The Wutai mountains were perfectly serene. There was nothing but gorgeous greenery all around them; giant cedars and pines climbed up on either side of the dirt path. Earlier they had passed a couple of statues that were supposed to help protect travelers. That probably explained why, now past the statues, they were attacked by monsters.
Cloud grunted and shoved the Ultima Weapon through a fire lizard’s throat, keeping it from blasting him with its breath, and pushed harder until the head separated from the neck. The head hit the ground with a squelch, and Cloud flipped it over into the undergrowth beyond the path. The body thrashed but Cloud just stepped away, took a deep breath and looked over his shoulder as the others—having dealt with the smaller lizards in the brood—came up over the crest of the path.
“Yuffie,” Cloud said, calmly, leaning against his blade. “Your father didn’t give us permission to use these imperial hot springs in hopes that we’d clear out the monster population in the area for him, did he?”
Yuffie’s laugh was a little nervous, and the young ninja rubbed the back of her head. “I’m beginning to wonder. Eh-heh. Sorry?”
“It’s all right.” Cloud shook his head and put the blade against his back. “Cid, any news from your crew?”
The Highwind’s captain took his cigarette out of his mouth long enough to exhale a cloud of smoke, watching as the fire lizard’s corpse twitched into the grass. “Eh. Sounds like a problem with those damned new engines. We oughta be okay, just keep using the good old ones that I designed. Boys oughta have it all back to normal by the time the weekend’s done.”
“Good.” Cloud nodded, turned and started up the path again. Perhaps we’ll even manage to survive vacation.
If he was to be honest with himself, things were admittedly better here than they were in Midgar at the moment. The city was working admirably under Reeve’s and Rufus’s joint guidance—not that Rufus had much choice about that, as he was still constrained to a hospital bed while the rest of his body healed up from having a chunk of building fall on him—and things were slowly getting better.
People picked up. They began to rebuild. And Avalanche thought it was safe to actually take time away, and celebrate somewhere they didn’t have to worry about Shinra’s interruptions, or random pleas for help, or anything else.
So of course, even Lord Godo in Wutai had something he needed them to do. And that was after the Highwind’s engine troubles, which had caused an interesting landing. Even though Cloud had been around Cid long enough to hear the man’s startling range of expletives, he had to admit that he was continually surprised by the combinations of vocabulary, particularly as they were plummeting from the air. Apparently it helped the captain think, because they survived, after all. Even walked away. The ship hadn’t even been that badly damaged, overall; there had just been a quick change of clothes for him after Yuffie had gotten motionsick beside him.
Gods. Perhaps Reeve had the right idea when asking them to just leave Cait Sith deactivated during their trip, and that would count as enough of a vacation for him.
They started up another incline, stopped for a moment to appreciate the view of the vermillion-painted wood gates leading to the house, rising up out of the greens of the forest.
“It’s a rough start,” Tifa said, walking up beside Cloud and smiling up at him. “But I don’t think it will be too bad here.”
Yuffie laughed and took off down the path, calling back over her shoulder. “C’mon, everyone, let’s go!”
“Yeah, don’t get caught by any monsters that have gotten inside first!” Cid called out after her, only for the young ninja to blow a raspberry back over her shoulder at him. Nanaki nudged Cloud’s left hand before following after the others, and even Vincent stopped to give Cloud a look. It was either understanding or amusement, but with Vincent it was hard to tell sometimes.
They did have to chase out a family of foxes who had made a den underneath one of the verandas near the hot springs, but there didn’t appear to be any monsters lurking in the house. The locks were still solid; none of the paper doors had been torn; Yuffie enjoyed pulling up all of the bamboo blinds to let in the air and late sunshine. The kitchen was stocked with rice and plenty of booze, and Tifa had been sure to stock up on perishable food in the village at the bottom of the mountain.
“Damn, girl, how many rooms you family got in this place?” Barret said, after performing a round of the place, while Yuffie heaved up another set of the bamboo blinds out into the courtyard leading to the hot springs.
“Well, the imperial family’s pretty big, ya know,” Yuffie said, “and Dad and the others would take this place over for whole weeks whenever they wanted it. But after the Shinra swept in, they had less excuse to come up—sooo…”
“So all the monsters between the village and here went unchecked, not to mention the damn foxes,” Cid muttered, coming up and handing Barret a broom. “C’mon, you. I ain’t gettin all those cobwebs down on my own. And if you want to see something really funny, the kid and Vincent are in the other wing, sweeping away.”
“What?” Tifa said, poking her head out from the kitchen.
“Aw, this I gotta see,” Barret said.
Cloud pushed open another set of sliding doors, and blinked in surprise to see it opened onto another porch, this one leading to a walled garden. Some of the trees beyond the wall had been taken down—probably for some security reasons, as it was the imperial family’s house, after all—but it also gave a gorgeous view of the setting sun.
“Heh. Funny that it’d focus on the setting sun…”
“Huh?” Cloud turned, just as Vincent’s claw came down and a single blade-like finger lifted a few strands of spider silk from his hair.
“The hazards of housework are many.”
“Aren’t they ever. You think Nanaki’s done checking to make sure there aren’t any other unwelcome guests around?”
“I haven’t seen him… but perhaps he discovered the catnip I smelled in the eastern garden.”
Cloud blinked at him, then snickered. “Well… it is his vacation, too.”
“I have a hard time imagining him at the sake either,” Vincent murmured, then stepped back and looked over his shoulder. “I thought you’d said you’d be in the other wing?”
A short burst of exclamations and one of the doors slid open, revealing Cid and Barret. “We can’t help it. The thought of Cloud with a broom—not to mention you—is kinda hilarious.”
Barret chuckled. “Yeah, and I think Tifa thought it sounded hot. Better be careful, Spike.”
Yuffie insisted they all shower before enjoying dinner and the hot springs, which meant everyone claimed rooms and their native Wutai ninja doled out clothes that she claimed were vital for a fully authentic hot springs experience.
“Yours might be a little big,” she said, handing several layers of folded cloth over to Barret, “but it was like, either I get you yukata too small, or I get you yukata for a sumo.”
“Ain’t these just fancy bathrobes?” Cid asked, as Yuffie handed him his, and she snickered.
“Only if you wear ‘em wrong.”
Cloud tucked his belongings away into a small wall closet, the back doors of his room still opened out onto the western garden. He paused and looked up. Dangling from the eaves of the slanted roof, another spider was already hard at work spinning a new web. The red sunset light soaked into the garden, staining the pale blues of the remaining hydrangeas into a soft lavender. There were fish swimming in a pond on one side; while most of them shone like rubies in the last of the sunlight, one of them was a streak of silver, swimming in the shadows.
Cloud told himself to remember to bring some food back from dinner for the fish, figuring they must be tired of the algae and bugs in the pond. “Lucky the foxes didn’t get you,” he murmured, before he set the cotton robes Yuffie had given him to one side. He took a moment between stripping out of the fatigues he had worn to and from the shower to pull on the yukata, and took an even longer moment when frowning at the sash before remembering how to tie it and slide it around to his back. It had been a long time since he’d worn something like that.
He entered the dinner room as Tifa, wearing a black yukata covered with flowers and a bright red obi, was still bringing stuff out of the kitchen nearby. Yuffie was wearing another colorful yukata, and the two ladies stood out in stark contrast to the somber tones of the men’s robes. Nanaki was sitting at one end of the low-sitting table, watching them all with amusement. Barret, already well along with his first cup of sake, said, “Damn, man, how’d you get that thing into that tiny bow?”
“Ah. Practice?” Cloud blinked, heard Yuffie giggle.
“I knew it, I knew you’d be the one guy who knew how to wear it!”
Tifa came out with another plate and blinked up at him, before smiling. “Well, even I had to get Yuffie to help me with mine,” she told the others. She put the plate of chicken down, and straightened, swiping some dark hair back over her ear. “But where did you learn how to wear it?”
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Cloud said, rubbing the back of his head. “Just… well, there was a mission when I was a trooper. Zack and the squad had been to Wutai before, and he showed me how. That… that’s all.”
“You never said you’d been to Wutai before!” Yuffie said, pouting at him, and Cloud grinned at her.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to meet me at the time—I was a trooper, after all.”
The teasing stopped as the door slid open again, and Vincent stepped in, wearing a black yukata—and also with his sash tied perfectly and settled on his back.
“Turks and troopers, huh?” Cid asked, amused, and Vincent just raised an eyebrow before noting the state of dress of all seated around the table.
“I see.” Vincent shrugged and sat at one of the empty places of the table, pouring himself a cup of sake. Cloud sat down beside him, and blinked as Vincent slid him a bottle of something other than sake. “Try this one.”
“Huh?” Cloud picked up the bottle, and then said, “Plum wine?”
“It’s more your style,” was all Vincent said, before sipping from his cup of sake, and Tifa came out with a bamboo bowl full of steamed rice.
“All right, everyone—here we go.”
Dinner was excellent, as to be expected under Tifa’s preparation, with plenty of meat and steamed and tempura vegetables to go with the rice, and the booze poured freely. Yuffie turned giggly and even Tifa drank enough to develop a blush across her fair skin, and they sat trading stories back and forth, slowly getting louder as the food disappeared and the booze drained.
Eventually, they hauled themselves up to enjoy the hot springs before they fell over from the booze, and Yuffie led them out to the middle of the compound, where the garden became divided into two sections, separated by a high wall.
Tifa and Yuffie vanished behind one side of the high wall, admonishing any of the men from even thinking about peeking, which left Nanaki looking at all of them before saying, “You know, I could… I think I might just go lie in the eastern garden.”
“You getting high off of that ‘nip again?” Barret said, and Nanaki chuckled.
“No more than you have sipping that sake,” Nanaki said back, before wandering off, tail lashing happily behind him. They watched him go before going to the hot springs. They stripped down, as business-like as ever whenever they had camped or roomed together on their travels across the Planet, and slid into the waters.
“Anyone else think the water smells weird?” Cid said, and Barret murmured an agreement while they got comfortable. Vincent leaned back against the rocks with his claw draped back out of the water, but everyone knew better than to ask him about it.
Cloud settled into the water and tilted his head back, as well, staring up at the sky. It was nice, being out of Midgar for a change—they could actually see the sky here.
He thought, briefly, about his mission to Wutai, with Zack and Squad Zeta. How they all were together, and met up with a group of other Soldiers and their squads, beneath Sephiroth’s leadership, to deal with an insurgent group. He thought about the trip back, and arriving at his and Zack’s apartment in Midgar, only to get a surprise visit while Zack had gone off to see his girlfriend.
He was glad for the heat of the hot springs; no one would think the flush across his face was caused by anything more than the heat, and the plum wine.
Talk about happy birthdays… He closed his eyes, but as much as he tried to focus on clearing his mind and relaxing, he couldn’t. He stood, and told the others he needed to get to bed early that night, and excused himself. Barret and Cid teased him about not being able to take the heat, and he had just chuckled at that before toweling off and pulling on his robe to slip away.
Vincent watched him as he stepped away, and Cloud worried for a moment that the raven-haired man could tell that something was wrong, but then, it had been one of those days. He let Cloud go without calling him back, without showing signs of following, and Cloud didn’t know whether to be glad for it, or disappointed.
The cool breeze was refreshing after spending so long in the hot springs, and Cloud stepped off the veranda and into the geta sandals he’d left there earlier, taking a few steps down the path and out into the garden proper. The fireflies were out, flitting here and there, gathering near the tops of the trees, the leaves of the red maple, the bushes with their lingering blooms of hydrangea. They were blue again in the moonlight. He headed back to the pond, unwrapped the scraps of fruit he’d remembered to save from dinner, and squatted down beside the pond, grinning when they came up to the surface.
“Hey guys,” he said, and held down the end of a slice of melon, watching as they started nibbling at it.
Eventually they ate enough of the melon from the rind he took that away again, sprinkled a few more pieces of food and folded his arms across his knees, resting his head upon them and watching them. They were truly beautiful, as far as fish went—the silver one in the back seemed more shy than the others, but it did come to the surface for the smaller bits of food, and he found himself grinning despite himself.
He hummed a moment, putting his fingertips down into the pond water, and thinking as he played with the fish.
“You’re just weird,” he murmured to himself. “A normal person would have told them before this, so he wouldn’t feel this way, hm? But I’ve never been that normal to begin with.”
Out of all of them, he probably should have mentioned it to Tifa, but then again, she nor any of the other children had known about his birthday back in Nibelheim, and there hadn’t been any occasion to even think about it during their time together in Avalanche. Even when they had celebrated any of the other’s birthdays, it had been a small thing—a bit of cake with a candle in it, perhaps if they were lucky a day off from traveling, an opportunity to visit their hometown—but it had been something.
Even Zack hadn’t known about his birthday, after all, until he had seen Cloud’s file. After that, Cloud had never been able to live down that he hadn’t told Zack when his fifteenth birthday had gone by; Zack had thrown a “party” to make up for the fact that it was late. Cloud remembered because even though he’d known Squad Zeta at the time, he hadn’t known them nearly so well as he did after seeing them all drunk on their asses from Zack’s deadly mixed drink “Toxic Venus.”
Then there was his sixteenth birthday, which was altogether very different. Cloud smiled again, reached down and flicked his fingers in the water one more time, watching the ripples distort the surface.
“The moon, stroked by a finger, ripples like a dream… a true paradise.”
The soft voice from behind made Cloud’s hair stand up on end. His eyes widened before he turned, his fingers grabbing a handful of soil, but before he straightened and could fling the dirt, a powerful hand grabbed his wrist and hauled him to his feet. Despite himself, his fingers loosened around the handful of dirt, letting the grains sift through his fingers back to the ground.
Sephiroth stared at him, his expression one of quiet amusement, and said, “If my poem was that horrible, you should just tell me.”
Cloud glared at him. “What are you doing—“
“I should think, given the date, that that should be obvious.” Sephiroth released his wrist and slid his gaze back toward the house. “After all, not everyone has forgotten…”
Cloud almost took a step back, only that would have planted a geta right into the pond, and so he just stared at the silver-haired man, blinking when he noticed that Sephiroth was missing his typical attire of black leather, wearing instead a yukata of dark cloth himself. There was no sign of his sword, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t summon it to hand easily enough, and even more importantly than that—
“No. Don’t—don’t try to change the subject. How are you even alive?”
Sephiroth chuckled. “So suspicious.” He crossed his arms, tucking his hands inside his sleeves, and watched the smaller man with that familiar smirk… and even Cloud had to admit, the strange mirror-like quality to Sephiroth’s eyes, that had plagued him ever since he had descended into madness, was gone. There was a spark of warmth, there. “Perhaps I’m here at the request of a few friends who couldn’t be. Or perhaps I’m just here because I want to be. Or perhaps…” He extended one arm, and brushed his long fingers down Cloud’s cheek. “Perhaps I’m here because you want me to be here. With you.”
“What if one of the others came to check on me?” Cloud said, telling himself he did not shiver at the touch to his skin. “What if they saw you? What makes you think that it’s so easy—I could scream, they’d hear—“
“Do you really want to do that?” Sephiroth asked, taking a step closer, his fingers cupping Cloud’s chin. “Wouldn’t you rather keep this present to yourself…?”
“I—“ Cloud started, desperately, but that was stopped when Sephiroth leaned down and captured his lips with his own. Cloud knew that he could stop the kiss, if he truly desired it—but he couldn’t, because he was rising up on his toes into it, and one of his hands reached to grab at the collar of Sephiroth’s robe. It was very real, after all, the stiff cotton between his fingers—as real as the sensation of Sephiroth sipping him, his chin still cupped in those strong fingers.
“I know I would,” Sephiroth continued, barely parting from him, still speaking against Cloud’s lips, “but then, I’ve been told I’m a selfish man.”
“I… I guess we both are, then,” Cloud murmured, and did pull away, casting another glance toward the house. “I… you being here, it’s… if any of them—”
“Trust me,” Sephiroth said, and gently turned Cloud’s face back to him. There was an odd smile on the taller man’s lips, now, one that Cloud had not seen in years. “I promise.”
For some reason, even though everything since the Nibelheim incident had done nothing but reinforce Cloud’s dislike of promises, he nodded. He didn’t know if it was really the need for rememberance that did it, or if perhaps it was the simple need stirred in him by the other man’s proximity, his touch, the perfect way he stood there in front of Cloud, with the silver moonlight touching his hair or the soft curve to his lips.
“You promise,” Cloud said, and Sephiroth nodded.
“I do.” Sephiroth’s other hand touched Cloud’s hair, slid through the gold strands to stroke them. “This is something of a gift for me as well. I have missed you.”
He drew Cloud up again for another kiss, and when he nipped at Cloud’s bottom lip Cloud opened up to him willingly. It was achingly familiar, this particular type of duel, and Cloud clenched the cotton of Sephiroth’s yukata in both fists, pulling them together as their tongues met, stroked. Cloud closed his lips around Sephiroth’s tongue and sucked, earning a low hum of appreciation. They separated, but one of Sephiroth’s hands slid around Cloud to the small of his back and pulled Cloud against him.
The two looked around the garden, and Cloud felt himself pulled away from the pond and the path, into the grass, where Sephiroth pulled him down to the grass with him. Cloud hit the grass with a grunt, but grinned as Sephiroth slid one leg between his own, and growled deep in his throat.
“Yes, this.” Sephiroth lowered his mouth to kiss along the line of Cloud’s jaw, press his lips against the column of Cloud’s throat, all while Cloud began to rock his hips against Sephiroth’s thigh. “And you want it, too. The way we fit together, move together. No one has ever been a more perfect match than you.”
Cloud stifled a moan as Sephiroth began to work on his shoulder, shoving aside the cloth to bite and suck on his skin. “You—you think this is all about you?”
Sephiroth laughed, low and warm against his skin, before moving again to nip at Cloud’s earlobe. “I did admit, I am a selfish man. But you’re right. This is for you, isn’t it, Cloud?” And just as suddenly, he moved again, pushing Cloud onto his back and pinning him with his body, his strength. Cloud had to bite back another moan as Sephiroth ground his hardness against Cloud’s groin. “This is for you. So, how do you want it? Tell me.”
Cloud reached up, slid his hands under Sephiroth’s yukata to run his hands along that muscular chest that he knew so well. He raked his nails lightly along Sephiroth’s sides, felt the other man’s muscles tense up beneath his touch, before he encircled his arms around him and pulled Sephiroth down against him again.
“I don’t care… I just want this.”
There was another warm laugh against his neck, before he felt another kiss, at his throat, his jaw, then his lips. He forced open his eyes to look up at Sephiroth’s face, and for all the roughness in their play—not at all a new thing, or even an unwelcome thing—there was something in Sephiroth’s eyes that made Cloud smile back.
“There you are…”
Cloud woke up the next morning to hear a soft scratch at the wood beside the sliding door to his room, and a muffled voice saying, “Cloud, we’re having breakfast soon.” He lifted his head from the pillow, blinked as he heard Tifa’s footsteps drifting away down the hall to the next room, and sat up, the futon blanket falling down from around his chest. He looked beside him, at the mattress, ran his hand along it, but there were no indentions left from another body, no lingering warmth. He sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and told himself if he had to have had a strange hallucination on his birthday, few would have felt better.
Then he noticed a piece of paper in the wall alcove, that hadn’t been there before, and he lifted his pale yukata from the night before from the floor, hesitating when he noticed grass stains against the pattern of the cotton. He slid it over his shoulders and padded to the wall alcove, kneeling down beside it to pick up the folded paper, only to watch as a silver thread fell from the folds. He caught it between two fingers, lifted it up, watched it in the dull morning light of the room, and then looked to the folded paper.
There was writing there, in a pale, watered down ink that grew stronger near the end of its short message.
Moon hides beyond the clouds—coaxed by your hands, paradise will come again.
“Is that a promise?” Cloud murmured, sitting back on his heels, before looking at the silver strand again. He laid it across the paper and carefully refolded it, before going to the closet. He would have to wear another yukata in any case, and while he picked out one in soft blues, he slid the note into his pack, his fingers lingering against the crisp paper.
He pulled on the new yukata, and tied his obi with the same care that went into yesterday. He went back to the sliding doors out to the garden, and pushed one open. The western garden was not nearly so bright as the eastern one would be, but he didn’t mind. There was something about seeing it draped in the cool shadows of the morning, the dew clinging to the blades of grass, that made him smile.