He is strapped down to Hojo's lab table again, the straps chafing his chest with every breath, but this time something is different: the wolf stands over him, growling into the dark.
"Zack?" he asks.
The growl halts. Zack lowers his muzzle, noses at his chin and licks his cheek. You'll be fine now, I'm here - the message is as clear as if he'd spoken aloud. Sephiroth relaxes, even as his skin tingles with the knowledge that Zack wasn't growling at nothing.
"He's still here, isn't he?" Sephiroth whispers. "Hojo."
Zack starts growling again, crouching over Sephiroth in clear possessiveness. Sephiroth focuses on the brindle of Zack's fur, not letting his gaze drift aside for fear he'll catch a glimpse of round-rimmed glasses reflecting green from a Mako syringe.If I don't look, he's not there. It's a child's logic, and Sephiroth hasn't been a child since Professor Gast disappeared - but as Zack lies down over him, his warning rumbling through Sephiroth's bones, he clings to that fragile hope of safety.
Sephiroth slept well into midmorning and woke feeling far more prepared to deal with the world. Overnight a bank of storm clouds had swept in from the sea, and the sky was heavy and dark with them. Sephiroth's first thought was for Gleipnir - he was cooped up in the travel stables attached to Edge's airship dock now, and he needed to be exercised. They'd better do that before the storm broke.
Tifa's bar was within sight, a little over two blocks away, but leaving the church without an express order felt wrong. Sephiroth stuffed his hair under his hat and jacket, told himself he was being ridiculous, and pushed the door open.
The hissed voices reached him only three steps away from the church. "Look - there he is! That has to be him!"
"Get a picture, quick-"
Even in whispers, the mounting excitement in those voices tugged at a thread of memory. Celebrity spotters. He quickened his pace. Whether they were fans or detractors of the Silver General, their presence was unwelcome, and Sephiroth had no intention of leading them straight to Tifa. He turned abruptly, striding down a side street chosen completely at random, shoulders hunched and posture bent to try to make himself look smaller than he was. Sometimes - not always - that had worked, back in Midgar.
The side street led him into a long stretch of houses, the shabby patchwork kind that had either survived Meteorfall or had been reconstructed from the resultant detritus, and Sephiroth hurried to find his way out of it, knowing that a stranger walking quickly would attract more attention here than anywhere else.
"Where do you think he's headed?"
"I can't tell, maybe he's just taking a walk."
"Pfft, people like him don't just 'take a walk,' man."
The whispering voices refused to fade, and Sephiroth couldn't help but think their owners very bold, following him down a street that offered few places to hide. He didn't dare turn his head to confront them, though, so perhaps their strategy was the right one. He chose another random street and this time was rewarded with the sight of a busy open-air market.
Even with his face half-obscured by his jacket and hat, people tended to get out of Sephiroth's way when they saw him coming. It was depressingly impossible to lose himself in the crowd like an ordinary person, and the celebrity-chasers' voices had disappeared into the chatter of the market like raindrops into a lake. Sephiroth stepped under the awning of a coffee shop to take advantage of the shade and catch his breath, and also to observe the crowd.
The crowd was much like every other crowd he'd ever been on the fringes of while not dressed in his Shinra-issue leathers. He wasn't ignored - a small child did a double-take when she spotted him, her mouth agape, before being tugged away by her caretaker - but no 'Demon of Wutai' or 'Great Sephiroth' reached his ears, and customers coming in and out of the coffee shop allowed him to loiter there without challenging him. A girl in an apron bussed the pair of outdoor tables with nothing more than a nervous smile in his direction. A group of teenagers clustered across the street between a junk tent and a leatherworker's stall, alternately obscured and revealed by the passing crowd. As he regarded them, one of them looked straight at him, startled, and turned away swiftly, his hands fluttering in abortive little birdlike gestures. The energy of the small group increased instantly, the other three boys unable to resist stealing glimpses of their own at him.
Time to go. Chagrined by how easily his pursuers had kept up with him, Sephiroth straightened casually and made his way into the coffee shop. At least I know their faces now. "Excuse me," he asked the nearest employee, "do you have a public restroom?"
"Uh, yeah, right back there."
"Thank you." Sephiroth headed for the door the young man indicated. It was a single-occupant room, cramped but clean, and to his relief there was a window set high over the commode. Sephiroth tried to gently encourage the lock to give way for him, but after a moment's frustrated rattling the lock broke in his hands. Gentleness continued to elude him.
But never mind - this was his way out. He pushed the window open and wormed his way out, ascending to the coffee shop's roof rather than risk the ground again. The next roof over crowded close to the coffee shop's edge, and Sephiroth cleared the gap with one long stride and kept going.
Three roofs down, he heard a small commotion as his pursuers spilled out of the coffee shop. "I saw him go in," one of them was declaiming, "you all saw it, right? I'm not crazy?"
Sephiroth smirked to himself. No, they weren't crazy, and maybe they'd eventually figure out how he made his escape, but now they'd never make the connection between Sephiroth and Tifa's bar. Crouching low to minimize his silhouette, Sephiroth snuck away rooftop by rooftop.
Just as Sephiroth reached the back entrance to the Blue Dolphin Bar & Grill, the heavens opened up.
Sephiroth was drenched in an instant. Glaring up at the sky as it deluged down with rain, he huddled against the back wall and waited - if he was lucky it would stop, or at least ease up, soon. Then he could go get Gleipnir, exercise him, and return to the church to drip dry. That was his best-case scenario, of course - worst cases included the rain not letting up, and having to either leave Gleipnir unexercised or having to ride a grumpy wet bird. That Gleipnir would have to carry a grumpy wet rider seemed unavoidable. He was just making up his mind to get on with it when the door swung open, nearly whacking him in the nose.
"What the - Sephiroth!?"
Sephiroth slowly pushed the door away from his face. Tifa stood before him in flip-flops and a raincoat draped over her shoulders, giving him a glare that promised another punch in the gut. "I was just leaving," Sephiroth offered weakly.
"What are you doing here?" Tifa demanded.
"I wanted to walk my chocobo-"
"Of course not in this. It started pouring just as I got here. I just wanted to - to let you know where I was." Sephiroth winced and dropped his gaze, feeling like a specimen under Tifa's eyes and not wanting to give voice to the feeling by saying to ask permission. "I'll just - go back to the church," he halted. "And wait for it to stop."
Tifa turned her glare up to the sky. The rain failed to be cowed. "Look-" Tifa started, then halted again, her hands flexing with indecision. "...come help me carry some stuff in from the smokehouse," she said at last, "and you can wait out the rain inside."
Sephiroth bit back a 'really?', wisely. "Yes miss."
Tifa had him carry in a ham from the smokehouse, the future star of the Blue Dolphin's soup of the day, and made him strip off his waterlogged boots and jacket in the mud room. As he slid his feet free of his boots and lined them up neatly by the door, he heard her voice float back to him: "Sephiroth's here."
"What's he want?" Barret's voice, guarded in tone but not particularly aggressive.
"Nothing, just got caught in the storm."
Sephiroth padded into the kitchen in his sock feet, feeling thoroughly foolish. Tifa waved him through, already carving off thick slices off the ham; a pot bubbled away on the stove. Sephiroth followed her direction and found himself in a stairwell, with a small shadowed figure at the top waving to him.
"Come on up," Denzel invited, and so Sephiroth did.
The second floor of the Blue Dolphin was where Cloud, Tifa and their small wards lived. Denzel led Sephiroth through a smaller kitchenette into a broader room lined with sofas and squashy cushions. Reeve lounged on one of those cushions in the corner, PHS to his ear and pen in his mouth as he shuffled through an overfull binder of papers; Barret sat on the couch, patiently braiding Marlene's hair as Marlene hunched over a workbook. "Hi, Seph," she greeted without looking up.
So this is what normal looks like. "Hello," he answered. "What are you working on?"
"Ecology homework." Marlene paused, made a face at her workbook, and grabbed for an eraser. "There's a lot of math."
"Marlene's better at math than me," Denzel confided, patting Sephiroth's arm as he passed.
"Yeah, but I still don't like it."
Denzel flopped down on the cushion next to Reeve's and gave Sephiroth an expectant look. There were other cushions in Reeve's corner, but Sephiroth didn't take any of them, sitting on the floor next to him instead with his legs folded neatly under him. "Don't you have to work on your project too?" Sephiroth asked.
"Yep. Want to see?" Denzel turned, frowned, turned again in a haphazard search pattern. "Reeve, did you see where I left my workbook?"
"No, it's monsoon season there. We'll have to wait a couple of months at least before we can break ground." With that apparent non sequiter, Reeve leaned over, stuck his hand under Denzel's cushion and fished out a thin green workbook identical to the one Marlene had her nose in.
"Thanks," Denzel said, taking the book from him.
Reeve nodded in response. "Well, shipping concrete to Mideel is a separate issue."
Sephiroth lifted an eyebrow at Denzel in silent query. Denzel shrugged, clearly categorizing whatever Reeve was up to as 'grownup stuff,' and leaned over to flip his notebook open where Sephiroth could easily see its contents.
"Calculating monster populations?" he asked, scanning the figures quickly.
"The point of the project is to manage a wild chocobo population." Denzel flipped backwards, showing Sephiroth the goals printed in the front of the book. "So we have to think about monsters that prey on chocobos, their food supply, climate... Marlene chose Kalm for her flock's location. I chose Mideel."
"That's quite a project," Sephiroth marveled. "Is it complicated?"
"The book breaks it down into steps for us. And it's not due for another week, anyway." Denzel took the book back, flipped back to where he'd left off.
Sephiroth watched over Denzel's shoulder. This approach to math and science education was different than what he'd been exposed to as a boy: his education had been largely about memorization and performing to time limits. Had education changed so much since he was small? Or had his experience been atypical? "Even so, I'm impressed," he murmured, and Denzel grinned into the workbook.
Denzel explained what he was doing as he worked, ultimately to his own benefit more than Sephiroth's, but Sephiroth enjoyed listening anyway. The rain pattered against the windows - now that he wasn't out in it, it was a relaxing counterpoint to Denzel's voice and Marlene's occasional comments and the smell of warm food beginning to rise from the ground floor. Reeve ended his call and simply lounged quietly nearby, his pen scratching steadily against a seemingly endless stack of paper. Barret finished braiding Marlene's hair - two equal plaits on either side - and lounged back on the couch to let Marlene claim his lap. Sephiroth, for his part, found himself leaning against a nearby cushion as he counted chocobo tracks with Denzel, and for once felt no need to fear he was doing something wrong.
Below, the door opened, letting in a cool breeze and the smell of rain. Closed again, on Tifa's voice: "Welcome back, Cloud."
"Sorry I'm late." Cloud's voice was warm. "Got caught up in a demonstration."
Sephiroth only realized he'd straightened when Denzel nudged him. "Sorry," he said. "I was distracted. Cloud's back. I should probably go."
"Nooo, the rain hasn't stopped yet." Denzel hooked his arm around Seph's in protest. "And you're still damp. You have to stay!"
"But," Sephiroth protested weakly, as Reeve began to shuffle his papers into some kind of order and Barret gently shooed Marlene off his lap.
"Might as well stay. Have some soup," the latter offered offhandedly, and that surprised Sephiroth enough to shut his mouth as Cloud and Tifa appeared at the doorway to the kitchenette. "Hey, 'bout time," Barret greeted them.
Cloud flashed a half-smile his way, already bending to accept Marlene's offer of a hug. "Like you're not hanging around waiting for Tifa's corn chowder."
"Tifa's corn chowder is worth it." Barret stood. "Okay, Marlene, you can take a break from your homework if you want..."
"Just knock on the door if you need something, all right? We won't be long."
Reeve was heaving himself to his feet, giving Denzel an absent ruffle as he passed. Denzel grinned, still attached to Sephiroth's arm, and Marlene crossed the room as the adults disappeared into the kitchenette to flop into Sephiroth's lap. "Haven't given you a hug yet," she explained cheerfully, and suited actions to words.
Sephiroth returned the hug carefully. "What's going on?" he asked.
Marlene shrugged. "Grownup stuff."
Sephiroth caught a significant look from Cloud as he held the door for Reeve to pass, and understood - this was a council of war. One to which he was not invited, and that was fair, but - was he meant to hover with the children until his orders were issued him? Cloud must know he would be able to hear everything they said as if he were present in the room.
"Wanna play with nail polishes?" Marlene suggested brightly from Sephiroth's lap, and Sephiroth startled.
Denzel hopped upright and scampered off down the hallway. In the silence left behind, Sephiroth heard Cloud speak. "So. Scarlet. What do we know?"
"This was several months ago, but the last time our agents saw her she was in Edge-"
A moment's pointed silence, during which Denzel returned triumphantly with a plastic case that rattled ominously. "Do you want to get your nails painted too, Seph?" he offered, throwing him a look full of that baffling, irresistible hope.
"Pleeeeaaase?" Marlene added.
Sephiroth nodded acquiescence and the children lit up. As Denzel spilled the brightly-colored bottles over the carpet and started to sort through them with Marlene, Sephiroth quietly patted himself on the back for his flawless plan. A quiet activity with the children would allow him to listen in on the war council without seeming too suspicious, and Tifa and Cloud would be pleased with him for engaging with them while the adults were otherwise occupied. Perhaps even Barret would agree.
A thunk drew Sephiroth's attention away from the door and his own thoughts. "Uh oh," Denzel muttered, staring at the dropped bottle of nail polish currently leaking bright neon green over the carpet.
Marlene sucked in her breath. "I'll get the polish remover!" she announced, and lit out for the bathroom.
......well. Sephiroth could dream.
"Our investigations into last week's graffiti incidents have led to a few arrests - teenage boys with too much energy, according to what the chief of police told me." Reeve's report continued as Sephiroth helped Marlene and Denzel clean up the mess on the carpet. "But the individual that tagged the church door - there's a little footage of a possible suspect, from the convenience store a block away. ID is impossible, but... the individual is tall, slim, and walks with a slight limp."
"Scarlet didn't-" Tifa's voice, as confused as Sephiroth felt.
"She does now."
Reeve's answer was solemn as stone, and Tifa made a little 'oh' noise. The grave injuries Reeve spoke of, Sephiroth realized, keeping his head bent down over Denzel's hand as he meticulously striped cobalt-blue paint over the nail. They must have left Scarlet - she had never been 'Director Helsdottir' to Sephiroth or any of the other executives, to his knowledge, and even her direct subordinates had called her 'Miss Scarlet' - with lasting physical damage.
"...she knows about him," Cloud muttered, and Sephiroth didn't have to wonder which 'him' Cloud was referring to. "If that really was Scarlet..."
"Calling him out, maybe." Barret's voice, low and grim. "Bet she's just spoilin' to do some damage, to him or to you through him."
"I was thinking along the same lines." Paper rustled and tapped on the table, a sound Sephiroth knew from the board meetings he'd had to attend. The image of Reeve tapping his reports on the long table to straighten them swam before his eyes, all too vivid. "One of the young men the police arrested mentioned a few message boards on the datanet as where he got the idea. Chatter on those boards - well, it's the usual teenage bluster, but something about a few of the posts makes me think someone is trying to direct all that energy Sephiroth's way."
"As someone to attack, or someone to emulate?" Tifa wanted to know.
"As a symbol to rally around."
Sephiroth paused as his stomach knotted. "Seph?" Marlene asked, her small hand steady and trusting in his.
His paintbrush was beginning to drip pink. "Oh," he murmured, and quickly swiped it on her index nail. "Sorry, I let my mind wander." Marlene dimpled at him and leaned forward to gently bump his forehead with hers, her other hand currently held by Denzel with the yellow polish.
"None of this is actionable," Reeve was saying as they worked. "Understand? We have no reason to go after her, nothing the police will accept as evidence against her. I can't even say for certain that any of this is her doing. We could be chasing after the wrong chocobo entirely."
"You're the one who brought her up," Barret accused.
"...fair point," Reeve admitted. "I have my own biases. It would be just like her to work through public opinion." Another tap-tap of papers and a sigh. "Even so, all we can do beyond what we're already doing is increase security in the area and be watchful. Tifa and Cloud's classes are probably our best asset in terms of outreach."
"But not our only asset." There was a grin in Barret's voice. "I still got my contacts here. I'm gonna ask around, see if people've seen something they won't tell the police."
"That would be helpful, Barret, thank you."
"What about Sephiroth?" Tifa asked. "The longer he stays in Edge the worse this is going to get."
Sephiroth's shoulders knotted at the question. "It won't do us any favors if he disappears either," Reeve answered. "I think it's best if he is visible, and visibly allied with the WRO and you and Cloud."
Cloud's voice was quiet and rough with discontent. "We can't just throw him out there. The way he is now, he's - he can't. With people. He's worse than I am."
"Sephiroth was never particularly good at dealing with the public before either," Reeve informed him dryly, as Sephiroth tried to take deep breaths past the mortified knot in his throat. "I'm not about to make him deliver a public address, I promise, I have more sense than that. I just think it's time to sweep the rumor mill clean a bit."
"Is that why you suggested dinner out yesterday?"
"It was a side benefit."
Sephiroth's stomach turned again - had he been on display after all? - and he struggled to school his features as Marlene patted his arm. "I think our nails are dry enough," she reported hopefully. "Want to pick out your colors?"
"Colors - oh." Nail polish colors. Sephiroth gratefully turned to the distraction, sorting through the chaotic spill of nail polish bottles, but he couldn't shut out the voices in the next room.
"That does bring up something else, though - whatever we decide about him, he can't stay in the church anymore."
Exiling me from the church? Sephiroth's fingers closed around a bottle without looking at the color. "Purple?" Denzel queried.
"I think it's nice." Marlene took the bottle and held it up: a deep, soft violet color. "It's a pretty color to go with his eyes. How about this and the glitter?"
Sephiroth lacked the wherewithal to say no to the glitter - Cloud's voice was drawing his attention away again. "It's the safest place in the city," he was arguing.
"Cloud, I know that place is important to you." Reeve's voice was measured, calm. Reasonable. "But..."
"...It's just a building."
No it isn't. Sephiroth was sure Cloud was saying the same thing with that mulish silence. Marlene handed the bottle of violet polish to Denzel, who busied himself with Sephiroth's other hand while Marlene blew gently on her handiwork.
"If you're not comfortable having him stay here with you, I'll help you find a place nearby - Cloud, look at me. It's not fair to him. If he's staying in Edge long-term, he deserves someplace where he doesn't have to cross the street to the café to use the restroom."
There was a slow, frustrated sigh. "I know. The church was always supposed to be a temporary thing until we - I don't know - figured him out."
"...hm. And have you?"
"...I have no idea."
Sephiroth wondered why hearing that should make his gut knot up and his eyes sting, but it was only natural in the end - Cloud, for all that Hojo had done to him, was still human. Sephiroth never had been.
"Okay," Denzel announced, patting the back of Sephiroth's hand. His nails shone wetly, soft violet with a crystal shimmer over the top. "I think that's done. Just keep your hands still until it dries, okay?"
Am I truly so incomprehensible?
Denzel's eyes filled with sympathy, and Sephiroth realized with a lurch that he'd spoken aloud. Control, what the hell happened to my control-! but then Marlene was wiggling determinedly under his arm for a hug, and Sephiroth had to lift his arm to let her or risk mussing the polish the two of them had so diligently applied.
"You're our Seph," Marlene told him in answer to the question he hadn't meant to ask, in a tone that brooked no argument whatsoever.
"Yeah." Denzel, cuddling up under Sephiroth's other arm. "Don't let anyone tell you different. Or we'll kick 'em in the shins."
"Please don't, you'll get in trouble again," Sephiroth protested, but the admonition lost all authority when a laugh escaped him mid-sentence. He hugged both of the children closer, burying his prickling-hot face in their hair.
That was how the grownups found them - Sephiroth knew the moment they opened the door, but Marlene and Denzel popped up to frown disapprovingly at the first splerk from Barret. To his credit, Barret swallowed further mirth and pretended the noise had come from Reeve, who serenely glided by the three of them as though the sight of the Demon General cuddling two small children was nothing he hadn't seen before.
Cloud didn't ignore them, by contrast. He sat down on the floor across from Sephiroth, and both children immediately swarmed him for hugs. "Hey, you two," he greeted, then, "...why is the carpet damp?"
"Ummm." Marlene and Denzel glanced back pleadingly at Sephiroth for help. Sephiroth did the only thing he could think to do.
"I was still damp from the rain when I sat down, Cloud," he said, absolutely straightfaced. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
One pale eyebrow lifted. "...it's raining acetone today?"
Sephiroth directed an apologetic look at Marlene and Denzel, but the two of them were giggling, amused rather than disappointed by his failed attempt. Cloud shook his head at all three of them. "Nice nails," he added, his glowing eyes crinkling at the edges with amusement.
Marlene beamed and held her hands out for him to admire. "Seph helped," she informed him. "Want us to paint your nails too?"