“Someone, help! Please, help me!”
Panicked breaths. Rapid footsteps coming to an abrupt halt. A low, rolling growl.
The young woman turned slowly. Precious little light made it into the alley, leaving all in shadow but the reflected glow of the Zenene’s eyes. The monster approached slowly, the skinny low-slung body moving in a slow slink, and the woman pressed back against the fence that blocked her escape as death looked her in the eyes.
A streak of light descended, point-first-
-and the Zenene died, its spine severed, and the warrior easily pulled his sword free of the corpse. “Are you hurt, miss?” he asked, turning green eyes that flashed like a cat’s to regard her.
The young woman swallowed and shook her head. “Se- Sephiroth?”
Sephiroth gave her a shallow bow, and she managed a smile in return. “Th-thank you,” she said, her voice slowly ceasing to tremble. “I’ll - I’ll tell everyone. That you’re good.”
Sephiroth lowered his gaze again, his bangs falling forward to hide his face. As the woman left the alley on unsteady legs, he nudged the dead Zenene with the toe of his boot. The face that turned to the light was a skull-like, toothsome mockery of his own.
Sephiroth shuddered. With a reflexive twitch of his fingers, he cast a dark ball of Gravity at the creature’s head. The skull imploded, erasing the resemblance.
“So that’s three Zenene, two Kalm Fangs and another Hell House.” Aeris ticked them off on her fingers, glanced down at her hands, then tucked them behind her back to smile at him. “Not bad for a week’s work.”
“Mmm.” Sephiroth was seated beside Aeris’s flowers, legs tucked up under him, regarding the shimmer of dreamlight on petals with a pensive air. “Profitable, but worrying. Cloud tells me there weren’t as many monsters in Edge last year.”
“Well, he’s not wrong.”
The admission chilled him. “Aeris - do you know the source? Is it something I can-” Kill, he’d been about to say, but - that wasn’t something he could say to Aeris of all people. “…take care of,” he amended.
Aeris’s smile faded. Before his death he had hardly known her at all, but now there was a strange, intimate familiarity to watching her face, how her lips pursed in thought and her ginger eyelashes barely brushed her cheek. “I told you before I can’t help you,” she reminded him. “It’s not my right to interfere with the living.”
“…you literally returned me from death.”
“That was different.” Her freckled nose in the air, Aeris plopped down beside him. The flowers swayed faintly at her presence. “All I will say is that you’ll know what to do by the time you find the source.”
She patted his hand, right over the 01 mark. Sephiroth turned his hand over and let her palm settle against his. “And so I am a hunter,” he commented, “ridding the world of the monsters Shinra helped create. Am I closer to my redemption?”
“Mmm…” Aeris’s smile returned, warm and fond. “No.”
And she booped his nose.
Kalm Fangs were a perennial nuisance, the same after Meteorfall as before. No one was surprised when hunters returned from Edge’s outlying farmlands with purple-furred corpses slung over their shoulders to claim their bounty. The presence of Hell Houses was more worrying - they had been thought to be extinct due to Meteor’s devastation, but apparently enough had hunkered down and survived the event to begin to rebuild their numbers now. The real worry was the Zenenes. Pre-Meteor, they’d only shown up when Shinra’s Science Department had suffered a containment failure. What were they doing here now?
“We have a few theories,” admitted the WRO monster-hunting class instructor, “but due to the quick degredation of the bodies, there is little data to work from. For now we must urge you to log every encounter with time and location, as accurately as you can manage.”
Sephiroth, who’d only recently been issued the log sheets with which monster hunters were supposed to claim their pay from the Organization, shifted uncomfortably in his hard plastic seat. A hunter seated at the front of the room lifted her hand for acknowledgement. “What about pictures? Most of us carry a PHS with us, no reason we can’t snap a few shots, right?”
The instructor nodded. “Yes, if it’s safe for you to do so. Multiple angles and whole-body images would be useful.”
Sephiroth blinked - at the time of his death, PHSes hadn’t been capable of much more than over-land calls and text messages. Now they could take pictures, and do all sorts of things besides. From his place at the back of the room, he sometimes saw the glow of PHS screens as his classmates checked the time or their message backlog, or even used them to take notes or record parts of the teacher’s lecture. He deeply disapproved, but as the instructor had only intervened the one time he’d caught someone playing Chocobo Racers on their phone, Sephiroth chalked it up to yet another cultural shift that had happened while he’d been dead and let it go.
Less easy to ignore was another type of glow - vivid green eyes that kept turning in his direction, as if to make sure he was still there. A SOLDIER, sitting ten feet from him, kept in her seat only by respect for the instructor. The class had taken a twenty-minute break earlier, and Sephiroth had found it necessary to play hide-and-seek for twenty minutes to keep his former comrade (maybe?) from catching up to him. He’d have to do the same thing when class ended for good.
It did occur to him that it would be easier on his dignity if he just bit the bullet and talked to the SOLDIER, but it was too late. He was committed now.
He was just toying with the idea of leaving class early when the instructor announced, “All right, let’s all get into groups and do some pathfinding exercises.”
And thus the trap closes, he thought, and then - because he wasn’t a General anymore and didn’t need to be so formal - added a damn it as the SOLDIER quickly dragged her desk to his desk and plonked down in it, grinning like she’d just hunted down a particularly troublesome dragon. “Hi,” she said, “let’s team up.”
Sephiroth looked around, but the handful of other students had already shuffled into their own small groups. One of them even caught Sephiroth’s regard and shrugged apologetically at him - no one, it seemed, wanted to brave the domain of two ex-SOLDIERs. No help there.
Well, fine then. Sephiroth braced himself, schooled his face to blankness as he faced his smiling fate. “Miss…” he tried.
“Oh, right! I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself last time - Moony Baker, ex-SOLDIER Third Class. I’d salute or something, but-”
“-uh, right, that.” Moony winced. “Sorry. You’re keeping a low profile, I get it.”
Not as low as I’d like, went Sephiroth’s inner resentful voice, but he had Reeve to blame for that. And himself, for cooperating. “What did you mean,” he asked instead, “last time?”
He didn’t like that SOLDIER Third Class Baker hesitated, and even less the apologetic tone in her voice when she answered. “In the wastes - you know, the Devil Riders?”
“I was startled,” Sephiroth gritted out, knowing it a poor excuse for how he’d behaved. “…I’m sorry.”
Moony accepted a worksheet from the instructor and offered it to Sephiroth. On it was printed a rough map of one of Edge’s segments, with three icons representing monster sightings. “So…” the young SOLDIER hedged as Sephiroth traced the beginnings of a battle plan on it. “It wasn’t us? We didn’t do something wrong?”
“Oh, good.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Roddy was so worried.”
“That would be your partner?”
“Mhm.” Completely ignoring the worksheet, Moony rested her cheek against her fist. “Roderick Prynne, ex-SOLDIER First. Apparently he was one of your personal trainees? Before you - you know.”
Sephiroth could feel the beginnings of a headache pulsing at the corners of his eyes; he deliberately drew his attention away from trying to recall those days. “I think I remembered him when I first saw him. Or someone very like him.”
“As far as I know he doesn’t have any brothers.” Moony grinned.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember you, though.” Sephiroth testingly drew a suboptimal battle plan, just to see if Moony would notice.
“Oh, you wouldn’t,” was the breezy reply, “I joined up after you disappeared. In the end I was only in SOLDIER for a year and a half or so before the world tried to end.”
What am I meant to say to that? “…I see,” Sephiroth murmured, and continued to be suboptimal on their worksheet. Moony had yet to even glance at it.
“So anyway,” she forged ahead, “we have board game night at Anchor Base the first Sunday of every month. You’re welcome to come check it out, if you want? There’s food - Roddy’s an underPlate kid but his grandpa was from up north, so he does a mean stuffed cabbage. Or there’s this spicy orange chicken stuff if you’re into spicy food. I mean, I’m not, but it’s so good I end up trying to eat it anyway. It hu-rts,” she groaned, drawing out the word dramatically, “but it’s wo-rth it.”
“…I’ll pass, thanks.”
Her expression fell. “On board game night?”
“On willingly putting things in my mouth that try to fry my face off.” Sephiroth put down his pen as Moony laughed. “Would I really be welcome?” He couldn’t hold in a roving glance, searching for others who might be paying attention to them. “Has Reeve - or Cloud or anyone - told you what really happened?”
“Sir.” Moony put her hand on the table near Sephiroth’s, green eyes kind. “We all had It in our heads. We know what happened.”
…oh. …of course they know.
His gaze drifted to Moony’s hand, pale and patient next to his own gloved one. He could do it, couldn’t he? He could go to the one group of people who would understand him better than anyone outside of Cloud. He could go and apologize to SOLDIER Prynne, if nothing else; if he and the other SOLDIERs were as accepting as Moony claimed, he could meet with them, see how many he remembered out of the ones that had survived him-
-flash, screaming horrible soundless white-
-oh, gods, gravity was tilted. He gripped the desk, forced his breath to slow, hissing evenly through his teeth. In, hold, out. In, hold, out. Just at the edge of his perception, Moony hovered, but didn’t quite dare to touch. Good.
What had he been thinking?
“You all right?” Sephiroth’s senses began to clear; it was the instructor speaking, not the SOLDIER, and he at least had the sense to give Sephiroth space.
“Dizzy spell,” he answered tightly. “I’ll be fine in a moment.” The instructor hesitated, clearly concerned, but ultimately let it be. Moony continued to hover until he managed to straighten in his seat, his breath easing and his shoulders relaxing. “…all right,” he muttered.
“All right?” Moony repeated, clearly not convinced.
“…more or less.” He must have made a disgruntled face, for Moony let out an unwilling giggle. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be much use to you. You should probably have chosen another partner for this.”
“Not on your life,” was the tart reply. “I finally get to meet you! I thought you were just going to be this - poster on my wall all my life.”
Sweet Odin. “Poster?” Sephiroth asked, against his better instincts.
Moony shrugged, embarrassed but clearly not embarrassed enough to not want to talk about it. “You know. Posing all dramatic. Look, give me a break,” she mock-scolded, “I was twelve. Anyway, think about the board game night thing, okay? Or, you know, anytime you feel like swinging by. I can draw you a map if you want, but Cloud knows where it is if you want to both come.”
“Cloud does?” Sephiroth frowned. “Does he come to - your game nights?”
Moony flailed with a grunt of frustration. “We keep asking him!”
Sephiroth lowered his gaze again. “I’ll… bring it up with him.” Which was a lie - the last thing he wanted was to have to admit he’d met, run away from, and then been trapped by some of the SOLDIER remnant. And if Cloud had repeatedly refused their overtures, he must have reason. Even if Sephiroth couldn’t fathom them. Why would you avoid the people you are most like? They would welcome you, you know.
Zack was one of them.
The group exercise was called to a close after that, and as Moony retreated and the instructor collected the worksheets, Sephiroth reflected that the one benefit of having one of his migraines in public meant no one would fault him for withdrawing from the class early. So he did, quietly and unobtrusively, and this time not even Moony followed him out.
Four new Masamune marks between the educational facility and the church - including one on the church itself, and Sephiroth sighed as he fetched his cleaning supplies. He’d wanted to spend the latter half of his afternoon training, but so much for that now. His head was throbbing, and he didn’t think it was because of the flashback migraine because those rarely lingered, but having had one in front of Moony - SOLDIER Baker - and the instructor wasn’t helping his stress levels. He took it out on the paint, scrubbing viciously with the harsh paint thinner until his eyes and nose stung with it and his back ached to match his head.
“What’s he doing?”
The whisper reached him as he paused to rest his arm. He stilled, arm propped against the wall to let the ache drain out while he waited for the voice to come again so he could pinpoint where it came from.
“Shh, shut up,” someone hissed, “he can probably hear us.”
“No way. Not even Cloud-”
…his fan club was back.
Sephiroth hissed through his teeth and continued. Watching a man scrub paint off a church’s brick siding couldn’t possibly be interesting enough to make them - six or so boys, he surmised by counting breaths - linger for long. “Aw, man, that was my best one yet,” went a whispered lament, and no, apparently Sephiroth was destined to be mystified by human behavior again. They were in the nearby alley, he thought, close enough to see if he turned around, which he refused to do. “Why’s he erasing it? Doesn’t he know it’s for him?”
For a horrible red-tinged moment Sephiroth wanted to turn, confront them - you don’t have the slightest idea-! …no. No, he couldn’t, he mustn’t, and he hunched his shoulders with the effort of holding himself in.
“It doesn’t belong here,” he said loudly, his only surrender to the twisting behind his breastbone.
“Shit, he can hear us!” And that was the sound of half a dozen teenagers fleeing in panic. Sephiroth sighed and re-soaked his sponge.
Zack was agitated tonight. He paced about the church, growling to himself, fur bristling in waves that shimmered like obsidian. Sephiroth folded his arms behind his head, stretched out on his cot, and watched him idly. “Patrolling again?” he asked.
Zack turned to face him and barked. Actually barked, like a dog serving a warning. “If it’s another monster,” Sephiroth warned him, “I hope you’ll at least let me get my boots on first.”
Zack moaned and flopped on his side, rolling in utter frustration. Sephiroth closed his eyes and chuckled for about as long as it took for Zack to recover from his frustration-roll, trot over, fasten his teeth in Sephiroth’s pajama shirt and yank.
Half fallen out of his cot, Sephiroth blinked as his wolf-shaped friend gently shook his mouthful of shirt, growled, and then let go to roughly lick his face. The message was clear - Zack still loved him but was he ever a pain in the ass.
“It would help if I could understand what you wanted!” Sephiroth protested, bringing up a hand to shield his face from the Punitive Wolfkisses. Zack groaned and flopped down again, his head on Sephiroth’s stomach. “…I’m sorry,” Sephiroth said to those woebegone violet eyes. “I didn’t even understand you when you were in front of my eyes in the waking world. It’s my fault.”
When Sephiroth woke up, there was a small hole in his pajama shirt. He puzzled over it, but it didn’t offer up any clues as to why his friend’s ghost had been such a ball of nerves the night before. Was there something coming? A stronger monster? …well. If there was, he would meet it. To that end, he decided, he’d better continue his strength training.
He was nearly done with his daily one hundred sit-ups when a heavy tread along the path to the church alerted him that he was about to have a visitor. He slowed to a halt, sat up, and fetched his towel. By the time Barret Wallace pounded on the church door, he was more or less presentable.
“Mr. Wallace,” he greeted upon opening the door. “Can I help you?”
“I told you to drop the Mister,” Barret grumped. He’d shaved since the last time Sephiroth had saw him, only a thin line of fuzz over his chin - Marlene’s preference. “Anyway, I - look, I got a favor to ask.”
He was scowling as he said it, but his eyes weren’t quite meeting Sephiroth’s. That wasn’t reassuring. Anger at Sephiroth, Sephiroth understood. “I’m listening,” he said, opening the church door wider to invite Barret inside.
Barret accepted the invitation with a grumble of discomfort, but the stress in the set of his shoulders seemed to drain off as he stepped past Sephiroth and took in more of the church. “…so this is where you crash, huh?” he asked.
Why is this subject of interest to you? “…yes?”
Barret took it all in - the flowers, the altar, the small tight area of cot-and-coffee-pot that was the space Sephiroth had carved out for himself. Sephiroth expected a judgement, but what Barret said when he finally chose to speak was “So I got a lead on Scarlet, but there’s a catch. She wants to meet you.”
“Scarlet?” Sephiroth asked, mystified.
Barret made a frustrated noise. “Not Scarlet, my lead! She’s a reporter for this gossip rag, we used to make statements through them as Avalanche. Nobody paid much attention - like I said, total rag, but at least they weren’t on Shinra’s payroll.”
“Anyway, all you have to do is just show up. You don’t gotta say anything you don’t wanna. You’ll get two inches in a paper that mainly runs Bagrisk Boy sightings and horoscopes, and we’ll all go home and forget it ever happened. All right?”
Reporters. Exactly what he wanted to avoid, but Barret was standing with his hands in his pockets, as defensive as Sephiroth had ever seen him, and he had yet to meet Sephiroth’s eyes. Clearly he knew the magnitude of the favor he was asking.
“…is it the only way?”
Now Barret looked him in the face, wearing a reassuring forthright scowl. “Hell no! If you tell me to go fuck myself, I’ll just find another lead. I got lots of friends from the old days, so no pressure, got it?”
“Understood.” Sephiroth sighed and sank down on the nearest pew. Despite Barret’s assurances, he already knew what his decision was. Endangering his already fractured privacy was no sacrifice compared to stopping Scarlet, or whoever was responsible for the Wolfmeisters in Corel and the Zenenes in Edge.
For Cloud and Tifa. For Marlene and Denzel.
“When?” he asked, and Barret let out a gusty breath of relief.
“Dressing up” just wasn’t going to happen without the services of a well-regarded tailor, but Sephiroth at least made sure his secondhand collared shirt and jeans were clean and neatly pressed for the interview. Barret lifted an eyebrow when he got his first look at Sephiroth’s best efforts.
“You look like a chaperone at your kid’s field trip,” he judged.
“I hope that means ‘nonthreatening’.”
Barret laughed. “Yeah, you did good. C’mon, beanpole.”
“‘Beanpole,’” Sephiroth muttered, but when he thought about it, he was rather pleased. No one, not even Zack, would have dared call him that to his face before. Barret flashed him a wicked grin, clearly taking pleasure in giving him a derisive nickname, but didn’t push it further as a bully might have. It felt so much like acceptance that Sephiroth had to quell the odd urge to thank him.
Barret led him back into the junker districts, and Sephiroth tried to orient himself by his desperate hunt for the Hell House days prior. Few streets looked familiar, but Barret seemed to know exactly where he was going, forging ahead with a confident stride. He even got called-out greetings from passerby here and there, and shouted back in varying modes of vulgarity depending on his audience. Sephiroth hung back in his shadow and observed, with as much comprehension as Gleipnir presented with complex calculus, until at last Barret came across a shabby patchwork building much like the shabby patchwork buildings around it aside from the hand-lettered sign on the door proclaiming it the headquarters of Gaian Weekly.
A name that says nothing, Sephiroth realized, and then they were inside. The air was close and stuffy, thick with the smell of ink and filled with the noise of hurried feet and hurried keyboards: sounds that, bit by bit, fell silent as the Weekly’s staff caught notice of their visitors.
Fall back, his instincts screamed, retreat, there is nothing good that can come of this, but Barret was his mission commander and when he strode forward, Sephiroth fell in like a good soldier. “Hey,” Barret commented wryly, his voice carrying all too well in the silence, “what’s everybody starin’ for? Anyone’d think you typewriter monkeys never saw a black man before.”
“We don’t get out much,” someone snarked from the back of the writers’ desks - none of which was equipped with a typewriter - and laughter rippled through the room, easing the tension in Sephiroth’s shoulders. Bless you, Barret. “Di’s in the interview room - straight back, can’t miss it.”
“Got it, thanks.”
Sephiroth could feel the eyes on his back as he followed Barret to the interview room, but as the two of them entered, the young woman at the table stood to greet them, and Sephiroth jolted in shock. “Miss May!”
Diana May smiled at them both, the sun gilding her dark hair. “Thank you both for coming. Can I pour you some tea?”
And thus the trap closes.
Over weak tea and dry biscuits, Diana asked, “So, Sephiroth. What brings you back to the site of Meteor?”
Barret half-stood. “Hey, if you dragged us here just to-”
Sephiroth put a hand out over Barret’s cybernetic arm, not quite daring to touch it. “I agreed to this,” he argued quietly, and Barret subsided with an unwilling grumble. “However,” he added to Diana, “I have no comment as regards my involvement in the Meteor event at this time.”
Diana tapped her bottom lip with her pencil. “Understandable,” she decided. “Let me rephrase - what brings you to Edge?”
Sephiroth nodded in gratitude. “I go where I am needed,” he said, “in association with World Regenesis Organization as a monster hunter.”
“So you have no more ties to Shinra?”
It was the question she’d asked him when they’d first met, and Sephiroth fought to keep his voice neutral as he answered. “None whatsoever.”
“Hmm.” Diana scratched something down in her notebook. “I’m sure your fans will be pleased to hear that. Shinra’s reputation has been rather tarnished lately.”
“So I hear.” Sephiroth took another sip of his tea.
“Are you willing to speak of why you left them?”
“That touches on the events I’m not willing to speak of, I’m afraid.” Sephiroth set his cup down with only the faintest of clinks. “I understand Rufus Shinra is committing his company’s wealth to various philanthropic causes, and I applaud his efforts in that regard.” Barret’s cough sounded suspiciously like ‘bullshit’. “But I will not work for him.”
Diana raised an eloquent eyebrow. “You must know the WRO accepts Shinra funds.”
“That is Reeve’s decision. Director Tuesti, that is.” Sephiroth folded his hands together. “I have a great deal of trust in him, despite his ties to Shinra. He has always dealt fairly with his people, and this time he has a mission that makes full use of his skills without constraining his conscience.”
Dark eyebrows arched. “I see.” Another scribble in her notebook, and she frowned at her notes. “Still, that’s quite a demotion for you.”
“There comes a time when the old guard must step aside,” Sephiroth answered, thinking of Lily. “I am content with my work. There is no need for me to take on a command role.”
“Do the SOLDIERs feel the same way?”
That was an unexpected angle of attack, and it knocked the breath out of him for a moment. “Is that relevant?” Barret demanded crankily, covering Sephiroth’s momentarily inability to speak.
“The SOLDIER community also takes missions from WRO, as well as maintaining their chocobo flock.” Now Diana was in lecture mode, sitting up in her chair as though she thought to tower over two very tall men. “And they’ve made their severing of all ties with Shinra very clear. Wouldn’t they want their beloved General to lead them again?”
Beloved? “Surely not,” Sephiroth said. “The World Regenesis Organization’s mission is to facilitate society’s reinvention into something stronger and healthier than what was possible under Shinra’s control. As the SOLDIERs’ commander under Shinra, I would be a step backwards in that regard. We - humanity - cannot afford to move backward now.”
Diana immediately wrote that down, while Barret shot him a raised-eyebrows impressed look. “Well!” she declared. “This is going to be an amazing article. Is there anything else you’d like Gaia to know, Sephiroth?”
Now this was always dangerous territory, when reporters asked him to go off-script. Sephiroth was about to say no, when the Masamune mark on Aeris’s church flashed through his mind. “I’d very much like,” he said, “if the persons responsible for painting graffiti of my old sword everywhere would desist. I don’t know if any of them read your paper, but… it’s not wise or helpful.”
“I’ll be sure to mention it,” Diana assured him brightly. “Really, thank you so much for coming in to talk to me today. If there’s anything I can do for you in return…”
Barret cleared his throat. “The info I asked for?” he prompted.
“…well, besides that.” Diana smiled hopefully at Sephiroth, who squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. If this was a proposition, it was escaping him, but Cloud’s warning rang in his head and he knew he had to be on guard.
“Just report everything as accurately as you can,” he said at last. “That will be repayment enough.”
“I promise.” Diana gave him her warmest smile, and Sephiroth told himself she meant it. “Now, as promised-” She plucked a folder from the table beside her, presenting it with a flourish. “I’ve compiled the information into ‘confirmed’ and ‘rumor’ categories, so you don’t waste your time on unsubstantiated information, but you might be able to do something with both.”
Barret opened the folder and flipped through its pages. “Hey, this is good,” he marveled.
Diana lifted her chin proudly. “I am very good at my job.”
“Guess you are.” Barret stood, nose still in the file. “All right, let’s get going. Seph?”
Sephiroth stood, pushed his chair in, and offered Diana a half-bow. “Thank you for having us.”
“The honor’s all mine, believe me.” Diana opened the door for them to politely usher them out, but couldn’t let them get away without one last minor embarrassment. “Let’s do lunch sometime!” she called after their retreating backs, and Sephiroth hunched.
“You’re too young for me, kid,” Barret shot back over his shoulder, and a series of splerks rippled out across the typing pool. Diana made a little ‘hmph!’ noise and retreated.