The first airship to carry moogles aboard skimmed bravely along the Central Continent’s eastern coast, turning to grant its passengers a glittering view of the sea. The moogles, none of whom had ever seen an ocean before, were entranced, hanging over the guardrail in a row of round fuzzy posteriors.
All except Kibo.
Sephiroth sat with his back to the cabin to shield them both from the wind, holding Kibo in his shirt. The little cub was hunkered down, even his little pom tucked down tight as he clung to Sephiroth as though the howling wind was a marauding dragon - and just like then, Sephiroth protected him, holding a hand over Kibo’s palm-sized body to shield him from the wind.
Denzel, for all he’d been making fast friends with the moogles - apparently ‘all-night board game session’ was a shortcut to making friends, which Sephiroth might have wished he’d known long ago but was pretty sure would end up with him falling asleep at the table if he tried it now - was not so distractable that he didn’t notice the smallest moogle’s distress. He wandered over from the moogle-occupied railing and sat down by Sephiroth’s knee. “Is he all right?” he asked. “Should I ask Reeve to land?”
“I think he was just overwhelmed by the noise,” Sephiroth answered. “You’re all right where you are, aren’t you, Kibo?”
“Seff-kupo stay?” Kibo asked.
“Of course. I’m not going anywhere.”
Kibo muttered and snuggled closer into Sephiroth’s shirt. “He really trusts you,” Denzel observed quietly, reaching out to stroke a tiny furred ear.
Sephiroth lifted his hand slightly. Kibo blinked and lifted his head at the contact, saw who it was, and reached out with a tiny paw to capture Denzel’s fingertip. “Well,” Sephiroth sighed, “if it’s between me and a dragon.” Denzel used his other hand to poke Sephiroth between the eyebrows. “...hn. Point taken.”
“Marlene said there were dragon riders in Edge,” Denzel commented, almost offhandedly but for the faraway dark look in his eyes. “Tifa and her papa took care of them, but most people in Edge stopped going outside very much.”
“I can’t blame them,” Sephiroth answered, remembering the dragon rider he’d fought outside Fort Condor. And that had only been one - how had multiple riders made their way that far east? “That must have been frightening.”
Denzel took in a careful breath. “Marlene said - she heard one of the riders looked like you.”
“Only one?” Sephiroth asked, and cursed himself immediately as Denzel’s sharp eyes flicked up to him. Was he such a coward, that he would seize on the most inconsequential detail to avoid the main issue? “...how much have they told you?” he asked in a lower tone. “About the monsters that look like me?”
Denzel’s gaze dipped. “Nothing. I mostly just eavesdropped.”
“Clever,” Sephiroth commented, and that got a muffled snicker from the boy. “No, I mean it. I used to do the same thing.”
“Yes.” Sephiroth peeked through his fingers at Kibo. The little cub was paying no attention whatsoever, even if he could have followed much of the conversation; he seemed content to claim Sephiroth’s shirt and be held and petted. Sephiroth couldn’t fault him for that. “You’d be surprised how much I learned that way. It’s a useful skill to cultivate. I don’t know why it’s not in more martial arts curriculums.”
“Because grownups don’t always want you to know stuff,” Denzel answered promptly, and rather pointedly. Sephiroth glanced away, but he already knew he would surrender and Denzel seemed to expect it, easing himself down to sit against Sephiroth’s hip.
“I knew about them,” Sephiroth admitted, taking refuge in the simplest terms he could find. “I had killed several. And I did not tell Cloud. He had to find out from reporters. He was... justifiably angry with me.”
Denzel’s head tilted to his arm. “So you ran away because Cloud was mad at you?”
“I ran away because I was afraid.” Sephiroth’s free hand flexed restlessly by his side, safely gloved, the leather creaking just on the edge of his hearing. “I was afraid Cloud would have me caged. More than that, I was afraid-” He swallowed past a throat gone sharp and dry. “I was afraid he was right and couldn’t face the possibility. What if I was going mad again, after all? Would I even be able to tell? Or what if I wasn’t going mad, but I couldn’t convince anyone else of that?”
“We’d be able to tell!” Denzel argued.
The image of the boy broken on a sword he no longer owned flashed before Sephiroth’s eyes, and he flinched so hard it disturbed Kibo. The moogle squeaked a protest as Sephiroth steadied him, ruthlessly schooling himself to gentleness. “...I don’t want to even think about that,” he murmured. “You and Marlene are - are so important to me.”
“We love you too.” Denzel slid an arm around his waist, hugging fiercely close. “I wish I could kick Jenova in the butt for you.”
Sephiroth muffled a laugh in Denzel’s hair. “Believe me, so do I.” Between them, Kibo squeaked.
The moogles were terribly impressed by Reeve’s airship, Reeve’s impromptu city planning lectures, and Reeve himself. Sephiroth was gratified until he realized that the moogles fully expected him to participate in Reeve’s discussions.
“I don’t know anything about - about-” Sephiroth struggled to decline with dignity as he was ushered into the Bouncers’ headquarters by, seemingly, sheer force of moogle will. “About anything but hunting,” he said as the moogles led him to the kitchen table and he met the amused dark eyes of Reeve, flanked by a pair of his aides and Verdandi representing the Bouncers.
“You know how to be a friend to moogles, kupo,” Migo told him firmly. “And there are snacks. Sit, kupo.”
Sephiroth sat. Admittedly the snacks were a draw - he’d not had the stomach for dinner after his conversation with Denzel, and breakfast had been eschewed in favor of exercise time with Gleipnir. By the glint in Verdandi’s eyes as she passed a plate of cut vegetables and dip his way, his caloric intake had been weighed, measured and found wanting. Sephiroth surrendered to the inevitable and loaded up on carrot sticks. “I will always be a friend to moogles, as far as such things are under my control,” he admitted. “I will do what I can.”
“As will we all,” Verdandi declared, seating herself on Sephiroth’s right. “Now then. What would you like to see first?”
The moogles started brainstorming out loud, squeaking out ideas as they occurred - much different from the executive meetings Sephiroth remembered. Most of them were there - Kupua and Kibo had bowed out, last seen frolicking on the Bouncers’ front lawn, and Palom and Okepo had gotten into the coffee stash and were currently sleeping off the explosive indigestion that resulted. Apparently not all wingless food agreed with moogles, and Sephiroth was already mentally composing a list of what moogle food he’d seen in Kakupipo and readily available wingless equivalents that might be reliably safe and digestible for them. He’d yet to think of an acceptable substitute for kupo nuts.
“Sephiroth-kupo could accompany us, kupo,” Ikiga piped up hopefully, and Sephiroth tried to look like he’d been paying attention.
“Sephiroth is forbidden from entering Wutai, due to his past connection with Shinra,” Reeve diplomatically supplied, saving Sephiroth from having to figure out the answer to accompany you where. “As am I without extensive negotiations beforehand, but I have contacts there. If you wish to see the capital city I can arrange a meeting.”
“We don’t want to put you out too much,” Migo protested, though the paw she placed on Sephiroth’s wrist betrayed her true feelings - not going anywhere without Sephiroth, it seemed. “We’ll pick somewhere closer for our first wingless village, kupo.”
Reeve surrendered the point without a whisper of protest. “Very well. There are several towns along the coast that I think you‘d enjoy, or we could hop across the channel to Junon - currently the largest city in the world by population,” he explained, and the moogles’ poms perked up in interest. “Though Del Gard itself is no slouch in that department. It’s a shipping and commerce center. If you wanted to know how wingless society works, that would be a place to start.”
Migo hummed, fur scrunching gently on her face in an expression of confusion. Sephiroth tried not to wince. “Like the blankets,” he prompted gently, and the elder moogle relaxed and nodded. Reeve gave him a quizzical look. “Perhaps Del Gard is a bit much for now,” Sephiroth suggested, rather than go over the difficulties of explaining economics to moogles again and like as not embarrass the moogles in the process. “We could work up to that. How about Cosmo Canyon?”
“What’s in Cosmo Canyon?” Migo wondered.
“It would be less overwhelming, for one thing. It’s more of a small town than a city,” Sephiroth explained. “And they have a school for studying astronomy and geology. They may well have recorded observations about Meteor that would be useful to your mission - and I’m sure they’d be happy to have your observations as well.”
That got the wingless folk’s attention, as the moogles nodded sagely. “That would be useful, kupo,” Migo said. “Though I’m not much of a skywatcher.”
“That’s all right, our teacher was, kupo,” Porom volunteered. “I think I remember most of their observations.”
“Ah, Porom, you’re a wonder.”
Porom flitted modestly and Sephiroth found himself smiling. Finally, the moogles would start getting some real intel! Reeve, after one last speaking look exchanged with Verdandi, cleared his throat and scribbled in his notebook. “Well, then, I suppose that’s settled. I’ll make some calls. Cosmo Canyon doesn’t have an airship dock, but we can fly partway and rent a desert crawler for the rest.”
“You plan on going with them?” Verdandi questioned.
“I don’t see why not, unless something calls me away.” Reeve turned an apologetic smile on Migo. “Which is likely to happen, and I hope you’ll forgive me if it does.”
“From what Sephiroth-kupo said, it sounds like you have many demands on your time, kupo,” Migo assured him. “Don’t worry. We’ll have Sephiroth-kupo with us.”
Sephiroth winced. “I’m not-” He halted as moogle eyes turned to him, not wanting to outright refuse, but... “I’m not sure I’d be welcome there.”
The moogles fluttered, flummoxed. “But you brought it up, kupo!” Ura protested.
“I thought it would be useful to you.” Sephiroth shied away from Ura’s stricken expression. Looking away proved no comfort - he was getting worried looks from all of them now, even the wingless. “I did tell the elders I wouldn’t be welcome everywhere, and I don’t think you should limit yourself to places where I would be welcome. Believe me, that is a short list.”
“But why?” Ura urged, only to sit back again when Migo lifted a paw and shook her head.
“Have we done you a disservice, Sephiroth-kupo?” she asked, and the somber gentleness in her voice made Sephiroth’s stomach twist. “You don’t have to do this task if you don’t want to. You’ve already done us a greater service than we can hope to repay. We of Kakupipo will always be your friends, kupo.”
“Kupo,” the moogles repeated in a ragged, worried chorus.
“I...” Selfish. So selfish. His hands twisted in his lap as he struggled for words. “Please don’t think I am ungrateful for the honor or the trust you’ve shown me. I do still want to help you, as much as I am able.”
“But Sephiroth-” Reeve started, only to halt when Verdandi waved a quelling hand at him.
Sephiroth took that as encouragement, and gathered his resolve together again. “Denzel told me that - that strange monsters attacked his city after he left. That, and the Vlakorados... it’s obvious that these mutations have something to do with me. That makes them my responsibility to put down. I would much rather spend my time with all of you.” That at least got a wan smile from Migo and the other moogles. “But I think I must return to hunting.”
“But - hmm.” Reeve blinked at Verdandi lifting her hand again. The warrior drew herself up to her full height, slow and deliberate, and though her hands and the set of her shoulders remained relaxed, Sephiroth had the sudden distinct feeling he’d misstepped.
“Certainly, you must follow your path,” said Verdandi, capturing Sephiroth’s gaze with her own. “But I must register my objections to this course of action. From what I have seen since you came here, Sephiroth, and I mean no disrespect - you are in no shape to hunt.”
I’m what? “Thank you for your concern,” Sephiroth answered carefully. “But I disagree. I won’t be changing my mind.”
“Hmm.” Verdandi leaned in a bit, auburn ponytail falling over her shoulder. A smile touched her mouth. “Best two falls out of three?”
“What,” Reeve blurted, echoing Sephiroth’s thoughts.
“Ooh,” Boki muttered. “Kupo!”
“Kupo kupo,” Ikiga agreed.
They didn’t sound at all worried. Eager, even - and despite himself, Sephiroth found his own feelings inclined along the same lines. How long since anyone’s challenged me...? He stood, meeting Verdandi’s smile with a small one of his own. “Very well, if you require proof of my fitness. Weapons?”
“Hand-to-hand.” Verdandi straightened, letting her arms fold over her chest - showing off the hard muscle and broadness of her shoulders, Sephiroth thought. “This is only a friendly sparring match, after all.”
“As you say.” Sephiroth rolled his shoulders, feeling the muscle sing in anticipation. “Shall we take this outside, then?”
“For preference, yes.” Verdandi chuckled and gestured, inviting Sephiroth to go ahead of her. Sephiroth obliged amid a cloud of moogles, Migo falling in at his shoulder.
“Well, this has turned interesting!” the elder moogle chortled.
Over the din of agreement from the other moogles, Sephiroth heard Reeve exclaim, in a mode of exasperation, “SOLDIERs!”
Word of the match moved almost quicker than the participants did. Sephiroth found himself doing his stretches to an audience: moogles, Bouncers, chocobo depot staff, WRO agents, and Denzel, apparently taking (or sneaking?) a break from the pile of make-up schoolwork Marlene had passed along. “Go, Seph!” he called over the fence.
“Oh, you’ll cheer Sephiroth on but not me!” Verdandi called from the other end of the hastily-emptied chocobo paddock. Her words were a scold but she was laughing, and she only laughed harder when Denzel stuck out his tongue at her. “Just for that, young man, when I win you owe me extra homework!”
“If you win,” Denzel retorted, and grinned at Sephiroth. “Go get ‘er, Seph. Edge pride!”
“Edge pride,” Sephiroth repeated, swinging his arms. He felt almost - cheerful. How strange. He was at a slight but distinct disadvantage in this fight - Verdandi was a match for him in height and reach, those corded arms weren’t just for show, and Sephiroth himself was out of practice fighting human opponents and recovering from illness to boot. Yet, he realized as he stepped forward to meet his opponent, he was very much looking forward to this.
The two of them faced off in the center. Verdandi gave a short bow like a Wutaian martial artist; Sephiroth did the same, flipping his braid back behind his shoulder as he straightened again. “Hand-to-hand only,” the depot boss they’d roped into serving as referee announced. “No grappling, no magic, no Limits. First to fall or tap out twice loses. Ready?” He backed up hastily, as though he expected one or both of them explode. “Start!”
Sephiroth lunged, foot lashing out in a low sweep that should have taken Verdandi’s legs out from under her and bought him the advantage he was missing, but Verdandi was too fast for him, deceptively light on her feet. Sephiroth stepped in after her, already lifting his hands - slap, her counter blocked, the bones of his forearm throbbing with the force of it. Verdandi grinned at him, a flash of white as sharp as a sword’s edge - not holding back.
They exchanged a flurry of blows and blocks, Sephiroth startled to find himself falling into a pattern the SOLDIERs used for training. It doesn’t hurt for my body to remember, he marveled, but he broke the pattern anyway, trading an uppercut for a feint and retreat. Verdandi didn’t fully complete what would have been the answering block, but for a split second she was off balance. There! With a half-stifled breath Sephiroth struck.
This time his blow landed, a swift ridgehand strike to the ribs that forced his opponent back half a step. “Nicely done,” Verdandi wheezed.
“Hn.” Now it was Sephiroth’s turn to smirk. Somewhere on the edge of his attention, he heard Denzel and the moogles cheer.
Verdandi didn’t let him bask in his victory, of course. She leaped into motion again, driving Sephiroth back with another rapid string of strikes that Sephiroth was hard-pressed to keep up with. This kata he didn’t remember. No, he realized, did he remember some of the moves themselves. “What style is this?” he demanded, as Verdandi redirected one of his countering punches instead of fully blocking it.
“Aikido,” Verdandi responded.
“What?” Sephiroth captured Verdandi’s wrist. “Where did you learn that?” The style he’d learned in Wutai was the straightforward tou-de, taught to him and his fellow SOLDIERs by the warriors of the southern peninsula who’d allied with Shinra early in the war in hopes of gaining autonomy. Aikido was a northern martial art, the preferred style of those who stood against Shinra. Have things changed that much?
Verdandi chuckled. “It’s a bit of a tale.” The next thing Sephiroth knew he was on his back, his breath exploded from his lungs, with Verdandi’s foot hooked behind his ankle. “Hah!”
“Round to Verdandi,” the referee called, and Sephiroth gasped out a curse as soon as his lungs remembered how to work.
“Aww, Seph!” Denzel moaned as Sephiroth let Verdandi haul him to his feet.
“I got distracted,” Sephiroth admitted over his shoulder, but his next words were all for Verdandi: “That won’t happen again.”
Verdandi grinned, unrepentant, releasing his arm. Sephiroth took his stance up again, as she did. The referee lifted a hand and dropped it - “Start!”
Verdandi took the initiative this time, leg snapping out in a kick that, had it landed fully, might have been enough to send Sephiroth flying and end the match right there - as it was, Sephiroth managed to move in time, receiving only a glancing blow to his hip that staggered him but didn’t knock him down. Verdandi advanced, pouncing on his weakness. With a harsh breath Sephiroth held her back.
He was in trouble. His excitement at the start of the match had drained away, leaving leaden weariness in his place. He moved to block a strike and almost didn’t manage it, he was slow - could this really be him, struggling to keep up, struggling to find a chance to counterattack? Am I still ill? What is wrong with me?
Verdandi stepped forward, aiming low to his left - but when Sephiroth moved to counter she wasn’t there. A feint!
The SOLDIER’s roundhouse slammed into his right side, his legs and spine buckling under the blow - this time it wasn’t so quick he was on the ground before he had a chance to process it. He felt his body surrender and for once, he just let it happen, falling to his hands and knees in the dust.
“And that’s match to Verdandi,” the referee announced, rather unnecessarily, and the watchers erupted into cheers and noise that Sephiroth could barely parse through the roaring in his ears. He felt Verdandi move towards him and held a hand up to forestall her, panting for breath.
Rather than haul him upright again, Verdandi knelt in the dust with him, one hand gripping his shoulder on the opposite side from where she’d kicked him. “Steady,” she advised in a low, calm voice. “There’s no rush.”
Sephiroth coughed and shook his head, and Verdandi waited patiently until Sephiroth could manage his breathing again. “I hadn’t realized I’d gotten so weak,” he admitted to the dirt.
“Oh, Sephiroth.” Verdandi bent, touching her forehead to his, and her voice when she spoke again was an army’s worth of fierce for all it was quiet. “You are not weak. You are healing.”
Sephiroth tried to laugh and ended up coughing again, and suddenly there was Denzel, squirming under his arm and shoving a bottle of water into his hand. “Such a thoughtful young man,” Verdandi exclaimed as Sephiroth drank greedily. “I might even forget about the extra homework.”
“What homework?” Denzel protested innocently. Verdandi cackled and ruffled his hair.
They stood once Sephiroth could reliably breathe again; in an instant the three of them were mobbed by chattering young moogles, wingless combat techniques are amazing, kupo! “I’m sure we can adapt unarmed martial arts to moogles,” Verdandi mused aloud, “don’t you think, Sephiroth?”
Sephiroth thought that was perhaps overly optimistic, but the moogles looked so intrigued - and Denzel so amused - that he couldn’t possibly say so out loud. “It’s worth a try.”
“Kupo!” Boki declared from Sephiroth’s shoulder.
“Kupo,” Sephiroth agreed. Verdandi started to steer the group out of the paddock and Sephiroth cooperated, moogles fluttering along behind them in a fluffy train. “Well,” he sighed, “I suppose I’m going to Cosmo Canyon after all.”
Verdandi squeezed his shoulder. “Only if you’re feeling up to it. But - give the Cosmonauts a chance, if you can. I think they’ll surprise you.”