He was deliberately being slow, he knew, but Sephiroth couldn’t make himself go any faster as he walked through the house, checking for any forgotten items. He was going to miss this place. It had become his home over the past two months, and though it certainly surprised him, he was reluctant to leave. He paused by the bed and looked at the notches he had made on the wall. When had it changed from counting down the remaining days he had to suffer through to a nightly reminder that his time was running out? He pulled out his knife and carved a final slash across the last four lines, then, on impulse, signed it with a jagged S.
“You’re really going?” a small voice asked from the doorway.
Sephiroth turned from the wall and nodded to Cloud. “Yeah, I am. I have to.”
Cloud sniffled and came a few paces closer. “I don’t want you to.”
“I don’t really want to either. I thought I would.” Sephiroth sat down on the bare bed and patted the spot next to him. When Cloud sat down, he wrapped an arm around his shoulders and let him lean against him. “I hated that they sent me here. I couldn’t wait to be able to go back to Midgar. But now … I don’t want to go.”
“Can’t you stay?”
“No, they won’t let me. Honestly, now that I think about it, I don’t know how Colonel Taisha convinced them to let me come here for so long.”
“Shinra. The company I work for.”
“Working doesn’t sound like very much fun.”
“I don't usually mind being a SOLDIER, but there's parts of it I don't like, especially now that I know what it's like away from the company. But you know, even though I’m going to miss you and everyone else here, I’m glad I came. It wasn’t long enough, but getting to meet you and Mayor Lockheart and Tifa and Ricky and your mom … you guys made my life so much better. Thank you.”
“We made your life better?” Cloud blinked up at him.
“Especially you. You know I never knew how to catch frogs or skip stones? I didn’t know what a treehouse was or why we might want one. And I didn’t know how cool it was to watch a butterfly come out of its cocoon. Or what to do when the floor is lava. Or how much fun it is to explore an alien planet with my friend.” Sephiroth paused and looked down at Cloud before hugging him tightly. “I didn’t even know what it was like to have a friend. So thank you.”
“Will I still be your friend? Even after you leave?”
“You’d better be. I’m going to write to you as soon as I get back and I want a reply.”
Cloud grinned and nodded. “I’m going to write a letter as soon as you leave.”
“Deal,” Sephiroth said with a smile. “No matter what, don’t forget that you’re my best friend, and I’m yours. We’ll write letters, and we’ll see each other again, I know it.”
He cut one of the now massive sunflowers to take back as a gift for Colonel Taisha, then Cloud rode on his shoulders for his final walk down to the village. He could see the waiting truck from quite a distance, and his footsteps grew slower and slower the closer he got.
"You're starting grade two soon, right?" Sephiroth asked. He knew the answer, but Cloud was excited for it and he wanted to give him something happy to think about as a distraction.
"Yeah! I'm gonna get real good at reading and writing, just you wait!"
"Good. School's really important, so work hard."
"I will. Hey, everyone's over by the water tower. Do you think they're waiting for us?"
Sephiroth sighed unhappily. "Yeah, I think they might be."
It looked like the entire town had turned out to say goodbye, and Sephiroth's chest felt strangely tight as he approached. A fairly new Turk—Sephiroth remembered his name was Tseng—was leaning against the big truck that had his stuff piled in the back.
"I was told you'd be chomping at the bit to get back to Midgar," he said, "and here I've been kept waiting nearly an hour for you to show up. Are you ready to go?"
Sephiroth glared, wondering who had said that about him. He was certain it wouldn't have been Colonel Taisha. He must have heard from Bob that he had enjoyed his summer. "Not yet. I need to say goodbye to everyone first."
Tseng grumbled angrily. "Well, hurry up."
Sephiroth patted Cloud's knees. "Hey, do me a favour. Distract this grump so I can say goodbye to everyone properly." He lifted Cloud down off his shoulders and the boy gave him a wicked grin before turning to Tseng.
"Hey! What's your name? Come look at the dinosaur park Sephiroth and I made!"
He laughed as Cloud managed to drag Tseng off, despite his protests. Sephiroth was glad to see that he wasn't the only one who wasn't able to resist the bizarre force of nature that was Cloud. He turned to the waiting group of people and smiled. "Thank you, everyone, for making me a part of your lives. I'm sure I didn't deserve half the patience you showed me, but I hope you know that I appreciate it."
Bob was blinking back tears as he clapped him on the shoulder and then pulled him in for a tight hug. "You deserved every bit of it and more. You're a good kid, Sephiroth, and don't you forget it. We're going to miss you."
"None more than Cloud," Mrs. Strife said softly. "Thank you for everything you did for him."
"I didn't …"
"You did," she insisted. "More than you'll ever know."
"Thank you for keeping me fed all summer."
She laughed and shook her head. "It was my pleasure."
The goodbyes took both forever and not long enough. But when Cloud reappeared with Tseng, who now had dirt on his hands and the knees of his suit and a few twigs in his hair, Sephiroth stepped towards the truck, holding the flowers Tifa had given him in addition to the sunflower.
"Thank you, I hope I'll be able to see you all again soon." He turned to Cloud and held out his arms. Cloud took one look and burst into tears as he ran towards him, and Sephiroth gathered him into a hug. "Goodbye, Cloud. Don't cause your mom too much trouble, okay?"
Cloud nodded and said something, but it was incomprehensible through the tears.
"And remember that I think you're brave and smart and really cool, so you don't have anything to prove to anyone else. And if anyone gives you shit, tell them to take it up with me."
"You're not supposed to say 'shit'."
Sephiroth laughed and ruffled Cloud's hair before setting him down. "Neither are you. Don't forget to write to me, okay?"
Cloud gave a loud sniffle and nodded with determination as he wiped his eyes. "You too."