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On Broken Wings

Chapter Text

The Buster drove into his chest, severing ribs, slicing his lung, and cutting his heart nearly in two. Sephiroth looked up through a sickly green fog; it cleared, revealing Zack’s face - his expression twisted with anger and misery.

“Zack,” Sephiroth protested. “I’m not the man I was.”

In response, Zack flexed his arms, muscles bulging, and drove the heavy sword in deeper. The green fog flared around him as he gasped in agony, then cleared; this time it was another face glaring down at him, another pair of hands holding the Buster.

“Cloud...” Sephiroth relaxed. This made much more sense.

He already knew Cloud hated him.

Sephiroth opened his eyes. He was alone; his body was whole. Just a dream, then. With a groan, he sat up, shaking his head to dispel the angry faces. The flowers and sunlight of Aeris’s church welcomed him; it occurred to him that for the first time in his life, nothing was preventing him from lying back down on his pallet and drowsing until noon.

He got up, puttered about the sparse amenities Cloud had provided for him (some non-perishable vaguely foodlike items, plus coffee - the man wasn't cruel), and then succumbed to the soft siren's call of his pallet and lay back down again.

The wolf - Zack - was there again, and this time Sephiroth was wise enough to simply accept his presence. He watched, calm, as Zack trotted at the border of Aeris's flowers, ears up and alert.

"Are you still guarding me from bad dreams?" he asked. "You let one slip."

Zack turned to him then, ears flattening and tail tucking down, and the vivid violet eyes were so sorrowful that Sephiroth's heart broke. He'd meant it only as a gentle jest, the kind that Zack had used on him so often, but it seemed he'd gotten it wrong again. "Forgive me," he began, lowering his gaze, and that was as far as he got before a heap of whining black fur hit him in the chest.

For a ghost, Zack was remarkably solid, or perhaps it was only his own expectations that sent him tumbling backwards, pinned under heavy, furry warmth as Zack whimpered and licked his face. It took both hands on the wolf's head to get him to pause, even for a moment, so that Sephiroth could speak.

"As much as I would prefer only the good dreams," he murmured, "perhaps I must go through the nightmares. You needn't be quite so zealous." He stroked the ears until they perked up again. "Just stay with me," he asked. "That is already more than enough."

The lick he received then was less an apology, more fond reproval - he could almost hear Zack saying you know I'll always watch your back, boss -

Sephiroth opened his eyes, nerves singing with sudden awareness, and he had only a moment to feel childishly bereft before the source of his sudden wakefulness - a soft sound, a scrape of leather on stone - became too clear to ignore. He stored up the memory of warm wolf fur in his heart and sat up to meet the cautious-excited eyes of Marlene and Denzel.

"More stories?" he guessed, and the children grinned.

"Please?" Marlene begged, and Sephiroth shifted to one side to give them room.

*

"This is a bad idea."

Cloud gave him an arch look from his guard post, which happened to just be a convenient bit of wall to lean against, as casual as you please. "This was your idea."

"As if that made it a good one," Sephiroth muttered, but his fingers were already working on the keys of the public console. They were scattered all over the city for people to deposit, withdraw, and otherwise manage what money they had, and most of them were working just fine, he was told; Edge may be a city carved out of the rubble, but its economic infrastructure was surprisingly intact.

"You're the one who insisted on this," Cloud was arguing, impatient with Sephiroth's hedging, no doubt. "If your old account with Shinra is still active, you'll be the richest man in Edge, for whatever that's worth."

"Not much for myself," Sephiroth admitted, tapping warily at the keys as if he expected the harmless-looking console to sprout a gun and shoot him. "But I want to repay Tifa."

"She'll make you eat it."

The prediction, made with wry amusement, made Sephiroth pause and look up. "She'll be... insulted by the offer? Or is it money from my hand she won't abide taking?"

"You're a guest," Cloud said simply, after a short pause.

"She has a business to run." Sephiroth turned back to the console. "She can't keep feeding me without compensation. My caloric requirements-"

"Are no different from mine," Cloud said, flat stubborn, almost daring Sephiroth to call him a burden on Tifa. Sephiroth sighed, conceding the argument.

"I'm still going to make the offer," he said, and finally the Shinra account system loaded on the screen, and he hesitated. The interface had been drastically pared down in the ten years since his first death - or perhaps it was only since Meteor that Rufus Shinra felt the need to present a lower profile even on the datanet. Far from the bombastic design and slick effects - slick for their time, anyway - the interface was simple blue-and-white, and Sephiroth felt a strange sense of unreality as he entered his passcode.

Not found, the site spat out after a frozen pause. Sephiroth frowned.

"No luck?" Cloud asked.

"Let me try something else." The outward appearance may have changed, but if the Shinra site was hosted on the same server...

Two passcodes later (they came to him so easily, he marveled, when the rest of his memory was tattered), he had access to the back ways of the Shinra database. The employee rolls were far, far shorter than he remembered, even allowing for employees who might not be on the official rolls, such as Turks. The database also showed signs of recent activity - monetary transfers in and out of separate accounts. "Is Shinra still active?" he asked cautiously, eyes on the screen.

He heard Cloud shift in a shrug. "Rufus claims to be making reparations for the damage Shinra did. He's financed some WRO missions. If it were up to me, I wouldn't take his money, but Reeve isn't so picky."

If it were up to Sephiroth, he wouldn't have taken the money either. But Reeve, whatever his good points, was an executive. He knew how to wield money like magic, to get the results he wanted. Perhaps that was what this world needed.

"I don't see my name here," he said, scrolling down to the bottom and then back up again quickly. "It looks like my account's been deleted."

"So, the money you'd saved up...?"

"Gone." Sephiroth sighed and logged out. "It was too much to hope for."

Cloud shrugged again, not arguing the point. "Come on. I've got some errands to run for Tifa."

Sephiroth logged out of the console, eyes uncomfortably down. "Surely you don't need me for that, Cloud. I'll just go back to the church."

"If you think I'm letting you out of my sight for an instant, Sephiroth, you're still crazy."

Sephiroth's hands tightened in his gloves. "I apologize." Cloud had spoken the words lightly, almost friendly. But there was a hardness behind them that made clear he would allow no rebellion on Sephiroth's part. He would be compelled to leave the relative safety of this all-but-abandoned plaza, and go with Cloud into the more populated parts of Edge, to walk among the humans he'd tried to kill. And, just as he had always done, he would obey without a fight.

"Come on," Cloud said again, after an uncomfortable pause, and Sephiroth moved away from the console to follow Cloud into Edge proper.

*

Five years after Meteor, Edge had settled into a kind of wary equilibrium. Businesses had returned to the area in the wake of the WRO's rebuilding efforts. Now the main thoroughfare bustled, people filling the streets, shopping, arguing, shouting at darting masses of kids.

It was overwhelming. Cloud let Sephiroth wait outside while he ducked into a cramped salvage shop, but each sideways glance on the street threatened to send him climbing the wall he leaned against. With his hair braided and tucked into the nondescript jacket Cloud had scrounged for him, a cap pulled low over his face, he could hope that no one here would recognize him, even vaguely from a news broadcast or article from before Midgar's destruction.

Before I killed Midgar.

When Cloud emerged, Sephiroth half expected it to be with a sword in his hand, rather than a pair of PHS batteries. He straightened hurriedly, schooling himself to obedient calmness in response to Cloud's querying glance. After a moment, Cloud shrugged, and they went on.

"That's new," Cloud told him, gesturing to a bank of gray buildings rising beyond the bypass. "Residential buildings. For people who want a view other than wreckage, I guess - they're pretty expensive for Edge."

"Cheerful," Sephiroth observed.

Cloud snorted unwilling amusement. "Reeve said the same thing. He was saying that architecture has to bow to economy these days, but that he goes through half a bottle of antacids every time he comes to Edge."

Now it was Sephiroth's turn to fail to suppress a laugh and sound entirely undignified in the process. "Do you talk to Reeve often?"

Cloud shrugged. "He throws work my way. Usually monster extermination - he has his own couriers."

"You must be in high demand in that field."

Cloud's back noticeably tightened, but he didn't sound angry when he answered. "Not as much anymore."

Sephiroth considered asking further, but a pair of children rushed past him, nearly colliding with his knees in their haste. He jumped, but aside from a fading shout of 'Sorry!' he wasn't acknowledged. Chagrined - he knew better than to lose his situational awareness like that! - he glanced around to spot any further threats to his knees. They were in a produce market, surrounded by heaps of leafy things and colorful, swollen root vegetables with the dirt still clinging to them. Cloud was ignoring him, pawing through a bin full of peppers that shone like polished Materia and smelled like pure evil. Sephiroth sidled closer to him and watched with quiet dismay as the younger man picked out a few and paid for them.

"Do you like Gangolan food?" Cloud asked.

Gangol - the peninsular region including Gongaga, where Zack was from. Sephiroth's head ached with the effort of holding the memory, following the thread of it - Zack's glowing eyes as he waved a bite of something steaming and fragrant at him, his laugh as Sephiroth finally acquiesced to try it and immediately regretted it-

"I was never that crazy," he grunted, and was immediately horrified at himself. Cloud surprised him with a laugh.

"I'm a northern boy. If I can handle it, so can you."

"Those things," Sephiroth stated flatly, eyeing the bin of peppers, "are literally not meant for mammalian consumption."

"Wuss."

"No, really. They evolved to be eaten by chocobos, so that the chocobos would subsequently spread the seeds. Chocobos lack the ability to taste capsaicin; we do not. That is why peppers have capsaicin in the first place."

"Wuss."

Sephiroth shook his head. "Military rations might be dull but they don't make your head explode."

"I'll tell Tifa to go easy on you."

"Thank you," Sephiroth sighed, trying to hide how much Cloud's amusement pleased him. "I'm sure she'll listen."

*

Tifa did not go easy on him, but she did make plenty of rice to go with the melted-down core of a Mako reactor she and Cloud passed off as Gangolan cuisine. Sephiroth filled up on that as he sat crosslegged in the church, gazing up through the hole in the ceiling at the stars.

Stargazing in Midgar had been impossible: even above-plate, the light pollution and air pollution had drowned out all but a few of them. Now what little sky he could see was festooned with them, resplendent and silent and so very far away, even to his eyes.

From those stars, Jenova had come to Gaia long ago. She had promised him that he would sail those stars with her.

The memory sent a chill down his spine and he turned his face down, shutting his eyes tightly. Jenova had lied to him and used him and transmogrified him, but she'd also made him feel beloved, as nobody else in his life ever had. Even knowing exactly what she was, Sephiroth suddenly missed her so badly it left a hollow ache below his breastbone.

Maybe Aeris was wrong. Could a simple virus simulate love so closely? Could a virus understand 'mother' and 'son' enough to speak of them to me?

But then, I'd never had a mother. What do I know about it?

Sephiroth set his empty bowl to the side and drew his knees up. Nights like this made the oppression of his exile bear down on him all the heavier, his memories bite all the harder. It had been weeks since he'd come to Edge. He filled his days with what weaponless martial arts exercises he could still remember, meditation, and visits from Marlene and Denzel after their lessons; Cloud rarely accompanied them, but made sure Sephiroth knew he was within SOLDIER-earshot. Cloud's company itself was a silent, hard thing, infrequently offered and as comforting as Shinra Tower, and the fact that it was all Sephiroth had did nothing to soften the edges of Cloud's silence. Most nights, Sephiroth could tell himself that longing for more human contact meant he was human, after all, or near enough. Tonight... tonight, he wasn't so sure.

Whatever I am, human or monster or some strange mixture of the two...

Sephiroth shook his head, dismissing the thought with an effort. That was a path he didn't have the mental strength to walk down, not yet. There was no need to do Hojo's work for him all over again.

He set his bowl aside and lay back, eyes slitting half-closed. He was restless and resentful and just a little afraid of himself, but he could still watch the stars.

*

The cautious step could have been Cloud, checking up on him before going for his morning run; the faint smell of electricity was not. Sephiroth's eyes snapped open and he rolled just as the magrod came down, thunking down on the folded sweatshirt that served him as a pillow. His assailant turned, lashing out again as Sephiroth got his feet under him, and this time it came close enough to fill his ears with a dangerous hum. If that thing hit him, it would paralyze him - not for long, perhaps, but long enough for a clever and prepared opponent to take advantage. Sephiroth coiled, and counterattacked.

He saw a blue suit and a flash of green eyes, wide with adrenaline. His assailant was skilled, and fast, but unaugmented - but then, so was Tifa, and Sephiroth knew not to underestimate her. A feint led them to the edge of the clear space where the flowers were, and his assailant hesitated - just long enough. Sephiroth blurred into motion and lashed out, kicking the magrod out of the other's hand and knocking him to the floor with a ridgehand strike. The man in the suit wheezed angrily, but that was all he had time for before Sephiroth descended, planting a knee on his chest.

"That's enough."

Sephiroth stopped, heart and head thudding at the sound of that clipped voice from behind him. The man under him wriggled like an eel. "Damn," he husked. "And I thought you'd have got rusty."

"I have," Sephiroth answered, never taking his eyes off his captive. "Ten years ago I would have killed you, Turk."

The Turk grinned as the owner of the new voice stepped closer. His suit was black, impeccably pressed - and his presence was impossible. "General," said Tseng, and his voice was so gentle, so forgiving that Sephiroth wanted to cry. "Let Reno up, please."

Sephiroth didn't move until he saw Reno's eyes crease in amusement and knew that he'd allowed him to see - both of them to see - how much the presence of a man he'd respected and that he remembered killing unsettled him. "If you wished to have me killed, you should have sent him with Materia at the very least," he said, lifting himself up and off of the Turk.

"That isn't why I'm here," Tseng answered, and as Reno scrambled up and backed off - keeping a good six inches' distance between himself and the main flower bed - Sephiroth finally looked his former colleague in the face. Tseng was - the same as always, time having barely begun to mark his face, still wearing the same cool, enigmatic half-smile that had become a constant in Sephiroth's life when they had been acquaintances and colleagues. It had almost been a comfort, that smile - it meant secrets, and Sephiroth had spent his life surrounded by them, controlled by them.

Remembering didn't make Sephiroth more kindly-disposed to either of them. "How did you find me," he grated, knowing they could see his muscles tense and not caring.

"You used your account passcode on a public terminal," Tseng pointed out, and Sephiroth swore at himself in the privacy of his own head. "From there it was simple to find you."

"Guess you are getting rusty in your old age," Reno muttered with ill grace, and Sephiroth swallowed a growl with an effort. Tseng flicked a quelling hand in Reno's direction, never taking his eyes off Sephiroth. Sephiroth didn't respond, waiting the Turk out, and after a few moments of mild-eyed staring Tseng bent his head a fraction in acknowledgement and spoke first.

"I'm glad to see you well," he offered, and Sephiroth's shoulders tightened with guilt.

"I'm... glad you survived," he admitted, and Tseng's eyes actually crinkled. A real smile? Or an act? "But you didn't have your subordinate attack me just to hear that," he added.

"No, I didn't." Tseng's eyes didn't flicker towards Reno, didn't give anything away at all. "It was a test. I apologize for waking you, but I wanted to gauge if you still had a measure of your old skill."

Sephiroth's heart sank faintly - this was leading nowhere good. "Now you know I do. Don't do that again, Tseng. I can't speak to my restraint."

Tseng's head tipped to the side. "Interesting." The tension in Sephiroth's shoulders got worse. "I'm not here to judge. We've all done things we regret, but a man of your skill and experience can still do a lot of good in the world, General. I'm here to offer you a chance to do just that."

That tension bloomed into a full-blown sinking feeling, and Sephiroth swallowed past a throat gone suddeny, painfully dry. "A Turk with a magrod is a kidnapping, Tseng, not a job offer. What if I say no?"

Tseng spread his hands, conspicuously empty. "Then we walk away. But I ask that you at least consider the offer - I have no illusions you'll accept right away in any case."

Sephiroth blinked once, slowly. "You want me to return to Shinra Company."

Tseng's hands folded. "Hojo is dead. The elder Shinra is dead. No one is going to manipulate or use you this time. I'm sure you would prefer to work under a shield of anonymity - we can arrange that. Rufus Shinra is eager to make reparations for the mistakes of his father, and has already committed his family's holdings to that end - as I'm sure you've heard from Strife." Sephiroth's mind momentarily blanked until he remembered that's Cloud's family name. He was Trooper Strife back then, wasn't he?

...Cloud. I wonder if they made him the same offer.

Sephiroth deliberately took a step back, drawing a breath and letting his hands curl into fists. "You're wasting your time. I didn't come back to get roped into the same system all over again."

There went the knowing headtilt again. "Why did you come back, then, Sephiroth?" Sephiroth tried not to flinch. "I won't pretend to understand what you've been through, but if I were in your shoes... I would jump at the opportunity to mend what I'd broken."

Damn you, Tseng. Sephiroth's tongue stuck in his mouth, all he could do was stare resentfully until Tseng apparently decided his point had been made. He nodded to Sephiroth, gestured a command to Reno and walked unconcernedly back up the aisle again. Reno followed in much more of a hurry, stealing glances back at Sephiroth the whole time, but pausing only once to collect his magrod before moving out.

Sephiroth sat heavily on the floor, folding his long legs underneath him. His hands were shaking as he pitched his voice upward to the hole in the roof. "Did they offer you the same thing?"

Cloud didn't look surprised Sephiroth knew he was there. He emerged from his perch and joined Sephiroth on the ground in three graceful leaps, rafter to balcony to nave. "A couple of times," he admitted. "All of us - the people who traveled with me, I mean - we've all heard the offer at one time or another. Except Yuffie. And Nanaki. Rufus isn't quite that stupid."

He was smirking, inviting Sephiroth to share in the joke at Rufus's expense, but Sephiroth couldn't find a smile to give back to him. He directed his gaze down again; Cloud fidgeted a moment, then sighed. "If you decide to go with them..."

"...you'll kill me, I know."

"I was about to say, I won't stand in your way." Sephiroth looked up, shocked; Cloud had his arms crossed over his chest and was frowning over Sephiroth's head. "I don't trust them, I don't think it's a good idea, but I'm pretty sure they've gotten out of the Mako enhancement business. They don't have access to that kind of equipment anymore," he added. "And with Hojo gone, they wouldn't be able to replicate the process anyway."

Trust Cloud to check things like that. "I really am glad Tseng survived," he blurted, running a hand through his hair. "And it would be - convenient. To have company backing."

"So you're considering it?"

Cloud sounded so casual - maybe he really didn't mind. Sephiroth clenched his teeth. "I'd sooner clean out a reactor core. With a toothbrush," he said.

Cloud actually laughed at that - more a surprised splutter, but he was amused all the same. Somehow, Sephiroth felt a little better.

*

"If you're looking for a job," Tifa said, wafting the damp sheet over the line with the deftness of practice, "why don't you go with Cloud next time he does a delivery?"

Sephiroth, who'd never had to do his own laundry in his life, was relegated to sock-hanging duty. "I'm sure he'd prefer a break from me," he demurred, carefully clipping Denzel's chocobo socks onto the line. "Besides, he's more than capable of handling himself; I would be a burden, not a help."

Tifa's brows drew together faintly. She'd begun to accept Sephiroth a little, he thought - he hoped - but he wasn't willing to push for more than she offered. A task to perform and some brief conversation was a generous gift coming from a woman whose father he'd killed in front of her, and helped to fill his days. Still, he suspected that she too would like a break from having him haunt her domain at all hours, hence her suggestion.

"I'm sure there's still a need for monster extermination in the area, if...?" he offered tentatively.

"Mmm... some," Tifa admitted. "For some reason the monsters don't run too close to Edge."

There was a new softness in her eyes, one that said she knew exactly what that reason was. Sephiroth made a private guess that the reason had something to do with why there were flowers in ridiculous profusion in the church. He bent and retrieved another sock; poking through the basket for its partner, he said, "It's the activity I'm interested in, more than the money, though being able to contribute to my upkeep - it would be nice. I'm - not used to not having something to do."

"Shinra worked you pretty hard, huh?"

The question surprised him, coming from Tifa, enough that he actually paused to think about it, sifting through the relatively safe memories of his early life. Tifa retrieved another sheet from the laundry basket, shaking it out without letting it brush the ground as she let the silence linger. "I... suppose," Sephiroth admitted at last. "I don't have a basis for comparison, but my days were always tightly scheduled. Even as a child there was always training and studying in between lab time."

Tifa's eyes flickered up to his. "You didn't have any friends as a kid? Or classmates?"

"Classmates, yes, but they were always older than me. My enhancements were mental as well as physical, and normal children in my age group simply couldn't keep up with me. The few attempts Shinra made at socializing me didn't go well." He directed a smile at the basket of damp socks, bitter and rueful. "I was a poor playmate."

He felt Tifa's eyes on him, but without looking up he couldn't begin to guess what she felt. Amazement? Pity? Resentment? He wasn't sure he wanted to know. "You get along with Marlene and Denzel pretty well," she observed, graciously enough all things considered.

"That is due to their patience with me," Sephiroth answered as he pinned another pair of socks on the line. "And - well - I'm not so impressed with myself these days as I was back then."

Tifa muffled a snicker behind the damp sheet. Sephiroth felt his heart lighten a bit, and wondered at himself learning a new way to interact with people at his age. First Cloud and now Tifa - every once in a while, he could make them laugh a little, and it felt like an assurance of safety when he managed to do so.

"In any case, a job that would take me out of Mid- ...Edge," he corrected himself, flushing as Tifa hid her expression behind her laundry again, "might be safest for everyone right now. Tseng all but said outright they'd be back for me, and I don't want the Turks near the children."

"Me either." Tifa stepped back, satisfied: her laundry basket was empty. "Well, we can talk to Cloud when he gets back. Maybe he'll have a suggestion."

"Is he on another courier job?" Sephiroth asked. He almost said assignment, but Cloud was self-employed. No one assigned him anything - the jobs he took were completely at his discretion. How strange.

Tifa grinned at him again, eyes dancing with a wicked light. "Not exactly."

*

"Do it again, Cloud!"

Cloud checked very carefully around himself for small people before he obliged. He lifted his sword free of its back harness, took the familiar 'lunge' stance necessary for the heavy weapon, then stepped forward and performed the one-handed overhead twirl that, even five years on, was still his 'signature' display move. The assembled schoolkids cheered and clapped from behind the school's fence, the teacher and her aides smiling indulgently as he sheathed his weapon again.

Sephiroth, half-hidden in the shadow of a nearby building, lifted his eyebrows. "This is what he does in the daytime?"

"Three days a week, two hours a day," Tifa informed him.

"He does sword demonstrations for children two hours a day?"

Tifa spluttered on a laugh. "No! He leads small groups of them in exercises, team sports, self-defense, that kind of thing. The sword demonstrations are a treat for when they've done well."

For Sephiroth, whose 'treat' for doing well had been an increased intensity or an extra lesson, the idea was alien. But the children appeared to approve, surrounding Cloud with their chatter as he approached. He wasn't very good at judging their ages, but the smallest among their number appeared to be five or so and the biggest, a gangly-limbed twelve. Next to the twelve-year-old, he caught sight of a bouncing brown braid and an unruly red mop.

"Oh," he murmured with the shock of recognition.

Tifa must have caught where he was looking. "Cloud started doing this to help pay for Marlene and Denzel's lessons, but now the school's pulling in enough that he gets a small salary from it. He'll probably keep doing it after Marlene goes back to Corel."

Sephiroth glanced at her, startled. "Corel?"

"Where Barret lives," Tifa reminded him. "She's only living with us here because there aren't any schools in Corel, but Barret's helping rebuild the town. Eventually she's going to go live with him."

Sephiroth looked back at the throng of children as the teachers herded them back inside. "What about Denzel?"

Tifa hummed thoughtfully. "We're still talking that over. I think Denzel's still deciding what he wants - he's got time. Another year at least."

Sephiroth nodded carefully, and tried not to wonder why the thought of Denzel being separated from either Marlene or Cloud and Tifa made him feel so oddly worried.

Cloud had spotted them and was sauntering over, and Sephiroth set his worry over Denzel's fate aside. "I normally charge a hundred gil a show," he informed them, and Tifa grinned wryly. "Something wrong?"

"Just taking a walk," Tifa answered easily, and Cloud glanced between the two of them - with him? his glance seemed to be pointing out. Tifa ignored the look. "Sephiroth's finally decided to get off his ass and look for a job."

"I beg your pardon," Sephiroth protested quietly, but Cloud's mouth was twitching upward in a smile and he thought I'm not the only one who enjoys making people laugh.

"Why can't he work at the bar?" Cloud asked. "Stick him in the back, have him wash the dishes."

Tifa glanced Sephiroth up and down, as though judging his fitness for such a task. "...no. Just - no." Sephiroth's shoulders hunched. "Besides, with the Turks sniffing around at him..."

Cloud grimaced. "Right. Well, there's always monsters to kill somewhere. I'll ask Reeve if he's got any bounties lined up."

Tifa nodded, and Sephiroth relaxed again - this was familiar territory, receiving missions, and Cloud was far preferable a superior - until Cloud cast a speculative eye his way. "I guess I'll have to loan you a sword," he said grudgingly, and Sephiroth's heart twisted.

Masamune. No sword would ever fell quite right in his hands after her.

"I understand," he made himself say. "Perhaps I could buy one from you, with the bounty money?"

"It'll take a few bounties," Cloud answered doubtfully, and turned back toward home. Tifa walked easily beside him, and Sephiroth fell into step behind them both like a soldier after his commanders. "I mostly only have heavy swords," Cloud commented over his shoulder as they walked. "Will that work for you?"

"I can use them," Sephiroth assured him, and Cloud let him be to think over his options.

Brood over them, really - the part of him not mourning Masamune occupied itself with wondering whether Cloud really trusted him with a weapon, whether he trusted himself with a weapon.

Halfway home, Cloud muffled a giggle. "What?" Tifa demanded.

"Just..." Cloud glanced back over his shoulder to a mystified Sephiroth. "Um. I was trying to think what else he could do and the image of Sephiroth selling peppers out of a market stall popped into my head..."

He giggled again, and Sephiroth wasn't sure whether he was amused, or - kind of hurt. "Surely not peppers," he said, and Cloud's giggles became a full-out laugh. "But surely I could manage exchanging goods for gil,"

"It's a lot of dealing with people." Tifa turned around to grin at him. "You'd have to be friendly. And smile once in a while."

"...point taken," Sephiroth said, and waited until Tifa had turned around again to let his shoulders hunch up in embarrassment.

*

"You could always sell flowers," Aeris suggested brightly as she and Sephiroth sat together, their laps full of wolf.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow as the wolf's tail thumped. "I would, but there's a bit of a glut in the market these days."

"Huh." Aeris smugly combed her fingernails through the fur on the top of Zack's head. "I wonder how that happened."