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On Broken Wings

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Sephiroth was invited to stay for lunch - as Barret had promised, Tifa's chowder was worth waiting for - and after that the Dolphin's bar staff started to arrive downstairs to begin their prep work. "All right, I'm off," Tifa announced, slinging a black duffel bag over her shoulder. "Marcus is in charge downstairs, but if there's any trouble, call me."

Sephiroth looked between Tifa and Cloud, faintly mystified. His lap had been thoroughly colonized by Marlene and Denzel, but if Tifa was leaving then surely his welcome had run out. "Why..." escaped him, and he clamped down on the rest of the question with a flare of embarrassment as Tifa turned his way.

"...am I leaving the bar just as it's getting ready to open?" she guessed.

"...forgive me. I don't know anything about running a bar." Sephiroth directed the apology to his knees, despite Marlene and Denzel sitting on them casting him worried looks.

Tifa rolled her eyes cheerfully. "Neither does Cloud, which is why my shift supervisor's in charge. He's just here in case of emergencies."

"I'm the bouncer," Cloud agreed as Sephiroth blinked in befuddlement. "And sometimes the dish boy."

"-and I've somehow been talked into teaching a martial arts class to teenagers and Saturday afternoon's the only time that works with their school schedules and all." Tifa tilted her head a fraction at him. "Okay?"

Okay? Is she asking my permission? "...okay," he repeated tentatively, and that appeared to be the right answer, because Tifa actually smiled.

As she headed downstairs, calling for Marcus, Reeve stood and stretched. "I should head out too," he informed them. "I'll call with an update tomorrow sometime."

Sephiroth drew in a breath. "I'll follow you out," he said, trying not to make it sound like an announcement or a command. "Gleipnir must be going spare waiting for me," he added, hoping the mention of his inoffensive fluffball of a chocobo would soften his words. It seemed to work - he got a grin from Barret and a muffled chortle from Cloud, and even the children wriggled off his lap with a minimum of reluctance.

"You wanna come over for lunch again tomorrow?" Denzel asked, squeezing his hand hopefully.

"We'll see." I hadn't intended to come over for lunch this time.

Tifa let them out the back door, calling a few last-minute instructions to the supervisor over her shoulder. Her path took her closer to the city's inner ring, the opposite direction from the airship dock, so she left them with a casual wave and an unreadable look Sephiroth's way. Sephiroth chose to interpret it as a warning; it seemed safest.

"You know, there are caretakers at the dock stables," Reeve brought up thoughtfully as Tifa turned a corner and was lost to sight.

"I want to take care of my chocobo," Sephiroth answered flatly, and Reeve lifted his eyebrows but let it drop.

He did not, however, allow Sephiroth to walk a block behind him as he'd planned. Despite Sephiroth's best efforts to let Reeve pull ahead without either man having to mention it, Reeve wouldn't quit matching his stride, and even met Sephiroth's frustrated look with another mild eyebrow-lift. "We should walk together," Reeve explained reasonably. "It will reinforce the message that you're our ally."

"Also, not insane or murderous," Sephiroth pointed out, and Reeve's face briefly creased in unwilling agreement. "Reeve, I don't really understand your purpose. I went to a great deal of trouble this morning to keep people from making a connection between myself and Tifa's bar. The last thing I want is for her or Cloud or the children to become targets because of me, yet you seem bent on doing exactly that."

Reeve paused, peering at him until Sephiroth itched with the urge to avert his gaze. "...you really are worried about them," he mused.

"And you're not?"

"No - well, yes, but I think you're looking at this the wrong way." Reeve started walking again, and Sephiroth had no choice but to keep up if he wanted to hear the Director's explanation. "Most people don't know the details of what happened five years ago, but they know that Cloud and Tifa were instrumental in saving the world. They're internationally famous - they're going to be the targets of attention for the rest of their lives."

"All the more reason they shouldn't be associated with me!" Sephiroth argued.

"All the more reason," Reeve corrected gently, "that you should not be hidden away." He paused, letting Sephiroth marinate in agitated silence. "I'm sure you know by now that your part in the events of five years ago-"

"I wish you'd just say Meteor."

Reeve pulled a frown. "Fine. Your part in the Meteor event is less common knowledge than Cloud's and Tifa's. Most know you were involved, but..." His shoulders lifted in a brief shrug. "The Silver General had ardent fans and virulent detractors, as I'm sure you recall. What people believe is largely reflective of their pre-Meteor attitudes toward Shinra."

"And you simply... let them believe what they wish, rather than telling the whole truth?"

"Sephiroth," and Reeve held up a hand that was stiff with impatience, "the fact that we are holding a civil conversation right now is proof that none of us knew the whole truth. You returned from death sane and remorseful, when all of us thought you either irrevocably mad or irredeemably evil. If we had let the full scope of what you had done be commonly known, you would have no allies on the planet now."

The snap in Reeve's dark eyes told Sephiroth what Reeve wasn't saying: I have not forgiven you. This time Sephiroth really did look away, wondering only now how many of Reeve's direct subordinates had died on his sword. Unbidden the image of uniforms swam before his eyes, from the familiar blue and red of the Shinra military to the sharply-tailored suits of the civilian employees-

-flash, white stained with red-

He must have staggered. Reeve had hold of his arm, and Sephiroth made sure he knew where the ground was before pulling away. "...my apologies," he forced out, as stiff and awkward as he felt.

"Does that happen a lot?" Reeve asked, his vehemence of a moment ago tucked away again like a weapon he didn't need. "Was it a dizzy spell?"

"An artifact of having been dead, I think. It's fine." Sephiroth started walking again, hands jammed in his pockets and shoulders hunched, and only realized he was outpacing the Director after an entire block blurred by and he heard Reeve huffing impatiently behind him.

"Slow down, will you?" Reeve's protest was exasperated. "Some of us don't have your long legs."

Sephiroth forced himself to shorten his stride. "...I'm sorry," he forced himself to say.

"It's fine. I should exercise more anyway," Reeve offered, and Sephiroth wasn't sure if that was a joke or not, so he let it pass.

"I meant, I'm sorry for questioning you. I am grateful that you and the others chose not to tarnish my reputation further than you had to."

"Oh. ...well. You're welcome." Reeve paused, getting his breath back. "But you see why I don't want you hidden away, right? You're a polarizing figure on your own, just like Cloud. People will have cause to wonder whether we're - I don't know, using you as a secret assassin. Or if Shinra's moving to retake control. Public perception of you as being your own man - and as an ally of the people who saved the world - will do more to deflect suspicion and fear than letting you become Edge's first cryptid."

Sephiroth reluctantly thought that over. Put that way, Reeve's plan appeared to make sense, not that he had any idea how shaping public opinion actually worked. But... "...I have a request," he murmured.

"What is it?"

"Don't... don't put me on display again without telling me. Like you did last night, at the restaurant."

That actually stymied the older man, though Sephiroth could feel no triumph in it. "...we weren't trying to talk about you behind your back," Reeve offered, in a lower tone than he'd used before. "I promise. We knew you could hear us. It's just-"

"...you weren't comfortable with me," Sephiroth supplied heavily.

"...well, yes. But I really am sorry," Reeve offered, and he did sound sincere. "I didn't think - I didn't realize it would bother you."

"I'm not in the habit of announcing when things bother me." Sephiroth sighed. "...apology accepted. Thank you for hearing me out."

"I forget sometimes not everyone is as mad for politics as I am." Reeve rolled his eyes, gently self-mocking, and Sephiroth felt safe enough to offer a brief smile. "I might ask you to put in public appearances now and then - not anytime soon, mind you - but I promise I won't put you in the spotlight."

"I wonder if even you can guarantee that, Director," Sephiroth sighed.

Reeve chuckled. "Well, the alternative is to go be a hermit somewhere, but I don't recommend that."

"Mmm." Sephiroth wasn't sure he wasn't tempted, even now. He'd been fully prepared to mope about in the City of the Ancients for the rest of his Aeris-given days until chocobo pox and Vincent Valentine, in that order, had entered his life.

Reeve, in any case, filled the silence with plans and observations all the way to the airship docks, and promised Sephiroth's paycheck for the Wolfmeister hunt within the next week. Sephiroth nodded, waited with his arms clasped behind him until Reeve was safely aboard his flagship, and then turned sharply to head to the dock's chocobo stables and attached paddock. It was already late afternoon, and Gleipnir was waiting for him.

The paddock wasn't overly full. A mated pair ignored him utterly, a yearling warbled curiously as he passed through the gate. Most were yellows, and the ones that weren't, Sephiroth was pleased to see weren't dyed - then a familiar wark rose above the din, and Sephiroth forgot all other chocobos in an instant. "Gleipnir," escaped him in a sigh, and against all rules of chocobo discipline he allowed Gleipnir to rush over and practically tackle him for preenings.

The loving roughhousing that followed might have counted as exercise all on its own, but Gleipnir still seemed so energetic by the time they wound down - crest fluffed, eyes bright, shifting on his feet - that looking at him, Sephiroth suddenly felt the weight of the past weeks of (for him) shocking idleness. "Want to go for a walk?" he asked, and Gleipnir trilled in delight and bounced.

Saddled, Gleipnir was no calmer, but he let Sephiroth direct him with an uncanny responsiveness. Sephiroth rode him down the dirt track leading away from the stables and out of the dock complex at a respectful trot, keeping to one side as supply trucks and passenger buggies passed him going the opposite direction. As soon as they were clear, Sephiroth finally gave Gleipnir his head, giving in to their shared urge to run.

The world blurred. Sephiroth bent over Gleipnir's feathered neck, his breath dashed from him as Gleipnir chased down the wind. Gray and brown gave way to green: they were in the sparsely-populated outskirts of Edge now, and there was no need to be cautious. Gleipnir's claws dug into the rocky dirt, flinging up dust behind them, and Sephiroth found himself grinning at the sensation of wind and sunshine and speed.

Good bird. Very good bird.

Not the fastest bird he'd ever ridden, but Gleipnir just plain didn't seem to get tired. Sephiroth finally reined him in when the emergent patches of farmland around Edge - another miracle courtesy of Aeris and the Lifestream - started to give way to the scrubby wildland Sephiroth was more familiar with. It wasn't quite monster territory, but it was close enough that it paid to be wary. Gleipnir was perfectly happy at a trot, warking contentedly to his rider and snatching at roadside weeds when Sephiroth let him.

"You burn through fuel like an airship," Sephiroth informed him, combing affectionately through Gleipnir's soft neck feathers. Gleipnir warbled happily through his mouthful of Midgar golden clover.

He and Gleipnir spotted them at the same time: a trio of low-slung dark shapes against the hazy sandstone cliffs ahead. Gleipnir halted, suddenly a ball of tension under Sephiroth's legs, his crest lifting in warning as the low drone of engines reached them both. Devil Rides, another familiar beast from Midgar-that-was. Sephiroth sat back, eyes narrow against the glare. He had no weapons or Materia, but perhaps he and Gleipnir could chase them off, give them reason to fear coming so close to human territory before they attacked a chocobo or worse, a child.

He gave Gleipnir a speculative glance. He'd never truly tested Gleipnir's resolve against monsters before, but although he was tense he didn't seem fearful. A good sign, for a hunter's mount.

"Come on, Gleipnir," he murmured. "Let's go to work."

At his signal Gleipnir charged, a war cry shrilling from his throat. The Devil Rides revved in alarm and fled.

The tactics of monster hunting came back to Sephiroth in a breathless flood, as though the years between his last mission and now had never passed at all. He harried the monsters with shouts and feinted at their tires if they swerved or slowed. Gleipnir responded to each direction as though he were a hunter's bird already, an extension of Sephiroth's will - or, he amended as Gleipnir struck out with his beak at a Devil Ride that was drifting too close, as though he were an extension of Gleipnir's protective instinct.

They were well into the scrublands now, weaving through cliffs that were threatening to become a ravine. Sephiroth was contemplating ending the chase when a human figure ahead drew his attention, shouting and waving their arms from a clifftop far enough away that a normal human might have had trouble seeing them. The figure gave him a large, exaggerated 'come here!' gesture, and Sephiroth gratefully turned to drive the Devil Rides toward the signaler. This could only be a fellow monster hunter - an armed one, able to deal with the Devil Rides in a more permanent fashion than simply driving them off.

The cliffs did turn into a shallow ravine, one that led into a depression surrounded by cliffs that still held a small gritty pool of stagnant water from the recent rain. It wasn't a place Sephiroth would have wanted to face monsters in on his own right now, as it gave the Devil Rides no choice but to turn and fight. It was, however, the perfect setup for an area-of-effect spell -

"Roderick, now!"

-or, he thought, pulling Gleipnir away from the blast radius though they were in no danger, a Limit Break with similar effects.

When the blast wave disippated, the Devil Rides were crumpled against the cliff walls they'd been blown against, quite definitively dead. A red-haired man with a closely-trimmed beard - 'Roderick', presumably - stood in the center of them, fists clenched, ripples of pale red and orange light fading into the ground at his feet. As Sephiroth watched from Gleipnir's back, the man's chest rose in a deep breath.

"WHOO! Still got it! Eat your heart out, WRO!"

Sephiroth and Gleipnir startled at once, but Roderick didn't seem to notice, turning to call up the cliff at his partner. "Moony! What do you think, does that beat Nat and Pinky's record for most monsters killed in a day?"

"Wouldn't count on it!" 'Moony' was grinning, though, a dark braid falling forward over her shoulder as she bent to peer at her partner.

"Eh, you're right. They got lucky, practically tripping over that Levrikon nest." Roderick turned, offering a softened grin to Sephiroth. "Hey, thanks for the assist, friend. I guess you're entitled to one of these beasties if you're after parts or - holy shit."

He'd drawn close enough that Sephiroth could see the color of his eyes: blue, lit from within by an unearthly glow. The eyes of a SOLDIER, widening with shock.

"General?" he breathed.

His partner stepped off the cliff as though it were a low curb in Edge, hitting the steep incline below and sliding down to the ground. "Roddy?" she queried as she stood.

"Moony." Roderick's voice was hushed, like he was trying not to scare off a shy woodland creature - or perhaps dispel an apparition. "Moon, get over here. It's the - it's Sephiroth!"

"What?"

Gleipnir shifted uneasily under Sephiroth, crest half-lifted as Roderick moved a step closer, hand lifted in -

-FLASH, frenetic activity and voices and a beardless redhead grinning up at him over the solid spine of a Buster, eyes glowing blue-

"No, wait!"

-he was fleeing before he even realized he'd turned Gleipnir away, panic in his throat as the SOLDIER's voice chased him back to Edge, to the safety of anonymity.

*

Sephiroth hadn't forgotten he owed Cloud a debriefing, but it was nearly dark before he was calm enough to head home - and before Gleipnir was calm enough to let him. "I owe you a bale of roasted seaweed," Sephiroth promised him as he settled his chocobo in the stable in between Gleipnir's sleeve-chewing and solicitous beaking. "And a bucket of nuts and a run every day and - and a whole flock of receptive hens if that's what you want, but let's focus on one objective at a time."

"Wark," Gleipnir agreed, and finally deigned to stick his beak in his leafy dinner. Sephiroth left him to it, slipping out of the stables and into the lengthening shadows of evening. The knowledge that he'd run from them like a frightened child burned in his gut, but he was still unsettled enough that he kept to those shadows all the way back to the church.

SOLDIERs. There are SOLDIERs still alive and in operation! ...what do I do now?

Cloud didn't mention Sephiroth's chance meeting when he came by with dinner and a notebook, and if he noticed that Sephiroth was preoccupied and couldn't keep his thoughts together to save his life, he didn't mention that either. Either he was being gentle - unlikely - or he really didn't know about it. Perhaps he and the SOLDIERs in the wildlands didn't know each other, so they wouldn't think to contact the Hero of the Crisis to exclaim they'd seen the General. Either way, Sephiroth was grateful, and did his best to describe the lab in Corel between bites of corned beef sandwich and a brain that kept circling back around to the same spot like a train on a track: SOLDIERs alive, SOLDIERs alive.

"Sephiroth?" Cloud prodded, and Sephiroth jerked up - kicking his train of thought into motion again.

"...it's been a strange couple of days," he offered by way of explanation, and it had the benefit of not actually being a lie. "Where were we?"

"Lab." Cloud glanced at the notebook propped in his crossed legs. "Evidence of human experimentation?"

Sephiroth mentally placed himself back in the lab again, looking around carefully. "None," he said slowly. "Tubes notwithstanding."

He saw Cloud grimace. "Kinda glad I didn't see that."

"Mmm." Sephiroth was grateful as well. "Anyway, aside from the tubes, there wasn't really anything that said 'experiment equipment' to me. It seemed more like... offsite storage."

"Under a reactor?" Cloud's nose wrinkled in incredulity.

"Where else? The head of Shinra Science Division had unfettered access to Shinra's reactors to a degree shared by few others on Gaia. He stored-" His throat closed. Sephiroth forced a swallow. "He stored the bulk of Jenova's body in much the same way."

"...yeah, okay." Cloud scratched out 'Jenova' in his notebook, and stared at the word in dim dismay. "...shit. I'll bet you anything he was storing Jenova samples in there."

"That would be the worst case scenario," Sephiroth agreed. "Hopefully the WRO forensic techs will be able to confirm one way or the other soon."

"You say it so calmly," Cloud muttered resentfully.

"I do?" Sephiroth blinked, and got a flat stare in return. "I... apologize," he offered tentatively.

"...nothing to apologize over." Cloud huffed, tapped his pencil restlessly, his gaze resolutely fixed on the church door, nowhere near Sephiroth's general direction.

Which was likely why Cloud sensed them first, though Sephiroth's senses were just as sharp as his. Sephiroth saw the younger man's gaze sharpen and body tense, and immediately directed his attention outside. Footsteps - breathing - voices, hushed and quickly stifled. Every stifled giggle and stumble over a pebble screamed that this was a force with no discipline and no training. His fan club had come calling again.

Cloud stood, and waved Sephiroth down when he would have followed. Sephiroth clenched his hands by his thighs, making himself obey, and watched Cloud approach the door in an unconcerned saunter. Just in front of it, he lifted a hand and waited - listening, as Sephiroth was, to the whispered voices as they fluttered and hissed and cohered into a chant: "One, two, three, now!" The door burst open six inches and thumped into Cloud's waiting palm.

"...oh shit," one of them opined.

Sephiroth couldn't see Cloud's face, but could picture the man's narrow glare of displeasure from the tone of his voice. "Can I help you?"

"Um..." Another hiss of whispers, cut off when one enterprising young man piped up, "Is Sephiroth here?"

Odin wept.

Sephiroth was about to rise, orders or no orders, when Cloud spoke again. "Jack, remember that conversation we had about treating people like tourist attractions?"

"Uh... yeah?"

"Think that might apply to someone like General Sephiroth too?"

"...um."

"You can't keep him from us forever!" another voice blurted.

Cloud actually laughed at that, a sound that was mostly breath. "Paul, there's a giant gaping hole in the roof of this building. Do you honestly think I could keep someone with SOLDIER abilities jailed here?"

"...but."

Cloud huffed again, shaking his head. "Look, I'm not gonna say 'Sephiroth isn't here' or 'Sephiroth isn't back,' because I know you won't believe me. I am going to tell you that you're building him up in your heads into this figure that doesn't even exist, and when that illusion gets shattered it - it'll hurt like hell, okay?" He took a deep breath, Sephiroth twisting in guilty resentment behind him. "If and when General Sephiroth chooses to make it public, you'll know. Until then, stop barging into condemned buildings and stop following people around just because they look like him. You're going to give someone's granny a heart attack at this rate."

"We never!" came the protest.

"Starcup Coffee, this morning," Cloud answered mildly, and there were several indrawn breaths. "Didn't you know the SOLDIER process heightens senses? People with the enhancements can track your scent. Like Guard Hounds." He was smirking now, Sephiroth could hear it. "Have a nice night, boys."

He swung the door shut again with firm finality, but didn't move away from it until their visitors' footsteps faded away. "...right," he said on the end of a sigh. "Where were we?"

Sephiroth dropped his gaze as Cloud turned back toward him again. "...how did you-" he began.

"You left the bathroom door locked when you made your daring escape," was the wry response. "I had to kick it open. Wasn't hard to figure things out from there."

"...ah." Sephiroth winced. "I'll - write them an apology note. Or something."

Cloud chuckled, sinking down onto the nearest intact pew from where Sephiroth sat, crosslegged, on his cot. "I'd like to see their faces when they get that. Anyway, anything else about the lab? Anything that might say who used it last?"

Sephiroth shut his eyes tightly. "...not Hojo," he said slowly, feeling his way through his own thoughts. "Or anyone who was all that familiar with his methods, I think. The samples were disorganized by his standards."

"Well, that's something, I guess," Cloud sighed. "I mean, we killed Hojo good and dead, but I was having visions of a vengeful lab assistant or something."

"A vengeful lab assistant would give us a direction," Sephiroth answered sourly. "Without that all we have is a suspect who may or may not be Scarlet, and who may or may not be responsible for any of this."

Cloud frowned, but he didn't disagree. "...guess all we can do is hope Barret or the WRO turn something up," he admitted. "And keep our ears open in the meantime. Are you going to be okay?"

Sephiroth blinked, surprised enough to actually meet Cloud's eyes. Cloud had a crease between his brows and his jaw was set in a stubbornness so familiar it was painful - literally, as a flash of white static stabbed through Sephiroth's head - but as he blinked the static away, Cloud's expression didn't change.

Is he... worried for me?

"I'll... be fine," he answered slowly, and Cloud's brow mercifully uncreased. "Those young men shouldn't be back tonight."

"Bar the door just in case," Cloud ordered, and Sephiroth nodded. "...hate to say it," the younger man added in a lower tone, "but Reeve's right. I'm sure you can camp out here longer than he thinks, but when winter sets in you're going to be miserable in here. There is a hole in the roof."

"I've slept in worse conditions for longer," Sephiroth protested, but Cloud, his mind apparently already made up, stood and collected their dishes.

"We'll figure something out," Cloud assured him. "Night, Sephiroth."

And that, it seemed, was the end of it. Sephiroth murmured 'good night' to Cloud's retreating back, and got up to set the bar on the door after Cloud had exited. The motions were familiar by now, as familiar as the scent of lilies and the starlight shining through the hole in the roof, sensations that sometimes followed him into the dreams where Aeris and Zack met him.

He was going to miss this place.