"Of all the - Scarlet?"
"What were my people supposed to do - leave her to die?" The WRO operatives were staring at Reeve - clearly they weren't used to hearing that sharp tone in their Director's voice, the dangerous snap in his eyes. "Meteor was coming down. They were under orders to save everyone they could - and at the time, they were still Shinra employees. They had no reason to walk away."
Barret was all a-bristle in contrast to Reeve's eighty-percent-calm, and Sephiroth caught a couple of the larger operatives subtly moving to cover their Director. "That vicious parasite nearly gassed Tifa to death on live TV," Barret barked, and everyone - Reeve included - blanched. "Is that reason enough for you?"
"I know what she's done better than you do." Reeve broke their staring contest, scrubbing his palms briefly on his thighs. "But she came to us gravely injured, and it was our job to provide aid. So that's what we did. We airlifted her to the nearest hospital-"
"And it didn't occur to you to hand her over to stand trial as soon as-"
"Stand trial?" Reeve almost laughed. "Who was left to try her? The world's power structures were crumbling, barring Wutai. Rufus was presumed dead, Midgar was - just gone, Junon was in revolt, everywhere else was in bunker mode - believe me, Barret, a lot more criminals than Scarlet escaped justice in those days."
Those days. The days after Meteor fell.
Barret flung a hand up - his flesh hand, the metal one still clenched at his side. "And now she's running around screwing with Hojo's old experiments."
"That's only speculation. We have no proof it's her."
"Yeah?" Barret leaned in. "How long's it been since y'all had any idea where she was?" Reeve's gaze slid to one side. "...goddammit, Reeve," Barret murmured, shaking his head.
Reeve let out a slow sigh. "My thoughts exactly," he admitted.
Sephiroth sank back against the wall, eyes clenched shut against the increasing pounding behind his temples. Scarlet - Shinra - Hojo chased each other around and around the inside of his head. What could she want, what could she hope to accomplish, why did Hojo have that lab to begin with-!
A small hand laid itself over his wrist and he jumped. "Sorry," whispered the one who'd dared to touch him, a young woman with twin blonde pigtails laid over the shoulders of her WRO uniform. "I didn't mean to startle you. Are you all right?"
Sephiroth blinked, slow to process the question. She was standing between him and the still-arguing Barret and Reeve, blocking out some of their sharp noise; it didn't help with the pain but did give Sephiroth space to deal with it. "...headache," he admitted finally.
The young operative gave him a faint smile. "Let's go to the deck. I don't think the Director will mind."
Indeed, they hardly seemed to remember anyone else existed. Sephiroth nodded, and this time when the young woman patted his wrist to guide him he didn't flinch.
The operative was kind enough to bring him a glass of cold water, and between that and the cool wind Sephiroth felt much better. He paced along the deck just to ease the ache of inactivity, aware all the time that the operative had lingered and was watching him with open curiosity.
"You must have many questions," he murmured at last, and the operative blinked.
"Well - yeah," she admitted. "I mean, yes sir. Only the Director instructed us not to pester you."
Did he now. "Did he say anything else about me?"
Now the young woman's gaze dropped, embarrassed. "Just - to treat you like we would any of our other clients, regardless of what - ....of what we might've heard," she admitted in a lower voice.
Sephiroth felt himself smiling humorlessly and did nothing to hide it. Hojo wasn't here to disapprove. "I fear to ask what you've heard."
The blonde shrugged. "Just - things. Some of it was flattering. Other stuff..." She shrugged again, leaving it to Sephiroth's imagination. He didn't try to imagine any of it - none of the rumors could be worse than the truth. "Anyway," she went on cheerily, "you're clearly not dead, so that disproves some of the rumors right there!"
Sephiroth hummed noncommittally, unable to confirm her conclusion with any amount of truth. "...hm," escaped him, and the operative sat back, confusion warring with discipline in her face. True to her word, though, she didn't press any further.
"...what's your name?" Sephiroth asked at last.
"May, sir." A brief twist of a smile. "Specialist Lily May. ...My dad was in SOLDIER. He went missing on a mission a few months before Meteor."
Sephiroth's black heart twisted as he realized what must have been her father's fate. "I... I'm sorry," he managed.
Lily shook her head. "It's all right. I mean - it's not, I miss him, but-" A deep breath. "He respected you. He was full of stories about you, especially before you - you know. Disappeared." She waved a hand, a quick 'poof' gesture. "He was kind of the reason I joined WRO. I wanted to sign up with Shinra ever since I was little, be a SOLDIER like him - I had the application pack for the Shinra army all filled out when Meteor happened, you know." A quick, bleak grin, the look of a child who's seen war - Sephiroth knew those eyes well, after Wutai. "Anyway, when I turned fourteen, SOLDIER was gone, and WRO - well, it was Director Reeve's people who got me and my siblings out of the city. So I joined them instead, and I'm glad. I'm really - I'm actually helping people here."
Sephiroth found himself smiling again. At Specialist May's energy, her determination, and the kind heart underneath it all. Yes, he was glad Shinra never got his claws in this one. "My memory is not what it was," he told her as gently as he could. "I'm sorry to tell you that I don't remember your father, though that may change in time." He saw the flash of disappointment in her eyes, and allowed it to pierce his heart. "But - I think he would be proud of you. Any father would."
Disappointment melted into a grateful smile. "Thank you, sir. That means a lot."
The sublevel hatch opened; Sephiroth jerked back from her, suddenly painfully aware of how close he'd been to her. Specialist May blinked, startled but not scared, as Barret ascended the stairs. "Hey, go get your bird," he ordered. "Reeve's giving us a lift back to Edge."
"'Us'?" Sephiroth questioned.
Barret flashed a grin. "I got a few words for Miss Scarlet, and guess where she was last time any WRO goons saw her."
Ah. Sephiroth straightened and nodded to Specialist May, who sketched a salute in return. "I'll take your glass back to the mess for you, sir," she offered.
"Thank you." Sephiroth handed the water glass over and followed Barret to disembark. "Has Cloud been informed of the change of plans?" he asked. "He's not expecting me back for a few days."
"Nah," Barret dismissed, grinning, "Spike loves surprises. Trust me."
One eyebrow lifted, Sephiroth deadpanned, "Tifa."
"...owch. All right," he fished out his PHS and tossed it into Sephiroth's hands, "you make the call. I gotta ask my neighbor to water my plants."
The mental image of dragon-big, dragon-fierce Barret fussing over houseplants of all things made Sephiroth bite his tongue against an undignified sputter of laughter. Grateful that Barret's back was to him, he dialed Cloud's number and put the PHS to his ear.
"Lockheart and Strife Delivery Services. If it's an emergency, please call your local World Regenesis Organization branch. Otherwise leave a message at the beep." ...Beep.
"Cloud? Sephiroth. I've just been informed that I'll be accompanying Barret and Reeve back to Edge by airship. Reeve has floated a theory as to who last used the hidden lab in the reactor, and she may be in Edge. ...please keep the children close."
Barret, halfway back down the stairs again, gave him a strange look over his shoulder at that but didn't say anything.
Marlene ran for the airship almost before it was fully docked, her joyful cry easily reaching Sephiroth's ears. "Papa!"
Barret barreled past the WRO sentries who disembarked first and charged down the tarmac. Sephiroth watched from the deck, smiling, as Barret swept up his daughter and spun her around. "Baby girl!" he crowed amid Marlene's shrieks of laughter. "Look atcha, you're gettin' more beautiful every time I see you!"
"Awww," whispered one of the specialists. Sephiroth glanced to one side, half expecting Lily May to be grinning up at him, but it was a stranger who met his eyes - hardly older than May, and quick to break eye contact with him. Sephiroth withdrew from the railing - Gleipnir was waiting for him in the hold.
His bird had endured the airship ride with no fuss whatsoever, but as Sephiroth led him into the sunlight on the tarmac, he spread his wings and stretched his neck, clearly relieved to be out of that strange metal stable his human had put him in. "I'm sorry," he murmured, and Gleipnir swung his head around to beak at him. "Yes, I know. We'll go for a run later. Hush now." He gave Gleipnir a pat before nudging him away. Marlene had spotted him and had wiggled down from her Papa's arms to charge over; Sephiroth hadn't yet seen how Gleipnir was with children yet, and wanted the chocobo calm and focused for her approach.
"Slowly," he warned as she came close enough, and Marlene slowed to a trot.
"I know," she assured him. "I lived in Kalm for a while, there's chocobos there. Hi, pretty bird..." She extended a hand, palm up, and beamed when Gleipnir gently stretched out to beak at her fingers.
"I see I shouldn't have worried," Sephiroth observed. "Are Denzel and the grownups with you?"
"Cloud's teaching," Marlene answered, all of her attention on Gleipnir. "Tifa and Denzel are here. You're a sweet bird, yes you are..." she cooed, and Sephiroth had to stop and reverse his train of thought. Marlene was talking to the chocobo, not to him. "May I scratch your crest? Would you like that, pretty bird?"
"His name is Gleipnir," Sephiroth supplied as Gleipnir happily submitted to the crest-scratching. "...and I think you're his new best friend."
Marlene grinned as Gleipnir warbled his contentment. "I like him too. Do you think I could ride him?"
"You'd have to ask your papa, but I wouldn't mind as long as you let me lead." The idea of Gleipnir suddenly taking off with tiny Marlene clinging to his back made some instinct within him sit up and go oh dear fancy Odin no. "Did you get much chance to ride chocobos when you were living in Kalm?"
Marlene shrugged up her shoulders, squinting apologetically. "Nnnot really? The stable guy said 'these aren't ridin' chocobos!'" She forced her voice into a low, rough register, clearly imitating whoever had chased a small, impressionable Marlene away from the chocobos. "So I've read books about riding but I've never ridden before."
"I see." Sephiroth cast a glance at Gleipnir, who was still gazing affectionately at Marlene. "Well, you could do worse for your first bird. Do you think Denzel would like to ride too?"
Marlene lit up. "Bet he would!"
"Let's go find him, then."
Marlene was happy to lead Sephiroth and Gleipnir back down the tarmac, where Barret, Tifa and Denzel were talking with Reeve. Barret acknowledged their approach with a hard glance (for Sephiroth) and an outstretched arm in invitation (for Marlene). Sephiroth paused, lingering at the edge of their conversation circle while Marlene trotted over fearlessly for a hug. "Papa," she blurted without preamble, "Seph says I can ride his chocobo if you say it's okay, so can I? Please?"
She was turning on the charm full-blast, all wide eyes and bouncing a little where she stood even with the weight of Barret's arm on her shoulder. Barret gave Sephiroth another look, this one more arch than censorious. "Wouldn't you rather have a piggyback ride from your Papa, darlin'?"
"Papa." Marlene frowned. "I'm not five anymore, I'm too old for piggyback rides!"
"Um." Barret scratched the back of his head sheepishly, glancing at Tifa for backup - Tifa, merciless woman that she was, simply arched an eyebrow in response. Fortunately, Marlene was already distracted, having zeroed in on Denzel lingering between Reeve and Tifa.
"Come meet Seph's chocobo," she enthused, grabbing Denzel's hand and towing him. "He's so cool!"
Denzel was game enough, at first, but at his first glimpse of Gleipnir the boy skidded to a halt. "It's huge," he blurted.
"I know, isn't he great?" Marlene beamed.
Denzel was eyeing Gleipnir like he was a Levrikon. Sephiroth sensed it was time for him to intervene. "Marlene, don't force him if he doesn't want to," he said, and Marlene gave him a baffled look, like she'd had no intention of forcing him, what was Sephiroth talking about? She turned to peer into Denzel's face, taking in her friend's uncomfortable wiggle for the first time.
"Denz... you're not afraid of chocobos, are you?" she asked slowly.
Denzel flushed. "I am not!"
"O-kay," Tifa announced, placing one hand on Denzel's shoulder and moving in between him and Marlene before this could get out of control. "Reeve, if you're staying, you're welcome to come have dinner with us, but it's my day off and I'm not cooking, so it'll just be sandwiches."
"Actually, I've been meaning to try that new Wutaian place on Ivalice Square," Reeve offered. "Why don't you all join me? My treat."
"Showoff," Barret muttered, but he was grinning, and Marlene was lighting up, her worry over Denzel pushed aside at the prospect. She reached up and grasped Barret's elbow just above the conjunction of flesh and metal, tugging at him eagerly.
"Can we canwecanwe pleeeaaaase?" she chirped, and Barret laughed and swept her up in his arms.
"Guess I can see my way to dinner on Reeve's dime," he confessed, touching noses with his daughter. "And Cloud's not gonna say no, bottomless pit that he is."
"Dibs on sitting next to Sephiroth," Denzel volunteered, and Sephiroth, still trying to process how he'd almost maybe started a fight between two nine-year-olds and needed to make sure he never did that again, dammit S, straightened in shock as all eyes turned to him. Well, Tifa and Barret and Marlene looked at him - Denzel was studying his shoes and Reeve was (to Sephiroth's surprise in several directions) favoring Denzel with a fond smile.
"Dibs on the other side!" Marlene piped up while Sephiroth was searching desperately for a way to say I'm not invited, of course not.
Barret huffed, and Sephiroth had enough time to think finally, someone with sense before he replied, "Well, guess that's the seatin' order settled. Go put your bird up, General, and we'll go pick up Cloud."
Wait - what?
"Sounds good to me," Tifa said cheerfully. "I don't have to cook and Cloud doesn't have to do the dishes."
But I - in a restaurant - how can you-
"Yay!" Marlene wrapped her arms around Barret's neck and hugged him tight. "Can we have ice cream, Papa?"
"We don't even know if they have ice cream," Barret protested, grinning and generally not looking like the stern papa whatsoever.
"If they don't, I'm sure we can find it somewhere else," Reeve volunteered.
"Stop bribin' my baby girl, Reeve."
...how can you want me there?
The others began to filter away, Denzel hanging onto Tifa's and Reeve's hands, Marlene still settled comfortably in Barret's arms. Sephiroth struggled between exhausted panic and exhausted acceptance, until Gleipnir tugged impatiently at him and Sephiroth made himself move.
"I suppose it would be childish to feign illness," he muttered as they went, and Gleipnir nibbled his fringe. It didn't solve his immediate problem, but the effort was appreciated.
The Emperor's Wok had semi-private sections for large parties, which made life bearable, but only just. He still had to brave the noisy, busy main dining room in order to get food. ..."Food" being a relative term.
"That is not Wutaian food," he muttered, eyeing the various offerings steaming under the hot lights at the buffet line. "Unless the cuisine has changed drastically in the past decade, that is not Wutaian food."
"The Gongolan section isn't really Gongolan either." Cloud was at his shoulder, giving him an amused look from under his fringe. "Nobody goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet for authenticity."
"Then what do they come here for?"
Cloud did a double-take then, craning his neck to stare directly into Sephiroth's eyes with an air of incredulity. Sephiroth shifted grumpily under the scrutiny. "You... really aren't familiar with this," Cloud realized, "are you?"
"I don't enjoy looking stupid in public, so no."
"Geez." Cloud rubbed his neck. "Okay, look, just - stick with me."
Cloud handed him a plate - an unpleasantly warm plate - and led him through the unfamiliar territory of the buffet. Sephiroth eyed the oil-glossy stews and fried meats with suspicion, eschewing even the fried rice Cloud shoveled onto his plate in favor of plain white rice. Steamed vegetables and tofu - 'Da Chao's Delight,' apparently - followed, and at Cloud's urging he added two spring rolls. The rest of the time he just followed Cloud, watching with mystified eyes as the younger man chose two different saucy meat dishes to pour over his fried rice and finished the meal with a small selection of fried finger food.
"If you don't take a wonton, the kids are gonna give you theirs," he warned. Sephiroth groaned and took the crisp-edged dough package Cloud offered, and allowed his guide to lead him back to their table.
His guardian wonton, as it turned out, was no protection against being flanked by well-meaning nine-year-olds. Marlene and Denzel stared with dismay at the colorless dinner their large and awkward friend had chosen as Sephiroth sat down between them, and Denzel asked, "Is that all you're eating?"
"Denz," Tifa warned, but it was too late - Marlene and Denzel were exchanging significant looks, alarming in their mutual determination. Sephiroth sent an unthinking, wordless prayer to Aeris and Zack - but on second thought, the Lifestream's gods of mischief and kindness were perhaps the wrong choice of patron in this situation.
For the rest of dinner, bits of saucy chicken, curried vegetables and other offerings from Marlene and Denzel's brightly-colored plates found their way onto Sephiroth's plate - an unprovoked tresspass over the borders of the Kingdom of the Bland. Sephiroth's best efforts to patrol his borders came to naught: every time he'd fend off one youngster with a mushroom, the other would take advantage of his distraction with a piece of red-sauced chicken. Sephiroth found himself building two rice ramparts to halt the invading forces in between bites of cabbage and tofu, which managed the situation somewhat, but while redeploying his spring-roll sentries, Marlene unleashed her ultimate weapon and bounced a drippy bit of pineapple into Sephiroth's defensive bulwark, collapsing it at last.
Sephiroth blinked at the ruin of his defensive line. "Pineapple?" he demanded. "Really? That is against the rules of warfare, young lady."
Next to Marlene - who was grinning innocently - Barret dissolved into sputters of laughter, head down over his plate of General Godo's. Denzel destroyed Sephiroth's remaining bulwark with a sneaky forkful of noodles, and now Tifa was laughing, leaning back in her chair. Cloud had long since borrowed a notepad from Reeve and was scoring them, just to rub salt in the wound. Even Reeve was smiling.
"All right, all right," he sighed. "I surrender. I never had a chance." Denzel and Marlene cheered, claiming an arm each to hug in celebration of their victory.
Sephiroth was still ambivalent about most of the strange dishes masquerading as Wutaian that had invaded his plate, but sweet and sour chicken turned out to be pretty good. And how had he ended up with four wontons?
Cloud climbed the ladder to the church's roof with two containers of last night's steak and ale pie. "An hour later you're hungry again, right?" he observed wryly, and Sephiroth stared at him blankly.
He was hungry, though, so he accepted the offering of food. For a while they ate in silence, the world's strangest after-dinner dinner party: the grateful murderer and the man who brought him to what little justice was possible, eating food cooked by a woman whose father had been one of Sephiroth's first victims. Did this mean Cloud and Tifa had officially forgiven him?
Cloud poked at his pie with his fork. "So... you didn't go to too many restaurants?" he ventured.
Sephiroth blinked, his brain failing to switch gears gracefully. "...not like that," he answered quietly. "Not where you get to serve yourself." At Cloud's surprised look, Sephiroth clarified, "Shinra functions would sometimes take place at star-reviewed restaurants, like The Hilde Garde or Viera."
Cloud's eyebrows shot up - of course he would have heard of them, you couldn't live in Midgar for any significant length of time without hearing about its most famous - and most expensive - restaurants. "So, Emperor's Wok was a step down for you," he ventured.
"No, not at all. I hated those places." The words came out as more of a snap than Sephiroth intended; he paused, swallowing hard, but the words wouldn't stay behind his teeth. "I was on display all the time. If I made the slightest error in my table manners I knew I would pay for it for a week after, and - and there was never enough food but I wasn't permitted to ask for more." The speech exhausted him and he shoveled another bite of cold meat pie in his mouth as Cloud stared at him.
"...um," he managed. "Wow. Sorry. I guess I hit a sore point."
Sephiroth felt a laugh bubbling up. "It feels monstrous to still feel resentful when I obliterated both places with a demon space rock."
The laugh became impossible to hide when Cloud snorted. "Yeah, maybe a little."
Sephiroth buried his head in his hands, shoulders shaking as the laughing fit passed. The moment was short, and at the end Sephiroth felt even more awkward than usual, but Cloud was lounging back on one elbow, his face faintly lit by the glow of his eyes.
"So, you seemed to get along with Barret pretty well," he observed, and Sephiroth nearly dropped his fork.
"That was getting along? I was sure he hated me."
Cloud made a back-and-forth motion with his hand. "I mean - he's never gonna be your biggest fan. But Marlene likes you, and Marlene's his sun, moon and stars, so..." He shrugged. "I guess it's weird, him and me, but he's probably my best friend outside of Tifa. Not that that's saying much," he added.
"I think it says a lot," Sephiroth answered honestly, and now it was Cloud's turn to look surprised. "He trusts you with his daughter, even around me. And you trust his judgment of me. That's just the impression I get from a day of observation, but it's..."
Cloud shrugged again, embarrassed, as Sephiroth fell silent. It reminds me of the SOLDIERs was what Sephiroth wanted to say, but the words would not emerge.
"...well, anyway," Cloud muttered, and Sephiroth thought maybe there was a hint of unspoken 'let's not get any closer to uncomfortable topics' in there. "I actually wanted to pick your brain about that lab, but I'm too damn tired to listen. Can we talk tomorrow afternoon? ...or, no," he corrected himself with a wince, "I've got to cover for Tifa while she's at that new class. Evening?"
"I'll be here," Sephiroth promised, though he didn't know what he could tell Cloud that he hadn't already told Reeve.
"Okay. ...okay." Cloud nodded firmly and stood, gathering up the dishes. "...night, Sephiroth."
Sephiroth waited until Cloud was halfway down the ladder before he murmured his answer. "...good night, Cloud."