"Hey kiddo. Why the long face?"
The pilgrimages had died down in the last year; Denzel hadn't expected the old church to have visitors at this late hour. He jumped; he didn't yell, though. He was too proud for it.
There was a man sitting in one of the pews, half-hidden behind a column and the wooden partitions that separated the rows of benches. He was shirtless, fit, and -- from what Denzel could see in the dusky, muted light -- could have been anywhere between twenty and thirty-five year old. His dark hair was plastered to his neck, dripping wet, as if he'd just dunked his head in the pool. Perhaps he was a pilgrim, then, even though anyone who'd caught Geostigma in the epidemic four years ago should have been dead or cured by now.
Denzel frowned in confusion. "What for?"
"Eh. You just look like you wanted to be alone."
The man didn't sound like he was about to go into a fake, cloying 'poor little sad boy, don't worry, you'll see that's not so bad later when you're old and wise like me' tirade, but neither did he look like he found Denzel's obvious depression mock-worthy. "It's nothing. A girl ditched me, 's all. I'll survive," the young teenager replied, feeling at once very mature and very miserable.
"Ouch," the man commiserated.
"Yeah, well. Whatever. You come here to pray?" As changes of subject went, this wasn't the smoothest Denzel had ever thought up, but he wasn't about to pour out his heart to a stranger.
The man chuckled again, rueful, and ran a hand through his wet hair. "Ah, no, not really. I'd offer to let you have the place, but... Listen, er, can you give me a hand?"
Denzel took three hurried steps back. "If you're thinking up pedo shit, I've got a switchblade and I know how to use it."
The guy blinked, and then burst out laughing, which reassured Denzel about as much as it irked him.
"It's not funny! Far as I know you're naked behind that bench."
The man's laughter, which had started to die down, redoubled and then some, with a note of self-mocking sheepishness that hadn't been there before. "Actually...!"
"Oh, urgh!" Denzel took another step back. "Why the hell do you want to be sitting naked in this place?! It's all full of dirt and dust and rubble!"
"Thank you, Captain Obvious. Somehow I'd failed to notice the pebbles in my ass."
"Did someone steal your clothes or something?" Denzel asked warily.
The question seemed to amuse the guy even more. "Well, they sure aren't where I left them."
Denzel huffed. What kind of idiot found being abandoned in a remote area while someone made off with his stuff funny?
"So... Here I am, naked as the day I was born," the man commented breezily as he propped his elbow on the wooden partition and waved his hand for emphasis. "And I wouldn't care about streaking too much, but I'm afraid I'd be beaten to death by little old ladies with huge handbags for being an indecent pervert."
There weren't many of those around nowadays. Denzel vaguely remembered old ladies like that before the plate fell on the Slums and then Meteor fell on Midgar and everything turned into chaos, but the old ladies of today were more likely to pull out a sawed-off shotgun and kneecap you. "I were you, I'd worry more about trying to cross the area outside without shoes. It's all full of glass and rusted stuff."
The man made a face. "Yeowch. Feet injuries suck, and I'm not too fond of tetanus either. So... Will you help me?"
Denzel gave an unconvinced moue. "Depends."
"Depends on what?" the man dutifully prompted him. He failed to look as curious or worried as intended; if any, his smile widened even more. Annoying!
"What I get out of it," Denzel bit out, crossing his arms stubbornly. "It's late, and it's gonna be later when I come home. If I'm gonna get killed by my guardian, I want it to be worth my time."
"Wh -- you little brat."
Denzel straightened up, and gave the spluttering man a look that meant 'try me'.
The man tried him. "Do you want me to prove you I'm not hiding a roll of gil in my butt crack?"
"It's just a matter of bending over, after all..."
"Stay down, stay down!" Denzel protested, and covered his eyes hurriedly when the man grabbed the wooden partition and started to heft himself up on his feet. "Crap, man, that's -- ew!"
There was a giggle overhead, light and girly and wholly unexpected. Denzel jumped and backed against the wall, a hand slipping in his pocket and curling around his knife. He looked up at the half of a ceiling and broken beams, but he couldn't see anyone through the gap.
"--Oh yeah, and my girlfriend's around too."
Denzel swallowed. "She. Uh. Is she..."
"Yup. Naked as a jaybird."
"And a little cold, too!" she sang back from somewhere upstairs.
The teenager desperately tried not to think about it. From the heat rising to his cheeks, he wasn't succeeding. He'd never been so thankful for the darkness inside the church.
"We didn't want her to be seen, you know, in case the next visitors were a gang of street toughs or something like that. And that's exactly why you were supposed to stay quiet and pretend you weren't there, honey!" the guy drawled at the ceiling. "Maybe I'm going senile in my old age, but I seem to remember a discussion about that!"
"Sorry!" she called back, not sounding sorry at all. In fact she sounded even more entertained than the guy, and Denzel thought that they deserved each other. Annoying!
"One of your friends play a prank on you? You don't look stressed enough for a mugging."
"Hm? Ah -- it's complicated." The man ran a hand through his hair again and grinned sheepishly. "Listen, I'll find clothes for her if it really bugs you, but would you mind getting me -- I don't know, even just flip-flops and shorts? It's not the season, but they'll do in a pinch."
Denzel sighed heavily. "I guess I can do that much. But then you get to talk my guardian out of grounding me." Not that he really thought Tifa would ground him, especially not when she learned he had met people in need of help, but he'd never liked worrying her very much.
Oh well, in the end they were just a couple of random inoffensive loons. Denzel had met crazier.
"Sure, no problem, thank you. You're a lifesaver." The man's smile turned more sincere, relieved... And then went somewhat -- cautious. Subdued. "Anything of Cloud's would do. We're about the same size. Unless he's had another growth spurt."
The call cut across the almost-empty bar, prompting the couple of patrons in the far corner to look up from their card game. The barmaid put a glass to dry on the rack and turned to face the door, smiling. "Denzel, hey. I was getting a little worried..."
The expression on Denzel's face brought Tifa short. Earlier in the day, Marlene had used her patented 'I know a secret and it's making me depressed' sigh-slump until Tifa felt duty-bound to grill her. After hearing the girl's story, Tifa had assumed she knew what she would be dealing with... But there was no trace of the sullen misery Tifa would have expected Denzel to show after getting dumped. The teenager was tense, alert -- worried, even.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, voice dropping, as she quickly moved to the end of the bar to meet him. Denzel's expression didn't lighten up any, and her fingers clenched on the counter.
He checked that the few regulars were out of earshot before he answered. "Maybe."
"I met this guy by accident, and we chatted a bit, and he was alright, you know? Kinda annoying but -- well, not violent or anything." Denzel's low voice dropped to a whisper. "And then he goes and drops Cloud's name out of the blue, like he knew I knew Cloud from the moment I stepped in. And I've never seen him in my life. And if you tell me Cloud shows off pictures of me and Marlene at rest stops--"
Tifa frowned. At first glance, that didn't sound like anything to fret over, but Denzel looked wigged enough, and being careful didn't cost much. "So -- he knew that you knew Cloud? Maybe there's an innocent explanation... But you're right, that sounds a little suspicious," she added as Denzel made an offended noise. She picked up the phone and dialed the garage extension.
"A little! Did I mention he was buck naked?"
Tifa stopped in her tracks, eyes widening. "--He was what?"
"... Tifa, mind explaining why you're calling me in the middle of a conversation about naked men?"
She groaned and closed her eyes. "Sorry, Cloud. It's just, Denzel met someone and he might be ... suspicious."
"The naked kind of suspicious?"
Tifa's cheeks reddened at his dry comment. She could imagine the raised eyebrow accompanying it. "Cloud! Just -- come to the bar, please. I don't know if it's anything urgent, but Denzel thinks it's weird and he usually has good instincts."
The boy puffed up with pride, and then, as he noticed his lapse, went on to gaze at the rest of the bar with haughty indifference. Ahh, teenagers. The dial tone prompted Tifa to put down the phone, and she picked up another just-washed glass to dry, to give her hands something to do. So far the couple of regulars in the far corner hadn't really paid any attention, beyond a few casual glances; she didn't want them to start now.
Cloud was there a minute later, solid and calm. He had grease smudged on his hands and cheek, and his grey t-shirt wasn't much cleaner.
"What is this about?" he asked, looking first at her, and then at Denzel.
Denzel's expression immediately went back to its serious, concerned look. "I was at the old church, you know..."
Cloud's expression tightened a little, bracing for impact.
"There was a guy there and his clothes and his girlfriend's clothes had disappeared, I'm not too sure how, and he asked if I could find him stuff to wear, and -- well sure it's already weird and all, but..."
Denzel licked his lips nervously. Cloud watched him steadily, waiting, even though his shoulders were tensing up. Tifa put aside the towel to free her hands, seized by a prickle of foreboding.
"Could have been a joke, you know, hazing maybe, but then he said like 'Cloud's stuff would do, we're the same size', and the funny thing is, I never said anything about you."
Tifa and Denzel stared at the blond man together, waiting for a reaction. Even accounting for Cloud's usual faint reluctance to speak, it came a little too late to be casual.
"What did he look like?"
"Dunno, it was dark." Denzel frowned and stared at the floor, eyes unfocused. "Under forty for sure, probably less, not a fat guy at all. White or Wutainese -- prolly white. Brown or black hair, I think, and kinda longish, but it was all wet and plastered to his neck so I can't really tell. Not a crew cut though. And I didn't see the girlfriend at all, but she didn't sound like she's a chain-smoking old hag."
Tifa tried to recall anyone she knew who was roughly Cloud's size and fit the description. There were Vincent, Reeve, Tseng, and Ferguson from the used parts shop, but Denzel knew them. There were a couple of Cloud's employers and her own suppliers, but they didn't know Denzel -- Cloud always went to meet his employers instead of asking them to come, and the bar's suppliers usually dropped by when Denzel was either still in bed or already at school. No one amongst Cloud's acquaintances should have recognized her adopted son on sight. As for the bar regulars, if they hung around often enough to learn Cloud's name, then they hung around enough for Denzel to learn theirs.
Cloud's eyes dropped to the floor, pensive. "You're right. That's suspicious."
Denzel straightened up proudly at the acknowledgement.
"They're still waiting at the church?"
"Yeah. Unless they learn to fly, I don't see them crossing the old Sector Five anytime soon. Got no shoes."
Cloud nodded thoughtfully and turned away. "Tifa, can you get some clothes and shoes for the woman?"
She nodded quickly and stepped toward the door to follow Cloud. "Denzel, please mind the bar, I'll be right back."
Upstairs, Tifa quickly found clean sweatpants with a drawstring waistband and sandals. She hoped she'd get them back; out of the five pairs of footwear she owned, they were the only one that didn't qualify as being sensible -- or in other words, ugly. She chose a large t-shirt at random, and added a shawl, just in case, and then went to find Cloud in his room. He was strapping a sword harness on his back, and her heart clenched.
"Do you need help?"
He shook his head without looking at her. "Can you pack the clothes on my bed with yours?"
She wrapped everything in the shawl without looking at her hands, watching him as he selected a sword from the rack on the wall and sheathed it. She took some comfort from the fact that it wasn't one of the Materia-covered ones. Every single one of Cloud's swords was razor-edged and battle-ready, though, so the comfort was minimal. "Do you really think this is another enemy?"
Cloud didn't answer for a few seconds, but eventually he turned to face her, eyes soft. "If it is, it can't be too bad of one. He let Denzel go."
"... Right. You're right," she replied, and tried to pretend that she was convinced. They'd had a few people coming after Cloud in the last three years -- oh, none quite as powerful and scary as the trio of clones, but a couple had been bad enough.
"Mmh. As introductions go, it's awkward, but not all that threatening."
Tifa didn't say anything. Cloud sounded about as convinced as she did.
"At least Marlene is with Barret..." He paused, then looked up suddenly, jaw tightening.
Tifa shuddered. Barret had left with Marlene in the afternoon; he hadn't called in yet. Depending on how fast Barret drove, they might not be in Kalm yet, and they didn't touch base for every single trip anyway... "I'll call them."
Cloud stepped closer to pick up the clothes; Tifa reached for his sleeve and tugged gently, unable to look up.
"You... Be safe, okay?" she whispered.
Cloud inclined his head toward her, and rested a hand over hers briefly. "I'll be careful," he promised gravely.
And then he was leaving, with a sword across his back and a bundle of clothes under his arm, and she was alone in his bedroom with a hundred worries.
Paranoid. He really was paranoid. Getting ready for war just because one strange but apparently harmless man had mentioned that he knew Cloud...
(They were at the church.)
... True, he didn't have a great track record with strange people he had mysterious past connections with.
(Why were they at the church?)
Enemies didn't need to match his SOLDIER-level strength to be dangerous -- Cloud wasn't stupid and he knew to watch his back, but he would need to be psychic to make sure he would never walk blindly into an ambush. No one could be on their guard every second of the day, not without going insane. Beside, as the latest assailant to date had proved, SOLDIER vulnerabilities weren't secret enough that no one could find out, with enough digging around. The possibilities were endless. There were disgruntled ex-Shinra troopers. Unemployed scientists. Fanatical Sephiroth-worshippers.
(Black-haired guy. Same size.)
...Gangs with designs on Edge, even -- he'd humiliated quite a few, and they tended to have more pride and vindictiveness than common sense.
(But they wouldn't bring their naked girlfriend.)
(He'd jumped to stupid conclusions before, but this was a jump that could have cleared Bahamut.)
He stared up at the church's huge wooden doors, gave a cursory look at the rubble all around. His spine prickled, as if someone were watching him back. If there was, even his mako-enhanced eyesight couldn't pick them up.
The inside of the church was even darker, though the missing portion of the roof let in the faint glow of Edge's streetlamps, a dozen blocks away. Enough for him to know that there wasn't anyone sitting in the broken pews, or by the pool where the flowers had been, or anywhere on the ground floor.
He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, slid a few inches of steel out of the scabbard. Planks creaked overhead, and Cloud moved lightly along the wall, avoiding the holes in the roof. He could hear someone moving along with him -- the steps were light, controlled, even though no real effort was made to hide them. They would be arriving to the staircase at the same time he would, five steps, four, three...
And then there was a loud crack of breaking wood. A body jumped at him feet first, and he didn't stop to think; he just reacted. The sword was in his hand before he could reconsider, and swinging just as he realized, from the lack of follow-up, that this might not have been an attack after all.
Even sprawled awkwardly on the steps, the man managed to kick up into the flat of Cloud's blade, deviating its course. Cloud had been ready to still it at the man's throat, but the counterattack startled him. A gust of cold air blasted the staircase as the Materia on his armband flashed green.
The ice never materialized.
The green light gave Zack's skin a sickly tint, and carved strange shadows on his face, but the wild black spikes and the glowing purple-gray eyes were unmistakable. And the line of the jaw, and the high cheekbones, and the quirk of his eyebrows.
Cloud stared down at his dead best friend, and cursed himself for being unable to take the safest course of action -- bring down the sword and end it before his memories were raped once again.
There was a chance, Cloud wanted to think. There was a chance. But he'd barely survived through enough precedents to know that there really wasn't.
"Mind not freezing my balls off? I'm kinda attached..."
He'd been expecting casual friendliness -- that was Zack's default mode. He'd been expecting teasing. He'd been expecting smugness. They would have sounded true enough.
That quiet, almost gentle awkwardness felt truer.
Slowly, Cloud lifted his sword, took a step back, then another. The man-who-might-be-Zack waited, wincing, and only sat up gingerly when Cloud had taken himself out of reach of a surprise kick.
Cloud waited, the tip of his sword brushing the floor as he held the hilt in a firm two-handed grip.
Zack -- the creature that looked like Zack -- laughed dryly. "I must say, it went better than I feared."
"You assumed it would go worse?" Cloud asked, his voice wiped clean of all emotion. It was easier than dealing with the myriads of them trying to get through together.
"Eh, I had a couple scenarios. One of them had a dozen summons flattening the church from afar and Shinra ready to move in and pick up the pieces... It would have kind of sucked. I knew not to count too much on the tearful flying-tackle of love." Zack grinned. "You're a bit paranoid, you know."
Cloud stood still, watching the man who sat there on the old wooden steps, with his ankles crossed casually and his arms loosely draped on his lap, and the pained, rueful hints that colored the easy smile.
"... So, that spell..."
The Materia light winked off. The dark blinded Cloud; he closed his eyes, since he wouldn't be seeing anything anyway. He closed his eyes and told himself he was getting played. Zack was dead, dead and gone and that was it.
"You know," he commented quietly, eyes slitting open, "I could expect Sephiroth. I could expect more of his clones. I could even expect Aeris. Even discounting Jenova's help, their bodies at least went in the Lifestream. Yours went to feed the worms."
Zack's voice tightened briefly. "Yeah. It did."
Cloud had to pause at that. "...That's it? No convenient 'Hojo did it'?"
He might even have believed that, however suspiciously coincidental it sounded. It would have been likely enough, anyway -- the creep always turned up in strange places, and he liked to recycle his playthings.
There was a short, frustrated sigh. "No. No convenient 'Hojo did it'. Went through the whole cycle of vultures, rats, worms, and assorted putrefaction and decay."
Cloud gritted his teeth. He didn't want to think about Zack's remains rotting on the ground because Cloud had left him behind and forgotten him there. And the flippant reluctance to answer was getting annoying. "So explain how you can come back from that," he said tightly.
"Did you ever meet Aron Bergsten?"
That hadn't come from Zack. The new voice from the top of the staircase was light, musical, undeniably feminine. Cloud's body went utterly rigid once again.
"He was in SOLDIER," the light voice continued. "First Class Captain, I think he was. He was one of the clones who reached the Northern Crater before you did."
Small, white feet first, and then frail ankles, and long white legs, pale skin glowing ghostlike in the dark -- except that the planks creaked under her weight.
His Materia lit up again. And there she was, standing a few steps over Zack with her summer-green eyes and her warm smile, and her long unbound hair twisting into unruly coils, the ends tickling her thighs.
Another tidal wave of feelings rose in his throat, choked him -- longing and loss and mourning and betrayal ... and hope. Surely Jenova could not touch her. Not her. She had never been infected with Jenova cells.
Had she? If he remembered right, she'd been in Hojo's lab as a toddler before her birth mother broke them both out -- but that was too far back to count, surely it would have manifested long before, surely she would have flushed it all out. No, Sephiroth wouldn't have killed her if she had been under their control.
"This was Aron Bergsten's body," she continued softly, waving at Zack, who grimaced an unconvincing smile in answer. "His soul joined with the Lifestream, some time ago. And I didn't want to leave Zack behind. So... there you have it."
Cloud shook his head, more in bewilderment than denial. The body looked like Zack's, exactly like Zack's.
But Kadaj's body had looked like Sephiroth's, when Sephiroth possessed him, down to the width of his shoulders and the shape of his hands, and that was precedent enough.
... Surely, if you could make a body look like the spirit inhabiting it, there was a way to make it look like anyone -- even look like Zack when it wasn't him at all possessing that corpse. But Aeris... He couldn't accept that someone had stolen her likeness. She was above that. Surely she would have known, she would have warned him. She would have done something... Right?
Even then he couldn't make himself believe it. He just couldn't. They hadn't given him any proof, and he was tired of the knife being twisted in the wound every time he thought he was finally healed.
She smiled, fingers of both hands laced over her stomach, just the barest hint of impishness behind the warm compassion. "I'm naked, yes."
"--That wasn't what I meant."
Zack chortled; Cloud glared briefly at him, disguising his relief at having a good reason to stop staring at her. Because of course, now that Aeris had pointed out how nude she was, he could see nothing else.
She wasn't making any effort to cover herself, her interlaced fingers highlighting the soft curve of her belly more than they masked any of it. He could see goosebumps in an interesting variety of places, a small patch of brown hair... If it was intended as a distraction, it was ridiculous. He wasn't that prudish, or that hormonal.
His gut was still twisting and twisting around with 'they're real' and 'they can't be' and all assorted feelings -- loss and grief, astonishment and desperate denial. Because if he accepted it, and then it turned out to be a trap...
... If it was a trap...
He didn't know.
"You... Wouldn't go? I thought." Cloud frowned, steeled himself. Emotions could wait. She'd been gone a while. He'd mourned and -- moved on. "I assumed you were dead."
"You could have come back from that anytime," he continued softly. The bile rising in his throat tasted like betrayal.
"Oh, Cloud --"
He took a step back when she stepped forward, and she halted. The light from his Materia wavered. Maintaining it at the very edge of a spell was getting difficult.
"... You could have come back any time. You didn't."
Zack growled, tensing as if he wanted to get up and get in his face. "Do you think she liked being there?"
"Why not? It's her Promised Land."
He'd gone too far, he realized that a fraction of second before hurt flashed in Aeris's eyes.
"It was nice, being with my mother and all the other Cetras," she acknowledged quietly. "But it's nothing like this world. And actually, no, I couldn't have come back any time. When I died, I thought that was it, too."
She hadn't sacrificed herself thinking it meant nothing much. Cloud flinched, feeling bad for even contemplating it.
"There was no safe and easy way out of the Lifestream. There wasn't even any way deeper in; I couldn't even rest. I stayed awake because Jenova wasn't entirely gone, and then I stayed because someone had to guide the Planet when it healed itself. The other Cetras wouldn't, and they were the only other one who would have known how to."
"Why wouldn't they?" he asked when she fell silent. He tried not to sound apologetic; he failed, and then she smiled at him and he failed to regret his lapse.
And it was stupid of him to believe that she was real, that Zack was real. It was extremely stupid. But he couldn't keep lying to himself; he believed anyway.
"They're one with the Planet now. It's hard to still care about the details when you're part of an all-encompassing whole," she added with a smile and a little shrug.
Zack mock-shuddered. "Yeah, it was like 'What's the problem with killing a few hundred people ahead of their time? What's a few years anyway? They would die eventually. Sooner is better. Why wouldn't you want to come back to the Planet? And blahblahblah eternity of peace and unity' ... Urgh. It was creepy."
Cloud stared at Zack, and then back up at Aeris. "Killing?"
She moved down a few steps, arms wrapped around her middle, pensive and a little sad. "The Planet has different views on those things. It had to redistribute the Lifestream -- sometimes that meant it had to take away the life force in some other places, causing droughts, or the crops to die, or even people wasting away for no reason... And is that a shirt I see?"
He leaned down and picked up the bundle of clothes he'd dropped when Zack fell, offered them without a word. The teasing lilt in her voice, the crooked, rueful smirk on Zack's face -- they rang too true. If it was a lie, if it was a trap, it was too late; he'd swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
And then Aeris bypassed the clothes entirely and moved into his arms. He stood there like a statue as she hugged him, her arms around his neck, her chin tilted up to rest on his shoulder. From the staircase, Zack watched, serious and soft, tender.
Cloud did something stupid, once again. He closed his eyes, let his sword rest against the wall, and hugged her back.
He might have held on a little too tight; she didn't say anything.
The staircase creaked a bit, and then Zack's bare feet brushed against the floor. Cloud wasn't surprised to feel a hand on his shoulder. If they wanted to kill him, it would be now or never. He shuddered, once, when instead Zack flung his arms around them both and ruffled Cloud's hair teasingly.
"Mm, toasty warm."
"Idiot," Cloud managed to croak out. "You haven't grown up any."
It was just like Zack to break the mood. At least now Cloud wasn't crying. That would have been embarrassing.
The wetness Aeris kissed off his cheek was only -- it must have been raining.
They stood together in silence for a while, and would have stood longer, but even with his body heat to share he could still feel Aeris shivering. He glanced down, and couldn't miss the way she burrowed in his arms, between his chest and Zack's side.
It would be pretty ridiculous if they came back from the afterlife just to die of the common cold. He loosened his hold, stepped back.
"Get dressed. I'll bring you home." He managed a smile. "Tifa will be..." Astonished. Awed. Deeply moved. "...Happy."
He still was; he couldn't get rid of the awe, the need to cry.
Aeris smiled widely. "I've missed her too. Is she well? Is everyone?"
Cloud nodded, and averted his eyes politely as she accepted the shirt from Zack's hands and pulled it over her head.
When he saw Zack shimmy into Tifa's sweatpants and Aeris wind the shawl around her hips like a sarong, though, he blinked. "There's another pair of pants right here, Zack. I'm pretty sure it would fit you better than Tifa's."
"Whatever do you mean? This is so much more fashionable." Zack grinned at him, tugging up the sweatpants to show off how much of his calves stuck out from the pants legs.
He didn't look Cloud in the eye.
"And besides, I doubt he'd fit into Tifa's pants half as well as I do." Zack grimaced awkwardly, though it had probably been intended as a smile. "Even if it would probably make his ass look fabulous."
Cloud dashed past them both, snatched up his sword and climbed the stairs four by four, with a Fire spell tingling down his hand, only awaiting a target.
The second floor of the old church had worsened since Cloud had lived there three years ago. The wood was swelled with humidity, and the repairs he'd made to the roof weren't holding up too well. Most of the blinds had been nailed shut to prevent the few intact windows from getting broken, though a few slats were missing, slashing the darkness with lines of faraway streetlamp lights. Loose bricks and mortar were strewn around the place, and a few abandoned beer bottles caught and reflected the green glow of his Materia.
None of them gleamed as green as the eyes of the ghostly-pale man standing against the wall, watching him.
The Masamune should have materialized and blocked Cloud's heavy downward swing; but instead Sephiroth fell into a crouch and dodged in a swirl of silvery hair. Cloud's broadsword hacked through three floor planks and half a support beam before he could stop the momentum. Stuck. Shit. He jumped up, shifting his weight onto his hands and the hilt of his sword. Sephiroth's long leg scythed where his knees should have been, and Cloud kicked off the wall and let his weight yank the sword free.
Stand-off. Cloud had landed in the middle of the floor. Sephiroth was moving slowly, standing straight, but spine and shoulders loose, hands lifted at waist height, ready to snap up into a number of potential barehanded fighting stance. It gave Cloud pause. All SOLDIERs were taught some hand-to-hand, but in actual combat Sephiroth had always used swords -- the longer the better, as if the idea of actually touching those he cut down was distasteful.
Perhaps he just found the ceiling too low to swing the Masamune around properly. That gave Cloud the advantage in reach. Strategize too long, though, and he would lose that advantage. He threw himself forward, sword slashing the air.
Sephiroth was fast, though, and the floor was wide enough to let him move. He kept out of Cloud's range -- they ran, sidestepped and chased from one wall to the next in a flurry of quick steps and quicker lunges and dodges.
Still no counterattack, no sword, no fire spell. No taunting. Cloud didn't like it. It was abnormal. He knew better than to stop pressing his advantage -- if it was actually an advantage. He had a feeling Sephiroth was directing him somewhere...
-- Directing himself. A glancing blow at Cloud's swinging blade redirected it into a wobbly pile of debris; Cloud jerked back to avoid flying glass, one second, no more, and then Sephiroth was leaping into the half-destroyed staircase well and bouncing up, from windowsill to support beam, toward the gaping hole in the roof.
Cloud gave chase.
The feminine scream made him freeze in his tracks. He glanced up, sword up to block if Sephiroth decided to use his distraction -- when had she gotten to the rafters ?
Aeris was clinging perilously to a broken railing, her bare toes at the very edge of the last plank before the void. The railing must have seemed support enough to lean over and look down at the fight, but it only held to the staircase by one rotten end; it had swung toward the void under her weight, and now there she was, arching over the gaping hole and completely off-balance. On tiptoes, she tried to shift her center of gravity back toward the support beam; the railing splintered.
"Zack!" Cloud hollered, still holding his defensive stance. Sephiroth had caught a ledge and pulled himself up to the hole in the roof. If Cloud didn't stop him now, he would escape, lose himself in the middle of an oblivious city; but someone needed to catch Aeris, and what the hell was she doing up there anyway --"Zack!"
Zack was climbing the staircase six by six. He hit the second floor at a dead run -- and another rotten plank snapped under his weight, making him stumble and fall to a knee, lose his momentum. One floor overhead, Aeris gasped as the railing she clung to gave a thoroughly underwhelming wet crunch and broke away from the support beam.
Cloud launched himself at the falling woman, amidst a rain of tiles that his kick had shaken loose. There was no way to slow down and catch her gently; he heard her expel a shocked breath as their bodies collided. Letting her fall would be worse; he grabbed her around the waist, and twisted in mid-air, so his feet would hit the opposite wall first. He kicked off again, ricocheting down to the closest floor. The second he was on stable ground again, he let her go, eyes snapping up to the hole in the roof, expecting to find it long since empty.
But Sephiroth was still standing up there, a black silhouette against the night sky, watching.
And Aeris was clinging to his neck with one arm, weighing down his sword hand with her whole body. Like cats and little children, she seemed to have mastered the art of making herself a lot heavier than she should have been.
"Aeris, you okay?" Zack called down, leaning over the edge of the second floor.
"I'm fine!" she called back, without looking at the black-haired man. She was staring at Cloud, he could see her from the corner of his eye.
Sephiroth wasn't moving, and she was staring hard, so he glanced at her, tried to make her understand how serious this was. "Aeris, let go --"
She scowled, startling him into giving her another, longer look.
"I didn't bring him back to life just so you could kill him again, you know!"
He hadn't even thought that far. Some days it seemed death was a revolving door for Sephiroth and his many clones. Did she really mean...? Suddenly Cloud wondered how accidental her fall had really been, what she'd even been doing up there in the rafters.
Aeris gave his forearm a soothing caress, eyes full of compassion, and maybe, far behind, a hint of exasperated -- was that amusement?
"Jenova didn't bring him back to life. I did."
Cloud stared at her, uncomprehending.
"Cloud... Jenova is long-gone. She was burned out of him. She was burned out of everyone she tainted. It's okay, I promise."
"He's Sephiroth," Cloud replied, at a loss. He wasn't sure what her explanation implied, but at least he was sure of what his reply meant. This was Sephiroth; that was explanation enough. "Are you trying to tell me he's -- what, safe to be around?" he scoffed.
"About as safe as you are when you wake up armed and without coffee!" Zack sang cheerily from overhead.
Cloud shook his head and snapped back. "Zack, I don't drink -- what are you doing?"
While Aeris and Cloud talked, the black-haired young man had climbed up to the rafters, casually straddled one, and was now in a deep, if one-sided, conversation with Sephiroth, who stood just overhead. Cloud just about had a heart attack.
Zack glanced down at Cloud and made a shooing motion. "You make a sucky straight man, you know."
All Cloud could see was Aeris kneeling in prayer, smiling sweetly at him, while Sephiroth plummeted down toward her unprotected back. Zack, god -- no. He tried to shake his arm free, but Aeris wouldn't let go; he would have had to hurt her.
"Okay, Seph, seriously, what do you say about getting down from there and putting something on to keep your danglies from dangling? I'm sure the hair doesn't keep you that warm."
The man's eyes narrowed faintly, but he didn't move, not even to look at Zack.
"Seph, come on, he'll be twitchy as long as you stay overhead."
"And I will be 'twitchy'," the man bit out slowly and precisely, voice just as low and intense as Cloud remembered it, "as long as Strife is intent on hacking me to pieces."
Cloud stared, incredulous. How did Sephiroth -- the man who'd razed a town to the ground in a fit of pyromaniac glee, tried to become a god, summoned a meteor to destroy the Planet he was standing on -- manage to imply that Cloud was the dangerously unreasonable one?
Zack huffed in frustration. "Oh, for God's sake. Cloud, will you holster the sword?"
Cloud growled out a "No" that really meant 'Are you fucking serious.'
"Cloud, please, he's not dangerous, would we bring him with us if he was?"
Sephiroth's lips took on a slightly pinched air, as if he dearly wished to object. He didn't say anything, though, and that was a little more convincing than Cloud was willing to be convinced.
Cloud took in a deep breath, released it slowly, and let his irritation come out in his voice. "What the hell is going on?"
"Aeris just told you, blondie--"
"Zack, can it," Cloud asked quietly. "Explain."
Zack loved risks, but he wasn't suicidal; he didn't reply 'He's here because Aeris brought him back, duh.' Cloud would have hurt him. Zack just sighed, smile fading. "A lot happened in the Lifestream."
Cloud switched his sword to his other, Aeris-free hand, and pointedly propped it up against his free shoulder, waiting for more. Even SOLDIER eyesight had limits at this distance, but Sephiroth's face looked... tense, jaw clenched, eyes narrowed. Zack looked up at the man, as if to ask for permission, or perhaps apologize. The white-haired man stared at his lieutenant for a few seconds, and -- Cloud was a little far to be sure, but he seemed to catch a reluctant 'fine, if you must' in his expression as he nodded. Obviously that was how Zack took it.
"Aeris was going around, trying to gather stuff and ghosts, kickstart healing -- places, peoples -- it was easier when people still present in the Lifestream gave a hand, you know? But there aren't a lot who are strong enough to keep themselves together for long. Natural order of things says you go from whole to not, not the other way around, just some people go more slowly."
Aeris started rubbing Cloud's arm gently once again, like she would have a skittish chocobo. Her eyes were unfocused, pensive, as if contemplating an inner landscape that wasn't particularly pretty. "He wasn't... whole, not really. Not with Jenova taking so much away, and doing her best at shredding the rest. But he was reweaving himself together anyway. I was... curious."
Only Aeris, Cloud thought. Only she would be so curious about the man who had killed her.
Cloud looked up again at the silver-haired man standing there. Now he looked sour, openly displeased. Aeris smiled and shook her head, as if amused at her own lack of surprise.
Zack took over. "Long story short, she got talking to him, he realized she wasn't gonna take no for an answer, I decided to follow, we had many a," his voice went dryly ironic, "violence-free, heart-warming little chat, and then -- well, you gotta understand, we really thought we were dead for good, so the whole forgiveness deal didn't sound that bad." He paused, thoughtful, then shrugged again. "But then Aeris realized that hey, there was a tricky way she might be able to go back and probably take one or two people with her, and we decided we could nag him longer if we brought him along."
Zack grinned, not quite convincingly.
"And that's the Abridged Story of How Sephiroth Followed Us Home. Mom, can we keep him?"
Sephiroth gave Zack a glare that said he dearly wished to kick him off the rafters. If only; then Cloud could stomp him once he landed.
He closed his eyes, trying to make sense of the whole mess. Aeris and Zack were alive again. He'd never dreamed or expected it, but now that they were here, he didn't even have to think twice to know he would go through anything and anyone to keep them from going back. Sephiroth was alive again -- no great surprise -- but apparently he wasn't... evil anymore? That still refused to make sense.
"Get down here," he asked tiredly.
He looked up at Sephiroth, who watched him back without a word. After a few seconds, Sephiroth dropped to Zack's rafter and made his way down. He walked like a cat; all unhurried grace, perfect balance, and uncaring, inborn poise. Cloud couldn't help but tense slightly at his approach, and was glad when Aeris freed him on her own and stepped behind him, to the side. She wasn't hindering his movements and she stayed where he could shield her if need be, so Cloud didn't try to move, standing there with his sword over his shoulder. He watched his old nemesis advance on him, feeling like perhaps he was just having an exceptionally coherent hallucination after all.
"Sure you don't want pants?" Zack asked, teasing quietly; sound carried well in the church, and Cloud's ears were just as enhanced as the rest of his body, but he pretended not to hear anyway.
Cloud had to admit, the man was so at ease in his own skin, it was hard to remember he wasn't supposed to be going around nude. It wasn't obscene; it gave off a feeling closer to watching a classical statue that had gotten bored on its pedestal and decided to go on a walk.
Sephiroth looked at Cloud, a question almost, one he wasn't holding out much hope for. Cloud wanted to prove him wrong, suddenly.
He wasn't going to refuse him that dignity.
(Even if waiting until Sephiroth was tangled in his pants would be the safest way to take him down, and Cloud wasn't above playing dirty when he really had to. And this was a really bad time for any kind of amusement, even the grim, black humor sort.)
He waited, a block of tense muscles and raw nerves, as Zack trotted off to get the abandoned pants. The man who had haunted his nightmares crossed his arms casually and leaned against a pillar -- over fifteen feet away from Cloud, true, but not battle-ready anymore. That made it hard to keep himself poised to attack.
Zack handed him the pants, and then went to Cloud and Aeris, quite deliberately stepping in between Cloud and Sephiroth to block his view. Cloud's jaw tightened with irritation and vivid mental pictures of seeing Zack suddenly skewered just like Aeris had been, and his fingers twitched with the need to grab him and pull him to safety, but he stopped himself. When Zack stepped to the side and around him to stand with Aeris, Sephiroth hadn't moved an inch.
Except now he wore pants. What a showoff. Bastard. Cloud's pants were a little tight on him. At least, he thought with wry, not-that-amused humor, the tight fit over the hips would prevent Sephiroth from dodging as fast and leaping as high.
So he watched Sephiroth and Sephiroth watched back, and it soon became apparent that neither of them would start talking first.
"We should do the voices."
"Hey babe, how about you play Seph and I play Cloud?"
Aeris chuckled, eyes gleaming with mischief, and started toward the white-haired man, curling her fingers to invite him to move closer. Cloud's shoulders hurt from the effort he made not to reach for her and haul her back to safety. But Zack... He wouldn't let her put herself in danger, would he?
Cloud didn't know. The way he talked, the way he acted -- Zack was his General's man once again, like he'd never stopped. Cloud realized he was wondering if he really could trust him, and shoved the thought away. It was wrong. Zack wasn't so blindly loyal that he wouldn't do what needed to be done. He'd done it before.
"Enough -- no need."
Aeris stopped, looked over her shoulder, and pouted slightly at being denied the game. "Aw, but we could speed it up a lot!"
She looked a little guilty, but not really that much; neither did Zack. They just didn't get it. They might have had months or years to get used to the idea, but Cloud hadn't! He flung his hand out, frustrated.
"What do you all expect me to think? How should I react? Should I erase the last ten years of my life? Even if you tell me everything that happened after Nibelheim was entirely due to Jenova and the clones--"
"It wasn't." Sephiroth's expression was cold, a little bored, as if he found the conversation tedious. His shoulders were tense. "What happened at Nibelheim wasn't, either."
Good, Cloud thought through a haze of anger. He would hate to have killed an innocent man. The reply was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it back somehow, waited for more.
"That day, Jenova did nothing more than give me a nudge." Sephiroth's expression was ... strange, with an edge of disgust. "I was only too happy to open myself up to her."
Cloud had already taken a step forward when he realized... No, not disgust.
Self-disgust. The revelation kept Cloud frozen, kept him from letting the memory of his burned hometown seal Sephiroth's fate.
That didn't make any sense. Or too much, too conveniently so. Was he really implying that he hadn't been thinking, that he regretted it? How the hell was Cloud supposed to believe that?! How the hell...
"Seph!" Zack protested. "You weren't in the best state of mind, and it was more than a nudge!"
The man shook his head, gave his subordinate a quick glare. "No. I might have been -- misguided... But this doesn't mean I didn't choose to do those things."
Zack's eyes softened, sad and compassionate. "Seph, Jenova--"
"I wanted to believe her," Sephiroth snapped, almost baring his teeth at him.
Cloud stared at his face and for a second he didn't recognize him. Where was the perfect, poised calm, the cruel amusement, the cold disdain? Sephiroth was angry. Not even at Zack, for pushing. At himself.
Because he'd deluded himself. Allowed Jenova to delude him. Because he'd been wrong, wrong, wrong, and he knew it, and he hated that.
The fact that Sephiroth now didn't like that he had embraced that genocidal space mutant and her goals... That... didn't absolve him much, actually. If it was true. But... It made his sudden about-face ring truer. It made Cloud feel -- just a little bit -- convinced.
It made Cloud feel like perhaps the sky wasn't blue and 'up' and 'down' weren't where he'd assumed them to be.
Cloud shook his head, reminded himself that for all he knew Sephiroth just regretted he hadn't chosen his targets on his own, without outside influence. Just because he hated that he'd allied himself with that crazy space mutant didn't mean he'd hated the rest.
He wasn't convinced of even this much, anyway.
"And you don't, anymore?"
"Believe that she is a goddess?" Sephiroth replied quietly. "No."
"And that she's your mother?"
A muscle in Sephiroth's jaw jumped, and his eyes went dull, flat. "That part was true enough."
Cloud hated it when he thought he understood the way Sephiroth's mind worked, because that was never true. He'd thought Sephiroth was honorable, once upon a time. He scrutinized him, waiting, but Sephiroth seemed to want the subject closed. Cloud didn't feel like humoring him. "Explain."
"It isn't relevant."
Zack stepped up and nudged Cloud's shoulder, wincing. "He doesn't mean it like that, Cloud. He knows she didn't carry him -- couldn't have, I mean, she was fossilized. He doesn't mean it like, I dunno, she's his mom so he'll want to avenge her, or that he still shares her goals--"
Cloud frowned. Why wasn't Sephiroth saying that much? It wasn't from Zack's mouth he needed to hear that. "So you know for sure he isn't persuaded that humanity is on par with maggots anymore?"
Sephiroth's lip curved up in a humorless smirk. "It isn't?"
"You're not doing a great job of convincing me not to kill you again," Cloud remarked quietly.
They stared at each other. On the sidelines, Zack and Aeris grimaced at each other, probably trying to come up with a good plan to get in the middle. Cloud was looking for a way to make sure they would butt out, but Sephiroth dealt with it first. "Zack. Miss Gainsborough. If you will wait outside, please."
Even Zack didn't mistake the 'please' for anything but a formality. He threw them a worried look. "Guys..."
Neither of them answered, refusing to take their eyes off each other. Biting her lip, Aeris tugged on Zack's arm and, reluctantly, he followed her down the staircase to the ground floor.
Cloud would have expected Sephiroth to want them around; without them, there was no one to stop Cloud if he decided to attack again. He wondered if this was when Sephiroth's mind would crash into his own to try and take over, and he just didn't want witnesses.
But Cloud's mind stayed his own.
He waited; he didn't want to be the one to ask to be given answers, when Sephiroth was the one who owed him an explanation. And there was silence and more silence, as they stared each other down with matching, growing annoyance.
"It is unpleasant enough to be questioned at all," the silver-haired man eventually commented, his slow, uninterested voice distancing him even more from the topic.
Cloud didn't particularly care if Sephiroth found being interrogated on the subject of his homicidal urges distasteful, and he was out of patience with the waiting game. "Do you still hate humanity?" he snapped.
Sephiroth straightened up, regal, distant. "I... do not hold a sizeable portion of the human race in high esteem, no. But I no longer feel I should actively seek to remedy that."
That he still didn't think much of most people, but wouldn't try to kill them anymore was a lot more believable to Cloud than a sudden 'I'm so sorry, I love all living beings now'. But the weight of their shared history said it was still less likely than Sephiroth secretly brewing plans to climb back to the top of the food chain at some later date.
Cloud wasn't sure Sephiroth's ambition, his belief in his own superiority, had appeared out of nowhere. Hadn't there been hints before, even before they became Jenova-encouraged obsessions? Being made General so early, surrounded by so much publicity -- when everyone fawned over him, how could he not believe in his inherent superiority?
After all, Cloud had believed it. He'd been a runt of a teenage hick, clumsy, badly socialized, too easily picked on; Sephiroth had been... More than human. Better. Even now, having fought him to a standstill three times, Cloud still felt like Sephiroth was better, still couldn't get rid of a strange aftertaste of awe. He shook his head, annoyed at himself. He didn't need to dwell on his teenage stupidity right now.
"Why did you come back?"
Sephiroth turned away, chin held high, gazing at the first floor of the church with indifference. Cloud's eyes narrowed.
"Dead men are rarely known for making amends, aren't they."
Cloud grunted, openly disbelieving. "You came back just to make amends."
The man snorted quietly, eyes glancing back and then sliding over Cloud, as if he were not worth stopping for. "It's a goal to strive for."
"It's not an answer."
The silver-haired man twitched in annoyance. "No, I did not choose to come back in order to make amends. I think Zack and miss Gainsborough are misguided, and rather too optimistic as to the greeting I might expect, even with all the time in the world to prepare all interested parties."
Well, he'd gotten that right. Cloud could imagine Tifa's, Barret's, Yuffie's reactions; they weren't going to be pretty.
"The world is going to be full of enemies. I doubt many of them will want your amends, even if you find a way. In fact they might hope very hard you go right back where you came from."
Sephiroth turned to face him fully then, green eyes blazing with sudden anger. "I want to live. Is that surprising? I want to live. And if I have to spend my life fighting, then so be it."
He took a deep breath then, the next concession forced out with reluctance.
"I don't intend to attack anyone who hasn't attacked me first. And if it's revenge they want -- hn." He shook his head, a line between his brows. "I am not willing to die again. But I am willing to do my best not to kill them for it. Does that satisfy you?"
Cloud bristled. How generous. Asshole.
He stared at Sephiroth, taking him in, past his memories of the man, trying to see what was truly there. Gleaming cat eyes, bare chest, too-small pants and all -- but the eyes gleamed less with smug superiority than with a feral sort of ... wariness? He held himself like he was prepared to move out of the way of Cloud's sword, fast.
Like he was planning on counterattacking only as long as he needed to open himself an escape route. The way he'd done once already.
It was almost as if Sephiroth didn't believe he could win... Cloud huffed quietly. The idea felt almost too ludicrous to contemplate.
"So you waited because... you want peace."
"I don't want war."
"For the foreseeable future."
"You any good at tarot reading?" Cloud snapped. Sephiroth arched an eyebrow, as if he didn't get the reference. Cloud snorted. The foreseeable future, huh. Easy way to promise nothing. "Never mind. What stopped you from running off to live in the wilderness? Hours went by between you lot coming back and my arrival. Why were you even still here?"
Anger flashed briefly in green eyes, and was hidden away again. Cloud was almost vibrating with tension, aware of every single twitch his enemy made.
"It would come back to your ears eventually, wouldn't it? And then you and your group would track me down, and you wouldn't bother discussing a thing. You would be persuaded that I was planning something nefarious."
"There's precedent," Cloud said, irritated. Presumption of innocence was for men who hadn't tried to end the human race.
Sephiroth inclined his head, as if to concede the point. "Hence waiting for you."
Cloud considered that answer for a second. It was... logical enough. If Sephiroth was sincere. He couldn't figure out another reason for him to stay back and allow himself to be caught anyway -- it didn't mean there wasn't one, though. Just that he was missing some key elements. But Sephiroth wasn't going to list them if Cloud requested it.
So he switched tracks. "Do you believe you're sane?" Cloud asked.
The man's jaw tensed briefly, but he relented, another flare of inward-turned disapproval flashing through his eyes, unsettling Cloud. He didn't want to see that. It was out of place. It didn't belong. (He didn't want it to belong.)
"... I thought I was sane back then."
Cloud couldn't answer that for a second, and when he found his voice again it was a little quieter, a little -- strange. "And now what do you think?"
Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow. "I fail to see why this matters. You won't trust my word either way."
"Damn straight I won't," Cloud snapped back, irritated all over again.
Alright, he wasn't going to get much more useable information from him here and now. Now he had to... make a decision... aw, fuck.
Cloud sighed quietly. He wanted to close his eyes and rub his temples so very badly. How had he ended up sole judge, jury and executioner on all things Sephiroth? Back then he had felt it his duty to take care of that crazy menace no one else seemed to grasp, but he didn't know what path to take with a sane, logical asshole of a Sephiroth. And one who acknowledged Cloud's place as judge and jury, however much that obviously rankled him.
Fact: Cloud had come very close to nailing Sephiroth a couple of times, and he hadn't called Masamune to him, or used any magic. Hypothesis: he couldn't.
Fact: Sephiroth couldn't be entirely sure that Aeris and Zack would manage to sway Cloud enough that he would even agree to listen, yet he had risked staying. Hypothesis... Hell, Cloud didn't have the first clue. His brain felt like it was trying to dribble out of his ears. Nothing made sense anymore.
"I can't make that decision alone," he finally said. "Not alone, not now." If he made the wrong one... "Aeris, Zack, you can stop hiding."
They peeked around the edge of the stairwell, Zack looking sheepish at being caught spying, Aeris not even bothering.
"So, er... What now?" Zack hazarded.
Cloud didn't know. He had no high-security prison that would contain Sephiroth at his disposal, no secret bunker. What to do? Bring him home? What about Tifa, Denzel? What would happen when Cloud would need sleep?
But there was nowhere else he could figure out.
"... I'm bringing you all back home." He turned to Sephiroth, before Zack could comment. "You won't be fighting anyone until that decision is made. Anyone. If you do, I'll kill you where you stand."
"What if someone attacks him?"
Cloud scowled, uncompromising. "He'll dodge. It's not fair, I don't care. Do you really want to talk about what would be fair to people trying to kill him?"
That they succeed. Zack winced, but looked like he wanted to keep arguing; Sephiroth himself lifted a hand in front of Zack to stop him, his eyes still on Cloud's face.
"I'll step in if anything happens before this mess is settled," Cloud granted grudgingly. "...You'll be under a Sleep spell until I've talked to the rest of Avalanche."
"Sleep spell? Isn't that a bit --"
Damn it, why was Zack -- Zack of all people -- arguing like he thought Cloud was the bad guy? That was just -- hell. Cloud knew that Zack and Sephiroth had been friends back in the day, and intellectually speaking he could even sort of see how they might have become close again in the Lifestream, but... Fuck. Just -- fuck.
"What else can I do?" he snapped. "Let him roam wherever he pleases?" Cloud shook his head before Zack could plead in favor of his ex-General. "I wouldn't care if we were in the middle of nowhere, but not in Edge, with Tifa and the kids around. They'll feel threatened enough."
Aeris nodded slowly, biting her lip, and gave Sephiroth an apologetic look. "That's... I'm afraid it's the best solution. If you're asleep, they won't feel so scared they can think of nothing else," she added gently. "They'll be more likely to think things through rationally."
Sephiroth's upper lip curled up slightly. "That sounds lovely."
"Oh, Seph." Zack sighed, and watched Cloud and his stern, unyielding expression for a few seconds in silence before turning back to Sephiroth.
Sephiroth's somber look seemed tinted with worry -- or maybe Cloud was just imagining things. His voice was quiet, obviously for Zack's ears only, but the rest of the church was even quieter. "Strife is -- right. I have to prove my good faith first. But being so defenseless --"
"I won't let anyone get to you while you sleep."
Zack let out an explosive sigh and raked his hand through his hair. "Do you trust me to keep you safe? Because yeah, from the side that doesn't want you any more ventilated than you are it's kind of worrisome, but it's that or letting Cloud find you some Mythril-strength bondage gear and hogtie you in a corner."
"That won't be necessary," Sephiroth replied stiffly, and it was both a 'Keep your puerile jokes to yourself, if you please' and a 'Don't be ridiculous, of course I trust you', and it made Zack grin so wide, so happy, Cloud briefly ached, wanting to smile for him. Argh. He wasn't a kid anymore, mollified with just a single smile -- and why was he even smiling at anything Sephiroth-related anyway. He hated that the man could put that expression on Zack's face. He hated that Sephiroth would even say he trusted Zack, like his trust was a gift to bestow, like Zack should be honored. Sephiroth had betrayed Zack.
Aeris chuckled and beamed up at them mock-innocently, pulling Cloud's attention away from the men. "Oh well. We'll keep that in mind for another time."
Zack choked on a burst of laughter. "Aeris," Cloud protested -- that was so wrong, wrong, wrong -- but she only grinned at him too.
Cloud allowed his resentment and annoyance to simmer down. He hadn't been able to stay angry at either of them even before they died -- and now, even when he tried, he still couldn't totally smother the corner of his mind that still watched them with wonder.
Sephiroth's expression showed he had already dismissed that moment of friendly teasing from his mind. He watched Cloud. Cloud frowned back. "What is it?"
"Am I at least allowed to walk there on my own?" He smiled, faintly sarcastic. "It would be nice to enjoy the night at least once before I die again."
Cloud's eyelid twitched. Of all the people in the world, Sephiroth was the last who was allowed to guilt him into anything.
"If I kill you again, you'll be awake," he promised harshly, before he could think better.
He had misgivings for a moment; no doubt that a lot of his friends would disagree. It would be safer and easier to put him down in his sleep. But Cloud didn't like the idea of slaying a man unaware, defenseless. They would just have to move his sleeping body to the desert first; there were more than enough wild, uninhabited areas on the Planet for another final battle.
"... Sure, you can walk," he added grudgingly, shrugging off the tension. He glanced at Zack. "You'd whine if I made you carry him."
"Damn right I would. I'd whine you like you've never been whined before."
That, and Cloud didn't have any Seal materia on him anyway. Granted, a good knock on the back of the head might do the trick. One, or several.
He just wasn't sure how the hell he would take Tifa aside to prepare her without letting Sephiroth out of his sight. Send Zack inside to talk to her first, maybe? Tifa hadn't known him as long as she had known Aeris, the shock wouldn't be as violent... But then maybe she wouldn't believe Zack. It had been a while; she might not remember him well enough to even recognize him.
"Well, if we're done negotiating last requests here!" Aeris exclaimed brightly.
She tugged on Cloud's sleeve, made a shooing gesture at Sephiroth, and started herding them toward the exit, her unbound hair dancing on her shoulders. Snickering, Zack followed on their heels.
"Home! Let's go home now. I want to see Tifa."
Tifa's bar was brand new, Aeris had never lived there, but if he said that, he knew she'd reply something horribly corny like 'home is where the heart is.' She would mean every word of it, too. So Cloud went, allowing her to keep the arm he didn't hold his sword with so long as it kept his body between hers and Sephiroth, Zack taking the rear like he'd never stopped guarding his back. Sephiroth's silent presence was unnerving, but listening to his two lost friends as they marveled over the living world -- even such a dirty, disused part of it as the Slums -- kept it in the background.
He still didn't know why Zack and Aeris were willing to go to such lengths for the man who had slain her and betrayed him to his torture and death -- and Cloud would ask them, yes, once he could talk freely -- but...
Having them back was worth it, even if the price was to have to deal with the headache that was a supposedly sane Sephiroth. Having them back was worth just about everything.
All the way home, Cloud had been thinking about who should get to Tifa first -- who should explain things to her, so she wouldn't hurt, wouldn't cry.
He should have thought, he acknowledged wryly, of what he'd do when she failed to stay at the bar and play sitting duck when she knew they had a potential enemy in town. Tifa liked to think the best of people -- she thought the best of every single one of her customers, even the creepy drunks. But she still bartended with a shotgun under the sink.
And the narrow street was perfect for an ambush.
A crack of thunder erupted in the street, rattling the windows. Cloud had a barrier up to deflect the blast almost instantly. Not instantly enough; his body seized briefly, electricity crawling over his arms.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Sephiroth dodging to the side -- but the lightning strike caught his leg, throwing him to the pavement and making his back arch with the shock. Zack had hit the ground in the other direction, tackling Aeris; Cloud cast a magic-repelling shield over the two of them first, and scanned the roofs wildly to find the assailant.
She didn't answer, except in the form of a second blast at Sephiroth. Cloud would have loved nothing more than to let it hit; but he'd given his word to protect the man as long as he couldn't protect himself, and he didn't want to test how long Sephiroth's promise not to counterattack would hold in the face of a determined enemy. He jumped in front of the silver-haired man, his sword up in an overhead block, still crackling with electricity.
There she was, behind that chimney, looking tense and determined in the fading lights of her spell. She was staring at Sephiroth. From where she was, she couldn't see Zack, and Cloud saw him straighten up and do a hand signal Cloud hadn't seen in years, but that he still remembered. 'Sneak behind enemy.'
"Zack, no," he snapped, hands still holding up the sword to attract any other lightning attack. Zack was a SOLDIER First Class with several years of combat experience, yes. He was also weaponless. Tifa was a hand-to-hand specialist who could punch holes through concrete, and she had Materia equipped on top of that. Zack would try to pin her nicely until they could reason her; she would try to get rid of him by any means necessary. Things would get nasty.
Well, nastier, Cloud amended as he threw up another shield to block a sudden gust of fire that blackened the road all around. Sephiroth had moved to stand in his shield radius -- not even two steps behind him -- and it made his skin crawl.
"Tifa, damn it, stop a minute!"
Once again, she didn't answer. Cloud sighed in frustration.
"I know it looks bad, but --"
"It looks like you got possessed again," she retorted tightly.
Cloud made a show of tilting his blade down toward the ground, away from her. "If I am, I can't tell," he replied honestly. Behind him, Sephiroth snorted, and he resisted the urge to throw him a warning glare.
"He's standing behind you!"
The urgency in her voice actually made Cloud flinch halfway around, expecting to see Sephiroth about to skewer him with the Masamune. The man was there, two steps behind, but his hands were still empty. Sephiroth crossed his arms over his bare chest as he gave Tifa a narrow-eyed weighing look. Cloud realized she'd probably hoped Sephiroth had messed with his mind so Cloud wouldn't notice him.
"...I know. Tifa..."
Cloud fell silent, not knowing what to do. How was he ever going to get her off this roof? Sephiroth had murdered her father, for god's sake, and destroyed their hometown and messed with Cloud's mind until he would have killed all his friends and not even noticed. How was he to get her to trust his word, when the man was standing there, clearly under Cloud's protection?
And then Aeris stepped away from the wall and looked up at the roof overhead.
Tifa froze; even from the middle of the street, Cloud saw her face pale and her eyes widen painfully. For the longest time, there was silence; out of sight, Zack sighed and mouthed a 'thank you' to the skies.
Neck craned to look up, Aeris gave her a rueful smile. "Yes. Ah... It's a long story. Would you be willing to listen to it? I suppose you won't come down, but I could climb up --"
"Aeris -- if you're really Aeris," Tifa corrected herself, with a voice that barely trembled. "If you're really Aeris, you will go to the bar at the end of the street, and call the first three numbers on the emergency contact list. And then you will hide. I'll stop them."
"I'll stop them!" she repeated stubbornly, her furious eyes still fixed on Sephiroth's face. Cloud thought they might have been a little too bright, glistening a little too much. "I'll stop them, I won't let him kill you again. I promise, I promise I'll save you this time so just go and hide already!"
... Oh. Oh, Tifa.
Tifa's chest heaved as she took in a deep, shuddering breath; her clenched fists didn't tremble. She moved to the edge of the roof, spared a quick glance for Zack; she clearly hadn't forgotten his presence, but her main target was still Sephiroth, and Cloud by association. Cloud was kind of proud, in a 'how the hell am I going to keep this from degenerating' way.
And then one of the thick metal blinds on the house she was facing was thrown open so hard it bounced, and Cloud and Sephiroth were getting targeted by a shotgun held by an aged, squinting neighbor.
"What the devil is going on!? Bandits again?"
Cloud swore, and whirled to place himself and his sword between Sephiroth and the bullets headed their way.
"We done told you we weren't gonna let you get our town!" the old man yelled furiously, shooting again. "You go and fry 'em good, Lockhart!"
All around them, drawing courage from the old man's stance -- and from not being the first to peer out -- a few more windows opened, more voices wondering what was happening in the street in the middle of the night. Damn it, damn it. Cloud knew for a fact that no Edge home was complete without a weapon rack or two.
"Mister Zeller!" he called, blocking another bullet with the flat of his sword. "It's Strife -- HEY!" A strong hand caught his upper arm and jerked him aside as someone else shot a handgun at them; the bullet whizzed past his temple. He shook himself free and glared at Sephiroth, who wasn't even looking at him. The man had his side to Cloud, in a low, ready crouch, with his long hair trailing all over the place, tinted yellow by the lampposts.
Strange clothes and awkward light aside, Cloud was pretty sure there would be some people who'd recognize the subject of so many a motivational poster, back around the time of the Wutai war. No more time to dither.
He didn't know who, he or Sephiroth, first noticed the old truck parked on the sidewalk some twenty feet away; but they dashed toward it in unison, Cloud swinging his sword over their heads to shield them both. They ducked behind the truck, in time to feel it shudder under a bullet impact. A woman screamed overhead. "My truck! That's it, Zeller, this is war!"
There were more insults, more demands to know what the hell was going on. A dog started howling.
"Get back inside your houses," Tifa yelled urgently, but no one was listening.
Cloud made himself as small as possible behind the truck, scanning the woman's house suspiciously. From the angle of the windows, it wasn't totally impossible they'd be shot from above, but it would be difficult.
"Well," Sephiroth commented with biting sarcasm. "This is entertaining."
Cloud threw him an irritated glare. "It's going to be even funnier if they recognize you. Do something with your hair."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow, but after a few seconds of consideration, tied the mass into a knot at the base of his neck. Cloud didn't even want to know how he managed to keep it looking smooth and well-combed when they were in the middle of a shooting. Though the old man had stopped peppering them, but he was probably just reloading, Cloud thought tiredly.
"May I come out now?" he called; he got a startled shriek and some woman throwing a -- thankfully rather weak -- Ice spell toward his head. Sighing, he dodged behind the truck again, giving his frosted hair spikes an exhausted look.
"He's your neighbor, you blind old bats!" From behind a dumpster, Zack shook his fist at the people at their windows. "He's Cloud Strife, damn it, do you know anyone else who lugs around huge swords like that?"
Apart from Zack himself? Behind Cloud, Sephiroth snorted quietly, and Cloud felt a second of unease, wondering if they'd had the same thought.
"... Mister Strife? 'zat you?"
"Yes," he called back, and waved from behind the truck's hood. "I'm sorry for the scare; there was a misunderstanding."
Tense, he waited for Tifa's scream of denial; nothing came. He pulled himself up and stepped out slowly, looking at his neighbors in turn.
"Sorry for the disturbance. Come by the bar tomorrow and have one on the house."
Aeris took Zack by the wrist and joined him in the middle of the street, and Sephiroth slowly followed, giving the people at the windows long measuring looks. Cloud didn't like it much, a part of him wondering if Sephiroth was memorizing their faces for his next killing spree, but it wasn't like he could order him to keep his eyes on the ground; that would look too suspicious. Cloud nodded politely at the onlookers, wished them goodnight, and started toward the bar before they could ask for details, swinging his sword in place on his back.
The whole time he kept expecting another lightning strike, but when they reached the bar there was still no sign of Tifa. There hadn't been any since she'd tried to yell the watchers back in their homes. The bar was closed and empty, and when he peered inside he couldn't even see Denzel waiting up. But then if Tifa had enough foresight to wait for them away from where they thought she was going to be, Cloud was pretty sure she would have enough foresight to send Denzel to sleep over at some friend's where the boy couldn't be found.
He left the rest of the floor in darkness, only turned on one light over the bar; Tifa would see them through the large windows, if she was still out there. "Seventh Heaven the third," he commented to Zack, who was looking around with interest.
"Nice place. All yours?"
"No, it's Tifa's. I just help out from time to time."
He gave Sephiroth a wary look, but the man seemed content to lean against a pillar and watch his surroundings, arms crossed over his bare chest.
Aeris sighed, and laughed a little, though she didn't seem very amused. "That was unexpected. Poor Tifa, she must have been so shocked."
Cloud remembered the raw intensity, the grim determination in Tifa's promise that she wouldn't let Aeris die again, and didn't feel all that amused either. He had never realized that Tifa felt personally responsible for that, felt she had failed Aeris just as much as he did. When she learned that Aeris had brought her murderer back to life...
Zack gave Cloud a hopeful look. "Say, do you think she'd mind if..."
"Help yourself," Cloud replied, gingerly perching on one of the stools and turning so he would be able to keep an eye both on the dimly lit room and on the window to the street.
Zack ducked behind the bar and started rooting around. He gave a little "aha!" of triumph when he found the beer cans, and popped up over the counter. "Aeris, you want anything? Cloud? Seph?"
"Just water, please," Aeris replied. Sephiroth just shook his head imperceptibly.
"I'm fine," Cloud said, propping up his sword against the counter. It was too hard to still believe that Sephiroth would attack right now. He'd had access to Cloud's unguarded back too many times during the fight.
Cloud kept the sword in easy reach regardless.
It was only five minutes before Tifa pushed the door open and walked in, but they were the five longest minutes in recent history. She stood there, outside of the puddle of light by the bar, not moving any closer.
"Tifa..." Cloud and Aeris spoke almost in synch, by accident. Tifa glanced back and forth at them both, and her red-brown eyes skimmed over Zack; but once they met Sephiroth's green, they didn't move again.
It seemed surreal to her -- Sephiroth standing in her bar, propped up against one of the wooden pillars, with his imposing frame and his cold, aristocratic face, and his unnatural hair. Not unreal, though -- unreal would have been a vision from the past, complete with the black leather outfit and the sword, and his hair floating freely behind him like a banner to his arrogance. Instead there were a mane tied in a rough and rather strange-looking knot, and Cloud's slightly-too-small pants, ending mid-calf, and bare, dusty -- and bleeding? -- feet, lit by the cheap yellow glow of the lone light bulb. Surreal, definitely -- because it was way too much reality for one scene.
And he was still watching her, and his eyes still glowed Mako-green around those inhuman pupils. Off to the left, Cloud sat slumped on a barstool, looking weary and watchful.
Not mindlessly adoring, though. Not vacant-eyed.
"Does anyone mind telling me what is going on?" she asked, remarkably calmly.
It was the black-haired man who started first, circling the end of the bar to take a few steps toward her. He didn't come any closer than the first table, though; that was good, because Tifa would have hated to break it on his head to keep him at bay.
"Evening, miss Lockhart. It's been a while. Do you recognize me?"
Well-defined cheekbones, long locks of hair that gathered in spiky clumps, body that tended just a little bit toward lean -- hips from which her own sweatpants were threatening to fall off... She did at that. She had only known him a couple of weeks, ten years ago, but the swagger was -- she'd been thinking 'inimitable', but Cloud had done such a good job mimicking it that this was how it clicked in her mind. She still remembered it as 'how Cloud used to walk, when he was still pretending to be Zack.'
Cloud didn't have black hair, and she wasn't sure where he would have found a wig in the old slums, but that would have been doable. Unlikely, but doable.
The purple glow of his eyes, not so much.
Tifa stared at them all in turn and then back at the black-haired man, still trying to figure out why they were there and what kind of catastrophe was falling on their heads now. The way he grinned -- it seemed real enough. But only the bad guys ever seemed to come back from the Lifestream for a visit... Case in point.
"Zack, isn't it?"
"Ayup. Zack Fair, at your service."
"You were the one who met Denzel in the church?" she confirmed.
"Yep. Smart kid, that one. Got character too."
Tifa desperately tried not to think too hard that all the time Denzel had spent chatting in the church with Zack, Sephiroth had been lurking around, probably listening in.
"Thank you. Now would you please--" Her voice went a bit strangled, and she fell silent to breathe in, and out, like Zangan had taught her all those years ago. She was calm. She was very calm. She was going to stay calm until it was time to fight again -- she would just be ready.
"Yeah... I'd tell you it's a long story, but in layman's terms it isn't. So. Condensed version, er. Aeris was done working on the Lifestream -- it can run itself now -- so we decided to come back." Zack grinned, hopeful and somewhat sheepish -- a lot like Denzel when he hoped she wouldn't notice he'd only done the first page of his homework or eaten only the meat and then artistically spread the vegetables on his plate to make it look like some were missing. Maybe a smidgen more nervous, but then again, not a lot.
"That's the really, really condensed version, though. For one thing, it was a lot more complicated than just making the decision. It was more like, 'okay, we're done with Jenova and everything, I guess it's time to fade away -- oh, look, a loophole.' And, er, about Sephiroth -- well, he's kind of a prickly bastard, but he's not insane anymore, so...?"
Tifa stopped staring at Sephiroth, whose eyebrows had vaguely twitched downward at the announcement, and stared at Zack instead. What was she supposed to answer? 'Oh, that's nice' perhaps?
This time it was Aeris who moved to meet her, and she didn't stop at the edge of the light.
Lost in Tifa's largest t-shirt, hair unbound so that wavy locks cascaded all over the place, shawl wound around her hips like a fancy skirt -- unmistakable. It didn't feel surreal or unreal anymore, it just felt true, and suddenly Tifa couldn't breathe, because if she did Aeris might fray and disappear.
Tenderness and compassion on her face, in her eyes -- a hint of a wince, shared pain, a rueful little smile...
They reached out at the same time, hands gripping each other.
Aeris's hand was warm, but what convinced even Tifa's rational mind was that she had dust on her cheek, tangles in her hair, and a shiny piece of chewing-gum wrapper caught in the fringe of her shawl. Tifa was startled when she heard herself laugh. She choked on something; she didn't know if it was a giggle or a sob. Proof by chewing-gum wrapper. How was that for a miracle?
Oh, how she wanted to cling and ask a million things, but the cold, inhuman eyes behind them -- she couldn't help it, she shifted Aeris bodily aside, edged forward so she could shield her in case anything happened. Cloud's face tightened in pain, and Zack ruffled his own hair with tired embarrassment. She waited for Sephiroth to do something -- give her a disdainful look, a smirk, a sneer maybe; he didn't. He didn't taunt her, he didn't pretend to be polite, he didn't say anything. She told herself it was good. She didn't know if the sound of his voice might perhaps be the thing to snap her calm. He just watched her right back, and that was it.
At her side, Aeris sighed quietly and squeezed her hand, even as she looked straight at the man with a strange sort of quiet seriousness -- strange because there was no wariness in it at all.
"Sephiroth... It might be time you slept. Cloud?"
Sephiroth looked at the blond, expressionless. Cloud frowned faintly and then nodded. "It's getting late."
Tifa frowned, confused and still on edge. "Cloud?"
"He's going to be under a Sleep spell until the rest of the gang gets there and we all decide what to do," Cloud replied calmly, with a touch of gentleness in his voice like he knew exactly what she feared; she felt a little reassured.
"Mmh. Far from me to delay your bedtime," Sephiroth commented silkily.
The sound of his low voice made her shudder; she had been starting to think he would not speak at all. Cloud glared at him, hostility flashing through his weariness; Tifa was reassured. The world wasn't completely crazy yet.
"For someone asking for favors, you're bad at staying on my good side," he snapped.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and Tifa tensed, but then he let out a tiny sigh and nodded as if conceding a minor, technical point. "I... do lack the habit."
"Yeah well, if you're smart," Cloud replied without breaking eye contact with Sephiroth, "you'll learn faster."
Sephiroth's eyes went even more narrow, but after a second he breathed out slowly and his expression smoothened, emptied out. "My apologies."
Cloud was still scowling, but in the end he just shrugged it off with a quick, irritated twitch of his shoulders. He slipped off the stool, swung his sword back in its sheath. "Staircase in the backroom. Second floor. There's a mattress in the attic."
"An attic." Sephiroth was watching him with those narrowed, coldly predatory eyes again in which she could read absolutely nothing.
"It locks from the outside," Cloud said, a confirmation to a question that hadn't be asked, and lifted a hand to cut off an answer Tifa hadn't been aware would be coming. "It's not to keep you in. It's to keep people out. There are children living here."
Tifa wondered briefly whether she was crazy or whether this explanation could have been construed as a -- weak, insincere, irritated -- form of apology. Surely she was reading too much into it.
Sephiroth relaxed slowly nonetheless. "I did offer my cooperation, Strife."
They just stared wordlessly at each other, and Tifa barely dared look away; she glanced at Aeris, and at Zack too, to see if they had any idea what was going on in their loud silences. Aeris looked sad; Zack looked worried. Neither of them offered any explanation.
"Well! Let's see it," Aeris commented with false cheer as she tugged Tifa toward the backroom, urging everyone to start moving. "Say, Cloud, do you have a Seal Materia? I'll cast."
"Several. Tifa? You know where they are; would you mind?"
Tifa hesitated -- she didn't want to leave Cloud and Aeris alone with Sephiroth, and she still didn't know if she wanted to really rely on Zack to cover them. But someone needed to get the Materia, and the other two didn't know where Cloud kept them.
Tifa hurried up the stairs and walked fast into Cloud's bedroom, going straight for the drawer. Her hand closed on several Seal orbs; she released them all until she found the strongest, and then she held it against her chest and went to join them upstairs. She paused and got fresh sheets for the mattress on her way, though. She berated herself all along, but she got fresh sheets, and even a blanket. She would have cheerfully -- well, not cheerfully, but determinedly -- broken the man's neck, but making him sleep in the dust just seemed too petty.
Zack was outside the attic door, with his back to the wall, as if standing guard; he smiled at her, friendly as always but with a distracted, worried edge that took away from the reassurance.
There were stacked chairs and high stools in there that she ought to repair for the bar, a crate of books and one of mismatched shot glasses, a voluminous wooden wardrobe, Marlene's old toys, and a chest of drawers Tifa kept with the vague thought that Denzel would need it when he moved out. She briefly wondered about how fast the clutter had piled up, about how amazing it was that she could afford to keep said clutter now, instead of paring down to the necessities of the road, or fearing that one day everything she owned would burn, be gone without a trace.
The man who had burned down her hometown, and sent her to the slums, and then on the road, stood there amongst her amassed belongings, looking down at the bare mattress. Cloud watched him without a word; but there was a tension between them Tifa could feel from the other end of the room, even though she could only see Sephiroth's back and had no clue what his expression was like.
"Ah, Tifa -- thank you, I didn't think of that."
Aeris stood in front of the skylight in the sloped roof, breathing in the cool night air. She moved to meet Tifa at the door, and held out her arms for the sheets and blanket; Tifa let her have them, and the Materia with it. She didn't want to come any closer if she didn't have to.
Sephiroth watched the green-eyed girl with a lack of expression that made Tifa shudder. She told herself that if he struck again, Cloud was close enough, ready to stop him.
"Look, you even have a blanket, isn't that nice?" Aeris chuckled, kneeling on the floor to make the bed. "Now move over, I need a little space."
Tifa's fingers whitened on the doorjamb. She didn't understand how it was that Aeris wasn't afraid, that she could turn her back onto the man who had murdered her so easily, shoo him with such a cheerful air.
"Hey..." Zack whispered, and his hand touched her shoulder lightly; Tifa jerked and glanced at him, though she couldn't take her eyes away from the scene too long. "It's going to be fine. He'll lie down, she'll get him asleep --"
"He doesn't want to." Even she could see it, and she didn't even know the man.
"He'll do it anyway. He doesn't like it, but he'll do it anyway -- see?"
For a tense handful of seconds, Sephiroth stood like a statue, tension gathering in his limbs -- Tifa could read it, that coiled-spring feeling which so often ended in violence. But just as she was about to step inside, the man closed his eyes, sighed, and sank down gracefully. Then he was out of sight, hidden by the chest of drawers. Cloud still stood, watching without a word as Aeris knelt and cast her spell, but the matching tension in his body had seeped out, leaving him looking weary, jaded.
Tifa pulled her eyes away from the lights dancing on the wall and looked at Zack.
"... I'm fine. Just -- this is..." She shook her head, bit her lip. "I don't get what's going on. Don't get -- you came back. That's good, but he came back -- and why?"
Zack sighed, rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, the condensed version's not gonna cut it. "
Aeris muttered something vaguely miffed from her corner, pulling Tifa's attention back. Sephiroth's comeback rang like a vocal eye-roll. "Perhaps you would have more luck if you clubbed me instead."
"Ooh, you're trying to tempt me, aren't you."
There was no verbal reply, but Cloud snorted.
"You keep that eyebrow down, mister, or I'll do much worse than club you. I'll tuck you in."
Aeris cast again before Sephiroth could answer, which was good because Tifa didn't know how long she could take listening to the light, friendly banter between them.
This time there was no answer; Aeris cast a third time, to be sure it took, and then accepted Cloud's offered hand and let him pull her back up on her feet. Cloud cast a barrier around the bed; they weren't all that resilient from the inside, but Tifa knew he would notice it breaking. She watched them navigate the attic, feeling like she'd end up sitting rather hard if she let go of the doorjamb.
"Tifa?" Cloud asked, frowning. "Are you okay?"
"Ah -- yes, yes. It's just a little..." she said, doing her best to smile at him. It had to be even worse for Cloud; he'd suffered so much more personally at Sephiroth's hands. "You know -- in a way it would be easier if we just had to fight."
Cloud looked at her and nodded like he knew what she meant. "Mmh. Uncertainty gets old."
Zack sighed, and Cloud gave him a narrow-eyed look, but the black-haired man didn't explain it.
"I have to tell Denzel," Tifa muttered. "I bet he's still up waiting..."
Cloud handed her his PHS without a word; Tifa typed out the number quickly. The message itself, she hesitated over. She wanted to tell him everything was all right, but then he would want to come home. He was safe where he was, and mature enough not to need her to pretend everything was dandy.
Actually, he probably wouldn't believe her if she told him everything was. In the end she went with 'no injurd., situatn. stable fr now, talkn. will call u back tmrw. go to bed!' He would understand he needed to wait.
Zack waited until she had hit Send and handed the PHS back to Cloud to speak again. "I guess it's time for the long explanation. Let's go back downstairs and we can talk as much as you guys need."
Tifa bit her lip. "I'd rather we used one of the bedrooms. The bar is too far down to hear anything..."
"In case he wakes up? Resilient or not, he won't wake up for a while," Aeris assured her gently. "A normal person wouldn't come out of it on their own for at least a week, and I don't think anything could wake him up that wouldn't get our attention also."
Cloud shrugged. "Bedroom's more comfortable."
Zack sighed again, probably because Cloud's reply sounded a lot like an excuse, but in the end he shook his head ruefully and chuckled. "Bedroom it is."
When they walked down the stairs, Cloud took Tifa's hand and gave it a quick squeeze, and she felt a little better.
There was more space in Tifa's bedroom -- not a lot, but still more than what Cloud's weapons racks left in his own, so that was where she led them. Cloud propped his sword against the wall and sat at the head of her bed, leaning a shoulder against the headboard and crossing his arms loosely over his chest. Unable to settle down, Tifa kept standing, watching as Aeris curled up in her armchair and Zack straddled a stool.
"Where to start..." Zack mused.
"How about you tell us why he's with you first." Cloud's body language was relaxed enough, but his tired eyes weren't.
Zack pressed a hand to his heart and winced, not entirely playfully. "Ouch. That hurts, man. That's your first question?"
Cloud's expression only grew more weary. "It's not that I'm not glad to see you, Zack. But you've been dead six years. Between seeing you again and having him back in the genocide business, it's not even a choice."
Zack flinched and his smile melted into a more subdued expression that Tifa couldn't read.
"You're lucky he's not gonna be killing people then."
Cloud sucked in an irritated, hissing breath. "But how can you tell? He could be playing a game for all we know. If he needed Aeris to bring him back to life..."
"He did agree to be put under, right?" Aeris countered, voice soft. "He stayed, he allowed us to make him sleep. Do you really think he would let anyone make him so vulnerable if he wasn't sincere?"
Tifa bit her lip. That was a good argument. She really didn't want to admit it, but it was. It seemed too tortuous and ... low for the proud, arrogant man she remembered.
Sephiroth -- granted, she hadn't known him much, only that trip in the mountains and then his madness, and the details of the past that Cloud let slip sometimes -- but she thought, even when he was sane, that he would be more likely to tell them what he wanted, and if they said no, he'd skewer them and go get it himself. He wouldn't bother trying such a complicated, risky scheme when kidnapping and torturing them might work faster, more efficiently, and without having him lose control of the situation.
"Maybe he was counting on us thinking that," Cloud replied, looking away from Zack.
Zack snorted and made an unconvinced grimace. "Seph? Counting on people to have common human decency? That'd be the day."
"He's been in my head enough to guess what I would do by now."
Zack gave him a disappointed look. "You don't even believe that, Cloud. You're just looking for excuses to disagree."
Cloud glared at the man, eyes flashing with irritation. "What do you know about what I believe?"
Zack's teeth ground together and he jumped to his feet, startling Tifa. "I believe I can't fucking stand it when you lie to my face! What's your problem? Since when am I the enemy?"
Tifa knew what she expected Cloud to answer, what she would have answered -- 'you were the enemy from the moment you sided with the enemy.' It wasn't what came out of Cloud's mouth.
"What the hell makes him worth it?!"
It wasn't a rejection, line in the sand, you're with us or against us. It was 'Did you abandon me? It hurts.' It took the wind out of Zack's sails; he slumped back on his stool, eyes full of sorrow.
Cloud had risen too; he crossed his arms and sat back down, looked away. There wasn't a lot to look at, apart from the wall and the corner of Tifa's big armchair, where Aeris coiled. Tifa bit her lip and sneaked a pleading look at her -- surely she would find the words to end this argument. But Aeris glanced back at her and then, meaningfully, at Zack, who seemed to be ruminating something.
"Oh hell," the man groaned. "I think after we came back from the dead it's not unmanly at all to have a goddamn group hug." And with that, Zack slipped off his stool, marched to the bed, and threw himself at Cloud's side with such determination the wooden frame groaned.
Tifa winced a little as Cloud startled under the rough, one-armed hug he was subjected to; watching them, she missed Aeris getting up until the woman caught her hand and tugged. "Come on! Let's join them."
"Aeris--" Tifa tried to protest, to no avail.
"Come on," Zack repeated, "Your presence is the only thing that stands between a heartwarming group hug and two dudes man-touching on a bed."
Cloud rolled his eyes. "Right. Your arm on my shoulders, it's practically gay porn."
Aeris gave a dreamy sigh. "If only."
Ignoring Cloud's reaction, she sat at Zack's side and poked him in the ribs, making him squeak. "Move over, mister Hotshot." Cloud tried to move to the head of the bed, but she reached for his sleeve around Zack's back and held him back. "No, not you. I want my hug too."
Cloud glowered a little, but was just embarrassed enough that by the time he opened his mouth to protest, Zack had already switched to his other side and was worming his way between his flank and the headboard. Aeris sat down where Zack had been, leaned her head on Cloud's shoulder.
Tifa felt the curious urge to excuse herself. The three of them -- Zack and his strong hands and regretful eyes, Aeris with her soft, contented little smile, both of them leaning on Cloud who sat stiff and straight, eyes closed, pained. Cloud's best, most steadfast friend and his... Tifa didn't have words for what Aeris had been to him. A friend, a support, a loved one -- someone else who'd gone and died on him. Tifa wasn't sure she should be there if Cloud started to cry. Wasn't sure she shouldn't be elsewhere, before the knot in her throat choked her and she cried, too, for things too complicated to name.
But Aeris still held her hand, tugging gently, stubbornly, until Tifa was on the bed, too, sitting with her shoulder to Aeris's. Aeris slid her hand over, shifted her grip, palm to palm, soothing and warm.
"... No fair, we can't hug miss Lockhart. You're monopolizing her, babe."
Tifa blushed a little, more out of nerves than out of embarrassment, and Aeris stuck out her tongue at Zack over Cloud's bowed head. "There are only so many places in the middle, you know."
"Should have piled up."
Cloud sighed wearily; Zack and Aeris instantly sobered up.
"You two sound like this is all such a big joke at times..."
Zack growled and wrapped an arm around Cloud's back, stubborn. "Oh, shaddap, it wasn't a walk in the park to come back, you know."
"Really?" Cloud asked, a bit too tense under the neutral tone. "It doesn't sound like it, with how much you seem to care."
"Well sorry if I'd rather be happy to be alive again than mope and complain about the trip! It wasn't easy, okay? It wasn't easy at all."
Cloud snuck a peek at Zack from under his bangs, head still hanging, shoulders slumped. Tifa felt compassion well up again. Cloud was so much more confident nowadays, it was strange to see him revert to mannerisms from his darkest hours. She didn't like it. And Cloud was right, it was a little hurtful to see how easily Zack and Aeris tried to smile away their concerns, as if they didn't deserve a serious response. But then she supposed she could see how Zack and Aeris would have a lot to be glad for...
"It was even harder than keeping you from joining us. And while we're on that topic, we're not your personal 'return to life' service, you know."
Tifa didn't get what he meant, but Cloud obviously did. His lips parted as if trying to talk, but it took him a few seconds before anything came out.
"You were really there. In the church." His voice was soft, almost reverent.
Aeris answered just as quietly, "Of course we were there."
"I saw you, but I kind of thought..." Cloud twirled his finger against his temple meaningfully, looking from Aeris to Zack and back to Aeris again.
"That you were seeing things again?" Aeris chuckled softly, and her hand covered Cloud's. "We just wanted to make sure you were... Feeling better."
"From what?" Tifa asked, a little tired of being the only one not to get it. She regretted asking at all when the three of them exchanged looks heavy with a meaning that she once again didn't get.
"Ah... Geostigma," Cloud answered, before she could tell them never mind.
She looked down at her lap. "Oh."
"And -- and that ... depression, I guess it was, and leaving you and Marlene and Denzel alone like an idiot because I thought you guys would be better off if I didn't burden you." He sighed, shoulders slumping.
Tifa managed to smile.
"Stupid is the word," Aeris teased gently, taking the words out of her mouth.
Cloud had told Tifa he'd seen Aeris's ghost, once, quietly, in confidence -- and she'd believed him, because they'd seen enough weird things, and Aeris had been the kind of special that made such strangeness unsurprising; but Tifa herself -- never. Perhaps because she never put herself in the kind of danger that required intervention from Beyond. And Cloud was -- special. She knew that. She acknowledged it.
To Tifa, the last she'd seen her friend had been the day she died before their shocked eyes -- a flash of silver, protruding where cold metal had no business being, and a surprisingly small amount of blood, the chaos of a battle where they desperately tried to stop the monster from trampling her still form, and after that, a lifeless body sinking in a bottomless pool because they'd been too slow, too late.
While it helped to know that Aeris's spirit was still present in some way, still watching over them... It had hurt a bit that Tifa wasn't special enough.
It hurt now, that she still wasn't. She looked down at her foot, swinging it absently back and forth over the wooden floor.
"... I thought you were saying goodbye," Cloud whispered to them, pained.
Cloud closed his eyes; Aeris rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, interlaced their fingers, gave him another kind, rueful smile.
"We never expected to be able to come back at all. Dead is dead, right? We'd accepted that. We just thought... We'd watch over the lot of you, as long as we could, and then... But Jenova seemed to be entirely gone and the troubles that cropped up afterwards weren't anything you needed us for. Or anything we could have done anything about, anyway."
Zack chuckled softly and ruffled Cloud's hair. "Seriously where do you come off, making mundane enemies who'd rather gun you down than summon rocks from outer space."
"Sorry," Cloud said dryly. "I'll stop antagonizing highwaymen now."
"Sounds like a good idea. 'Cause after the last time you went and got yourself shot like an idiot..."
Cloud made a little grimace at the reminder. It was the same face Denzel made when his awesome acrobatics on the neighbor's wooden fence ended up with said neighbor politely handing him a hammer and nails to fix the mess. The similarity made Tifa clench her hands; Aeris shot her a curious look, but Tifa pretended not to notice. It was a Zack expression, she realized that now.
She kept watching the three of them from the corner of her eye, trying not to intrude. Cloud fit so well with them.
"There are tides in the Lifestream, did you know that?"
Cloud arched an eyebrow at Aeris at the non sequitur. "...No?"
"It's more like a sea than like a stream, in the end... The energy swirls and pools and moves in waves, it's beautiful..." Aeris looked thoughtful for a moment. "I didn't realize back then, when I was alive, because Jenova had been disturbing the natural rhythms, but after she was gone... It's like, sometimes, when the Lifestream swells, it brushes the living world, and then when the biggest tide comes there's only just one more step to take to cross over."
Cloud looked away from her.
Aeris sounded a little pained. "It wasn't like we wanted to make you believe we were gone for good... But there was the flow of the Lifestream to stabilize and Jenova's remains to erase, and I didn't even know it was possible. No one ever told me..."
"And that was all you three needed to come back?" Tifa asked with a puzzled frown. "Then -- how come there aren't more? Even if only Cetra can take that last step, surely..."
"Well... There are other conditions as well. There needs to be a body, and I need to have a strong personal connection with the person, and --"
"And what kind of strong connection would you have with Sephiroth?" Cloud interrupted, incredulous.
Aeris's hand clenched on Tifa's fingers, though her voice stayed perfectly friendly. "Well gee, he killed me. How much more personal can you get?"
There was silence then, Cloud going pale and Zack clenching his jaw and Aeris herself with her Cloud-side hand clenched into a fist on her lap. Tifa hadn't expected her to lose patience like this, and she stared, a little shocked.
She hadn't expected Aeris to show any real emotion at all, because so far all she'd shown was controlled gentleness and motherly patience and nothing else.
It felt... distant. Like Aeris was still watching over them all from above, not really part of it, not really there with them.
"Aeris?" she asked quietly. "Are you alright?"
Aeris let out a tired sigh and smoothed her shawl-skirt across her thighs mechanically, shoulders slumping. "... I'm fine. I'm sorry, Cloud. I didn't mean to be flippant, it's just -- when we came back... I was so happy. We were in the pool -- the water was so cold it almost hurt, and it was the most marvelous feeling in the world. And the columns were so solid and graceful, and the sunset through the windows..." She bit her lip. "...And I knew we'd see all of you soon... Aren't you glad to see us at all?"
Cloud looked away, as if the wooden floor suddenly seemed interesting. "Of course I'm glad."
"I'm sorry I snapped." Aeris took in a deep breath, glanced down at Tifa's hand in hers with faint surprise and squeezed a little, comfortingly. "I'm being unfair. I've been in Sephiroth's mind and I just can't be scared of him anymore, but it's not fair to expect you two to take us at our word."
Cloud nodded, and Tifa squeezed her hand, encouraging her to continue.
"Make no mistake, he's still a mess. Jenova worked him over, and he was raised as a human guinea pig by Hojo; it's a miracle he didn't snap earlier..."
"He's still not fine, so why...?" Cloud said.
"He's not, but now he wants to be."
Tifa made a doubtful frown. "So... What you are saying is that he was insane and none of it was really his fault."
"Oh hell no," Zack retorted. "He'll be the first to tell you at length why everything he ever did was his own damn choice and his own damn responsibility. And yeah, a lot of it was," he added quietly. "But being crazy isn't like being unconscious. It's more like lucid dreaming -- everything makes perfect sense at the time. You're the one who makes all the decisions. But the consequences -- it doesn't seem fully real either. And then you wake up and you realize how fucked up the rules you were going by were."
Cloud sighed. "That's a pretty metaphor, but it still tells me jack shit about how he's going to behave and whether I should forget my promise and just put him down in his sleep."
Tifa watched as Zack and Aeris exchanged a look that said volumes. "If we thought he'd need killing again, we wouldn't have helped him back," Zack said gently, and patted Cloud's back. Cloud exhaled slowly, eyes closed.
Tifa looked down at her feet. "But does he deserve to be alive again?" She swallowed; it was a little painful. "After everyone he's killed, all the suffering he's caused -- he didn't seem like a very different person to me. He was all ... aggressive and sarcastic and... Why is he -- why did you two...?"
Aeris sounded surprised, as if she hadn't expected that, and it hurt. Tifa's head snapped up; and she knew she looked a little accusing but she couldn't stop it. It was like she didn't even remember he'd killed Tifa's father, left him bleeding out on the ground for Tifa to trip over. "Why does he deserve to be alive again, when all those innocents he's killed don't?"
Zack and Aeris didn't have an answer for her. Zack chuckled without humor, and Aeris watched her with sad eyes that bothered Tifa. It was almost as if Aeris was disappointed in her. Cloud's back was stiff, his head low, face hidden behind his hair.
"It's not about the most deserving, Tifa," Aeris said softly.
Tifa's voice sharpened with frustration. "Then what is it about?"
"I had to know the person to bring them back. I had to know the exact shape of their mind. And I'm not even sure it could have worked with ... say, Cid, or Vincent. We didn't have time to get very close. Sephiroth... I touched his mind, and it almost wasn't enough."
Tifa left the bed, standing in front of them, too agitated to keep sitting at the end of the line. She didn't care about the technicalities. "But why bother?"
Zack shrugged and gave her a smile that looked fake to her. "Hey, stubborn as he is, he'd have found a way. He didn't want to die, and -- well, Jenova or not, he still has a hell of a lot of raw power. Like that it's less traumatic for everyone, right?"
Tifa pulled her hand free from Aeris's hold and clenched it at her side. "That's not a reason, that's an excuse."
They both stared at her, fake, distancing smiles gone.
"I'm curious," Aeris said eventually. Her tone was a calm, measured kind that aimed to explain, but didn't apologize one inch. "I want to see how he grows, what he will become. What he does with his potential, this time around."
Tifa's back stiffened. "... Curious?"
Zack took over; though this time he didn't insult Tifa by trying to placate her with a smile. He was deadly serious as he answered, looking her straight in the eye. "I'm selfish. I want him here because I love him."
"But -- he turned on you. Tried to kill you," Tifa reminded him, utterly baffled. He hadn't even changed his mind at the last second; if Cloud hadn't stopped it he would have gone through with it right there. And he was the reason Zack and Cloud had been captured and experimented on, the reason they became fugitives, the reason Zack ended up getting gunned down. She didn't get it, how Zack could really mean it even now.
Zack nodded soberly. "Yeah. Pissed me off. I still loved him. Hated him for a good long while, mind -- but even then I still loved him."
Cloud's back hunched a little more. Zack gave him a sad look, and rubbed gently between his shoulder blades.
"Sorry, blondie. I'm not happy with dumping this mess on your lap."
Cloud's voice came muffled, less by his position than by all those emotions he wasn't letting through. "Didn't stop you doing it."
"Yeah," Zack said quietly. "Yeah. Like I said, I'm a selfish bastard. I don't like to let go of my people."
They all sat in silence for a minute, everyone watching Cloud's bowed head. Tifa thought briefly that it was unfair, the way everyone kept pinning everything on him.
But it had to be him, she knew. As equal as they all professed to be, he had been the driving force of Avalanche, the keystone without which nothing would hold up. This time around didn't seem like it would be different.
"Let's sleep on it." Cloud didn't straighten up. "We're all tired. We'll call the others and see what they think tomorrow."
He climbed on his feet; Zack's hand fell off his back, Aeris didn't move to hold him. Just like Tifa, they could tell that he wouldn't have welcomed it.
"Denzel's bed is too small, so you two can have mine. Mind sharing?"
Sighing, Aeris got up too, and smiled, though it seemed sad to Tifa. "It's fine. We'll see you in the morning then?"
Tifa stepped aside and watched them as Cloud walked them through the short distance to his own bedroom door, on the other side of the corridor. She met Zack's eyes briefly as he murmured his goodnights, and then their door closed, and Cloud came back to her room. He closed that door too, and then they were alone in a silence so heavy she sank back on the bed under its weight.
There were things she wanted to ask him about, things she and Cloud should probably discuss now, without the two of them. She couldn't formulate a single one properly.
"...Let's sleep, Tifa."
Biting her lip, she nodded without looking at him. She toed off her shoes and crawled across the bed to the far side. The lights went off.
When he followed her under the covers, she wished it could have been one of those times he knocked at her door and joined her to make love. She felt around for his hand and squeezed.
She could still feel the warmth of Aeris's fingers, but she didn't know if that was a comfort anymore.
Cloud had been asleep for a grand total of three hours when his cell phone rang. Frowning fuzzily, he grabbed for it, already trying to word a way to explain he wasn't taking jobs right now that wouldn't alienate the customer forever. Customer management was the kind of skill that needed his concentration, so he almost asked the other man to repeat.
And then it clicked and the words made sense.
"Cloud, it's Reeve. We need you and Tifa in Wutai. Yuffie's father died."
"Heart attack, apparently."
Cloud ran his fingers through sleep-tangled hair and checked the time on his cell phone. Barely five AM. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, wishing he could have slept a little longer before getting the news. What time was it in Wutai? He didn't know.
"Oh... Poor Yuffie. That's..."
Cloud nodded, head bowed. Of the whole Avalanche gang, she'd been the only one to still have family; Tifa's father and Cloud's mother were gone with Nibelheim, Bugenhagen had passed on a year or so ago, and even if Cid still had relatives, by now they'd been estranged longer than not.
"She's still so young..."
Cloud had been younger when his mom died, but drugged as he'd been, he hadn't fully realized he was an orphan until he was about the age she was now.
It was always a little strange to remember that Yuffie was almost twenty-one. For them she was still a bratty teenager, the baby of the group. Still acted like it, too, all rashness and impulsive decisions. Cloud wondered if she would act like that again from now on.
His phone beeped; he checked the screen, frowned. "The Shera will be in Kalm to get Barret in five hours, it leaves us one hour to get ready before we have to drive over." He glanced at Tifa, voice quiet. "If we're both going with the bike. If you take the van, you should probably leave earlier."
He wasn't sure he should go. On one hand, Yuffie would need emotional support, and Reeve wanted them there as fast as possible. On the other hand, Tifa was better at comfort and he didn't want to be a continent away if Sephiroth woke up. Zack... Cloud remembered him from his teenage days as awe-inspiringly strong, but he had no clue how that measured up to the levels Cloud and Sephiroth were at, now. And he didn't know much about Aeris's magic.
But Yuffie wasn't just a grieving girl. Now that her father had died, she was Lady Yuffie, Shogun of Wutai.
Reeve had mentioned that. Almost offhandedly.
It wasn't something that should have had a place in a conversation about a mourning friend. Not if the mourning part was the only thing they had to care about.
Cloud frowned and left the bed, turning on the ceiling light. He didn't follow Wutai politics all that closely, but everyone knew Yuffie had done her very best to dodge her father's attempts to groom her as his successor the way he saw fit. Lord Godo had taught her some, but not nearly as much as he could have. Her way to help Wutai was to roam the world, looking for things to bring home, and to train its children in martial arts so they wouldn't be powerless if attacked again; Cloud couldn't imagine her sitting on a throne, doing paperwork, or dealing with ministers. She wasn't patient or subtle in the slightest.
She was going to need someone to watch out for the sharks in the water, just as much as she would need friends to comfort her.
"... Mmh. I was just thinking about politics." He pulled on the shirt he'd taken off, only a few hours ago, and stepped back into his shoes. "It wouldn't hurt to show that she has powerful friends..."
"Ah, I see." Tifa looked even more worried now; evidently it hadn't been her first thought.
"Reeve won't be able to stay with her long. He has WRO to take care of..." Cloud went through their list of friends in his mind. Cid would offend and scandalize every single nobleman in Wutai before a week; Barret would prompt them to demand a duel by the end of the first day. Red could be wise, but he had little experience with human politics, and people would see him as more of a talking guard dog than as a sharp-minded advisor -- which could be an asset, but only if Yuffie had someone else to rest on more visibly, to discourage people from even trying. Vincent, maybe, if he could be found in time...
And maybe Yuffie's father had been smart and had perfectly competent advisors ready to step in and support her to the end. It was hard to trust outsiders, though... But from their point of view, Cloud was probably the one who was an outsider.
And they had Sephiroth in the attic to worry about, too.
God, he couldn't even really wrap his mind about that one. His thoughts kept skittering away from it.
"I'm going to wake up Zack and Aeris," he said. Perhaps they would have insight -- perhaps not, but they needed to be told anyway.
When he opened Tifa's bedroom door, he was faced with Zack, who was already peering through Cloud's own bedroom door, bleary-eyed and his hair just as much of a mess as Cloud's own. He seemed to have helped himself to a pair of Cloud's boxer shorts.
"Was that a phone?"
Even now, with so many pressing worries, his voice still made a little thrill of shock go up Cloud's back. Zack was real. If Cloud reached out, his hand would find sleep-warm flesh. He didn't reach, even though his history of vivid hallucinations still insisted he needed to make sure.
"Yeah. Yuffie -- one of our friends, her father just died."
Zack gave him a commiserating look and stepped back, allowing Cloud to stand in the doorway. Aeris was curled up on her side in the middle of the bed, her long hair strewn in waves over Cloud's pillows. Cloud wanted to laugh a little, imagining her slender body relegating big strong Zack to the edge of the mattress. It was surprisingly easy to see.
It made him wish he'd forgotten about their stupid argument and spent the night watching them sleep. Even with the knowledge that today would be exhausting no matter what he chose to do, he couldn't feel like it would have been time wasted.
He blinked and looked at Zack. The man stood with his hand on the doorjamb, head tilted expectantly.
"--Ah. I'm just woolgathering. Tired."
Zack nodded, and then slung an arm around Cloud's neck without warning. Cloud twitched and had to force himself to relax.
"I'm gonna have to train you all over again, I see," Zack said with a little too much good cheer for this topic and this hour of the night. Cloud sent him a half-hearted glare, which he undermined some more when he didn't even try to get free.
"I'm not that bad anymore," he said, rueful. Granted, he still had a healthy sense of personal space, but that was nothing like how averse to physical contact he'd been when he joined the army.
Zack was just as warm as Cloud had suspected. Solid, too. Cloud wished he could just bask a little longer, but there was precious little time to waste. He shrugged his shoulders; Zack sighed, and ruffled his hair affectionately before letting go.
"What are you gonna do?"
Cloud ran a hand over his face, futilely trying to kickstart his brain. "I don't know. It's not like I can just decide not to go -- it's her father's funerals. She might forgive me eventually, but I'd never forgive myself. But..."
Zack rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, where is it? If it's not too far, you could hop over and come back..."
"Did I mention Yuffie is Lord Godo's only heir, or even family?" Cloud asked with a touch of cynicism. Zack's wince turned into a full-blown grimace.
"You've got interesting buddies... Aw hell, so there's all that stiff upper lip business on top of it. She's gonna need friends even more." Zack sighed. "But it's not like you can stuff him in a crate and bring him along. Pretty sure the Wutainese wouldn't be too happy to have a grumpy, half-awake Silver Demon doing a jack-in-the-box impression in the middle of their court."
Cloud groaned, in full agreement. "Taking him along is right out." He had visions of a riot in the city, people trying to throw the sleeping man on Lord Godo's funeral pyre... "Yeah, definitely out."
Zack nodded. "Okay, so Seph stays in his tower."
Cloud blinked at him. What...? -- oh, right. Sleeping princess. The thought of the Demon General in a pretty dress awaiting true love's kiss startled a small chuckle out of him, mostly because of how brain-breaking it was.
"... If I stay here to guard him, everyone is going to demand to know why. Yuffie doesn't need the stress now. But if I go, I'll never be back in time if anything happens."
"Aeris and I can't go anyway," Zack said with blunt practicality. "It's not like a funeral is the best place to go 'heya! We just returned from the dead, how'd you do'."
Cloud grimaced faintly. "That... would probably be bad." And wasn't that an understatement.
"So there you have it. We stay, you go. Tell people afterwards."
Cloud tried not to look too skeptical, but from Zack's vaguely offended glare he didn't succeed. "Aeris isn't an offensive fighter, and I'm not sure you can win against him on your own."
"I could hold him back long enough for Aeris to knock him out again, if he wanted to run. We make a good team." Zack yawned, stretched his arms over his head, muscles rolling under tanned skin. You would think being dead for so long would leave him out of shape, Cloud thought confusedly. But then again it wasn't really Zack's body...
"See something you like?"
Cloud jerked, tearing his eyes away from Zack's chest. The man was laughing silently, shoulders shaking with mirth.
"...You're not conceited at all, are you."
"Aw, poor tired, zoning-out Cloudypoo."
"Cloudypoo?" Cloud got a headpat for his troubles, and halfheartedly batted Zack's hand away. "Will you quit it already. I'm twenty-six, not sixteen."
Zack seemed sincerely taken aback for a second. "... Really? Wow. My baby is all grown up."
He sobered up, crossing his arms over his bare chest and leaning against the wall. He gazed up at the ceiling, a frown on his face.
"Not sure what kind of security measures we could take that would satisfy you..."
"He's resilient to magic, if I recall right," Cloud said. "I'm not sure the Sleep spell will hold long. Maybe pills..."
"Nah, a chocobo dose would only keep him down for a few hours, and when he'd wake up he'd have a drug hangover to take out on us."
Zack had said the last bit as a joke, but Cloud couldn't help but visualize it happening, and he grimaced. "Mnh. I might find restraints that would hold him in Hojo's old lab in the Shinra tower ruins..."
"Shit, Cloud." Zack stared at him, visibly pained. "Are you sure you really want to do that?"
Cloud felt a little sick at the very mention of the labs, of the possibility he'd have to return there, but he made himself consider it anyway, forcing past his visceral reaction. No one deserved the labs. Not even Sephiroth? Used as punishment it made him feel dirty -- as if Hojo was looking over his shoulder being proud, shit, either kill him or don't, he didn't torture people. But in everyone else's best interests... He didn't know. It wasn't like he planned to cut Sephiroth open, and the examination tables were built pretty sturdy, with lots of straps to distribute the pressure and keep from digging too sharply into flesh...
He imagined falling asleep in a dusty attic and waking on gleaming metal. Strapped down flat on his back, all that strength useless. And the scent, Hojo always had everything cleaned with manic precision but the stench of chemicals and fear never went away. He could almost smell it now; if he inhaled too deeply he feared he'd be there again.
"... I... No." Cloud chuckled a little, though the sound held little actual amusement. "Hell no. If he isn't crazy now, he would be if he woke up like that."
Zack nodded, opened his mouth to say something else, but then Cloud felt his barrier pop like a soap bubble and stiffened.
"Get Aeris," he said as he darted in his dark bedroom to get a sword and a handful of Materia from the rack. "Tifa's in the shower. Get ready to move them. Barrier's down."
He went to the staircase without waiting for an answer, stalked up to the attic. He didn't know whether Zack would have asked to come with him, or told him to relax; both were unacceptable. As far as he knew Sephiroth had woken up refreshed and ready to mow down a crowd of civilians or two before breakfast. If Zack tried to follow, Cloud would just kick him down the stairs.
At first glance he could see no one in the attic. The window was closed; the latch was on the inside so if Sephiroth had slipped out through there it should have been left ajar. The thought came to Cloud that perhaps Sephiroth had just moved in his sleep; it didn't look like he had left, they would have crossed paths in the stairwell. Cloud slowly moved across the wooden floor, sword ready, stepped around the chest of drawers blocking the view.
Sephiroth sat on the edge of his mattress, long legs crossed loosely, one of them extended over the planks just far enough to pierce the barrier.
Cloud came to a stop just beside the chest of drawers and watched him.
It was -- strange. Strange expression on Sephiroth's face, almost absent, eyes unfocused; strange position, as if he'd deliberately popped the barrier to warn Cloud he was up.
No -- not 'as if'.
He could have left. He hadn't.
Cloud wondered if Sephiroth had come awake with the thought that it was time to die.
"Strife," the man said, looking up at him.
When he gave a faint nod of greeting, Cloud couldn't help but nod back, polite, his sword still held firm and ready.
Sephiroth ignored the weapon, looked up at the skylight with a neutral expression that didn't, to Cloud's eyes, manage to hide a trace of wistfulness. Outside a couple of stars melted away into the first blush of dawn.
"You'll have a better view if you get up," Cloud said quietly, and even to himself couldn't tell why.
Sephiroth looked at him then, surprise lurking in his strangely solemn eyes. Cloud wanted to cross his arms defensively, say he could still change his mind and would Sephiroth prefer that? But it might have... he didn't know. Broken something, ended it. So he stood quiet and waited.
Sephiroth slowly unfolded his legs and climbed to his feet, picked his way through the clutter. He didn't try to open the window. He didn't look at Edge or the ruins of Midgar -- just at the sky.
It was a little surreal. The strange backdrop of the attic, the civil behavior, that proud and lethal almost-god standing barefoot and shirtless in the dust for the privilege of taking in the view of rusty Edge through a dirty window.
"It's early for a phone call."
Cloud frowned, startled out of his thoughts. "That's what woke you up?"
"Yes." Sephiroth glanced sideway at him. A hint of humor sparked in his green eyes and went into hiding again. Cloud arched an eyebrow, prompting him; while Sephiroth still didn't look directly at him, he did keep talking. "That ring tone..."
Heh. It did sound similar to the one assigned to President Shinra's personal line. "Afraid of another callgirl emergency?"
It was only when Sephiroth turned to meet his eyes that Cloud realized he shouldn't have known about the time a prostitute left with the content of Shinra Senior's personal safe. Shouldn't have remembered Seph's execrable mood when he stalked in the mess hall and growled in clipped words that he'd spent half the day at Don Corneo's and the rest combing the slums for a whore he hadn't even found in the end, and good riddance to her; that would teach Shinra to call the police next time instead of an army general. Shouldn't have known what that ring tone sounded like, because he had never heard it.
Shouldn't even have understood, from so many silences, that the little ups and downs of Sephiroth's ordinary Shinra days were even still remembered, after he'd tried to ascend to godhood and everything that ensued.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, staring at Cloud as if trying to guess how much he knew and how. But if there was a list of things Cloud didn't want to discuss with him, that unexplainable moment of understanding was probably close to the top.
"Phone call was from Wutai," he said, not even knowing why he bothered to tell him except that he needed a distraction. "Lord Godo Kisaragi just died."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow. "Assassinated?"
Cloud was taken aback. "Not to my knowledge." But now the possibility was a little more present in his mind. There were poisons that could make it look natural -- especially in Wutai.
Sephiroth's thoughts had followed a different direction. "It seems an internal matter. Why were you called?"
Cloud arched an eyebrow. Yuffie had been there when they crossed paths -- but then again he probably hadn't really made the link, or cared to remember. "Yuffie Kisaragi was part of Avalanche."
"Ah. I see." By his faintly puzzled frown it was obvious he couldn't place her, though.
"Scrawny brunette with a boomerang. She whacked you a couple of times."
The frown didn't change. "... If you say so."
Cloud snorted quietly, amused despite his best judgment.
"Who is next in line after... Lady Kisaragi?"
"Why on earth do you want to know?" Cloud asked, instantly suspicious.
Sephiroth turned to face him, neutral, almost blank. "Would she be desperate enough to commit suicide?"
Cloud stiffened. "Hell no she wouldn't. What --"
Sephiroth lifted a hand to ask for a little more patience; Cloud didn't know why he granted it.
"Is her public persona such that her subjects could believe it of her?"
"...What are you implying?"
Sephiroth crossed his arms loosely, head tilted with casual elegance. "That back when his wife died, Lord Godo spent a lot of time avoiding well-meaning attempts to help him join her. Not all of them came from Shinra." Cloud stared; Sephiroth sent him a cynical look. "Wutai politics owe a lot to their status as a warrior nation."
He couldn't be serious. Could he?
"Warrior," Cloud said. "Not politician. How is that even comparable?"
"The only difference between politics and war is that in politics your hands have to look clean while you bury your enemy six feet under. The burying itself need not be metaphorical."
Cloud hissed between clenched teeth. "Enough. I get it. Why are you telling me that?"
Sephiroth nodded his head toward the window and the lightening sky outside.
A warning in thanks for being allowed to see a sunrise? Damn it, the bastard wasn't allowed to make him feel guilty. Cloud grunted an acknowledgement and leaned on his sword, pretending not to care, not to notice the General's face as his eyes roamed over the rough landscape. From the window Cloud knew you could only see a little of Midgar's ruins and the old reactors; then there was Edge and its salvage-built houses, and the half-dead plains stretching far behind.
"I do have a noted tendency to paranoia," Sephiroth allowed.
Cloud had one too; and now with some corroborating facts his own paranoia was flaring up. "They wouldn't believe it," he said. "Not Yuffie. She's too... No. She's very public about her opinion on giving up."
"Then for the moment at least she is safe. It would look too suspicious if she had an accident so soon."
Cloud shook his head in disbelief at the whole situation. Sephiroth was being so polite, it was so wrong. "You're trying to mess with my head, aren't you," he said, and didn't even know how serious the comment was, how much he actually believed it.
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at him in that aristocratic, 'beg pardon?' way. "... I assure you I'm not."
"Uh huh. Right, so--"
Aeris's voice rang from the staircase. "Cloud?"
A jolt of pure adrenaline ran through his veins at the thought of her coming into the danger zone. It didn't even matter that she'd been fine for hours before he found them yesterday, or how civil Sephiroth was acting at the moment. Cloud stiffened and called back, "Stay where you are! I'll be there in a minute."
The moment was definitely over. He didn't have to tell Sephiroth so; the man just turned away from the window and sat on the mattress, legs crossed.
Cloud stood in front of him in silence, and then shook his head at his own soft-heartedness and said briskly, "You might wake up again. Whatever happens, don't leave the room. I'll take it as a breach of our agreement." They both knew what would follow if that happened.
"That was always understood, Mister Strife."
The hint of mockery in his voice made it easy for Cloud to cast, dropping him like a stone with no warning. Sephiroth's eyes fluttered closed and he toppled backwards on the mattress, folded legs slowly relaxing, dragging on the wooden floor.
Under the dirt, the bottom of his feet was crisscrossed with half-healed slices and puncture marks.
Sector Five. The field of rubble and glass he'd crossed barefoot. He'd never mentioned it, of course, never showed it on his face. Damn him.
None of it looked infected -- it wouldn't get infected easily, not with his mako levels, but the wounds were still dirty. Growling under his breath, Cloud reached for a healing spell -- and then he paused. His first instinct was to fix him, because it was wrong to let someone go without treatment, prisoner or not -- but this was Sephiroth. Slaughterer of many, threat to the human race and the Planet as a whole, cold-blooded enemy of everything that lived. Of course he hadn't complained, he had known Cloud wouldn't pity him for a few scrapes.
Cloud still didn't pity him. And even then it was still wrong.
He threw a healing spell at him, the knitting flesh pushing out the debris, and then in quick succession cast two layered bubble shields around the mattress, and a spell of Silence on top; Sephiroth had no Materia at hand anyway, it didn't matter if he was made unable to cast, but Cloud knew from experience it would muffle sounds, make them harder to comprehend or pay attention to, and perhaps the waking town wouldn't disturb the man again. After that he turned around and stalked out, and he didn't look back.
Aeris woke up more exhausted than she'd been when she fell asleep. Things were dark and heavy, and oh, she was so tired.
"...ris, babe, wake up."
The world wasn't green and entangled and there. She shivered, confused, sought the voice that was a million voices, found nothing. The silence -- the absence -- was deafening.
"Aeris, c'mon, hon. Cloud and Tifa need you."
An image, Zack leaning over her. No presence. So strange. She opened her eyes again, and squinted at Zack's face ... fuzzy around the edges until she blinked him into focus, and then he was solid and clear as he had never been back in the -- "Oh."
Aeris closed her eyes, took in a deep breath of slightly musty man-bedroom air, and laughed.
"... Um. What? Do I have something on my face?"
It was so strange not to feel him -- his personality, his mind, his soul. So strange not to communicate that way, half deliberate words and half entangled edges-of-self. But his warmth, his voice -- they were better than her memories. Grinning up at Zack, she reached to pat his cheek. Her hand was heavy.
"No, seriously, what's so funny?"
She poked his nose with a finger and nudged him back to give herself the space to sit up. When she stretched her arms overhead, her muscles ached all the way down her back. It was marvelous. Her head wouldn't clear, though. She yawned. "I hope you have a great reason not to let me sleep."
Zack sobered up; so did she, smile falling away. Had something happened with Sephiroth?
"Yuffie's dad passed away."
Aeris's first reflex was to say 'no, he hasn't,' Because she would have known, wouldn't she? "Are you sure?" she asked instead, fingers curling in the blankets on her lap.
Zack gave her a surprised look. "Cloud and Tifa are expected for the service, so... Yeah, kinda."
Aeris shook her head, surprised despite herself. She knew better than to count on her gift -- it had always been erratic. She didn't know Yuffie's father that well anyway, they'd only met once; it wasn't such a surprise that she hadn't felt him cross over. Perhaps it was the tides, the closeness of the Lifestream waning, pulling away from her... She wasn't in the Lifestream anymore; of course the all-present knowing would stop.
Back when she was alive the first time, she had known for her mother's husband that she had never met, known before Elmyra Gainsborough did, because Elmyra's husband was connected to Elmyra, and Elmyra was connected to her. She had known for Zack, even though at the time she hadn't been able to put a name to that sudden, unprompted sorrow.
"Hm. It can't happen all the time, I guess," she said quietly. Zack tilted his head and gave her an inquisitive look.
"What can't happen all the time?"
"Ah, nothing important. Woolgathering again." She slipped out of bed, wobbling, and leaned on Zack for a second, for warmth more than for balance. She'd forgotten how touching someone felt. How heavy and solid, so little like touching minds in the Lifestream and yet so much more comforting in a strange, animal way.
"Cloud's upstairs with Seph," Zack said quietly. "Trying to decide whether to stay or go. Told me to get ready to move you and Tifa out."
Aeris winced. "I see." She needed to make sure they weren't arguing. "I'll be right back," she told Zack, and slipped out of the bedroom.
"Wait for Tifa," she said without turning back. She stepped in the staircase.
The attic was silent; she didn't know whether that was a good sign.
The answer came back right away, tense and stern, making her wince. "Stay where you are! I'll be there in a minute."
Aeris hesitated. She would have liked to see Sephiroth, exchange a few words perhaps, in the rare event that he felt sociable. In the end, though, it would hurt Cloud's feelings if she disregarded his warning. She didn't want another argument.
Cloud came along after a short time, a sword propped on his shoulder, his expression already weary. But he smiled at her anyway, eyes lingering on her face, drinking her in. She smiled back. Oh, Cloud. She wished she hadn't had to drag up all those old hurts.
She preceded him down to the corridor, bare feet light on the floor. The sensation was strange, distracting. She splayed her toes and smiled.
"... What are you doing?"
Aeris chuckled and turned to face him. "Wooden floors. I missed them."
She couldn't help but laugh at his bemused expression. "I missed everything."
"Oh," he said quietly, and nothing else, so she stepped closer and leaned against him, her side to his chest, her head on his shoulder.
"Everything. But you and our friends the most."
He breathed out in her hair, an arm coming up to hug her shoulders briefly. "...I missed fresh-baked bread a lot, when I was in the labs."
Aeris huffed and poked him in the chest with an accusing finger. "Of course you say that in the middle of the night, when all the bakeries will be closed."
Cloud chuckled softly as he leaned away from her. She allowed him to put some distance back between them, her own smile growing more subdued.
"I want you to promise me he's going to stay asleep."
Aeris blinked and tilted her head, not sure how to read that. "Well, of course. Isn't that what we agreed on? The neighborhood will be safe, I promise."
Cloud shook his head, allowing her to see exactly how tired he was. "I don't want you to promise that the neighborhood will be safe, Aeris. I want you to promise that you will keep casting those Sleep spells, and he will stay under, and at no time will he wake up."
For a second she was a little hurt that he was looking at her like that -- as if he couldn't quite trust her to be on his side, to respect his decisions. But there was precedent, wasn't there? She hadn't asked anyone's opinion before going to pray for Holy either. She still didn't regret it.
"I admit it might be... tempting," she said quietly, "to sit him down at a table and feed him, or allow him to take a bath. Or look out of a window."
She caught a strange expression on Cloud's face, but it was gone too fast for her to read it. She tilted her head in question, but he was impassive once again.
"... I know you'll be the one who has to kill him if I'm wrong." She didn't think she was wrong, but she knew that wasn't the sticking point.
"I do trust you," Cloud said, a bit fast, like he'd been rehearsing it and he wanted to be sure, sure she got it. "But ... I'm the one he gave the right to judge him. That means I'm responsible."
She placed a hand on his chest, fingers spread open. "I know, Cloud. I won't let him wake up. I promise."
Cloud gave a slow nod, shoulders relaxing. "And you won't let Zack wake him up either?"
She rolled her eyes at him, amused. "How many copies do you want that contract in?"
Cloud snorted quietly, and his eyes softened.
"Because I'm sure we could get Reeve's legal team on it, if we ask nicely..."
Zack emerged from the corner of the corridor and peeked at them. He was smiling, but Aeris could tell he was worried.
"I'm going to Wutai," Cloud said decisively.
"You are?" Zack blinked, taken aback. "-- I mean, okay. Of course you are. Ah, but don't worry, we'll hold down the fort!"
Aeris chuckled. Subtle way to pretend they hadn't noticed something had made Cloud Strife change his mind. Not really.
"That's what I'm worried about," Cloud muttered, and accepted another Zack Fair hair ruffle with minimum grumbling.
"Don't be like that. Everything will go just fine."
"Yeah, about that," Cloud said, nudging him in the ribs with an elbow. "Like I told Aeris, I'll be much obliged if you don't wake him up. At all. For any reason."
"What if there's a fire?" Zack asked, not quite managing to make it sound like a joke.
"He'll burn," Cloud retorted, but it didn't even sound angry. Defensive, yes, but it was more like a memory of anger, the awareness that he perhaps should have been. "... Shove him in a potato sack and drag him out if you really have to. Just don't wake him. I know the spell will wear off, but... Just cast again. Please."
Zack sighed, surrendering. "Aye-aye, sir."
"How about you go tell Tifa and take a shower?" Aeris suggested to end the uncomfortable conversation. "We'll make you two something to eat; you're going to be in transit a while."
"That'd be great, thanks," Cloud said, and walked off down the corridor, still looking preoccupied.
Zack followed Aeris down the staircase, though he gave the ascending flight a lingering look.
"Don't push it right now, Zack," she cautioned.
"I wasn't going to. It just kind of sucks, you know."
Aeris smiled at him over her shoulder. "Sometimes Cloud does need nagging, but where Sephiroth is concerned, I guarantee things will go a lot faster if we let him convince himself. Case in point..."
Zack blinked, nodded thoughtfully, and gave her a little smile.
Her kitchen was full of dead people.
By full of course Tifa only meant two, and neither "dead" nor "undead" sounded quite like the right term -- formerly deceased? -- but they seemed to command all the space nonetheless.
Well. Aeris did. The only part of Zack's anatomy Tifa could see from the door was his ass, as he folded in two to check the contents of the bottom of the fridge; and while it did attract some attention, she wouldn't have called it 'commanding', exactly.
Then she noticed the bruise-colored shadows under Aeris' eyes and the faint tiredness in her smile of greeting, and then the girl stopped looking so otherworldly.
"Good morning," Tifa said, smiling crookedly.
She stepped into the kitchen, glad for the towel she was twisting around her wet hair, keeping her hands busy. Zack waved at her over the fridge door and then plunged back in. Tifa was rather glad for that too. She didn't have the faintest idea what to say to him.
She didn't know what to say to Aeris either, except a quiet "Thank you" when Aeris picked up the coffee pot and waved it toward the cups meaningfully.
Damp towel across her shoulders, Tifa sat, watching the black liquid pour in. It gave her the strange feeling of being a guest in her own kitchen, but that only added a little disquieting, embarrassed note to the rest of the confusion.
"Yes, please. ...The top shelf. Thank you."
"Aha! Ham," Zack exclaimed, brandishing the paper-wrapped slices, startling her.
"... Yes?" Tifa inquired, blinking.
"It's to make the two of you sandwiches for the road. You'll be in transit for a while, right?"
"I'm sure Cid will have food onboard his ship, though..."
Zack looked disappointed for a second, almost enough to make her want to apologize; but he just put the ham back in and started rummaging again. Tifa took a sip of coffee. The kitchen felt full of things unsaid.
In one way, she felt like she knew him -- from the little Cloud had shared, from the lot he'd implied, or assumed, or had nightmares about. Zack had been part of her background for so long. In another, much more concrete way, to Tifa he was a virtual stranger, an acquaintance at best. But he behaved in such a casually friendly way...
"Chocolate okay? -- oho, strawberry jam."
Tifa smiled a little, though that was mostly politeness, an acknowledgement of his efforts. "That would be nice. Thank you."
Yesterday's argument weighed on her mind still, unresolved, souring the wonder she should have felt. And then there was Yuffie, the grief she must be dealing with... Tifa was just glad the two of them seemed to be content with empty platitudes, content to put deeper matters on hold until next time.
Cloud wouldn't be long. Tifa drained the rest of her cup decisively and picked up the PHS recharging on the counter. No messages. She thought for a second, then entered Denzel's number. It was late -- early -- but if she woke him up he could always sleep in Cid's ship...
She got the answering service.
"Tifa? What's wrong?"
Tifa realized she was chewing on her lip and glanced at Aeris. "Denzel put his PHS in sleep mode. He's not answering."
"Do you think something happened?" Zack said immediately, straightening up as he stared at her face.
Tifa realized how tense she was, and let her shoulders relax with a long sigh. "No, no. I mean, the three of you, plus Yuffie's father, plus some unrelated enemy who would know where to find him, it would be a bit much for one night. I just thought he'd want to come." That, and she couldn't help but want him far away from everything Sephiroth-related if Cloud wasn't around to keep an eye on things.
Zack nodded slowly and leaned a hip against the table. "Just go and pick him up, then."
"I would if I knew where he was staying," Tifa replied with some frustration.
"...Huh. You don't know?"
Tifa turned away from him and started fussing with the toaster. "No. He has his PHS and I know he's safe, that's good enough."
It made her sound like a bad parent, even though she trusted Denzel fine; she knew he had a roof over his head and a responsible adult that she likely knew personally keeping an eye on him -- she had made sure to meet all his friends' parents, just in case.
She hadn't wanted to know with which one of his friends he had chosen to stay, because if she didn't know then no one could force it out of her. She didn't want to say that; it sounded so dramatic.
A toast popped out. Too early. She pushed it back in with her fingertips and reset the timer. Cloud had fiddled with it again, she could tell.
"It's alright, he can join us later -- Cid's freighter planes do a couple trips a day, we'll arrange something. I'll ask Elmyra if she can drive him, send Denzel a message to get in touch with her..."
She paused as the quality of the silence behind her shifted, and then realized.
Aeris was standing by the counter, a strange smile on her face.
It was easy enough to fake Aeris's default attitude: her serene, self-assured friendliness. But the girl Tifa had known had been so much more than the impartially benevolent goddess some people painted her as, afterwards. So different.
She'd been the most horrible kind of tease; and even though she rarely spread any gossip, she sure liked to hear it; and she loved to play armchair psychologist; and when you were sad or discouraged she was more likely to prod you to get back up on your feet than comfort you -- she'd been human. She looked human right now, lost in a too-large shirt and with that smile on her lips that failed to be quite as confidently reassuring as it aimed to be -- too shaky. Too true.
"It's okay, I just -- Mom." She gave a watery chuckle. "Is -- is she well?"
Oh. Tifa stepped closer slowly, heart constricting in shared pain. It was a good pain, though, she could tell -- a hopeful kind of yearning. "She's fine. She still lives in Kalm -- Barret and I drive there every other weekend with the children. Marlene calls her Grandma, you know," she added quietly.
Aeris closed her eyes, steadying herself, and gave a little chuckle that was only slightly less shaky than the previous one. "I bet she likes that."
"A lot." Now it wasn't so hard to reach out, touch Aeris's shoulder, give a soft, understanding smile. "When we come back... I'll drive you there, alright? She'll be so happy."
Aeris let out a little sigh and leaned against Tifa's shoulder, eyes still closed. "That would be really nice. And I think your toast is burning."
Tifa blinked, but Zack was already leaning over the table to get to the toaster, so she didn't have to step away from Aeris. She blushed a little; she'd forgotten the man was there for a short moment. Even now he was trying to be unobtrusive, which wasn't very easy when you were juggling hot toast and yelping. Tifa chuckled, and Aeris too, when she opened her eyes to see what was funny.
"... I'm fine. I don't know what came over me..."
Tifa nudged her gently with an elbow. "Yes, I really don't know, I mean, it isn't like she's your mother or you haven't seen her in years and thought you never would again or anything..."
Aeris gave a little huff, and then one of those brilliant grins that always startled Tifa with all the life they packed. "Alright! I'll hold you to that. It's good you offered, because I like the idea of a personal chauffeur, and I am not riding with Zack."
"Oi!" he protested. "I don't drive that badly! Like you can talk anyway, you're a menace on the road."
"Yes, and whose fault is that, teacher?"
Cloud appeared in the doorway, arching an eyebrow at the lot of them in confusion. "Driving where?"
"Oh," Tifa said as she watched Zack and Aeris bicker, "to see Elmyra."
Cloud's expression softened in understanding. "I see. Good idea."
He stepped in, took the abandoned piece of toast from the table, then made a face and started scraping off the well-toasted parts with a knife.
"I called Denzel, but he must have his PHS on sleep mode," Tifa told him, rolling her eyes a little as she put in another slice of bread in the toaster. "I think he'll want to come, but..."
Cloud nodded thoughtfully. "Can't wait. We'll coordinate from the road."
She frowned. So he'd decided to come, but... "Are you sure? Cid has a ship crossing the ocean every six hours, we could catch the next one..."
"Reeve said he needed to talk to us, and he won't have time if we arrive late. Denzel shouldn't be at the wake anyway. He might as well get there the next day."
Tifa nodded slowly, more because she didn't have any solid argument against it than because she felt extremely convinced. She thought about staying instead, waiting for him and then going together in the morning. But Yuffie, alone and orphaned...
But Denzel, in Edge, with Sephiroth nearby.
"Cloud," she said quietly. "What are we going to do about Sephiroth?"
He paused with the half-eaten toast raised, then put it down and looked at her. Aeris and Zack had stilled as well, expectant.
It wasn't ... dismissive, wasn't 'whatever, he can wait! I won't hurry for him'. It was closer to 'it's alright, he said he'd be patient'. Tifa blinked at Cloud, a little shocked, more than a little confused. Cloud had a faint frown on his face; he gazed at the table without really seeing it. He was probably remembering the talk, but Tifa didn't understand the expression, not connected to Sephiroth. It was thoughtful when it should have been defensive or suspicious.
"He could have escaped. He didn't know I'd be leaving, so as far as he knew that was the only opening he would get. So..." His frown deepened. "Whatever his game is, it demands him to play it straight for now. He'll wait."
Tifa released tension she hadn't been aware she was gathering. It had just felt strange at first, when she started wondering if Cloud actually trusted his word. Because Cloud trusting Sephiroth, just like that, meant she couldn't trust Cloud anymore. Cloud hadn't had behavior or memory issues in a very long time, but then again Sephiroth had been dead a very long time, too ... talk about an interesting coincidence.
Cloud downed a cup of coffee, grimacing faintly at the taste, and stole a glance at Zack. "Anyway. You two should go back to bed."
"Oh, we definitely will," Zack replied with fake innocence. "Mm, fluffy pillows, warm soft blankets, sleeping in until noon..."
Cloud scrunched up his nose in similarly fake annoyance. "Ass."
Zack turned back to the counter with a chuckle and finished saran-wrapping his jam sandwiches. "Yep. But you like me like that. Here's your snack, Cloudypoo."
Cloud blinked at the plastic bag he was now holding. Tifa smothered a giggle at his nonplussed expression.
"Zack, I told you..." he growled tiredly. "Oh, never mind." A sigh. "We need to get going."
"Wait a sec." Tifa grabbed a Thermos bottle from under the sink and quickly poured in the rest of the coffee. "Alright, I packed us overnight bags, I don't think we'll need anything else... Oh, the bar."
"We can take care of it!" Zack exclaimed, a little too enthusiastic for her peace of mind.
"... Have you ever worked in a bar before?"
"Well. No. But it can't be that hard, right?"
Tifa winced. On one hand, losing a whole day of work would make her checkbook harder to balance, especially with three more adults to feed. On the other hand... She'd feel better if Zack worked with one of her usual temps first, and there was no way she could get one on such short notice.
"It's alright, there's no need. There's a closed sign, put it on the door and leave it locked -- and there's a delivery coming in at noon but it's all prepaid, you just have to sign the sheet and bring the boxes in."
What other advice did they need? She was sure she was forgetting something...
"Tifa, I'm sure they'll survive," Cloud said dryly. "Let's go."
She dumped the towel on the back of a chair and followed him out, quickly braiding her still-damp hair. "Yes, yes -- ah! Cloud's PHS number is on the emergency contact list by the bar."
Cloud crossed the doorway connecting the stockroom to the garage and went to his bike. Zack and Aeris had followed them; Zack slipped past her to go open the garage door, but Tifa couldn't move to join Cloud. Stopped in her tracks on the threshold, she stared at Aeris helplessly, the surrealism of the situation hitting her once again. To think that she was here, that she wasn't a ghost or a memory -- alive, breathing, standing somewhere she'd never been, somewhere Tifa had never thought she'd be.
Aeris wrapped her in a quick, tight hug, and almost immediately released her; Tifa's arms stayed frozen in surprise and uncertainty, half-lifted to return it but not daring to complete the gesture before the moment was gone.
"Be careful on the road. And... I wish you could tell Yuffie, I'm so sorry about her father."
"We'll tell her -- I promise, when the moment is right." Tifa made a faint grimace. "It's just not going to be an easy moment to find."
Before she could lose her resolve again Tifa turned away and took the helmet Cloud held out to her. Her jacket was there too; she slipped it on, and then she straddled the saddle behind him. Zack was standing by the garage door, admiring the bike.
When Cloud started the engine and drove the bike out they were both waving, Aeris's slender frame leaning against Zack's side. Tifa kept them in sight until they turned the corner, and then she leaned against Cloud's back and stared at nothing as he drove.
He didn't speak at all until they were halfway to Kalm.
"Doesn't feel like any of it was real, huh."
Aeris in her kitchen, tears in her eyes because of her mother. Zack making sandwiches.
Sephiroth in her attic.
"No," Tifa said. "It really doesn't."
Phi was one of Denzel's best buds. He was a total dork of unequaled dorkitude, and at least one person a day threatened to knock him out if that would stop his incessant fidgeting -- but he was also the kind of guy who, when one of his friends told him "hey, someone might be gunning for my family again and I gotta jet in case they want to use my bleeding and battered body to send Cloud a message," he just said "dude, haven't they heard of texting!" and barricaded you in his own bedroom, where he would generously feed you half his secret stash of pilfered candy.
He hadn't even complained about how depressing it was to share a room with a brooding Denzel. His mom had been pretty nice too, fed him a good solid meal, and hadn't even said anything about the slight risk of said potential homicidal maniac tracking Denzel down and going through her family to get at him. So Denzel wasn't about to repay them by taking Phi with him to discreetly check on things back at the Seventh Heaven, no matter how cool Phi thought it would be to ninja through the streets and set up surveillance. The guy had all the street smarts of a newborn chocobo.
Denzel had had a family most of his life -- his biological parents until he was eight, and then Cloud and Tifa when he was almost ten. Twelve years and a bit, total. But a year and a half in the street had changed him in ways he couldn't undo.
Sometimes it was even useful.
Tifa was right, his hair was getting a bit long; but when he combed it flat on his head he could tie it into a little ponytail. Then he'd started smiling a little vaguely, in an absent-minded way, and slouched. Nothing to see here, just a daydreaming dork trailing past the end of the street, and if he gazed at the Seventh Heaven as he crossed the intersection on the next block it was purely by accident--
What the hell.
There was a guy standing behind the bar. A guy who wasn't Cloud. From a block away Denzel couldn't see any details, but he could tell that much -- Cloud's shade of blond was pretty distinctive, and this really wasn't it. He forced himself to keep walking and not stare too long.
Black hair, yeah. And just doing his thing behind the counter, not the hurried, look-over-your-shoulder behavior of a bad thief. Then again good thieves knew all about acting natural.
Denzel checked his PHS again. Still no new message.
The last he'd gotten was a 'we're okay, stay put' that came across as 'this might not end in a fight after all, but we really don't know for sure yet'. He'd gone to bed somewhat reassured.
But it was almost nine in the morning, and Denzel had a hard time picturing Tifa sleeping in so late. Possibility one, they'd talked so late in the night she and Cloud were too exhausted to wake. It was still relatively early, after all, and on any other weekend Denzel himself wouldn't have emerged for another couple of hours...
Possibility two, the peace talks had backfired.
But the bar was open.
But Cloud and Tifa weren't in it.
He turned left at the next corner, to approach the Seventh Heaven from another angle. Dialed Cloud's PHS as he went, but once again he was shuffled off to his voicemail.
(On the way he passed old man Zeller and Mrs. Jenseny bitching each other out about a truck with a peppering of brand new little holes in it, but then again they'd been bitching at each other for as long as he'd known them and probably longer, so he didn't spare it much thought.)
From the opposite sidewalk, he could see there were already a couple of regulars inside the bar. The stranger was making them laugh, an elbow propped up on the counter in a casual way as he waved his other hand expansively. Denzel frowned harder.
... Black hair, shoulder-length in jagged spikes. Pale-ish skin. Young. Legs much longer, probably, to be that tall, but chest and shoulders roughly the same size as Cloud. And Denzel knew that tanktop; he'd carried it to the appropriate drawer along with a pile of Cloud's other freshly-laundered tops just two days ago.
Denzel swerved with no warning, stalked his way across the street, and shoved the door open.
"Welcome!" the man at the bar said, before he even turned to look. And that voice -- yeah, that was all the confirmation Denzel needed. The church guy didn't even blink when he saw Denzel; his smile just became a little wider. He'd recognized him. "Hey, what are you doing here?"
That felt a little past simply recognizing him from the church. The surprise that Denzel would be here -- he didn't know, it sounded like it assumed more background knowledge. Denzel scowled, gave another glance at the other patrons, and stomped his way closer. "I should be the one asking you that," he growled under his breath. The guy chuckled like he'd heard him perfectly well.
"I didn't introduce myself yesterday," the guy said, picking up a glass and a towel. "My name's Zack. You're Denzel, right?"
"That glass was already dry," Denzel pointed out, countering his friendly expression with an unimpressed glare.
"--So it was." Zack put the glass back behind the counter, and his expression sobered up slightly. "Just figured you'd prefer my hands to be busy," he said, voice pitched so the patrons wouldn't hear.
Denzel tensed a little, because he did prefer it, at that. Meant a second of delay to drop the glass before the guy tried to grab him. "...Yeah, because you having a heavy projectile in hand is way better," he drawled.
He was starting to get strange looks from Mr. Staunton for the way he stood all stiff and wary almost two meters away from the bar, so he reluctantly walked up to it and propped an elbow on the countertop. The guy -- Zack -- smoothly stepped away from him and plunged his hands in the sink, feeling around the bottom for things to wash.
"Oh yeah, kitchen knives, good idea," Denzel said.
Zack let out a snort. "Okay, now you're just griping for the fun of it."
Denzel refused to dignify that with an answer.
Damn, but the guy was good at acting trustworthy. Even the regulars were already relaxed, joking around when he stepped away for a minute to check on them.
"Where's Tifa and Cloud?" Denzel asked when he came back to the sink. He stayed tense, watching closely for any telltale twitch, any misdirection.
One of Zack's eyebrows quirked up in (possibly well-faked) surprise.
"Wutai. I thought they'd told you?"
"Run that by me again," he said slowly. "Wutai?"
"Well, right now they're probably still en route --"
Denzel kept staring at him. Yesterday his guardians had been all 'don't come here it might be dangerous' and today they were supposedly all 'how about we go on a trip halfway across the world in the middle of the night'? Yeah, sure. "You can't be serious."
Zack gave him a wince. "Okay, it does sound kind of dodgy."
"Kind of, he says," muttered Denzel.
Zack's hands were in the water again; he stared down at the coffee cup he was washing for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts (or pretending to, Denzel wasn't ruling that out yet.)
"You know Yuffie's dad?"
"Heard about him, yeah."
"Seems like he had a heart attack and passed away last night. They went to the funeral, a guy named Cid was gonna pick them up."
"Yeah, yeah, you can drop names," Denzel retorted with a scowl. "Doesn't tell me why they went without waiting for me."
"I'm gonna drop another one. Elmyra's supposed to pick you up and get you there, if you wanna go. Tifa was supposed to arrange it?"
Denzel gritted his teeth. He'd had no call from either woman, but he wasn't gonna confirm that. He didn't need to, apparently, because Zack seemed to read it on his face, and had the gall to look understanding and even perhaps a little compassionate.
"Why don't you call her to check?"
"I think I will," Denzel threatened. He took his PHS out of his pocket and dialed.
Ring... ring... Voicemail. Denzel told himself they were out of range, even though nowhere on the Planet seemed to be out of range. He'd gotten phone calls from the Bone Village in Northern before, for Odin's sake. Maybe they were too far up in the sky. Cid liked to push his ships to their limits.
But when he tried to dial Phi, who lived maybe ten blocks over, he got the same result, and he knew for a fact that Phi slept with his PHS tucked under his pillow, since he used it as an alarm clock.
"Tifa know you swear that way?" Zack asked. His teasing smile melted into a frown of concern almost immediately, though. "What's wrong?"
Denzel waved his concern off with an irritated flick of the hand. "PHS. Not working. It's telling me I have signal but -- nrgh."
"Huh. That's weird."
"You too?" asked a patron as he walked up to the bar. Denzel tried not to startle too visibly. "Network must be down again. It was doing the same thing last week."
"Aw, sh--crap, I mean."
The man laughed, dropping a big hand on his head and ruffling his hair vigorously. "I won't tell Tifa if you don't. And don't fret, it'll fix itself in a hour or two." He turned to Zack, allowing Denzel to step away. "Alright, give me another coffee."
"Last one for the road?"
Denzel kept his eye on the two men as he went around the end of the bar and reached for the wall phone. It was an old salvaged thing, dating back from way before Meteor; it even used cables and everything. Maybe it would work when the PHS network didn't.
Ring, ring --
"Yes? Who is this?"
Denzel's first reaction was an intense wave of relief. Elmyra's curious voice was like a reminder that he wasn't alone, that he had adults out there who he knew for sure were ready to drop everything to help, and her easy tone said she had heard of no hint of foul play about his adoptive parents.
His second reaction was to remember that, tough as she was, Elmyra had never been a fighter; that she lived several hours away, too far to do anything in time but worry; and that she was getting older and didn't need the stress. "Hey! It's Denzel," he said, smoothing the tense suspicion out of his voice.
Turned out she'd gotten Tifa's message by early morning, but only two hours later had been just as unable to leave Denzel a message of her own to set up a pickup time and place. Danged PHS network, and wasn't it a good thing that he had thought to call her on the landline. Denzel decided not to mention Zack. She hadn't.
He hung up, slightly reassured -- at least the Wutai thing was legit, weird as it seemed. But the situation was still weird in general, and that Tifa hadn't told Elmyra she had people over was just plain strange; Elmyra would have been happy to come check on them and probably even cook them a good meal, standing in for the host Tifa couldn't be at the moment. Elmyra had firm opinions on how to treat your guests, and abandoning them in your house as you wandered off wasn't it.
"So? How did it go?"
Denzel twitched a little, even though he'd seen Zack drift closer. The man kept facing the room, allowing Denzel to stand almost at his back.
The talk with Elmyra had contributed to relax him. But he didn't want to let Zack off the hook yet. "How do you know Tifa?" he asked, bypassing Zack's question.
"I don't really, I know Cloud. Only met her once at Nibelheim, way back in the day."
"... So you don't know her. So why the heck are you working at her bar?" He gave a critical look to the mess that was starting to pile up by the sink and the open floor-level cupboards just waiting to trip a hurried barkeeper. "Because you probably shouldn't. Just saying."
Zack gave a laugh that sounded vaguely embarrassed to Denzel's ears, and then promptly changed the subject. "Listen, I'd be happy to answer all of your questions, but Tifa and Cloud should be the ones to tell you what's really going on here."
"Because you don't know what I'm big enough to hear?"
"No." Zack turned to face him, leaning back on the counter with his hands on the edge, and for once he looked totally serious. "Because if I tell you, you'll think I'm bugfuck crazy."
Denzel met his eyes for a few seconds head on.
Something big then. Something really weird. Cloud was a weirdness magnet, so Denzel had a hard time deciding what kind of weird Zack was. There were so many possibilities. At the very least it was much more convincing than 'Oh, I'm just his totally mundane drinking buddy from Kalm'.
He sighed. He wasn't going to learn more right away, and at least he was now pretty convinced that Zack wasn't dangerous to him for the moment, and perhaps at all. The guy hadn't kidnapped Denzel yet, at least, and -- well. He felt sincere, even in -- especially in -- his refusal to say more.
Denzel refused to pass for easily won over, though.
"Not to destroy your illusions," he drawled, "but I already think you're bugfuck crazy."
"Oh well, I'll show you how to hold a bar properly. Do you even know how to do mixed drinks?"
Zack blinked for a second, and then grinned in honest delight. Denzel reminded himself firmly that he was harder to charm than that. Really, he was.
"Well, mostly the ones I like."
"Great." Denzel rolled his eyes and threw him an unconvinced sideway look. "Budge over. Only got a few hours to make sure you don't embarrass us."
"Aw, phooey." Raking a hand through his hair, Zack seemed torn between laughter and awkwardness. "...Denzel..."
And that was the 'I'm sorry, kid, the Tooth Fairy doesn't really exist' tone. "What?" Denzel snapped, voice coming out more annoyed than planned. It was just that after a whole chat being treated more or less as an equal it rankled to hear that too-gentle, careful note.
Zack opened his mouth, seemed to consider, closed it again. Watched him. Denzel scowled, chin held high.
"... Alright, alright. But can you do me a favor? Can you set up your meeting with Elmyra elsewhere? Don't have to tell me where, just not around here. Tifa is going to kill me hard enough for not telling you to leave right away, I don't really need the cherry on top of her killing me for Aeris's mom too."
Denzel's brow furrowed. He knew who Aeris had been, of course -- Elmyra had pictures, and Tifa had told him a few Avalanche tales -- but no one referred to Elmyra like that very often anymore.
"If I ask why, you're gonna tell me I've got to ask Tifa, aren't you?" He gave the guy a cynical look.
"Yeah, sorry." A sigh. "Okay, me and my girlfriend -- well, there was a third guy with us, and he's kind of... Uh." An uncomfortable look. "Long story very short Cloud and Tifa won't like the idea of you being around him and he's got nowhere to go, and... Okay. He's upstairs. So if you want clothes and stuff, I'll have to get them for you, because Cloud'll have my balls for earrings if I let you in any farther than this."
... Oh. That was all?
"He a recovering druggie or something?"
"Ooor something, yeah."
Denzel narrowed his eyes. "A clone?"
Zack fumbled the glass he was half-heartedly drying and narrowly managed to rescue it before it hit the ground. Yeah, with reflexes like that, like hell he was a normal Joe off the street.
"-- uh. Oh god." And cue laughter, but not the 'this is hilarious' kind. More like ahahaffuuuck. "No. Not a clone."
Denzel's eyes narrowed some more.
"And that's enough for now -- no, seriously, it is. Call Elmyra to set up that meeting before she leaves, and then I'll get you clothes for the trip -- and if you nag me again I swear I'll get you nothing but girl clothes."
Denzel huffed, crossing his arms, and glared at the finger Zack was pointing at his face. This time he looked firm and determined. Denzel weighed him up... no, pushing wouldn't get him any farther. But he was going to be with Cloud and Tifa soon, and then he'd know. They better not even think of not telling him everything.
"Fine," he said, uncrossing his arms slowly. "Budge over. Time to see if you'll be worth anything as a bartender."
Cloud slid down the last few feet to the ground, the rope ladder zipping through his gloved hands. His feet landed on paved stones with a solid thump.
"Thank you for coming so quickly, Mr. Strife," Reeve said, taking a step forward and offering a hand to shake.
Face blank, Cloud shook, observing him and the subdued town square. There were very few passersby, all with their heads hanging low and talking in hurried, uneasy whispers. A couple of stern, grim-faced Wutainese officials in white traditional costumes waited a few steps behind Reeve. That might have explained Reeve's textbook-proper posture and his reserved greeting.
"Thank you for calling us," he replied, cautious.
Tifa landed behind him with a little oof and turned to face them, giving Reeve a smile that was still half-awake at best. She'd slept for the last five hours of the trip, only waking up a few minutes before Cid threw the ladder over to send them down.
"... Mr. Tuesti," she replied, visibly a little confused but willing to play along.
Reeve guided them a few steps away from the dangling rope ladder, as a few of Cid's employees climbed down to take care of the crates being lowered to the ground. There was nowhere big enough for his ship to land inside the city; Cid himself would come join them later, when everything with his cargo was sorted out.
"May I introduce Councilor Kanemoto and Mr. Leuang, his secretary. They are in charge of the guests."
Cloud nodded a greeting. He almost offered his hand for Kanemoto to shake, but seeing the dry little bow he was given, and the expressionless stare going right through him, his hand would have been ignored. Kanemoto seemed old, maybe sixty or maybe ten years more, steel-gray hair pulled back in an old-fashioned topknot that even Yuffie's father hadn't been prone to wearing much. A traditionalist. Leuang was younger, in his thirties maybe, but he obviously took his cue from the old man.
"Thank you for taking care of us," Tifa said, smiling, though it was her reserved, polite smile and he could tell she also knew that more would have been wasted.
Well. He had known before coming that they would be seen as outsiders, hadn't he.
Kanemoto had a little spiel ready as he led them to the Kisaragi estate -- that it was a honor to host friends of Lady Kisaragi, that if they needed help they should not hesitate to call for Leuang, who would be able to find anything they might require. They exchanged condolences as well. Then silence fell. Cloud let it.
He would have liked to go to bed soon, but there was still the wake to go through. He'd napped in the ship, too, but he hadn't managed to catch much more than a half-hour of shut-eye here and there.
Despite her best effort, Tifa had fallen asleep at about eight AM Edge time, and he had told himself that of course Denzel would still be in bed, especially if the boy had stayed up the previous evening out of worry. Then the network had gone down. There was nothing they could do from the ship but fret, and he could fret just fine alone, so he had let Tifa sleep. Thankfully at some point the network went back up and so when Tifa woke up he could reassure her right away; Denzel was safely with Elmyra, getting ready to take the next ship over. He'd be there early morning tomorrow, Wutai time.
It let them entirely free to fret about other things instead. Cloud had forbidden himself to think about the Sephiroth situation, though, considering how fruitless and unhelpful that would be. The thought kept ambushing him at odd times regardless, but he did his best to let it slide.
They passed a gate with guards who scrutinized their faces, and then they were in the first inner courtyard of the Kisaragi residence... or estate, or castle, or whatever they called the sprawling interlinked buildings and their inner gardens.
"Leuang will lead you to your bedrooms, so that you may change into appropriate clothing," Councilor Kanemoto said, giving Cloud's sword harness and Tifa's leather jacket a disapproving look. "Mr. Tuesti..."
"I believe I will walk with them," Reeve said with firm politeness. "I need to change as well. Thank you for coming, Councilor."
The old man stared at Reeve for a few seconds, and then at Cloud, eyes flicking quickly over Tifa before he gave a sharp nod and turned on his heel to leave.
"This way," Leuang said, and started walking.
They followed as he led them to the gallery that ran along one of the inner courtyards, and then back inside the building, a wing Cloud hadn't visited before. It had obviously been refurbished since the war, though traces of it still showed -- cracked tiles, empty nooks, the faded outline of a disappeared tapestry. Servants hurried past, pretending not to notice them.
Cloud glanced at Reeve a couple of times, but the man didn't meet his eyes even once, staring ahead with grave thoughtfulness. Alright, Cloud could take a hint. They weren't supposed to know each other all that well.
"This is my stop," Reeve said; Cloud memorized the door. "I will see you later."
A nod, and he was gone.
"Your rooms," Leuang said, stopping a few doors down and pushing it open. "Miss Lockhart," he indicated. The next down the corridor; "Mr. Strife." He gave them a short bow and then he was gone as well. Cloud traded a look with Tifa, shrugged, and went to dump his backpack on his bed. There was a sword rack, though it was made for slender katanas and wouldn't have fit his huge broadsword. He propped the handle against it, eyes traveling over the bedroom.
Slippery, mirror-polished wooden floor, scrolls hanging from the walls that he lifted to check for hidden surprises. The window was round, screened with intricate latticework, welded shut. He could kick his way through if needed, but it would leave obvious tracks. In a corner there was a folding screen hiding a sink and an old-fashioned wooden tub; no shower (or anyone hiding in the tub either). The second screen hid a door. Hmm.
"Hey, Tifa," he said, peering through at her bedroom. It was about identical; only the color scheme had a little more red to replace his own cream and black.
She'd taken off her jacket and stood in the middle of the room, like she was still trying to decide what to do next. She looked at the door with a faintly puzzled expression, and then laughed. "Oh, look, we have a polite fiction door."
"... A what?"
She took his sleeve and tugged him in, and slid the door closed. Seen from this side it almost melted into the wall.
"You know, we're not married, so there is no reason to be in each other's bedroom? And we would have to go out in the corridor to visit, and if that happened too often people would notice... It'd be kind of shocking."
"They could have just asked if we wanted to share," Cloud replied, tilting his head in confusion. He felt along the wall for the hidden latch and slid the door open again. "Kinda weird to give us separate rooms and then a sneaky way to go from one to the other."
Tifa let out an amused little huff. "Hence the polite fiction part. It's not polite of them to ask, it's not polite of us to flaunt it, so they're giving us the sneaky door and then we can do whatever we want with it."
Cloud shrugged. "That or they don't have a lot of rooms left for guests." He leaned against the doorjamb, so he could keep an eye on both bedrooms. "What kind of clothes did you pack?"
Tifa sighed and sat on her bed to open her own bag. "Well. I brought our best formal clothes but you know, after seeing the councilor... I'm not sure they'll work." She nibbled on her lower lip, lost in thought. "Maybe we should buy something--"
A knock rang at her front door; before she or Cloud could move it was pushed open. Reeve peeked through, flicked them a quick smile, and stepped inside, closing the door after him. He was carrying long silk-wrapped packages draped on his arm.
"Reeve? Are you... not supposed to be here?"
He let out a rueful laugh, laying the packages on the bed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you so wary. No, of course I'm not forbidden to be here. I'd just rather not raise too many questions. I'm only supposed to be one of Avalanche's political associates, remember."
They'd found it more practical to hide that Reeve wasn't just a supporter but a full member. Some people weren't happy with Avalanche's old, violent means; no need to tar Reeve and his organization with the same brush, to make people think he condoned the worst of Avalanche's methods. Being one of their allies gave Reeve the positive boost of being a politician who shared their ideals and their pro-Gaia stance without marking him a ruthless, cold-blooded terrorist.
Reeve raked his hand through his hair, smoothing it back. Cloud saw a few gray strands amongst the dark. His goatee was as neatly trimmed as ever and his suit showed almost no wrinkles, but Reeve looked tired too, when he let himself show it.
"It's good to see you," Reeve said, more quietly. "The atmosphere here has been pretty tense."
Tifa moved to him, rested a hand on his shoulder. "Tense how? Is Yuffie alright?"
Reeve sighed. "I haven't spent a lot of time with her. I'm not sure how she's taking it. When I saw her there were so many people asking for her input, and she was... Well. She wasn't chatty. Proper, mostly. I don't know if she even truly believes it's happening yet."
"Stiff upper lip," Cloud said quietly, remembering Zack's words.
"That's a good word for it. She was sitting with her legs folded like they do here and her back straight, wearing at least a dozen layers of kimono all spread out around her. I'm not sure she could have slouched even if she'd wanted to." He raked a hand through his dark hair again. "She reminded me of a doll on display more than a person. It isn't right."
Tifa made a little distressed noise. Reeve nodded his agreement.
"... Anyway. As a political representative, it's alright if I come wearing a suit instead of traditional clothes, but as her personal friends you probably shouldn't."
Reeve pointed at the silk-wrapped packages. Cloud lifted one of the edges, arching an eyebrow at the white woman's kimono he had unveiled. "That, and you already knew we'd have nothing appropriate, huh."
He relaxed a little when Reeve's weariness disappeared briefly and a teasing smile flashed through. At first meeting, the man always looked exceedingly proper and soberly understated, but when you knew he was the brain behind Cait Sith's flamboyant performances your expectations changed a little.
"Got one for Cid too?" Cloud asked, briefly amused at the thought of the coarse blond in traditional Wutaian clothes.
"Of course. I even have a set for Vincent."
"That's not necessary," replied said Vincent, standing calmly by the folding screen in Cloud's bedroom. Cloud twitched in aborted reaction, hand groping for a sword he wasn't carrying.
Vincent glanced at him, but he didn't smile at having successfully taken Cloud by surprise. Half of his face was lost in his eternal cape, the rest of it just as hard to read as it had been back when they got him out of his coffin. Huh.
"Yuffie?" Reeve asked.
"Got bodyguard duty?" Cloud inquired, and got a nod in reply. "Who's taking over?"
Vincent frowned faintly. "None of ours. But she seems to trust the kunoichi shadowing her."
Cloud didn't reply, allowing his raised eyebrow to express his disbelief that Vincent had left Yuffie even so.
"...Purification ritual. Staying wasn't appropriate."
Alright. The baby of their group taking a ritualistic bath -- it wasn't something Cloud especially needed to witness either.
"Are things really so risky?" Tifa asked. "I mean, maybe I could go if she really needs help, but... They wouldn't be happy with me barging in on a ritual either. Is it really...?"
Reeve watched Tifa in silence for a few seconds, weighing his words. Cloud stayed silent. His paranoia kept feeding on Vincent's and Reeve's, but he had no more solid proof than Tifa did.
"You have to realize that right now, even with Lord Kisaragi's untimely death, Wutai's government is in a better state than ours. They lost the war several years ago, yes, but they surrendered, they weren't utterly destroyed -- they got to keep most of their rules and traditions, and most importantly a lot of their traditional leaders and infrastructures, even stripped of executive power. And... without Shinra, ours is almost completely gone."
Tifa's brow furrowed.
"The only organization that spans continents is WRO, but WRO is dedicated to rebuilding and organizing healthcare and food distribution, not governing. We can't fall back to a pre-Shinra system because it was completely destroyed to put Shinra's in place. Several city-states and their vassal villages didn't even have their own mayors anymore, but Shinra-instated governors. There have been elections, and a surprising number of the winners are even competent, but at best they have five years' experience, and at the moment they're all concentrating on their own areas. We're not an empire anymore, we're a bunch of city-states with vaguely friendly relations, but who can't even all afford to help each other much because our own need is too pressing, and we keep having to reinvent new protocols and figure out new treaties."
"I... can see that, but... What's the link with Yuffie?"
"The timing is ideal to get revenge for the last war," Reeve said simply. "The only thing that's stopping the Wutai nobility from starting preparations is that Yuffie has friends outside of Wutai and that she supports world peace, and right now she's in control."
"But she's also a kid who doesn't know anything," Cloud concluded.
Reeve nodded, visibly tired once again. "She also stands in the way of another family ascending to the throne -- and several of them are related closely enough to pretend to it -- and she stands in the way of the Progressive party which wants to do away with the whole feudal system. I'm not sure if they're all planning to take action against her, but even just one of the three would be enough."
Cloud's shoulders tensed. He'd known it would be awkward; he hadn't really allowed himself to believe it would be that bad.
"Wutai politics really are cutthroat, huh," he said under his breath. Damn. Sephiroth hadn't exaggerated.
Reeve nodded grimly. "A bit too literally, too. From what I've gathered, funerals are an especially dangerous time. Wutai traditions have it that committing suicide to join your loved ones is something noble and tragically beautiful, so when you're distracted by grief you're vulnerable both from without and from within. Even if you don't personally want to imitate those traditions, your enemies have a built-in excuse should you have a convenient blade-related accident."
Tifa made an angry noise in the back of her throat, fists clenched. "That's not right. Yuffie should be busy grieving, not -- that's just not right." She started unwrapping her kimono, a scowl on her face. "I'm going to get ready."
"You won't see her before the wake starts," Reeve cautioned. "They won't let you."
"Well then, I'll be the first at the wake."
Cloud nodded slowly and went to the bed to pick up his own kimono. "Might as well." He paused, frowned. He had to admit that Yuffie's situation looked slightly more urgent right now, but... He had other things to watch out for, too. "Reeve, Vincent?"
Reeve blinked at him, curious. "Yes?"
Vincent gave Cloud a long, piercing look, glanced at Tifa's suddenly tense shoulders, and his eyes narrowed. Cloud was suddenly tempted to just tell him everything right away. But... no. He didn't want to have to say it again when Cid and Barret got there, he didn't want to have to argue it out a half-dozen times. It wasn't safe anyway, not here where they couldn't be sure who might wander by the door or under the window at exactly the wrong time.
"Stick around after the funeral. Something to tell you." A tense silence, to tell Reeve and confirm what Vincent already suspected, and then, abrupt, "Don't tell Yuffie."
Zack would have taken the money the customer handed him without a comment if the guy hadn't been grinning so widely. Intimate with wide grins of all kinds, Zack could tell this one was of the 'haha, please don't notice the wool I'm pulling over your eyes' variety.
He looked down at the couple of coins in his hand. He had no idea what a gil was worth nowadays, in a city still in the process of rebuilding itself, and the basic cup of coffee the guy had asked for was such a staple Tifa hadn't bothered writing down the price anywhere.
So he just arched an eyebrow (the other one followed it upward a bit, he couldn't pull it off as well as Seph naturally could) and inquired with dubious politeness, "Are you sure that's right?"
A couple of "oh, oops, sorry, I didn't notice!" excuses later and a sheepish hand rose to add another coin, more than doubling the total. Zack discreetly committed the amount to memory.
"It's alright," he replied with a little laugh, not meaning it one bit. "Everyone gets distracted sometimes. Have a good day!"
The man slunk out. Zack dropped the coins in his rapidly-filling pocket -- he didn't have the cash register's key -- and went back to the sink. The room was almost empty; he could afford not to pay attention.
It was crazy how much dishwashing you had to do in a bar. He was going to lose all his calluses at this rate.
He looked down at his wet hands, soap bubbles clustered in his palm.
Maybe it would be a good thing. They didn't have the right callus patterns anyway. It would probably throw his sword-grip off.
He didn't even know what Aron Bergsten had specialized in. Fists? Nunchuks? Pole arms maybe? Zack closed his eyes, trailed his index along the bumps at the base of his other hand's fingers, trying to feel out the shape of it. Not broadsword, at any rate, definitely not epee. Maybe ninjato -- he had no clue how the reverse hold would shape a hand.
When he opened his eyes it looked like his hand anyway, a swordsman's hand, the palm rough, tendons apparent even at rest. When he touched Cloud he knew that was what Cloud felt. He wasn't sure cold steel would be so easily fooled.
The last customer was getting ready to leave, folding her newspaper as she puffed away on her pipe. He didn't think she'd want to stay and chat, keep him distracted. But he supposed he couldn't avoid thinking about stuff forever, anyway, so he summoned a smile and yet another "have a good day", and followed her to the door so he could lock it closed and flip the sign.
The cup joined the rest of its brethren in the full sink, for approximately ten seconds before he clenched a bit hard and porcelain cracked.
"Aw, shit, not again."
Sighing, he fished around for the pieces and threw them away with the other two broken glasses and the one knife he'd managed to fuck up somehow. Alright then, never mind. He'd let it all soak for a bit.
It was like rising to First Class all over again. Hell, sometimes it was like rising to Third, because in First Class he'd had precedent to give him an idea of what he was in for. At least his senses weren't acting up as well; it was just his fine motor control going kind of iffy.
Zack sighed to himself, dried his hands, and walked out of the bar, turning off the lights as he went. He emptied his bulging pocket in a convenient box, coins and bills carpeting it quickly, and dug in the fridge for sandwich fixings. Maybe he ought to get Aeris, have a real lunch with her -- but no, she'd want to stay in the attic with Seph, in case he woke up.
Well. Two sandwiches, then. He wasn't sure he remembered her tastes, but it wasn't like there was a lot of choice anyway. He picked them up and went upstairs.
He couldn't resist pausing on Cloud's threshold and watching the array of swords lined up against the wall. It was just... Whoa. Claymores, sabers, bastard swords, a couple of katana... One of them looked like it was made entirely out of crystal, of all things. Maybe materia? He couldn't even imagine how much gil it was worth, or what had possessed someone to forge it. His fingers itched with the desire to pick up a sword, give it a couple of testing swings.
Yeah, and then Cloud would come back home to a newly aerated bedroom, fashionable slashes through the walls letting in the invigorating cold winds! It was a little frustrating. Zack had no idea how he'd handle a sword, where the body he was wearing would show stress, what kind of pace he would be able to sustain for how long. What he wouldn't give to go out, find a yard, and practice old basic drills for a couple of hours... The second Cloud came back, Zack would drag him out and they'd spar.
... The second Cloud came back, he'd bring all of Avalanche along and it would be trial time. Zack sighed, raked his hand through his hair, and trudged up the last flight of stairs.
Aeris had found an armchair in the clutter and curled in like a cat, as if cold. Her eyes were closed. Zack blinked and stepped closer, nudging her shoulder.
Aeris raised her head and blinked thoughtful green eyes up at him -- no confusion, no sleepiness. Zack tilted his head.
"I was just thinking."
He sat on one of the chair's padded arms and held out a sandwich to her. "About?"
She took the offering, staring at him for a second before nibbling delicately. "The Planet. I was so used to being right in the thick of it, I think I forgot how it really was to be outside. It all feels strange." She flicked him a smile. "Or maybe it's just being two floors up from the ground."
"Heh. I keep breaking glasses," he confided, commiserating. "We should have expected some weirdness, I guess."
They chewed on their sandwiches in silence for a few minutes. Zack's eyes drifted to the body on the mattress, laying straight on his back with both hands resting on top of the sheets. Sephiroth had the most unnatural sleeping position ever. Zack didn't know anyone who wouldn't even just turn their head to one side or bring a hand up. Made him look like he was anesthetized rather than asleep... Which -- alright -- right now he was. But even when he wasn't knocked out he slept like that.
It was sort of reassuring, actually. A little bit. He could almost tell himself the General was just taking a nap.
"Zack? You're frowning."
"--ah." He rubbed at the line between his brows reflexively. "It's kinda weird to see him asleep when people are so close," he said quietly.
Aeris spared him a little shoulder-pat. "It is the best solution, you know, Zack."
He let out a little throaty growl. "Yeah. Believe me, I really do understand their stance. It's just... I'm kind of bummed there's a 'us and them' thing in the first place."
They sighed in unison, and then blinked at each other and laughed a little -- then laughed harder for how identical their reactions had been. For a second it was so familiar and comforting and -- and familiar -- he couldn't breathe.
"I guess we're still connected," Aeris commented, smiling a little too much. "Even if I can't --"
Zack tilted his head. "Can't what?"
"... Can't feel you the same way, I suppose." She nibbled on her lower lip, eyes unfocused. He only blinked again.
"How d'you mean that?" He walked his fingers up her arm, just because she was in reach.
"In the Lifestream, of course. Don't you remember? Sometimes it was like we shared one mind."
For a second he totally blanked on what she meant. Of course he was aware they'd been dead and had decided to come back together, but...
He saw her eyes widen and her pupils tighten and maybe she paled a little, and then -- click. The Lifestream. While they were dead. They'd been together -- had felt each other, had... traveled together...
He couldn't say much more, except that "together" was a gigantic understatement.
He remembered the shape of her mind, of her very self. He couldn't put it in words or images, and it was so vast he realized he was forgetting the edges already, like a crystal-clear dream fraying away upon waking. He thought of multi-dimensional snowflakes, knowing that this was the closest he would get and that even so it still wasn't right.
He knew he had a strange look on his face, but he couldn't help it; he wasn't even sure what he felt. Surprise, bemusement, worry... Confusion, mostly. "It's funny," he said slowly, measuring his words. "I know what we talked about when we were there. I know about -- your childhood, and Seph's first mission, and stuff like that. But I don't remember it. I can't remember you telling me. The reason why we talked about it in the first place, the words you used. I'm... just aware."
For a long moment she just stared at him. He stared back, a little lost, stomach clenched.
"I think I was remembering more before we went to bed, but then we slept and... I don't know."
"What's your mother's middle name?" she asked, hands grasping the chair's arm.
"Lobelia, she hates it," he replied without needing to think. "What...?"
"A baby fuzz-snake I found, it was the cutest thing, but then it ate my cousin's dog. Aeris, what's wron--ooh, shit." He grabbed her upper arms, moved off his perch to crouch in front of her, leaning into her space. "No, babe, no, I'm fine -- you put me back just fine, I swear, it's just the Lifestream I forgot."
She cupped his face in her hands, eyes blazing as she stared straight into his own -- straight into his soul, he would have said if he felt like being poetic, but then he remembered that with Aeris it wasn't necessarily a metaphor, and gave a little nervous laugh.
Aeris closed her eyes and sank back against the cushions all at once, suddenly boneless. He felt her hands shake in reaction in his grasp.
"Ah. Heh. For a second I just... I thought you were -- coming loose."
She forced her eyes open, attempted a smile -- he pulled her in his arms. She melted off her chair and on his quite unsteady lap, and then he was sitting on his ass on the wooden floor with Aeris straddling his thighs and clinging to his neck, and that was fine with him. He rubbed her back, feeling guilt tighten his throat for scaring her so badly.
"I'm fine, I'm all here, I'm all me, and even if I was missing a couple memories here and there, so what? If I can't notice them missing, they must not have been important. I know all I need to know." He kissed her white neck softly. "I know I love you. I know I love your sneaky, evil sense of humor and I love flirting with you and I love that you talk to your flowers like a crazy cat-lady. I know your mom is like a dragon protecting her treasure and I have to find a different way past every time I visit, and I love your mom for loving you that much and for being such a hard-ass about it, I swear she'd give Sergeant Dobner hard-ass envy."
"You're babbling," she replied, smiling against his neck.
"I love babbling too. Oh, and I love swords, and I love Seph, and I love Cloud, and that bike of his is pretty sweet, I'm gonna love borrowing it. And did I mention swords, I friggin' adore them."
His hands kept running up and down her back, through her long tangles of hair. She was warm, and curvy, and soft. He nuzzled her hair and breathed in, reveling in his senses. He wanted to squeeze, hold her so tight there was no inch of space left between them, but he still remembered the coffee cup and he didn't want to risk misjudging the amount of strength he could apply safely.
"Silly," she called him.
Zack gave a falsely offended huff and maneuvered them both into the armchair, which creaked alarmingly under their combined weights. Um, well. He supposed there must be a reason why it was relegated to the attic, but as long as it didn't break under them just yet... They'd just have to move elsewhere when things became more vigorous.
If things became -- well. Because he didn't trust his control, and, well -- Aron Bergsten. It was a little weird to use someone else's body to have sex with his girlfriend, even if the guy was long dead and moved on. Turned him off a bit, to be honest, but when he had Aeris in his arms it was really easy to...
... Wait a minute. Shit, he couldn't --
"Zack?" Aeris asked, staring at his face.
He stared back for a second and then laughed, embarrassed. "Aw, hell, nothing, I had a stupid moment."
He could feel his cheeks heat up. "Uh, promise not to laugh... For a second I was all 'oh, shit, I can't remember our first time together!'"
Aeris blinked slowly and tilted her head, eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. "... Zack. My mother was a dragon, remember?"
He laughed again, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "I know, I remember we've never gotten to, to penetration," she'd been sixteen when he disappeared and he'd been older and he didn't want to pressure her, though oh sweet Frigga how he had wanted to, "but it just doesn't feel that way at all -- so for a moment I was kinda... 'Shit, I can't believe I forgot that.' Well duh, it hasn't happened yet."
Aeris stifled a snicker and gave him a mock-serious look. "I understand -- I guess that all that mystical my-mind-in-yours we were having in the Lifestream was pretty much brain sex anyway. It's too bad you forgot, it was pretty sexy, all those synapses... You have a very nice frontal lobe, you know."
"Oh, urgh, the mental pictures!" he protested, imagining two soggy lumps of gray matter attempting to get it on.
The she-devil gave him the most serene smile ever, like she had no clue about his trauma.
"...Well. Your mother isn't around now." Zack gave Aeris a speculative look, his arms still around her waist.
"She isn't," Aeris repeated in a noncommittal voice.
"But she'll be around soon, and once she's around it'll be -- understandably -- damn hard to pry her off."
"That does sound likely, knowing her."
Zack waited, but Aeris just blinked at him cutely and didn't add anything.
"... We should totally have sex while we still can. Say, right now?"
"That does sound like a fascinating idea, Zack, but..." She pointed at the still form on the mattress behind them, breathing slow and steady, not a single silver hair out of place.
He sent her back her polite, thoughtful, earnest look. "Well, yes, I agree we should have sex with him too, but maybe we should wait until he's awake."
She laughed, like he had hoped. He expected her to mock-punch his shoulder or otherwise protest his dirty joke; but of course he wouldn't have been half so in love if she wasn't kind of awesomely crazy.
"There's a nice suggestion," she said, looking way too serious. "He is awfully pretty..."
Zack grinned. "He really is."
There was a second where he expected to feel a pinch of jealousy, maybe the awareness that it was a fine thing to joke about but he couldn't have his cake and eat it too. Neither came.
Neither would come.
He remembered love. Aeris's love for him, his love for her, how their selves meshed together, echoed each other. Soulmates.
Aeris's love for Cloud. Bittersweet and sheltering, totally different from her feelings for Zack -- and not taking away any of it.
Zack loved Cloud too, after all.
And Sephiroth. He was greedy like that.
"I suppose I've had a fair amount of brainsex with Sephiroth as well, as we count those things..."
He wrapped his arms farther around her. She smelled like soap and an aftertaste of ozone and rain, like the pool in the church that should have been stagnant water instead of a crystal-clear spring.
There was nothing that said he couldn't have several cakes anyway. Even if they never allowed themselves to be eaten. His fridge was big enough for everyone.
It was the first time Denzel had been to Wutai, though he'd seen tons of pictures. They'd been planning to go visit Yuffie instead of the other way around for years, but Tifa just couldn't afford a lot of vacation time.
He watched the town from the ship's bridge, high above, as the crew gathered packages to send down. The view should have been pretty, but the gray light of early morning leeched all warmth from the red walls and gold accents, and those white-clothed people drifting through the paved streets made it sinister, like a ghost town. All pennants and flags were tied down.
"Gloomy, huh," Barret said, his flesh hand falling heavy on Denzel's shoulder and giving a couple of manly pats before retreating.
"Yeah," Denzel agreed quietly. "Time to go?"
"Yep." Barret threw the rope ladder overboard, watched it unroll, and gave a couple of testing tugs. "I'm goin' first. There's no wind, so it shouldn't swing around much," he added.
"I'm not gonna fall," Denzel replied with a little huff. He picked up his backpack and put it on, tightening the straps, before Barret could offer to carry it down. Sometimes he forgot Denzel wasn't a kid anymore. Then again, in Barret's head Denzel was only just above Marlene's age, and Marlene would stay a little kid forever if he had anything to say about it.
"You better not fall, Tifa'll have my hide," Barret replied with a little smirk, and swung over the guardrail. "Sure you don't want me to carry you down, shrimp?"
Denzel glared at him, half-serious only. "Sure you don't want me to undo that big knot and see what happens?"
Barret chuckled his deep, quiet laugh, the indulgent kind he didn't use much around adults, except maybe Tifa. "Brat. I should throw ya over my shoulder, that'd teach ya."
"Hey!" Denzel protested. Barret snorted, still smirking faintly, and started climbing down. Grumbling uncomplimentary things under his breath, Denzel straddled the guardrail and -- uh. Well. They were kind of high. But he didn't want anyone to laugh at him, so he grabbed a good hold and started down, pretending he hadn't seen Barret watching him, ready to snatch him out of the air if Denzel fumbled it.
The town must be really pretty in summer, he thought, watching the mountains half-ringing the city, the slanted roofs. They were building something on one of the town squares, but even when he squinted he couldn't make it out.
The novelty of climbing down a rope ladder wore down a long time before he landed on the paved stones; by the end it was just tedious. He jumped over the last rungs and waved at Cid, who stood beside Barret.
"I'm fourteen, not a kid," he grumbled. Well, almost fourteen. It counted. "I'm gonna call you old man if you keep it up."
"Who ya calling old, punk?" Cid replied, mock-cuffing him when he went to join them.
Denzel shoved back halfheartedly. Playing around was alright, but it didn't make the town any less depressing. When Barret draped an arm across his shoulders and dragged him between the two men, he didn't protest.
They walked away from the ship, crossing paths with strangely dressed people who didn't even look at them as they shuffled along the walls. It was like Denzel and Cid and Barret were the ones who were ghosts, for all the 'can't see you!' the locals were doing. Brr.
The guards at Yuffie's house... palace thing... saw them, though, but they seemed to know Cid and waved them through without even changing their expression.
"Is everyone here doing a Vincent or what?" Denzel couldn't help but ask in a whisper.
Cid snorted. "If Vince was from here, that would explain things 'bout him..." he muttered under his breath. "I don't have a clue, kid. They're probably just depressed. It's noisier usually."
Denzel gave him an unconvinced look. "If you say so."
They were met by an old, stooped servant and guided through long, boring corridors, and gardens, and -- "Nanaki!"
Grinning, Denzel waved, and then fell silent, a little embarrassed by his outburst. The servant had given him a look.
Nanaki ambled to them through the garden, crossed a curved little bridge and leapt easily up on the gallery, big paws touching down in almost perfect silence. The servant paled a little. Denzel went from embarrassment at his own reaction to annoyance. Nanaki was the coolest person ever, even if he was beast-shaped. Especially because he was beast-shaped, said the corner of his brain that was still nine-year-old and amazed by his new guardians' strange friends. Denzel was a bit too old to be so shallow, though, so instead of giving the red-furred beast a full-body hug and trying to ride him, he just waved. "Er. Hey."
"Hello, my friends," Nanaki said, smiling. The expression was mostly in his eyes -- he did lift his lips at the corners in an imitation of a human smile, but really it just showed a lot of teeth. Denzel smiled back anyway.
"Long time no see, Red," Cid greeted.
Nanaki nodded, flame-tipped tail swishing. "Much too long indeed. I regret that it took such a sad event to make it happen."
Barret grunted an agreement.
The servant couldn't leave fast enough once she had led them to Cloud's room, but Denzel didn't care much. He just stared at Cloud, standing in the doorway wrapped in thick white cloth.
"Man, you look awful."
Cloud blinked at him. "Thanks. Glad to see you too."
"Kid's right," Cid agreed, watching Cloud doubtfully. "You got piss-holes for eyes. When's the last time you slept?"
Groaning quietly, Cloud stepped aside to let them come in. "I don't even know anymore... Just sit down wherever. Reeve left kimonos for you guys to put on, let me get them."
"I'm not wearing a friggin' bathrobe in public," Barret rumbled, crossing his arms.
Cloud nodded slowly like he couldn't care less. "Alright, I'll just tell Reeve he spent five hours shaking down every shop on the continent to find one your size for nothing, then?"
Barret's eyelid twitched. Denzel swallowed a snicker.
"Real kimono too. All silk. I don't even want to know how much it--"
"All right, fine, shut up, I'll wear the friggin' bathrobe!"
"Aw, I'm sure you'll look pretty," Cid commented with a chuckle. Barret shook a clenched fist at him.
Cloud's lips quirked up in a little smile, but it didn't look very convincing to Denzel. He drifted closer, peering up at his guardian. "Uh, Cloud -- you're gonna be okay?" he asked quietly. "You look kinda... um. Yeah."
"Tired. I'll crash afterwards." He smiled at Denzel but it wasn't any more convincing than the first.
"Listen, Cloud, back home--"
Cloud shoved a package in his arms before he could finish the sentence. "Here's yours. We'll go to Tifa's room, you can change there. Guys..." He gestured vaguely at the other two packages on his bed. "I'm sure you can figure it out."
He herded Denzel toward a door in the wall, knocking briefly before he slid it open. Behind them Denzel heard Cid ask Nanaki if he wanted them to find him a pretty white ribbon for his neck or something. Cloud slid the door closed, muffling Nanaki's answer -- but even through the panel he didn't sound very impressed by Cid's thoughtfulness.
"Err -- Cloud?" Denzel questioned.
Tifa emerged from behind a folding screen, hair wet. She looked tired too, though not as much as Cloud did. But she looked sadder, and that was worse.
He let himself be hugged, closing his eyes when he was sure neither of them would see. Of course he had known they were fine for a while now -- sort of, Cid's men telling Cid telling Elmyra -- but... He just hadn't been sure.
He leaned back to look up at her face, threw Cloud a frown. "So what the hell was that? Back home," he clarified, though from the way their expressions shifted he didn't need to. Tifa had gone tense; Cloud's eyes were almost closed, exhausted.
"It's a long story and we can't talk about it here and now," he said quietly. "After the last ceremony, I'll tell everyone. Can you wait that long?"
Tifa gave Cloud a worried frown. Denzel puffed up in offense. It was the 'are you sure he's old enough to hear that' look. He hated that look!
Cloud could read it as well, apparently. "Tifa, when I was about eight months older than he is, I left Nibelheim to go enroll in the army. He's not too young to hear it. He'll have to live with it too."
Tifa gave Cloud a strange look. "That ... depends on what we decide," she said cautiously, like she was reminding him.
Cloud's shoulders tensed up. He turned away to look through the window. "... Of course."
Denzel's eyes flitted from one to the other. He didn't like the silence between them. It seemed he hadn't been completely stupid to worry.
He busied himself with unfolding his kimono. It really did look like a bathrobe to him, and he couldn't help but smile a little at the thought of Barret wearing one. The smile didn't last, though. Cloud and Tifa were still carefully not looking at each other, and that made him feel weird. Uneasy.
"So, er. Who's that Zack guy anyway?"
From the corner of his eye he could see Tifa freeze, the comb in her hair stopped mid-stroke. Uh oh. He quickly looked up at Cloud, who was ... also staring at him. Crap. Denzel tried to hide a wince, feeling the tension in the room rocket back up. Maybe that hadn't been the best way to change the topic, damn his too-quick tongue.
"I mean. Ex-colleague? Enemy? Random bar buddy? 'Cause he's good at playing nice, but I didn't know if he meant it, you know?"
"He's an old army friend," Cloud eventually said, after a long pause that made Denzel wish for some way to go back in time and kick himself before he let anything slip out. "A good guy. He wouldn't have hurt you."
"Alright then," Denzel said, and pretended it was. He smoothed the folds of his kimono and picked it up by the shoulders. Now to the folding screen to change...
Tifa's voice brought him to a stop, one step away from the very relative safety of the screen. He made a noise of acknowledgement.
"How did you meet Zack?"
His stomach dropped down to his shoes. Oh, this was bad. This was so bad. Tifa was doing her 'I am Very Calm, listen to how Calm I am' voice, and she never used it when it was true.
"He was at the bar," Denzel said, trying for nonchalance. Aw, shit, the guy had warned him Tifa would flip, but--
"You went to the bar," she repeated, voice gone strangely restrained.
Denzel scowled, knowing he looked like a sulky kid and not able to stop himself. "...Yeah. So what?"
He resisted the urge to steal a glance at Cloud. Cloud might play referee if it went bad, but his primary caregiver, the one with her name on his adoption paperwork, the disciplinarian -- that was Tifa. Denzel had learned early on that it was really hard to play them against each other.
"The last you knew, you were told to stay hidden because the situation was unstable. And then you went to the bar."
"I didn't go to the bar," he replied, scowling, feeling cornered and hating it. "-- Well okay I kind of did, but not right away. I just wanted to get a look from a block away, it was safe!"
"Safe?! How did you know that?" The sudden outburst startled him, but she wasn't done. "And then you just, what -- walked up to him?"
Denzel couldn't find an answer for that, because -- yes. That was exactly what he'd done. He'd seen a stranger behind the bar where Tifa or Cloud should have been and the next thing he knew he was stalking across the street for an explanation, because -- because...
Tifa threw her brush on the bed and raked both hands in her hair, starting to pace, agitated. She stared at him in accusation and Denzel clenched his fists, trying to brace for her anger.
Instead she went all restrained again, tense almost to the point of snapping, and she turned away.
It hurt, but not as much as the words that came next, quiet, clipped.
"I assumed you were mature enough for me to trust you. Trust you'd do the smart thing. Follow instructions. Keep yourself safe. All right -- I was wrong."
And she sounded so disappointed, because what she really meant was 'you let me down'. So then it just, he just--
"I thought you were dead!"
Denzel's hands were trembling. He clenched them into fists, tried to stuff away that second of terror when he saw a stranger where Cloud or Tifa should have stood, that fear he'd buried in outrage as swiftly as possible because the thought of them actually being dead -- his ... tutors, his adoptive --
His parents. His parents, dead again.
"I had no news! None at all. You could have gotten killed for all I knew! And I just -- I --"
"What do you think you could have done except get killed as well!?" Tifa threw her hands up in the air in frustration. "Do you think that would have helped? Do you think we would have wanted this? We're the adults here -- it's not your job to protect us, Denzel, it's ours to protect you! Do you think it would feel good to have failed?"
"Tifa," Cloud intervened, glancing meaningfully toward the communicating door. But the words were already out of Denzel's mouth.
"If it was so important to protect me, why did you leave without me?!"
A callused hand caught his arm. Denzel whirled around, purely by reflex; the look on Cloud's face killed his anger on the spot, deflating him and leaving him empty and hurt, guilty. He bit the inside of his cheek; he didn't want to let the tears rise to his eyes.
Tifa was staring at him and she didn't look angry anymore -- she looked stricken, like he'd managed to aim just right where it hurt. He felt the farthest thing from proud. He opened his mouth, not sure what to say.
"Okay, what's going on?" demanded Cid as he pushed the sliding door open. He glared at them all in turn, suspicious and displeased. Tifa twitched and turned away, busying herself with clothes left on the bed. Denzel bowed his head.
"Nothing," Cloud retorted. "We'll sort it out."
Cid didn't look anywhere close to convinced, and his loud snort made that clear.
"Later, Cid. We're going to be late at this rate."
Denzel wasn't sure what face Cloud was making, or how Cid took it, but after a meaningful pause the door snapped closed again. Cloud sighed and let go of Denzel's arm with a little pat that didn't reassure him at all.
"... I didn't mean that," he said, voice quiet.
Tifa didn't turn to look at him. "We'll talk about it later," she said with a quiet, careful voice.
Denzel cringed and went behind the screen to change, not saying another word.
Zack had been right after all; she was a bad mother.
Not that he'd actually said so. But he'd kind of implied it, hadn't he? With that surprised look when she admitted she didn't know where Denzel was spending the night, and...
Or maybe he hadn't implied it at all and she was the one who had read too much into the conversation. Except it wasn't too much at all, now was it? Maybe she'd pretended Zack was the one who had the thought because some part of her had known better and she hadn't wanted to hear it.
Denzel was so mature most of the time, so wary, so street-savvy. He had this way of looking at people and guessing which ones were going to be trouble, which ones were unsafe to be around. Oh, not always -- he liked Reno of all people, proof that his bad guys radar had a few glitches. But he was just... he...
She'd forgotten he was a teenager, and barely at that. He was impulsive, and that was because he wasn't yet old enough to know how to restrain himself in all occasions. It was her job to watch out for that -- to trust him to try his best, yes, but to be there to catch him anyway, just in case.
Instead she'd up and left the continent.
She couldn't get over it.
Cid fell into step with her. She grimaced, then tried to hide it; but seeing the way his eyes narrowed, she could tell he had noticed. At the head of the group Cloud walked with the old councilor's aide, Leuang; Barret and Nanaki bracketed Denzel. (Vincent of course was nowhere to be seen.) She'd been walking at the back, to avoid having to talk to anyone, but it meant if she tried to avoid Cid it would be much too obvious. And Cid wasn't Nanaki, who would see her avoidance but politely let her get away with it, or Barret who wouldn't even notice.
Cid's voice was quiet, so the others wouldn't hear, but that was as tactful as he went. "Wanna explain why the kid assumed you'd kicked the bucket?"
Because Sephiroth was here and it was a reasonable assumption to make. She crossed her arms tight, hiding her hands far up her wide sleeves, stared ahead. "Not really, no."
Denzel didn't know about Sephiroth, but he'd known enough to assume danger, assume foul play. How it must have scared him to suddenly have no more news...
She should never have left him. Yuffie might not have understood, not right away, but...
Yuffie was the baby of the group, the little sister. They were responsible for her in a way... Except they weren't, Yuffie was brave and headstrong and she always landed back on her feet somehow. She was almost twenty-one and an adult. Yuffie wasn't Tifa's little sister, she was everyone's, and there were always others to care for her. Denzel was her son, and he had no one else.
Yuffie needed moral support. Denzel needed someone to keep him from getting slaughtered by Sephiroth. What had she been thinking?
She closed her eyes briefly, aware that her hands were shaking. She still couldn't look at Cid straight on, at his piercing, suspicious squint. "Sorry. I can't tell you."
"Trouble back home, huh?"
She glanced his way, quick, surprised.
Tifa didn't know how Cid managed to make a perfectly good funeral kimono look so disreputable; even with Reeve around to make sure it hung properly, he looked more like a bandit from an old samurai movie than a well-dressed gentleman, and it wasn't only the blond hair and scruffy chin. The way he kept pushing his sleeves up to his elbows didn't help. He was chewing on a toothpick, Reeve having politely forbidden him to pull out his cigarettes earlier as they left the building.
"Vince told me."
"Oh." A sigh. "I can't tell you, you'll have to wait." Her fingers crawled higher up her sleeves, clenching on her upper arms too tightly.
"It's bad, huh?"
Tifa hesitated. She didn't want to scare him, but someone needed to know. "Yes. Not --"
She bit her lip, sneaked a glance at Cloud, who'd convinced her it would be alright to come here, that there would be no incidents. She had deferred to his judgment, but...
"--Not immediate. It can probably wait," she allowed, knowing she didn't sound convinced enough and unable to fake it. "Yuffie -- Yuffie comes first." Now that they were all there, at least, now that Denzel was safe.
"Huh." Cid's toothpick moved from one corner of his mouth to the other as he thought. "A hint?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry."
Cid let out a short sigh and adjusted his kimono where it gaped open on his chest, tugged on the belt with irritation. It was black, like her wide obi and her kimono's under-layer, because as friends instead of family it wasn't appropriate for them to wear nothing but mourning whites. Yuffie had been pristine all over, dark hair hidden behind a silver-embroidered headpiece, nails shining like snow and a dusting of moon-pale eye shadow making her face look fey, look not-Yuffie.
"Please stop fussing with your clothes," Reeve commented as he appeared beside them, making Tifa jump. She hadn't seen him coming. "You'll scandalize a lot of grandmothers if you let your top gape so much, Cid."
Reeve nodded politely at the other group he'd just left -- business-suit-wearing, all of them, likely diplomatic envoys from other continents -- and turned back to Cid and Tifa. Cid was rolling his eyes, muttering under his breath, but he tucked his thumb in his belt and stopped trying to rearrange his kimono. "Yeah, yeah, Mom."
Reeve chuckled but declined to respond, leaning forward to take part in Barret and Denzel's conversation. Tifa let her gaze drop to the paved street.
The wake had been awful. A beautifully sterile, oppressive room, no voice higher than a whisper, the depressing notes of a strange little guitar. Animated, spitfire Yuffie sat with the body on a dais like a porcelain doll, the kind you never touched because you'd just get them dirty and they weren't for playing with anyway. Tifa almost hadn't recognized her there, expression cold and dead, staring ahead at nothing in particular. Surrounded as she was by grim-faced guards, Cloud and Tifa hadn't been allowed to move close or say a word to her. They'd just sat all night watching the corpse, not even sure Yuffie had noticed them.
Denzel's voice caught her attention; she shook her head, tried to banish her thoughts.
"...died just yesterday, right? Isn't that kind of quick?"
"Eh," Barret said. "Between the time they found him and the doctor said he was dead, and the time differences, it's probably closer to three days..." He scratched his hair. "Two and a half?"
"No, Denzel is right," Reeve said. "The local religion believes that the soul is tethered to the body until it's done, ah, returning to dust."
Nanaki tilted his head, curious. "You mean rotting?"
Tifa couldn't help but grimace.
"Hm, I can see why they would wish to do away with the ceremony fast, then. Decomposition does take a long time."
Reeve nodded almost ponderously, though his eyes sparkled in amusement behind his proper expression. "It's rather unsightly, as well."
"But, if they bury him...?" Denzel looked a little disturbed now. "Wouldn't the soul be kinda... buried alive? That's -- I mean, it takes longer underground, doesn't it?"
Tifa didn't like thinking about the reason why Denzel even knew so much about dead bodies and decomposition.
Leuang threw Denzel an unreadable look over his shoulder, and he swept out his thin, long-fingered hand toward the town square just ahead. The square was filled with other mourners in drab colors. Even so, they could see a tall platform, and in front of it a great pile of dry wood.
"We do not bury our dead," he said, each word carefully weighed and enunciated. "We cremate them. Shall I explain what cremation is?"
"No, I know that," Denzel replied, expression going shuttered as if Leuang had ended that sentence with a 'you ignorant child'. "Thanks."
Tifa hesitated, hand lifted to rest it on his shoulder. She hadn't heard it like that, more in a 'I am unsure how to make something I've always known clear to you' way. Denzel didn't react well to being thought stupid or uncultured -- he'd lost two years' worth of school teaching after Meteor and she knew being inferior to his peers bothered him, even though several of his classmates were in the same boat.
But he'd been polite. She didn't want to correct him on what she assumed he thought, instead of what he acted on. She dropped her hand again without him noticing.
She'd have more serious things to correct him about afterwards. He was right though, she had failed to uphold her responsibilities more than he had his, but that didn't mean that, as his parent, she didn't have to punish him. It was going to be unpleasant.
She pulled herself out of her thoughts as they reached the square. The crowd parted before them. They did attract some suspicious looks, but most people just looked toward the waiting pyre, heartbreak and worry clear in their eyes. "Friggin' depressing," muttered Barret. Tifa nodded.
Leuang led them to a spot off to the side, where they would be close to the pyre and Yuffie's dais without being right at the front of the crowd, and then he left with a little bow, without saying another word. Tifa barely noticed, watching instead as the crowd parted again and fell to their knees to bow low to the ground.
"It's alright," said Reeve quietly. "We weren't his vassals. We're not expected to kowtow."
They watched as eight men carried the body on a litter on their shoulders, as they climbed a few stairs and deposited it on top of the pyre. Yuffie came next, trailing too many layers of cloth behind her on the paved ground, flanked by bodyguards and attendants.
Cloud stepped beside her, arched a questioning eyebrow. Tifa shook her head and leaned her shoulder against his, just a bit.
Tifa didn't want to think of anything but Yuffie at this instant, climbing the platform to be of height with her father's body on the pyre, but the silver-threaded ribbons on her headpiece, despite not looking like hair much, still managed to remind her of Sephiroth.
Sephiroth in her attic. A part of her was horrified just with the name, the weight of their history, wanted nothing but to attack. Another part... she couldn't wrap her mind around the man as he had appeared in her bar -- dusty, hair tied back on his nape in a rough knot, irritated and making reluctant concessions -- temporarily neutered -- and so she floundered, because she didn't have the first clue what to think.
And so she had tried not to.
She wanted this week to be over already. She lifted her chin and stared at Yuffie.
There was no speech, no last words, last blessings. Yuffie stared down at her father's face for a second -- neatly-groomed and expressionless, he looked so much more like a nobleman than he had when they first met him, cynical and weary and a little drunk, worried for his child despite their disagreements but too emotionally clumsy to know how to let her see.
Yuffie took a burning torch from an assistant's hands and thrust it into the pile of wood.
They watched the body burn.
There must have been some Fire materia in there, Tifa thought vaguely, to speed up the process, because the fire burned hot and fast, until the body was hidden behind a curtain of hazy blue flames. Even from their spot a dozen yards away she could still feel the sweltering heat. She didn't know how Yuffie could stand it without fainting, even closer on her platform.
It must have been a half-hour later, or perhaps more, when the pile of wood was just ashes and a couple of charred trunks, that an attendant waved the smoke away and Yuffie said, blunt and to the point, "Godo Kisaragi is dead."
That was when the arrows started raining.
Struck stupid by surprise, muscles aching after so long spent standing motionless, Tifa needed a couple of seconds to realize, to recognize the threat. She saw a swirl of red, Vincent leaping into the fray, catching arrows with his cape, attendants fighting to shield Yuffie with their bodies.
Tifa caught Denzel by the shoulders and thrust him at Reeve -- he was a non-combatant, he'd get them out -- then yanked open the bottom of her kimono and started running.
Nanaki and Cloud were already racing through the square toward the points of origin of the arrows, Cid following on their heels with gritted teeth after grabbing a bit of wood for a staff. Tifa saw another flurry of bolts fly, jumped forward and snatched a couple out of the air; they wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to Yuffie but there was still the crowd standing there. "Run!" she yelled at them; they were in range and didn't even seem to notice, in shock, only a few already screaming.
Vincent perched on the edge of the platform, but wide as his cape was, it was frayed, weighted down by the arrows, and he couldn't block from all angles. There were people trying to drag Yuffie down to shelter; Tifa yelled a protest when Yuffie resisted them, tugged her arm free.
None of the arrows would have touched Yuffie in her usual garb, quick as she was, but she was wrapped in too many layers to dodge anything. Tifa leapt over the still-smoking pyre, feeling heat rush across her bare legs. One attendant -- bodyguard maybe -- saw her coming but she didn't have the time to tell him she wasn't an enemy; she dodged, planted her foot on a wooden beam, used her momentum to fling herself up. She swatted another arrow down before she'd even really landed on the platform.
"Yuffie!" she yelled, already moving to cover a hole in her defenses that Vincent and her ninjas couldn't get to. "Yuffie, get down from there--"
It was all rushing by so fast, so fast, but she could see Yuffie's face, alive again with some strange, powerful emotion Tifa didn't have any time to name, because at her right hand was a scared-looking attendant, and between his fingers gleamed a thin needle aimed right at Yuffie's unprotected neck.
Tifa's fist caught him in the ribs like a hammer blow, flung him straight off the platform. Tifa came to a stop a step past Yuffie's side, glanced back to look at her. No blood, no prickle on her skin.
"Oh, good," Tifa said when Yuffie stared at her. She smiled at the girl, and her forearm started burning.
She blinked and then she was on her knees, leaning heavily on the arm Yuffie had wrapped around her ribs, Yuffie who leaned over her as she tried to keep Tifa's heavier, taller body up; she was talking, only it was so noisy, Tifa couldn't hear. Tifa tried to tug on a long white sleeve to get her down but her fingers wouldn't close properly.
She blinked and then she was stretched out on her back on the platform and Yuffie was still staring at her through a haze of ... smoke maybe. One of the ninjas was saying something about -- traitors, poison -- but she couldn't catch much more. She closed her eyes again. Tired...
...No, no, Yuffie wasn't safe, Yuffie wasn't...
She fought to turn her head. Yuffie was standing on the edge of the platform, and a red stone shone from her headdress, and water rushed across the courtyard before the dragon god.
Dark smoke filled Tifa's vision. She hoped vaguely that Reeve had taken Denzel far enough that they wouldn't be bowled over by Leviathan's flash-flood strike, and then the burn reached her shoulder and beyond and she was falling and falling forever.
I have a couple of chapters in my backlog, but after that Homestuck stole me. i'm still waiting for the honeymoon phase to stop so I can go back to my old flame fandoms. Been in ff7 on and off ever since the game came out in Europe, so it'll happen eventually, I just don't know when.
He was in Wutai again. Impenetrable green tangles all around, knee-deep in bodies. His men. Wutaian men. Warriors, all dead. Camp whores with ink-black hair (often also warriors, just more sneakily so.) He kept patiently turning the corpses over, looking for his mother. None of them had any face left.
He wasn't sure how he would recognize her even if they did.
He turned over corpses. This one was Sergeant Darger and that one First Class Ulweiss. That one was the canteen lady. This one a Wutaian ninja.
And that one was a Wutaian archer, but contrary to all rules and expectations of a hundred and hundred of jungle battlefields he was still alive, and even attempting to sit up. Sephiroth paused to properly consider that flagrant flaunting of the rules. Huh.
A swing with the flat of his blade knocked him out for good. Or broke his skull, either or. Buster swords weren't exactly known for precision and while Sephiroth could fake competency he had never bothered trying for complete mastery. The skill-set ran opposite of the one the Masamune demanded just often enough to foul his reflexes.
This one fit surprisingly well in his hand. Huh.
Another archer. A fire-colored beast leaping, fitting no monster classification for this continent he had ever read.
The city behind him (them), the pagodas and the screaming crowd and the fire. The forest down below, beyond the wall under their feet, they weren't on the ground anymore, they were high up...
But he'd been at Yunnan (or maybe Kunming or Shilin), not inside any city walls, much less the capital. The capital came later, after he'd lost all the troopers he'd been entrusted with, told to watch over, when he started losing his own SOLDIERs. His Firsts.
Later they would send in fresh replacements for him to train, green almost to uselessness and a few bright ones to keep (some he would lose anyway) but they wouldn't be enough to pile up so high. It didn't fit. Irritating.
The dragon rising out of the wave didn't fit either, but it was magnificent.
... Alright, that was more than enough of that. He turned away, pulled free. The archers were out of place and he had dead bodies to check. He was looking for Mother.
He didn't know what he'd do once he found her, but that didn't mean he could just stop looking.
His new second in command would be fine. He had proven himself (would prove himself this wasn't Kunming yet) reliable. Even though Sephiroth didn't want to know what convoluted reason the man had found to bleach his hair bright blond.
"-- hasn't woken up, no... It's nothing -- ahh, okay, okay. It's--"
"He'll have to go to the bathroom soonish."
A sigh; a low, tired man's laugh. "Yeah, what she said. Not trying to badger you into changing your mind. You asked, is all. I'll just put adult diapers on the shopping list. Problem solved."
The female voice was nearby, perhaps looking at him. The male voice was familiar but didn't sound that close, and its owner was likely standing. Sephiroth kept his eyes closed. The male voice...
One of his SOLDIERs. The newest batch.
A third, faraway voice. Phone call. One of his too, that third person. Only...
"Anyway, don't worry about us, the situation here will keep. You just think about Tifa."
"That's what I was calling about," the faraway voice said. "Poison's slow-acting, but it's resilient to materia healing. We were -- hell, never mind, it's a mess. Aeris , can you help?"
Cloth rustled at his side.
"I'm not sure," said the woman, and then he remembered her. She was an Ancient (he was not) and his second in command had a bond with her that divided his loyalties. They insisted they wanted the same things anyway but he didn't see how that could work.
She was also puzzlingly light-hearted, but not today, apparently.
"If it resists magic, I don't know. I've never even heard of things like that. I'm afraid the way my Limits work might count."
"Actually," said Zack (his name was just back in Sephiroth's mind all of a sudden, his name and his wild grins when he rushed into battle,) "I think I was hit by that thing -- a lot of us were. But all I remember about the field treatment is that it hurt like a bitch."
"Fuck." A long, frustrated sigh rang through the phone. "...But it worked?"
"I'm here," Zack said simply.
"The traditional healers are just giving basic advice and a handful of plants. Keep her asleep and hydrated, it'll pass. " Bitter. "Thanks for nothing."
"Wait. It'll pass?"
"Yeah. The nerve damage won't."
"Yeah. You really don't remember?" A rhetorical question, all three seemed to know it. "Guess there's no choice then. Could you...?"
"Yeah," said Zack, commiserating. "I'll--"
"I'm awake," said Sephiroth before he could come and check.
The next silence was deeply dismayed.
He opened his eyes on a slanted wooden ceiling and (the Ancient's) Miss Gainsborough's startled face. He had a moment of satisfaction over it -- but getting one past her wasn't as satisfying when she was distracted by worry. The very fact that such a thing would distract her cheapened the challenge itself, trivialized it.
Zack stood farther in the room, only visible once he sat up. Sephiroth held out his hand for the phone, received it after a second's pause, without a comment. It was small and sleek, the volume turned up so Miss Gainsborough could hear it.
"Strife," he said, and tried not to think about that time floating at the edge of waking when he had not known him.
'My apologies for waking out of turn', he almost purred, knowing exactly how on edge Strife would be. Almost, because with Fair in front of him the memory of his Firsts lost in fever and pain came up easily.
"The goal was for us to kill our own men trying to fix them," he said instead, dismissing the impulse to be spiteful. The bare truth would do damage enough. "The poison was especially tailored to worsen with each materia use. How many times did you try?"
A short pause, during which he had the strange idea that Strife might be licking dry lips.
"Only once. ...She screamed."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow. "That's lucky." He'd known commanders who'd been unwilling to admit it wouldn't work until their men's legs were dead for good, even until their lungs shut down. He'd been that commander, just once, because they couldn't afford not to make sure, because they couldn't afford to haul around dead weights -- they only hindered their comrades and got them sniped, and often ended up in need of a mercy killing anyway. "As the healers advised, letting things run their course might work out to leave her with a negligible amount of nerve damage, probably only in her extremities."
"She's a martial artist. A negligible whatever is not acceptable."
He conceded the point with a little 'hm'. "The field treatment, then?"
Strife sounded so firm, defiantly so; Sephiroth smiled to himself, obscurely amused. "Let it run its course."
"You son of a--"
"Then when the poison is flushed out, but before it sets in her body memory, hit her with Bio. Mid-strength on a mastered materia might work, though for thoroughness' sake I suggest you give it your all."
Zack looked queasy, but not disbelieving. Like he could tell that was exactly what Sephiroth had done.
Like he trusted it had been entirely necessary. Sephiroth looked away.
"It works, Strife," he growled back, and then forced his very real moment of irritation into mockery. "So long as you don't forget to heal her right afterwards. Preferably before the decomposition sets in."
There was another pregnant pause.
"Window of time?"
"Depending on metabolism, roughly a half hour after the poison stops acting -- keep monitoring it. Sense is a passive materia, it won't trigger another fit. Between Bio and Restore, six to eight seconds."
A sucked-in breath. "...Doable," Strife decide. "Several casters okay?"
Sephiroth pulled the PHS away from his ear to hand back to Zack.
Sephiroth stopped, and slowly brought the PHS back to his ear. He could guess Strife had only used his rank so he wouldn't use his name where it could be overheard, but it seemed one pulled his attention just as well as the other, from that voice.
Strange, that moment of -- irritation -- because Strife would never mean it.
"You staying, then?"
"It looks like," he said dryly, ignoring how it galled, how much he didn't want to. 'Want' was irrelevant, when it disregarded all consequences. (It's a god's prerogative, might have said Hojo. Then again he had more often said, Cease your childish tantrum. You have more discipline than that. He did.)
"There's a bathroom with shower one floor down."
"I don't need a reward for good behavior, Strife."
"No, but by now you've got to need a chamberpot."
Only Zack's quickly choked-down snicker convinced him of what he'd heard. Not the words so much as the tone -- wry, edging into sarcastic, but without hostility. Just... Reserve, maybe.
"...I also figure you won't have another chance to clean up, once I bring them back."
It was annoying, that Strife would know it would have bothered him to be judged in his dirty, disheveled state. He shouldn't care what they thought, but he did anyway.
"But once you're done, go back to sleep."
Moment over. "Very well." He terminated the call and handed the PHS back to Zack, and tried not to look forward to his bath.
"I think that's it," Cloud said cautiously, and stopped casting. Cid wiped his forehead and leaned against the wall. Nanaki dropped on his stomach right there on the spot.
On her bed, Tifa still lay motionless, but her skin wasn't flushed with fever anymore. Cloud lay a hand on her forehead. "Temperature seems normal." A Sense revealed no hidden problems.
"Shouldn't she wake up now?" Denzel asked from the connecting door to Cloud's bedroom. Barret had pulled him out in the corridor before, only for the boy to go straight to the hidden door. Cloud had told Barret to drop it. Denzel would only imagine worse than was actually happening if he was forbidden to see it.
"Hopefully she will in a minute," he said, matter of fact as much as he could. "But if she doesn't, that's normal too. She needs real sleep now."
He cracked the corridor door open. Barret was standing by the door with his arms crossed forbiddingly, towering over a Wutainese doctor. Reeve must have gone to do some kind of political maneuvering. Vincent of course was nowhere in sight.
Cloud gave the patiently waiting doctor a curt nod. "Thanks, we're good now. Barret," he said, gesturing him in. He closed the door behind Barret.
It was highly unlikely the doctor would have been of any help, even if they still needed him. None of the doctors and healers had offered more than a couple of palliatives and cryptic remarks. The only real help they'd gotten had been from one of Yuffie's ninjas, dropping by with herbs to make her sweat out the poison faster, before it reached her spine.
Cloud didn't have a lot of patience for politics even usually, but when one of his people was the point they were making, or the leverage -- well.
A knock at the door and Reeve walked in. He quickly took the room in, and relaxed on seeing their faces.
Nanaki pushed himself into a sitting position and sniffed at her hand. "The poison at least is gone," he informed them.
The bedroom was crowded, only Vincent and Yuffie missing to complete the set. (And Aeris, but not as much as she had been, not as irrevocably, and that pulled his spine straighter, erased much of the frown.) Cloud waved Denzel closer; the boy weaved his way between Cid and Barret, stepped over Nanaki, and sat at the head of the bed, between Tifa and Cloud, where Cloud could drop a hand on his shoulder.
"The last archer died in custody -- suicide, apparently."
"The hell!" Cid growled.
Cloud didn't disbelieve it exactly but...
"Yes," said Reeve tiredly. "For the man to succeed in killing himself while under guard, someone else had to be inclined to let him."
"Or someone else killed him, same problem," Cid said. "How the hell did they even get to him? Who was guarding him?"
Reeve sighed. "I asked around but even my usual contacts wouldn't tell me anything. This is, I quote, a problem internal to Wutai, and will be treated as such."
"Tifa got hurt," Denzel started angrily. "She's not from Wutai."
"And they're very grateful, and wish her a prompt recovery, and--"
"Bullshit!" Barret hit the wall he was leaning on, making the hanging scrolls and the ceiling light bounce. He would have paced if there was enough space.
"Barret, calm down," Cloud said. "Reeve, any idea who backed the archers?"
"The only clue we have is the type of poison -- something they came up with to use against Shinra. It might be that this is a message, a judgment of Yuffie and her bonds with ... something they see as Shinra-like."
Like, say, an organization led by a previous member of their Board of Directors, as his tired, guilty expression seemed to say.
"Might just be that they know she uses materia," Cloud replied. "Then again they would have just used a faster kind if they really wanted her dead. Using this one, they weren't sure she'd die, so..."
"Yes," said Reeve. "The timing, also, was especially meaningful -- after Godo's reign was ritually over, but before Yuffie was confirmed. This was a warning, or a sign of disapproval. The traditionalists, then."
"Or people trying to get 'em blamed... Argh! I hate this kind of intrigue." Barret lifted his fist to hit the wall again, but at the last second stopped himself. Cid nudged his arm with an elbow, sympathetic.
Cloud sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The discussion wasn't going to go any further without new information. He leaned past Denzel to touch Tifa's forehead. Still no fever, and she even moved a little bit.
"I'm going to make a phone call."
"To your friend?" Nanaki asked, moving aside to let him pass.
Cloud paused to look at him, not sure how to interpret that tone. "...Yeah. He wanted to know how it went, with Tifa."
Well, Aeris and Zack did. He was pretty sure Sephiroth didn't.
"Useful guy, by the way," Cid said, and he sounded a little surprised that Cloud had made a friend they didn't know. "Wutai veteran?"
God but Cloud hated lying to them, even if only by omission. He made a sort of affirmative noise and quickly slipped through the door to his bedroom, closing it behind him.
"Seventh Heaven, where all your drinking dreams come true!"
"Hey, Aeris," he said, smiling. He couldn't help it.
She must have heard it in his voice, because she let out a long, slightly shaking breath. "Tifa."
"Yeah, she's -- I don't want to say 'fine', because she hasn't woken up yet, but it looks like it worked."
"Oh, thank you," she breathed out. Cloud had the feeling she wasn't talking to him. Maybe to the Planet.
"You bartending?" he asked, suspicious -- she sounded like she'd picked up on the landline, nothing like the crisp clarity of the PHS network, and the landline was on the ground floor.
"I wish, it sounds like so much fun. No, I'm... Well. I'm washing dishes."
Not suspicious at all. "...Aeris."
"...In the bar. But the blinds are closed."
Thank god. The last thing they needed right now was someone who'd known her walking by and seeing her through the windows. "Do I want to know why you're doing dishes there and not in the kitchen?"
"I'm sure you must. It's a fascinating mystery. " A giggle. "Alright, not really. Zack made a bit of a mess yesterday. I think he'll need more training before he can be allowed behind the bar again."
Cloud felt a pang of homesickness for a home he had never really known; bad timing, bad luck -- never complete. He wanted to grab Tifa and Denzel and fly straight back and -- just be home.
"Soon, Cloud," she said, soothing. "We'll be waiting."
Cloud closed his eyes and made himself relax. "Yeah." Zack and Aeris, alive, waiting. Messing around behind the bar, in their kitchen. Sleeping in his bedroom. He smiled a little. "Yeah, okay."
Tifa might wake soon, and he needed to figure out a way to contact Yuffie, pool their resources. He switched tracks.
Aeris didn't need to ask who. "Yes." A pause. "He's been dreaming a lot."
Huh. You weren't supposed to dream at all, when under a spell. Sometimes you'd even wake without realizing you'd lost time.
Then again this was twice now that he'd broken free, once from Cloud's casting and once from Aeris's. That plan to make Sephiroth harmless had been half-assed from the start, no matter how Cloud wanted to tell himself it wasn't (anything short of killing him again and salting the ashes would be half-assed), and was now proving ridiculously ineffective; if even Aeris couldn't keep him down against his wishes, Cloud didn't know anyone who could.
The only thing that kept him from hyperventilating, that made the plan workable, was that Sephiroth was still there, willing to wait. Even willing to offer his unasked-for cooperation.
Watching Bio spread through Tifa's body, eating through her flesh as it went, watching her skin go mottled greenish-brown as rot crawled under her skin -- it had been awful, almost unbearable, even for that short handful of seconds. If she could hold her hands steady when she woke, feel what she ought with her fingertips...
He might owe a debt there. Not a big enough one to balance the things Sephiroth had done, but...
"I'll call you tomorrow," he said. He hesitated, his finger on the disconnect button. "... Be safe."
"You too," she said with quiet gravity, and she ended the call first.
When he went back to Tifa's bedroom, Nanaki was staring at him, the big triangles of his ears angled straight ahead, prickled up. He swiveled them backward and cocked them at a doubtful, wary angle as Cloud stared back.
"Furball? Spike?" Cid asked, eyes narrowed as he stared back and forth between them.
And shit again.
Reeve and Barret turned to them as the silence lasted. Shit and fuck.
He didn't want to lie to them again. But.
"... Not here." He gave the door and window a meaningful look.
"How bad is it, really?" demanded Cid. "Because I'm starting to get some really bad fucking vibes from you here."
Aw, fuck. "Not all bad, there's -- good news too. But. Some parts of it are pretty..." He sighed, shook his head. "Not talking about it here, it really isn't the right place."
"Here as in the room or here as in the town? Because now Tifa's better nothing stops us from going up to the ship."
"Here as in the continent, feels like," Cloud said, and sighed again. "It's not urgent."
"It's not like anything urgent is happening here either," Cid countered. "What's wrong with being prepared?"
"It'll distract you."
"You sound very sure about that," Reeve mused from his corner, fingers smoothing down his goatee as he stared at him like Cloud was a strange new piece of machinery to take apart.
Cloud crossed the room and sat at Denzel's side on the bed. "I am. I can guarantee it."
Cid's eyes narrowed some more. "Nanaki?"
The beast shook his head slowly. "I likely misheard."
He likely hadn't. Come to think of it, hadn't he looked at him strange when asking about Cloud's friend, before Cloud even called back? Cloud couldn't be sure. Either way the cat was out of the bag now.
He was just very glad Nanaki was willing to trust him a little longer.
There were ways to break a long, heavy, brooding silence, but likely none as good as a previously invisible trap in the ceiling suddenly bursting open and a small thief somersaulting through. She landed awkwardly at the end of the mattress, and went bouncing at an angle into Barret, who caught her by reflex before she could slide to the ground.
Everyone blinked at his armful of upside-down Yuffie, clean of makeup and free of stiff, embroidered layers. At first glance it was like nothing had happened.
At second glance her grin was a little brittle. But she obviously didn't want it noticed.
"Hi guys! How's it going? Sorry it took me so long to drop by, people kept nagging me--"
This time it was toward the head of the bed that everyone turned.
Barret and Reeve went for water at the same time. Cloud was only aware of them peripherally. Tifa's eyes were open.
"How do you feel?" he and Denzel asked together. She smiled tiredly.
"Tingly. Thirsty." Her fingers twitched on the blanket. Cloud wondered if it was confusion or nerve damage. "Yuffie?"
"Tifa!" Yuffie bounced out of Barret's arms and knelt at the other side of the bed. Her enthusiasm faltered there, and for a long second she seemed more lost than anything. "... Are you sure you're okay?"
"Are you okay?" Tifa's voice was weak, but determined. She struggled to push herself up. Cloud helped her lift her head so that Denzel could slide a pillow underneath. Barret helped her drink, smiling the same fond, soft-eyed way he smiled at Marlene.
Yuffie grinned. "Oh, sure. I just had to listen to a dozen old goats telling me I should 'lessen my workload' and let them handle stuff because they care so much -- more like they wanted to take over but shyeah right. As if Da-- as if no one warned me 'bout that trick."
Reeve relaxed visibly. "That's what I wanted to talk with you about ..." Cid cleared his throat meaningfully; Reeve coughed in his fist. "I'm sure it can wait, though. How are you doing?"
"Good, good, I'm--"
"Good?" Denzel suggested, an eyebrow up. Yuffie stuck out her tongue at him.
"We are very glad to see you," Nanaki said diplomatically.
As they bickered, Cloud took Tifa's hand and flexed her fingers, and asked her to grip. "Tingling still?"
Her grip didn't seem to have weakened much. He couldn't feel his own fingers in very short order.
"A bit. It's passing."
"Yeah, I'd say so," he replied dryly, shaking blood back into them.
Yuffie turned back to them and ran her fingers down Tifa's sleeve. She was only in the black under-kimono by now, rumpled and belt undone. "Sucks that it got all dirty," Yuffie said. "You looked pretty nice."
So she had seen them after all, Cloud thought.
"You too," Tifa started to say, but Yuffie had already turned to the rest of the gang, who hadn't changed out of theirs yet, a bit too quick like she didn't want to hear it.
"The rest of you guys, sorry, you just look weird. Hm, no, Cloud's kinda hot with that haori. All warlordy. And Denzel's cute."
Denzel reddened a little and grumbled that he so wasn't.
"I think she's insultin' us, Barret," Cid commented, since Reeve wore a Midgar-style suit and Nanaki, of course, wore nothing but his bangles and mane ornaments. Barret drew himself up and gave her a fake threatening look.
"I bet it's nothing on Vince, though!" she immediately replied, even as she started a quick retreat to the other end of the room. "Haha. I mean, it's a good thing he didn't bother -- him wearing white, he woulda imploded."
"I didn't," Vincent said, opening the corridor door.
He'd changed into his own mourning kimono, long dark hair combed smooth and tied in a low tail between his shoulder blades. His claw was hidden, tucked in the kimono's front like a sling, the sleeve hanging empty.
"I would have changed earlier," he said quietly, "but it's harder to fight in these."
She stared at him, speechless. He stopped in front of her and bowed his head.
"I am sorry for your loss."
Yuffie burst into tears.
They traded Yuffie around for a bit after she had let a stoically enduring Vincent and his soggy kimono go. Cid and Barret ruffling her hair and looking embarrassed and sorry in about equal measures, Reeve rubbing her back, Nanaki nuzzling her hand until she rested it on his head and scritched him; she ended up on the bed hugging Tifa for all she was worth, Tifa hugging back as tight as she could as Denzel awkwardly patted her shoulder.
Cloud put his hand on her head and waited for her sobs to die down, as the rest of Avalanche found places to sit on the queen-sized mattress, or, like Vincent, perched on the footboard, just barely out of reach.
Yuffie turned in Tifa's arms and scrunched her eyebrows at Nanaki, last to still stand on the floor, and patted the bed.
"I fear I would finish it," Nanaki said, eyeing the sagging frame under Barret.
"Shaddap and come here," Yuffie ordered, voice rough with recent tears. Nanaki leaped on without another comment, landing with as much care as he could across Tifa's legs. The bed groaned.
He awkwardly attempted to find a position that wouldn't lean his weight on her. Yuffie felt blindly for his ruff and pulled him closer, making him flop on his flank across Tifa's and Cloud's laps.
"You're not too heavy like that," Cloud said, smiling faintly as Denzel sneaked in a caress to his red fur past Yuffie's strangling attempt.
"I am not a stuffed toy," Nanaki complained quietly, but made no move to free himself.
"Aww." Cid grinned. "Think we should hurry and take a picture."
The bed resisted Yuffie and Nanaki's attempts to swat at him -- fouling each other's movements, they didn't go far.
Then Barret did it for them, his hand cuffing the back of Cid's head, and with a quiet whimper of abused steel, the bedframe sank to the floor.
"So what's that big secret you've got?" Cait Sith asked the next day from his perch on Denzel's shoulder, as the group paused in the middle of the Da Chao paths to watch the scenery unfolding below. They'd pretended the walk was for Tifa's benefit, a need to get some air and exercise after her ordeal, though the second they were out of sight of the town Cloud and Cid had to play human crutches.
Cloud was carrying her now. Tifa looked grim and weary and it wasn't all because of the poison. He took the time to sit her comfortably on a rock, then took a couple of slow steps away, distancing himself. He didn't want her caught in the crossfire; in the end it had been his decision.
Yuffie had been whisked away by the ninjas tailing her to sleep in some undisclosed location; Vincent vanished soon after, no doubt to track her down. The rest of Avalanche were present, if not all physically so. He placed himself so the jagged rocks would block line of sight no matter how good the binoculars, and flicked Nanaki a look; Nanaki lifted his nose to the breeze, sniffed, and then nodded. "We weren't followed."
Alright. They were as alone as they could possibly get. And Reeve would know not to review Cait Sith's gathered info in public.
He nodded to himself. It would have to do.
"Aeris came back to life."
He could see the uncomprehending confusion on their faces at first -- a good person, coming back to them after being taken too soon, too brutally? It couldn't be right, life wasn't that fair, they must have misunderstood -- then the blooming astonishment as they realized they hadn't.
He didn't want them to start asking questions now, or at his next revelation; he wanted to get it all out, all at once. There would be screaming afterwards but there would be screaming no matter how he said it, and at least he wouldn't have to scream over them.
At least he wouldn't have to watch them start to feel happy -- the fall to 'betrayed' would only hurt more. He finished his concise announcement before any of them could start smiling.
"She brought Sephiroth along." And before they could reel back from the whiplash, "I'm going back with the first ship. We need to decide who's coming with."