[Fic] A Long Road To Destiny - FFVII/FFX - Zack, Cloud & Sephiroth - 4/25?
Title: A Long Road to Destiny Series: FFVII/FFX fusion Pairing: Cloud, Zack & Sephiroth Rating: R Warnings: violence, angst, swearing, the usual Chapter length: 5632 Total length: 22,445
The summoner's journey is a long, hard path to walk. Having guardians you trust makes all the difference in the world.
Zack was hanging over the railing, standing at the prow like an odd second figurehead, the wind of their passage ruffling his spiky hair and the spray off the bow leaving glittering drops of water on his skin. If Cloud hadn't already seen repeated examples of how agile his guardian was over the past two days, he'd have been worried about how far out the man was leaning. Zack could scramble over the ropes and masts as easily as any of the sailors. He strolled across the decks as if they were solid ground, though the seas had been fairly choppy on the two day trip between Besaid and Kilika.
If Cloud hadn't been so busy being sick the whole time, he might have hated his guardian for that easy competence. Any of the stunts Zack made look so easy would have landed Cloud in the water before he could say 'let's blitz'. As it was he could only cling to the rail with a death grip every time he had to lean over to throw up.
"Please tell me we're almost there," he begged miserably.
"I can see the peak from here," Zack assured him. "In a minute or two you'll be able to see the whole island. Look."
He pointed, and Cloud glanced forward. Sure enough the familiar conical shape of a volcano rose up out of the ocean's blue waters. Seeing it made Cloud feel a little better, and a little homesick. He was used to being surrounded by shapes like that, jagged peaks and smooth cones creating a skyline that was as unique as a snowflake. The endless flatness of the ocean disturbed him.
Unfortunately moving his eyes away from the steady line of the horizon made his nausea worse again. There was nothing left to bring up, but the bile burned in his throat until tears came to his eyes.
Zack patted his back. "You really weren't kidding about the seasickness, were you? We'd better spend a few days in Kilika resting up and getting you fed, or you're gonna waste away to nothing by the time we get to Luca."
When he was able to stop gagging, Cloud looked up at Zack and shook his head. "We can't afford it," he croaked.
"I've got some gil saved up, and there're fiends in the woods outside the temple. We should be able to make some gil hunting them," Zack assured him. "But that'll be just for supplies. Kilika is my hometown, and I've still got family here. Haven't spoken to them in a while, but I'm sure my mom and dad will let us crash there."
"Why haven't you spoken to them?" Cloud asked, studying his guardian curiously.
"Ran away from home to join the Crusaders," Zack said, shrugging. "Never quite had the courage to go home again and find out if I was forgiven. Not like they abused me or anything. Just, I never did take orders well. Always had to do things my own way, if you know what I mean."
"Which is why the Crusaders politely asked you leave after you'd been with them less than a year," Sephiroth said dryly as he joined them. "It was that or put you in charge, and the mere thought of you in a command position terrifies me. If nothing else, you'll want to make your peace with your family before we leave the island. A summoner's pilgrimage is dangerous, and not just for the summoner. Many guardians do not survive."
"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm gonna do it," Zack said. "What about you, Cloud? Got any loose ends you need to tie up before you go off to Zanarkand?"
"Yeah." Cloud fixed his eyes on the rapidly approaching shore. "Nibelheim is only a day off the path near the Calm Lands. I need to say goodbye to my mother." And show everyone that he was capable of making something of himself, but that felt like too petty a reason for a summoner to admit to. Wasn't he supposed to be some kind of shining light to the rest of Spira, now? Just being near Sephiroth made him feel like he had to live up to the image a summoner was supposed to project.
"Then we should certainly do that," Sephiroth agreed. "The purpose of the pilgrimage is not only for the summoner to pray at each temple, Cloud. It is to allow the summoner to put his mind at rest, deal with any issues that might cause him to feel regret. Do not be afraid to let yourself linger over things if you need to, or be momentarily distracted by them. So long as you always continue in the end, anything is permitted."
"Sounds good to me," Zack said, nodding. "C'mon, they're just about done docking. Let's get you back on solid ground."
"Is there any solid ground in Kilika?" Cloud asked wryly. What he remembered of the town from his brief stopover on the way to Besaid seemed to indicate otherwise. From the deck of the ship all he could see was an endless series of docks and huts built right over the water. There were nearly as many people swimming from one place to another as there were walking over the docks.
"Well, relatively solid," Zack acknowledged with a grin.
"There is land beyond the village," Sephiroth said as they headed down the gangway. "The mountain itself is surrounded by lush forest and the temple is built into the side of the volcano."
"Why build over the water, then?" Cloud wanted to know. The idea of spending more time than he absolutely had to anywhere near the water, let alone over it, was horrifying to him. The docks were easier to handle than the ship's deck, but Cloud was fairly certain he could still feel them swaying slightly beneath his feet.
"Mostly because in order to build on land we'd have had to cut half the forest down," Zack told him, leading the way further into the town. "Plus this way it's easier to keep the fiends out. It makes us a little more vulnerable to Sin, but..." He shrugged. "As we saw in Besaid, being on the island proper wouldn't save us, either."
People were starting to pay more attention to them as they moved away from the area frequented by tourists and summoners. Cloud automatically ducked his head to hide his eyes, trying not to draw anyone's notice, but then he realized he wasn't the one people were staring at. It was Zack they were pointing to and whispering about.
"Do they recognize you?" Cloud asked, puzzled. Zack's sleeveless shirt showed off the shoulder and upper arm tattoos that clearly marked him as an islander, though his clothes were Lucan in style. Surely that wasn't enough of a contrast to make people stare? Not with an Al Bhed dressed like a Calm Lander walking right next to him.
"Oh, probably." Zack shrugged. For some reason that made Sephiroth sigh and roll his eyes, and Zack grinned at him. "What?"
"I'm simply marvelling at the notion of you displaying modesty," Sephiroth said dryly. "An occasion to mark on the calendar, certainly."
"Hey, there's a difference between bragging to show off, and basking in well-deserved attention," Zack protested with a laugh.
Cloud felt like he was missing an important part of the conversation. He opened his mouth to ask, but before he could get the words out Zack lit up and pointed in excitement. "Hey, there it is!"
The hut he pointed to looked much like all the others around it, made of wood and decorated with bright woven banners. A woman was tending to the flowers that grew in boxes in front of the windows. She looked up, her attention drawn by Zack's shout, and did a double-take. "Zack? Is that you?" she gasped.
Zack rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a sheepish smile, coming to a stop. "Hey, mom."
"Zack!" she cried, and threw herself at him. He caught her in a hug and spun her around. She was laughing and crying at the same time.
Cloud was a little envious. His mother had never hugged him like that. Somehow he rather doubted his own homecoming would make his mother any more likely to be affectionate. He glanced at Sephiroth, and was surprised to see a wistful expression on the summoner's face as well. He tried to remember if he'd ever heard anything about Sephiroth's family, and couldn't. All he knew was that the man had been from Bevelle, though from the sounds of it he was living in Luca, now. Cloud didn't even know if his guardians were still alive.
"Where's dad?" Zack asked when his mother had finally calmed down.
"He's up working at the docks," Zack's mother replied. "With the summoners coming through again, the town elders wanted to make sure everything was in good repair." She looked troubled. "I don't think he's forgiven you just yet, honey. When we heard you'd left the Crusaders... he didn't take it well. As long as you were training to fight Sin I suppose he could console himself by telling people you'd left for good reasons, but..."
"Well, if that's all it takes, it's no problem," Zack said, laughing. "I may not be the next commander of the Crusaders, but I think being a guardian to the next High Summoner ought to rank right up there."
"Guardian?" Zack's mother looked shocked and delighted. "Sweetheart, that's wonderful! I'm so proud of you!" Predictably she turned and bowed to Sephiroth. Cloud decided there was no point in feeling hurt about it. Sephiroth just had the air of a summoner about him. Maybe in time Cloud would have it too, but he suspected people would always look to Sephiroth first.
"Uh, wrong summoner, ma." Zack sounded amused, but he was obviously trying hard to keep a straight face. "Seph's just along for the ride, to help us out. Cloud, stop trying to hide behind him and come say hi to my mom." When Cloud reluctantly stepped forward and mumbled a greeting, Zack slung an arm around his shoulder and ruffled his hair. "Mom, meet Lord Cloud, next High Summoner."
"Zack, that's not funny," she said, frowning. "It's not funny at all."
Startled by the unexpected change in her attitude, Cloud made the mistake of looking right at her. Her lips tightened into a white line when she got a good look at his eyes. His stomach sank, and he fought down a groan. Zack was so incredibly open-minded that he'd been expecting the man's parents to be the same way, but it seemed it was a trait Zack had picked up elsewhere.
"Huh?" Zack sounded bewildered. "Of course it's not funny, it's the truth."
"Zack..." Cloud bit his lip on his next words. He wanted to beg his guardian to leave well enough alone and just get the hell out of there before they caused a scene, but this was Zack's family. Cloud had no right to ask the man to just walk away from them.
"To think that my own son would pull such a prank," Zack's mother said, shaking her head and planting her hands on her hips. "It's disgraceful. Bad enough that you're consorting with an Al Bhed at all, but to try to pass him off as a summoner! What would your father say?"
Cloud ducked his head, though the damage was already done. He tried to back away, to leave Zack to argue with his mother in relative privacy, but Zack's hand tightened on his shoulder and held him in place. When Cloud glanced at him, he saw Zack's jaw was set in a determined expression that Cloud was rapidly becoming familiar with.
"It's not a prank, and it's certainly not disgraceful," Zack said. His voice was very tight and controlled. "He's a summoner. End of story. The fayth accepted him, and that's all that matters."
"Lies!" she gasped. "Al Bhed are not permitted to even set foot in the temples, everyone knows that. They're heretics, damning us all to an endless life of Sin because of their forbidden machina."
Cloud scrunched himself down a little more with every word, trying to get out of sight despite Zack's hand holding him in place. She was actually shaking with outrage now, pointing at him as her voice rose, drawing the attention of everyone nearby. Fervently he wished that becoming invisible was one of the powers granted to a summoner.
Another hand steadied his other shoulder, bracing him. "Perhaps we should leave you to discuss this with your mother alone, Zack," Sephiroth said. His voice was so low it practically rumbled. "Family matters are best dealt with in private."
Cloud shot the man a grateful look. He wasn't sure if Sephiroth had read his desire to sink into the ground, or if the former summoner found the confrontation distasteful for personal reasons. At this point Cloud was just about willing to kiss anyone who would get him out of this mess.
Zack snorted. "Is that supposed to be some kind of test? I did learn my lesson in Besaid, thank you. You're not his guardian, I am. Cloud doesn't go anywhere without me."
Sephiroth gave him a little approving smile, but Cloud wished Zack would let it go just this once. He would rather be just about anywhere but in the middle of this.
"We raised you to be a good, Yevon-fearing boy," Zack's mother proclaimed. "You were always too strong-willed for your own good, but no son of mine will ever participate in such heresy!"
Zack smiled grimly at her. "Then I guess I'm no son of yours, am I? C'mon, Cloud, Seph. Let's go. We've still got a temple to take by storm."
With that Zack turned and marched away, leaving his mother sputtering in shocked disbelief behind him. Cloud hesitated, trying to find some way to make it better, but there was nothing he could do.
"Come," Sephiroth repeated Zack's command, and pushed at Cloud's shoulder. Cloud stumbled for the first few steps, then got his feet under him and hurried to catch up with Zack. Behind them he could already hear the neighbours closing in, surrounding Zack's mother and demanding to know what was going on.
"Zack..." Cloud trailed off, not knowing what to say. How did you apologize for being the cause of someone getting disowned?
"Don't." Zack smiled at Cloud over his shoulder. His voice was firm but his smile wasn't, wobbling just slightly at the edges. It was obvious that he was trying to hide how much he was hurt, and that just made Cloud feel even worse. "This isn't your fault. I'd forgotten how devout my parents are. Though I don't remember them being this intolerant. I ran away from home because they wanted me to be a priest, did I tell you that? I suppose that should have warned me."
"But if you weren't..." Cloud started, still trying to make amends.
Zack stopped and turned, putting his hand over Cloud's mouth. "Don't even think about suggesting I find someone else to guard. I told you: stupidly prejudiced Spirans are not going to drive me off. Not even if they're my own family." He looked at Sephiroth. "Little help here, Seph? He's in awe of you. Maybe you can get it through his head."
Cloud blushed, and Sephiroth chuckled. "Zack is correct. If you do not wish to have him as your guardian any longer, that is one thing. But in all the time I have known Zack, I have never yet seen him give up on something he was determined to do. No matter the obstacles."
"Geez, Seph. You're gonna embarrass me, here." Zack's cheeks were lightly flushed under his tan, and he scratched his head. "Aren't you the one who's always insisting I don't need anyone else swelling my ego?" He turned to Cloud, one eyebrow lifted. "You do still want me as a guardian, right? This isn't some subtle way of telling me you don't want me anymore?"
"No! Of course I still want you," Cloud exclaimed. It had never even occurred to him that Zack would think he was attempting to get rid of him.
"Then quit trying to convince me to leave," Zack said with a touch of amused exasperation. "Now c'mon, we're wasting daylight and there're a lot of fiends between here and the temple."
Zack hadn't been kidding about the fiends. Cloud was out of breath and shaking with weariness by the time they reached the base of the stairs leading to the temple. If not for Sephiroth's white magic he'd never have made it that far.
"How do the villagers get back and forth?" he demanded, collapsing down to sit on a stone bench obviously placed there for that purpose.
"Generally they go in large groups, escorted by a squad of Crusaders," Sephiroth said. He went up the first set of steps in order to touch the blue sphere there to restore his magic, then returned to join them at the bottom.
Zack, the bastard, didn't even look winded. "This isn't so bad," he insisted. "How did you make it all the way from the Calm Lands?" He seemed to have mostly recovered from the argument with his mother, though there was regret and hurt lingering in the back of his eyes.
"Luck," Cloud replied, finally catching his breath. "And it wasn't so bloody hot out until I got as far as Luca. How can you live like this?" His clothes were soaked through with sweat, and he was willing to bet his face was the colour of a ripe tomato.
"Hot?" Zack looked astonished. "Are you kidding me? We're barely into spring! Half the islanders are still wearing winter clothes."
"Winter clothes?" Cloud repeated, staring right back at him. Zack was in a sleeveless shirt and pants, but almost everyone else Cloud had seen in Kilika and Besaid had been half dressed at best. "Zack, if they were wearing any less, most of them would be naked!"
"If a guy is wearing a shirt, that's winter clothing," Zack told him, laughing. "If anyone is wearing sleeves, it's gotta be freezing out."
"There is often snow on the ground all year round in the mountains around Gagazet, Zack," Sephiroth said. "To someone from that region your 'winters' are warmer than their summers. It took me years to become accustomed to Luca's heat, and Bevelle is far more temperate than the upper reaches of the Calm Lands."
"All year round?" Zack's eyes went impossibly wide. He looked at Cloud, disbelief written large on his face. "He's pulling my leg, isn't he?"
Cloud shrugged. "Nibelheim is below the snow line for at least a couple of months every year, but you don't have to go very far to find it again."
"Ugh." Zack shuddered. "Okay, now I'm reconsidering this guardian thing. I'm curious to see snow, but I don't want to have to deal with that much of it!"
"The pass over Gagazet is always covered in snow," Cloud informed him, daring to tease back. At least, he hoped Zack was only teasing. "And Lake Macalania is frozen solid year round, despite being in the lowlands."
"The fayth in Macalania is rather fond of ice," Sephiroth said, looking amused and almost fond. "I must say it was my favourite temple, despite the cold. It and its fayth are arguably the most beautiful."
"Great, I'm looking forward to it." Zack's tone said exactly the opposite of his words, and Cloud chuckled.
"Well, we won't get there any faster by sitting around here," Cloud said. He hauled himself to his feet with a groan, eyeing the seemingly endless stairs. "Let's go."
By the second landing he was out of breath. By the fourth he was sweating hard again, and wishing he was dressed like Zack even if it would make him feel naked. By the fifth he was more than ready to sit down again, and there was still no end in sight.
"Is this supposed to be some kind of punishment?" Cloud gasped, pausing briefly to pant for air. "Or is this just a practical joke you play on the summoners, and the real entrance is somewhere else?"
"Wimp," Zack teased him. "High Summoner Ohalland used to run up and down these stairs every day when he was training for blitzball. It's still one of the traditional drills the Beasts use."
"Fine. You run," Cloud said, bracing his hands against his knees and trying to get his wind back. "Eventually we'll catch up to wherever you've collapsed, and I'm sure Lord Sephiroth will be kind enough to heal you."
"You think I haven't done it before?" Zack asked him, grinning. "Running the stairs, I mean, not passing out from it."
"You know, if I weren't so grateful for you, I might hate you," Cloud said, sighing. "You're too perfect. And smug about it."
"Wait until we get to Luca," Sephiroth said as Zack laughed. "He's actually been quite pleasant to deal with on this trip."
By the time they neared the top Cloud was seriously starting to wonder if the whole thing was worth it. Between the climb and the steadily rising heat he was about ready to just keel over.
"Almost there," Zack coaxed him from the top. "Just one more flight, you can do it."
"At least I only have to go down the stairs when I'm exhausted from dealing with the fayth," Cloud muttered, forcing himself to take just a few more steps. Beside him Sephiroth chuckled.
They finally reached the top, and Cloud was able to look down at the temple itself. It lay at the far end of a natural depression, surrounded by columns topped by burning flames somehow trapped in crystals.
Cloud stared at the centre of the depression in disbelief. Almost the entire area was covered in more of the clear crystal, and it did nothing to obscure the massive fire burning just beneath the surface. The tongues of flame licked greedily at the crystal, as if they were searching for a weakness, hungry for the people strolling casually back and forth above.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Zack said, standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the area. "The flames appeared when Lord Ohalland brought the calm, and they've been burning ever since. Man, I've missed this place. Feels like coming home." He threw out his arms like he was trying to embrace the whole mountain, head tilted back to bask in the light and heat from the flames.
"Much as I would like to allow you to enjoy your homecoming, it would probably be best to move quickly," Sephiroth murmured regretfully. "The faster we proceed, the less likely we are to run into a confrontation. There are a great many people here."
"Yeah." Zack sighed and dropped his hands. "That is, assuming the priests don't decide to make a scene anyway. I'd like to think the Kilika Temple is more reasonable, but then I didn't expect my own mother to turn against me, either."
They moved forward, debating methods of convincing the priests to cooperate, should they prove reluctant. Cloud remained where he was, rooted to the stone, staring at the giant fire beneath the ground with a rising sense of panic and horror. They wanted him to walk over that? What if the fire found a way through to devour him? What if the crystal broke, and dropped him right into the heart of the flames?
He wasn't sure how long it took the others to notice that he hadn't followed them, because his sense of time was distorted by his strangling fear and it was hard to look at anything but the fire. One moment they weren't with him, and then suddenly they were, concerned voices and supporting hands only vaguely registering through his all-consuming horror.
Finally Sephiroth moved to stand between Cloud and the fire, breaking his line of sight. Cloud gasped and nearly collapsed, his shaking legs giving out on him. Only a quick grab by Zack kept him on his feet, and even then his guardian was the one supporting his weight.
"I can't," Cloud said, his throat so dry his voice emerged as a squeak. He tried to swallow, but there was no moisture in his mouth, either. The flames had sucked it away, eaten it up like they wanted to eat him up. "I can't, the... the f-f... I just can't."
"You're afraid of the fire." Sephiroth's deep voice was soft, and he made it a statement rather than a question. Cloud nodded anyway, burning with shame and embarrassment. He felt like a craven coward, like the useless trash the Spirans had always called him.
"Oh, boy. This could be an interesting Trial," he heard Zack say from behind him. "Look, Cloud, we don't have to walk over the flame to get in. We can just go around the edge, see? No problem."
Warily Cloud turned his head enough to see where Zack was pointing. Sure enough there was a stone ring around the crystal, wide enough for two to walk abreast. It passed under some of the smaller flame crystals, but compared to the main fire they were hardly even worth noticing. Cloud was fairly certain he could handle them.
Even so he fixed his eyes firmly on the back of Zack's belt as his guardian led the way. The brown leather was safe, even comforting. As long as he was watching it, he didn't have to see the hungry fires all around him.
"Steady," Sephiroth murmured. "There are more fires inside, but none of them will harm you. My word on it. This is the home of the aeon of fire, and the fayth likes to surround himself with them, that is all."
"I'm g-glad this wasn't the first temple," Cloud managed to say, trembling. "I might have changed my m-mind."
They made it into the cool, dim interior of the temple without any further problems, which Cloud counted as a success. The inside was indeed lit by more of the crystal fires, but they were scattered widely enough that Cloud could pass through them without feeling like one was surely about to drop on his head. There were people here and there, civilians as well as priests. Some were praying, but most were hard at work on the stone walls and floors, repairing and restoring them.
"Up there, same as Besaid," Zack said, pointing at the stairway to the Trial. Oddly, there was no priest waiting at the top to greet summoners and turn away the curious.
Taking a deep breath, Cloud nodded and began to climb. His legs protested being asked to go up yet more stairs, but he ignored them, focused on the ordeal to come. Another Trial, another fayth, another aeon; one step closer to Zanarkand.
A flustered-looking priest emerged from behind the door just as Cloud reached the top. The priest paused at the sight of him, seemed ready to say something unpleasant, and then appeared to change his mind. He bowed, his movements stiff. "Lord Cloud," he said, sounding like he had to force the words out. "Kilika Temple is honoured to receive a summoner, as always. The fayth is beyond. Yevon be with you."
Cloud eyed him nervously, waiting for the catch. The man said nothing further, still bowing to him, and finally Cloud returned the gesture.
He entered the antechamber of the Trial, feeling a little more optimistic. "Well, they let me in without a fight this time," he said as the door closed behind Zack and Sephiroth. Maybe now that he actually was a summoner, they wouldn't be as reluctant to allow him inside the temples.
"I don't like it," Zack said slowly, surprising Cloud. His brow was knitted, and he was frowning. "How did he know your name?"
Cloud blinked, startled. That hadn't even occurred to him.
"News of this nature travels quickly," Sephiroth pointed out, but he looked troubled as well.
"Going to my family first was a mistake." Zack shook his head. "We should have come straight here. Someone from the ship got here before we did, and warned them. Something smells as rotten as an ochu." He looked grimly at Sephiroth. "Is it possible they could have done something to sabotage the Trial?"
Cloud's eyes went wide, and Sephiroth's frown deepened. "If you're asking is it physically possible, the answer is yes," the tall summoner said. "If you're asking my opinion of whether they would stoop to such a level... well, my belief in the moral integrity of Yevon's faithful dropped sharply ten years ago, and has fallen even further in the last few days."
Cloud was floored. He wouldn't have been surprised if the priests had denied him entrance or even physically thrown him out again. But to let him in with a false smile on their faces, while having pulled something so underhanded, was beyond him. "How could they sabotage their own Trial? Doesn't that go against their precious teachings as well?"
"It never fails to amaze me what depths people will sink to when they believe they are the righteous ones," Sephiroth said.
"Great." Zack raked a hand through his hair, eyeing the entrance to the Trial warily. "If they'd stoop to messing with the Trial, I don't trust them not to have made it potentially fatal as well. It's supposed to be difficult. How are we going to know what belongs, and what's a trap?" He blinked, and looked at Sephiroth. "You've been through here before, right? Would you remember it well enough to be able to spot something out of place?"
"Only summoners and their guardians are permitted beyond this point, Zack," Sephiroth reminded him sternly.
Zack's jaw was set, and the look in his eyes was defiant. "Yeah, so? They cheated first. The game is rigged and the refs have all been bought, and I'm calling them on it. Besides, you are a summoner."
"I have no intention of addressing the fayth, so it would still be cheating," Seph said, but he looked like he was contemplating the idea.
"No." Cloud made his voice as firm as he could, considering it wanted to tremble with fury at what the priests had pulled. They both looked at him in surprise. "We'll do it the right way, or not at all," Cloud insisted. "We already have enough problems with people claiming that I'm cheating or forcing the fayth somehow. We'll manage."
Zack clapped him on the shoulder, and grinned. "That's the spirit. You're right; we shouldn't sink to their level."
Sephiroth was giving him the oddest look. If Cloud hadn't known better, he'd have thought it was pride and satisfaction. "There is one way I could accompany you without breaking any rules," Sephiroth said. "As your guardian. That is, if you would have me?" He raised an eyebrow at Cloud.
Zack's jaw dropped, and he stared at Sephiroth. Cloud would have done the same, except he was literally frozen in shock. Him? Lord General Sephiroth wanted to be his guardian?
"You... but... you're a summoner," Cloud sputtered, struggling to gather his scattered thoughts. "You should have a guardian, not be one!"
"You refuse, then?" Sephiroth said it as if it didn't matter one way or another to him, but there was an amused glint in his eyes as he watched Cloud.
"Wha... no, no! Of course I would have you," Cloud rushed to say. "But I don't... you shouldn't... Zack?" He looked pleadingly at his guardian.
"He's got a point, Seph," Zack said, sounding a little stunned. "Can you be both a summoner and a guardian?"
"There is nothing in the teachings of Yevon against it," Sephiroth said. He shrugged. "Truly, who better? This is not my pilgrimage, so the fact that I am a summoner is simply an indication of my power, not my purpose."
"Then yes," Cloud said, still not quite certain that this was actually happening. Had he passed out from the heat and exertion somewhere along the way, and this was all just a dream? "If you're sure. I would be honoured."
Zack pumped his fist in the blitzball sign of victory. "Yes! Not quite what I'd planned when I dragged you out of Luca, but I think this may be even better." This time Sephiroth's raised eyebrow was directed at Zack, who grinned in response, unrepentant.
"Then, let us proceed," Sephiroth said, gesturing at the entrance to the Trial. "Don't expect any hints, however."
"I wouldn't want them," Cloud said firmly. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, more determined than ever to live up to the honour Sephiroth was showing him.
The first puzzle seemed simple enough; there was a door with an empty sphere recess, and a glowing sphere in another recess in the wall. Confidently Cloud grabbed the Kilika sphere from the wall and inserted it into the door.
The solid door vanished, replaced by a net of fire. Cloud froze as the heat and light washed over him, the crackling echoing in his ears. He could smell the smoke and the fire itself, feel it biting into his flesh like a starving Nibelwolf. Above him he could hear his mother shrieking in agony, her voice nearly swallowed by the roar of the firestorm, his own screams of terror and pain blending with hers in terrible harmony. He couldn't breathe, the heat smothering and the smoke choking him, the fire consuming all the air. He welcomed the darkness that rose to consume him, preferring it to the hunger of the flames.