Two days later, Sephiroth emerged from the Blue Dolphin with a basket full of laundered clothes and nearly bumped into someone coming up the walk. "Pardon me," he murmured, eyes on his laundry.
Sephiroth looked up. "...Specialist May," he greeted to her growing grin. "Here on official business, I take it."
Specialist Lily May, her red-trimmed gray WRO uniform looking less travel-rumpled than the last time he'd seen her, threw a salute. "Yes, sir! Director sent me to give this to you." She pulled a slim brown envelope out of her satchel. "Well, to give to Cloud to give to you, but since you're here I might as well."
"Just on the basket, please," Sephiroth offered, and May obligingly dropped it onto the folded shirts. "What is it?"
"It's payment for taking down the Hell House the other day." May tilted her head. "And I think the Director wants to ask you to keep doing it. Hunting in Edge, I mean. Those Hell Houses are a pain in the rear to kill."
"I haven't done a lot of hunting in urban environments," Sephiroth admitted. "I may not be the best man for the job. But of course I'll consider it, if Director Tuesti thinks he can use me in that capacity." It did sound just like him, given Reeve's expressed plans for Sephiroth's future.
Specialist May, having no idea of Sephiroth's future plans, gave his statement thoughtful consideration. "You could always sit in on one of our classes, sir. I mean, they'd probably be mostly review for you, but we do have a lot of focus on urban environments because that's where we do a lot of our work so..."
She shrugged up one shoulder shyly, her sense of decorum catching up with her impulse to help. "...it's not a bad idea," Sephiroth offered awkwardly, and May's shoulders loosened. "Are the classes for WRO members, or open to the public?"
"Umm... both?" May grinned sheepishly. "Originally they were just for WRO people who were focusing on monster control or urban reclaimation efforts, but when they started working with mercenary hunters the classes got opened up to them too. Normally mercenaries have to take a certain number of classes to be eligible to be on WRO's payroll, but I guess Director Tuesti waived that requirement for you."
Wise of him. "Kind of him," Sephiroth admitted. "Have you ever taken any of these classes?"
"Some of them." May grinned. "Everyone takes at least the intro courses, but you're not allowed to go much further than that until you hit eighteen and your bones finish growing. So you can bet I signed up for the next tier as soon as I turned eighteen!" she added with a laugh.
"Interesting," Sephiroth murmured.
...manners. Sephiroth shook his head. "I was just thinking Director Tuesti's learned from the mistakes of the SOLDIER program. Anyway, do you have to report back right away? I'd like to know more about these classes, but..." He lifted his laundry basket illustratively.
May covered her mouth. "Oh! Sh- ...sugar, I'm sorry, sir. You're trying to get home and I'm talking your ear off."
"I encouraged it," Sephiroth pointed out, fair to the last.
May didn't look convinced, the flush in her cheeks lingering as she fell into step at Sephiroth's side. "...still," she insisted. "And - this is my last job of the day. I put in some overtime during the week so I get a half-day off today." Her eyes slid to him, speculative. "Actually..."
May took a breath. "Okay, so this is probably really forward of me, but I was going to meet my little siblings for a picnic after this, and you're welcome to join us if you're not doing anything?" Her voice rose in hopeful query. "My little brother's ten, and he's kiiiiind of a big fan of yours but he knows how to behave himself, I promise. And the other three are way too grown-up to freak out. ...and, you're kind of staring, so I'm thinking I overstepped. Have I overstepped?"
Sephiroth forced himself to break his gaze, swallowing hard past a knotted tongue. Don't frighten her, dammit S control yourself-! "...no," he muttered, and May's face creased in worry. "I'm not... with people, I..."
Sephiroth was never particularly good at dealing with the public before either. Shame warred with frustration behind Sephiroth's breastbone until a gentle hand touched his wrist, barely brushing the leather of his glove.
"...there's this spot we usually go," May said. Her voice was calm, gentle. "It's across from the library on Spring Street. There's a little embankment there, so we can just sit above the road and watch the cars go by if we want. It's quiet. We've never been bothered up there."
She was no earnest and nonthreatening nine-year-old. Specialist May was a WRO soldier, with combat training against both humans and monsters if Sephiroth knew Reeve Tuesti. And here she was, coaxing Sephiroth as though he were a timid woodland chocobo, offering to trust him in the presence of her smaller siblings.
Would you be so trusting if I told you all of what I've done?
"...I need to tell Tifa where I'll be," he found himself saying.
May's grin was blinding. "That's okay, I have to check in at HQ. Meet you at the library? You know where it is, right?"
"I do." Sephiroth nodded. "...thank you, Specialist May."
"It's Lily. Or, well, it's Lily when I'm not on duty, which-" May halted, glanced down at herself. "Which I guess I still am, but anyway. You know what I mean."
"Er - yes," Sephiroth agreed, but Specialist May - Lily - was already darting off, presumably to report in to her superiors. Sephiroth shook his head and pointed himself in the direction of the church. Once he'd stowed his clean clothes, he had better do the same.
Have I just... made a friend?
The Spring Street Library was a new building - they all were, in Edge - seated at the curve of a road leading from 'downtown' to the residential areas of the south quarter of the city. On the other side of the road there was an earth embankment, at the top of which Sephiroth could see a single young tree. It would not be impossible to see someone sitting up there, but it would be difficult - and it would require that the observer look up, which people rarely did. Especially coming out of a library.
Speaking of which, the library door swung open on Lily's voice, and Sephiroth turned. Lily was holding a small boy by the hand, one with shoulder-length hair the same pale blond as Lily's pigtails. Her little brother, Sephiroth surmised.
Lily glanced up, gave him a slow smile, and spoke once more to her brother. "There he is. Want to introduce yourself?"
The boy turned and saw him for the first time: gray eyes widened. Sephiroth tucked his chin down and averted his gaze, trying to offset his intimidating features, and blinked when a small hand fearlessly entered his line of vision.
"'Lo," the boy chirped hopefully. "I'm Artemis. You can call me 'Mis."
" 'Mis," Sephiroth repeated, and extended his own hand for 'Mis to take.
He expected a handshake; he blinked when 'Mis took his hand and just held it, turning to beam hopefully at his sister. "Usual spot?" he chirped.
Lily was smiling helplessly at them both, a fond warm gaze that reminded Sephiroth of no one so much as Aeris. "Usual spot," she confirmed, shifting the large basket she held from one arm to the other. "I'm sure the Middles will be around soon. That's our three middle sisters," she added for Sephiroth's benefit. "Diana, Minerva and Mimi."
"Di's cranky," 'Mis informed Sephiroth seriously.
"What? She is," 'Mis protested to Lily's disapproving face. "He should know so he doesn't think it's 'cause of him. And Mimi likes machines," he added to Sephiroth, "and 'Nerva likes books more than anything, so she probably won't talk to you much either."
Bless Marlene and Denzel for teaching me how to talk to children, Sephiroth thought. "I see. Thank you for telling me," he answered, and 'Mis beamed and squeezed his hand. "Do you like books too?" He nodded to the slim volume clutched under 'Mis's elbow.
"I like these books." 'Mis shifted the book to his free hand without ever letting go of Sephiroth's, clearly eager to show him what he was reading. Lily, looking pained, halted him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Let's go sit down first before we show Seph your book, okay?" she suggested, and 'Mis readily agreed. "Thanks, lilbit."
They crossed the street and raced each other up the embankment - Sephiroth, taking his cue from Lily, let 'Mis win, though the scolding look 'Mis threw them from the zenith said he was not fooled, thank you very much - and sat down with Lily's basket in the middle. "Do you want to show Seph your book while we wait for the Middles?" Lily prompted her brother, and Sephiroth firmly directed his gaze away from the basket. There likely wasn't going to be enough for him to sate a SOLDIER's metabolism, but he'd already resigned himself to considering this meal a pre-lunch snack.
'Mis, by contrast, seemed not to notice the basket at all. "Okay, so this is sixth in the series-"
"I thought it was the third," Lily frowned.
"Noo, the library just doesn't have three-four-five yet," 'Mis informed her importantly, and flipped the book open. "Okay, so this is my favorite part. There's an opera and a funny octopus!"
"An... octopus? In an opera?" Seph leaned over, following 'Mis's pointing finger down the crinkled page. What were children reading these days?
'Mis giggled. "He's not in the opera, silly," he said, and then Sephiroth had to devote brain cells to process someone called me silly? "He's trying to sabotage the opera!"
Sephiroth scanned the paragraph 'Mis indicated. "Rather violently, it seems."
'Mis subsided, frowning, and for a moment Sephiroth was afraid he'd said something wrong. "...yeah," the boy allowed at least. "He does a lot of bad things in the story, but I don't think he's bad-bad. Not like the real bad guy is. He's just got a lot of Stuff and he never learned how to be good. ...And he's purple," the boy thought to add. "Purple's my favorite color."
While Sephiroth was still puzzling over that, Lily reached over and ruffled 'Mis's hair. "Mine too," she grinned. "And on a completely unrelated note, look who's coming."
"Miiii!" 'Mis cried, standing to greet the two figures trotting up the slope ahead. " 'Nervaaaaa!"
" 'Miiiiiis!" one of them hollered back.
Lily bounced to her feet, flinging her arms out wide. "Middles!" she crowed, and the figures doubled their speed, not stopping until two girls - both dark-haired, older than 'Mis but younger than Lily, hence the moniker - tackled their older sister to the ground.
'Mis dashed to join the rolling wrestlepile, leaving Sephiroth to sit awkwardly by until it subsided. "Di not coming?" Lily gasped out from under her sprawling pile of littlesiblings.
"She was on the phone," shrugged the taller, stockier Middle, as the smaller and slighter one wormed her way free. "Who's this?"
"This is Seph!" Instantly 'Mis was at Seph's side, gripping his hand as if laying claim to him. "He's visiting today."
Sephiorth did his best to look nonthreatening as he was subjected to the critical examination of two girls on the brink of adolescence. "...hello," he offered.
"You're Sephiroth, huh?" the taller sister commented.
"Mimi," Lily murmured, a gentle warning.
Mimi shrugged. "Cool hair," she informed him, and turned to her older sister. "Lily, can we eat now? Who knows when Di's coming and I'm starving."
"All right, you mooch," Lily laughed, and opened the basket, and just like that, the Middles entirely lost interest in the former Silver General in their midst. As Lily passed out sandwiches, 'Mis, left behind to squire their guest, gave Sephiroth's arm an encouraging squeeze.
"How did I do?" he asked the boy, sotto voice.
'Mis gave the question due consideration. "I think y' did good." He patted Sephiroth's wrist encouragingly and smiled. "Want to get a sammich and we can read from my book some more?"
Though the idea of exposing a book to possible food stains gave him the horrors, Sephiroth nodded, and allowed 'Mis to procure sandwiches and potato salad for both of them. Lily handed 'Mis four sandwiches with a wink in Sephiroth's direction, and 'Mis ferried them back to him with an impressed look on his young face. "She must really like you," the boy informed him, dumping three of the wrapped sandwiches in Sephiroth's lap.
"I'm sure she just knows about SOLDIER metabolism," Sephiroth confided, and a worried little voice went of course, that begs the question of where she learned about SOLDIERs.
"What's metabolism?" 'Mis asked with a wrinkle of his nose, and Sephiroth tabled the question in order to attempt to explain SOLDIER biology to a ten-year-old.
He found the right words in between bites of sandwich and potato salad, and ‘Mis said ‘oh,’ thought about it for a moment, and then offered his pickle spear to Sephiroth. “I’m full,” he explained when Sephiroth tried to decline, and the stubborn set to his jaw told him that the only option was to acquiesce. So he did.
Not that a single pickle spear was going to tip the scales of his energy needs much one way or the other, of course, but he found the sandwiches to be surprisingly filling and the potato salad - mysterious substance that it was - was nice as well. The Middles had settled in with their own food, Mimi chattering to Lily between bites and Minerva ignoring them all with her nose in a book several times thicker than ‘Mis’s. Sephiroth settled in next to ‘Mis to peek over his shoulder as he read his book out loud, and was content.
He was aware of the dark-haired figure approaching them four pages into ‘Mis’s recitation, but he didn’t react until Mimi piped up, “Hey, here comes Di. Think we should tell her we ate her sandwich?”
“Mean,” Lily scolded, and Mimi cackled. “Di, hurry up, or Mi’s gonna eat your sandwich!”
The figure didn’t respond until she was close enough to speak without shouting. “I’m wearing my good shoes, I’m not hurrying anywhere,” she stated loftily. “Tell me they at least gave you good sandwiches this time.”
“Come on, it’s free food,” Lily protested. “You don’t like it, buy your own lunch.”
“Whatever.” Diana - it was surely she, the mysterious ‘cranky’ third Middle - claimed her sandwich and a couple of pickle spears, but eschewed the potato salad. Sephiroth dipped his head back down again at that point, redirecting his attention to ‘Mis and his book, but ‘Mis had stopped reading aloud, and a moment later Diana paused quite deliberately in front of him.
“Well, hello,” she said, her tone suddenly warm, intrigued. “You’re a new face.”
“This’s Seph,” ‘Mis informed her, one hand curling around his bicep. “He’s visiting.”
Sephiroth lifted his eyes. Diana May still had the coltish limbs of a teenager, but her makeup, smart dress, and sandals spoke of a striving toward an older version of herself. “General Sephiroth,” she breathed, pressing her hand to her sternum. “I’ve heard rumors, of course, but - it’s such an honor to meet you.”
Some instinct moved him to stand, gently displacing ‘Mis, to offer a shallow bow as he would have to President Shinra’s society ladies. “It’s just Sephiroth,” he answered, “and the honor is mine.”
“Wow, he’s tall,” he heard Mimi mutter, and Lily hummed agreement.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Sephiroth, then.” And that was Diana actually batting her eyelashes, of all things. “So - you really have left Shinra? Are you working with WRO?”
“Diiii.” Lily’s voice took on a distinct warning tone.
“What? I’m not even allowed to talk to people now?”
Sephiroth quickly sat down again - if he was going to be the cause of another fight he’d just as soon not be in the middle of it. ‘Mis immediately latched onto his elbow, pressing his face into Sephiroth’s sleeve. Lily didn’t answer Di’s challenge, only continued her warning stare, and at length Di huffed and sat down under the tree next to Minerva. Minerva didn’t even look up.
“…I’m sorry,” Sephiroth murmured to ‘Mis, low-voiced. “I’m still not good with people.”
‘Mis sought out his hand with blind pattings, squeezed it tight when he found it. “…want to keep reading?” he near-whispered.
And so they read, while the sisters collectively finished off the last of the food and Lily drew Mimi and Diana into a card game Sephiroth didn’t know. After a few hands - and a few chapters - Mimi squinted sunwards and announced, “I’d better get to Zangan-Ryu class.”
“I’ll walk you there.” Lily collected her sisters’ cards and rose to her feet. “Seph? Want to walk with us partway?”
Sephiroth nodded. “I should return to the church, I think. Cloud will want to check in on me before Tifa leaves for her class.”
Mimi’s eyes lit. “You know Tifa? That’s our teacher!”
Sephiroth glanced at Lily, who shook her head in response to his silent query - no, of course she hadn’t told her siblings anything about his living situation, but from the way Diana was regarding him, it wasn’t hard to come to their own conclusions. “A remarkable woman,” he told Mimi, “and a remarkable fighter. You would do well to learn all you can from her.”
Mimi shrugged cheerfully. “I’m no good at it. I just like it.”
This was probably another one of those things he wasn’t equipped to understand. Sephiroth happily let ‘Mis take his arm and monopolize him all the way back to downtown, where the May children and Sephiroth had to part company.
“See you in the field?” Lily suggested brightly.
Sephiroth nodded. “Thank you for your invitation. It was very kind of you to include me.”
“Come again next week?” ‘Mis piped up, tugging at his arm.
Lily laughed and swept him up. “We’ll see, lilbit. Sephiroth’s got a lot of stuff to do just like I do.”
“Saving the world?” ‘Mis grinned.
“It was nice to meet you as well, ‘Mis,” Sephiroth added when the two of them turned their grins on him. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit again, but I’d very much like to read with you again when I can.”
‘Mis gave him a look like he’d just been promoted to First Class. “Count on it!”
He held out his hand, palm facing Sephiroth; it took a couple of tries before Sephiroth learned that what ‘Mis was asking for was a ‘high-five,’ which he gave carefully. The May kids shuffled off, a knot of cheery, comradely chaos, and Sephiroth smiled to himself, patting himself on the back for (mostly) successfully navigating a social event with them for a whole afternoon.
“You’re good with kids, you know.”
Sephiroth turned. “You’re not going with them, Miss May?”
“Please, call me Diana.” Diana gave him a winning smile. “I just wanted to thank you. Distracting my annoying baby brother all afternoon probably wasn’t what you wanted to be doing with your day.” As Sephiroth groped for words to respond to that, she tugged a notebook out of her pocket, neatly printed something on it, and tore out the page to offer to him. “Here.”
“What’s…?” But the paper was already in his hand, curse his instincts - and Diana was smiling at him, red lips parted just slightly.
“My PHS number,” she informed him. “If you ever need help, or just someone to talk to, call me. I know a lot of people in this city, and I’m a very good listener.”
Sephiroth nodded silently - it had always been the best response with civilians who wanted a piece of him. Diana smiled again and trotted briskly off, in a subtly different direction from her siblings, and Sephiroth hurriedly stuffed the number in his pocket. He’d ask Cloud what to do with it, later - there may have been subtleties of human interaction he was missing.
“Don’t,” Cloud ordered, “call that number.”
Sephiroth blinked. “I wasn’t planning on it, but why…?”
“She’s what, sixteen?” Sephiroth made a ‘yes, roughly’ gesture. “Yeah, you’re thirty-five. I know you’re not gonna try anything-”
“Great Odin, no.” Sephiroth shuddered.
“-but she might not know that.” Cloud leaned a hand against the pew Sephiroth sat on, his face turned to catch the light from the half-opened church door. His mouth opened slightly, then closed again as if he’d thought better of saying more.
Sephiroth glanced down at the unfolded scrap of notebook paper in his hand, and without thinking about it too much, offered it to Cloud. Cloud took it with a nod and shoved it in his pocket, well out of sight. Silence settled in between them again, familiar and almost comfortable.
“…we’ve been looking into apartments nearby.” Cloud spoke quietly, disturbing the silence only faintly, like ripples on the surface of a pond. “There’s not much available, but if you want to look…”
“I’m not picky,” Sephiroth assured him. “I’m sure I’ll find something suitable.”
Cloud grimaced. “It’s cost I’m worried about. The rents are a little steep for the square footage you’d be getting.”
“Oh, is that all?” Sephiroth allowed a smile. “Money’s easy to get.”
“Oh, yeah?” Cloud lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Of course. Reeve wants me to keep hunting monsters in Edge.” He plucked the white envelope Lily had given him from in between the pages of his notebook and held it up for Cloud to see. “He’s already paid me for the Hell House.”
“I haven’t looked.”
Cloud chuckled, shaking his head. “Right. Let me know when you want me to help set up your hot pepper stall in the market.”
“No, thank you.” Sephiroth smoothed the creases out of the envelope between his fingertips. His smile lingered on his face, and for once he felt no need to hide it.