sinister and looked like nothing Cloud had ever seen before. The sigil around Zack flared suddenly and the oily magic dripped from the mage’s fingers and swarmed to the pulsing lines, pooling thickly on the air.
“Zack!” Cloud exclaimed, redoubling his struggles as the sight of his brother’s pained face was hidden behind the swiftly rising curtain of dark magic. Sephiroth’s hand tightened warningly on his throat, but Cloud hardly noticed, straining desperately towards his brother. “Zack!” he cried. “Zack!”
“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” the mage said carelessly, making his way carefully around the circle towards Cloud. “He won’t be able to hear you.” His eyes fixed on Cloud’s face, cutting and cold. “Though I expect you’re going to regret being able to hear him.”
The magic pulsed again, dark and inexorable, and Cloud heard the gasp of Zack’s sharply indrawn breath, the agonized whisper of his name on his brother’s lips.
Then the screaming started.
“ZACK!” Cloud thrashed violently, blind to everything except the sound of Zack’s voice, hoarse and raw, each cry blending endlessly into the next. Cloud’s half-gloved hands scrabbled against Sephiroth’s arm, prying frantically at the fingers locked around his throat.
The mage snapped his fingers again and Sephiroth slammed him hard against the wall, making Cloud’s ears ring with the impact. Cloud kicked at Sephiroth’s leg and received another blow to the head for his trouble. He gasped harshly, blinking his eyes through the blood running down his face.
“A lovely show of solidarity, but misplaced.” The mage eyed him coolly. “You and your blood kin will have more important things to worry about than each other from now on.” He made a negligent gesture with one hand and Cloud’s sharp hiss joined Zack’s cries as a line of agony slashed suddenly across his hand. Cloud watched as blood oozed from beneath his glove, slicking the cuff of Sephiroth’s coat and making his fingers slip on the suddenly slick leather.
He gasped, gagging on air. “What… have you done?”
If anything, the mage looked even more amused. “Never seen curse magic at work before boy? Consider yourself lucky you’re not experiencing it along with your blood kin – the process can be quite unpleasant.”
Cloud’s vision was starting to go black around the edges. “You think… I’m - going to let you - hurt him?” he rasped, reaching into himself for the part of him that danced like swords and whirlwinds, deliberately not thinking about who it was he was targeting. Even if this was Sephiroth, that was Zack and there wasn’t anyone who meant more than Zack.
Sephiroth’s expressionless face flickered slightly as the air around them grew hotter, heavier, but Cloud didn’t pause, just kept drawing in magic until his whole body was tingling with the effort.
The mage’s smug look twitched, a shade of irritation shuttering across his smile. “What-”
The fireball caught Sephiroth full in the chest, flinging him backwards with the scorching smell of melting skin and singed hair. Cloud’s knees threatened to buckle as he hit the floor but he gritted his teeth and pushed off, snatching up his sword in his bloody fist and surging towards where he’d last seen Zack, preparing to slash through the magic circle blocking his way.
“This won’t do,” the mage said from behind him and Cloud stumbled as the ground surged up to meet him, great chunks of earth twining round his arms and legs until he was trapped, spread-eagled in the centre of the room with his sword arm still raised to strike.
“You’d attack a friend to help your brother? How callous of you.” The mage stepped closer, long fingers cold and dry as they wrapped around Cloud’s chin and forced his head around. “Since you’re so concerned, why not take a look, hmm?”
A wave of the man’s hand and the blackness around the barrier thinned to translucence. Cloud let out a strangled sound at the terror of what lay beyond. Zack was splayed on the floor bare inches away, his whole body convulsing with wracking shudders as large, gaping wounds skittered across his skin, sharp and oozing and deep. Zack’s mouth was mouth open and gasping, his teeth tinged pink. There was blood everywhere.
“It was originally written for two,” the mage remarked conversationally, petting Cloud’s cheek as he stared in horror. “Would you have preferred to share this suffering with him, instead of observing?”
“Bastard,” Cloud raged, struggling against his rock-strong bonds even though he could feel the way they sapped his strength, leaving him without enough power to cast even the simplest spell. “Oh gods, Zack…”
“You can watch for a while, if you like,” the man said dismissively, releasing Cloud’s chin and turned towards where Sephiroth was lying, crumpled and still on the ground. Cloud spared an abstracted hope that he hadn’t killed him. “It will probably be the last chance you have to care, at any rate.”
“Zack,” Cloud moaned, voice breaking at the sight of his brother’s suffering. “Zack, please! No!”
A single violet eye cracked open, almost black against Zack’s deathly-pale skin. It flicked to Cloud’s face, then to the earth holding him immobile. A spark of determination crossed Zack’s face and Cloud watched as Zack laboriously kicked out one leg to his fallen sword, blood smearing in a wide streak across the floor as he hooked his foot around the hilt and struggled weakly to pull it back.
“Zack!” Cloud exclaimed, in as despairing of a voice as he could manage, hyperconscious of the mage knelt only a few feet away. The metal would boost Zack’s magic, he knew, but the effort might just kill him. There were tears mixing with the blood on his face as he watched Zack fumble with the sword, too hoarse now to scream, body shuddering with every agonized breath.
Cloud resisted the urge to sag in relief when Zack’s hand closed finally around the hilt, Zack’s eyes fluttering shut for a breathless moment as he gasped. Cloud could see it when Zack gathered himself enough to start, from the swirls of magic pulsing within the gruesome confines of the circle to the knife-sharp tension thrumming through every muscle in Zack’s body. Heart in his throat Cloud waited, ready for the instant Zack cast the spell.
It wasn’t long before Zack’s chest was heaving with the effort, face haggard and drawn as he tried to release Cloud’s restraints. The earth around Cloud’s arm quivered slightly but didn’t withdraw, rasping uncertainly between the wills of two magics. Zack’s jaw clenched and Cloud felt it when he pushed outwards with every last ounce of his strength, his eyes rolling back in his head as he slumped, unconscious, to the floor. The earth uncoiled just slightly from his right arm, softening from that rock hard shell to a consistency not far from slick, clinging mud.
It was enough.
Cloud’s arm pistoned forwards, his sword keening through the air as he brought it down through the wall of black magic and buried the edge an inch deep down into the stone floor. The mage whirled, his expression livid, and that was the last thing Cloud saw before the spell exploded outwards, magic splashing across walls, ceiling, floor and battering through everything in between. The room shook as supports collapsed and stones shuddered and Cloud hissed as a chunk of the ceiling scored his outstretched arm, bits of earth and mud flaking away from him with the force of the backlash.
“Zack!” he cried, coughing, but the sound was swallowed up by the cacophony of dust and black magic obscuring his view. “Goddammit!” He wrenched himself free of the mud still holding him to the floor, ignoring the spasms as muscles twisted and wrenched. Zack lay slumped and ashen on the blood-splattered floor, shielded from most of the recoil by virtue of being inside the circle, but Cloud still wasted no time in diving forward, protecting his brother’s body as best as he could as debris fell and magic howled.
The mage was still standing when the dust cleared, glaring at Cloud from behind a protective shield that shimmered blue-black in the light. The shield melted away as Cloud watched, the dark hem of the man’s robe turning powder white as he stalked over the debris. “You…” he snapped at Cloud. “Do you have any idea what you’ve-”
Cloud stood, careless of the blood running down his arm, the ache of broken bones. He leveled his sword at the approaching mage. “Come one step closer,” he warned, his voice cold as a Nibelheim winter. “And I will kill you where you stand.”
The mage sneered at him, rage sparking behind his glasses. “Not much of a threat coming from a man who can barely stand.”
“I’m strong enough to stop you,” Cloud stated, calm and unshakably certain. “You will not touch him.”
He could see the mage weighing his options, eyes flicking thoughtfully from Zack, to Cloud, to the still-unconscious Sephiroth and back again. Cloud waited silently, his bloody palm rock steady on the hilt of his sword.
Finally the mage shook his head with a dismissive sniff. “Have it your way then, if you’re that determined.”
A swirl of magic darted from the man’s fingers and Cloud tensed, not quite relaxing when the mage threw the spell behind him instead of attacking. Sephiroth’s body lifted limply up off the ground in response to the mage’s will, limbs and hair dragging in the dust.
“I wouldn’t start celebrating your good fortune just yet, though,” the mage warned, Sephiroth’s body floating behind him as picked his way over the debris towards the door. “Even if by some rare chance your precious brother doesn’t bleed to death in the next ten minutes, that curse is still far from done with him.”
Cloud bared his teeth, wishing he had the strength to kill the man.
The mage’s lips twisted into a decidedly unpleasant smirk. “I shall be interested to see if you survive,” he said in parting, completely unhurried as he strode through the crumbling doorway with Sephiroth’s body in tow.
The mage’s footsteps carried down the hall and up the stairs, echoing for long minutes before fading gradually into silence. Only then did Cloud allow his knees to buckle, sword tip dipping as he slumped down at Zack’s side.
“Zack!” he cried urgently. His hands hovered fearfully above his brother’s ruined frame, afraid to touch. Zack’s face was slack and deathly pale, the tattered remains of his clothing rust dark with the blood still leaking from the wounds all over him. Fear clenched around Cloud’s heart and he leaned desperately closer, letting out an explosive breath when he heard the gurgling whistle of Zack’s breath, saw the laborious rise and fall of his blood-slicked chest. Still alive, thank the gods, though only just.
“Idiot,” Cloud spat through clenched teeth, wishing he could just stop shaking already. His voice cracked painfully. “Why do you always have to charge into things headlong?”
Zack didn’t answer and Cloud gave in to the urge to bury his face against Zack’s neck, hot tears dripping down his chin and streaking the blood painted across his brother’s skin.
When the sound of feet clattered abruptly down the hall Cloud dragged himself tiredly upright, praying to Mneth above that the mage hadn’t sent reinforcements. He fought stubbornly against the urge to pass out, not about to let Zack down now. The footsteps came closer and Cloud firmed his grip on his sword, teeth bared.
Let them come. This blood brother was not going down without a fight.
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