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“That’s enough for today.” Sephiroth sheathed Masamune and swept back his hair. The group of Seconds he was training let their swords drop and several collapsed to the ground. He sighed and shook his head, catching a glimpse of some familiar blond spikes as he did so.

Cloud was sitting up on the low wall that surrounded the training field, talking with Zack. He wondered if Cloud needed him for something, but was distracted when Second Class Kunsel approached.

“Sir, I got a hold of those files you wanted. The ones on Project S. They’re flagged for you in the data room.”

“Ah, thank you.”

“Sir, may I speak with you for a second?”

“Cloud, what are you doing?”

Sephiroth turned to see Cloud approaching and Zack chasing after him, looking scandalized. “Just a moment, Cloud,” he said, bringing Zack to a dead stop with his jaw hanging slack. “Thank you, Kunsel. I appreciate you hunting those down for me. I’ll head up to the data room shortly.”

He turned back to Cloud after Kunsel was on his way. “What is it?”

“Sorry for interrupting,” Cloud said, suddenly shy. “It’s just, I heard there’s a mission to Nibelheim coming up and I wanted to ask if you could please put me on it.” Cloud reached into his pocket and handed him a small piece of stiff paper.

Sephiroth stared at the ancient, but clearly well cared for paper. The edges were bent and turning brown, but the markers he had used to colour it hadn’t faded at all. Coupon. Good for one favour. A lightness he hadn’t felt in a long time worked its way to the surface of his emotions and he began to laugh. “I—” He tried to speak, but only laughed harder, recalling the look of overwhelming joy on Cloud’s face when he had given it to him. Cloud had never used it, and Sephiroth had nearly forgotten he’d even made the stupid thing.

Finally getting his laughter under control, Sephiroth pulled himself together. “I can’t believe you still have this.”

“It’s a wrench giving it up,” Cloud grumbled, “but I told you I’d save it for something important, and if monsters are attacking Nibelheim, I’ve got to go help. Please?”

Sephiroth shook his head and handed the coupon back. “I’ve already assigned you to the mission, so you can hang onto that.”

“Really?” Cloud clutched the paper tightly to his chest.

“Really.” Sephiroth reached out to ruffle his hair like he always used to. “I’d rather have someone on the team who knows the area. You’ll be getting your orders tomorrow morning. Now go on, I’m sure you’ve got guard duty or something.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Cloud beamed at him as he tucked the coupon into his wallet, then jogged off.

Sephiroth glanced at Zack, who was still gaping at him. “Stop staring, Zack. And I don’t want to hear a word about it.” He began walking to the main tower, intending to check out the files Kunsel had found for him.

Zack scrambled after him. “Will you at least tell me what the paper was? I’ve never heard you laugh like that.”

Sephiroth smiled. “A coupon.”

“And the deal with Cloud? Do you know him?”

“None of your business.”

***

Sephiroth groaned and rubbed his temples as the truck they were in wound up the mountain road towards Nibelheim. He’d spent the drive continuing to go over the files Kunsel had found, and he just didn’t know what to think anymore. Was he a monster? Something that had been created for the sole purpose of killing? He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer, but something kept him reading file after file.

And now … to be going back to Nibelheim after nearly ten years. Would anyone even remember him? Cloud was the only person he’d stayed in touch with once he’d been sent to Wutai to fight in the war. The letters Cloud had sent, full of stories of random events, pictures and drawings, and even occasional squashed beetles or interesting rocks, had continued unrelenting through the war no matter how short or infrequent the replies Sephiroth sent in return were.

Ironically, now that Cloud had joined Shinra, it had become even harder to stay in contact with his friend. He was the head of SOLDIER now, and it was considered improper to be mingling with the infantrymen. It would be better once Cloud became a SOLDIER, but that thought made Sephiroth worry. Did he want to expose Cloud to an organization as shady as SOLDIER?

He sighed when the truck pulled to a stop and the driver announced that they had arrived.

“Zack, arrange for rooms at the inn for us. We’ll do a short sweep of the town perimeter this afternoon, then begin the mission tomorrow. We won’t need the infantrymen for the sweep.” He looked over at Cloud, who was gathering up his gear. “Permission to visit family and friends, granted.”

“Thank you, sir.” Cloud pulled off his helmet and tucked it under his arm. “Mom’ll be setting a place for you at dinner. Should I tell her …”

Sephiroth blinked in slight surprise, then gave himself a shake. Of course Cloud had told her they were coming. “I’ll be there. Six-thirty?”

Cloud gave him a small smile and nodded. “As usual.” With that, Cloud hopped out of the back of the truck while Sephiroth set about getting himself organized.

“You know Cloud’s mom?” Zack asked, sounding incredulous.

“I spent some time in Nibelheim when I was younger. I didn’t know how to cook, so Shinra paid her to feed me,” he said shortly. It had come as a shock when he had learned that Mrs. Strife had been put on Shinra’s payroll for the summer, but of course it made sense. A young, single mother wouldn’t have been able to suddenly afford to feed a teenage boy, even if she had wanted to out of kindness.

Without another word, Sephiroth shouldered his bag and jumped down, only to come to a dead stop when he stepped around the side of the truck. The town square was crowded with people, and a large banner hung from the water tower.

Welcome home, Cloud and Sephiroth!

He only had a second to stare before someone slammed into his chest and gripped him tightly.

“Welcome back! We’ve missed you!”

Bewildered, Sephiroth brought his arms up and patted the back of whomever was hugging him. “Um …”

The person stepped back and crossed her arms. “Do not tell me you don’t remember me.”

Sephiroth stared for a second at the young woman dressed in a tasseled leather vest and cowboy boots. “Tifa?”

She burst into a smile.

“How the hell was I supposed to recognize you?” he asked, laughing. “You’ve grown up!”

“That’s because you never came back to visit, you jerk!” She gave him a surprisingly firm punch on the arm, then handed him a fistful of wildflowers. “But I forgive you. Cloud told you I’ve been learning martial arts, right? Come see me practice sometime while you’re here.”

“All right.” Sephiroth turned and saw someone else approaching, carrying a baby in his arms. “Ricky?” he asked.

“Just Rick now,” the man said with a smile. “How’ve you been?”

Sephiroth shrugged off the question. “What about you? Who’s this?”

“This is my lovely daughter, Sophie,” he said proudly. “Want to hold her?”

“I …” Sephiroth took a step back. He’d never held a baby before.

“Oh, go on. She’s not that breakable.” Rick placed the baby in his arms before he could protest further, and Sephiroth held her as carefully as he could. She blinked her big brown eyes at him and made a gurgling noise that either sounded happy or like she was going to vomit. “There, you finally get to meet your namesake, Sophie. He didn’t even panic much.”

“Her namesake?”

“Closest we could get, at any rate, without inflicting years of bullying on her. I wanted Sephie, but Sheryl vetoed it.”

“Sheryl’s her mom?”

“Yeah.” Rick smiled as he gently stroked Sophie’s tiny hand. “She works in Rocket Town, but she’ll be home day after tomorrow if you’re going to be here that long. She’d love to see you again.”

Sephiroth nodded slowly, taking in all the people who not only remembered him, seemed genuinely happy to see him again. “I think I can arrange that. What about you?”

“My job is taking care of my little girl.” Rick took Sophie back and bounced her in his arms, making her giggle. “I also do a bit of freelance journalism, putting out the town newsletter and that sort of thing. Speaking of which, I need you guys to pose for a photo at some point. It’s big news when the local legend comes to town.”

“All right, I’ll let the others know.” He jumped when a hand slammed down on his shoulder blades.

“Sephiroth, my boy! I see you've met my granddaughter!”

Sephiroth turned and was grabbed in a tight hug as Ricky laughed. Bob’s beer belly hadn’t gotten any smaller, and Sephiroth struggled to regain his dignity as he caught a glimpse of Zack staring at him. When it became apparent that Bob wasn’t letting go until he had been hugged back, he sighed and wrapped his arms around his back as far as he could reach. He had to admit, he had missed Bob’s hugs.

When he was finally released, Bob held out his hand to shake. “Welcome back, Sephiroth. It’s good to see you again. Now, I’m afraid we had to tear down your place a couple years back, but I turned Rick’s old room into a guest room, so you’ve got that.”

He shook his head, trying to ignore the sting of sadness he felt at knowing his house was gone. “There’s no need, we’ll stay at the inn.”

“Nonsense.” Bob began to lead him towards his house as he spoke. “Alde wanted to have you stay with them, but she’s really got no room with Cloud there as well. I assume you’re going there for dinner?”

“Yes, but I need to do a sweep of the perimeter first.”

“Well, I won’t keep you, then. Just come in and drop off your things first.”

Helpless to do anything else, Sephiroth followed Bob inside, but he paused in the entryway when a framed chunk of wood caught his eye. “What’s this?”

Bob looked over his shoulder. “We couldn’t save the house,” he said. “A bad storm that winter caused the roof to collapse from the weight of the snow. But SOLDIER First Class Sephiroth’s first piece of vandalism? That was worth digging through the rubble for.”

There was no glass on the frame, and Sephiroth ran his fingers over the tally marks and his jagged initial. It was like seeing the coupon again after all those years, and he laughed, feeling that same lightness again. “It’s probably worth something,” he said, “if you sold it to my fan club.”

“Ha! And give it up? I think not. Now go put your things upstairs. You remember your way around, right?”

Sephiroth nodded and went upstairs to the room at the end of the hall, which was lined with family photos. He paused again when he saw several pictures that included him. The bed in Ricky's old room had the same quilted blanket that had been on his bed in the old house. Bob must have been the one who supplied the bedding there. He set his bag down and ran his hands over it, recalling the fort he and Cloud had made with it one stormy afternoon.

"Get lost?" Bob asked and Sephiroth turned back to see him standing in the doorframe.

He shook his head, feeling strange. "Thank you," he said softly. "It feels like … it feels like coming home."

Bob smiled knowingly. "Welcome home, Sephiroth. I missed you."

Sephiroth swallowed uncomfortably and just nodded.

"We weren't sure when you'd be getting in so didn't want to plan anything for today, but tomorrow night we're having a pot luck dinner for you and your men. I'll be barbecuing steaks, so work up an appetite."

He nodded again. "Yes, sir."

"Go on and see to your patrol, then. Don't want to keep Alde's dinner waiting."

"Yes, sir." He paused as he went to open the front door. "Bob, when I get back tonight, can I ask you for some advice?"

"Of course, son. I'll be waiting."

***

Sephiroth was feeling better than he had in a long time by the time he had stuffed himself full of the stew Alde had often made for him over the summer. Sitting with her and Cloud around the table brought back all the memories he had shoved to the side. He had been so happy here. Why had he never come back? He glanced around the small room that served as both the living and dining room, and his eyes fell on the mantle, which held a battered plush mouse that he knew had, at one point, wielded a sword.

"Cloud?" he asked, staring at it.

"Mm hmm?"

"Do you still have those comics?"

Cloud grinned and kicked him under the table. "Wanna read them?"

He laughed and nodded. "I never got to see how it ended."

As usual, Cloud didn't question it. "Start from the beginning or where you left off?"

"From the beginning. I want to refresh my memory."

"Don't you stay up all night reading, young man," Alde said sternly as Cloud pulled down the ladder to the attic.

Sephiroth suppressed a grin. "No, ma'am, of course not." He got up when Cloud shouted for him to help and took the large, heavy box he passed down.

“First half of ‘em. That enough for one night?”

“I certainly hope so. Even I don’t read that fast.”

Cloud grinned and slid down the ladder, then sat on one of the lower rungs. “Are you okay, Seph?”

“Fine,” he started to say, then stopped himself, seeing how concerned Cloud looked. Of course he had noticed something was wrong. “Can you come over to the Lockheart’s after dinner? I know you probably want to catch up with your mom, but there’re some things I want to get off my chest and—”

“Sure,” Cloud said easily. “Don’t worry, if we’re staying long enough for you to read all of these, mom’ll have plenty of time to nag me about girlfriends.”

“Thanks.”

They left the Strife's house with the box of comics carried between them, and Bob chuckled when he opened the door.

"Found something to occupy your downtime?" he asked.

"Thought I'd catch up where no one's going to scold me for reading junk."

"Junk!" Bob scoffed as he took the box so they could get their boots off. "Clearly the opinion of a person who wouldn't know fun if it smacked them in the face."

"You're not wrong about that."

"Joining us for a bit of a chat, Cloud?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. I've got the fire going, so how about we have a night cap and you can tell us what's on your mind. Let’s just keep our voices down; Tifa’s already sleeping. Master Zangan has her up at the crack of dawn every day.”

It was undignified, he knew, for someone in his position to curl up on the couch in borrowed flannel pyjamas, wrapped in a fuzzy blanket and sipping hot chocolate. The splash of whiskey Bob had added to the drink made him feel a bit less childish, but not much. It was nice, though, and the longer he sat there, the clearer his thoughts grew. Bob and Cloud sat patiently, sipping their own hot chocolate while they waited for him to speak.

"I don't know what to do," he finally said. "Everything … everything I thought I was … I don't think I am."

"What did you think you were?" Bob asked.

"A hero. Someone special." He glanced over at the box that held the stories filled with characters he had imagined he would be like.

"And what makes you think that you're not?"

Sephiroth took a deep breath. "It … it started with Wutai. They said it was for their own good. That we were helping the people there by bringing them mako power. It would make their lives better. But …"

"They didn't want your help," Bob said without any accusation in his tone.

"I just followed my orders. The people we were helping called me the Demon of Wutai or the Nightmare. Everyone said it was good. Names like that showed how powerful I was. That the project was a success." He gripped his mug tightly and stared at the air bubbles that floated on the surface. "It was so hard to come up with things to tell Cloud in my letters. I knew you’d be so disappointed in me if you knew what I was really doing. That’s why I didn’t send many. I’m so sorry."

Bob's thick hand closed over his and squeezed tightly. "Go on, it's good to get these feelings out." Cloud didn’t say anything, but snuggled up against him in his own blanket like he always used to when they read together.

"I went back to Midgar a hero. It was like they had always said: I was the best. They threw a fucking parade in my honour. Everyone wanted to be around me. My bed had a constant flow of traffic through it. Anything I wanted, I could get. And it was all lies. I was no hero. I'd just slaughtered a bunch of innocent people and helped a corporation take over their land. I hated myself."

He sighed and took a sip of his hot chocolate. He couldn't bring himself to look at either of them, but the hand on his hadn't so much as twitched, not even at the mention of his endless parade of one-night-stands, and Cloud just made a soft humming noise, showing he was listening.

"When things died down a bit, it got easier. My missions were mostly around Midgar, fighting the never-ending supply of monsters. That felt better. I was protecting people. I wasn't ashamed to tell Cloud about stuff like that. When you started telling me about your plans to join SOLDIER, I was happy. I—" Sephiroth laughed at the image he conjured up. "I imagined we'd be like Saxon and Kenzie, from the comics, like we used to pretend."

Bob chuckled. "Cloud wouldn't let anyone else play Saxon after you left."

“Of course not!” Cloud said indignantly. “That was your role.”

He smiled briefly, thinking of all the fun they’d had pretending to be the two warrior mice who were the best of friends. The smile slipped from his face quickly, however. "Lately … things have been getting worse again. I keep getting sent to deal with anti-Shinra groups. Killing people whose only crime is not wanting to live under Shinra's thumb. And I do it because that's what my purpose is. I follow orders and I kill the things I'm told to kill. I don't want you to turn into someone like me. Even the monsters, yeah, I protect people from them, but only when I'm ordered to. And … people have been investigating, though it doesn't take a genius to figure out. They're increasing because of mako. The ones here, even, I'm certain are because of a problem at the old reactor. And—" Sephiroth choked, wanting to curl up in a ball on the couch and hide from the world like a baby.

"And?" Bob asked gently.

"I've been doing research of my own lately. Into my past and where I came from. I … I don't think I'm human. I think I'm just a monster that Hojo made. That's why I'm able to do all those awful things."

Part of him expected both Bob and Cloud to recoil in horror, and he was eternally grateful that they didn’t, but they didn’t say anything, either and the room fell silent except for the crackling of the fire.

“Did Colonel Taisha ever tell you how we met?” Bob eventually asked.

“No.”

“It was in the first Wutaian war, before your time, when Shinra was just starting to expand. Ger and I were soldiers and fought together over there. Shinra kept a tight lid on its propaganda the second time around, but let me tell you, I have no difficulty imagining what you did because we did it too. War … war makes monsters out of everyone. We … I did absolutely unforgivable things, and like you, we came back heroes. We didn’t even win the damn war.”

“I didn’t know you were a soldier, Mr. Lockheart,” Cloud said softly.

“It’s not something I brag about. I ran away to Nibelheim. Tried to forget and maybe earn back a bit of my humanity by making this town a better place. I like to think I did not badly. Ger was braver than me and stuck it out. I think that decision weighed on him sometimes, but I know he was glad he did.”

“Why?” Sephiroth asked.

“Because he had the opportunity to ship some young punk off to the ass end of nowhere for a couple months so he could learn a little bit about being a person instead of the mindless weapon Shinra was trying to turn him into.”

“Huh?”

Cloud burst out laughing and set his hot chocolate aside before punching him on the arm. “Ya punk!”

“It didn’t work, though,” Sephiroth protested.

“Didn’t it? Because I just heard a very heartfelt confession from that very same young punk who hated what he had to do to fulfill his orders. Like I said, Sephiroth, we all do awful things in war. The awful people are the ones who don’t care, and you did. Cloud shared your letters with us. He was too young to understand what you weren’t saying in them, but I saw how much you were hurting.”

“You’re not a monster, Seph.” Cloud squeezed his hand tightly. “It doesn’t matter if Hojo cooked you up in a vat or if you were one of two point five children with a mom and a dad and a dog named Rover. You’re my best friend. You always have been.”

He finally looked at Cloud and caught his eyes. Cloud had lost a lot of his childhood innocence, but he was still so honest. “You really think that?”

“Think? I know it. There’s no way a monster would have put up with me bothering them every day for two months without turning to murder. Not only did you put up with it, you wore a party hat. You say you’re sorry you didn’t send many letters, but you sent them. I may have been too young to read between the lines, like Mr. Lockheart said, but I understood that you cared about me. Those letters got me through some of the hardest times I had growing up.”

Sephiroth found himself blinking rapidly to stave off the tears that were threatening to fall, and he leaned over to hug Cloud. “Yours did too. Thank you.”

“Sephiroth, have you considered leaving Shinra?” Bob asked after a few minutes.

“I … I’ve thought about it, but I can’t just leave.”

“Can’t you? You’ve given them twenty-five years of your life. I think that’s plenty to devote to a job you didn’t sign up for.”

“And it’s making you miserable,” Cloud said.

“But you—”

Cloud shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I can serve out my contract as an infantryman if you don’t think SOLDIER is going to be what I hoped. I’ve got less than a year left, then I can find something else to do.”

“Just like that?”

“Oh, c’mon, I’m sixteen. It’s hardly too late for a career change. You’re not exactly yesterday’s news, either.”

“I don’t know what I’d do, though. I’ve never even thought about doing something else.”

Bob clasped his hands together and hummed thoughtfully. “Why don’t you come back here for a while? I’ve got the room here you can stay in until we can sort out rebuilding your old place. You can take some time to do a bit of soul-searching and see what strikes your fancy. In the meantime, there are plenty of towns around here that have monster issues that Shinra will never bother with. You said you liked protecting people, so why not hire yourself out as a mercenary? They wouldn’t be able to pay you much, but you’d be doing good work and you could make enough to get by.”

“I … I could help with other things too,” Sephiroth said slowly as his thoughts churned. “Like the road …”

“Now you’re thinking.” Bob clasped his shoulder. “You’re a good kid, Sephiroth, and you deserve to be happy. So think it over tonight, then take the plunge if you think you’re up for a challenge.”

“Okay. I suppose that involves going to bed at some point.” It was getting late and they needed to be up early tomorrow to go to the reactor. He wasn’t quite ready to move yet, however.

“Can I sleep over tonight?” Cloud asked as if reading his mind and understanding that he didn’t want to be alone.

Bob chuckled and nodded. “As long as you two don’t mind sharing the bed. Give your mom a call so she doesn’t worry, and I’ll find a spare toothbrush.”

Sephiroth couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of leaving Shinra as he and Cloud brushed their teeth and quietly crept past Tifa’s room. Could he really do it? Would they even let him? Surely they couldn’t stop him. He wasn’t a slave.

“I can’t believe Ricky has a kid,” Cloud said as he crawled into the bed.

“No kidding.”

“And you’ve had sex with like a million people. Sure you don’t have one too?”

Sephiroth laughed half-heartedly, but rolled away. “I’m sure. It … made me feel less empty, even if just for a bit.”

He gave a start when Cloud’s chest pressed up against his back and an arm wrapped around him. “Not wanting to feel empty is a very human thing. Even if it’s just temporary, or just physical, everyone wants to feel like they’re not alone. You’re not alone.”

He reached up and clasped his hand over Cloud’s, holding it tightly to his chest. “Thanks, Cloud.”

He hadn’t expected to be able to sleep, but the next thing he knew, the sun was shining and Bob was knocking on the door. Cloud was still cuddled up firmly behind him, and he gave Sephiroth another tight squeeze before sitting up and rubbing his eyes blearily.

“Morning, sleepyheads,” Bob said, laughing. “That bouncy SOLDIER, Zack, was in a bit of a tizzy about your plans for the day, so I invited him and the other fellow over for breakfast. They’re waiting, so come on down.”

“How did you sleep?” Cloud asked as they stumbled out of bed and found some slippers to wear.

“Better than I have in a very long time,” he answered honestly.

Bob was setting out huge stacks of waffles on the table as they entered the dining room. “Go on, eat while they’re hot,” he said to the two who were already seated.

“Thanks, sir, you didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” Zack said as he loaded one up and grabbed some bacon.

“It’s no trouble. My daughter never lets me cook waffles for her anymore—too unhealthy.” Bob patted his stomach and laughed. “But me? I love an excuse to have a morning feast.”

“So about today, Sephiroth,” Zack said around a mouthful of food, “I was talking to Bob’s daughter earlier, and she’s going to show us the route to the reactor. She said it’ll take about two hours each way, so we should probably get going soonish.”

Sephiroth felt Zack’s eyes on him and the flannel pyjamas he was still wearing. The infantryman would have a story to tell when he got back, that was for sure. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to will away the headache he felt coming on. “Sure.”

“Do you need to come?” Cloud asked. “I mean, I’m sure the three of us can handle the monsters on the way, and if we can’t figure out the problem at the reactor, we could call and have you walk us through it.”

Sephiroth laughed. For whatever reason, the idea of not going to the reactor sounded like the best idea he had ever heard. “I haven’t quit yet, Cloud,” he said reluctantly.

“No, but you’re entitled to a personal day.”

“A personal day?”

“The fact that you asked that says you need one. We can handle it, right, Zack?”

“Um, yeah, no problem.” Zack sounded confused, but not annoyed. “You feeling okay, Sephiroth?”

“Yes and no,” he answered after a moment’s thought. “If you think you’re up to it, I would very much appreciate a … personal day.”

“Of course.”

“I’ll keep my PHS on and with me, so if you run into any trouble, call. And if it seems too dangerous, just turn back and we’ll all go tomorrow.”

Cloud gripped his hand and smiled. “We’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”

The waffles disappeared quickly and Zack, with his newfound authority, had the infantrymen out the door and heading north with surprising speed. “Want to get back in time for that barbecue!” he shouted over his shoulder as they left.

“We won’t start without you,” Bob shouted back.

Sephiroth helped Bob with the breakfast dishes, then showered and dressed before going to the Strife’s to apologize for stealing her son on his first night back. Alde just laughed and invited him in for tea before setting him to work peeling potatoes for the pot luck. A veritable mountain of potatoes and a long talk later, she fed him lunch and sent him off with her thanks for the help. He found Rick and Sophie in the small park and spent some time with them, marvelling at how much work babies were.

He wandered up to where his house had been. The old shed was still standing, but nothing remained of the main structure. Staring at the empty lot, he didn’t feel sad like he expected. Instead, he began to consider the possibility of building a new house on it, like Bob had mentioned. He had some money saved and could probably afford it. He’d plant sunflowers again, he decided. And he would put in a second bedroom so Cloud would have a place to stay as well if he wanted.

When he returned to town, he curled up on a chair on the porch at Bob’s and opened up the first issue. There was a large stack beside him when his PHS rang, showing Cloud’s name on the caller ID.

“Everything okay?” he asked when he picked up.

“All sorted, not to worry. I just wanted to let you know that we’re about an hour out and starving to death. Can you tell Mr. Lockheart so he can fire up the barbecue?”

“Sure.”

“Are you having a good day?”

Sephiroth smiled and nodded. “I am, thanks for suggesting I stay behind.”

“You know me, I’ve got no problem telling you what to do. Zack’s been grilling me and Tifa all day about what you were like as a teenager though. I think he’s going to demand to see pictures.”

“Oh dear,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll be sure to hide them before you get back. Be careful, okay?”

“We will. See you later.”

***

“I do a good job peeling potatoes,” Sephiroth commented as he scraped the last bit of mashed potatoes out of the bowl with his finger. It was late and the party had wound down a while ago. It had been nice seeing everyone again, and now, sitting around the fire with just Zack and Cloud … he felt happy.

“Yeah,” Cloud agreed. “I like it when there’s bits of skin left.”

He chuckled at Cloud’s teasing and set the bowl aside. “I’ve come to a decision.”

“Oh?” Both Cloud and Zack sat up eagerly.

“We’re going to clear out the remaining monsters here over the next couple of days. With the leak at the reactor taken care of, they should go back to a normal level soon. I’m going to go back to Midgar with you guys, but only to pack up my things and hand in my resignation.”

“Good for you,” Cloud said. “Going to come back here after?”

He nodded. “I’ll take Bob up on his offer of a place to stay. Your mom offered too, but I don’t want to burden her. She’s going to teach me how to cook, though. More than the survival cooking I manage now.”

“You’re really going to leave Shinra?” Zack asked.

“Yes, it’s time. I’m done following their orders. So you’ll have to take my place. Make sure the new SOLDIERs know what being a hero is about.”

“What about you, Cloud?”

“I’ll think about it,” he said softly, looking up at the sky, “but I’ll probably leave too. Hey, the aurora’s out.”

Sephiroth leaned back in his seat and stared upwards, feeling the same awe he had when Cloud dragged him up that rock the first night. “It’s good to be home.”