"Sephiroth, I know I've told you not to joke in the past-"
"Yes. You said I was terrible at it."
Genesis swallows, gripping the dossier in his hand just a little too tight. "Just this once, I want you to tell me that this is a joke. Tell me this is made up to get a rise out of me, or better, tell me it was Angeal's idea. At least then, it might actually be believable."
"No, and unfortunately, no."
Angeal manages a snort, but the humor is lost on all three of them. They sit in Angeal's office, the curtains drawn and door closed. President Shinra himself just handed them their newest mission.
"We're SOLDIERs. This is not what we were made for." Genesis growls the words; clearly, they personally offended him.
With a heavy sigh, Angeal checks the signatures at the bottom of his copy.
"Forgeries?" Genesis says hopefully.
"No. I'd recognize that loop in Lazard's z anywhere." The black-haired SOLDIER rubs his forehead, tossing the file onto the table and rubbing his face with both hands. "I can't believe he signed off on this. This was so not a call I was hoping to make to my mother. The worst part is, she'll be thrilled."
Genesis glances at Sephiroth, who appears suitably horrified himself. Lucrecia, the head of Science and his own mother, would also be pleased. Sephiroth sometimes wonders if she wasn't always the head of science, has nightmares about someone named Hojo, but he's never found one on file. Maybe he could speak to his father and have the scarlet-eyed Turk do some digging. He loves them to death, but like hell did he think this was ever going to happen.
"I rather think mine would be mortified." Genesis murmurs, too stunned to even quote Loveless in the face of their situation.
"Orders are orders." Sephiroth answers, but the words are empty.
Genesis catches it, of course. "Like hell. We've ignored orders before without repercussions. Why is this one any different? Why the hell are we entertaining this?"
"Because it came directly from the president."
"Public relations." The redhead sneers. "He's never cared before. What changed?"
Angeal stands, slinging his Buster over his shoulder and squaring his shoulders like a soldier about to walk into battle. They may as well be. "He's not going to let us refuse, short of resigning, so...." He takes a deep breath. "Let's go below the plate, find the orphanage in the dossier, a-and.... And adopt a child."
Forty minutes stand between them and the orphanage. A short walk, a train ride, and a slightly longer walk later, they peer dubiously at the dilapidated building ahead.
"I'll be speaking to Reeve about better funding." Angeal mumbles.
Genesis, thankfully, has gotten over his seething and whining, but he looks absolutely affronted being here at all. Sephiroth rubs nervously at the edge of his bangle. Children play out front, all turning at one point or another to stare but eventually going back to their games.
"Let's get this over with." Angeal says.
Sephiroth clenches his jaw and follows Angeal into the belly of the beast. They step up to the front desk, encountering a motherly-looking woman with dark skin and a pink pair of glasses. Her hair is a shocking color of red, pulled back into a neat bun expertly despite its obvious buoyance. Her nametag identifies her as Leyla.
"Good afternoon, ma'am."
The woman glances up, expertly containing her momentary shock at seeing all three of Shinra's First Class SOLDIERs standing at her desk. "Afternoon." Her accent sounds familiar, but Sephiroth can't place it. "Something I can help you three with?"
Sephiroth tries not to flinch when the sound of a rambunctious child's caterwauling echoes down the hallway.
"Yes. We're here on a bit of a mission." Angeal starts. He certainly sounds steadier than Genesis feels. "As such, I'd like a copy of all the files you have on the children staying at the orphanage. My associates are going to help me go through them to find what we're looking for."
The woman frowns. "You don't think one of them did something wrong, do you?"
"Of course not, ma'am. Just something we're working on. If you have an office or a meeting room that's free for us to use, we could go through them there."
"Only free room we've got is the lunch room." Leyla opens a drawer on her left, pulling out a stack of files. "You're welcome to it. Lunch was an hour ago, so it should be clear for the next few hours. Don't be surprised if one or two of them pop in to see what all the fuss is about. And make sure you don't have anything you want to keep within easy reach. Sticky fingers, and all that."
Genesis lifts an unimpressed brow as he takes the stack of files. Leyla leads them to the lunch room and leaves them to their devices. Three colorful tables fill the majority of the room. Sephiroth sits down at the blue one without preamble, Genesis and Angeal following close behind.
"Looks like...." Genesis carefully leafs through the files. "Thirty-three. Each take eleven, and we'll narrow things down from there."
Sephiroth takes his stack of eleven and opens the first jacket. The file looks remarkably well-kept considering the state of the building itself. He half-expected the information to be years out of date.
Sinclair, "Reno" Reynard. 15.
His profile is accompanied by a picture of a scruffy redhead. Sephiroth traces the line of the boy's cheek with a frown. The tattoos have a story behind them, and judging by the feral smirk on his face, not a friendly one. He's going to age out of the orphanage in the next year. By Midgar standards, 16 is an adult. Sephiroth is barely twenty himself. It's a wonder Reno stayed this long. Most slums children disappear into gangs before their voices break.
Maybe he had.
His file details a couple of petty thefts, and one assault charge that was dropped due to self-defense. His father died of unknown circumstances when he was five – suspected of abuse, neglect, or both. His mother died in childbirth. Reno disappears from time to time, sometimes weeks, but no one cares if slum children go missing. The orphanage isn't made to track people down. Sephiroth tamps down on the unease the thought sends through him.
Not this one, but....
He pulls out his PHS, snapping a picture of the profile and sending it to the department head of Administrative Research. Veld is always on the lookout for recruits, and this boy will need a place to go soon. Who knows what else he'd be escaping? Who knows what kinds of things he's been forced to do for his own survival?
"Potential already?" Angeal asks.
"No. Not for us, anyway."
Genesis huffs out a laugh. "Recruiting for the other departments, are we? How generous of you. I suppose it couldn't hurt to keep a pile of prospective candidates for the Turks while we're at it."
Angeal hardly looks up, his brow furrowed.
"What is it?"
The sable-haired SOLDIER sighs. "This one.... She's from Nibelheim. Mother died when she was nine and her father died when a fire burnt the town down. Survivors relocated temporarily while it was being rebuilt. Nowhere to go back to. According to her file, she has some behavioral issues."
Nibelheim is quite the distance from Midgar, halfway around the world. It would've more made for sense for them to end up in Corel or even Wutai.
"Watcha up to?"
Sephiroth's eyes snap to the doorway where a bright-eyed black-haired child peers at them. His hair is pushed back into spikes, although one shock stubbornly refuses to stay put. He doesn't seem to mind.
"Why don't you come see for yourself?" Angeal answers, rapping his knuckles against the seat next to his.
Genesis shoots him a glare bordering on scathing.
The boy grins, bouncing over to Angeal's side of the table and plopping himself into the offered chair. "My name's Zack." He leans up on the table. "An' that's Tifa."
"Oh? Do you know who we are?"
Zack grins, adorable and boyish. "Everyone knows who you are, mister. Hard to miss First Class SOLDIERs."
"Can you find us your file?" Angeal asks.
"Sure." He enthusiastically pulls Angeal's group towards him. He peeks at the bottom file and thumbs through the stack. "A, B, C, D, E, F, me. Here you go, Mister Hewley. Got somethin' real important you need to find?"
"Nothing really. Why don't you tell me about yourself while I read, Zack?"
Sephiroth holds back a smile when he spots the look on his friend's face. Genesis rolls his eyes, closing his second file and folding his hands pleasantly on top of it. Angeal already fell for Zack with just that little song, whether he knows it or not. Sephiroth reads upside-down when the black-haired man opens Zack's file.
Zack Fair. 7. Gongaga native whose parents were killed in the reactor explosion before the conversation to solar energy. He lived with his aunt here in Midgar until she was killed below the plate.
Discontent curls through Sephiroth.
How much has he taken his own parents for granted? He's always been safe and loved, and yet here, just in this single building, there are thirty-three children who lost the only security they'd ever known. Perhaps not all of their parents were nurturing, and they might be better off, but the ones like Zack? Sephiroth would bet every gil of his next paycheck the boy's parents loved him.
He sees slum children running around on nearly every patrol here. How many of them came back to a place like this? How many didn't have a place to go at all?
Sephiroth swallows down both the thought and bile, resolving to have a word with Reeve when this endeavor is over.
And maybe hug his mother.
Angeal chats with Zack for a half-hour, pushing the limits of Genesis's patience. The fiery First smirks when his childhood friend glances at him. "My soul, corrupted by vengeance, hath endured torment to find the end of the journey in my own salvation, and your eternal slumber. Angeal, I do believe we have what we came here for. Don't you?"
Zack pouts. "Oh. You gotta go now?"
"Don't worry, Zack. You don't have to think about us going too far, considering you're coming with."
"Y-You mean, you came here for me? Did I do somethin'?"
Sephiroth chuckles, pushing himself up and reorganizing the files. Despite the reason for their being here, he's starting to warm up to the idea. "No, you haven't done anything wrong. We're going to be adopting you, and you'll be coming with us to Shinra tower."
"Yes. For real." Sephiroth answers, offering the boy a hand.
He doesn't expect Zack to round the table in a hurry and hug him around the middle. Most people would never dare touch him without permission, even going so far as to avoid him, but clearly, Zack is a different breed.
Zack doesn't care much about titles and the barriers they supposedly create.
Leyla is suitably flabbergasted when Angeal tells her they wish to fill out the paperwork for adopting Zack. It takes a couple of calls, and a whole heap of papers, but in a significant show of expedience, it's finalized within the hour. Having the president's backing really does push things along.
They return to the tower with Zack's single suitcase of belongings. Each of their apartments is outfitted with a guest bedroom, but Sephiroth and Genesis know better than to think theirs will be put to use.
Genesis hopes Zack's appearance will be enough to appease the president.
Requisitions officers somehow manage a foreign level of competence the entire two days they spend getting Zack situated. He survives the onslaught of press and an introduction to the board.
And on the third day?
On the third day, all hell breaks loose.
Dear Minerva, Sephiroth doubts he'll hear the end of Zack's crying because he'll be deaf. Stubborn and recalcitrant and outraged beyond measure, he's practically screamed about wanting a cloud. Taking him outside proved to be a mistake, because Zack doesn't want a cloud from the sky. The question is how the hell they're supposed to find a cloud in the slums.
Zack is inconsolable for another two days after that, barely making sense at all.
Angeal holds him on the couch now, the boy wrapped around his chest and sobbing for all he's worth. He always drinks when Angeal offers him water, which is the only reason he hasn't developed a fever of epic proportions. Another hour, and the child is passed out on his chest. Sweet, sweet, blissful silence.
Angeal hasn't slept. None of them really have.
"Oh, goddess." Genesis says, words low.
The redheaded thespian sits up in his chair. "What if we're being too literal? He keeps asking for 'cloud.' Not a cloud. Not clouds with an s. Just 'cloud.' As in, that's someone's name."
Angeal's mouth opens, shuts, and opens again. He looks at Genesis.
"Don't you even think about it."
"Gen, we have to. Zack won't stop crying. If having Cloud here stabilizes him, then that's what we have to do. It's too late to go backwards. He isn't something we picked up at a store and realized we didn't want. He's a person. All we can do is what's best for him."
Genesis agrees with minimal grumbling.
Only one problem.
"Leyla, what do you mean Cloud is gone?"
"He ran off the day Zack was adopted. Those two were pretty much inseparable, and I'm surprised he wasn't with you the day you met Zack. I had a couple of the kids looking out for him, but I haven't heard anything. The watch is supposed to be keeping an eye out, too."
Angeal hefts Zack where the boy is still sleeping on his shoulder. He finally wore himself out enough to sleep for more than five minutes, thank Minerva.
Genesis glares at the file with enough ire to burn both it and the building. "He's five. How far could he have gotten?"
"Plenty far, Commander." Leyla answers.
Sephiroth snaps a picture of the boy's image, checks around the boy's room, and thanks the poor woman lightly encouraging Genesis and Angeal to leave. Once outside, he steels himself against the dreadful smell of the slums and opens his mouth to scent for the child.
The silver-haired First shoots Genesis a look for interrupting his concentration before following Cloud's scent all the way from sector two to sector five. Sephiroth peers up at the face of the sturdy church standing before them. Even from outside, he smells flowers, which is ridiculous. Flowers don't grow in the slums. At least, none do that he's ever seen. Though, another familiar scent, like the lifestream itself, drifts around the room. He's met the person that scent belongs to, but he can't place it.
Frowning, he steps inside, leaving his entourage behind just in case Zack wakes up. "Cloud?"
In the far side of the church, a small figure turns over. A blond head snaps up and bright blue eyes stare unabashedly at the Silver General himself. "General Sephiroth?"
"Yes. We've been looking for you."
"Genesis, Angeal, Zack, and myself. Your disappearance caused us no small inconvenience." Sephiroth offers his hand when the child stares at him. "If you'd do me the courtesy and favor of coming with me now, you'll save us all a lot of headache."
Cloud creeps closer, eyeing Sephiroth's hand as though he can't quite believe it's real. Yeah, there's a bit of hero worship there, but Sephiroth doesn't mind. The child hasn't started gaping like a fish.
"Your friend is waiting."
And this is how three First Class SOLDIERs accidentally started and apprentice program through the orphanage, courtesy of President Rufus Shinra.