[Fic] A Long Road To Destiny - FFVII/FFX - Zack, Cloud & Sephiroth - 3/25?
As usual, the number of chapters is constantly shifting and changing on me. Writing with a rough outline is definitely easier than writing entirely by the seat of my pants, but I still end up with a lot of changes.
I still hate writing by hand. ;p
Does anyone know any good comms to post this to? It doesn't seem appropriate to put it up on ffvii_yaoi, my usual comm, since there's no yaoi in it.
Title: A Long Road to Destiny Series: FFVII/FFX fusion Pairing: Cloud, Zack & Sephiroth Rating: R Warnings: violence, angst, swearing, the usual Chapter length: 5821 Total length: 16,813
The summoner's journey is a long, hard path to walk. Having guardians you trust makes all the difference in the world.
Cloud scrambled to his feet, desperate to do anything he could to protect Zack. Maybe if he could just focus the Sin scale's attention on him, he could run and draw it away from his vulnerable guardian.
"Hey!" he shouted, waving his arms to attract its attention. "Ujan rana, ikmo!"
It took a step towards him and lowered its head, canting its wings forward. Cloud paled. A dozen lethal looking spines quivered between its feathers, ready to launch. He doubted he would fare any better against them than Zack had.
Light flashed off a thin arc of metal as it slashed through the air. It cut the scale in two so cleanly that it took the fiend a moment to realize it was dead. Under less dire circumstances Cloud might have laughed at the shocked expression it wore as pyreflies drifted up from its disintegrating body.
Seph swept his blade sharply through the air to shake the ichor off it, and tossed a bit of fluff at Zack. The unconscious man stirred, groaning, and Cloud recognized the item as a phoenix down. He'd heard of them, but he'd never seen one before.
"Saving his life at the cost of your own is the correct sentiment for a guardian, but try to save it for truly dire circumstances," Seph advised Zack dryly. "Sacrificing yourself at the start of the journey won't do much to help him make it as far as Zanarkand."
"I'll keep that in mind, thanks," Zack rasped, equally dry. He pushed himself into a sitting position and winced, testing each limb gingerly. He was still obviously injured, and still wavering on the verge of collapse. Cloud wished there was something he could do.
As if reading his mind, Seph turned to him next. "Since you didn't heal yourself earlier, I assume you are either too drained or don't know any spells advanced enough?" Seph asked Cloud. He gestured and murmured a spell, and Zack's injuries vanished.
Cloud ducked his head and mumbled an affirmative. The truth was that he didn't know any spells, not even the most basic cure. He knew summoners were traditionally white mages as well, but surely there were exceptions? Or perhaps this was just another way in which he failed as a summoner. The hollow ache in his chest was accusation enough that he didn't have what it took.
Seph simply nodded, accepting his reply at face value. He held out a satchel full of small bottles. "Take these around to the injured, then. Zack, do you have yours?"
"Yeah. You gonna go help the civilians?" Zack asked, subdued.
"Yes. Join me there when you've dealt with the combatants." Seph turned and headed for the front of the temple.
Cloud surveyed the battlefield, for the first time able to really pay attention to what was going on around him. The dead and dying lay scattered over the beach, with the living wandering among them like lost souls. Cloud saw one man whose arm had been ripped off bleeding out on the sand, while another who had lost an eye was trying helplessly to staunch the wound. The smell of blood was so thick in the air Cloud could taste it, a rank copper tang in his nose and throat, mixed with the scents of vomit, excrement, and an indefinable stench that Cloud could only label as 'Sin'.
Cloud swallowed hard, wanting to vomit himself. There was a part of him that had always pictured battle as being exciting, even glorious. He'd imagined himself triumphing over Sin and all the fiends, a mighty warrior and summoner. He'd never imagined anything but the fiends dying, however, or the sound of people moaning in agony or coughing out their last breaths. He'd certainly never pictured himself as a helpless bystander who could do almost nothing to help those suffering. Suddenly battling Sin didn't seem so glorious after all.
"Give the potions to people who need them to survive," Zack told him. "Don't waste them on people who will survive until morning without, or who are so badly hurt they'd need more than one to survive at all. Understand?" He gave Cloud a grim look. "I know it's hard when people are hurting, but it's the only way to save as many people as we can. You have to be ruthless. Can I trust you?"
Feeling numb, Cloud nodded. Zack patted him on the back and moved out among the injured, pulling out his own bag of potions.
Cloud turned and walked the other way down the beach. At first people ignored him, absorbed in their own pain. He struggled to look at them objectively, trying to decide who to give the healing potions to. Would that person die without it? Would this one die even with it? It was such a hard line to walk, when all he could see was blood, and all he could hear was the cries of the dying.
He stopped next to a man whose leg had been savaged. It was one of the civilians, with no armour to protect him from the damage the scales could inflict. Someone had tied a rough tourniquet above the wound, keeping the man from bleeding to death, but Cloud could see it wouldn't work for long. On the other hand, it was the only major wound visible, so if it was healed enough to stop bleeding the man would probably survive.
Good enough. Cloud knelt next to the man, and fumbled a potion out of the bag. The injured man was only barely conscious, and Cloud had to coax him to swallow the potion. Once he had it down, though, the magic-laced liquid swiftly went to work. Cloud could see the flesh repairing itself, right before his eyes.
"Wha..." The man roused a bit, and stared at his leg in shock. "How... oh! Thank..." he glanced at Cloud, stared right into his eyes, and gulped. Cloud bit his lip to keep from scowling, knowing the stranger was hesitating to give thanks because he was Al Bhed.
"Don't mention it," Cloud said gruffly, standing and turning away to look for the next person he could help. The Spirans might not be as grateful to be rescued by an Al Bhed as they would be to be saved by one of their own, but at least he could feel like he was making an important difference.
Others had noticed that the man he'd helped had gotten up. "Please, it hurts," one of the Aurochs whimpered, reaching out towards him. "Help me, please."
"My hand, I'll lose my hand, give me those!" demanded one of the Crusaders, less politely.
"I don't have enough for everyone," Cloud said, backing up nervously and clutching the satchel to his chest. Hands grabbed at him as people tried to snatch the bag away, and he yanked it up out of their reach. More people were looking his way, drawn by the clamour rising around him. Those who were mobile were converging on him, and Cloud didn't like the look in their eyes. Desperation and anger were never a good combination, especially when they were aimed at an Al Bhed by a Spiran.
"Zack," he called, trying to turn so that nobody was coming at him from behind. That just gave them the idea to start circling. He groped for his sword and swore under his breath when he remembered it was still lying on the ground where Zack had knocked him over. Realizing he was unarmed, the men closing in on him looked eager.
"Zack!" Cloud tried hard not to panic. He reached inside himself in what was already becoming a reflex, but there was still only the hollow ache where Jymavun's power should have been.
Zack was suddenly beside him, and the approaching men looked much less certain of their victory. "Enough of that," Zack scolded them. "Crusaders, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You know how triage works. Now get out there and help the civilians."
Several of the men, the ones whose armour marked them as Crusaders, looked sheepish or apologetic. A few even murmured 'Yes, sir' or saluted Zack briefly. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief as they backed off, and drew the civilians with them.
"Maybe you'd better stick with me," Zack said. He ran a hand through his spiky hair, apparently oblivious to the ichor, blood and grime on his glove. He looked tired and pained, and Cloud wondered if Seph's spell had really healed him completely.
Cloud nodded glumly, embarrassed all over again that he couldn't even be trusted to handle a simple task like handing out potions to the injured. Was he going to need Zack to babysit him for every little step through his whole journey? They'd kill each other before they ever got near Zanarkand. He had to learn to stand on his own.
For now, though, Zack was right that he was better off staying with his guardian, and not just for his own benefit. As they moved together among the wounded, Cloud tried to make sure he was the one doing all the heavy lifting and other physical tasks. Zack gave him a wry smile that said he'd noticed, but didn't object.
Cloud was grateful that his guardian let him get away with it. For one thing, concentrating on taking care of the older man meant he wasn't poking at the hollow place inside him, or paying too much attention to the horrible injuries they were tending to. By the time they reached the end of the beach Cloud knew that battle was anything but glorious. He saw more blood in that hour than he'd ever seen before in all his life combined, and he never, ever wanted to see the inside of anyone's body again.
When the last of the potions had been drunk and the last bandage administered, Zack stretched until his back cracked, groaning. "All right, that's as much as we can do for this lot. Let's go see if we can help Seph with the civilians."
Cloud nodded, though he was a little reluctant to face even more wounded people. At least here on the beach there were no dying children.
They helped a pair of Crusaders limp around the temple, back to the common area. Cloud flinched and bit back a cry when he saw what was left of the village. To say it was utter chaos was understating the matter. Most of the homes and shops had been destroyed, with only rubble and debris left to mark what had been someone's entire life. Trees had been torn up by the roots, huge boulders wrenched out of the ground. Even the temple had taken damage, the graceful arches of the roof broken and scarred. The scent of sap from the smashed trees mingled with the stench of blood and burning things. Fires raged everywhere, no doubt started when the bonfire had been scattered in every direction by Sin's gravitational pull.
Cloud flinched away from the heat and crackle of the fires. He thought he could hear screaming from within them, but he was fairly certain it was only a memory. These fires were starting to burn out now, finding little to sustain them once the seasoned wood of the huts was gone. Anyone caught in them would have died while he was still on the beach.
Crews were working to dig survivors out of the rubble. Everyone wore a shocked, numb expression, as if they simply couldn't process this much horror and so their brains had shut down to protect them. Cloud imagined a similar expression was probably on his own face. It certainly matched how he was feeling.
He moved to help one of the rescue crews, grabbing a broken timbre and helping another man haul it away, heedless of the splinters it drove into his skin. Vaguely he was aware that Zack had gone to join a bucket brigade working to put out the last of the fires.
Cloud wasn't certain how long they worked. The first few people he helped to rescue were alive, though one of them died in the arms of the man who pulled her out of the ruin. After that, they were simply uncovering more bodies to be placed at the end of a silent row outside the temple. Cloud didn't even try to keep count. He didn't really want to know.
Someone passed around a bucket of fresh water and a ladle. Cloud drank, trying not to be too greedy. When he handed the bucket off to the man he'd been helping to carry things, however, their eyes met briefly for the first time.
The man, one of the priests judging by his clothing, blinked twice at him and then seemed to realize who he was looking at. "You!" He dropped the bucket and stepped back, one hand lifted to point accusingly at Cloud. "This is your fault. Sin came because you profaned the temple!"
"What?" Stunned by the completely unexpected accusation and already exhausted beyond tolerance by the events of the day, Cloud couldn't find the wits to do more than gape at the man.
"But Sin always targets the temples," someone protested hesitantly.
"What drew it here, tonight?" another woman argued. "There haven't been sightings anywhere near here!"
"It was the heresy of a non-believer coercing the fayth into granting him an aeon that drew Sin to us," the priest insisted, the light of fanaticism burning in his eyes. Others murmured agreement, a rising swell of angry mutters and shouts.
For the third time that day Cloud found himself facing the beginnings of a mob, gathering around him. He cast a frantic look around, searching for Zack, but there was no sign of his guardian this time.
"The priests are right," a man cried. "You're a heretic. How can you bring anything but evil to Yevon's faithful?"
The first stone caught Cloud from behind, smashing into his shoulder hard enough to leave a bone bruise. He staggered, biting his lip to keep from crying out. That would only egg them on, as he knew far too well.
"Enough!" Seph's voice was deep enough to rumble like thunder, an ominous warning of the storm to come. Anger flashed in his eyes like the lightning to accompany the thunder. He stepped into the centre of the crowd, one hand on his hilt in a clear threat, and stood near Cloud in a way that made it plain he was supporting the Al Bhed.
"Is this the kindness that Yevon teaches?" he demanded. "Is this the goodwill and tolerance that will win Spira free from Sin for all time? If you wonder at the cause of Sin's appearance here tonight, look first to your own actions. Your bigotry and prejudice are more likely to be at fault than any summoner, no matter their race."
A few people had the grace to look shamed. Unfortunately it was obvious that most of the crowd was simply looking for an easy target to blame. "Yevon's teachings hardly apply to one who blasphemes the very fayth itself," the priest shouted.
Seph's scowl deepened. "I suggest you reconsider your words, sir, and quickly. Or perhaps you have no wish to have the sending performed for your loved ones?"
More people backed away from the priest, looking alarmed. Cloud felt the blood drain from his face, and he fought off panic. "Seph," he whispered urgently, trying to get the man's attention without drawing the focus of the crowd back to him. Defusing the mob by reminding them that only a summoner could perform the sending was all well and good... as long as the summoner could actually perform the sending.
The priest appeared to be thinking along the same lines, or perhaps he simply saw the look on Cloud's face. "Can he even perform it?" he scoffed, gesturing rudely at Cloud. "No temple would train one such as he. Even if he does know the ritual, a sending performed by a heathen would be worse than useless!"
People were muttering again, now afraid that their loved ones would all end up as fiends for lack of a proper sending. Cloud saw Zack shoving his way through the tightly packed crowd, but he didn't think this was a problem his guardian could protect him from.
"Seph," he whispered again, tugging at the man's sleeve to get his attention. Seph's eyes flicked briefly to him, acknowledging him, before returning to stare down the crowd. "Seph, I have no idea how to perform a sending," Cloud all but squeaked. "I'm as likely to turn them into fiends as send them to the Farplane." And doing that would surely turn the islanders against him once and for all.
Seph closed his eyes briefly, and looked resigned. When he opened them again, he focused his gaze on the priest once more. "Lord Cloud is not the only summoner on the island," he said, his voice soft but no less menacing for the lack of volume. "I am perfectly capable of performing the sending, and if you doubt my ability, I suggest you contact your superiors in Bevelle and ask them for my references. However I find your attitudes and continuing hostility towards a summoner to be offensive and highly distasteful. Frankly I'm not certain the people of Besaid deserve the protection or guidance of any summoner, if this is how you treat one."
Now the voices in the crowd were alarmed, crying out for forgiveness and begging him to reconsider. Seph stood there like a regal statue, apparently unmoved by their pleas, still watching the priest.
The man looked first at Seph, then at Cloud, then back to Seph. He swallowed visibly, and made the obeisance to them both. "Forgive me," he said, his voice trembling with the effort it took him to speak politely. "I am overwrought. Perhaps I have even been affected by Sin's toxins. I spoke without thinking."
"Convenient," Zack muttered as he finally reached Cloud. He spoke loud enough for Seph and Cloud to hear him, but not for his voice to reach anyone else. "I hate how people use Sin's toxin as an excuse for bad behaviour. Sorry, Cloud, I didn't realize you'd gotten so far away from me."
Seph inclined his head slightly to acknowledge Zack, and finally nodded at the priest. "Very well. Place the dead near the docks. I will perform the sending over the water." Cries of relief and thanks came from the villagers. Seph ignored them all, turning to stalk away, gesturing at Zack and Cloud to follow him.
The moment they were out of sight of the crowd, he turned on Zack. "Fiends and Sin are not the only dangers to a summoner," he said, his voice rumbling dangerously again. "A guardian must never, ever leave his summoner unprotected, let alone allow the summoner out of his sight. I'm disappointed in you, Zack."
Zack blanched, then flushed and hung his head. "I know, you're right," he said, subdued. "I'm sorry. I was so focused on helping the villagers..."
"That's no excuse." Seph was as implacable with Zack as he had been with the priest. "A guardian's first duty is to his summoner, always. Especially considering these people had already demonstrated a willingness to harm your summoner."
"Don't be mad at him," Cloud protested. The last thing he wanted was to become a thorn in the friendship these two obviously shared. Zack would only come to resent him that much sooner. "Sin was gone, and the fiends were dead. Rescuing people and putting out the fires was more important..."
"No, he's right, Cloud," Zack said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder and smiling apologetically. "I deserved that scolding. I won't forget again." He looked at Seph, his expression almost sad. "You're really going to do the sending?"
"Someone must." Seph shrugged and looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the subject.
"It was you who summoned the aeon out there," Cloud realized. "But... I don't understand. You said you weren't a summoner. That was Bevelle's aeon, wasn't it? You have them all already. Can't you just go straight to Zanarkand and stop Sin?"
"I am no longer willing to sacrifice myself for the good of the people of Spira," Seph said. "Frankly I don't believe they deserve it. Perhaps living with Sin's punishment for a time would teach them to value what they have more." He turned and walked away while Cloud was still trying to absorb that boggling statement.
Zack squeezed his shoulder, then released him. "C'mon. You'll want to see this. We'll have to get training for you somehow, I guess. People are going to want you to perform the sending."
Cloud followed him as they both trailed after Seph. "You knew he was a summoner," he said, still confused. "Why aren't you his guardian?"
"Well, I was sort of hoping to be," Zack admitted. "Like I told you earlier, I dragged him with me this far because I thought maybe being here would inspire him again, remind him of why he did it the first time."
"How can anyone stop being a summoner?" Cloud wanted to know.
Zack looked sombre. "Do you know what happens to a summoner who doesn't become High Summoner, when the calm comes?"
"I never really thought about it." Cloud frowned, turning it over in his mind. "I suppose people still need sendings performed and that sort of thing."
"They do, but they're not as worried about it when Sin's not around," Zack said. "Most of the dead can be trusted to make their own way to the Farplane without Sin to corrupt them. See, the thing is, people are stupid. You should know that better than anyone." He sighed. "Summoners who don't make it as far as Zanarkand are considered 'failed' summoners, by almost everyone from the lowest village idiot to the highest maester. People would much rather ridicule others for not achieving a goal they can't even aspire to, than honour someone for not quite making a sacrifice."
"Failed?" Cloud repeated, shocked. He stopped short on the path, staring at Zack in disbelief. "How can anyone think that? All summoners are willing to risk their lives to make the journey, to sacrifice themselves at the end to protect the rest of the world. Even if they never go further than Besaid, they're still heroes!"
Zack smiled at him. "I'm glad to hear you say that," he said. "Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks so. Now maybe if we can just convince Seph that the whole world isn't ranged against him, he'll lose some of that bitterness he's always carrying around."
Seph was waiting for them at the foot of the docks. "Watch, and learn what you can," he commanded Cloud softly. "Someday you may need to do this yourself. It's not difficult, and you can't 'screw it up'. It is simply a matter of willing the souls to move on to the Farplane where they belong. Every summoner has a different ritual."
"I doubt anyone will ever want me to perform a sending, any more than the villagers here did," Cloud said. He touched his still aching chest, and looked down. "Besides, I'm... not sure I actually qualify as a summoner anymore. I lost the aeon. I think... Sin..." He choked on a sob, unable to make himself finish the words.
"What?" Zack looked shocked, then dismayed. "Oh, shit. I never even thought of that. Uh, maybe you can go back and talk to the fayth again?"
The thought of going back and trying to survive that agonizing ordeal again made Cloud blanch. Bad enough that he might well have to deal with similar treatment from the rest of the fayth. He really didn't want to have to repeat the experience more often than he absolutely had to.
"There's no need to go to such an extreme," Seph assured him, much to Cloud's relief. "Aeons do occasionally fall in battle, just as people do." He gestured at a glowing blue sphere just at the head of the pass to the village. "Do you know what these are?"
Cloud shook his head. "I saw them all over the place when I was travelling. I figured they were to mark the path, like a beacon or something."
"They serve that purpose as well, but their primary function is healing." Seph smiled slightly. "Just touching one will restore your health and energy. They are ancient machina, approved by Yevon for the use of travellers. Touch it."
"They heal you?" Cloud stared at it, feeling dismayed and foolish. How often had he staggered by one of these spheres, barely able to stay on his feet after an encounter with a fiend? "But I'm not injured now."
"You are not, but your aeon is," Seph told him. "These spheres are the only practical method to heal an aeon. It is rather difficult to pour a potion down their throat."
Zack clutched his chest and staggered dramatically. "Did you just make a joke? Look out, the world's gonna end."
Ignoring him, Cloud focused on the sphere, hardly daring to allow himself to hope. When he touched it he felt the tingling sweep of energy pass over him, just like having a cure spell cast on him. It sank into the hollow inside him.
Suddenly Jymavun was there again. Cloud actually gasped with relief as he felt the strong, steady pulse of her power. Before he realized what was happening tears welled up in his eyes, all the terror and pain and grief of the day catching up to him. He fought them down, not wanting to cry like a little baby in front of his guardian and the man who had given him back his hope - twice, now. It was almost enough to make him believe in Yevon's kind guidance.
"That's better. Now, watch what I do," Seph repeated. He patted Cloud gently on the shoulder as he walked back towards the dock, and Cloud saw a look of deep sympathy and understanding in his eyes. Presumably he, too, knew the pain of losing an aeon, even if he'd known from the start that they could be healed.
Cloud and Zack trailed after him, stopping a respectful distance from the end of the pier. In the dim glow of the setting moon Cloud could just make out the blur of dark shapes lurking beneath the water. At first he thought they were fiends, but after a moment he realized they were the bodies of the dead.
"Watch," Zack said quietly. As if he'd needed to tell Cloud to do so. Cloud could hardly tear his eyes away, and he felt breathless with anticipation.
Seph waited until all the villagers, priests and Crusaders had gathered around the end of the dock near the shore. Then, to Cloud's utter astonishment, Seph stepped off the dock and onto the water, as easily as if he was walking over solid ground. He stopped when he stood directly over the bodies, and paused for a moment with his eyes closed, his long sword held before him like an offering to Yevon.
Then he began to dance.
'Dance' was the only word Cloud could find to describe it, although the motions were clearly meant to be a pattern of strike, parry and block. Seph moved with the leaping grace and beauty of a dolphin, ghosting over the surface as fluidly as if he was made of water himself. Moonlight flashed off the long arc of his blade as it whistled through the air, almost too fast for the eye to follow. His silver hair swirled around him in counterpoint harmony to the motions of the sword, and the soft splash of his feet over the water kept time.
Cloud watched in awe as pyreflies began to rise from the bodies of the dead beneath the water. First one, then three, then a dozen; until a cloud of them floated so thick over the surface it was hard to see Seph.
Finally Seph executed one last spinning jump and thrust his blade straight into the air. The pyreflies seemed caught by the momentum of the gesture, swirling up and around him until they disappeared into the night sky, blending into the shining light of the stars.
A burning sensation in his chest confused Cloud for a moment, until he realized that he'd literally forgotten to breathe. He gasped for air, trying not to be too obvious about it, but Zack gave him an amused look. "He's something else, isn't he?" the guardian said.
"Can I be him when I grow up?" Cloud asked wistfully. He was - he hoped - not done growing just yet, but he knew he would never be able to pull off the aura of controlled power and lethal grace that Seph wore like a cloak. More importantly he didn't think he would ever have the confident poise and air of command that seemed inherent in Seph and made people want to follow him.
Zack laughed. "No, 'cause you're gonna be the High Summoner, remember?"
Cloud looked down, pressing one hand over the gentle pulse of Jymavun's power in his heart. "Maybe," he allowed, smiling slightly. "If he doesn't beat me to it once we convince him to believe in people again. He's got a head start, after all."
"Ha! That's the spirit." Zack slapped his back, and then turned to face Seph. The summoner had returned to the solid wood of the pier just a few feet away from them. There were tight lines around his eyes and mouth, and his steps seemed to drag just the tiniest bit. Zack lifted his hands and bowed in the traditional greeting from one of Yevon's faithful to a summoner. For once he didn't tease; there was nothing in his voice or expression but respect. "Lord Sephiroth."
"Sephiroth?" Cloud squeaked, staring. That was a name even he knew. Sephiroth had been the general of the Crusaders, the youngest ever to be granted that rank, before he'd left them to become a summoner himself. Everyone had expected Sephiroth to be the next High Summoner. Cloud had only been six when Sin had appeared the last time, but he remembered people speaking Sephiroth's name in excited whispers. Half of Nibelheim had travelled down the mountain to the Calm Lands to see him when he'd passed there.
Cloud had disobeyed his mother's order to stay at home, sneaking out to follow the other villagers down the mountain. His memories of that day were hazy, but he remembered being awed by the sheer presence of the summoner and his two powerful guardians.
And then Sephiroth had passed on to Mt. Gagazet, and vanished. Everyone assumed that he'd either died on Gagazet or in Zanarkand itself, as so many other summoners had. Another summoner had succeeded in defeating Sin less than a month later, but people still spoke of Sephiroth's loss in tones of grief and regret. And here the man was, standing right in front of him.
Belatedly Cloud realized he was just standing there like a fool, gaping at the man who had been the closest thing to a hero Cloud had ever had. His memory of seeing Sephiroth that day, of the way people had treated the man with respect and awe, had been one of his inspirations for becoming a summoner himself. Hastily he ducked his head and brought his hands together, bowing. This once he would make the obeisance and truly mean it with all his heart.
"Stop that, both of you." Sephiroth sounded irritated and uncomfortable, almost embarrassed. Cloud didn't have the courage to lift his head to see what the man's expression was. "Zack, I told you years ago, there's no need to call me that. It is a title I no longer have any wish to possess, and you are my friend."
Cloud dared to turn his head enough to see Zack, who had straightened. His guardian's expression was oddly sympathetic. "You may not want it, but you sure earned it tonight," Zack said, his smile gentle. "C'mon, shows of genuine respect from me are few and far between. Don't check the toes of a gift chocobo."
Sephiroth ignored Zack's teasing with no more than a long-suffering sigh in response. "Cloud, please, stand up. At the very least, as one summoner to another I no more outrank you than the moon outranks the sun."
"Nice analogy, Seph," Zack commented, tugging at a lock of Cloud's blond hair and giving Sephiroth's own silver mane a pointed glance. Sephiroth chuckled softly and inclined his head in acknowledgement of the comparison.
Hesitantly Cloud lifted his head, feeling as shy as he had when he'd once tried to ask Tifa on a date. His heart was pounding just as hard as it had then, but this time it was awe that caused his nerves rather than a crush. He felt like he suddenly didn't know how to speak to the man, as if he should be apologizing for having treating him so casually before.
"Lord Sephiroth," he started awkwardly. "I... I should thank you... I don't deserve... I mean..."
"Please, I beg you. Don't call me that," Sephiroth said. "The last thing I want is for people to realize that I am still alive and among them. I... am not that person any more. I am simply Seph, a former crusader - and former summoner, when I must be."
Cloud nearly swallowed his tongue, but he couldn't disobey a direct request. "All right... Seph. Um. Wh-what will you do now?"
"Come with you as far as Luca, I suppose," Sephiroth said reluctantly. "You need training, and I doubt you will find anyone else to give it to you. I can at least teach you the basic white magic spells by then, and explain the most important things you need to know about what is expected of a summoner."
"You're coming with us?" Zack lit up like the Blitzdome at night, his eyes hopeful.
"Only as far as Luca," Sephiroth repeated sternly. "Since I must return there, anyway, I might as well go with you."
Cloud bowed again, overwhelmed. Of all the people in Spira, he would be getting private lessons in being a summoner from Lord General Sephiroth. Not in his wildest dreams of becoming a summoner had he ever imagined anything like this.
"I won't disappoint you, sir," he promised fervently. "I'll do whatever it takes, I swear it." He would live up to Sephiroth's expectations of him if it killed him. He owed the man nothing less, after what Sephiroth had done for him this day.